Sunday, July 27, 2008

Three reasons Adam West’s Batman is smarter than Christian Bale’s

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Because he was a detective. In the comics, Batman was modeled as much after Sherlock Holmes the scientist/crime-solver as Superman the costumed crime-fighter. Batman’s storylines were basically forensic mysteries: a crime would be committed and clues would be found, leading to a cat-and-mouse game with dastardly criminals, who like Batman lived on a higher plane of existence than us ordinary schmucks. Much of the action would take place in the Batcave, which was essentially a laboratory. There would be a eureka moment based on evidence, logical deduction and intuition.

Bale’s Batman, on the other hand, is for the most part a clobberer. Nearly every time we see him he’s punching somebody, and when he does speak it’s only a few hoarsely muttered words. Despite the couple of token scenes of Batman at his crime lab, wordlessly pulling miracles from some clue, Morgan Freeman does most of the brainy work.

Because it’s impossible for an actor to convey psychological depth in a superhero costume. There are a couple of reasons why comic books can develop characters with true depth despite the limitations of the medium. One is the episodic format. You can get way into a character’s head when you have 1,000 stories going back decades. The number of times Batman’s origin has been retold, for instance, and its layers upon layers of variations, elevate the story to myth. Repetition gives a depth each individual narrative episode cannot.

Second, the best comics embrace the medium’s limits. The gaps of meaning and plot between panels, the flatness of character and scene. The exaggeration of form, color and movement. We suspend our disbelief to a greater degree in comics than in most other media, which is the only thing that allows such silly characters and stories to make sense to us. But in a film, a guy in a cape and tights just looks ridiculous. He is limited by the physicality of the costume instead of being liberated by it.

PhotobucketAdam West never brought out our cognitive dissonance because he played to the silliness of the story and never tried to feign high drama.

Because he didn’t affect an unnatural, animalistic voice. I’m surprised more critics haven’t faulted Bale’s Batman for his voice. It’s a perverse rasp, and Batman is never heard saying more than a few short words at a time.

(The Joker: You just couldn’t let me go could you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are incorruptible, aren’t you? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness, and I won’t kill you, because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.

Batman: You’ll be in a padded cell forever.)

West, on the other hand, went super-thespian, toying with the music of his lines in the same corny but totally attractive way William Shatner did. West’s Batman is instantly recognizable by voice — the odd pauses, the professorial singsong, the Sherlock Holmes-like self-satisfaction. It was silly as hell, but it was smart storytelling, and that’s why Adam West has stuck with us for 40 years and Christian Bale is just another lug in a rubber costume.

8 comments:

Artemisian said...

"Christian Bale is just another lug in a rubber costume."

Ha. Hahaha. Heh. Hoo. Ha.

Except for that neat trick of starring in one of the largest blockbusters of all time, whose limits are yet to be seen. And being critically lauded to boot. And having built up a cult following for the quality of his performances before touching the Caped Crusader.

I might agree to the comic's Batman being smarter or in some way superior to Bale's incarnation, but West ... no. Just flat out denial. There's a good reason why Batman speaks in short sentences; he keep his vocals to a minimum to disguise his identity. Same reason for the "perverted rasp". Makes a lot of logical sense.

As for the fighting, it's rather a necessity. Solving crime with forensics is an essential element, but looking to cut out the violence of a Batman storyline is silly. It's a large part of what he does.

B. said...

Artemisian,

You're right about using the voice to mask identity. But the audience pays a price, since all modern-day Batman performances are equally wooden and anonymous. It's just bad acting.

Rob said...

Nearly every review of TDK that I've read has mentioned how annoying Christian Bale's rasp is. I think it's effective when he's trying to terrify criminals but a little silly when he's taking a meeting at the police station.

But a small criticism to be sure. I gladly drank the Kool-Aid on Nolan's vision 3 years ago, and it's just gotten better.

Jesse said...

To me the whole exploration of the dark tortured soul of the Batman has never been that interesting to me. Like other iconic heroes, for example Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, Zorro, I prefer them without all the added psychology. I think the moral issues that arise can be interesting sometimes. The best things about the Batman movie series has always been the figures around Batman: the villains, and, with these new movies, Alfred and Gordon. Heath Ledger was amazing: what would have been amazing would be an Adam West style Batman versus Heath Ledger's Joker. That to me is more of a face off of two distinct different ideas.

Artemisian said...

"Wooden and anonymous" is a good descriptor for Batman. Anonymous, certainly. Wooden would definitely hinder identification even further. So I wouldn't say it's bad acting at all; if anything, blame the directors and writers, not the actors.

"... what would have been amazing would be an Adam West style Batman versus Heath Ledger's Joker. That to me is more of a face off of two distinct different ideas."
Are you serious?? If nothing else, I can't imagine that Ledger's Joker would have awarded West's Batman anywhere near the level of respect he did Bale's. Can you picture West on the Batpod, nimbly taking down a truck? Or doing any other of the physically impressive acts Bale's Batman enacted to thwart the Joker?

I'll agree that the rasp sounds rather silly in a civilian situation, but that doesn't mean it's not justified. It is camouflage; especially when talking to someone like Harvey Dent, who knows Wayne. Besides, I would say the true value of an actor in the title role of a Batman film is when playing the true Bruce Wayne, not the playboy or the Batman. That's where the real meat is.

Anonymous said...

You are an idiot. Even though it may have been a bit drastic in the film, Batman must disguise his voice somehow. If he didnt everyone would know the Bruce Wayne is fucking Batman

Jesse said...

I guess by "Adam West style Batman" I meant he was more of a detective and had less of the self doubt/torture. I am fine with all the physicality but miss the detective elements and the more straight up moral character of the older Batman.

B. said...

I actually would like to see the Adam West Batman pitted against Heath Ledger's Joker. Maybe Alan Moore style, going deep into the disconnect between fantasy and reality, as he did in Watchmen (and Marvelman/Miracleman, too). In a way West's Batman is more realistic because he has a believable physique and a normal ability to withstand injury -- like most human beings he would not likely survive a five-story jump directly onto a speeding car. If a lone billionaire really wanted to fight crime in a costume all by himself, he would probably act like Adam West and would probably die or get locked up very quickly.