One of those 4,362 prints of The Dark Knight wound up at the Liberty. I went for my first Saturday matinee there since The Abominable Dr. Phibes in 1972. Ann demurred because she says movies are too loud in theatres and 152 minutes of Batman would be just that many spent in Hell. I drove over figuring for long lines, being this was Hollywood’s all-time socko weekend. Nobody stood out front but a twenty-something with carrot red hair and a bat shirt. He said they’d sold out for Friday’s midnight show, but not since. Alas, it seemed those who could drive, bike, or crawl went the thirty miles or less to watch on bigger and better screens. The Liberty once sat seven hundred fifty with two balconies. A dividing wall came down the middle in 1974 and made hash of all that. Me and a quarter filled house who’d paid four dollars admission watched The Dark Knight letterboxed on a screen maxing out at the 1.85 ratio. I thought back on a summer day in 1966 when the same (bigger and fuller) auditorium looked at Fox’s Batman feature, a thing as removed from this one as silents are from talkies. What happened in that interim other than a Liberty bisected and levity gone all together out of comic heroes? Batman began in dime stories and funny papers. He spake as unto children and most of these put away (or Moms threw away) such childish things in due time. What kind of world would this be had we taken Batman so seriously since 1939? Could we have won a World War with such conflicted role models as super-heroes have become? Bat-motives are at the least suspect now. This Dark Knight wants to turn himself in for an excess of duality with better nuanced villains packing traumatic backstories that put his in the shade (what’s seeing your parents shot in an alley against Dad carving a permanent grin on your face?). Just being Batman nowadays raises a host of moral, if not political, issues. Everyone prattles about Gotham City needing heroes in a movie seemingly dedicated to withholding them. The whole cast is weighed down in guilt. All save the Joker go around apologizing for wrongs that escaped me. Stealing this picture would have been a cinch for actors not half so good as Heath Ledger. What you’ve heard about his performance is true. It’s old style bravura amidst hand-wringing cardboard. He’s fun even when loaded down with monologues explaining what writers assume we’re too dense to see for ourselves. Does youth have eyes to better follow darkened and frenzied action in these shows? Maybe it would have helped if I’d grown up playing video games. Where’s Lewis Wilson getting tangled up in his cape when some of us need him?
I went Bat-maniacal on January 12, 1966, the night ABC’s series premiered. By September, it was over for me, but for those eight or so months, I dug Batcaves out of neighborhood construction sites, polished my Cesar Romero voice impression, and begged parents for a color television like ones I watched in neighbor houses. My hero costume had its genesis in pajamas and swim trunks, shown here on a surprisingly unfaded Instamatic pose from forty-two years ago. The cape doubled as Count Dracula’s in that school pageant mentioned previously. I drew flip-books and one had Batman trapped on a pit and pendulum device. DC comics took the place of Archie, Hot Stuff, and Richie Rich. Castle Of Frankenstein would put Romero’s Joker on its cover. The editors weren’t otherwise pleased with what ABC did to the characters. Purists were an eccentric minority then. Everyone else loved the camp-up. Guest villains viewed it all as a slumming joke. None were young enough to have read Batman comics (except maybe Roddy McDowell), nor would they take stands upholding the integrity of Bob Kane’s creation. Cesar Romero didn’t even shave his mustache before donning clown white. Laffs were very much at the expense of comic books and those who read them. Imagine anyone daring such a thing today! Television’s Batman was the very definition of a fad passing through in a hurry. The bloom was off the rose for me by second season’s beginning. Tuning in close to the series’ end, I encountered the Joker riding a surfboard, and wondered whatever could have appealed to me about this program (I know now, and wish all the more Fox would finally clear rights hurdles and release it on DVD). Will The Dark Knight’s followers react similarly when they revisit the feature a decade or so from now? Critics applaud Heath Ledger going over-the-edge and suddenly Jack Nicholson’s Joker looks passé. Jack used to be the coolest act in movies. Wonder how he feels reading such reviews. Men of Nicholson’s and certainly Romero’s generation saw comic villains as merely that. They had fun with Batman before it became Holy Writ. Where does the Joker go from here? Once you’re past him, it’s tough finding Bat-opponents fans can take (overly) serious. The Penguin and the Riddler are too retro silly and lack gravitas befitting lofty aspirations of latter-day comic adapters. One of The Dark Knight’s four or five endings (I stopped counting after the hour and a half that should have wrapped things up) saw a principal character disfigured but no less able to endlessly and pointlessly flip coins upon arriving/departing repetitive scenes. Was this part enhanced to compensate for a seemingly unresolved Joker plotline? Warners may have had a My Son John situation they’d be loathe to acknowledge, let alone publicize.
The purest incarnation of Batman outside the comic books might be those dog-eared Columbia serials. The first one was made just four years after the strip began. We damn their crude economies but shouldn’t lose sight of the fact these chapter-plays represented Batman as kids knew him from the forties until 1966. Lewis Wilson’s hero fought Japanese saboteurs in 1943, sparing audiences moral equivalencies muddying latter-day caped crusading. He and Robin execute costume changes out of satchels in the back seats of cars. It’s so austere as to be sublime. I wonder if a single adult paid attention to these serials. Superheroes then ran generally on matinees, with the noteworthy exception of Paramount’s Superman cartoons produced by Max Fleischer, which got bookings in first-run houses and played to a wider public than comic heroes would for another twenty years. As to respective costumes, Batman’s holds up best for modern palettes. Others date woefully. Superman doesn’t wear well with tights and primary colors better suited to drawn panels. Robin’s problematic for reasons beyond the pixie-boy outfit he wears. I wonder if they’ll ever bring him back. Batman’s costume is so jet black and threatening as to evoke suits of armor, and is about as flexible. How does anyone move in such encasement? Whenever he clanks onto a scene, you figure bad guys could outrun that cumbersome outfit as easily as victims eluding Kharis the mummy, accessible only after having backed themselves into inescapable corners. Mostly it’s the new Batman voice that alarms me. I kept waiting for people in my audience to laugh out loud when he spoke. Is that Christian Bale or some combination of growls like MGM mingled for Tarzan yells? Must have something to do with preserving his secret identity, though it reminded me of suddenly lowered registers they used in radio programs whenever Clark Kent switched personas --- This looks like a job … for Superman. What’s amazing is critics going gaga over all this. Pressed to choose, I’d say The Dark Knight is the best Batman movie, but what does that amount to? The dread curse of third act collapse didn’t spare it. If only these shows would conclude when it’s so clearly time. Current films too often start with a bang and finish up dog tired. The first five minutes of The Dark Knight is exemplary. For an hour, most of it works, but by the second (l-o-n-g) half, you’re headed for a cumulative letdown. In an attention deficited society, shouldn't people want their movies shorter?