He’ll leave me alone and in return I’ll stay quiet.
—Frank Miller The Dark Knight Returns
It is truly strange watching the Bonus Features disc to 2005’s Batman Begins all these many years after.
Truly strange because, viewing the assembled footage and various documentaries on this disc now, opens a vista on how very much meaning there was to the making this film.
Engineers had built The Tumbler, the 21st century Batmobile, in a shed in England. A working, drivable prototype that weighed nearly two and a half tons and could actually jump gaps up to 50 feet—just like it was meant to do in the movie. Director Christopher Nolan insisted on up-to-date research that would accurately develop the main character’s arsenal of gadgetry, research that included stealth camouflage and nextgen fabrics, mixed martial arts and urban planning, lidar cinematographic techniques and spiritual traditions of the Himalaya.
The 21st Century Batmobile Leaps Into Action
Batman Begins was no ordinary movie. Set Designer Nathan Crowley supervised a project-build that was eight times larger than any set built prior to that point. This magnificent set included caverns and highways and slums and main streets. More than that even, it was the movie that changed everything. The movie that dragged the superhero genre, kicking and screaming into the grounded reality of Our World. Suddenly, chase sequences in superhero movies would appear no less credible than those in Friedkin’s The French Connection or Yates’ Bullitt. Drama in this genre would appear no less engaging than scenes from Coppola’s The Godfather or Stone’s Wall Street.
Compared with contemporaneous movies in the same genre (2003’s Daredevil starring Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner and the not inconsiderable Joe Pantoliano or 2006’s Superman Returns starring Brandon Routh, Kate Bosworth and the villainously exaggerated Kevin Spacey, and helmed by directorial heavyweight Bryan Singer) Batman Begins stands as a proper testament to a game-changer. The rules would change after Nolan’s Batman. So why did Batman Begins disappear so anonymously into the inky depths of popular culture? By 2007’s release of 300, Batman Begins’ cultural impact was almost completely set aside. A cold and distant memory.
The assembled miscellanies on the Bonus Features disc make for watching it a truly strange experience, especially now. Especially after Hannah Montana and Jonas Brothers movies are given the same Slick Treatment. Especially since the latter types of movies have armies of directors and producers, gaffers and sound engineers, cameramen and location scouts speaking in hushed tones about the importance of the their work. Long before Batman Begins, the two-disc Special Edition became an industry standard, but it seems that after 2005, a new cultural condition has taken hold: a strange economy of silence. Where Cold, Filthy Bags of Hushmoney are paid out to the superhero genre movie that can both elevate itself above the expectations of comics fans and sufficiently segregate itself from mainstream cinema. There is a cultural dissonance at work here. One that plays superhero genre movies off against its core demographic—its loyal comics readership. And in so doing, brings to the fore issues of teenage angst and repression, guilt, doubt, and invariably self-recriminations. These issues would be revisited, if not fully redressed, in the summer of 2008 with such runaway smash hit summer blockbusters as Iron Man and the critically acclaimed Bat-sequel, The Dark Knight.
But there’s a dark laugh to be had here. The ignominious anonymity that seems to be industry-standard for superhero genre movies is vaguely reminiscent of the ending to Frank Miller’s formidable classic, The Dark Knight Returns. By the book’s end, the much-too-loud, far-too-aggressive, political liability that is Bruce Wayne’s Batman is literally forced underground. Faking his own death, but mistiming his resurrection, Batman forges a secret and unspoken compact with Clark Kent’s Superman, now a stooge for a totalitarian shadow-government. ‘He’ll leave me alone and in return I’ll stay quiet’. Batman’s words ring in readers’ ears as he sets up a school for crimefighters in an endless subterranean Batcave.
And that is what we all hope for. That comics fans simply be quiet. Comics has become Respectable, after all. Along with television, it is perhaps the most sincere, most American, of art-forms. Comicbook stores are on almost every street corner now, in all major cities, all major credit cards are accepted. The august Smithsonian Institute has put out a book on the matter. Never mind that comics have seceded from the cultural mainstream, forcing themselves into an intellectual ghetto. Never mind that these Icons are in most publications delivered by rote, rather than being fueled by genuine creativity.
This is a sordid exchange, a Great And Terrible Economy. The crushing price paid for living in what comics giant Osamu Tezuka dubbed the ‘age of comics as air’, turns out to be nothing less than comics’ hasty retreat into a virtual world, its own cultural boutique of endless fandom. Ironically, the moment of comics’ coming undone lies in wait in the very moment of its greatest victory. Miller’s radical re-imagining of an older, meaner, physically weakened Batman would define the icon for generations to come. It would credibly establish Batman at least, if not other superheroes, as a vehicle for artistic license and creative vision that necessarily transcend the comics medium.
1989’s Batman: The Movie would be a radical break with hitherto traditional depictions of the lead character. But Tim Burton’s late ‘80s blockbuster would also lay to rest the ghosts of Dick Donner’s Superman: The Movie. There would always be a shimmer of elegance around the Superman franchise. Superman was a movie that absolutely insisted on being made. Marlon Brando would win the largest fee for a bit-player to date. And critics the world over would make the pronouncement that all movies henceforth would be B-movies.
But within the comics industry also, Miller’s accomplishment (there really is no other word) would have an enduring effect. The character would be elevated from the morass of stories, and would once again have A Story to tell. Batman would once again be About Something. There would be a domino effect for other characters. And the world would be watching the medium. Within a decade, hard-won creative rights issues would finally be tabled and negotiated. The industry would see the rise of independent publication. And audience imaginations would be infused with scores of new characters and settings. The highwater mark would come with the founding of Image Comics, a group of high-flying creators banding together to form their own independent publishing brand. They would benefit from their celebrity status, as would anyone published by them. When Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn began outselling Marvel’s various X-books, and Image began successfully wooing writers and artists fleeced by Marvel’s past management, the world began to take notice.
The decade following on after Dark Knight Returns’ publication would prove to be a roaring time for comics. Superman would meet his death in the Doomsday Saga. This was a commercially courageous decision. The events of Knightfall would see Bruce Wayne’s spinal column shattered and would eventually have him cede the Mantle of the Bat to a sociopathic replacement. Equally courageous. Even relatively minor characters like DC’s Flash or Marvel’s Ghost Rider would appear just that little more credible. But for comics, this would not be the staging area for better times still to come; for comics this would be An End. If by a decade after, the high-point was hit, two years after that the bubble would burst. By the turn of the new millennium, it would all come crashing down. Speculative investors would leave the comics market and hack-writing would once again be the order of the day.
If there genuinely are issues to be resolved, these go around the moment of victory. Comicbook fans won. No doubt about that. We stepped in and set up conventions. We began to control the culture. We convinced Second Gen comics publishers (houses like DC and Marvel dedicated to the idea of printing comicbooks as separate items) that it was OK to market to us directly. Why send out a 1,000 ‘maybe-purchase’ books to a newsstand, turning over possibly no more than 200 books in sales, when all that was needed was a direct market that would guarantee 600 sales of the same book? In and doing so, comics-fans changed the culture again.
What at first seemed like a birthright, soon became a rope around our collective necks. Comics was becoming an intellectual ghetto, not a cultural boutique. By the early ‘90s, comics had already seceded from the mainstream of popular culture. It had nothing to say to music, or television, or politics, or topical events. And what is worse, it had nothing to learn from these. Hollywood would continue to tap comics. But even that was drawing to an inglorious defeat. The first glimmer of failure could be seen in the Jean-Claude van Damme actioner Timecop based on the Dark Horse limited series of the same name. A fairly solid film by all accounts, but convincing forgettable. It stands as a prime example of that regular kind of mediocrity that drapes our lives with just sufficient amounts of storytelling. By the time the vertically-integrated atrocity Batman & Robin hit the Silver Screen, even the most ardent supporter knew that it was time to go. The movie’s over, fade to black.
It took us about a half-century, but we eventually exhausted ourselves. We’d moved from an artform that was reasonably plugged-in, something that was part of the day-to-day of human life in daily newspapers of major cities, to a cultural system that was so exclusive, it began excluding. We’d won our victory riding the crest of a wave, but that wave had already begun to break. The battle for cultural legitimation, the perennial cry that ‘comics ain’t just for kids’, had become the worst kind of lingering nightmare. Sure they weren’t for kids anymore, because they were for no-one but us. Those of us who already had a foot in the door.
Think of how badly we lost, just by winning.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More