[16 October 2013]
James Bond and Batman walk into a bar.
Barkeep: So what’ll it be?
Batman: Two Espresso Martinis
James Bond: Shaken, not stirred
Barkeep: No, I mean what genre is this film?
We don’t expect to see James Bond and Batman together in a film. For most of their existence they have been two very different characters, in two very different types of story. But in light of the more recent films from each franchise, just how different are their current interpretations? And if there are similarities, where did they come from, and why are they occurring now?
To create a context for putting the two characters together we can look for inspiration in other films. In Michael Mann’s film Heat(1995), we see two male adversaries sound each other out with a discussion over coffee. Robert DeNiro plays a career criminal, about to lead his crew on their last great heist. On his tail is the police investigator with the disintegrating personal life, played by Al Pacino.
The investigator suspects the criminal is about to do something big, but ongoing surveillance provides no significant evidence. So he confronts the criminal with a traffic stop violation, and suggests they both grab a coffee. Although it’s inevitable that they will end up in a violent confrontation, in this scene the confrontation is purely dialog.
Pacino: Is McNeil as tough as they say?
DeNiro: You looking to become a penologist?
Bruce Wayne warily approaches James Bond at the bar
So if we put Batman and Bond into a movie together, that scene provides some inspiration for exploring the characters while building dramatic and compositional tension. However, Bond drinks martinis, and walking into a bar is a better opening then walking into a coffee shop. So they should be drinking espresso martinis; an alcoholic metaphor for the blending of genres. Batman would probably be out of costume as Bruce Wayne; it’s better suited to drinking in a bar and it feels more authentic. Authenticity is a major concern when representing a womanising secret agent who can kill with impunity, and a billionaire with a superhero vigilante alter-ego.
James Bond: So you never wanted a regular type life?
Bruce Wayne: What the hell is that, barbeques and ball games?
James Bond: Yeah.
What happens next depends on which James Bond and which Batman we are talking about. Even if we only focus on the films there are quite a few options. Bond has been played in different styles by many actors: Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig. In the last three movies he was played by Craig, and each of the different directors continued a consistent feel. The portrayal is dark, gritty and tormented. It builds on him confronting his inner vulnerability, and being torn between his dual nature (the refined international spy and the violent man of action). It’s a great parallel to Al Pacino’s investigator from Heat, so let’s go with that interpretation of James Bond.
Bruce Wayne: This regular type life, like your life?
James Bond: My life? No. My life’s a disaster zone. I get shunted from one crisis to the next, and I’ll be disavowed if I get caught. Anyone I ever get close to gets killed, and I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the globe. That’s my life.
The Batman of film has also been played in different styles by many actors: Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney and Christian Bale. On this occasion let’s go with Christian Bale as envisioned by director Christopher Nolan in the last three movies. The portrayal is dark, gritty and tormented. It builds on him confronting his inner vulnerability, and being torn between his dual nature (the refined billionaire and the violent man of action). His life in the shadows makes a nice parallel to DeNiro’s career criminal in Heat.
Bruce Wayne: A guy told me one time, we fall so that we can learn to pick ourselves back up.
James Bond: Well that’s an interesting point. What is he, a monk?
James Bond watches, warily, as Bruce Wayne approaches
A critical audience might be wondering why these two characters would share a drink in a bar. One possibility is that James Bond is investigating a lead on a reclusive millionaire, who vanished from western society to train with known terrorists, and is now acting as a vigilante (with the approval of some people within the police force). Bond would infiltrate a high society function being hosted by Wayne and make his initial introduction (“Bond, James Bond”), part of the prelude that builds to the later meeting in a bar.
To help build narrative depth, Bruce Wayne should have a goal, as well. Using his high-tech resources to investigate the mysterious Mr. Bond, he would discover evidence of a foreign espionage agent operating on American soil. Wayne would also be concerned to discover Bond has had prior intimate relations with women linked to organised crime; and that Bond is acting as a one-man judge, jury and executioner (with the approval of some people within the British intelligence services).
Bruce Wayne: That’s the discipline.
James Bond: That’s pretty vacant, don’t you think?
Bruce Wayne: It’s what it is. It’s that or we both better find something else.
Both of them would want to assess the other person face-to-face before taking any potentially lethal action. Something else they share is a skeptical view of the official systems that produce this sort of information. In a post 9/11 world, after the incorrect allegations that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes, skepticism is a virtue the audience can share with these heroes of the screen. Meeting at a bar gives both of them an opportunity to get a measure of the other.
It might also be their only chance to talk with someone who is close to being an equal. Both of them are orphans. Both of them are a statement that the individual can do more than the group; especially a large official group that is likely hamstrung by politics, bureaucracy, and incompetence.
James Bond: I don’t know how to do anything else.
Bruce Wayne: Neither do I.
Of course this justification to have them meet is a narrative, not a reason. The reason why we don’t expect to see these characters together is based on our expectations of genre. James Bond is a spy from the espionage genre, while Batman is a costumed vigilante from the superhero genre. So a reason for them appearing together really needs to deal with genre.
Thematically, some similarities between the two have already been suggested. The suggested narrative shows that as powerful individuals who confront other powerful individuals, each has a role to play in the genre of the other. But in terms of visual style and cinematic mood, is it too jarring to have them appear alongside each other?
James Bond: Are you looking to go back to how things were?
Bruce Wayne: Do you see me swinging around in grey leotards with a bright yellow logo on my chest?
James Bond: No, I do not.
Bruce Wayne: Right. (Pauses) I am never going back.
If we build on the early and middle parts from each of their last films, we have a good sense of how they both might look in this scene. Away from the bright lights of their earlier encounter at Wayne’s function, each is now a little rougher around the edges. There would be some stubble on their faces framing weary, yet persistent, expressions. The tuxedos have been replaced by more urban clothing that is still stylish in a casually masculine way.
Both men would be wounded. Bond would be recovering from the shot through the torso that nearly claimed his life. A shot taken by a female agent and ordered by a female boss; both felt they couldn’t risk trusting him to finish the job on his own.
Wayne would be using a crutch to help him walk, a sign of the physical strain inflicted on his body from serving the community. He may still be recovering from the horrendous back injury that left him barely able to move. It was inflicted as a result of being betrayed by a woman, who felt that he wasn’t strong enough to rescue her.
Both men would probably be heartbroken, by a woman who had just left them, or by a society that does not understand them. The modern male is wounded; the privileges his father took for granted are no longer available. In this transitional period of gender equality, manly virtues have become masculine vices.
James Bond: Then give up your secret life as a vigilante.
Bruce Wayne: I do what I do best, I fight crime. You do what you do best; you drink martinis and have casual sex with women you don’t know.
Having discussed what they would look like individually, how would their scene together at the bar be constructed? It would be lit for night, linking the night time with a sense of danger that enters our subconscious as children. The actors and the setting would get equal emphasis from the lighting, a technique that helps establish an authentic feel. The lighting would also be irregular rather than even; it would cast deep shadows, and it would throw oblique lines and irregular shapes onto the walls and the surrounding space.
Compositional tension would take priority over physical action for this scene; both have something to say and something to learn. There would be the looming threat of physical action, but it may not eventuate. If it did eventuate it could be caused by the sudden entrance of a third party, a mysterious woman that neither of them can fully trust.
James Bond: You know we’re sitting here, you and I, like a couple of regular guys. And now that we’ve been face to face – if I’m doing what I have to do, and you’re in my way? I won’t like it, but I’m telling you straight – you are going down.
These elements are also a summary of the aesthetics and archetypes of film noir. The main element missing is a detective, but we do have two investigators (a spy and a vigilante). Many consider the classic film noir period to start with The Maltese Falcon(1941), and end with Touch of Evil(1958). When the films were being made during this time, film noir was not identified as style or genre of film. That classification came later on when people could look back at the whole group of films in retrospect.
Culturally, film noir was linked to post war realism and disillusionment. There was audience appetite for a view of the world that was harsh and more honest; a shift from the uplifting films of the depression era and the propaganda influence of the war era. After women had moved into the workforce during the war and also acted as the head of the family in domestic life, both men and women were unsettled with gender role expectations.
Bruce Wayne: There’s a flip side to that coin. What if you’re in my way, and I’ve got to take you out? We’ve been face to face, sure, but I will not hesitate, not for a second.
Many of the things that make the recent reinterpretations of Bond and Batman similar are also what they have in common with film noir. These are obviously not the only films influenced by film noir. Looking at the history of recent cinema we can see the style and themes have steadily increased in frequency.
One explanation for this is that the cultural forces that shaped film noir, have quite a great deal in common with those we are experiencing now. The wounded hero and aesthetics of film noir in present day film could be driven by uncertainty around gender roles and expectations. After the long duration and uncertain outcomes of the “war on terror”,we may be experiencing a new sense of post war disillusionment. We may also be experiencing a shift in mainstream audience expectations away from the uplifting cinematic escapism of the previous decades.
James Bond: Maybe that’s the way it will be then? Or, who knows?
Bruce Wayne: Or maybe we’ll never see each other again.