Comics, Movies

Thoughts on Batman

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Batman vs Superman is out this week, and here are a couple of disorganized thoughts on the State of the Superhero.

I dislike Batman. It’s funny that I should say that about a fictional character, especially one that has brought me such joy while growing up. You guys are well aware of how much I have been into the character, and there is this element of hypocrisy that looms large over a statement like this one. But I have problems with the character, and more specifically, what has become of the the storytelling engine behind Batman.

History Lesson

This lineage of Batman “troubled man who dresses up to exorcise his demons” obviously begins with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Year One in the mid-1980s. But these books were one of a kind — DKR was an interpretation, not a definition of who Batman was — and it took a long time before Miller’s rage-and-angst-fueled ingredients seeped into the character’s engines. You had the pure joy of Mike Barr and Alan Davis’s short run, which ran in tandem with Year One, funnily enough; Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s vulnerable yet foreboding Batman; Doug Moench and Kelly Jones’ surreal Goth-meets-art deco incarnation; even the group-think endeavors like Knightfall and Prodigal and No Man’s Land, the messy products of their time that they were: all of these retained some amount of humanity that made you like the character likable, even relate to him, maybe, because Batman always did the right thing. But yes, elements of Miller’s work were creeping in slowly — Jason Todd, Robin #2 died at the Joker’s hands, something that Dark Knight Returns had alluded to. Making that book prescient almost made it seem like that dark future was in store for Batman, but we weren’t there yet.

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It was Grant Morrison who is to blame, when you think about it. Morrison, fresh from a  career of revamping DC’s fringe characters such as Animal Man and Doom Patrol, found himself in charge of the Justice League of America in the late 90s. The JLA had their share of troubled history in that decade – editorial diktats mandated the use of second-tier characters in the team because the Big Guys were involved in soap operas of their own 1. Morrison insisted on using the main characters, and among the changes he made to the JLA status quo, the major one was this:

Batman, despite having no superpowers, was the most dangerous man alive.

Batman has it all covered.

He can take down anybody. He is the embodiment of human perfection. He has a contingency plan for everything — seriously, everything. If the universe was about to be destroyed, Batman could pull a universe-undestroying glove from his utility belt and punch the universe into being whole again.

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This particular concept found much favor among fans, myself included. Unfortunately, when combined with the climactic scene of Miller’s seminal work, people — writers, fans, the ecosystem at large — began to extrapolate the facts in a very strange way. What was a one-off sequence involving careful planning and execution suddenly became a trope in itself. Batman can beat Superman anytime, they said. There was a proliferation of stories where indeed, Batman was not only rescuing the JLA from problems that stymied all of them, he was also beating Superman almost on a yearly basis. Miller’s 2001 sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, begins with a showdown where Batman, now even older, drops a pile of rocks on an angry Kal-El, punches him with a pair of special gloves and says “Get out of my cave”. In Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s Hush, in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s newest incarnation of the Batman, in tales of alternate realities and stray one-shots, the message remains the same: Batman can take Superman. Any time.

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And all of that brings us to Batfleck taking on hairline-receding Superman on the screen.

End History Lesson

At the heart of it all, along with his seeming ability to go toe-to-toe against super-humans, Batman is still Bruce Wayne, a middle-aged rich guy who uses his money to dress up and go out and punch criminals. He says “My City” without a trace of irony. He is always right. He is rude and insensitive to people around him, and over the years, this assholish behavior has been amped up to stupendous levels. He will be part of a team, but everything and everybody has to play by his rules. He has an extended family, recruiting a bunch of boys and girls, men and women as part of his war on crime, but he also insists on being a loner, incapable of having a normal human relationship with anyone around him. His intensity has been stretched to such an incredulous length that Batman the character has become a self-parody. Batman is a scary reminder of what happens when Big Money meets Mental Illness meets Misguided Intentions meets Non-scalable Implementation.Somehow, “Batman does not kill” has become an excuse to make the character as unlikable and smarmy as possible. 2

But wait, you say, isn’t punching criminals the focal point of every superhero story?

Yes, you are right. At the end of the day, superhero stories are still about grown men — and women — punching each other into submission. But hey, it has been 75 years since we have had a man putting on a suit and heading out late at night to deal with the trauma of his parents being killed in front of his eyes. You could say that problem with Batman is emblematic of my problems with superhero stories in general. To be more precise, the mainstream superhero scene, these characters that have plodded through decades of reinvention, retelling and occasional resurgence. With a character like Batman, there can only be an attempt to retell the story with a fresh angle, to rearrange the familiar pieces and give them weight depending on which pieces we are focused on. Every now and then, someone figures it’s a great idea to add another piece 3 but all it does is add chaos to an already teetering structure. Add to it the fact that DC/Marvel comics, since the 80s, have been stuck in this confusing identity crisis (pun intended) where they are unsure about whether they are a children’s medium or aimed at adults. You point out flaws in the machine, and they want you to take a deep breath and lighten up, because superheroes are for kids. At the same time, the themes they handle try to be mature, the Comics Code Authority was thrown out the door a long time ago, and any attempt at wholesomeness stopped when anal rape became a plot point 10 years ago. 4

There are of course attempts to upend the structure every now and then: by what is referred to as a reboot. Scott Snyder, who I mentioned above, is the writer working on the new Batman. It is the first time in years that the origin story has attempted to break free of the long shadow cast by Year One. Snyder calls his version Year Zero, and rather than the shadows and grime that Miller brought into his version, Year Zero has psychedelic colors and an out-there, sci-fi vibe to it that I dug quite a bit. But the 75-year old legacy cannot help but creep into the pieces that a creator adds to this new structure, and it takes very little time for the building to collapse yet again. By the time the Joker is added to the mix, in a story called ‘Death of the Family’, we have — deep breath — the Joker in Arkham Asylum with a villain called the Dollmaker “who surgically removes Joker’s face at his request and then pins it to Joker’s cell wall as a sign of his rebirth”. By the time the Joker shows up again, in “Endgame”, he has become a scientist who has come up with a new chemical isotope (called, er, ‘Ha’), and the story also “implies that he is immortal, having existed for centuries, and has developed a means to regenerate from mortal injuries…(the story also) restores the Joker’s face, and also reveals that he knows Batman’s secret identity”. Umm, okay.

Add to it the fact that Batman’s story never does have an ending. 5 He has gone from being a lone vigilante killing people as he sees fit, to a good guy working with the law, to someone who is an urban legend. Look at the origin story: Where once it was Joe Chill and Lew Moxon, one retelling made Ra’s Al Ghul serve as a catalyst; in another, it was a person named Jack Napier; yet another has the Court of Owls. What I am getting at is that: the entire enterprise of keeping a superhero’s motivations and methods relevant in our world seems to be an effort that sucks in writers and makes them spew out fan-fiction that grates against my expectations and knowledge as a rational reader. More so in terms of Batman, because writers tend to latch onto their inner anger, that part of them that wishes that they could respond to the world around them by dressing up at night and getting out to break a couple of jaws and kneecaps. 6And the worst part of it all? Nothing changes. Bruce Wayne will always go out at night and beat criminals up. Maybe he will disappear for a while, maybe there will be a new costume, maybe an unknown adversary of the past will suddenly come back in his life and upend Everything That You have Ever Known. The common storytelling engine to all superhero tales seems to be a treadmill: a tiresome, frustrating journey that goes nowhere and yet tires you out.

It therefore becomes easy for me to say that Batman — or superheroes, in general — are not for me any more. Which is a valid point, but goes against my innate approach to popular culture, which is that New is always good, and that creators in any field are getting better at what they do because they learn from the past, and can pick and choose elements that work wonderfully, and discard the things that do not make sense. But it is a problem when the past weighs so heavily on your appreciation of any future work; when in order to explain who a character is, you have to go read Wikipedia. It’s a shame when to explain or make sense of what is going on, you have to suspend your reading to understand that what you are reading may or may not be a part of the story; and that there was a story and it’s not valid any more, and what you are reading can be replaced by a completely different story.

If you are not convinced, and are framing your apologist fanboy arguments about why Batman is awesome, here’s a question for you: how many Robins have there been? What happened to them? Let me get my popcorn while you scramble for the answer.

Notes:

  1. Superman died, and came back again. Batman had his spine broken, and then it was healed. Wonder Woman was replaced, and then she came back. Green Lantern went crazy, and another Green Lantern took his place.
  2. Donald Drumpf however sounds more like a Marvel alias, right?
  3. The character of Hush is an attempt, as is the Court of Owls.
  4. For those who do not know, Identity Crisis.
  5. Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns as the last Batman story, and that went on to get its sequel 15 years later, and there is a third part out now. Neil Gaiman wrote a story called ‘Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader’, which was Gaiman interpreting every supporting character in Batman as erudite people that knew exactly the right thing to say, just like bad fan-fiction.
  6. Not to kill anyone, of course, because Batman does not kill. But it’s perfectly fine to break a wrist and maybe an elbow too, if a guy just pointed a gun at you, or flashed a knife, or maybe a crowbar. Hmm, maybe if he even looked wrong at you, or cut you in line, or honked at your car when you were merging into his lane.
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Comics, Movies

Man of Steel wankery

I think Man of Steel was a better movie than most of what Marvel has produced so far, including Avengers.

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Earth-shattering spoilers follow, one that will brutalize your first viewing of Man of Steel and leave you a broken human being. Proceed at your peril.

The Dark Knight trilogy had it good – there were already iconic Batman stories in DC canon that could be strip-mined for imagery and a coherent feel. The entire Marvel-verse movies borrow heavily from the character portrayals and arcs in Millar/Hitch’s Ultimates. Superman? There really is no definitive Superman origin story. Mark Waid wrote one. It was pretty darn good, but not many people have read it and it’s not even considered canon. Geoff Johns wrote another, and it’s so weighed down by 60+ years of continuity horse-shit that you need to go take a shower half-way through it just to get rid of the fan-boy stench. You know, all that sweat from trying to understand who the fuck the Legion of Superheroes are and why they are relevant to Superman’s life. There is an “original graphic novel” called Superman: Earth One that you can read if you are feeling particularly masochistic someday. It’s written by J Michael Straczynsky and it has emo Clark Kent in a hoody. Yup, you read that right. All-Star Superman? Gorgeous, but ultimately a psychedelic tribute to the zany Mort Weisinger era of the fifties.  Whatever Happened to Man of Tomorrow, Kingdom Come, Red Son, Death of Superman – good luck reading them as a newcomer to comics.

Super: Earth One. Super-crap.

Superman: Birthright. Nice, but hollow and overly respectful.

Superman: Secret Origin. Or how Fanboys Fellate the Movies and Comics of Their Childhood

So it’s no surprise that the template for Man of Steel – the pacing, the beats of the story, the way the events in Clark Kent’s adulthood intersect with key events in his past – seems entirely based on the innards of the Movie That Worked, David Goyer’s script to Batman Begins. 

(Someone more qualified should also talk about the role of the father figure in Goyer’s scripts. Both the movies reveal a great deal of influence their daddies had on the respective superheroes. Martha Wayne had zero lines, and Lara Lor-Van has a few, but not substantial. Yes, I know Diane Lane’s character contradicts my observation, but whoever lets facts get in the way of criticism?)

People talking about the 9/11 hangover in the movie, please stop. All falling skyscrapers need not allude to that particular day in American history. If in doubt, please refer to scenes in Miracleman #15, which is still held up as the definitive destruction sequence in comics. While a generation of moviegoers fondly reminiscence over the Donner movies – yes, he made us believe that a man can fly – but a man who is faster than a speeding bullet fights another of his kind, people become chicken-feed and buildings are toilet paper. The closest American cinema got to this was in the final showdown in Matrix: Revolutions, and that supposedly occurred in the virtual world, with non-human onlookers bearing witness. This? This was cinematic destruction amped up beyond comprehension, where we see technology trying to show us what happens when titans clash. (And Morpheus and Locke appear in it too, though not in the same frame. Matrix fist-bump, y’all!)

Miracleman 15Miracleman 15

I have a low opinion of Zach Snyder. Most of it stemmed from the fact that the man’s only claim to being a “visionary” was slow-motion fight sequences where you hear bones breaking. Dawn of the Dead was meh, and his adaptations of 300 and Watchmen (the latter of which, in all fairness, I could not sit through beyond 20 minutes) were so slavish to the source material that there was no sign of any directorial authority in either. Unless you count color-toning films as auteur-vision. Whatevs.  MoS however revealed a very sentimental side of Snyder – he actually paid attention to the quiet moments. Clark falling to the depths of the ocean, Lara looking at her planet’s final moments; “focus on my voice”; “you can save them all”. Beautiful.

Don’t expect Snyder’s osteomania to let up in this movie – the first few minutes have Russell Crowe inflicting major vertebral violence on his co-planetary compatriots. (On an aside, what the fuck is up with these highly advanced planets? Aren’t there nations? Factions? Different skin colors? Opposition parties that do not resort to violence? Or is all pulp science fiction proof that democracy as a concept has to be cast aside for a civilization to flourish? Whoa, deep.) The slow-mo sequences, however are hasta la vista, baby. The action sequences involving the Kryptonians are furious blurs – all that’s missing are speed-lines. However, time slowed down whenever Antja Traue was around. For me, at least.

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Man of Steel‘s worst offence is not its own, however. It is a byproduct of this current decade’s technological excesses applied to cinema. The , in particular the greyish-blue aesthetic that taints everything you see on screen: costumes, cultural paraphernalia, technology. Everything from spaceships to personal assistants are monochrome, and the skies turn ominously dark at all major events. It is like we live – or rather, our cinematic imagination lives – in a universe that came about after a to-the-death grudge-match between the design aesthetics of HR Giger and Moebius, and Giger’s palette overpowered the sunny outlook that Moebius’s works had. That, or someone took the word “cinereal” a little too literally. Once again, this is not something I aim at Man of Steel in particular, look at every single summer blockbuster out there, and that same mournful look permeates throughout. The curse of this decade, I say, and I will be glad when the winds of change sweep over animation render-farms across the world.

Those who say that Superman does not kill: please, this is not a comic-book. There is no comics code authority that shelters the children of the world from fictional violence. There is no editorial panel that wants a rogues’ gallery that can be rotated every few months or years. Drop it, you guys. You cannot lay boundaries on a fictional character, especially not after Sherlock Holmes has been seen using a cellphone.

Yes, I did not like most of the Marvel movies. That is because they are predictable and they have no consistent tone. The Avengers was fun because it was the first time we saw a team movie, plus Joss Whedon’s lines. As a story? You need to talk to my French friend. Her name is Cliché and she has a pet cat called Whimper.

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Comics

Morrison/Quitely’s All-Star Superman

(A modified version of this was originally published in Rolling Stone India, November 2008.)

All Star Superman

It ‘s interesting (and a little surprising) to note that flagship characters like Superman or Mickey Mouse, both of whom have been around for the greater part of a century, have very little in terms of memorable stories starring them. More so in case of Superman, whose universal recognizance is equated with one-dimensionality, whose corporate image is so strong that just last month, a Superman comic whose cover showed Clark Kent sharing a beer with his father was pulped and reprinted, the label on the bottle on the new cover saying “soda pop” instead. There’s also the problem of the storytelling engine associated with the character – Spider-man has a low bank account and woman problems, just like the rest of us; Batman is dark and psychologically complex enough to appeal to the insecurities of the valium generation, but Superman – a god-like being whose sympathies lie with the human race, whose limitless powers are channeled for the betterment of mankind – pisses off our cynical selves. We just cannot wrap our minds around the concept. Superman is boring. Superman is a square.

Grant Morrison does not agree. A Scottish writer known for his 90s’ revamp of half-forgotten Silver Age DC characters like Animal Man and Doom Patrol, Morrison took up the reins of coming up with a distilled version of the Superman character. Morrison’s vision of Superman is one that is unencumbered by all these years of continuity baggage. He expects the reader to be onboard from the get-go – succinctly displayed by his recounting of the familiar origin in four phrases, on four panels, on one page. Morrison’s Superman was in no way removed from the iconic character we know. Nothing is different, yet everything is new. These twelve issues of All-Star Superman are, without doubt, the greatest Superman story ever written.

An origin in four panels.

Dying Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.

The first thing that hits you when you read All-Star Superman (and I recommend you do so in a single sitting, for optimal effect) is the chutzpah of the writer. The overall arc, made up of single and double-issue stories, revolves around the idea of Superman’s own mortality. In the first few pages, Superman discovers that he is dying, because of a trap laid down by his arch enemy Lex Luthor. Before his death, he has to conclude his earthly affairs and, according to a messenger from the future, must accomplish twelve feats that will save multiple universes. As the story progresses, we travel galaxies, dimensions and time-lines with the Man of Steel, as he battles his own fate and finally surrenders to it. The last few issues proceed at a break-neck pace (and yet, with moments of quiet calm) to an ending that reflects grief, awe and hope.

In an industry primarily known for recycling themes, Morrison spews out fresh, hallucinatory ideas in every other page. Throw-away lines speak of voluminous histories – characters like the Subterranausauri, led by Dino-Czar Tyrannko, the Ultra-Sphinx, Zibarro, Luthor’s assistant Nasthalthia ( “call me Nasty!”), super-scientist Leo Quintum could stand on their own and provide fodder for years and years of super-stories.  While these new additions to the Super-stable, along with the familiar members of the cast – Jimmy Olsen and his signal watch, Lois Lane, Perry White, the Kents, the Phantom Zone, the Bottle City of Kandor, Krypto the Super Dog – have integral parts to play in Morrison’s epic, the storyline is still about Superman. The coolest thing about the writer is the way he gets the Man of Steel like no one else before him has. (Consider a  line like this – “As she spoke, I watched 35000 dead skin cells scattering like confetti…like promises…like the dust of dead stars”.)

 It is to artist Frank Quitely’s credit that he takes all of Morrison’s ideas and brings them to life. Quitely, Morrison’s long-time collaborator weaves the writer’s threads into a shining tapestry of lines and colors; his Superman is lazy-eyed and self-assured, godly and yet human. His traditional panels – a far cry from his anti-geometric experiments evident in WE3 and Flex Mentallo, gives the story a quiet dignity, just as his full-page splashes punctuate its most unforgettable moments. A teenage Superman flying to save his father is just as hard to forget as the image of the Man of Steel kissing Lois on the moon. Jamie Grant’s colours over Quitely’s unique pencils permeate the book with a distinct glow, one that makes it stand out from the profusion of muddily-colored superhero books on sale nowadays.

“Not my pa”

A kiss on the moon

Not that the book does not have its share of negatives. For as good a writer Morrison is, he is also too clever sometimes, deliberately opting for confusing panel transitions and obfuscated storytelling to bombard us with his postmodern interpretation of the Bizarro world – where we encounter Zibarro, the Bizarro Bizarro. (2013 update: I have warmed to the Bizarro storyline since I read it last) I also have a problem with portraying Lex Luthor as a self-important, deluded buffoon; in seeking to inject his stories with the flaky trippiness of stories from the 50s, Morrison undoes the depth the character has been imbued with over the years. But that’s just my inner nerd whinery, never mind.

There have been some good Superman stories over the years, of course. But for one or two meaningful stories, the monthly comics are rife with hackery, wherein writers tried to come up with gimmicks to appeal to fans – Superman died, was resurrected, got a new hairstyle, got married, got a new costume with electrical powers, had multiple reboots of his origin. Of course, none of it really stuck. All-Star Superman, on the other hand, is everything the monthly Superman series is not, and should have been. It is a moving story of a hero that has withstood half a century of cultural ripples. A hero who is not one of us, but one we can aspire to be.

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