The Strange Hero’s Journey of Tim Burton’s “Batman”

Everybody on the internet seems to agree that Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is the best Batman movie ever made. There is an almost religious following devoting an immense amount of energy dissecting its greatness – or at least, what was right about it.

By contrast, there is very little inquiry into the art of Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989), which is also an excellent movie. It has received a little more attention since the opening of Michael Keaton’s “Birdman“, but even then, little attention has been paid to how it is constructed. Burton’s “Batman” was controversial when it opened. It was substantially darker in tone than any previous comic book movie. It starred Keaton, who was nobody’s idea of a hunk or a suave millionaire. It came off the heels of “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” (1987) which was the disastrous ending to Christopher Reeve’s Superman franchise which left studios and audiences wondering if the world really needed another superhero movie.

Tim Burton’s take on Batman has since influenced the art and texture of animated, live action, and comic book incarnations that followed to such an extent that, seen through today’s perspective, there does not seem to be anything revolutionary or inventive about the way the movie was made. But at the time, everything about it was very original.

When it opened, it was criticized for, among other things, being more concerned with projecting strangeness and artistic texture than a story with an actual plot. In fact “plot-less” has become the term associated with the movie. Every critic seems to use it. But is “Batman” really plot-less? We were certainly captivated by Keaton’s performance as an unconventionally awkward Bruce Wayne and Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker. Our eyes were mesmerized by the noir-cum-steampunk design of Gotham city. We are so consumed by the performances and the aesthetics that we forget what the story was about.

But is there really no plot? Let’s look at how the movie is constructed. The movie opens with the robbery of a tourist family trying to find their way back to their hotel through the streets of Gotham city. The robbers get away with the loot, but they are scared, not of getting caught by the police, but of the rumors of a ghostly bat creature that is said to deliver vigilante justice to street criminals. Soon enough, the bat creature walks out of the shadows and beats the crap out of the robbers. “Do me a favor,” says the bat creature to the robber. “Tell your friends about me. I’m Batman.” Neither the tourist family nor the robbers are ever seen again. Where is the inciting incident? Where is the entry into the hero’s journey?

Enter Knox, a comical newspaper reporter (played brilliantly by Robert Wuhl), who is following the rumors of the vigilante bat, a story that nobody seems to believe. He pesters and annoys corrupt cop Lt. Eckhardt, the mayor, the police commissioner James Gordon, and the district attorney Harvey Dent asking around about the bat, to which nobody gives a straight answer. He meets with Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger) a beautiful photographer also interested in the bat story. Still no inciting incident and no sign of the protagonist Bruce Wayne. (A seat marked “Bruce Wayne” at a function honoring the new district attorney is conspicuously empty.)

Harvey Dent pledges to destroy the gangster organization, which upsets the Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), the kingpin of the underworld. Jack Napier (Nicholson), Grissom’s right hand man, is an obnoxiously confident man who is secretly sleeping with Grissom’s mistress. In an exchange with Eckhardt, it is revealed that he considers himself the rightful successor to Grissom’s empire. Eckhardt rats on Napier about his affair to Grissom. Jealous Grissom sends Napier to a chemical plant ostensibly to destroy evidence of his money laundering scheme, but actually to set him up to be killed by the police. Batman appears in the scene, fights Napier, and Napier drops into a vat of acid, completely altering his outward appearance.

Does that sound a little convoluted for a first act? Let’s compare this to the cleaner structure of Star Wars: Episode IV. The story opens with an Imperial Cruiser chasing after a diplomatic ship. After a brief action sequence, Darth Vader walks out of the mist and sets the premise of the story. This is a scary world for the supporters of the Republic. Dark forces are on the march. The fate of the galaxy is in the hands of a pair of comical androids who literally fall out of the sky and appear in front of a lonely boy dreaming of adventure. That is the clear and obvious inciting incident. After a series of events, Luke Skywalker decides to leave his desert planet and go save the galaxy. End of Act One.

In Star Wars, it is Darth Vader who is making the world scary for the rebellion. In Batman, it is the Dark Knight who is making the world scary for the gangsters. In Star Wars, Luke is an orphan whose future looks bleak. In Batman, Jack Napier is a mobster whose future seems assured. The appearance of the androids is Luke’s inciting incident. The appointment of Harvey Dent is Napier’s inciting incident. Luke accepts Obi Wan’s invitation to adventure in the “break” into the Second Act of Star Wars. Napier accepts his deformed face and endorses his new identity as the Joker in the “break” into the Second Act of Batman.

There is no inciting incident for Bruce Wayne in this movie. He does not make the choice that takes us into the Second Act. He does not suffer setbacks. He is merely the Joker’s roadblock to his ambitions. It is Napier who transforms into the Joker, makes plans to take over the city, meets obstacles, suffers setbacks, tries again, suffers more setbacks, and tries again. It is Napier/Joker who makes the transformation from an overconfident henchman working in a criminal organization to “the world’s first homicidal artist”. The protagonist of the story is the Joker. Bruce Wayne is, in conventional parlance, the villain.

Just as Star Wars ends with Luke and Han Solo getting shiny blings hung over their necks, Batman ends with the city of Gotham given the Bat Signal. And yet, since the villain wins in this movie, Batman is a tragedy. But whose tragedy is it? As Batman stands atop a building admiring his Bat Signal, Vicki Vale, his very special love interest (who does not appear in the next movie) drives off in the Wayne limo alone, smiling sadly as she says that she is not at all surprised to hear that Bruce will be late in joining her. She is like Diane Keaton in the end of The Godfather, silently absorbing the voices christening Al Pacino, her husband, “Don Corleone” in the next room.

Michael Corleone in The Godfather starts from being a moral son who did not want to be a part of the family business and turns into a ruthless guardian of the organization, losing his humanity in the process. But Bruce Wayne is already nearly there at the beginning of the film. Vicki Vale almost touches what little is left of his human side, then lets it slip through her fingers. Bruce Wayne irreversibly becomes Batman. We the audience fall into the illusion that this was the story arc we had been watching. Yet the real story arc is that by destroying the Joker, Batman finally becomes truly alone.

If this movie had been released in 2017 instead of 1989, the utter devastation of the final scene might have been made more obvious. But since this was a “kid’s movie” riding on the coat tails of the last Superman installment, the ending is sugarcoated to look like a triumph of the good guy over the criminal. A closer look at the story structure, however, tells us that this is a tragedy for the Joker, for the humanity of Bruce Wayne, and for the sheeple of Gotham who, ostensibly freed from proactive wolves, are now under the protection of a heartless creature of the night.

What can us writers learn from Tim Burton’s creation? Burton takes the standard hero’s journey template and turns it on its head. That is actually a clever innovation, but it is not the thing about the movie that engages us. Unlike Star Wars, it was not the progression of story beats that suck us in. We get sucked in mostly thanks to the visuals and to the acting. A story telling innovation can become the major appeal of the movie. Memento did that. (It told the story backwards in order to let the audience experience the confusion of short-term memory loss.) But Burton’s innovation did not make the movie more memorable. The movie is memorable in spite of the creative story structure.

Perhaps, the take home lesson from Burton’s Batman is “don’t hold back”. If you have a theme to deliver, deliver it without sugar coating and without conforming to the conventions of the genre. Otherwise, people will see your story as “plot-less”.


Review: “Shin-Godzilla”

The new Godzilla movie opened in Japan last week, and I just went to see it. This is a reboot of the franchise (none of the characters had ever previously heard of Godzilla) and it may be the best Godzilla movie since the original released in 1954.

It has been 12 years since any Godzilla movie was made in Japan and more than 30 years since anything approaching a good Godzilla movie was ever made. But this time, they employed Hideaki Anno to produce and direct a Godzilla story that is true to its original theme of fallible, quibbling, selfish, and ultimately barbarous human beings against the unpredictable whims of mother nature.

Anno is previously known as the creator of the Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise, a critically acclaimed animated television series which was later followed by several animated movies. The series was a very philosophical re-imagining of the giant robot manga genre which featured numerous religious references and adult-oriented material. He was a controversial choice as a director of Godzilla.

The cast is a Who’s Who list of Japanese thespians (as opposed to the teen idol heartthrob list of previous latter day Godzilla films). Japanese actress Satomi Ishihara is cast as an American envoy with presidential ambitions in what amounts to a reverse white-wash casting. She did not make a very convincing American. Casting a Japanese actor in a foreigner’s role is something of a tradition in Godzilla movies, but she also failed to project a character who was supposed to be a tough-as-nails power girl from the Uber Empire. (I think she was meant to be a thirty-something version of Hillary Clinton with a thinly veiled human side.) I could not help thinking of a long list of American actresses who might have wanted to play the part. Angelina Jolie would have fit in perfectly. That, however, was the only sore spot of the cast.

Director Hideaki Anno knows exactly what buttons to push to trigger nostalgia attacks in old school Godzilla fans, including the ridiculously specific documentary-style subtitles that pop up to explain who each character is and what each weapon is. His adherence to Godzilla traditions makes the movie just a little bit too campy, and probably difficult to sell to American audiences without substantial editing. (The earlier Godzilla movies were famously mutilated severely to make them conform to what American movie executives deemed “marketable”.)

Unlike Independence Day, a prototypical Hollywood summer blockbuster which also had been re-introduced lately, there is no clear “hero’s journey”, or even a very clear hero. There is no rousing speech by the president, no ace fighter pilot, and no sexy lead scientist. The prime minister is almost a symbolic role, like a monarch pressured to authorize a plan that had already been decided on by the ministers so as to relieve them of accountability. When a speech to the troops is finally made, it is made by a disposable underling who calls himself “the harakiri stand-in”.

The story centers around the dilemma of how to kill an indestructible monster in the center of a densely populated metropolis. Not to give the story away, Godzilla is impervious to anything short of nuclear weapons. Tokyo being the center of almost everything in Japan, if the only plausible solution were to be adopted, the country itself will go down with the monster. And of course, meddling foreign powers are pressuring to have the monster eradicated at whatever cost before the creature multiplies and destroys the world. A special team composed of a rag tag band of misfits (Is there any other kind?) must come up with a solution before the capitol is nuked. The clock is ticking.

Anno makes good use of the Tokyo cityscape; streetlights silhouetted against explosions, drone views of jammed traffic, old people evacuating over railroad crossings. He has a tendency to place characters on the extreme corner of the screen, filling the screen with an empty void to emphasize the feeling of powerlessness. He likes closeups of blank, almost comatose faces. You see helicopters hovering in perfect formation and tanks lined up like horsemen in Kurosawa films. The movie is a visual delight.

Godzilla is supposed to be a little campy. The special effects should work, but also should be just a little bit cheesy. The dialog should be good, but also just a little bit silly. The humor should arouse laughter, but of little bit nervous kind. Surprisingly enough, Anno pulls this off. The story has the Kafkaesque pathos of the futile fight against bureaucracy, Hemingway’s creed of heroism in the face of certain failure, and most of all the Japanese religion that collective overwork and sacrifice in sufficient quantity can solve any problem. And, yeah, we kind of smile at that last part because it’s funny, and so true. We so believe that another extra hour of zangyo (unpaid overtime) will solve everything.

Hollywood summer blockbusters are faster paced, more tightly plotted, and features more explosions per minute. But Godzilla is a different kind of movie. Anno clearly aimed to make a Godzilla that only a Japanese studio can make. This is a very Japanese film, both in content and in underlying spirit. For connoisseurs  of Japanese films, this may be the treat that had been missing from Japanese cinema for a long time. It reminds us of who we, the Japanese, are.


The Curse of the El Bandito

This has nothing to do with writing or literature, but I just had to make this observation.

When a central character in a movie wears a certain kind of mustache, the movie fails, often very badly. The mustache in question is the kind that curls up at both ends to create a complete circle or nearly so, usually called the el bandito mustache. Some people call it the imperial mustache.

Mike Myers wore it in The Love Guru. Daniel Day-Lewis wore it in Gangs of New York. Johnny Depp wore it in Mortdecai.

If any of you out there is thinking of producing a movie some day, remember: This is a cursed mustache. Do not let your main character wear it.

On Males and Rape

Audiences evidently still find it pretty cool when a strong woman coerces a man into sex at gunpoint or otherwise under threat of life. Not so fun when the squirrel’s got the gun, is it punk? Payback is sweet, especially when it is happening in the world of make believe. Fiction can turn the table around and force people to think differently about the world around them.

There is an old movie I really want to watch again on this topic titled It Coudn’t Happen to a Nicer Guy. It is a TV movie aired in 1974 starring Paul Sorvino, with Bob Dishy, Adam Arkin, and Eddie Barth. If that sounds like an impressive roll call of great character actors (and it is) it also stars Michael Learned early-ish into her award-studded career. I was only twelve years old at the time and did not understand exactly what was happening or get all of the jokes, but the acting must have been superb because some of the scenes just stuck into my little boy brain and I can still see them vividly to this day.

Here is what one of the reviewers at the Internet Movie Database says about it:
Paul Sorvino plays Harry Walters, and the initial scene has him dressing for a Rotary Club dinner with complete instructions from his wife. He lives in a big house he does not like because his father-in-law wants his daughter to look successful, his father-in-law made the sizable down payment, and we later learn that Harry wanted to be a teacher, but again, the father-in-law interfered and convinced him to join the family business and sell real estate. In short, Harry Walters has spent the last 20 years of his life being a complete doormat to the wishes of his wife and in-laws.

Then comes the life changing moment. When his car breaks down on the way back from the Rotary Club dinner a beautiful well dressed “respectable looking” woman offers him a ride. However, instead of taking him home, she drives on a deserted road, forces him to remove all of his clothing at gunpoint and rapes him. Like so many women, Harry would probably have said nothing to anyone about this, but she dumps him in the middle of nowhere completely naked. He steals an apron from a woman’s clothesline to cover himself. The homeowner sees this and calls the police who wind up arresting Harry!

So Harry goes to the police station as a perp not a victim, and here is where there are so many parallels to what happened to women then, and still happens 41 years later. Nobody believes his story. He wants to talk to a male officer about the rape – request denied. Nobody shows any compassion. He is asked if he liked it. He is asked details about a crime he would rather forget. People question how he was dressed when he was picked up by the woman and how he was acting. Does any of this sound familiar ladies…and gents? Worse, a local newspaperman who hangs out in the police station gets wind of the story and prints all of the details, and Harry’s name, on the front page. At work he is greeted by snickers and pointing. His boss yells at him for making the firm look bad. At home his wife SAYS she believes him but she is treating him …differently…like “damaged goods” although that phrase is never used.

The epiphany moment comes when Harry is faced with a choice. He can plead guilty to the indecent exposure charge and get a small fine, or he can fight. He chooses to fight against all advice and pressure from his attorney and wife. He says – and this is one line that would never get on TV today – “I’ve allowed it (rape) to happen my whole life.” This time he is fighting back. He goes back to the police station and files charges against a woman whose identity is unknown, he pleads not guilty to his own charges, and gets the reporter who outed him in the papers to help him find the rapist with a composite sketch. How will this all work out? Watch and find out.

I gather that there was a big controversy back in the day when the movie was aired on prime time, at 8pm in a slot that usually showed family fare. At least there was one. A movie like that would never be aired in the safe-space atmosphere of the 21st century. It goes to show how much more liberal the world was about fictional depiction of reality before political correctness kicked in.

This story is a comedy that invites the audience to see what typically happens in the life of a rape victim by switching the gender of the victim. But not only that, it sneaks in the message that rape is going on in the world even before the physical sexual assault. The sort of life that a married man would be derided for as being a “doormat” or a “seat cushion” for his wife is (or was) typically considered commendable behavior for a married woman. This is the life that Harry Walters tries to break out of when he fights against his rape. Can you get more feminist than this? And yet, all the “feminist” roles are played by men. Michael Learned, the one accomplished actress on the show, plays what is arguably the victim-blaming sexist villain.

This movie would be very relevant today in the light of recent events. It is such a shame that we cannot see movies like this made anymore.

The Seventh Seal

By today’s standards, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal must be the most boring kind of movie. It moves slowly, it meanders, it falters, it has lots of monologues, it has no action to speak of, and it is in Swedish.
But if Christian conservatives can sit through 3 hours and 40 minutes of The Ten Commandments, they should certainly be able to tolerate the 96 minutes of The Seventh Seal. The movie is relevant today because so many people seem to believe that Christianity is under attack and faith in the general public is eroding. It may be useful to take a step back and get a little perspective by looking through the lens of an era when belief in God was really in genuine jeopardy.

The Seventh Seal takes place in the era of the Black Death. A knight and his squire had just returned from the horrors of the Crusades only to find their homeland population decimated by the Plague. The knight engages the Grim Reaper in a game of chess and earns a few days of reprieve to find the meaning of life. Then he proceeds to wrestle with the question, “Where is God when all the world is praying for help?”

It must have been terribly difficult to believe in God in the era of the Plague. When all the unanswered prayers of the world lie as corpses all around you, how can you believe in the existence of an almighty savior? There is, of course, no happy ending for a movie like The Seventh Seal, but there is an element of hope. Faith survived.

Over the dead bodies of 200 million unanswered prayers, Faith still survived. People continued to pray. Churches kept operating.

You do not have to be particularly religious to grasp the gravity of this historic fact. Now contrast this to the screechy, hysterical, over-blown alarmism of  modern Christian conservatives preaching about the attack on their faith. Could these drama queens in robes possibly have the resilience to take on a real theological crises like the Plague? One must realize that the constant screeching of the religious victimhood pushers is only weakening the backbone of Faith.

Christianity has never been safer in the history of humanity. There are more Christians today than ever before. There are fewer challenges to Christianity than ever before.There is no need for alarmism when the biggest challenges are coming from people who wish you “Happy Holidays” on Comedy Central and HBO.

Which brings me to the flip side of the political spectrum; the sort of people who hysterically protest against Halloween costumes or dive into tantrums when women are complimented on their looks. If you are protesting that white girls are dressing up in Indian costumes on Halloween, it leads me to think that you are not really in touch with the real problems facing modern Native Americans. (Hint: They have more pressing issues than Halloween costumes.) And women who believe that it is a major affront to their dignity to be told that they look “attractive” should chill and realize that women in first world countries are safer today than in any other time in the history of humanity. There are bigger problems facing women in other parts of the world than being complimented on their looks.

Some have said that people today are being too sensitive. I do not believe they are. They are being self-important. On December 5, 2014, a Korean Air passenger liner was forced to abort a take-off from a JFK runway when the airline vice president Heather Cho, who happened to be seated in the business class section of the plane, flew into a rage because macadamia nuts were served to her in a bag instead of in a bowl. After a heated confrontation with the flight attendant, during which she assaulted him, she ordered him off the plane, requiring a return to the gate and delaying the flight, which incidentally happened to be against international aviation law. Although Korean Air eventually issued and apology, the company initially tried to cover up the incident in order to shield the vice president who was also the daughter of the CEO. Heather Cho herself eventually expressed remorse, but she was initially adamant that her reaction was appropriate to the level of humiliation she experienced. As reward for her grudging repentance, she was given a suspended sentence on her obstruction of aviation safety.

The Korean Air incident, otherwise known as the “nut rage incident“, has been attributed to social class problems specific to Korea, but entitlement and privilege knows no borders, as evidenced by the behavior of American privileged youth on airliners.

Privilege makes you see transgressions where they do not exist. The richest people are enraged at the smallest slights. The Christians of predominantly Christian countries  complain the most about the erosion of their faith.  I do not know which is more tragic, the pampered women who complain about sexism so often or the abused women who so seldom complain of the same. Not everyone in the world is rich or privileged, but it seems that more and more people are adopting the entitled attitudes of kings. They are not being sensitive so much as believing their problems to be more important than those of lesser people.

These are the people who need most to go back to The Seventh Seal. They need to see this depiction of a world where the strongest belief was called into question and humanity itself hung in the balance. A world where people had real problems.

Movies like The Seventh Seal will probably never be made again. And in spite of an ever growing library of “hyphen-awareness” books, truly introspective fiction is long dead. When real crises of faith has been replaced with outrage over “Happy Holidays”, social courage is exemplified by Caitlyn Jenner, and the biggest media concern is Kanye West and the Kardashians, what place is there for a story about the human soul crushed to the absolute breaking point?

I wish I could tell the whole lot of them to sit down, shut up, and just watch the movie. Forget about your own petty problems and just take in the spare, spooky story of a world falling off a cliff.