For many of us, the only Batman is…Adam West. Yes, those of us old enough to remember the original Caped Crusader phenomenon recall when ABC would actually air its successful TV show TWICE a week, just to satisfy public demand. We smile when considering how campy and kitsch it all was, how our pre-teen personalities melted whenever our superhero donned the cowl, gathered up his “ward” Dick Grayson, and went “SMASH!”, “BANG!” “ZAP!” on aging celebrity supervillians. With his paunchy belly and less than flattering tights, this version of Batman came directly from our collective memory, of a time when characters were carried across generations of ‘funny book’ readers and straight into the mind’s eye.
Now, there are “versions” of Bruce Wayne’s crime fighting alter ego, each with its own considered cult of preference and personality. For many, it’s Tim Burton’s take derived in part from Batman’s late ’80s graphic novel renaissance. For others, it’s Christopher Nolan’s modern businessman as genius vigilante update. With each adaptation, new inspirations are added, ways of making old properties “new” for a fading readership. Yet with each one of those changes comes an entire cult of adoration, a personal connection that can thwart even the most noble efforts. Indeed, one of the biggest issues a comic book movie adaptation has to overcome is staying/not staying “true” to the source. However, when there are multiple configurations of same, such creative reverence becomes harder and harder.
For example, over this last weekend (6 May), that blond Adonis from Asgard, Thor, finally dropped down to Earthly Cineplexes to announce the start of Summer 2011. Long in gestation and always aesthetically questionable, the $60 million-plus return is seen as weak by Marvel movie standards. Hulk weak. Not Iron Man weak. ‘Why wasn’t it better?’ weak. With a near 80% aggregate on Rotten Tomatoes and a more or less genial consensus among critics (good, but not great), it still signals for all a positive preamble to Joss Whedon’s Avengers movie in 2012 – if nothing else. While director Kenneth Branagh (a real question mark beforehand) has proven his popcorn mantle, for many, this update on the fallen God was less than stunning.
From a personal perspective, the reason “why” is easy. This is not MY Thor. Not by a long shot. As a minor geek on the character, I read almost all of the Norse nobleman’s comic run from about 1968 to 1970. Along with Plasticman, the occasional Archie (don’t ask – it’s a Betty and Veronica thing), and some Fantastic Four, Thor was my primary comic addition. Yes, it was short-lived, but I stuck with the handicapped Dr. Donald Blake, his flirtation for Jane Foster, and his various battles against Loki and main foes – Ego the Living Planet, the High Evolutionary, and the Man-Beast – for many a long summer afternoon. Along with the help of fellow hero Hercules, Thor was my main introduction into the world of outsized heroes and villains. On TV, Batman and Robin were guys doing battle with human puns. This was the real muscle and death deal.
Of course, my Thor is nowhere to be seen in the new film. Granted, it is the same character with a similar origin, but once he lands on the fabled third rock from the Sun, the hunk with the mighty hammer is turned into – well, into not very much at all. He’s a stranger in a strange land, an alien presence investing the modern Jane with newfound purpose. Since almost the entire film is plotted around the eventual Avengers tentpole, Thor doesn’t get much of his own. He (SPOILER) saves Asgard and Odin, defeats Loki (though the post-credits teaser suggests differently) and then remains an extraterrestrial overseer of the Nine Realms. While it looks and feels familiar, this reflects none of my devotion to Thor. As a matter of fact, while watching the film (which I did enjoy), I felt myself imposing my own memories of Dr. Blake, his walking stick, and those sensational sequences when said cane would magically turn into Mjolnir.
Clearly, at age 50, this take on Thor was not and is not meant for me. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it, it just means it’s not MY Thor. It’s someone else’s. It belongs to those who discovered the character in the 616 and Ultimates runs. It belongs to those who reinvigorated the artform with their nerd enthusiasm and geek demands back in the latter part of the ’80s. It’s a movie for the new Messageboard Nation, not the huddled masses yearning to spend some of their hard earned discretionary income. It’;s a limit that truly undermines the potential returns. In fact, this has become the big bugaboo in current creative circles – catering to the demo without destroying the overall product brand. Thor more or less succeeds, but within very structured limits. Iron Man, on the other hand, went for humor and was hailed as a gem.
The lessons learned when Bryan Singer re-imagined the X-men remain firmly transfixed in studio sensibilities. In essence, by skewing younger, by aiming directly at those most invested in the current comic book marketplace, the results should be set – or at least much easier to see. Granted, everyone’s favorite mutants are going all the way back to before Dr. X’s school for the latest reinvention of the franchise, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is happy about the back peddle. In fact, when it was announced that Spider-man would return to high school to mine focus group gains, some fans groaned. There’s catering, and then there’s pandering. Even a Captain America, more or less devoted to the original arc’s premise, is being picked apart by those who want to see their version of the avenger hit the screen.
It’s no surprise then that, once he’s finished fiddling with Gotham’s favorite/least favorite son, Christopher Nolan is turning Batman over to someone who will, once again, reconfigure it for a new contingency. Fanboys and those familiar with such obsessions have already voiced where they’d like to see the character go, while those who fell in love with the fabled Dark Knight several decades ago watch age render such requests and reprimands moot. For now, our heroes remain the inspiration, if not the instigation, for these big screen updates. One day, perhaps, MY Thor will see the cinematic light of day. Until then, I’ll have to settle with another generation’s vision. Heck – I’ve done it before…and by all accounts, it’s what myself and a lot of other aging comic book fans will be doing for quite some time to come.