Sunday, September 16, 2012


"Batman" 1989

Here’s a theory: Superman is for squares, Spiderman is for nerds, and Batman is for mysterious outsiders who watchfully linger on the fringe of society – ya know, people like me. I love Batman. He’s always been my favorite comic book hero. Most of my bedrooms have been a bit like the Batcave - dimly lit, a little messy, utilitarian furnishing, grandiose music often echoing from wall to wall. I get Batman.

Maybe even more than the hero himself, I love Batman’s hometown. When my parents took me into Boston as a kid, we’d often find ourselves walking underneath the now-demolished Central Artery, which was an elevated section of I-93 that ran through downtown. It was an atrocious 1950s urban renewal project that divided the city and made for horrendous traffic jams. By the late 1980s, it was all rusted girders, steaming storm drains, and ominous shadows in which I imagined all sorts of nasty characters were lurking, waiting to strike on naïve suburbanites on their way to the New England Aquarium. In other words, it was very Gotham-esque.
Boston's Central Artery - 1950s

Gotham City provides a fantastic canvas on which anyone can project his or her nightmare vision of an American city gone crazy. When Tim Burton’s “Batman” came out back in ’89, my knowledge of the Caped Crusader was limited to the 1960s TV show (weirdly, I have never been a big fan of comic books themselves, only the movies they inspire). Burton’s flick rocked my little world – it was dark, scary, looked totally fake… and it was awesome. More than any other film, “Batman” marked the end of my movie-going childhood and the beginning of my movie-going adolescence. For the first time I looked at a movie and realized that there was a design behind it. Actual people made creative decisions to create something distinctive on screen – Gotham didn’t look real, but damn, was it atmospheric! It looked like hell, but an intriguing and vaguely familiar hell I wanted to don a trench coat and walk around in for a while.
Anton Furst's Concept Art for Gotham City
As much as I’ve loved Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies, there’s one thing that has always bothered me about them – Gotham looks too real. In my imagination, Gotham exists in a parallel universe with no recognizable landmarks from the world I know – no Sears Tower, no Brooklyn Bridge, and certainly no trips to Hong Kong. Obviously, Nolan had a different agenda with his movies than Burton did with his. The writing, acting and action set-pieces leave Burton’s efforts in the dust, and he certainly knows how to push those cultural hot buttons (those explosion-filled aerial shots of lower Manhattan in “The Dark Knight Rises” made me very twitchy). In The Art and Making of The Dark Night Trilogy, Nolan and production designer Nathan Crowley state that one of the aesthetic guidelines upon which they agreed for their vision of Gotham City was “no whimsy.” Gotham would look like a real city. Fair enough. They put together three first-rate flicks of epic scope and detail. But I still miss the twisted “whimsy” of Burton’s sunless Gotham. I love all those crazy skyscrapers, grotesque statues, and most especially, Burton’s and production designer Anton Furst’s Batmobile. Dear God, would I love to drive that around!
The REAL Batmobile
As a man of 33, I wonder why I continue to be so fascinated by the world of Batman. Shouldn’t that movie-going adolescence have progressed into adulthood by now?  Shouldn’t I be more excited by the prospect of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie than I was about “The Dark Knight Rises?” Surely, 33 year-olds of generations past would scoff at my enthusiasm for what was initially a fantasy character made to appeal to children. But then, I am hardly alone. Millions of people around the world have flocked to see Batman and other comic book heroes on screen, and I’m guessing that most of them are adults. Every generation gets the blockbusters it deserves.

When it comes down to it, Batman movies are just filled with stuff that I dig – inventive design, terrific performances, explosive action, vivid music, distinctive villains, a mysterious hero, and a fantastic, mythic city in which all these elements clash together. Christopher Nolan seems to have served his term in Gotham. Someday, I hope they give me keys to the city… and the Batmobile (the real one, not the Tumbler). 

By the way, Batman doesn't like Hyundais.

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