Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The End Of The Beginning, or Look Ma, No Han?

Naturally I was excited when the Star Wars prequels were first announced, 'way back when. Surely they would focus on the Jedi Knights, and I really dug the Jedi -- even more so once I read the spooky post-ROTJ Luke of Tom Veitch and Cam Kennedy's Dark Empire comic. The prequels would deliver more flashing lightsabers and Force powers -- but how would that go over with the general public?

While one could argue that Star Wars and Empire were successful because they tapped into a collective mythic blah blah blah, a big part of that success was Han Solo and his roguish charm. However, by the time of Return of the Jedi, the overall plot had Han practically domesticated, with his role in the story clearly less important than Luke's. Luke is the hero on a macro level, but he's also more of a straight man than Han or even Leia. I figured the prequels wouldn't have a Han-figure because they must set the stage for Luke's heroics.

Han also spent a lot of the original trilogy scoffing either at the Force or at Leia's royalty, two things with which the prequels are abundantly concerned. As a Princess and a Senator, Leia represents the politics of the Old Republic. With both the Jedi and the Republic sliding down the tubes in the prequels, and nothing getting any better, why have a character making sarcastic comments during the decline?

The prequels' focus on the Jedi Knights and Old Republic politics has been fascinating for me as a fan, but from an entertainment standpoint the movies really could have used a dose of Han-type humor and skepticism. Ewan McGregor has tried hard, and maybe Jimmy Smits can make something out of Bail Organa, but I doubt it.

I'm afraid the same logic will apply to Batman Begins. After seeing the BB trailer on the big screen (before Ocean's Twelve), I'm more impressed than I was watching the comparatively tiny Internet version, but I'm still worried that the movie will be so much fan-attractive trivia and not enough audience-friendly Bat-action.

How valuable is the superhero origin sequence to the general public, really? The Incredibles didn't dwell on anybody's origin. Neither did X-Men (which didn't deal so much in origins sequences as it did character introductions; and the flashbacks to Wolverine's past in X2 similarly advanced the larger plot). 1998's The Mask Of Zorro showed Antonio Banderas' Zorro origin, but in the context of the original Zorro training him. The first Batman showed the Waynes' murders in flashback, and Batman Forever showed Robin's origin; both again in service of the larger plot. Each of these jumped right into the superheroics, and each was pretty well-received.

Movies which start off devoting a lot of time to origins are arguably more of a mixed bag. Hulk used what felt like the first half of the movie to set up Bruce's irradiation and the consequences thereof, and my wife fell asleep. Superman spent a good bit of time on Krypton and in Kansas, but at least the audience got to see an alien world, and then Clark using his powers. Those settings also gave the movie an epic sweep that made it feel bigger and grander than just another action movie. Finally, Spider-Man almost couldn't avoid the origin, since Peter's guilt drives how he uses (and for that matter values) his powers. It doesn't hurt that his origin is so powerful, and the movie sequences were well-dramatized. With Spider-Man, understanding the origin is essential for understanding the character.

This is apparently the tack that David Goyer and Christopher Nolan have taken in writing and directing Batman Begins. The question is whether audiences will find Bruce Wayne's story sufficiently compelling for the time it takes. Again, the first Batman didn't linger over the Wayne murders, and said nothing about Bruce's training or even the choice of motif, and it made a skillion dollars. Thus, the public at large may have a very different set of expectations from a Batman film than even the average comics fan. As much as fans hated Joel Schumacher's over-the-top approach, he might well have had solid reasoning behind it.

At the very least I will probably find something to like about this movie, just like I found good things about each of the four previous ones. However, as a fan I'm disposed to like it. My fear is that it will be too fan-friendly and thus bore anyone who's not excited about the minutiae of Batman's origin. We fans have been waiting for that one perfect vehicle which will at last convince the masses that our hero is neither a '60s joke nor a '90s parade of neon and nipples. The question is whether this movie, like Spider-Man before it, will find its Han Solo -- namely, that elusive balance between fidelity to the stories and commercial appeal.


iamza said...

The recent Punisher movie spent a fair amount of time developing the backstory for Frank Castle. Like Spider-Man, though, it's crucial for the audience to see that backstory, in order to understand why Castle chooses to become a vigilante, and hunt down the folks who destroyed his life. I don't know how closely the movie version of Castle's origin ties in with the comics version, but what was shown worked well enough for me. I think part of the reason the movie did work for me is that only the important bits of the story were shown.

I'm wondering how Batman Begins is going to work. Part of the reason that Punisher worked so well as an origin story is that one not only got to see the causative effect bringing about Frank Castle's rather radical change in attitude, but we also got to see him reach some sort of closure at the end of the movie. He'd been hurt, had decided to go after those who hurt him and deal with them, and completed that task. And only the important bits of the story were shown. So we sort of hopped forward in time if nothing critical, plot-wise, was happening.

With Batman Begins, that's not necessarily the case. Presumably we'll see the murder of Thomas and Martha (?) Wayne, and witness the effect on young Bruce. And then watch as young Bruce goes on to master various forms martial arts, and so on. But if Goyer and Co. remain true to modern Batman comics continuity, Bruce never does find the man responsible for the death of his parents. (Of course, at the end of the day, there's nothing to say the movie script has to agree completely with comics continuity.... :-) ). I do still think the movie will have the potential to seem awfully slow in the middle training scenes if there isn't a good subplot happening then.

Tom Bondurant said...

(Yes, it is Martha Wayne.)

Goyer has said that there is a healthy amount of "Year One," "Year Two," and The Long Halloween in this movie, along with some original stuff. To me that suggests -- and here I am pretty much speculating -- that the movie will start with Bruce training, and then move to Gotham to set up the mobster and Wayne Foundation stuff. Along the way I'm expecting flashbacks to the Wayne murders.

Now, that could very well be enough to entertain people who don't know the material. Going back to Superman, the Krypton and Kansas sequences weren't a drag on the plot, and in the end set up Supes' conflict about "changing human history." Still, that was Superman, and I don't know how the Bruce Wayne backstory will figure into the movie's climax.

Jeff R. said...

Well, the most expeditious manner by which to bring Batman's origin straight into the plot is to go whole-hog into connections only vaguely hinted at in The Long Halloween, and have Thomas Wayne the chosen no-paperwork emergency doctor of one of the mob bosses and killed because of this on the orders of another one of them.

On another level, I have to say that Jack Nicholson, and the compellingness of the Joker story, figured pretty strongly into the success of the first Batman movie. (And, in that movie, they did make Jack Napier play the Joe Chill role and bring the origin striaght into the story.)

I have to ask, though: what could you have possibly found worthwhile in 'Batman and Robin'?

Tom Bondurant said...

I actually thought Clooney and Chris O'Donnell worked well together. I also liked the Robin costume.

Captain Qwert Jr said...

I suppose it depends on the Liam Nieson character then, the Frenchman-whose-name-escapes-me. He was not a good man in the comics, to say the least. A killer in fact. Perhaps he will be Bruce's foil.