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To The Batcave!

In the last month I've been repeatedly called a movie snob.  Maybe it's because I sold out and stopped hiding my love affair with iPic.  Maybe it's because every weekend I don't just read the weekly movie grosses, but every piece of media news and analysis at my hands:  EW, the New York Times,,, and, of course, USA Today.  Or heck, maybe I just think I know more about movies than I do.  I definitely spend more time deconstructing and analyzing movies than most.  In any event, I find that the most common comparison that I make with respect to what I see is to what came before.  My conclusion, like many an old codger, is this:  they just don't make them like they used to, do they?  I've been mulling this point ever since The Dark Knight became the news-making movie of the summer.

Call me crazy, but I grew up on Adam West.  And yes, I know that at 36 years old, I was already watching reruns a decade old when I rushed home after school, but nothing gets me like the BAM! POW! ZAP! of the original series.  Adam West was the man.  The BAT man.  And I loved Cesar Romero's Joker.  When I got older I wondered why Romero wouldn't shave his white mustache when he donned the purple suit and white cake makeup, but it only really bothered me in the close-up shots, but no bother. It's all good.  I would see in my adulthood the fruits of my love for all things Hollywood.    Growing up I was probably one of few people who could recall every actor's performance, including the obscure guest roles.  For example, I can't forget Victor Buono's riveting performance as King Tut (a delusion brought onto a museum scholar by a swift knock to the head); Tallulah ("Bewitched") Bankhead's Black Widow; or Milton Berle's Louie the Lilac.  I can even name all 3 women to play Catwoman in the show. I guess that makes me a bit of an expert on Batman, and for the sake of this piece, we'll assume I'm right.  Snob or not.

So let's flash forward 30 years, Christian Bale is pretty damn good, but he's still a bit too young for the role.  By the way, take note of my bias.  I am also one of the few this summer who will go on record and say that Nicholson still owns The Joker.  Heath Ledger was a fascinating turn, and parts of the movie were excellent, but ultimately, the Aussie just didn't do it for me.  And, yes, for those of you who wonder, I did watch The Dark Knight at a certain digital screening room on opening night. I could list a bunch of problems with The Dark Knight...and what the heck, I'll do so on the bottom of this blog*...but the biggest problem with the movie is the self-congratulatory hype that Hollywood bestowed upon itself in the wake of a mediocre movie. 

Getting back to Bale for a moment, I am looking forward to watching him don the bat-suit several more times, but how can anything else he--or Nolan--ever does in his life compare to the hype, much less the weight of expectations?  The now and forever more reigning King of the World, James Cameron, knows from this.  If you ask me, that's what prevented him James Cameron from directing any other movie since he first sank the Titanic in 1997.  Despite the similarities, though, Titanic was a moment in history that lasted 15 consecutive weeks, and took months more before passing in the night.  The weight of expectation crushes filmmakers.  It happened to George Lucas--with Star Wars and with Indiana Jones.  It happened with James Cameron.  And, almost 11 years after Titanic, we are probably witnessing the same phenomen in another grand epic, The Dark Knight.

Of course, Titanic and The Dark Knight are hardly comparable.  Who really knows the secret behind theatrical alchemy?  I don't. For example, months before its release, Titanic was refuted to suffer from the same problem that sank Waterworld:  a grossly bloated budget.  Waterworld was the original "most expensive movie ever made", released 2 years before Titanic with a $175 million budget.  But then Titanic announced its ever spiraling costs, topping out at $200 million.  The expecation was the same for Titanic.  Everyone though that, like Waterworld, Titanic would tank.  But it didn't happen.  Something with Titanic clicked for audiences.  Though it was not by far, the greatest movie ever, it was, ultimately, an engaging epic with a little something for everyone. 

How could Batman ever compare?   Titanic further bucked the odds by being a winter movie--Oscar bait that intentionally avoided the fish-in-a-barrel aspect of summer big tent movie releases.  Here's another interesting point.  Though The Dark Knight was #1 for 4 weeks, it hasn't even reached the near-record 7 week stretch at #1 that On Golden Pond reached in 1981.  That's right, Jane Fonda, a back flip, and a netted loon still best a man in a cowl.  That's right, On Golden Pond was #1 for 7 weeks.  And Dark Knight won't make it another week at #1.  Henry Fonda and Kate Hepburn "sucking face" was more endearing to audiences in 1981 than the Bat Pod.  On the all-time list of consecutive weeks at #1, The Dark Knight still only registers at a relatively week  24th place.  Of course, Titanic ranks #1 for consecutive weeks, with 15 at #1. 

So what's responsible for B: TDK's recordbreaking success?  Is it the legions of Bat-dorks, repeatedly seeing the movie dressed in Bat-garb and Joker makeup?  Perhaps.  They were there when Tim Burton's original Batman came out, but they weren't as interested in Nolan's first round.  It appears that legions of teenbopper tweens crushing on dreamboat Leo Dicaprio had more staying power in 1997 than grown adults creepily donning Heath Ledger's makeup.  Girls at the movie theatre are usually discounted as a strong force, but Titanic was a prime example of girl power. 

The point I make, feebly and tangentially, is that TDK is no real recordbreaker.  In fact, it's barely significant, except for the bleak, barren wasteland that Hollywood has become.  Sure, it's almost perched at #2 on the all-time gross list.  But as I write this article, Batman sits just a few million behind The Bells of St. Mary's on the all-time gross list (adjusted for inflation).  Sure, Batman's almost caught up with Luke Skywalker (Star Wars is #2 on all time gross), but Batman's only now passing Bing Crosby in 1945 dollars.  Bing Crosby, people!   

Here's another nugget:  adjusted for inflation, Batman's grosses only now just passed the grosses for Lord of the Rings:  Return of the King AND the Towering Inferno.   Yes, that's right.  Up until this past weekend, the Towering Inferno had a higher adjusted gross than The Dark Knight, in 1974 dollars. In 1974, multiplexes were still a rarity, and usually maxed out at 3-4 screens within.  And adjusted grosses for TDK still haven't surpassed Tim Burton's original Batman  grosses (with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson).  Take a look at what else grossed more in its year's dollars than The Dark Knight here...

Lest we forget, there are a number of factors when evaluating the success (financial or otherwise) of a movie.  Let's see what tools we can use:  gross receipts (which we see every Monday morning); net income is another (revenue minus expenses); inflation; and ticket sales.  Adjusted for inflation, Gone With the Wind is, and will probably always be, the top grosser of all time.  Adjusted for 2008, it sold over $1.4 billion in tickets.  That's a lot. And truthfully, Star Wars (#2 on the all time gross list) probably shouldn't be there anyhow because its receipts include windfall from it's mid 1990's 'special edition' re-release. 

Why else is TDK not so significant?  Let's look at the United States now versus the United States then. In 2008, the United States population is estimated to be roughly 305 million.  In 1939?  Roughly 131 million. States in the union in 2008? 50.  In 1939?  48.  I'm willing to guess that in 1939 air conditioning was such a luxury that most theatres still didn't have it.  Thus going to the movies meant really wanting to be there. Back in the day, movie palaces probably held more seats, but there were far fewer screens.  Also, even though the typical movie palace of 1939 sat 500-1000 people, there were far fewer theatres in far fewer areas, given the smaller population of the United States. 

And given the old studio system, actors and writers who were on studio contract were cheaper hires.  No $20 million plus salaries back then.  No residuals.  Movie studios routinely owned theatres (a no-no today), so that cut the overhead, too.  

Here's another one:  in 1939 there was no TV.  For all practical purposes.  

Marketing, the ever-presence of entertainment shows and movies, and pumping money into advertising budgets have stoked the fever pitch frenzy that is The Dark Knight.  And yeah, a suspcious death of a rising young actor after a mentally exhausting Method performance probably adds to the mystique.  But again, it amounts to marketing. 

The bottom line?  Movie-making today is a far more bloated and expensive exercise than it was in 1939, and people just aren't going out to the movies like they used to.  That's why I'm willing to bet that in another 70 years, Gone With The Wind will still be standing its ground, but The Dark Knight will, actually, be gone with the wind. 


***Spoiler alert***


Here are a few of the problems with The Dark Knight:  1)  There is no batcave.  Wayne Manor is being rebuilt, but apparently so is the Batcave.  2)  Batman goes to China.  3) The Joker's final plot should have resulted in both ships exploding automatically, regardless of the choices the individuals on each vessel made.  4)  Harvey Dent couldn't have gone out that way in public without a) hydrating his exposed areas abd b) getting serious dust infections.  5)  Batman saves Rachel Dawes but leaves everyone else at the party he doesn't return to with the Joker and his henchmen still there.  6) How could Lucius Fox have been so stupid as to let a lackey research the R&D budget with a fine-tooth comb?  7) How does Batman's little sonar trick really help? 8) How does Batman move from the middle of the batmobile to the left side which then separates to become the bat-pod? 8) What happened to the Gotham el featured so prominently in the first movie? 9) Would a mayor really name a new police commissioner literally moments after the last one was blown up?

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