Monday, April 17, 2006

First, in terms of precedent, the superheroes that have been successfully reconceived all began their lives as comic book characters. Sketched and inked figures leave a lot to the imagination, and the Superman or Spiderman in peoples’ heads could vary. Kirk and Spock are Shatner and Nimoy, through almost 40 years. It’s hard to see anyone else playing those characters.

The older characters of successful reboots, Superman and Batman, had several iterations in radio, animated cartoons, movie serials and television series before they became big screen franchises. Superman is a fascinating case to trace. There are elements of the comics that went to radio, elements of the radio shows that were preserved in the animated movie cartoons, and elements of those—including the images and the kind of music in the opening---that became identified with the George Reeves TV series.

Then came the Christopher Reeves movies. The first was one of the great movies of the era. In its first part, the hero/savior myth merged with the American Dream, within the existing sketch of the Superman origin story. Then the Metropolis section brought new visual effects to enchant, a love story, a crisis with big stakes, and the comic panache of Gene Hackman's nevertheless deadly Lex Luthor.

But by the last of this series of films, the audience and the special effects budget had dwindled disastrously. It was some years before the character was revived and redefined for TV, in “Lois and Clark,” the Superboy series and “Smallville.” Another movie was always in the works, and Superman Returns is still slated for this year, with many of the usual characters (including some of the 50s TV cast once again in cameos.) How much the character is reimagined remains to be seen.

The wrinkle in the Batman story was the 1960s TV series, which saw the whole comic book thing as campy, self-consciously played for laughs. The Michael Keaton Batman films had to reestablish Batman as having some serious adventure quality, but there was a residue from the TV series that kept it from taking itself seriously enough to be more than special effects melodrama with laughs. It benefited most from Jack Nicholson’s performance, though I’ve always like Michael Keaton. The movie series, later with Val Kilmer and George Clooney, never got over the distasteful second Tim Burton film, Batman Returns. They seemed to play with combining elements of Superman and James Bond films with TV Batman humor.

So personally I wasn’t expecting much when Batman Begins was announced. I'd heard about the new, darker Batman, and that didn't appeal to me. I didn’t even see it until it was on video, but I must admit I was pretty impressed. It retold the origin story for about the fourth time, but in the most convincing way. (Unlike the first Christopher Reeves’ Superman, the Batman origin had never been told very well or as iconically.) It actually found a way to make Batman impressive and a bit scary, mostly by the “whoosh” effects of his speedy, phantom movements. (And at last, Lian Neesen got to show his physical moves, that he must have gotten all prepared to do in the prequel Star Wars trilogy.)

There was no self-conscious irony or self-parody. An unknown in the lead probably helped. There was some sophistication in the ideas the movie played with---a little confusion, but at least some ambition. It made me rethink the possibilities for a Star Trek reboot. And then something else did as well.

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