Let’s get this out of the way first: Tim Burton’s “Batman” was a groundbreaking superhero film. For about fifteen minutes. Watching it now, a scant 12 years later, the film plays like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, sans punch lines. Garish colors, clumsy characterizations, plodding plotlines, and over-the-top performances by everything that breathes leaves Batman with a very different legacy. Burton officially mastered the formula for contemporary shitty superhero movies.
Read it again: Burton didn’t invent the formula for shitty superhero movies, mind you. Just contemporary ones. The superhero itself remains that bastard offspring of that bastard medium known as the comic book, itself a bastard medium within the grander scheme of that bastard fringe of culture known as “pop art.” No amount of grandstanding blather by Scott McCloud will change it otherwise. (And, no, dear fanboy geeks, I am not a hater of the form; in another life, under another name, I wrote the damn things. I’ve met Peter David and can attest personally to the fact that he is as irritatingly pompous in real life as in print.)
Unlike the myths of old, the superhero was doomed to remain in the pop culture closet, never quite gaining the status of cultural significance of, say, Odin or Perseus. It’s not the superhero’s fault, necessarily; rather, it could be argued the fate of the superhero was sealed by the market economy. But that’s a discussion for another day (and, because I can hear Filmjerk’s eyes rolling back in his head, another website.)
Even the comic book business itself has — occasionally — recognized its own inadequacies. Frank Miller is largely credited with having breathed new life into the comic book medium with BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, although how anyone can be credited for breathing life into something that is pretty much worse off than before, I’ll never know. DARK KNIGHT was a spike, dear friends… a spike. Its success can be attributed to the fact that it came about at a time of lowered expectations; again, simply put, everything else sucked. At any other period in comics, DARK KNIGHT would have been reviled for its bastardization of the established lead, and it’s arch-right message of conservative, social vengeance (replace the word “mutant” with “nigger” and you pretty much get where Miller is coming from.) Now, again, don’t get me wrong: I love DARK KNIGHT as a simple romp (overlooking the politics), and I think Miller’s art is nifty. But its success was a product of its surroundings. Just think how amazing we will view the next US President if he doesn’t confuse “devaluation” and “deflation,” or can actually spell the word “toenail.” You get my point.
Hollywood itself started as a pop culture phenom anyway, so who are we kiddingr If Oscar Wilde had adapted Superman, things might have been different. (As, I suspect, would have Superman’s costume.) But no, the film industry, which started giving us flashy special effects a la Melies and pompous propaganda a la Griffith, was not up to the task of maturing the superhero iconography for its medium. It would have been like asking Mariah Carey to improve on Respighi. So we had early Superman serials, Flash Gordon, etc., all worthy of praise if for no other reason than they didn’t suck as bad as everything else Hollywood was putting out.
But the core formula was set: guy in wacky costume overacts, saves incompetent and astoundingly annoying woman, battles overdressed evildoer with grandiose vocabulary. The problematic result was inevitable due to the method of execution: the transition from comic book to screen was always done literally, and the melodrama required to breathe life into the static image page was not always required on the moving image screen. And I should clarify: that literal interpretation was only taken so far as to cover visuals and mood and superhero schmaltz; as far as depth of characters, the formula says “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” And wilt they do, emphasizing costumes, effects, and melodrama over human emotion and realistic conflict. Comics learned, bless ’em, and moved beyond the spandex and added (to some degree) character development. One would think that with the rich canvas and palette that film offers, we would see improved visions of the superhero mythos; but, alas, Hollywood took the low road (gasp) and actually diluted the concept further and further with each release.
And here we are, eighty years later, and the idiots still haven’t learned.
Thus, Burton’s “Batman.” Prior to this we were faced with goofy Flash Gordon running around to bad Queen tunes, or Christopher Reeve changing the tone of his voice to show the transition from dickhead Clark Kent to not-quite-macho Kal El. Yack.
Instead Burton enhanced the formula; in fact, in such a way that one might expect to see a goofy “New! Improved!” logo on the film’s poster, like a cereal or detergent. Burton, the perfect goofball director to produce goofball superhero movies, was seen as the Second Coming for comic book filmmakers, but only because he knew how to smokescreen his goofballing. And man did it work. Right now half the readers of this article are furious that I’m about to criticize Burton, because that’s how adept he was at putting enough crap on the screen to cover his inadequacies (a chore he not quite accomplished in Planet of the Apes, however.) “Editingr Suspenser Conversationsr Screw ’em, give me my coke and some pyros and I’ll rake in a few hundred mil.”
In all fairness, the Chris Reeve “Superman” films had begun the process, but Burton solidified it, codified it, and now generally gets all the credit. Unfortunately, whereas it took Joel Schumacher only two multimillion dollar budgets for the world (and Hollywood execs) to realize he was a talentless hack who hid his inabilities behind lots of sparkling explosions and fruitloop-colored lights, the world is realizing the transparency of Tim Burton’s new clothes a bit slower. But it’s happening.
What did Burton add to the formula that got the critics of the genre off his backr Quirky casting, low lighting, black rubber, and violence. The basic ingredients of the formula were still there, of course. The acting was over-the-top (Burton is about sublime as using a nuclear device to unclog your toilet), the villain was a scene-stealing pompous ass, the bad guy’s plot was incomprehensible, the girl was annoying, and everywhere there were either special effects or people with goofy makeup on. Realityr “No, thank you,” someone thought, no doubt proud of their own insight, “movie goers like their fantasy completely loopy, totally ungrounded. Fuck reality.”
Burton also added a key ingredient that is seen in each formula superhero movie yet: glaring self-awareness. These movies *know* they are movies, and aren’t afraid to remind the audience. Sly in-jokes and nods to source material that whisper “hey, it’s all a goof” are staple now. From subtle hints (the Batplane hangs in the air in front of the moon, in a duplicate of Batman’s logo) to the outrageous (“Holy rusted metal, Batman!” from Schumacher’s Batman and Robin.) Even M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unwatchable,” a quasi-non-superhero superhero movie, used a self-aware intro title card and subtextual framing device (Mr. Glass constantly talks about comic books) to simultaneously remind you of the source material, yet (and this is where the movie failed) which beggingly implored that you don’t treat it like a comic book.
I remember reading an interview with Burton when the sequel, “Batman Returns,” came out. In it Burton said he was motivated to do the sequel because he felt the first film did not properly capture his vision. Apparently after the first Batman he could afford better crack, because the sequel “is the film I wanted to make [originally].” And what did Burton dor More villains (three, in fact), more makeup, more pyrotechnics, and much much less reality. A mutant baby who looks like a penguin is thrown in the sewers and raised by (gasp) penguins. A dowdy secretary falls out a window next to some cats, and becomes a cat. In Burton’s Batman universe, your proximity to animals determines what kind of freak you become. One wonders how many Gerbil Men or Ferret Boys there are in his vision of Gotham. So getting closer to the formula was actually Burton’s goal, God help us.
Schumacher took the reins nicely, adding even more villains, more superheroes, and layers of insulating garbage to each film, further distancing us from any semblance of reality, intending (as he admitted) to bring the movie franchise closer to the camp Batman TV show of the 60’s. Waitaminnit. Isn’t that what Burton, who claimed to be inspired by Miller’s DARK KNIGHT, was claiming to be getting away fromr Ahh, but Schumacher (so incapable of keeping his uncloseted dick in his pants that he not only added nipples to Batman’s costume, he drove Val Kilmer right out of the franchise with his constant on-set come-ons) claimed to know better. Now the franchise is dead, thank you.
But regardless of history, regardless of the evidence that the formula doesn’t work, Hollywood demands that every superhero movie must meet the basic requirements. The fairly excellent Elliott/Rosso Sandman script that floated around the net a few years back was shelved by film execs because “it wasn’t Batman-y enough.” Even after successes of such formula-breakers like The Crow or Blade, the tendency is still to rely on a 1980’s formula. Specifically… huge budgets, bad actors, big names, multiple villains, overboard machismo, literal interpretation of visuals, reinvention of core character, and a total disconnection from reality. Grand Guignol without the guignol and a few hundred thousand more grand.
Static image melodrama aside, part of the reason the Marvel Comics became so popular (and overtook DC for many years) was that Stan Lee et al built fantastic characters within the reality we share. Spider-Man had girl problems, he got the flu, he had to pay bills. Bruce Banner not only didn’t run into a phone booth to enthusiastically change into the Hulk, he fought the process tooth and nail. Matt Murdock was an attorney who conducted pro bono court battles when he wasn’t duking it out as Daredevil. The proof was there: comic readers liked a bit of fantasy mixed into their reality, not vice versa. It grounded the characters so that despite the fact that they were crawling walls or throwing shields or turning into giant green freaks, we could still identify with them. We gave a damn. Consider how many times DC has had to revamp Superman, primarily because the character has become so “super” he isn’t a “man” anymore, and it’s alienated readers.
Thus we have “Spider-Man,” an almost line-by-line recreation of Burton’s formula by Sam Raimi, who had already practiced the formula with a more inexpensive chemistry set called Darkman. Only by some act of consciousness did Columbia manage to loose Raimi of his vision of having multiple villains (Doc Ock was cut from the script.) But the other conditions are there: quirky casting, a giggling melodramatic villain, and doofus girlfriend. Does Raimi go to the core of what made Spidey the icon that created the very need for a feature film, that being his grounding in realityr Uhh, no. We won’t get to see lots of Peter Parker struggling with his own adolescent problems, and the incredible “with great power comes great responsibility” storyline of his comic book origin. No, instead all that will be condensed into a single reel, so that we can have lots of special effects, big balloons, a jackass Green Goblin throwing pumpkin bombs and Kirsten Dunst jiggling around in a wet tee shirt. We’ll have a literal interpretation of the comic’s visuals (webslinging, wallcrawling, etc.) but the human side (Peter forever changed by Uncle Ben’s death) will be lost amidst the noise and sparkly things. Expand that first reel to a full two hours, chop off the rest and maybe you would have gotten it right, Raimi.
What’s the primary difference between Raimi and Burtonr Raimi isn’t afraid to leave the lights on in his film. But that’s about it.
“What about X-Menr” I hear the GFB’s screaming. Sorry, gang. Bryan Singer tried, lord knows, to break the formula, but in the end gave in to whatever lesser angels drive the Hollywood machine. The casting wasn’t too quirky, but just quirky enough to be annoying. (Marsden, Berry, Stamos, Park and Mane should have all been given roles on “One Life To Live”.) The main villain was a pompous, well-spoken ass. The plot was overblown, Doctor Evil, world domination stuff. In keeping with the formula’s requirements that there audiences will like the movie more if there are lots of garishly costumed idiots running around, there were lots of other villains, too. And almost everyone talked like they do in the comics, static image melodrama in full effect.
What Singer did right, however, was to tone it down… at least to some degree. He gave more screen time to character development; he actually allowed some interesting banter that wasn’t Schwarzenegger style “Ah’ll be bahck” crap. He tried, at least peripherally, to root the villain’s plot in some realistic motivation. (Although one could argue the results were disastrous, or perhaps prophetic: a Jew trying to control the world and perform his own little Holocaustr I wonder how that one slipped by the radar of so many film critics. Given Israel’s current path to exterminating anything Palestinian, the plot takes on new meaning.)
But the film fails because of the compromises Singer did give in on, primarily the need to fill the screen with as many characters as possible. But “X-Men” is a group movie no matter how you slice it, so the flaw was in the source material. Toning it down was a smart move, but once Magneto sets off on his little plastic-helmeted destruction plot, the film slides right back into Burtonville, and reality is kissed gently goodbye.
“X-Men” was close to good, but not quite there. And rumors of the sequel show the film franchise moving steadily into full-fledged formula, adding more villains and more heroes and more pyrotechnics and more and more and more….. Again, Hollywood learned nothing.
But what about “Daredevil,” the upcoming film by Fox starring Matt Damon, er… I mean, Ben Affleck as Matt Murdockr
Can you say “train wreckr”
Let’s look at the film’s writer/director first, Mark Steven Johnson. Having produced the abysmal, almost-direct-to-video abomination Toys, he went on to produce (not write or direct, mind you) Donnie Brasco. Maybe it was Johnson who suggested he cast the wooden Depp in that filmr In any event, not happy with just producing, Johnson was itchy to get more creative, so joined the screenwriting team — yes, there were four screenwriters on this one — for Jack Frost. Once again: it took Johnson and three others to write a kid’s film where Michael Keaton turns into a snowman. Ahh, the boy’s got skillz.
(PS: It took some checking, but I did confirm that Johnson was involved in the Michael Keaton “Jack Frost,” not the low budget horror film of the same name where Shannon Elizabeth gets raped by the killer Snowman who uses his carrot nose as a temporary penis. I’m not sure if Johnson is happy about that, since the horror film got a sequel and Elizabeth went on to be a big star, while his Frost flick remains universally discredited as utter crap. Editor’s Note: We are aware that Mark Johnson, the Oscar-winning producer of Rainman is not the same guy as Mark Steven Johnson, but I couldn’t break up The Facer’s rant.
And, last but not least, we have “Simon Birch,” a quirky little movie that really went nowhere except it garnered some critical acclaim because it featured a disabled little boy in it. One can almost see the thinking process here: Johnson, an aggressive but talentless hack, sees his road to full creative control isn’t going anywhere, so pulls out the trump card: the deformed little boy movie.
This is the guy Fox entrusted with “Daredevil.” So, can we expect a non-formulaic movier Hell, no.
The absolute first sign of future derailment was the casting of Ben Affleck. Now Affleck has a following of very vocal potheads who appreciate his appearances in those awful Kevin Smith films, and I hear there are a few toothless girls in the Ukraine who think he’s cute. But Affleck is very much of the Keanu Reeves / Johnny Depp school of acting, and the truly alert of you readers will note that I use the term “school” sarcastically. These are the guys who get work almost purely on their looks (particularly appealing to the growing numbers of gay casting directors), and not on their abilities. These are the guys who think “acting range” is a cattle farm somewhere in South Dakota, and who believe the true art of the craft lies in hairstyles, not emotion.
Affleck’s popularity — if one can call it that, knowing that we live in a world where Carrot Top and Pauly Shore are still getting work — is particularly vexing. Unlike Milli Vanilli, whose Grammy was immediately stripped when it was learned they had lip-synced their tunes, Affleck’s ill-gotten Oscar for having “written” Good Will Hunting still remains on his mantle, even after he and Matt Damon were outed by the real ghost screenwriter in the national enterntainment press. (One wonders, then, if these two were such talented scribes, why haven’t they written anything sincer)
Secondly, Affleck has no illusions about his ability to act in a way other than, well.. Ben Affleck. He’s repeatedly made public comments about his own inabilities, and has even played himself (or nearly, anyway) in those crackhead Kevin Smith flicks. His “big breaks”, in the guise of such films as “Bounce,” “Boiler Room,” “Reindeer Games” and “Pearl Harbor,” where Affleck was invited to actually fucking act, all are considered bombs in one sense or another, and Affleck has been fairly well dismissed as yet another wooden, one-dimensional, and ever-so-smug thespian. His recent “I’m playing myself yet again” role in “Changing Lanes” doesn’t disprove this phenomenon.
Even still, armed with a balls-out powerful agent and a smarmy wink for the casting directors, Affleck continues to get roles. It’s likely he’ll do ok in the upcoming “Sum of All Fears” as a young and clueless Jack Ryan because, well, Affleck himself is young and clueless. It’s not a stretch by any means. A medicine ball thrown by Steven Hawking has more range than Affleck. And initial screenings of SUM are already hurling barbs at Affleck, one calling his performance “annoying.”
But he does have one characteristic that seems a more subtle part of the Burton superhero movie formula: a big chin. Superheroes, it appears, must have some kind of unusual structure to their lower facial anatomy, whether it’s the weird pursed lips of Michael Keaton or Val Kilmer, of the big lower mandible of George Clooney or Ben Affleck. Presumably this is so we can still recognize the guy under the mask. I’m not sure where the wandering eye and fixed stare of Tobey Maguire comes into play, but whatever.
The rest of the cast is looking like a shitpile waiting for a shovel as well. Jennifer Garner, the “I’m anorexic, and I have man’s arms” actress from (cough cough) “Dude, Where’s My Carr”, and recently of the dubious TV show “Alias”, has been cast as Elektra, having beat out the other current fanboy’s wet dream, Jolene Blalock of UPN’s “Enterprise” (don’t get me started) in a casting battle that must have been billed as Clash of the Talentless TV Titty Girls. Jon Favreau, the otherwise talented actor of “Made” and “Swingers,” has obviously sent too much bad coke to his agent, and managed to land the role of Foggy Nelson, dooming the actor to a future of playing dumpy sidekicks, putting his career roughly where Jason Alexander’s was pre-Seinfeld. There are only six people on Planet Earth who’ve heard of Colin Farrell, the actor playing Bullseye, and Michael Clark Duncan has been cast as Kingpin….ahh, but more on that later.
So let’s recap: an unproven writer/producer/director of a short series of crap films hires a wooden, smug actor and a cache of other department store manikins to star in his superhero movie. What else is there to worry aboutr
Plenty. In keeping with the multiple villain requirement, Johnson’s script doesn’t stop at simply pairing off Ol’ Hornhead against Kingpin, the logical choice, but adds two more characters for DD to fight: Elektra and Bullseye. Once again the filmmaker sees some weird logic in trying to shove years and years of comic material into a two-hour movie, instead of just focusing on the human drama of DD’s origin and a conflict with Kingpin, and in the process tosses any semblance of reality out the window.
And don’t expect deep character development, which is the first thing to suffer when one piles on the characters. Says Bullseye actor Colin Farrell about his role, “He’s a fairly one-dimensional character who is just bad to the bone. I’m just going to get up there, be as bad as I can and enjoy it as much as possible. I’m going to have a laugh doing it.”
Great. I suspect Farrell will be having more of a ball than those poor suckers in the theater seats.
Early script reviews insist that Johnson’s take on DD is more grounded in reality than most superhero movies. In fact, Johnson’s script literally pleads, “So forget what you know about superheroes. Because this is the real world. And in the real world there is no such thing as ‘mutant healing’ or ‘spider sense’ to keep a man alive. In the real world there’s just a guy in a mask.” Oh yeah, and blind guys with super senses. Please.
Okay. There is one final element that’s critical to fucking up a superhero movie, and that is to alter small core details — again, not the melodramatic plot devices or visuals — but to do so in such a dramatic way that defies comprehension. This is the result of the psychology of the hotshot Hollywood film guy who thinks he knows better than those scumbag, convention-circuit comic book dorks who created the franchise that got so popular it grew to need a movie in the first place. Tim Burton got goofy with Joker’s origin and Batman’s use of guns in the first Batman, and then mutilated the origins of Penguin and Catwoman to suit his whims (or at least his hallucinations) in Batman Returns. Schumacher bastardized the origins of Two Face, Riddler, Poison Ivy and Bane, not to mention that of Batgirl. Albert Pyuns’ 1992 Captain America saw wisdom in changing the supernazi known as the Red Skull, a German in the comic book, to an Italian. Sam Raimi has not only totally vivisected the origin of Green Goblin in Spider-Man, he caused a huge fanboy controversy by giving Peter Parker organic webshooters. (These are the things that are important to fanboys.)
Johnson and his co-writer Brian Helgeland weren’t happy just tinkering with small annoyances, although they managed that as well (“Battling” Jack Murdock becomes Jack “The Devil” Murdock, because, you know, it adds “poetry” to Matt’s selection of a superhero name.) No they went hog-wild. Wilson Fisk, huge, bald, and very white Kingpin of crime from the comic, an icon in his own right… was cast with Black actor Michael Duncan Clark.
I have two major gripes about this massive faux pas. First, I am one of those who doesn’t like cross-casting of established characters, such as Black Jesuses, lesbian Shakespeares or whatever other casting cloning accidents folks might have in mind for us. And, hold onto your hats, this isn’t because I’m some right wing, racist asshole.
Tim Burton was pushing hard for a Black Robin for the later Batman films, where he took the role of producer. It would have happened, too, if the toy companies hadn’t put a stop to it indicating that the molds had been cast and the color schemes set for those millions of Batman action figures, and that the Batman cartoon had already drawn Robin as white. Simply put, Burton’s attempt at expunging his White guilt by forcing some poor Black sucker into the Robin suit was shut down by The Man. Hopefully, African Americans are grateful that one of their own wasn’t so humiliated.
We’ve seen what happens when you give in to this impulse, in such films as “Wild Wild West,” where 007-cool James West was played by smugass Will Smith, who played the role with out-of-place arrogance and provided rap songs to the otherwise Western soundtrack. (A similar argument could be made for casting fully-limbed Kenneth Branagh as the wheelchair-bound Dr. Loveless, but any use of an actual disabled person would have rightfully been seen as gross exploitation… Branagh himself looked like a freakshow attraction.) Yes, I’m digressing, and yes, we are still proving that Daredevil will suck, but in casting Blacks (I intentionally am not using the term “African American” because not all Black thespians are American, thank you) in white roles, this promulgates the notion that there are no significant Black people for anyone to even play in movies. Why not a Black Panther movier (Wesley Snipes has been rumored to play T’Challa for over a decade now, with no movement.) What about Luke Cager We’re seeing some advancement in films like Blade and Spawn, but its hardly groundbreaking. Every time a white producer cross-casts a Black actor in a white role, that’s one less black role that will get made. And that, friends, should give pause to actors like Duncan when they take on roles like Kingpin.
But Duncan is not likely to be fazed, being one of Hollywood’s biggest suckup sellouts since Dennis Miller started doing TV commercials for cheap long distance. He’s a great catch for any movie studio, because he does the publicity circuit as if he’s on laevoamphetamine; oh, don’t worry, when Daredevil is in the can, we’ll see Duncan’s big grin on every MTV special, Entertainment Tonight interview, and People Magazine cover hawking his movie, like some kind of $5-an-hour carnival barker working for Ringling Brothers International. His appearances to push “Planet of the Apes” (where he, oblivious to the racist trap he stepped into, played a giant gorilla) ran more hours than his shoot time, makeup application hours included. As I write this, Duncan is doing the junkets for The Scorpion King. Duncan may not be a kingpin, but he sure is one big honkin’ whore.
Having made my point that casting Blacks in white roles is not good for Blacks (and having just repeated my point for those of you not paying attention) we move onto my second gripe about Duncan playing Kingpin.
In the comic, Wilson Fisk is a huge, bald, leviathan of a man, immensely fat but not at all slow. Instead he’s a juggernaut, a fast-moving, superstrong human mountain that could juggle sumos in one hand and flatten large kitchen appliances with the other. He’s also smart, in a criminal kind of way, leading a massive crime ring in New York and points everywhere. So Duncan can probably play that part, although Johnson has obviously given up on the giant sized part of Kingpin (unless plans are underway to latex or CGI Duncan to size, which I doubt.) But let’s look at what makes Kingpin so famous.
His looks. Despite his girth, Kingpin was a snappy dresser, always decked out in a formal white jacket, purple striped pants with a giant diamond pinned to his foppish ascot tie. He carried a stubby diamond-tipped walking stick, wore giant gold rings, and smoked with a huge cigarette holder. As a white guy, Kingpin was an over-the-top fashion nightmare.
Now think about it. What do you get when you cast a Black actor in a white-and-purple-and-diamond outfit, with lots of jewelry and gaudy accessoriesr
You get the biggest Black villain stereotype Hollywood has ever made: the pimp.
Well done, Michael Clarke Duncan. A real step ahead for Black actors.
And, naturally, when it’s done we’ll have rakish, jutting-chinned and oh-so-fucking-white Ben Affleck kicking the giant Black pimp’s ass, while he ogles the hot not-really-Greek anorexic girl and the homely sidekick makes humorous and somewhat sad commentary.
That, my friends, is why “Daredevil” will suck.