Batman and the Thematic Paradigm
Thursday, February 28, 2008
Author: Bryan Ghingold
THEMATIC PARADIGM- In this segment, I will compare and contrast the way Batman is represented in different portrayals in regard to Robert Ray’s Thematic Paradigm. I shall draw upon Batman Begins (2005) and Batman (1966) for my examples. In Batman (1966), the eponymous hero is represented as the “poster-boy” for adherence to the law. He works with the police, as a “fully deputized agent” of the Gotham City police department. He makes public appearances and socializes, talking to newspapers and civilians. In this way, Batman embodies characteristics of the official hero. Robin, his sidekick, serves as a youthful sponge to absorb all his advice about behavior, manners, and morality. Batman “embodie[s] the best attributes of adulthood: sound reasoning and judgment, wisdom and sympathy based on experience” (Ray 60). He is willing to take on familial duties; Robin’s alter ego Dick Grayson, a young college student, lives with Batman (Bruce Wayne) as his young ward. He also shares his mansion with Aunt Harriet, a symbol of matriarchal purity.
For every instance where the 1966 Batman is an official hero, the Batman from 2005’s Batman Begins is a textbook outlaw hero. In Batman Begins, Batman is an enemy of the police; at one point even cornered by the Special Weapons and Tactics division. When Sergeant Gordon points out the contribution Batman has made toward cleaning up Gotham City, Commissioner Loeb sternly declares “No one takes the law into their own hands in my city.” Another telltale sign of the outlaw hero is the representation of the law as an ineffectual tool for good; instead used by the villains. Batman’s (1966) Chief O’Hara was a useless but friendly police chief, always pledging Batman the full support of the police in Gotham City. While the police seemed incapable of thwarting the villains, Batman was quick to praise them. In contrast, the police in Batman Begins are corrupt; in some cases, they even serve as henchmen to the gangster Carmine Falcone, or as moles for the evil Ra’s Al Ghul. Bruce Wayne, Batman’s alter ego, is not the family man and socialite he is in the film four decades earlier. His character is significantly more tormented, breaking down into tears or fits of rage at the notion of defeat. He also reflects significantly back onto his childhood years. He has a distrust of civilization, to the point where he runs away from the world, ending up in a prison across the globe. The two representations of the same superhero are so fundamentally different from one another, that they sit on opposite sides of Ray’s thematic paradigm.
CONSUMPTION AND ITERATIVE SCHEME- In this segment, I will define Umberto Eco’s notions of consumption and iterative scheme, and how they both apply to the Spider-Man film and the 1960s Batman film. According to Eco, consumption is the idea that each action brings us further in time, closer to death. Why then in the comics has Peter Parker stayed in his early twenties for decades? The idea is that superheroes avoid consumption, so their tales can be timeless and endless. In the comics, when a superhero defeats a villain or foils his plot, there is usually little or no reference to it ever again. This avoids consumption; by not having a past (referencing old crimes), there cannot be a future (death), only a present.
In the film Spider-Man (2002), Peter Parker is consumed by his alter ego of Spider-Man. Eco explains that characters of myth are inconsumable. While Spider-Man attains the status of myth, Peter Parker is but a human, and existing in a human world, he is bound by its laws. Spider-Man reaches this status in great part due to his costume and mask. Each time the Green Goblin attempts to cause chaos in New York City, in swings Spider-Man, with a flawless suit and mask (even if his previous battles left his suit tattered or torn). However, by the end of the film, Spider-Man becomes consumed in his final battle with the Green Goblin. His costume is destroyed, and the battered visage of Peter Parker is revealed atop the body of Spider-Man. The Spider-Man film treats Peter Parker as the main character, as opposed to his hero alter-ego. Because Peter is a mortal, flawed human being, he carries his successes and his failures with him, aging him and bringing him closer to death. The final scene in the film appropriately takes place in a cemetery; Harry Osborne, son of the Green Goblin, swears revenge against Spider-Man while simultaneously praising the support of his friend Peter Parker. With this weight on his conscience, Peter rejects Mary Jane Watson, the object of his affection, accepting a life of solitude and misery.
Contrary to that depressing consumption, Batman from the 1966 film is inconsumable. Using Eco’s definition, the concept of time is a crucial factor to the consumption of a character. In the 1966 Batman film, there is no defined concept of time. The plot unfolds like that of a comic book, with each incident separate but connected to the master scheme of the villains. Without the denotation of time, Batman is attacked by a shark, magnetically trapped to a buoy, forced to get rid of a giant bomb, attacked by dehydrated henchmen, he takes Catwoman out on a date, saves the members of the (mock) United Nations, crashes his Bat-copter, gets a call from the President, and brings the Penguin to the Bat Cave, all in the same story, all without referencing back to any particular event. In contrast to the vast ageing and growing that Peter Parker does in Spider-Man, Batman hardly seems to age at all.
Eco discussed another convention of the comic superhero, and that is the iterative scheme. The iterative scheme is our hunger for the redundant; anything that occurs in a set pattern in a story. The iterative scheme offers escapism to an audience whose lives are constantly changing. While certain actions and behaviors may be redundant, they are exactly what the audience wants and expects, and without them, they feel cheated.
A prime example for the 1966 Batman film would be the comic book fight scene, punctuated with animated title cards loudly proclaiming “Pow!” and “Ker-Thokkk!” We also expect to see Batman climb a building at a 90 degree angle, pausing to chat with a pop culture star of the 60s. Both of these examples apply to the television series perhaps better than the film; with weekly episodes, audiences had a chance to get used to these conventions. As long as the audience had a preconceived notion of Batman, however, then there were certain things they expected to see in the film; it is impossible to imagine a Batman film without the Batmobile, a trip to the Batcave, or an intervention with Commissioner Gordon.
Spider-Man has his own iterative scheme; being so young and having so much on his mind (not to mention school and “acne” according to Stan Lee in the documentary special features of Spider-Man), we expect to see him get beaten up. He is no Superman, as Aunt May points out in the 2004 sequel. We also expect an emotional internal struggle, resulting (ultimately) in Peter’s acceptance of his role as Spider-Man. These are things we can see over and over again in the first Spider-Man film, and there is comfort in their predictability.
ORIGINS- in this segment, I will discuss the role of the origin story and how it has become a central feature of superhero films. To do this, I will contrast Batman (1966), which doesn’t spend a single line of dialogue dealing with Batman’s origin, with Batman Begins (2005), an entire film dedicated to Batman’s origin.
In Batman (1966), there is no focus on the origin of what made Bruce Wayne decide to become Batman. There is no mention of his parents, no mention of Robin’s parents, no mention of any of the villain’s origins, and no mention of how Batman allied with the police. These absences from the story have a profound effect on the film; psychologically, we perceive the situation to be that Batman has always existed, always been on good terms with the police, always had Robin as his sidekick, and always had his rogue’s gallery of adversaries. There is little emphasis on verisimilitude in this film; we are not meant to ask why Batman became Batman, where his gadgets came from, who built his Batcave, etc. We are supposed to accept these facts as absolutes.
Batman Begins, on the other hand, is entirely about Batman’s origin story. The first hour of the film jumps back and forth between flashbacks of Bruce’s childhood and young adulthood, with his present, training to become a ninja. When the ninja master asks him to kill a criminal as a symbolic gesture of loyalty, Bruce refuses, proving his moral strength. It causes an outrage, and Bruce fights for his life, ultimately fleeing the dojo, and returning to Gotham City with the idea to use his ninja teachings to retake Gotham from the corrupt and the depraved. He invents Batman as a symbol of fear, stemming from his own fear of bats after a traumatic experience in the film’s opening scene. The rest of the film stresses just how much this is Batman’s “first time out;” He gets set on fire, poisoned, bruised, and bloodied. He experiments with different vocal tones, and behaviors. In the climax of the film he confronts his sensei, the man who taught him how to be Batman, who is determined to destroy Gotham City. The origin story is the primary theme of Batman Begins.
HUMOR, PARODY, AND CAMP- In this final segment, I will discuss camp, and how it is used in Superman (1978) and Batman (1966). The Batman film and TV show were designed to be “campy,” that is, humorous and overplayed as a way of infusing consumable media (TV) and art. William Dozier, executive producer of the film and show strived to create a version of Batman that the whole family could enjoy. Indeed, through the use of campy humor, he succeeded. The success came from Adam West’s performance, playing Batman straight; not aware that he looks funny and speaks in an exaggerated tone. The adults however, were privy to the double entendre of the dialogue, and the deliberation of the mise-en-scene. To a child, Batman’s explanation of the noble dolphin who threw himself in front of the Penguin’s torpedo so that he and Robin could survive was a valid plot point. The adults could enjoy the absurdity of that notion. When Batman receives a phone call from the president expressing that he is the country’s only hope, children would have seen that as an honor, while adults, a hilarious exaggeration.
Superman, which was made on the heels of the Batman film, existed in an era when camp and pop art was commonplace. In order to fit in with the tastes of the decade, it incorporated many elements considered “campy.” For example, Lex Luthor, criminal genius that he is, surrounds himself with the dimwitted lackeys Eve Teschmacher and Otis, whose slapstick nature jeopardizes, and indeed ruins his well-crafted scheme. 1978 was also a year when Blaxploitation films were very popular. Director Richard Donner’s campy nod to this is the pimp who Superman has an exchange with in his first real public appearance. While Batman’s camp was more driven by the dialogue and the mise-en-scene, Superman’s camp was driven by characters.
Images taken from the internet used without permission for illustrative effect and not for profit