Sunday, August 7, 2016

Wooden Curbs



My interest in writing this post began with seeing this video, launched Friday.  My feelings upon seeing the film Batman vs. Superman was that the film was fair but not outstanding; fair but certainly not terrible.  After a few years I'd probably watch it again - which is, for me, the only measure of a film's value.  How long will it take before I will ever watch this film again?

I'm ready to watch a good film a second time within 90 days.  I'll watch a very, very good film every 90 days, if I get the opportunity (keeping in mind that "watching" usually means having it on in the background while I work on D&D).

If the answer is "Never," it is a bad film.

Like everyone else in the world, naturally, I'm subject to the carping and whining of people who feel the need to spend hundreds of hours going over a "bad film" frame by frame with obsessive compulsiveness to truly, really, absolutely prove what a bad film it is.  I am quite different; when I see a bad film, I'm unhappy that I've lost the hundred or so minutes of my life watching the thing; I don't want to spend a thousand more minutes proving my distaste to others.

Much of the distaste, we all know, hinges on the film's "respect" for the original source material.  This is why the Batman origin story is here at the front of this post - because it shows something that the fanboys will never understand.

The original material doesn't deserve respect.  It is bad writing - what was called, in the day, mawkish and schmaltz.  A weepy, tearful boy makes a promise to "Spend the rest of my life warring on all criminals."

We all know that children make this sort of promise all the time; and then they learn what life is really like as they grow older.  They realize their simplistic, slushy expectations will fall mercy to the petty miseries of responsibility, needs, limitations and rules, all of which constrain us from living out the fantasies of little children.  Most quality writing in the world revolves around the decisions we make every day about how much of ourselves we're willing to sacrifice in order to achieve our aims, or how much we're not willing to sacrifice in the face of misery and potential destruction.

A story about a boy who is able to make such a promise that Batman made, who is given enough money by the writer to do it, to then become exactly what he promised with no real constraints, because he is able to become as strong, able, intelligent and morally spotless as the writer wants him to be, is what we call a wooden character.

A good story cannot be made out of the Batman myth unless the myth is subverted, compromised, changed and literally fed to the dogs.  We have been watching four decades of Batman movies trying to do this.  Some of these efforts have seemed believable at the moment of their creation . . . but only to young men who haven't yet come face to face with their own mortality.  When the 18-year-old who saw Batman Begins in 2005 watches it again at 38 in 2025, it will be very, very hard to see it as anything but maudlin, self-aggrandizing shit.   Exactly the way that 38-year-olds today can't help seeing 1989's Batman.

So it is with wooden characterizations.  There's nowhere to go, except to throw the entire baby out with the bathwater and try to write something that has nothing whatsoever to do with the original - in which case, the character can be given some depth and a proper basis for conflict, one that an actual human being can reflect upon and use as wisdom to make decisions.

This is what good writing accomplishes.  The reader hears a story about a character in a specific situation and watches the character move towards an inevitable conclusion.  The reader comes to understand, through the character's choices, where the mistakes were made and where the risks were necessary.  The reader comes away with the understanding that, in a similar situation, they might make the same mistakes; they might suffer the same consequences; they might be forced to take the same risks.  In each case, the reader is left with knowledge that may serve them well when the time comes.

Batman - and the host of characters that fanboys zealously protect - offers none of this.  Such works offer something completely different: a fanciful fascination with what they would do if they were Batman.  Whatever the argument, whatever the supposition, this game is never, ever tempered with the hard, cold reality in which a real Batman would have to live - a reality in which uncertainty is a thing, where mistakes kill innocents and where one man stumbles and falls, his throat cut by the hands of his enemies who do not hesitate to rid the world of his failures.

A Batman movie - or a Superman movie - can never be anything but okay.  "Okay" is an enormous achievement, given the hole in which such a movie starts.  I hope that Zak Synder ends his fascination with making Superman interesting and returns to experimenting with his own, original characters.

1 comment:

Vlad Malkav said...

Eh, you just gave me some damning insight on Batman with this post, you know ? And even more insight on why and how my tastes in films and stories are evolving like they do ...

Choices, compromises, pains and growth, all churned together. That's life, that's what make us feel alive, and draw connections with characters.

I like that.