Friday, February 1, 2013

Bonding with Bats: Part One

Our hero: broken, stripped to his fundamental traits of tenacity, fearlessness and loyalty, his city under siege by a darker version of himself -- an enemy with the same training and former allegiances, who now sets his talents to destructive, vindictive ends. After being presumed dead, our hero rises up, and though far from his days of peak performance, manages to swoop in and make a case for the continued relevance of theatric heroics by saving the day, using an arsenal of specially designed “toys” and souped-up cars from a teenager's wet dream. A bittersweet triumph sees familiar faces brought out to pasture, concluding a trilogy years in the making, while simultaneously introducing new characters, setting the stage for the next phase of the legend, whatever that may be.

Thus is the mythical figure of 2012, brought to multiplexes and IMAX theater screens in 70mm and 2K projection, providing hero archetypes in the guise of popcorn-munching for future would-be Joseph Campbells (the best we can hope of a steady diet of superhero movies is that it produces another one of him, and not another me or Gabe, God forbid). With Skyfall and Dark Knight Rises almost perfectly mirroring each other in theme, motifs and hero arcs (if an argument broke out and the other two movies were already claimed, Avengers and the Amazing Spider-Man could also fit this mold fairly easily, but for the sake of this article, I'll leave them out of the pie-eating contest) one can't help but ask the question: Why now?

It seems Batman and Bond have been circling each other for decades now, with parallel -- sometimes intertwining -- histories. 1962 gives us 007's bow on the big screen with Dr. No. The low-budget thriller that no one on the crew took seriously (director Terence Young didn't think anyone would buy the outlandish plot or villain, concerning a metal-handed criminal mastermind toppling US rockets during launch) became a sleeper hit and created a new filmic genre, as well as a new musical one (one could argue that spy music didn't come into full flower until John Barry's bombastic, glossy Goldfinger score two years later, though Dr. No still introduced Monty Norman's iconic James Bond Theme). 1963 expanded the MI6 universe and provided a more real-life take on spydom with From Russia With Love, then Bond put his tongue in his cheek for Goldfinger and exponentially bloated to Thunderball and then You Only Live Twice dimensions. By 1967 a hollowed out volcano that launched spacecraft to hijack astro/cosmonauts and their vehicles made Dr. No seem downright pedestrian. Between Thunderball and YOLT the Bond series took its first year-long hiatus (starting a biennial release schedule that, with a few exceptions, it retains to this day). Spymania was on the rise and by the year 007 paused for a breath, parodies, rip-offs and homages galore were glutting moviescreens: Our Man Flint, The Silencers (Matt Helm's debut), What's Up Tiger Lily?, the Dr. Goldfoot movies, The Liquidator. These were mostly garish, brightly colored spoofs, presenting spy as gadget-wielding, model-bedding bon vivant up against equally colorful baddies. This year also saw another colorful playboy bounce to screens (both small and large): Batman.

At the time there was little in the Batman comics to suggest the operatic levels of camp on display in the show (though, after the series' popularity, just try and keep a 15-ft typewriter from popping up in an issue). Similarly, the Bond novels, with a few exceptions, were nowhere near as outlandish or gadget-laden as their cinematic counterparts. Well sure, Pussy Galore originated in the Goldfinger novel, but what? Books can't be dirty too?
This guy: an invention of the cinema

This lady: born of the artform that gave us Jean Valjean, David Copperfield and Captain Ahab.

Am I saying James Bond was instrumental in getting Batman on TV? No, but I am saying in the climate Bondmania created, it probably made it easier and gave it the tongue-in-cheek approach it's (in)famous for. By the next year, the Bond series itself slid firmly into self-parody, both in the official Eon series, and in a non-canonical and not-at-all-faithful-to-the-source-novel Casino Royale, starring Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, David Niven and so many others (Soooooo many others. So so so many others). So what did the two franchises share? Colorful gimmicks, a jazzy score, Batman's wiseassy knowledge of just about everything (Bond: “Beluga caviar, north of the Caspian.” Bats: “Let's hope that it's a stitch in time, Robin, that saves nine - The nine members of the United World Security Council. Come on.”), gadgets, henchmen and a cast of classy, sexy, deadly ladies (Lee Meriwether's Catwoman/Kitka gives any Bond girl a run for her money). Well, mostly.

Another reason to make mine Marvel: this is what Scarlet Johannsen looks like in the DCU

Tallulah Bankhead was just one of the many people to make you go “hey, whu?” on Batman. Everyone wanted (or legally had) to be on the show. Vincent Price, Jack LaLanne, Milton Berle, Ethel Merman, Woody Strode, Elisha Cook Jr, Seymour Cassel, Art Carney, Ida Lupino, Eli Wallach, Liberace (!), not to mention unfilmed cameos that Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra reportedly wanted to make.
The aforementioned Casino Royale has a similar tactic of throwing actors at the screen to see if you or your grandparents recognizes them: Orson Welles, Jean-Paul Belmondo, George Raft, Deborah Kerr, Charles Boyer, John Huston (also co-directed), Peter O'Toole, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.
In their own ways, Bond and Batman at the time were the “hip” things the not-so-hip did because, well, it was the 60s. They were like twin gas giants sucking everyone in Hollywood into one of their orbits, like Hollywood Babylonian orgies that no one under 40 wanted to go to.
Batman's Mr. Freeze himself, Otto Preminger, not to be outdone, took a page out the show's playbook when he cast the entire west coast in the next year's Skidoo: Carol Channing, Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney, George Raft (that dude again?), Slim Pickens, Richard Kiel (still 9 years away from playing Jaws in not one but two Bond films), Harry Nilsson, the Penguin, the Joker, the Riddler, and Groucho Marx all starred, officially making this film old fart Woodstock. Incidentally, Casino Royale and Skidoo are cautionary tales of what happens when your uncle decides he wants to become part of the counter-culture. When Brian Wilson dropped acid you got the aborted, yet genius SMiLE. When Otto Preminger did it, well...

In contrast to this type of outlandish sixtiesness, You Only Live Twice is ridiculous in a way that acknowledges that yes, James Bond is awful silly sometimes, and yes, this is a golden era for making this type of fluffy entertainment, but we're here to take this silliness seriously. It opens with Bond, now apparently world famous as a superspy, seemingly being murdered to allow him to carry on his work without being bothered by pesky megalomaniacal supervillains while working his latest case in Japan (his anonymity in death doesn't last long, and is a trick the series has tried before and since, most recently in Skyfall). There is a plot by Blofeld and SPECTRE to capture US and Soviet rockets to try to start World War III, there is a mini-helicopter chase, there is a cigarette that shoots live ammo, there is a wide-scale ninja attack of a volcano base, there is a scene where Bond becomes Japanese and “marries” a local woman for cover. There is enough going on here for three movies, but unlike Casino Royale, it has a constant sense of invention and audacity to show you something you'd see in an Austin Powers movie, but having the balls to only crack a smile when necessary (the film was co-written by Roald Dahl, and it shows in the fanciful aspects), whereas Casino Royale tries to coast by as a series of cameos and comic set-pieces which are usually not funny and have only slightly more coherence than Scary Movie 3.

Most people say it was the Manson murders, or the stabbing at Altamont, but I think you can see now what really killed the sixties.

Which brings us to 1969, and the epitaph to the swingin' 60s spy craze: On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Batman was already off the air for more than a year. The fun was over, the culture was moving on from such lavish, inflated cotton candy feasts. The Bondverse had come back down to earth and was more morose and showed the consequences of a spy's life more soberly. George Lazenby, taking over for a Sean Connery who did not, for the moment, want to return to Bond's tux (that would famously change, more than once), gives it his all in his first acting role, but many people were wondering where the hell “the other fella” went.

What many critics and fans see as inexperience and youthful cockiness in the Aussie actor, I see as the arrogance and aloofness a superspy like James Bond has accrued over the course of 5, now 6 films. He's seen everything, done everything, slept with every woman, eaten the finest food and drank the finest champagne (on the British government's dime, no less. Glad I don't pay taxes there), killed the oddest henchmen, foiled the maddest of world domination plans, and always come away unscathed. He's earned a certain sense of smugness. He knows he'll come out on top and barely has to try in a struggle (much like a certain Gotham millionaire, but this won't be explored cinematically for several more decades), but now, when confronted with the one woman he may actually love, a degree of fragility is also required – this is where the inexperience comes in. As a young actor trying to prove something as a man who has nothing to prove, 28-year-old Lazenby's posturing as the ultimate male creates an interesting feedback loop of unsure security, which is crucial to this particular film. For these reasons, and I know this sounds like heresy, I doubt Connery could have done as well in the role.

Dammit, Sean! That could've been you!

This is what makes this film so tragic. He constantly overestimates himself, and winds up paying for it. This is the first film, since Q's introduction, that he has no gadgets. He has to rely on his wits, his skills, his luck, and most crucially in this film, the aid of his comrades and loved one(s). His love interest in this, Tracy, is his equal. She is just as capable as he, and twice as reckless. Whereas Bond knows he'll always land on his feet, Tracy, the bored, spoiled daughter of an international crime syndicate boss, not only knows she won't, but is counting on it. If only that damn handsome spy would let her commit suicide once in a while

Now Bond has a charge. With Tracy's deathwish, Bond must again keep on his toes, if only for her sake. Fatally, he fails her: supremely happy in his new role as husband (Bond? Tied down? Say it ain't so), he is caught off-guard on the drive from the wedding. Blofeld, whom he has allowed to escape alive after the main action of the film, finds them at the very end of the third act. Bullets fly, Bond gets the old spyhunter in him as he gets ready to speed after them. He sees the crack in the windshield, the bullet in Tracy's forehead. This is the price of being a carefree world-renowned, well-living superspy. Any happiness or contentment is fleeting. All the dry vodka martinis and all the Bollinger '53 and all the beluga caviar in the world can never equal the loving relationship and sense of peace he'll never be able to have.

He had a good stretch, but the 60s are done, the swinging has to stop. Bond will return, as he always does, but the lesson he learned will be all but forgotten by the next installment, Diamonds Are Forever, replaced by a lame, shoddy Vegas nightclub version of a Bond film, and this by-the-numbers approach unfortunately mars much of the rest of the series, with only every few movies approaching the excitement, the seriousness, the fun, the inventiveness of the first six films.
Interestingly, Adam West, Batman himself, was considered to replace Connery on OHMSS, but he declined. No, it would still be two decades before Batman would become Bond.

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