Which Way Forward For The “Batman” Movie Franchise? Take One

Bear with me, folks, ‘cuz this is gonna be a looonnnnng one. Not this post in and of itself, mind you — in fact I’m going to do my very best to keep things brief in this and subsequent installments (whoops! I just gave away what’s going on here, didn’t I?) and try, perhaps even desperately, to confine all postings in this series (and if I didn’t give it away before I sure did now!) to one particular aspect of what we’ll be discussing here each time so as not to throw too much out there at once before receiving input from you, dear readers, as to your own thoughts on what I’m talking about before plowing ahead to the next part. I know, I know — all bloggers say they genuinely want the input of their readership on what they’re posting, but in this case I really do mean it with all sincerity. I want this to be an interactive discussion about what we, as fans/movie geeks, want to see happen next with one of the most successful properties, arguably perhaps even the most successful property,  in cinematic history.

I’m speaking, of course, of the Batman. With Christopher Nolan’s beyond-blockbuster trilogy having just wrapped up, speculation is already rife as to what DC Entertainment and its parent company, Warner Brothers, will do next when it comes to the adventures on the Dark Knight Detective on the silver screen. For an initial hint about were I’d take things, please refer to the famous page above from the Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale comic Batman : The Long Halloween. For reasons that will be made clear over this course of this series of postings, however long it may drag on, that scene — the famous “rooftop meeting” between Batman, Commissioner Gordon, and District Attorney Harvey Dent — is at the very heart of where I think the Bat-franchise would go next.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves just yet. First, let’s take stock of where we are now and the three, as I see them anyway, options DC/Warner has going forward. As of this moment, The Dark Knight Rises has taken in just a hair under $420 million dollars at the domestic box office, and just a hair under $1 billion worldwide. It’s a pretty solid bet that it will end up taking in $500 million domestically and will AvatarTitanicThe Avengers, and The Dark Knight in the over-a-bliion-dollars-in-worldwide-ticket-sales club. That means that of the five highest-grossing films in the world in history, two will be Batman flicks. Clearly, Warner isn’t going to let this property stagnate for too long.

But they need to play their cards exactly right going forward, because this is one golden goose they absolutely need to keep laying eggs. Which brings me back those three options they have going forward, each of which carries some risk, as well as potential rewards. Let’s look at each potential path  forward individually, shall we? Glad you agree.

Option #1 — The direct sequel. Nolan certainly left this possibility wide open with Robin/John Blake’s “inheritance” of the Batcave, and in many ways it’s the easiest and most painless way to go. Blake’s the new Batman (or Robin, or Nightwing, or whoever), some ambitious director would be more than willing to take on carrying things forward from where Nolan left them, and audiences are already primed and ready to accept Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the new man beneath the cowl.

But are they really? Let’s face it — Bruce Wayne is central to the Batman myth. You could argue that DC themselves are working on making him less central to it with the publication of such books as Batman, Incorporated and several storylines in recent years that have seen the likes of Dick Grayson, among others, assuming the Batman role for varying periods of time. Maybe they’re trying to test the waters with this whole someone-else-as-Batman idea on the printed page before going for it on the big screen? It’s possible, but sooner or later they always seem to come back to Bruce Wayne, and it’s easy to see why —

Frankly, it just never really works with anyone else as anything other than a temporary gimmick to boost sales for a few months. Sooner or later, the fans always want to see the “real” Batman back in action. A new guy might be interesting for a movie or two, but the speculation as to if and when Bruce Wayne — and, by extension, Christian Bale and maybe even Chris Nolan — would be back would be a Sword of Damocles hanging over the head of any “direct sequel” flick, no matter how good it was. And that just ain’t gonna happen. Bale’s done. Nolan’s done. These guys have made the studio a fortune. Let them get on with their lives in peace.

Option #2 — The “hard reboot.” This has been done, successfully, with the Bat-franchise before, obviously. Batman Begins is as “hard” a reboot of a character and his origins as you’re going to find. We’re used to seeing Batman reinvented every so often, and it’s never been a dealbreaker before. Every generation flat-out deserves its own iconic take on the character, right? Why go in any other way now? It would free up the next director, producers, and cast from having to do things the “Nolan way,” that’s for sure, and sometimes the best way forward is by taking a few steps back.

And yet — that might necessitate Batman sitting on the shelf longer than Warner wants him to be. The Amazing Spider-Man isn’t that bad a superhero movie by any stretch of the imagination, but even its most fervent partisans would, when pressed, admit that two Spidey origins within a decade is a bit much. And besides, it’s not like Batman Begins is going to appear especially dated within the next five or ten years, nor is it likely to be surpassed in terms of quality as a Batman origin story for the silver screen. Any “hard reboot” story is going to inevitably be compared to it, and any other cinematic origin story is going to come up short, more than likely. Unless, of course, it’s a work of such singular awesomeness that it just comes along and completely blind-sides all of us. But ya know what? Even then, I bet it’s still gonna piss plenty of people off. Plus, there’s the open question of just how necessary a “start-from-scratch”-type story even is. More or less everyone knows at least the basic details of the Batman myth — do we need to see them play out before us yet again to understand and appreciate a new cinematic interpretation of the character?

Which brings us, finally, to Option # 3 — the so-called “soft reboot” option. Admittedly, this hasn’t worked out so well for secondary comic-book-related properties like The Punisher and the Hulk, but they were both coming off first installments that were pretty iffy to begin with, to put things kindly. That”s not the case here by any stretch of the imagination. Even if Nolan’s Batman films weren’t your cup of tea, there’s no denying they’ve been tremendously successful at the box office and generally quite well-regarded by hard-core fans, critics, and more casual audiences alike. Maybe there’s no need to reinvent the wheel here, even if we’re going to go back into Batman’s career chronologically, the cast is going to be entirely different, there will be a new director and screeenwriter(s), etc.

Not that this option isn’t without some risk, too. It would essentially assume at least a rudimentary knowledge of the character on the part of the audience (anyone not know anything about the guy? Bueller? Bueller?), and it would subject the new film,series to more direct comparison with the Nolan flicks than, perhaps, option #2 (although that’s debatable, and flat-out inevitable in any case, anyway), and — well, that’s probably about it.

So — from where I’m sitting right now, that looks like the best bet to me. Let’s have a new take on the Batman franchise with new actors, a new director, a new writer or writers, new everything — but let’s not feel compelled to tell his origin over from the start. Let’s concern ourselves with concentrating on the various elements that have made Batman so appealing and enduring as a cultural icon over the years, tell a story that incorporates and elaborates upon all of those, and maybe throws a few new wrinkles of its own into the mix, and not feel like the wheel needs to be reinvented here. The Nolan films are going to be the standard against which all future films are going to be judged, anyway, so rather than run as far away from them as possible, why not keep what worked about them, and maybe present them in a new way?

If all this sounds just a little bit too abstract for you at this point, I wouldn’t blame you, but stick with me here — at least until you get bored. I hope that as things progress, what I have specifically in mind will become more and more clear. And keep that image from The Long Halloween in mind as we go along, because it’s central to where I’m going — even though I don’t think the comic itself was anything other than a somewhat-above-average Batman story (and yes, I’m hoping that sentence will make a bit more sense to you in the coming days/weeks, as well).

So that’s it for part one of this thinking-it-out as-I-go-along project. I hope to pick things up again tomorrow with some some thoughts on Gotham City — how it’s been presented in the past, how and why it’s central to the Batman mythos, particularly in film, and a really weirdly appealing (in my own twisted mind, at any rate) idea I’ve got as to exactly which major American city would make a great movie Gotham for the future. Until then, please — tear my opinion to shreds! Or agree with it! Or somewhere in between! But let’s see where we agree or disagree and find out where you think I’m right and wrong and why!

VGM Entry 24: Metal Gear and More

VGM Entry 24: Metal Gear and More
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Notice: Square Enix have apparently deemed one of my soundtrack reviews a copyright infringement and demanded I remove it. I have complied, and I kindly encourage you to boycott all Square Enix products in the future. Since their games are terrible these days anyway I am probably doing you a favor. (Their complaint involved brief audio samples from only one video game–amusingly out of print today–so I have left my other reviews intact.)

At the same time that RPG/adventure game music was coming into its own on the Nintendo, a lot of solid action soundtracks followed in the wake of Castlevania. Metal Gear (Konami, 1987) kicked off a series that would not really rise to major prominence until 1998, but its history of good scores dates back to the originals.

Metal Gear called for a lot of spy work and sneaking around, and its original soundtrack captured precisely that. Not the music you were expecting to hear? Well, two versions of Metal Gear were released in 1987. The first, released in July, was for the MSX2, and it contained a completely different soundtrack from the NES version that followed it in December. It’s not entirely clear who composed it; Wikipedia lists Iku Mizutani, Shigehiro Takenouchi, and Motoaki Furukawa as the composers for Metal Gear without distinguishing between ports. That’s pretty shady business, as Kazuki Muraoka’s NES score contained a number of original compositions and was much more popular, at least in the western world. Most sites only list Iku Mizutani for the MSX2 and Kazuki Muraoka for the NES, while the only official release of the MSX2 soundtrack simply credits Konami Kukeiha Club.

Well, I watched the actual ending credits of the MSX2 version, and Konami lists it as:

Main Sound Effect:
Iku Mizutani

Sub Sound Effect:
Shigehiro Takenouchi
Motoaki Furukawa

The same bad translation persists on the NES version, where Kazuki Muraoka is responsible for all “Sound Effect”. So that’s enough to sort it out, right? All evidence suggests that Mizutani composed the MSX2 version (with a little help from Takenouchi and Furukawa) and Muraoka composed the NES version.

Of course these indecisive credits always leave room for speculation. Here’s one for you: The PC88 visual novel Snatcher (Konami, 1988) contains an arrangement of the song “Theme of Tara” (1:49). The game offers very thorough credits, and it expressly states that the song was composed by Masanori Adachi and arranged by Masahiro Ikariko and Kazuhiko Uehara. If it’s just an arrangement of the MSX2 original, then… wait a minute…

But Adachi isn’t even credited in Metal Gear. Did Konami perhaps forget who wrote the MSX2 music and credit Adachi by mistake? Here’s the real kicker. Snatcher was ported to the MSX2 shortly after its release, and for the port Iku Mizutani is credited with arranging Masanori Adachi’s composition, which was, if our credits all add up, a copy of Iku Mizutani’s original Metal Gear composition.

Oh well. We are at least pretty sure Kazuki Muraoka wrote the NES one. In the very least he’s the only name appearing in the credits in association with sound. His score was a mix of arrangements from the MSX2 and new songs, and as far as I’m concerned the new material was almost always an improvement. Generally this consisted of replacing the weaker tracks, but Muraoka did take the risk of replacing “Red Alert!” (0:16 in the previous video), perhaps the best song in the MSX2 mix, with a completely new track under the same name (2:03). The decision paid off.

If you would like to hear some comparisons between the original MSX2 compositions and Muraoka’s ports, look for “Mercenary” (4:21 on the MSX2 video, 2:55 on the NES) and “Return of Fox Hounder” (6:52 on the MSX2 and 4:25 on the NES). Unless I overlooked something, the rest of this NES compilation consists of original compositions. The whole Metal Gear sound as established on the MSX2 turned out to be excellently suited for the NES–a system on which speed and catchiness served well to compensate for a lack of much bass or distortion. Even so, my favorite Muraoka addition is a slow one. I have no idea why “Password Entry” (3:37) was put to such petty use. It would have made a fine ending credits theme.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (Konami) also made its first appearance in the summer of ’87. By this time Kinuyo Yamashita had moved on to other projects, and Kenichi Matsubara picked up the job. Like Kinuyo Yamashita in the original, it would be his only contribution to the series.

And what a contribution it was. His efforts to maintain stylistic consistency with the first game are commendable, and he did so while writing equally catchy and memorable songs. Obviously his most famous work (and probably the most famous song in the series) is “Bloody Tears”, appearing second in the video. But I was really quite surprised to encounter tracks like “Dwelling of Doom” (2:10), which could just as easily have become series staples had future writers chosen to retain them. Kenichi Matsubara arguably surpassed the original Castlevania with this soundtrack, and it wouldn’t be the last time that the series stood at the forefront of video game music.

In the meantime, Kinuyo Yamashita had by no means fallen by the wayside. Her work on Arumana no Kiseki (Konami, 1987) is really outstanding, taking advantage of the Family Computer Disk System’s enhanced capabilities to produce a very clean, crisp sound. (The FDS was an extension of the Famicom released only in Japan. Its early titles included The Legend of Zelda and Metroid.) I have to imagine the only reason Arumana no Kiseki never got much praise is because fewer people heard it. Konami seem to have gotten around the copywrite challenges of making an Indiana Jones ripoff by simply never releasing the game outside of Japan, although they may have been better off paying up and releasing it. The first licensed series game for the NES, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Mindscape), released some time in 1987 or 1988, was a gameplay disaster on par with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and its soundtrack is a lame attempt to preserve the original John Williams score.

explod2A03 on youtube provides a nice collection of music from Arumana no Kiseki, available here, along with a number of other forgotten soundtracks from the era.

Of course we all know what the most important video game music series on the NES was, and Capcom, not Konami, get the credit this time. Known as Rockman in Japan, the original Mega Man was unleashed upon the world in December 1987. Manami Matsumae did not compose for the Mega Man series for long. After scoring Mega Man and contributing to Takashi Tateishi’s work in Mega Man 2, she sort of dropped off the face of the earth, not to resurface in the series again until Mega Man 10‘s massive collaborative effort in 2010. But the legacy she began is one of the finest in gaming history.

Here’s a track list for the compilation, in case you’re interested:
(0:00) Epilogue
(1:40) Stage Select
(1:57) Robot Intro
(2:04) Cutman
(2:52) Fireman
(3:28) Elecman
(4:22) Gutsman
(4:57) Iceman
(6:00) Dr. Wily’s Castle 1
(6:44) Dr. Wily’s Castle 2
(7:20) Robot Battle
(7:49) Dr. Wily Battle
(8:17) Bombman
(9:02) Victory!

Of course the series did not find massive commercial success until Mega Man 2 the following year, but from the beginning it was as intimately tied to its score as the Final Fantasy series. It isn’t nostalgia that leads modern-day rock bands and chiptune artists to cover “Cutman”, “Fireman”, and “Bombman”, just to name a few. It’s because the music is outstanding. I mean, I think the samples speak for themselves. Manami Matsumae established a standard of quality which Capcom would strive to maintain for many years to come. Takashi Tateishi would soon raise the bar higher, but it may well be argued that, without Manami Matsumae’s original concept of what Mega Man music ought to sound like, none of the future improvements would have ever been possible.

Song of the Day: Passin’ Me By (by The Pharcyde)

Something quick and nostalgic for the latest “Song of the Day”.

I rarely put up hip-hop songs as “Song of the Day” since I rarely think back fondly on most of them, but this one I do think back and remember fondly. It’s one of those songs that just brings back memories of simpler days.

The track “Passin’ Me By” by the hip-hop group The Pharcyde came out in in the Spring of 1993 off of their full-length album, Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde and gradually rose up the charts that season until it reached hit status. The group never had as big a hit as this track though it will continue to consistently make good to very good records since. I think what resonated to me and many fans of this song wasn’t just the beats but the lyrics themselves. It’s a song about young crushes and infatuation ranging from one’s schoolboy days to young adulthood. It’s those very same lyrics which continues to make this song as relevant now as much as they did in 1992-1993 when the song came out.

Passin’ Me By

Now in my younger days I used to sport as shag
When I went to school I carried lunch in a bag
With an apple for my teacher ’cause I knew I’d get a kiss
Always got mad when the class was dismissed
But when it was in session, I always had a question
I would raise my hand to make her stagger to my desk and
help me with my problem, it was never much
Just a trick, to smell her scent and try to sneak a touch
Oh, how I wish I could hold her hand and give her a hug
She was married to the man, he was a thug,
His name was Lee, he drove a Z,
he’d pick her up from school promptly at three o’clock
I was on her jock, yes indeedy I wrote graffiti on the bus
First I’d write her name then carve a plus,
with my name last, on the looking glass,
I seen her yesterday but still I had to let her pass

She keeps on passin me by…

When I dream of fairytales I think of me and Shelly
See she’s my type of hype and I can’t stand when brothers tell me
That I should quit chasin’ and look for something better
But the smile that she shows makes me a go-getter
I haven’t gone as far as asking if I could get with her
I just play it by ear and hope she gets the picture
I’m shootin for her heart, got my finger on the trigger
She could be my broad, and I could be her (nigga)
But, all I can do is stare…
Back as kids we used to kiss when we played truth or dare
Now she’s more sophisticated, highly edu-ma-cated
not at all over-rated, I think I need a prayer
to get in her boots and it looks rather dry
I guess a twinkle in her eye is just a twinkle in her eye
Although she’s crazy steppin, I’ll try to stop her stride
Cause I won’t have no more of this passin me by

And I must voice my opinion of not even pretending she didn’t have me
Strung like a chicken, chase my tail like a doggie
She was kind of like a star, thinking I was like a fan
Dude, she looked good, down side: she had a man
He was a rooty-toot, a nincompoop
She told me soon your little birdie’s gonna fly the coop
She was a flake like corn, and I was born not to understand
By lettin her pass I had proved to be a better man

She keeps on passin me by…

Now there she goes again, the dopest Ethiopian
And now the world around me be gets movin in slow motion
when-ever she happens to walk by – why does the apple of my eye
overlook and disregard my feelings no matter how much I try?
Wait, no, i did not really pursue my little princess with persistance;
And I was so low-key that she was unaware of my existance
From a distance I desired, secretly admired her;
Wired her a letter to get her, and it went:
My dear, my dear, my dear, you do not know me but I know you very well
Now let me tell you about the feelings I have for you
When I try, or make some sort of attempt, I symp
Damn I wish I wasn’t such a wimp!
‘Cause then I would let you know that I love you so
And if I was your man then I would be true
The only lying I would do is in the bed with you
Then I signed sincerely the one who loves you dearly, PS love me tender
The letter came back three days later: Return to Sender

She keeps on passin me by…