Imaginary Story 9: Batman Forever

 
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This is not a good movie.
The Near-Apocalypse of ’09 is not a review series.  We are not, generally speaking, interested in the quality of the episodes and works we look at; we are interested in reading the work, not evaluating or recommending it.  It may often be the case that appreciation or disdain for a particular work or character comes through in the course of discussion, but it is never (or at least, should never be) the focus.
But it’s hard to talk about Batman Forever without talking about how bad it is, because it wears its badness like a badge of honor. It is defiantly, deliberately bad; one can envision director Joel Schumacher looking at his villains, veteran character actor Tommy Lee Jones and “rubberfaced fartsmith”* Jim Carey, and demanding the former model his performance on the latter.
But there’s a more likely source for both performances, whose grating garishness is one of the movie’s biggest problems: the 1960s Batman television series. Carey’s constant prancing about and giggling are strongly reminiscent of Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, while Two-Face’s two modes are less good and evil than they are Cesar Romero’s Joker and Jack Nicholson’s.
But the 1960s Batman was excellent, a genuinely funny, entertaining show that ruthlessly satirized traditional authority, as represented by the police and Adam West’s depiction of Batman. Gorshin’s giggling and Romero’s facial gymnastics are part of the fun, where Carey’s and Jones’ are like fingernails on a chalkboard. What’s different?
The answer is in one word we used above: this film is garish. Its visuals teem with violence, not just in the sense that people are constantly being shot, set on fire, or blown up, but in the sense of deliberate clash, neon-bright buildings and characters standing against pitch-black skies. It assaults the senses,  seeking to overwhelm, and in the process becomes monotonously loud, and hence boring. It is camp sans joy, or rather camp in which the only joy to be found is Two-Face or the Riddler laughing as they destroy. It is the 90s neon to the 60s Batman‘s pastels, the ecstasy to its Mary Jane, the rave to its love-in.
What has happened here, fairly clearly, is that one or another of the Joker’s attempts to take over the franchise actually succeeded. This is his vision, his future: the post-apocalyptic world in which the Joker, rather than Harley, is responsible for the end of the old world. So of course it is neon in the dark, a comedy whose only punchline is gunfire. All villains are the Joker, whether that is Jones playing Romero’s Joker, crowing and gurning as he sows chaos out of pure love for the concept; Jones playing Nicholson’s Joker, a capriciously violent terror who laughs at others’ fear; or Carey attempting to play Hamill’s Joker, a gleeful prankster driven by an obsession with Batman/Bruce Wayne and a drive to tear down the hierarchy so he can build a new one with himself at the top.
So, being the Joker’s vision of Batman, any trace of empathy is snuffed out. We don’t, as with BTAS or Batman Returns, have any sense that the villains are, if not justified, at least understandable. The Riddler is simply an entitled nerd, not a creator denied the fruits of his labors; the tragedy of Two-Face almost entirely erased as the close friendship of Batman and Harvey Dent, and the former’s subsequent refusal to give up on the latter even after he became Two-Face, is relegated to one quick flashback to Dent being shot during a trial.
The Joker’s handiwork is visible elsewhere. Women, in this film, exist as decoration or seductive distractions turned damsels in distress. The romance of Dr. Meridian and Batman is perfunctory and by-the-numbers, her fetishization of him one-sided and vaguely almost-comedic, and her role in the story virtually nonexistent. Robin is treated similarly: the beats of his story are there, but there is never any sense of a character underneath; he is filled with rage about his parents’ death until he’s suddenly not, and dislikes Bruce Wayne and Batman until suddenly he doesn’t. The only relationship in the entire movie which feels even the slightest bit real is Alfred’s gentle, patient nudging together of Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne–and even then, Alfred himself is hardly a character, existing solely to fulfill the emotional needs of Wayne and Grayson, needs that their performances barely convey.
This is the Joker triumphant. Not because this is a bad movie–there are other bad Batman movies aplenty–but because of the specific ways in which it is bad. This is camp turned callous, color turned to neon glare, the desire to be less “serious” turning into the empty motion of ciphers through story beats by rote.
Ironically, for a movie in which the Joker doesn’t appear, it may tell us more about the role he plays in the Near-Apocalypse than any of his actual appearances, because this is what it looks like when he wins. It is a world of surface appearances without depth, of empty revolutions that change nothing except the tyrant’s name. This is the Joker, the false apocalypse. The promise of nuclear war that fizzles into the Soviet Union’s economic collapse and dissolution. The promise of 60s counterculture that fizzles into the neoliberal consensus of the Bushes and Clintons. The promise of a new, campier, more colorful, more fun Batman that is really just the same grim, grimy darkness with a few more neon lights.
The Joker is the 90s, but not just that single decade, nor even the Long 90s. He is the 90s extended, the 90s without cease or respite, the 90s inescapable, forever.
He is the world that actually happened.
*Hat tip to Our Dumb Century: One Hundred Years of the Onion for this spot-on description of Jim Carey’s default mode.  He is  capable of good acting, if leaned on by a director with sufficient weight and persistence, but that clearly didn’t happen here.


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Imaginary Story 8: Batman Adventures vol. 1 Holiday Special and Annual #2

 
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Although we have now covered all regular issues of the original run of The Batman Adventures, there are still two special issues to discuss. One, the Holiday Special released in January 1995, was adapted almost completely faithfully into the New Batman Adventures episode “Holiday Knights,” with the exception of one story exclusive to the comic, “White Christmas.”
A typically tragic Mr. Freeze story, it appears to be set sometime prior to “Deep Freeze,” as Freeze is still under the impression that Nora Fries is dead. He thus breaks out of prison on Christmas, builds a new cold gun, and creates a freak blizzard in Gotham, all so that he can stand at his wife’s (empty) grave and remember the snowy Christmas on which he asked her to marry him. The key moment of this story–and, indeed, of the entire issue–is when, during their fight in the graveyard, Freeze throws Batman into the Waynes’ grave. Though Batman cites the holiday as the reason he gives Freeze the option to explain his motivations and go free instead of being beaten and returned to prison, it is fairly transparently because of this reminder of his own motivations, especially when Freeze answers by pointing silently at Nora’s grave. Christmas, for those who once celebrated it but have suffered great loss, ceases to be a time of celebration; it is the death of the year, a sober moment of reflection on the now-departed sunny past and the chill of winter lying ahead. Which is precisely how the issue ends, with Batman and Gordon (in what is clearly an annual ritual) sharing a drink in the wee hours of New Year’s Day, toasting the fact that they made it through another year alive, but aware that they might not survive the next.
As, in a sense, they didn’t, as neither Batman Adventures nor Batman: The Animated Series made it through 1995 uncanceled. There is thus only one issue of Batman Adventures left to consider. Unlike the first annual, which had multiple stories connected by a framing device, Annual #2 is one long story, the second-longest in the comics’ run. (Counting multi-issue arcs as multiple stories, only the Mad Love one-shot is longer)
The story involves an unusual element of the supernatural. As we observed back in “Avatar,” Ra’s al-Ghul has, throughout BTAS, represented an intrusion of the supernatural into Batman’s world–a world in which even Zatanna’s magic is sleight of hand, and monsters rise from chemistry and biology, not witchcraft. But al-Ghul is an immortal sorcerer, and so where he goes, old magic invades.
In this story, that takes the form of a tablet which al-Ghul intends to use to summon a plague demon that will wipe out humanity, and Etrigan, a violent demon bound to al-Ghul’s fellow “immortal mortal,” Jason Blood. This is a dark story, even by the standards of BTAS, and from the start makes clear that it will not be pulling any punches: it opens with a page showing the five people in and around a large office building one night, while captions that feel equal parts Silver Age story introduction and film noir narration briefly describe each of them in turn, and then announce that they have three seconds to live.
The next page does not show them being rescued in the nick of time. It instead shows the building exploding and collapsing sideways, a quintuple homicide to kick off a story appropriately full of death for our final look at Batman Adventures. Death fills these pages: the tablet kills the minion of al-Ghul unlucky enough to find it; Batman seeks out Jason Blood’s help because of the work he did aiding Commissioner Gordon in solving a series of tarot-themed murders; Batman’s deam-vision involves Talia transforming into a corpse in his arms, then falling into a pool of lava and emerging as a burning Ra’s al-Ghul; the demon kills all of al-Ghul’s minions shortly after being summoned; and of course al-Ghul’s purpose in summoning it is to have it wipe out all of humanity except for those under his protection, starting with Gotham City. Even Blood, who describes himself as having “a toehold on immortality” and recalls an encounter with al-Ghul 200 years prior, is referred to as “mortal flesh” by the demon.
“Demons” is a story of death and magic, because al-Ghul is a creature of death and magic–he is, as we have established back in “Avatar,” a ghost. More importantly, this period of transition, Harley Quinn’s apocalypse, is a time of magic and death. We have already observed that the magical trickster powers of the Harlequin began this ending in “Harlequinade,” and of course any apocalypse is necessarily concerned with death. Both magic and death, ultimately, are about change: magic is change in response to a living being’s will, and death is the final and most extreme change such a being can experience, the change from living to unliving, body to corpse.
Interestingly, as she is our go-to example of how little magic there is in BTAS, al-Ghul invokes Zatanna in the incantation to summon the demon: like all of her spells once she starts doing real magic, the incantation is a series of phrases uttered backwards. But where Zatanna’s incantations are simply reversed announcements of the spell’s function, al-Ghul’s are a series of references. The first, “Kirby is the greatest,” refers to Jack Kirby, creator of Etrigan the Demon among many other characters for both DC and Marvel. The others all refer to famous instances of backwards speech. “My sweet satin” refers to the infamous “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, one of the claims of which was that Satanic messages were hidden in famous rock songs via “backmasking,” but could be heard clearly if the song were played backwards; “Here’s to my sweet Satan” was supposedly part of the message hidden in (ironically) Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” “Sometimes my arms bend back” is part of a line uttered by Laura Palmer during the infamous “red room dream” in the third episode of Twin Peaks; her lines in that scene were given a bizarre cadence and accent by recording her speaking the lines backwards, and then playing that recording in reverse. Finally, “I buried Paul” is a line supposedly backmasked in the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever,” considered the first “clue” by adherents of the “Paul is dead” conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney died and was replaced by an imposter in 1966.
All of these references are intimately connected with death, “I buried Paul” most obviously. But the Red Room in Twin Peaks is eventually revealed to be the Black Lodge, a place of terror accessed through murder, while supposed references to Satan in “Stairway to Heaven” give us Heaven and Hell, the afterlife. The most complex relationship with death is the first incantation. In part it is a tribute to a recently deceased creator–Kirby died in 1994–but beneath that there is complexity to be unpacked. For Kirby, Etrigan in some ways represented the death of a dream: Kirby was pulled off what he considered his magnum opus, his “Fourth World” comics, to work on the project that became Etrigan; as a result, he was never able to finish his greatest work. And it is from that “Fourth World” that we get the planet Apokolips and its evil ruler Darkseid, who would bring an end to both Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited, and thereby to the DCAU as a whole.
Death and magic, magic and death. Apocalypse. And rebirth: though summer must inevitably fall into winter, winter gives way eventually to spring. The Batman Adventures are dead. Let The Batman and Robin Adventures begin.


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Psycho-Pass Season 1 Episodes 21 and 22 Liveblog Chat Thingy!

Yes, after two weeks of last-minute and not-quite-last-minute cancelations, it’s finally happening!
How to participate in the liveblog chat:  Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting! Option 2: Go to http://webchat.freenode.net/. Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We’ll be watching Psycho-Pass and commenting there starting at 2:00 p.m. EST.
I’ll update this post with the log after the chat.
ETA: Chatlog under the cut!
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