Join Date: Apr 2011
Here's the essay
The Auteur Theory and The Batman Film Franchise
In the 1950ís writers and film critics at the influential French film magazine Cahiers Du Cinema led by Francois Truffaut began to develop an approach to watching film that would go on to be known as the auteur theory, an approach which shifted the focus of the film away from the film text itself and instead onto the director as a key factor in the film, identifying that despite the production derived system of Hollywood films at the time that certain directors were able to showcase unique traits and personal touches within their work. For the purposes of this essay I shall be focusing on two theories in particular, the first of these being Andrew Sarrisí concentric circles as a means of defining the auteur,. Sarrisí view of the auteur, based on his essay Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962, is the belief that the application of an auteur status onto a director is dependent on whether their work applies to three criteria; technical competency, a personal style which determines how a movie looks and feels and an Ďinterior meaningí in the directorís work. The second theorist I shall focus on is Timothy Corrigan, who takes a rather more cynical and post-modern view of the auteur, seeing it largely as a means of marketing a film and that film directors deliberately create themselves a star image as a means of attempting to earn themselves a perception of an auteur from the cinema audience.
Whilst it has been shown in the past that the application of the auteur can take place within a highly commercialised film-making system such as Hollywood, the application of the auteur to the premise of franchise film is arguably a more difficult task, as film-makers working within this type of film franchise not only have to attend with the traditional restrictions of Hollywood film such as production interference and the star power of the actors involved but also have to contend with traits of the franchise itself which may conflict with the stylistic traits and themes of the director. Bearing this in mind the most interesting of these franchises to look at in the context of Sarris and Corrigan is the Batman franchise, as it more so than any other comic book franchise has seen this relationship with the auteur director at its most fraught, as three directors, each with differing levels of an Ďauteurí status have taken on films within the franchise, each with differing levels of how much they were able to apply the authorship of Sarris and Corrigan to their work.
In this essay I hope to explore the inner workings of the Batman franchise, helping to explain the reasons why this relationship with the auteur film director came about, particularly within the concept of Timothy Corriganís interpretation of the auteur as a commercial product as well as the concentric circles as defined by Andrew Sarris. Firstly by looking at Tim Burtonís two Batman films, which saw Burtonís traditional auteur traits initially downplayed and questioned before being more embraced as Burtonís auteur status began to be seen more prominently in his other work. Secondly with Joel Schumacherís two Batman films, questioning whether the appointment of the arguably non-auteur Schumacher was an attempt from Warner Brothers to seize control of the franchise for their own commercial benefits but also ask whether the lack of an directorial control was part of the reason for the comparative failure of Schumacherís two films. Finally I would look at Christopher Nolanís trilogy of films, asking not only whether the appointment of Nolan has seen the Batman franchise once again embracing the concept of an Ďauteurí director but also whether due to outside factors Nolanís auteur status has more place in the world of the comic book movie then it did with Tim Burtonís tenure in charge.
Prior to his work as a Hollywood director Tim Burton had worked for as an animator for the Disney corporation in the eighties (Bovingdon, 2012) as well as producing two short-films which had been based on personal experiences, the 1982 Claymation movie Vincent, based on Burtonís appreciation for the actor Vincent Price (Aleksandrovic, 2010) followed by 1984ís Frankenweenie based on the real-life loss of Burtonís pet dog as a child (Ace Showbiz, 2012). These themes of personal identity, added with the visual themes of German expressionism, would become traits which would become regular occurrences within Burtonís work, including in Burtonís two Batman films. Following the success of Burtonís Beetlejuice, Executive Producer Michael Uslan approached Burton for the role of director for the proposed Batman film, believing that the visual style demonstrated within his short work would make him the man to faithfully translate the Batman comic to the big screen and portray Batman in the way in which he was initially envisioned by creator Bob Kane, ďA creature of the night; stalking criminals in the shadows.Ē (PRI, 2012)
The treatment of Burton in the context of the auteur within his two Batman films is very interesting to note, as despite the fact that both Batman and Batman Returns were made within the space of three years the treatment of Burtonís status as a prominent part of the involvement of the film differed significantly. During production of Batman, Burtonís gravitas as an influential figure within production was downplayed especially in comparison to his later work, partly due to his relatively low profile as a director at that point but also due to greater influence being placed onto ulterior factors into shaping the mise-en-scene of Batman as a film, the most noticeable of these being the involvement of Batman creator Bob Kane within the filmís production and Executive Producer Michael Uslanís insistence that the film follow Kaneís strict ground rules on how the character should be interpreted in what was known as the ĎBat-Bibleí, a move which saw Uslan limit the source material that Burton was allowed access to the first year of the Batman comics and thus restrict his role on set (Robinson, 2006 pg. 76-77). Comparatively three years later during production of Batman Returns Burton was given much more of a free reign as a director, a decision which had been fuelled largely by the critical and commercial success of Burtonís highly personalised and stylised pet project Edward Scissorhands, during the making of Returns the involvement of producers Uslan, Peter Guber and Jon Peters was largely minimalized and the strict adherence to the ĎBat-Bibleí was disposed with, allowing Burton to demonstrate the themes and motifs traditionally seen in his portfolio of work more emphatically in Batman Returns as opposed to the original 1989 film and do so unopposed by Warner Brothers, allowing to exude authoritarian prominence over the film and shape it in a way in which was fitting with the commercial perception of Burton as an auteur. (Robinson, 2006. pg. 95)
In both of these scenarios, both as a comparatively unimportant part of the production of Batman and as a central figure of importance within Batman Returns, The mise-en-scene of both films can certainly point towards the viewpoint of Burton as an auteur as defined by Andrew Sarris, the achievement of this status in Batman being arguably more impressive considering the downplaying of his involvement behind the scenes. Looking at Batman when taking into account Sarrisí concentric circles the film does contain evidence of Tim Burton as an auteur, such as his gothic interpretation of Gotham City, his portrayal of Bruce Wayne as a tortured social outsider and his reversed portrayal of colour with Batman clad in black and The Joker clad in purple and yellow, all three of which being themes and motifs which Burton has come to traditionally use within his work, whilst in Returns these can be seen in the way in which Burton would take leeway with the characters within the Batman comics and give them backstories and designs more in fitting with those seen in Burtonís portfolio, with the Penguinís backstory in Batman Returns of a deformed outsider abandoned by his parents is almost identical to that of the backstory of the titular lead character in his previous film Edward Scissorhands, whilst the overt predominance within the production of Batman Returns, aided with his new-found celebrity star power following Edward Scissorhands also led to Burton developing an auteur status as defined by Timothy Corrigan, arguably to the extent that Burtonís role within the film was equal to or surpassed that of the titular character Batman.
One of the issues that this established however was that the creation of Burton as a commercial auteur came into conflict with the commercial viability of the Batman franchise as a commercial entity, due in part to the fact that Burtonís auteur presence was in some ways too prominent for its own good. In the making of Batman Returns, Burton arguably managed to isolate and fracture a large proportion of Returnsí two major projected audiences, namely the hard-core Batman fans who had followed the character through the comic books and a casual, family friendly audience. In regards to the hard-core fans this was done in Burtonís largely fictionalised portrayal of the Batman franchise now that he was no longer forced to adhere to the demands in following the original comic material that had been set for him during the first film, the most overt example of this was seen in the form of the character of The Penguin, which was transformed from the original comic book interpretation of an English gentleman of crime into a deformed outcast much more in fitting with the visual design of Tim Burton as opposed to that seen within the characterís comic book interpretation, these methods helped to hinder the filmís appeal with hard-core fans of the comics, who took offence at the ways in which Burton had taken leeway with Ďtheirí characters. Mark Reinhart in particular was very vocal on this, stating that ďIn my opinion, the filmís Batman is so far removed from the traditional comic depiction of Batman that they hardly even resemble one another. Returnsí Batman is a remorseless killer, pure and simple - and as far as Iím concerned, that depiction runs completely counter to what the Batman character has basically been about for decades.Ē (Batman on Film, 2005)
As well as this the increased presence of Burton and the application of his auteur status led to Burton isolating an important child audience with his film by making it too dark for its own good, a move which in turn led to the film being hindered from a commercial point of view, as due to the increased violence and negative feedback from parents Warner Brothers were forced to cancel a marketing tie-in with McDonaldsí happy meal shortly after it began (Empire, 1992). Burton in Batman Returns gives us one of the difficulties in the application of a Corrigan-defined auteur status within a franchise film such as Batman, as doing so leads to a conflict of interests when attempting to define a target audience for the film between the audience belonging to the work of the auteur and an audience belonging to fans of the franchise, especially when you have a director such as Tim Burton whose image and aura is so different to that of the ethos of the Batman franchise.
Unlike Burton, who had been comparatively young and early in his career when he had directed Batman and Batman Returns, Joel Schumacher had been a veteran of the movie industry having made his first film in 1981, and had established himself as a reputation less of an artist and more of a craftsman, having worked in multiple genres with varying success, from teen movies St. Elmoís Fire and The Lost Boys through to his adaption of the John Grisham novel The Client in 1994. On paper Burton and Schumacher were comparatively similar type of film-makers, both had made careers with films noted for a unique visual style and both had worked within the art and design industry prior to moving into film-making, with Schumacher having worked as a fashion designer on films such as Woody Allenís Sleeper (1973) and Interiors (1978), but whilst Burtonís visual style has been used as evidence and a means to define Burton as a movie auteur the same has not happened to Schumacher. The reasons for this may be in the motive of visual imagery and the type of imagery used by both directors, whilst Burtonís imagery focused on German Expressionism, giving his Batman films links to art-house independent cinema, Schumacherís use of imagery, which was much more influenced by pop culture, came across as much more overtly commercialised as well as being considered too unoriginal and unremarkable to be given any overt interest, and it was this added with the inconsistencies of genre in Schumacherís previous work that played a part in not only dismissing the concept of Schumacher as an auteur but also instigating the criticisms that would emerge from Schumacherís two Batman films, in particular 1997ís Batman and Robin.
Due in part to the failed attempt to allow for Tim Burton to demonstrate a Corrigan defined auteur status in Batman Returns Joel Schumacherís influence on Batman Forever and Batman and Robin was much more subtle, with production arguably returning to a similar format as what was seen in 1989ís Batman, where the Batman character in itself returned to becoming the primary selling point of the franchise as opposed to the director. This was achieved not only with the appointment of a much less high-profile and less visually defined director such as Schumacher but also through the fact that many of the key players within the Tim Burton era of the Batman franchise had also chosen to move on to new film ventures, including the composer Danny Elfman, writer Sam Hamm and leading actor Michael Keaton, which allowed for Schumacher and the producers more freedom to produce a version of Batman less entwined with the Burton era of the Batman franchise, a version which following the negative commercial reaction to Batman Returns was more family friendly and arguably more commercial orientated. Whilst Burtonís two films did feature elements of commercialisation, Schumacherís emphasis on this during Batman Forever was something which caught the attention of film critics negatively, with Brian Lowry of Variety claiming that Batman Forever ďis as much a finely tuned marketing/merchandising machine as a movie, down to the not-so-subtle McDonaldís plug (ĎIíll get drive-throughí) after the opening creditsĒ (Lowry, 1995), however whilst Schumacherís style of film-making should be a reason for this commercialised look of the film Warner Brothers in themselves should also shoulder some of the reason for this, as in the process of creating his two films Schumacher found himself given strict instructions over the contents of the film, including noticeably an aim to make the film Ďtoyeticí and being consulted over his visual effects by toy manufacturers so that the designs of vehicles and gadgets within the film would appear as marketable to children as possible (Schumacher, 2005). This in turn though leads to the questioning of Schumacherís status as an auteur within his two Batman films, as it is evidence of the director having his personal vision and design shaped by ulterior motives.
Similarly note was made of Schumacherís focus on homosexual undertones within his two films, something explicitly seen in 1997ís Batman and Robin, but also hinted at within Batman Forever as well, with the opening scene of the film post credits including a montage of Batman preparing for battle, including elongated scenes focusing on the characterís crotch and buttocks, added to this was the suggestion by Jack Croll that the design and characterisation of Robin (played by Chris Oí Donnell) was done cynically to attract a gay audience to the film. ďIs it too cynical to speculate that heís (Schumacher) been disinterred with the increasingly coveted gay audience in mind? Chris OíDonnell as Robin sports a close-cropped head, long sideburns and an earring. Chew on that, you pop-culture iconographers!Ē (Croll, 1995). The argument that would come from this within the context of the auteur however is that other directors which can be defined as auteurs have highlighted themes of homosexuality within superhero films, such as Bryan Singerís X-Men (2000), but whilst the inclusion of these homosexual themes and motives were considered part of the reason for the critical success of X-Men, the critical and commercial reaction to the inclusion of such themes in Batman and Robin were very negatively perceived, this could arguably be due to the perception that Schumacher through his excessive use of this imagery made the theme of homosexuality appear too overt whilst still lacking in an intended meaning behind its inclusion. This lack of intention added with the commercial orientated agenda of his vision of the Batman franchise leads to us certainly questioning the judgement of Joel Schumacher from an auteur view as defined by Sarris, whilst the overt focus on Batman and a lack of star power prior to his work on Batman leads to us questioning his value as a Corrigan derived auteur as well.