Dale Lucas

author and screenwriter

Month: July, 2012

Batman Ends… But Probably Begins Again

[I decline to comment on the shootings in Aurora, Colorado.  Such weighty ruminations are best left for other forums.]

Warning: Spoilers Below!

Here we are again at the end of a road.  We’ve traveled back in time to witness the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader; we’ve trudged to Mordor and back; we’ve watched Neo surrender to self-destruction in order to nullify his greatest enemy; we’ve seen Indiana Jones—bad ass supreme—play mentor to his petulant child and marry his now middle-aged sweetheart; we’ve bid farewell to Harry Potter, surrendering him to the trinue doom of graduation, maturation, and procreation.  Now, arriving with that same bittersweet combination of anticipation and disappointment, we’ve come to the end of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.  Some sing praises; some cry foul; others just scratch their heads.  My intention, in this little survey of where we’ve been with Christopher Nolan is to celebrate what he’s done right, to expose where he’s mis-stepped, and to make a few humble suggestions to the powers-that-be in Hollywood concerning further outings for the Dark Knight.

Full disclosure: from the beginning, I’ve been an enormous fan of Nolan’s take on the franchise.  I loved Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film as much as everyone else did, but even as early as 1994, when I saw The Crow, I was telling my friends that I’d like to see a Batman movie that looked like that.  A Batman movie where Gotham City looked like someplace people actually lived (albeit a scary one) instead of a giant gothy Blade Runner cast-off, and wherein Batman did things that he would realistically have to do in order to prosecute his war against crime.  I wanted to see him training; I wanted to see him using his detective skills; I wanted to know just where all his crazy toys came from, and just what his method was for monitoring the city and deciding what crimes to foil (while, presumably, letting hundreds of others go because, hey—he can’t be everywhere at once).  After the debacle of Joel Schumacher’s two Crayola-colored Batman films, I was even more determined: please, Dear God, would someone make a Batman film that was just a little grounded?  At least as grounded and meaty as a comic book film can be?  When Batman Begins arrived in 2005, my prayers were answered.

Batman Begins works beautifully because Nolan respects his character’s comic book origins but leaps on every opportunity to give Batman’s pulpy mythology a grounded, real-world equivalent; a determination to re-invent the character, his world, and his rogues gallery by stripping these elements down to their essentials, then rebuilding them in a svelte, stunning, thoroughly grounded fashion (at least, as grounded as a world of costumed crime fighters, ninjas, and clown-painted urban terrorists gets, anyway).  Like Frank Miller—whose touchstone comic book reinventions of Batman, Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, similarly shattered then reassembled the caped crusader’s origins, motivations, and environs to stunning effect—Christopher Nolan set out to tell a Batman story in which we did not simply witness his genesis and thrill to his adventures—we often paused to ask why such a person should exist in the first place.  Why vigilante justice?  Why the costume?  Why the secret identity?  Thankfully, Nolan balanced all of these existential considerations by getting wonderful, humane performances out of his cast, treating us to some fantastic action set pieces, and grounding things with some genuine warmth and moments of levity (usually via the interaction between Bruce Wayne and his twin father figures, Alfred Pennyworth and Lucius Fox).  Now that we have an entire trilogy of films before us, I contend that Batman Begins holds up the best because of this deft balancing act: to be sure, it’s a more serious Batman film than we’ve ever seen before, but it never descends into dreariness or pure depressive neuroticism (the dreariness and depressive neuroticism that one might have expected if a one-note sourpuss like Darren Aronofsky had gotten his hands on the franchise, as he almost did).  Batman Begins was a huge commercial and critical success, Nolan was called back to helm a second safari through Gotham’s mean streets… and that’s where that deft balancing act teetered dangerously toward collapse.

In case you didn’t know—maybe you live under a rock or something—2008’s The Dark Knight made a fuckload of money (in metric terms, that’s even bigger than a truckload, a boatload, or a shitload).  Couple that astounding commercial success with near-universal critical acclaim (I say ‘near’ because the movie had a number of very vocal detractors), and someone who hasn’t seen The Dark Knight might assume that it must be a near-perfect film.  After all, how do you get that many people to buy movie tickets to a film that critics also sung the praises of?  That never happens, right?

The fact is that The Dark Knight is not a perfect film (though I’ll contend that it’s still a damn good one).  Although many of the themes introduced in Batman Begins are herein deepened and explored, although the performances remain solid and the action set-pieces wowza, The Dark Knight very nearly contracts gangrene by shooting itself in the foot with an excess of portentousness, a noticeable absence of levity or humor, and a third act that strains credulity, pummels us with its pedantic earnestness, and completely wastes a potentially awesome villain when it drops Harvey Dent/Two-Face off an unfinished building to fall, Disney-like, to his death below.  (There’s also Christian Bale’s bizarre, overwrought Batman voice.  Seriously, Newsie—what was that about…?)  A lesser film might have alienated a larger portion of its audience, blundering along like this and often threatening to spend all the good will it engendered in its first two thirds (indeed, these blunders are the deal-breakers for a lot of Dark Knight haters).  But, from this viewer’s point of view, The Dark Knight’s virtues far outweigh its sins.  It might threaten to collapse under its own weight in that third act… it may be over-earnest and sometimes defy logic… but at the end of the day, how often do we get comic book films that are so ambitious, so polished, or so grand?  Compared to the vaudeville operetta of superhero movies, The Dark Knight is Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk (look it up, learn something).  As such, I can forgive it a few false notes and narrative excesses.  Unfortunately, when given the opportunity to wrap up his trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan failed to learn from his previous mistakes and strike the elemental balance so necessary for success.  Instead, Nolan seized upon all of the elements that threatened to sink or derail The Dark Knight, and brazenly doubled down.

The Dark Knight Rises stumbles right out of the gate.  It’s been eight years since the events of The Dark Knight.  Gotham has established Harvey Dent Day (huh?) to celebrate the Harvey Dent Act (what?) in the wake of Harvey Dent’s (alleged) murder by the Batman.  Batman hasn’t been seen for eight years, and Bruce Wayne’s retreated into the newly-rebuilt Wayne Manor, a virtual recluse since the events of the previous film.  (And what’s up with the rebuilt Wayne Manor, less than a decade old, but still looking all goth and moldy?)  Right away, we’re scratching our heads.  Batman/Bruce Wayne has effectively ‘retired’ in shame and grief, so broken up by the death of Rachel Dawes—a childhood crush and b.f.f. who he never actually established a romantic relationship with?  Really?  I could’ve sworn this guy once vacationed in Bhutanese prisons to try out his mixed martial arts on his fellow inmates; that he’s climbed glaciers just to go to ninja camp, then fucked up all his ninja trainers single-handed over due process disagreements.  And didn’t he once go speeding through the city on an armed motorcycle, blowing up private citizens’ parked cars and flipping semis topsy-turvy in the streets, just to apprehend a single troublesome criminal?  Call me silly, but eight years of grief-stricken inactivity seems a tad out of character for such a go-getter.  I could sooner believe that his grief drove him postal and he’s been waging a savage, unfocused war on crime for the past eight years that targeted everyone from mob bosses to jay-walkers and double-parkers.

But no, we’re handed a passive, shoe-shuffling Bruce Wayne who only comes out of hiding and gets ‘back in the game’ when cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) steals his mother’s pearl necklace and Bruce’s own fingerprints.  Nice one, Caped Crusader: ignore the crime and villainy at work on Gotham’s means streets for the better part of a decade, then swing back into action when you’re the victim of possible identity theft.  Is it me, or is this Batman less-than-heroic?  And dear God—the movie’s just started!  I expect this sort of thing from the Edward Cullens of the world, but not one of my most revered superheroes.  From that inauspicious beginning, things only get worse.  I only spend so much time on this particular, mind-boggling narrative brain-fart because, for me, Batman’s 8 year abdication of his vigilance committee duties epitomizes the unfocused storytelling, stuffy pedantry, and wackadoodle plotting that make The Dark Knight Rises so inferior to its predecessors.

Don’t get me wrong—this closing chapter of Nolan’s Bat trilogy isn’t a complete loss.  There are still some fine moments (Batman’s beat-down courtesy of Tom Hardy’s ripped and mumbly Bane), wonderful performances (Michael Caine), bad-ass action set-pieces (the opening airplane hijacking, the closing aircraft chase) and delightful surprises.  But, unfortunately, those fleeting moments of lucidity are lost in a morass of unnecessary complexity (something about futures trades, nuclear fusion, and Turkish prison pits), dilated chronology (the story takes place over the course of months, but most Hollywood films, afraid of losing momentum, hate to even acknowledge such long passages of time), and ham-handed soap-boxing.  Herein, Christopher Nolan—a filmmaker whose work normally appeals to me for its cerebral elegance and chilly precision—exhibits the very everything-and-the-kitchen-sink mentality so prevalent in Hollywood that I usually go to his films to avoid.  Once, I held out hope that Nolan would finally prove that a smart and talented filmmaker could make a balls-to-the-wall awesome third film in a big popcorn franchise.  I maintain that Nolan is better than this film—way better—so the fact that this is how he chose to cap off his trilogy indicates a serious breach of trust with his very loyal, very eager audience.  Alas, even Nolan is subject to the curse of unchecked hubris and Hollywood bloat.  He says he’s done with the franchise now, and I think that’s a good thing.  Perhaps what Batman needs next is not a continuation of this particular iteration (unnervingly plausible given the film’s ending and the fact that it will probably make a shitload—if not quite a fuckload—of money), but a fresh start.  Pray that a fresh start is what we get, because Nolan and Warner Brothers have, with The Dark Knight Rises, killed what could have been a Golden Goose.

My advice to Warner Brothers?  They’ve given us three iterations of the Caped Crusader, all at wild extremes: Burton’s stylized goth-punk; Schumacher’s colorful camp; Nolan’s stripped-down hyper-realism.  The next time around (and we all know there will be a next time, be it a spur of this franchise or a clean reboot), aim for something that balances the extremes—a more classic, accessible Batman.  By all means, make Gotham shadowy and darksome—but also make it look like a place where regular people live and work (because if decent people don’t live there, just who is Batman fighting for?).  By all means, remind us that Bruce Wayne is driven by grief and rage, his transformation into an agent of justice triggered by murder; but you need not pummel us with this point, and make what should be a thrilling journey to the frontlines of vigilante justice a solemn meditation on violence, fascism, entropy and evil.  By all means, give Batman the same fantastic rogues gallery of villains and miscreants that he’s amassed in the comics all these many decades—the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, the Scarecrow, Two-Face, R’as al-Ghul, the Mad Hatter, Maxie Zeus, Bane and Azrael—but never, ever forget, the movie must be about Batman, centered on Batman, concerned with Batman—not just a vehicle for colorful creeps with Batman making a cameo as an erstwhile antagonist.  Finally, avoid bloat: aim for something akin to the James Bond franchise (at its best, that is), where Batman returns every couple of years in a new, tight, slick adventure, but where each new adventure doesn’t have to be a giant, apocalyptic showdown that leaves Gotham city so scarred and ruined that future adventures seem illogical or impossible.

In short, Warner Brothers: prep for a marathon, not a sprint, and you’ll be guaranteed the happy viewers, gracious critics, and fuckloads of money that you so hungrily covet.

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The Introvert Salesman, Part 3

While I ultimately want the blog to be read and appreciated by interested strangers beyond just my friends and family, I figured the Facebook circles were the place to start. Likewise, my forthcoming publication from Beating Windward Press—Right Behind You, a collection of three short stories to be offered as a free e-chapbook—will contain a link to the blog site. With any luck, curious readers who download those free stories will be led back to my blog, and word can spread beyond the warm-but-limited circle of my family and friends. I may attempt a blog tour or some other such online promotional in the future, but at present, I’m still researching my options, while at the same time trying to maintain momentum on the blog itself. Still, just having a marketing plan isn’t enough: I need to define just who it is that I’m blogging to.

Who, then, do I hope to attract? ‘The whole wide world’ is the obvious answer; ‘my mom’ the only one guaranteed to succeed. A happy medium must be struck, wherein I define a sensible subset of the populace that might wear the brand ‘my peeps’ but still be narrow and defined enough to present direct marketing opportunities.

So, what label do I apply to myself? In specific terms, I’m a fantasist, but that’s a fairly academic term that is really only used by other writers. I could call myself a genre writer, pointing toward the trifecta that best defines me—horror, fantasy, and sci fi—but even that leaves out the westerns, crime stories, and literary novels that I would like to someday write, as well as the everyday stuff that I might choose to blog about. In the end, given my vast range of interests, my particular range of works, and the fact that no suitable term seems to exist to define how I see myself or my ideal reader, I’ve settled on the only descriptor I could muster, boiling my stock down to its thickest and most essential gravy: ‘literate geek.’ It’s an imperfect appellation, but, for the time being, it was the best I could do.

What the hell does that mean, you ask? Consider: my fiction is designed to appeal to smart people with broad yet slightly off-kilter interests, from genre fiction to comic books, role-playing to video games, movies to music; the sort of people who eschew discussing mortgages, pre-school options and sports stats with their friends in favor of lively debates regarding whether or not Robert E. Lee was all the general he was cracked up to be, just who would win in a mano a mano between Superman and Batman (I say Batman, because he could outsmart Superman), or whether or not a steam-powered spacecraft built of riveted iron and glass could operate outside the Earth’s atmosphere. My blog, therefore, will cover the same: what I’m reading, what I’m watching, what I’m listening to, as well as the ups and downs of working in said genre, off-the-beaten path researches and ruminations, and random forays into history, conspiracy, mythology and magic. Nevertheless, although the labels I apply to myself and my readers might be helpful in directing my effort and helping me make editorial decisions, I must always remember to define my labels, while not allowing them to define me.

So, given my experiences thus far, have my efforts paid off?

Short answer: it’s too early to say, being only four weeks and six entries into the blog. So far, I’ve attracted very few regular followers, most just friends and family (though I have had two subscribers right off the bat who were complete strangers—God bless you, complete strangers!). All comments posted are from people I know, and thus far, the most feedback I’ve had arose from a two-part review and deconstruction of the film Prometheus that I posted (it’s a movie that seemed to really divide audiences—especially geek audiences—so it didn’t surprise me that many of my movie-geek friends wanted to argue about it). Given the blog’s youth, I won’t panic just yet that I’m fading into obscurity. We live in an age of ubiquitous online information: every Tom, Dick and Harry has a blog or a website, so drawing interest beyond my immediate social network will take time, as will finding my perfect voice as a blogger and grooming the site to radiate its own magical mojo. If I go for an entire year without gaining any more readers than I have now, I may seriously ponder the usefulness of having the blog at all—but that time is far off, so for the time being, my job is simply to keep posting, and make decisions about what comes next.

But, that’s where one’s expectations must remain realistic. I was immediately slapped in the face by the realization (perfectly reasonable) that even family and friends aren’t willing to drop everything, read your blog, and comment on it. I suppose it hurt my feelings for a second or two, but it really shouldn’t leave any lasting scars: we all live busy lives, and time is precious. Unless someone is deeply invested in what I have to say or how I say it, I probably can’t expect them to give my blog any more than a cursory look. But, this is where I look to myself as a measure of what to expect: there are at least half a dozen writers I love, love, love who blog on a regular basis (the aforementioned Steven Pressfield, the incomparable Dan Simmons)—and yet, I always have to remind myself to read their blogs. Why? Because between working a day job, maintaining a marriage, caring for a newborn and trying to produce new work of my own (while also getting some sleep or catching a movie on occasion), I’m busy. Reading someone’s blog just isn’t a high priority. It’s more like that phone call you keep meaning to make to a friend of yours who you haven’t checked in with for awhile. That’s no deterance, though—just a realization of what I’m up against, in terms of drawing and keeping an audience.

So, what’s it all about, Alfie? What is it I’m hoping to get out of all this? Ultimately, I am attempting to walk a tightrope with my blogging endeavor and the formation of my ‘online presence.’ I want to take the task seriously, to write entries worth reading, and to gain new readers. But, I also try to remind myself that however important building a platform, establishing a web presence, and networking might be to the fledgling writer, the most important thing—first, last, and always—is writing well about stuff that excites you. If the day comes that I have to choose between writing a new book or maintaining my blog, I’ll abandon blog for book without hesitation.

At the end of the day, there is only one thing that I’m marketing, one product I’m pushing: my stories. Without those stories, the blog, the Facebook page, and whatever else I may add to the pile have no reason to be.

The Introvert Salesman, Part 2

Last time, I discussed the slow and terrifying realization that, in this digital information age, being a writer did not excuse me from learning to be a salesman, despite my distaste and discomfort at doing so.  Convinced that the small press publication of my first novel meant it was time for me to establish a web presence (And doesn’t that sound disembodied?  Like I’m jacking into the Matrix or trying to race light cycles with Flynn and Tron?), the question of how to do so needed to be answered. 

For ease of use and sheer economy (free! Boo-yah!) Facebook seemed the best place to start.  I already had a personal Facebook page; how hard could it be to set up a professional one?  My first followers were obviously friends and family, but I did manage to snag a few interested strangers who had read my novel (Doc Voodoo: Aces & Eights, Beating Windward Press, 2011).  However, as easy and fun as the professional Facebook page was, I knew that I would ultimately need something above and beyond—a site that encompassed a blog and a news feed.  What that would be and how I would accomplish it proved to be a more difficult decision than I anticipated.

In my everyday life, I’m freewheeling and lackadaisical about almost everything.  Chores?  They’ll get done when they get done.  Work?  Gotta be there between 7 and 4, but I don’t sweat about it once I walk out the door (and try as hard as I can not to break a sweat while there).  Gym time?  What’s gym time? 

However, when my writing cap is on, I’m a different animal: fussy—perhaps even a tad neurotic.  More than once, I’ve been paralyzed when a ‘best’ solution does not immediately present itself—What MacGuffin best serves the story I want to tell? Should I really include that section from so-and-so’s point of view or does it slow things down?  Should I call the prologue a prologue, or should I simply call it Chapter One because publishers and agents have a terrible hatred for Prologues?  Should I send the story to that particular magazine?  The novel to that particular publisher?  This blog entry was, in its own way, a pig in the python, because I was trying to write it in the midst of two weeks of staying home from work and playing frontline caregiver to my five month old son.  Not only was finding the time and energy to write often impossible—I also found that when I finally got around to writing the blog, I couldn’t quite find the tone I wanted, nor could I address all the issues I wanted to address—but, egad, it’s so long!  It can’t be that long!  Who the hell is gonna read a 2300 word blog entry on the ups and downs of shoestring self-marketing?

Answer: maybe no one.  But therein, also, lay a perfect illustration of this peculiarity of mine.  Where my writing is concerned, I sometimes get so caught up in questioning myself that I can be frozen solid because I’d rather make no decision at all than a bad one (or abandon a troublesome work in progress rather than complete it if I’m not convinced that I can make it as totally awesome as I thought it could be).  Complicating this tendency to freeze is a fairly high comfort threshold for research, meaning that I can usually convince myself that my issue is just a lack of understanding or expertise, thus freeing me to stop work in order to research the roadblock into oblivion.  Of course, in everyday practice I have to mitigate those impulses (the outstanding historical novelist Steven Pressfield calls this sort of waffling ‘Resistance’, a personified force with a capitol ‘R’).  In writing, marketing, and encounters with fire-breathing dragons, perfectionism can be crippling, paralysis fatal.

In the realm of establishing a web presence, analytical paralysis set in fairly early.  There are a truly dizzying array of possibilities for building a web platform, most of them limited only by the time, money and effort I was willing to put into the endeavor.  Both money and time were (and remain) at a premium for me, so a free, hosted blog site like WordPress,  Text Pattern or Moveable Type seemed like the most sensible options. 

And yet, my persnickety tendencies balked whenever I tried to get familiar with the blogging software or browse design themes.  I’m a big believer in putting your best foot forward when undertaking something hand-made—operating under the assumption that I have to try twice as hard to appear professional when I don’t have the money, time, or fancy-schmancy design tools that someone who writes (or sells themselves) full-time might.  True to my slow-starter form, I actually created my WordPress page a full year before I got around to posting an actual entry on the site.  Seriously!  I kept telling myself I would find some other approach; root up some money to put into a semi-pro page (you know, grab some hungry local web design student looking to build their portfolio); or, at the very least, put a little more money into finding a server host and purchasing a domain name and maybe going for the a la carte WordPress option that would make my page far more polished than the free options seemed.  After a year waffling, I finally realized I needed to shit or get off the pot.  Thus, on June 8, 2012, I posted my first blog—a tribute to the just-expired Ray Bradbury—realizing that I would just have to do what the grand old man himself had always suggested in regard to the faith act that writing is: I must leap off the cliff and build my wings on the way down.

I started with the goal of posting two to three times a week.  Twice a week and I could say I met my goals; three times and I could be satisfied that I had exceeded them.  Now, six weeks into the endeavor, I’m already finding that once is good, with two entries a week being my stretch goal.   (And man—look how I dropped the ball these last few weeks.  But will I let this minor failure paralyze or deter me?  Nay, says I.  I’ll just post this bad boy and keep truckin’!)

Just writing wouldn’t guarantee me an audience, though.  I would have to spread the word.

But how?  And to who…?