HARDBARNED! The Blog

Batman Returns (and so does everyone else)

Just the other day, I happened to be re-reading Frank Miller’s 1986 four-issue comic book masterpiece, The Dark Knight Returns, probably my all-time favorite Batman graphic novel (Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke is a close second). Later that evening, I stopped by the innerwebs to see what was going on in cinema land and came across news of an epic showdown in summer of 2015 between Batman and Superman. I’m reacting to Man of Steel 2: Bats Vs. Supes (or whatever it's eventually titled) with a healthy dose of skepticism coated by a shining, razor-thin veneer of cautious optimism, but this clash of caped titans may be overshadowed by an even bigger battle. I’m referring of course to the unrestrained, unprecedented, unstoppable 2015 sequelslashrebootpalooza destined to permeate American theaters that summer and the resultant battle between the few major studios competing for ticket sales.

I have to admit to mixed feelings about the menu. Despite the endless parade of animated kiddie stuff, the PG-13 young-adult bestseller franchises and the ill-fated video game adaptations, there is still a lot to look forward to, like a new Bond from Mendes and Craig. Edgar Wright's first superhero flick. More Prometheuses, Avatars, Avengers, Star Wars and Terminators, any of which may or may not be a good thing.

Plus, there's more from Guillermo del Toro, Nicolas Winding Refn and Tom Hardy. Okay, I'm officially stoked. The fall of 2015 might be a good time to add more discs to my Netflix plan, as I don’t go to theaters much anymore. I like spending less than half the cost of a single movie date with my wife on a month’s worth of movies in our own home, complete with our preferred food and drink options, a pause button and zero confrontations with talking, texting, tweeting teenage twits.

Just when you thought the parade of revamps, remakes, reboots and revisits couldn't get any more derivative, a Fight Club sequel (at least in graphic novel form) and a Bloodsport remake are both now in the works, along with a Rocky offshoot about Apollo Creed. Yep. Believe it or not. I was actually hoping Carl Weathers would eventually end up in an Expendables movie because he’s pretty damn cool. Despite the tsunami of regurgitation, for now there are at least a few original ideas coming down the pike that are looking good, like Neil Blomkamp's Elysium and Interstellar from Chris Nolan.

Anyway, despite distractions, I’m here to muse on the man in the cowl. I’ve been a Batman fan for a long time. It started when I was in elementary school and acquired a few Detective Comics and a few more of the other series simply titled Batman.

Somebody gave me one of those clear plastic bags filled with three or maybe five random DC comics from the grocery store or a newsstand. At that time I had a few Marvel comics too, and while I enjoyed these stories occasionally, as a younger kid I wasn’t much of a collector. I took care of my books, but I wasn't yet aware of acid-free backing boards and boxes or double-taped plastic Mylar bags. The comics just sat on the shelf with my other books, but something changed in 1986. I turned 10 years old that summer, the year that Miller’s ultra-dark take on the beloved 47-year-old character hit the shops, but it wouldn’t catch my eye for another few months. Earlier that summer, I had seen Top Gun in the theater, which blew my 10-year-old mind.

This was quite an achievement, as I was still fairly obsessed with the Star Wars trilogy, even three years after the Jedi had returned, destroyed a second Death Star and disappeared for good, as far as I knew...but I was wrong. Yeah, I couldn’t resist a little Star Wars tangent in this post. In case you’ve been living in a cave and hadn’t heard, earlier this year Disney bought out George Lucas for a cool $4 billion and decided to release new Star Wars movies and products every couple weeks for the rest of eternity, squeezing every last commercial drop from the firehose of merchandising cash that is everything Star Wars (a strategy Disney has already mastered like no other business on Earth)…and a long-awaited sequel to Return of The Jedi will hit theaters alongside Bats Vs. Supes in 2015. It’s super cool that you have internet access in your cave and only look at my blog, though.

Let’s speculate for a moment…do you think the entire Rebel Alliance settled in with the Ewoks after Death Star Detonation 2 and the subsequent bonfire party/stormtrooper helmet drum circle? Alderaan hadn’t been an option for a while, and who would really want to go back to Hoth or Tatooine or Dagobah to start anew? If they did elect to stay, how does the passage of time work on Endor? Are Endor years the same as Earth years? Maybe Disney will digitally age-reverse the whole gang of principals, like Benjamin Button, Jeff Bridges in that Tron sequel or Arnold in Terminator Salvation and and then have the newer, younger, hipper old heroes all jump around like the manic, whirling digital Yoda of the prequels, this time with new, triple lightsabers! Do you think Goofy and Dumbo will get cameos? Maybe the Disney gang will start a Jedi splinter group of their own with Minnie, led by an aged Jar-Jar, or maybe all the Disney arch-villains of history will band together to rebuild the Galactic Empire.

Look, as exciting as it sounds to see Luke, Han, Leia, Lando, Chewie, Threepio and R2D2 reunited 32 or so years later, I think I’ll still try to contain my enthusiasm on this one, as, in my devout loyalty, I absolutely refused to accept that Lucas could go off the rails in early 1999 and got a little upset when he did in such spectacular fashion. I really hope Disney notes Mark Hamill’s opinion on excessive CG in sci-fi films because he is absolutely right. He’s cool enough to be Luke Skywalker and the Joker, so take his damn advice, Disney.

Despite today’s good news, and much like with Bats Vs. Supes, I will retain that same healthy dose of skepticism, still coated by a shining, razor-thin veneer of cautious optimism. The Star Wars trilogy claimed first place in my childhood troika of movie favorites. Top Gun soon stormed into its spot at number two. Yes, I, uh, realize that there are no points for second best. Then arrived the Batman, three years later, and the troika was complete.

Later in that 1986 summer of budding naval aviator dreams, I was enrolled at a day camp for tennis twerps, little kids like me who harbored silly childhood dreams (alas, I was once full of dreams) of growing up to be like Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors or (eventually) Andre Agassi. In those days, I was also a big fan of Yannick Noah, Stefan Edberg and even Ivan Lendl. Perhaps I would become the first professional tennis player to be an F-14 pilot on the side. Or perhaps I’d end up doing neither. We the wee tennis campers were set free in the college town our camp was situated in for a couple hours at lunch every day, so I’d usually grab something quick to eat and spend the rest of my time in the video arcade (known as Wizards) until I had to run back to the tennis courts for more drills.

One day, instead of another round of Gauntlet at Wizards, I decided to walk a little farther down the street and discovered a comic shop. It was a revelatory, fateful decision. I don’t remember the shop’s name, but the door opened like a gate to another dimension, and upon entry—just like that—I was magically transformed into a bona fide comic book collector. The poster was the first thing I saw. It was nearly life-sized, or maybe I was just pint-sized.. Batman was hunched over, battle weary and seemingly ready to strangle me. He looked way older and a lot scarier, furious and intense. This was a different kind of Batman than any I’d seen. A different kind of comic book than any I’d owned. It wasn’t kid stuff. This was no BANG, POW, Jeepers, Holy Smokes Batman.

Miller's Dark Knight had real issues. There would be blood. There would be social commentary. In Miller’s tale, which he both drew and wrote, Bruce Wayne was now somewhere around 60 years old and had a mustache, but he was still in great shape. He had started drinking to tame the call of the wild vigilante within. He had a sniper rifle. He was even angrier than usual. It was 97 degrees in Gotham and a gang of violent weirdos called the Mutants was taking over. The Joker was awakened from his catatonic haze as Bats took to the streets once again. The comic shop also had a smaller, already iconic poster of Batman’s silhouette in profile, soaring through the night, a single stroke of lightning piercing the sky behind him.

I bought whichever of the five Dark Knight Returns issues were available on the spot and grabbed some back issues too, so I could catch up. Batman was suddenly cool as hell. I was reminded why I liked the character in the first place. He didn’t have super powers. He could be hurt or even broken. He had all of our human weaknesses but possessed immense focus and determination. Though he was born into his financial wealth, he otherwise built himself into the man he wanted to be through sheer force of will. He was a warrior, a detective and a human hero, dark and brooding. I was hooked.

After three years of steadily collecting Detective, Batman and Legends of the Dark Knight comics and other one-shots, trade paperbacks and special series titles starring my favorite caped vigilante, I was excited to learn that Batman was coming to a theater near me, just before my 13th birthday. I read all the magazine articles, collected the comic tie-in special issues and stocked up on the trading cards. Tim Burton! Jack Nicholson! And that guy from Beetlejuice! Michael Keaton proved all the naysayers wrong. He was the perfect choice, and everyone else was great too, even though Billy Dee Williams didn’t have much of a role. At 13, this movie was a huge deal, and today, other than the excellent Chris Nolan trilogy, it’s still the only Batman movie worthy of shelf space in any real bat-fan’s film collection.

Some people may defend Burton’s Batman Returns sequel, but I say that though it's better than the others not worthy of a mention here, it hasn’t held up that well, and all the best reasons to watch a Burton Batman movie are in the first one.

Superman was never really on my radar much, neither as a kid nor as an adult. Jerry Seinfeld obviously loved him, but I think I’m more of a fan of Jerry than of the man from another world with the big red cape. I admit that the Christopher Reeve movies have a charming innocence that is fun to revisit. At least the first two do, and there is probably a reason why I can’t remember much of anything about the third and fourth movies. The chemistry between Reeve and Margo Kidder was believable, and Gene Hackman was the perfect Lex Luthor, even though Kevin Spacey did a great job with the character in an otherwise forgettable reboot several years ago. Keyser Soze! Brian Singer has done much better work.

I know Clark stands for truth, justice and the American way, and he’s such a nice guy; I mean, who wouldn’t want to be his friend? The thing is, he’s a bulletproof alien who can spin planets, so he’s always been little tougher to relate to than Bruce. So Superman and Batman are finally meeting on the big screen. Rejoice? Maybe. Revealing plans for Bats Vs. Supes to a drooling ComicCon audience, Zack Snyder had actor Harry Lenix, from Man of Steel, read this famous excerpt from The Dark Knight Returns to an audience already wowed by the juxtaposed symbols of DC’s greatest heroes (spoiler alert):

I want you to remember, Clark, in all the years to come, in all your most private moments, I want you to remember my hand at your throat. I want you to remember the one man who beat you.”

Wow, okay, but wait a minute. Snyder emphasized that he didn’t intend to adapt The Dark Knight Returns, which features a gnarly fight between Bats and Supes, but that he would be influenced by it…yet he introduced the new movie by quoting it. It doesn’t seem fair to use the quote if he’s not adapting the book, but I’ll give him a pass. Clark and Bruce battled again in Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s excellent series Hush (2003), and they’ve faced off elsewhere too, so it’s not as though Miller’s version is the only one. It’s just likely the best.

Hopefully Zack Snyder, David S. Goyer, Henry Cavill and someone as-yet unnamed behind the cowl (Bale says he's done) will do us all a favor and come up with something really great. Maybe Frank Miller can come along and consult. I still haven’t seen Man of Steel, but I’m looking forward to it. Michael Shannon is reliably good, and I've enjoyed every one of Mr. Snyder's over-the-top thrill rides, though I missed Suckerpunch and the one with CG owls.