Tim Burton's Batman Films and the New Bad Future
"It is often argued that sf [science fiction], because it is a genre that exists in relative obscurity, has been allowed to produce messages that go against the dominant ideology".
(Schelde, 1993, 242)
"Robert Warshow has argued that once historical reality is taken up in an ?aesthetic process, aesthetic determinations take over: genre films refer not to historical reality but to other genre films and they evolve according to the rules of generic production".
(Gledhill in Cook, 1985, 61)
Warshow's position on the relation of genre to "historical reality" is problematic when discussing the New Bad Future (NBF) genre, as these films depict a history which has not yet taken place. These futures, however, do act as allegorical transmutations of contemporary culture and society. The distinction between reflectionism and ideology in this genre thusly becomes blurred, as the manner in which the future is displayed is inexorably connected to an ideological standpoint that, as Schelde points out, goes "against the dominant ideology". In this essay, which will attempt to place Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992) in relation to the NBF genre, films will be discussed as genre films in the following ways: first, the notion that genre is best understood in terms of how a film relates to films of the same genre, forming an aesthetic "set of expectations shared by audiences and producers alike" (Maltby, 1995, 109); and second, how a film relates to other genre films on an ideological/reflectionist level. Tim Burton's Batman films share many characteristics with such films as Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), Judge Dredd (1995) Robocop (1987), Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), Running Man (1987) and more contestably Strange Days (1996). These characteristics, however, correlate more closely at the ideological/reflectionist level, rather than at that of expectation which, in the case of Batman and Batman Returns, is conditioned specifically as 'must see' high concept filmmaking (more so than most New Bad Future films).
In 'Totally Recalling Arnold: Sex and Violence in the New Bad Future', Fred Glass (who coined the term New Bad Future in an earlier essay) devotes a few paragraphs to laying out the characteristics of the genre. Glass writes of films set in "a future in the grip of feverish social decay" where "[a]mnesia-stricken characters and advanced gadgetry tangle against the backdrop of a ruined natural environment" (1990, 2). The unifying theme in the NBF, however, is clearly the dominance of oppressive capitalist companies who are to blame for the deterioration of society:
The heroes, by themselves or with rebellious groups, go up against the corruption and power of the ruling corporations, which exercise a media-based velvet glove/iron fist social control.
(Glass, 1990, 2)
This is the umbrella characteristic of the NBF, under which all other concerns are grouped, and the main element that differentiates the NBF genre from the larger category of science fiction. The role of the capitalist patriarch conditions the New Bad Future film in two crucial ways: as patriarchs, individuals such as Tyrell (Joseph Turkel) in Blade Runner, Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) in Total Recall and Killian (Richard Dawson) in Running Man are responsible for the confusion of the identity of the protagonists (who are either misrepresented in the media to appear as someone else, have false pasts implanted into their minds or who are physically rearranged or deformed) and also for the corruption and decay of society as a result of profit-motivated big business. The former provides us with characters and narrative structures, while the latter offers us a scenario against which the action is played out. These two distinctions form the root of nearly every plot twist, character motivation, political agenda (which Glass locates as "leftish") and visual imagery in these films.
Batman and Batman Returns snugly fit into this recurrent feature of the NBF. The Joker (Jack Nicholson) takes over Carl Grissom's (Jack Palance) dominant corporate empire in Batman after the crime boss has been murdered. In Batman Returns, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) says in the masquerade ball sequence "I am the life of this city, and I am its mean twisted soul", while the grinning head logo of Shreck Enterprises saturates the city, looking down from above as well as appearing at almost every street corner. Both the Joker and Shreck can be seen as capitalist patriarchs (although the Joker is problematic because of his ambiguous motivations), as well as actual fathers, as they whether intended or not, directly create the characters of Batman and Catwoman respectively.
The narrative structures often found in NBF films are centred around the avenging of these evil capitalist patriarchs. Confused, mentally unstable characters, who may or may not have been created by the business bosses, seek revenge on individuals who have not only messed up their lives, but also the society in which they live. As well as being responsible for the split personalities of their 'children', the patriarchs are also to blame for the general decay of the future societies depicted. This is usually encoded to be a result of callous profit-grabbing, as in Total Recall and Aliens. On a larger plane, therefore, the inevitable death of the patriarch serves as a corrective measure, a symbolic delineation of the forlorn path human history has taken. The battle between humane individualism and unfeeling capitalism is a generational one. Inevitably, the NBF film ends before the task of creating a new society is undertaken making "[t]he happy endings of NBF films...unbelievable and forced, especially given the internal logic of the genre" (Glass, 1990, 11).
Both Batman and Batman Returns, I argue, fit in with the notion of a forced happy ending. Batman at the end of the first film is shown alone on the rooftops of Gotham, in exactly the same position as the film began, and while the patriarch/creater figure (the Joker) has been illiminated from the equation, the net result is that Batman (Michael Keaton) is effectively orphaned, more confused than he was to begin with and just as unable to ease himself into normality (of course, this would never have been an option, since there would not have been the possibility of a sequel). Even in death, the Joker literally gets the last laugh. Batman Returns ends in the snow covered Gotham streets where it began, the possibility of romance between Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) and Selina Kyle (Michelle Preiffer) destroyed by her disappearance. Again, as the avenging child, Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) must stand alone, orphaned on the rooftops of Gotham in the films final shot, echoing that of the first film.
As a supplement to the usual revenge plot structure, NBF films seem ideally suited to the 'set-up' sub plot in which the virtuous protagonist is framed by the capitalist patriarch, so that corporate enterprise can develop unhindered. Where this crops up in science fiction films, it is often carried out with the use of image based technology (mainly T.V, advertising, security cameras, and photographs). This, effectively, constructs a false past for a character, and as such aligns itself with the problems characters face in recalling past experiences (another key theme in NBF films). In Running Man, the Scwarzenegger character is made to look like a criminal through the use of tampered video footage. This construct in effect creates an alternative, false character which Killian manipulates and extends throughout the course of the film. The use of video cameras and monitors as tools of capitalism is a running motif throughout the film: Killian first sees Richard ( Arnold Schwarzenegger) on video tape taken of him escaping from prison; when Richard has trashed the gladiator style warriors, a fake sequence is shown of Captain Freedom beating up and killing Richard. These instances serve to frame the Schwarzenegger character for the public as evil and criminal. Also, in the futuristic Judge Dredd, the eponymous protagonist is framed when a look-a-like is captured murdering (ironically) an investigative T.V crew on close circuit T.V, thus implicating Dredd (Sylvester Stallone). Robocop (Peter Weller) is also framed as a murderer through the use of T.V technology. In Batman Returns, Batman is framed by the Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman for the murder of the Ice Princess (Cristi Conaway), although this time it is the technology of the altered bat-mobile that is used, rather than media-based manipulation. In keeping with the psychological confusion of identity, then, the frame sub-plot acts as an extension of the split identities New Bad Future characters attempt to reconcile.
The attitude NBF films adopt regarding technology is mixed, and avoids the generalisations that have been made of the broader science fiction genre. There are some films which depict technology as out of control, destructive and relentless. The Terminator is such a film. Although mainly set in the present, the futuristic Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) represents the outcome of decisions made by today's ruling generation. As a soulless creation, the robot killing machine is no more than an instrument of a future in which the "disastrous nuclear annihilation was the result of a collaboration between big government and big business" (French, 1996, 48): in other words, an indirect result of today's capitalist patriarchy. As if to reinforce this blame, it is not only futuristic technology that works against Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton), but technology in the present such as telephones, answering machines and personal stereos. In short, the film perpetuates the view that "if technology can go wrong or be abused, it will be" (Penly, 1986, 118). Most science fiction films of the last twenty years, however, present a more dialectical view of technology: perhaps the producers of The Terminator tried to redress the technological balance in Terminator 2, in which we are presented with a good android and a bad android. A similar pattern occurs in the first two Alien films, in which a bad android, who condemns the crew of the Nostromo to death, is replaced in the second film by a life saving android. Robocop and the replicants Rachael (Sean Young) and Roy (Rutgar Hauer) in Blade Runner are representative machines "didactically presented as more human than the human characters" (Glass, 1990, 2). As technology is used to destroy and to save in these examples, it would be accurate to say that a discourse on technology is constantly referred to by these films, rather than claiming that they are all technophobic or technophilic.
The Batman films also address the issue of technology. Technology is a facet generally associated with the hero (the gadgets, bat-mobile and bat-wing are indicative of this), while the villains are usually associated with old styles and technologies. A good example of this is the car chase between the high-tech batmobile and the old yellow and purple cars the Joker's henchmen use. Costume is also important in this respect, with Batman's futuristic outfit and utility belt standing in stark contrast to the Joker's technicolour 1940s gangster suites, and Shreck and the Penguin's quasi-Dickensian costume. The use of image based technology and media is, however, just as prominent as more blatant examples of the NBF genre:
Batman and the Joker actively play with images. Throughout the film we see both figures watching television and manipulating images. That the struggle between them is in large part a televisual one becomes most obvious when the Joker, seeing Batman has gained greater coverage on the local news program, asks what kind of a world he lives in "when a guy in a Bat suite can steal my press".
(Collins in Pearson and Uricchio, 1991, 167)
The Joker's control over Gotham City's media is signalled by his advert which hijacks the news programme, and his on-air challenge to Batman which wipes out the political speech originally being broadcast. A similar example occurs in Batman Returns, when the Penguin indirectly challenges Batman to keep the peace at the re-lighting of the tree ceremony, to be screened live on television. Batman, however, can only control images within his interiorised world (we see Bruce Wayne in the bat-cave playing back images recorded from cameras hidden around his house). In the same sense as Richard in Running Man, Quaid in Total Recall, and Judge Dredd, Batman cannot control media institutions to the extent the villains can. The message these films communicate is clear: the mass-media are ideological tools of the evil capitalist patriarchy.
The NBF trope of characters (mis)constructed through the media or the use of visual technology, points towards the fundamental requirement for characters in these films: duality. This is manifested in a number of ways. In Total Recall, the Arnold Schwarzenegger character has two mental states, Hauser, the repressed past of the character's body, and Quaid, the innocent hero who is constructed entirely through memory implants (in one clever scene, Hauser is able to talk to Quaid from the past through the use of video technology). The replicant Rachael in Blade Runner is a similar victim: she is a feeling individual but completely artificial. Judge Dredd also has to come to grips with the fact that the photos he thought were of his family were faked, and that he is a genetic construct, practically an android. Bishop (Lance Henriksen), the android character in Aliens, exhibits a 'human' side to his synthetic character when he expresses remorse at being a robot, saying at one point, "I prefer the term artificial person". Robocop also has two personalities, one repressed, the other created by the OCD corporation. These "Human/machine interfaces" are used in the genre to pose and explore "the question of what is human, with moral, political, and philosophical discourses spinning around that axis" (Glass, 1990, 2). The robot or forgotten or constructed alter-ego evident here is therefore symbolic. In this respect, then, the alter egos of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle can be seen in a similar symbolic light. Indeed, one might even pose the question: is Catwoman a replicant? A case can be made: she occupies a similar position to Rachael in her relationship to the patriarchal company head (Tyrell in Blade Runner, Shreck in Batman Returns) as assistent/secretary. They are both 'made' by the patriarchs (Rachael through Tyrell's design, Catwoman through murder at the hands of Shreck), and both have explicit and defined mortalities: Rachael has a four year life-span, and Catwoman has nine lives:
She is the trapped commodity who is destined to be recycled nine times as she remains victim even in her power. Unlike Batman who is human, she is something beyond human, but she is not immortal.
While Rachael's ambiguity comes from her technological side bordering on a human existence, Catwoman can be seen as a human bordering on a supernatural existence (which, symbolically, would signify a similar thing).
The futuristic environments visualised in the NBF are often dystopian city zones, Gotham City adding to Blade Runner's LA of 2019, Judge Dredd's Mega City One, Running Man's futuristic LA, and Robocop's deteriorated Detroit. As arenas of human society, these cities implicitly display fallen or privatised social institutions (which are abused in the future for the sake of profit), if not explicitly (in films like Robocop in which the police force is privatised). Public areas become locations for great violence, genocide and bloodshed, while the capitalists observe from 'off-world', or from the safe isolated distance of high-rise skyscrapers. The street riots in Judge Dredd, the celebratory festivals that end in violence in Strange Days and Batman, and the public areas deprived of air on Mars in Total Recall are all evidence of the absence of effective public safety in the future due to the collapse or impotence of social institutions.
Aligning Gotham City with these explicitly futuristic cities draws attention to one of the main problems with categorising the Batman films as NBF: they do not appear to be set in the New Bad Future. This problem, however, can be resolved. It is accepted that most films set in the future offer decadent dystopias which are in fact thinly-veiled observations and criticisms of contemporary life, "extrapolations of tendencies perceived in present society" (Franklin, 1983, 20). Gotham can be seen in a similar way:
All of the manifestations of recycling expose a society that only dimly resembles that which its twisted form invokes and from which it ultimately departs - that which we would refer to as normal or domestic, the culturally accepted.
Social Darwinism is rife in these cities, visually manifested through the use of skyscrapers which house the few powerful patriarchs, the street level domain of the oppressed workers, and below street level, from where a repressed force re-emerges to wreak havoc. Director Tim Burton seems to have intended a timeless post-modern vision of a troubled metropolis, placing Gotham almost outside of time. When questioned about the use of the Prince songs in the first Batman film, Burton seems uncomfortable, complaining that "[t]he songs bring it too much into a specific time frame" (Burton in Salisbury, 1995, 81). Introducing this ambiguity, which is undeniably present in the text, it is possible to place the period in the near future, perhaps in a similar time frame to Strange Days. Of course, the production design in Batman received "the inevitable Blade Runner comparison" (Burton in Salisbury, 1995, 76), although the aim was to create a critique of present city architecture, rather than to refer intentionally to Ridley Scott's city-scape trend setter: "We just said, 'This is what's happening to New York at the moment. Things are being added and built on and design is getting all over the place'" (Burton in Salisbury, 1995, 76). On a reflectionist level, then, Gotham City fits the model for the NBF dystopia: it is used symbolically to reflect an extreme social hierarchy, it is post-modern, and is generally used to criticise city life and landscape in existence at the moment. This allegorical level negates the problem of Gotham's ambiguous time period, which critic Kim Newman has described as "a 40s vision of a hellish future" (1989, 268).
As well as functioning on a reflectionist/ideological level, the architecture and general appearance of Gotham City is part of the films iconography, and an audience expectation. This expectation, however, is derived not from previous NBF films, but from the extra-textual Batman comic books and merchandise in existence for fifty years previous to the first Batman film's release. More immediate than this, the filmic expectations of Batman and Batman Returns are formed in a number of different ways. As high concept films, the audiences recognition of and understanding of textual signifiers comes not from a previous set of similar films, but from the extensive marketing and advertising of the films prior to their release:
For much of American culture, corporate imperatives operate as the primary constraints shaping the narratives and iconography of the text as well as the manufacture and licensing of the intertextual materials necessary for a 'mania' to sweep the country.
(Meehan in Pearson and Uricchio, 1991, 48)
The link Meehan makes between "narratives and iconography" and "manufacture and licensing" through "corporate imperatives" is pertinent in the case of Batman, as the two elements seem to be mutually dependent: the audience expectations are built through the saturation merchandising which depends upon the marketable features of the text. Certain elements are emphasised in trailers and posters, elements which form the base for merchandising spin-off products (the Bat-logo, the batmobile, Batman's gadgetry, the style of costumes etc.). These icons collectively form the audiences expectations of the film: car chases, the use of gadgetry, fist fights and ultimately Batman's triumph over deformed/psychotic villains. However, it is interesting to note that just as certain features are elevated to the level of expectation (in terms of iconography and narrative) through the films publicity, the same publicity machinery ignores elements integral to plot, thematic concerns and characterisation that are perceived as unmarketable, and that offer no potential for merchandise. In the advanced publicity and advertising of both Batman and Batman Returns, the narrative importance of oppressive capitalist forces is played down, and in the case of Batman Returns, completely left out. The prominence of Max Schreck in the film is ignored: he is not represented at all on the films main poster, in the original theatrical trailer or the video trailer. In other words, elements which the Batman films share with the NBF genre are repressed in the films publicity, therefore excluding these features from the existing iconography, carefully built up through merchandising and advertising as the main frame of reference for the films.
It is therefore not practical nor possible to reduce films like Batman and Batman Returns to just one genre. As vast intertexts, the two films discussed here draw on more filmic, non-filmic and extra-filmic texts than I would have space to outline, let alone study in a productive manner. What has been established is that such films can be made to fit into particular genres if they are approached in the correct way. Here, with the New Bad Future genre, I have made connections based primarily on reflectionist/ideological readings which science fiction films generally are more open to. This is not to say that links can not be found on the level of expectation (such as high tech weaponry, general action/adventure conventions that more often than not surround the NBF genre), although it is clear that the foremost frame of reference for the films comes from advertising and merchandise, the 'Bat-mania' that preceded both films. Nor do I deny that there is a certain amount of overlap between iconography and ideological viewpoints: they are to some extent mutually dependent. This nevertheless exposes a tension at work between treating genre as an ideological set of connections, and treating genre as a set of aesthetic expectations. While films can be configured as belonging to particular genres through consistent modes of representation and outlooks, there are too many other factors at work on the level of expectation to successfully do the same. As well as borrowing features from other genres (gangster, fantasy), the Batman films also heavily draw from their comic book origins and, retrospectively, other films directed by Tim Burton (which would constitute an auteurist approach). Using genre as a marketing tool is less relevant, especially when considering high concept cinema, where the onus has shifted from the construction of iconographies through reference to a previous set of similar films, to a greater reliance on marketing strategies that focus on merchandise potential, drawn from the marketable elements of the films.
In conclusion, then, in modern high concept cinema, it is less useful to talk about a film in terms of how its (aesthetic) expectations are linked to those of a genre than it is to examine the ideological threads that are reflected in films, and how similarities here form and shape filmic categories.
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Alien. Dir. Ridley Scott, Prod. Brandywine/Shusett, USA, 1979. Main Cast: Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Tom Skerritt (Dallas), John Hurt (Kane), Ian Holm (Ash)
Aliens. Dir. James Cameron, Prod. Brandywine, USA, 1986. Main Cast: Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), Paul Reiser (Burke), Michael Biehn (Hicks), Carrie Henn (Newt), Lance Henriksen (Bishop)
Batman Returns. Dir. Tim Burton, Prod. Warner Bros./Polygram Pictures, USA, 1992. Main Cast: Michael Keaten (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Danny DeVito (the Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot), Michelle Pfeiffer (Selina Kyle/Catwoman), Christopher Walken (Max Shreck)
Batman. Dir. Tim Burton, Prod. Warner Bros., USA, 1989. Main Cast: Michael Keaten (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Jack Nicholson (Napier/the Joker), Kim Basinger (Vicki Vale), Jack Palance (Carl Grissom)
Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott, Prod. Warner Bros., USA, 1982. Main Cast: Harrison Ford (Deckard), Rutger Hauer (Roy), Sean Young (Rachael), Joseph Turkel (Tyrell)
Judge Dredd. Dir. Danny Cannon, Prod. Hollywood Productions, USA, 1995. Main Cast: Sylvester Stallone (Joseph 'Judge' Dredd), Armand Assante (Rico), Max Von Sydow (Fargo), Diane Lane (Judge Hershey)
Robocop. Dir. Paul Verhoeven, Prod. Orion, 1987, USA. Main Cast: Peter Weller (Robocop/Murphy), Nancy Allen (Anne Lewis), Ronny Cox (Richard Jones), Miguel Ferrer (Robert Morton)
Running Man. Dir. Paul Michael Glaser, Prod. Orion, 1987, USA. Main Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger (Richard), Richard Dawson (Killian)
Strange Days. Dir. Kathryn Bigelow, Prod. Universal/Lightstorm Entertainment, USA, 1995. Main Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Lenny Niro), Angela Bassett (Mase), Tom Siezemore (Max)
Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Dir. James Cameron, Prod. Entertainment/Carolco Pictures, USA, 1991. Main Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger (Terminator), Linda Hamilton (Sarah Conner), Robert Patrick (T-1000), Edward Furlong (John Conner)
Terminator. Dir. James Cameron, Prod. Hemdale/Pacific Western, USA, 1984. Main Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger (Terminator), Michael Biehn (Kyle Reese), Linda Hamilton (Sarah Conner)
Total Recall. Dir. Paul Verhoeven, Prod. Mario Kassar-Andrew Vajna-Carolco-Ronald Shusett, USA, 1990. Main Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger (Quaid/Hauser), Rachel Ticotin (Melina), Ronny Cox (Cohaagen)