Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Batmen

With all of the hype surrounding The Dark Knight Rises, I thought it prudent to revisit the first two movies that Christopher Nolan directed. I found some interesting things that might have some implications for the film's finale. This... will get spoilery.

Awful Titles

Let's get this out of the way: Batman Begins was a stupid name for the first movie. It was certainly honest--BB was pure origin story. We didn't even see the fully developed Batman for the first hour. The Dark Knight was better named, and the way it tied in to the theme of the film was pure brilliance. I have mixed emotions about The Dark Knight Rises. I'm sure it's relevant to the film, but it's clunky as all hell.

Intro to the Villains

The opening sequences of both TDK and TDKR are purely an introduction to the primary villain, and it's easily overlooked, but this happens in BB as well. BB starts with a flashback that turns into the prison fight at which point we meet Ducard (who turns out later to be Ra's al Ghul--see, I told you it'd get spoilery). The only real implication here is that the role of Catwoman in the third film will probably be lesser to that of Bane. But we pretty much knew that from interviews with Nolan. This is probably for the best because...

Questionable Female Casting

There was a lot of guff handed out over the choice of Katie Holmes to play Batman's love interest in BB. And yes, she and Christian Bale seem like an odd pair. Although Maggie Gyllenhaal paired up with Aaron Eckhart doesn't make much more sense to me. Nolan's been criticized in the past for his female casting, and all this adds up to: regardless of her acting chops, there's a decent chance Anne Hathaway is going to suck as Catwoman. But at least we get to see Marion Cotillard standing around being French.

Gotham City

I kept trying to figure out what city this is supposed to be. I understand that it's fictional, but I can't wrap my head around the geography. "Gotham" implies New York. Wayne Manor is in an area called the Palisades, which implies New Jersey. According to Lucius Fox, the city has 30 million people in it, which is bigger than New York by... well... about 22 million people. It's coastal, since it receives container ships. And yet Thomas Wayne has a Chicago accent and Nolan doesn't do much to hide the fact that it was filmed there. But then Alfred says Wayne Manor was part of the Underground Railroad, which would place it in the Southeast of the country. Is it possible for a setting to be too anonymous?

It's also worth pointing out how much the city changes between movies. The Gotham of BB is brown and filthy and rundown. A big part of that film takes place in an area called "The Narrows" which isn't mentioned at all in the TDK. The monorail that dominated the first film is absent in the second. The Gotham of TDK is blue and vibrant and kinetic and very clean. The color palette of the third film looks to be more in the lighter spectrum. The trailer and prologue show a lot of green and yellow and white. So, I guess this means the third film will end on an uplifting note?

Themes

The theme of the first film was fear. Wayne must overcome his own fear. Batman uses fear against those who prey on the fearful. The bad guys are using fear as a literal weapon. Pretty thick. Thankfully the themes of TDK were more subtle--or at least more artfully constructed. It goes more into the nature of heroism. We have both Batman and Dent turning from heroes into villains in one form or another. Possible themes for the final installment could involve "rising"--Bane is nothing if not an ubermensch. And from the title we know that Batman will rise in some form or another.

Killing People

There was an interesting through-line that I hadn't really noticed between the films involving Batman's willingness, or rather unwillingness, to kill people. His entire war with the League of Shadows in BB starts because he would not execute a murderer. In TDK, his "one rule" against killing is the rule that the Joker attempts to make him break, and ultimately does make him break when Batman kills Dent. I hesitate to speculate how this will play out in the third film, but since this is the end of the trilogy, it's safe to assume that death will play some sort of role.

Commissioner Gordon

Another through-line came in Gordon's relationship with Batman. At the end of BB he says "I never thanked you" to which Batman replied "You'll never have to." At the end of TDK, Gordon thanks Batman who say "You don't have to thank me," to which Gordon replies "Yes, I do." It was a nice little moment between them.

Gordon's role in these films is notable, since BB was largely inspired by the comic Batman: Year One which followed a young Gordon closely. In BB we see a Sgt. Gordon promoted to Lieutenant. Then in TDK he becomes Commissioner. In the trailer for part three we see him as an old man, past his prime.

Fanboyism

BB made sure it hit all the requisite fanboy moments. We get the Batmobile, Batman says his immortal catchphrase: "I'm Batman". We get the Batcave, complete with secret entrance from Wayne Manor. We get the cape and cowl, copious use of bats. Thankfully the second film shied away from this a bit. We lose the Batmobile in favor of the Batpod (in one of my favorite cinematic sequences ever). Bruce Wayne lives in a luxury penthouse and his Batcave is more of a clinical workspace with good lighting. From the trailer for the third, we can see some variation on the Batwing, Wayne Manor is back, etc, etc, so we may see more nods to the comic in this one. Hard to say.

Confidence

In keeping with the move towards gritty realism from BB to TDK, Nolan's hand as a director has become more sure. He felt less need to lean on things like "I'm Batman" and is more comfortable taking risks. and the second film is a much better piece of work. It gives me pause for the third. Just playing devil's advocate, there is such a thing as over-confidence. It's possible he will take some risks in this third film that won't play well at all. We've already seen, for example, that he doesn't really care if Bane can be understood. So, this could come back and bite us.

Time will tell,
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Monday, January 2, 2012

X Marks The Jesus

Not too long ago I saw a car with two magnets on the back. One was an outline of a Nativity scene that implored the reader to keep the "Christ" in "Christmas". The other was a Jesus Fish. This is hilarious, for reasons I will outline below.

First, let's get one thing out of the way. The "War on Christmas" is a fake conflict. Christmas is a thoroughly secularized holiday. At my office, they put up a Nativity display in the lobby. But they also put up a Menora and a tree and a few other symbols of the holiday. Most businesses have switched to non-religious greetings in their decoration as a matter of practicality, on the grounds that Jews spend money too. Others don't, but no one cares. There's an office complex near me that puts up a giant light-up creche every year. There's not picketing or objection. It's on privately held property, the owner can put up whatever he or she wants. I actually enjoy seeing that display, because it makes the one put up by the Assembly of God church down the road look chintzy. I can only see this causing consternation in schools, but everything causes consternation in schools. I knew a teacher in Texas who was asked to take down a "Jesus is the reason for the season" sign in her classroom, but I doubt that's an issue anymore in the state that's leading the fight to teach Intelligent Design in every classroom in the country.

This is not to say that there aren't Christmas opponents. Tom Flynn is rather famous for advocating against the holiday largely on economic grounds. He suggests that without the Christmas spending-rush, mall parking lots could be 20% smaller. His book on the subject is so popular that there are 23 copies available on Amazon through third-party distributors. That is to say, it's not very popular at all. But it's also worth noting that there are opponents to every major holiday. Christopher Hitchens denounced Hanukkah as a celebration of "tribal Jewish backwardness". Some take issue with Kwanzaa because it is a modern invention of the civil rights movement--it's a purely American holiday celebrating African-ness. As for Ramadan... I don't actually know anything about Ramadan.

So putting all of this aside, let's examine the ridiculous claim the abbreviation Xmas is an attempt to secularize an already secularized holiday. Drumroll... The abbreviation "Xmas" dates back to the 1700's. The use of "X" to mean "Christ" is older than the English language. This is because the word Christ in Greek starts with the letter Chi, which is rendered as an X. The Chi-Rho, a stylized X over a P, is an important part of religious iconography dating back Constantine (although the symbol is actually about two-hundred years older than Jesus... if you want to wrap your brain around that for a while).

Clearly, Xmas is not a secularization. In fact, a preacher once explained to me that, because X is going back to the original Greek, in a way "Xmas" is even more religious of a spelling. I don't actually agree with that. But I would argue that we don't have any need to keep our holiday practices adhered to their namesakes. The days of the week all come from Norse Mythology, but you don't hear anyone talking about keeping the Thor is Thursday. Actually, I hear this quite a lot, but I enjoy the company of some very sarcastic people.

Now I know what you're thinking. All of this is amusing, but I promised you hilarity. For that, we must examine the other magnet, the Jesus Fish, also known as an ichthys. Did you ever wonder how a fish ended up being a symbol for Christianity? Well, it's because of an acronym. "Ichthys" is the ancient Greek word for fish, spelled Iota, Chi, Theta, Upsilon, Sigma. If you see an ichthys with letters in it, those are the letters you're seeing. They stand for "Iesous Christos, Theou Yios, Soter", which translates to "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior".

That's right, the Jesus Fish utilizes the same X = Christ formula that Xtians (see what I did there?) have been denouncing for literally decades because they don't understand their own history. The woman driving the car with those two magnets denounced X as an abbreviation on one side of the bumper and then used it as an abbreviation on the other.

Happy Holidays,

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