Monday, September 29, 2008

Batman: Year One, Part Three

Hey guys,

Please accept my very sincere apology for my delay in posting this article. I have another question I’d like to pose to my readers.

Let’s consider the reasons why Bruce Wayne chose a bat as his symbol, and I’m going to share three ideas:

1) First, the story that we’re all familiar with in Nolan’s first film, that is, young Bruce having fallen into a well and been scared to death by all those bats that flew out and he chose to inflict the same kind of fear onto the criminals that he felt when he encountered those bats.

2) The following comes from the Year One script we’ve been discussing. Let me just set this up by saying that Bruce’s signet ring was given to him by his father the night he was murdered. This is what was in the box that Little Al gave him in the previous article, which he considered his inheritance. The ring is also what made him choose to become a vigilante crime-fighter. Here’s how he chose the bat symbol.


BRUCE enters a large, dirty GARAGE where young men dismantle expensive SPORTS CARS.

November 2. Dear Father, you always
told me, if a job is difficult,
then I'm using the wrong tools.
Today I test that theory.

All eyes fall on the tall stranger as he flings open his long OVERCOAT.

He's wearing the brightly colored SPORTS GEAR under his coat and the CATCHER'S MASK under his wide-brimmed hat.

Put these on.

He tosses a pile of HANDCUFFS on a work bench.

The thieves, STUNNED for a moment, break out laughing.

They attack with the tools of their trade — BUTANE TORCHES, CUTTERS, HAMMERS.

BRUCE takes a terrible beating but he gives back at least twice what he's getting.

Until an UNDER-BOSS pulls out a GUN.

BRUCE SLAMS a handful of GLASS VIALS into the gunman's chest.

WHITE PHOSPHOROUS EXPLOSIONS blinds the would be shooter, burns his clothes and face.

OK, that's enough fun for now.

BRUCE throws another handful of VIALS at the criminals —


— the men instantly fall to their hands and knees vomiting as BRUCE makes his exit.


BRUCE'S catcher's mask FLIES through the air and SHATTERS against stone WALL.

Too much protection, just slowed me

The chest protector slips into a dumpster.



DEEP CUTS on his back ooze blood, they're stitched up only as far around as he can reach.

I have the tools but not the
methodology. Something is still
missing. Father. I need an edge,
an advantage —


Under the words SPECIAL REPORT —

Criminals are a superstitious and
cowardly lot. It's obvious this
vigilante is trying to scare and
intimidate them with violence.

That's Right BRIAN, the vigilante
marks his victims with a wound
shaped lake a BAT. An obvious
reference to the occult.

They show victims with MARKS ON THEIR FACES.

BRUCE looks at his father's SIGNET RING and picks something (a piece of flesh?) out of it with the SEWING NEEDLE.

The TV shows a scared MUGGER in Gotham Prison's Hospital.

I make a few MISTAKES and I get
THIS? I get MARKED! People won't
even TALK to me! I been MARKED by
the BAT!

But you know, JANE, not everyone
thinks the vigilante is the bad guy
here. A lot of Gotham's common
citizens are happy to see those
people get what they deserve.

Thanks for that report, BRIAN. Up
next, THE BAT-MAN Vigilante: Friend
or Foe?

Yes Father. Now I see. Thank you.
Your loving son, Bruce.

BRUCE looks over at the pile of supplies left over from his shopping spree.


He's missing all his front teeth.

3) The image below comes from the Batman: Year One comic book. (Click to enlarge.) As Bruce is trying to figure out his own crime-fighting methodology, a bat crashes through a window and lands on the bust of his father’s head.

Which one would you prefer?

One of the questions you have to ask yourself when you’re making important decisions like this in a script is – “what is the most emotionally compelling approach for the audience?” How does this make the audience feel? For any decision you make, I’d suggest you always come up with three possibilities, and then consider which solution is the most emotionally compelling for a movie. For any scenario there are always multiple solutions, and you have to think them through before getting attached to any one idea.

And in this scenario, my answer would have to be Number 1.

In the script, as well as the comic book, the inciting incident that makes Bruce choose to become Batman is too incidental. In the Nolan film, his reason was an integral part of his character and personal history. It was also a way of showcasing his arc, that he conquered his fears when he stood in the batcave and allowed himself to be surrounded by those bats. Then, he used the bats as “backup.”

These decisions are essential when you’re building a mythology for a world that you’re creating. This springs the inevitable question:

What does it mean to build a

I talked about this in Part Three of my Hitman script review, which no one reads anymore because it was a bad movie that could’ve been great, but I’d like to cover this again because it is important.

We’re reminded
by James Bonnet that the old classic mythologies were never created overnight from the imaginative minds of writers like Homer, Sophocles, or Aesop. Those stories were oral traditions passed down over hundreds of years long before these guys put pen to paper and added their own poetic stamp. Case in point – the Trojan War probably began as a true event and in its endless retelling it evolved into this extraordinary tale involving gods, supernatural wonders, and thrilling heroics. And these stories became so beloved that they live on today as classic myths (or legends).

The word mythology means “an exposition of myths.” It’s
defined as “a body of myths, as that of a particular people or that relating to a particular person,” or a “collection of myths.” The Oxford English Dictionary goes even further to make a distinction between stories that include supernatural elements and stories that take on a mythology of their own due to their extreme popularity:

1a. A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces or creatures , which embodies and provides an explanation,
aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon, citing the Westminster Review of 1830 as the first English attestation.
1b. As a mass noun: such stories collectively or as a genre. (1840)

2a. A widespread but untrue or erroneous story or belief. (1849)
2b. A person or thing held in awe or generally referred to with near reverential admiration on the basis of popularly repeated stories (whether real or fictitious). (1853)
2c. A popular conception of a person or thing which exaggerates or idealizes the truth. (1928)

Okay, let’s talk about myth. If you’re total obsessive writer-addict like me and you’ll actually take the time to study the word myth, unfortunately, you’ll probably get just as confused I did because myth is frequently used interchangeably with legend or fairytales. They all seem to be different shades of grey, different sides to the same general literary box. If push comes to shove, you could probably make distinctions this way:

myths - sacred stories concerning the distant past, particularly the creation of the world, and generally focussed on the gods or other supernatural elements.

legends - stories about the (usually more recent) past, which generally include, or are based on, some historical events and a real individual but the story’s exaggerated.

folktales/fairytales - stories whose tellers acknowledge them to be fictitious, and which lack any definite historical setting. They often include animal characters. I don’t know why.

The key here is that if a franchise (or any story) becomes extremely popular in the public mind, it will fall under the OED definition of 2a, 2b, and 2c, that is, “a person or thing held in awe or generally referred to with near reverential admiration on the basis of popularly repeated stories.” Only THEN will people speak of the mythology of your bigger-than-life characters and stories. For example:

A) There was
mythology behind The Godfather - The Succession Myth, which “chronicles the passage of power from generation to generation. A typical ancient example is the Theogony of Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer: Ouranos, the Sky God, was castrated by his son Kronos; Kronos, in turn, was overthrown by his youngest son Zeus, who became king of the gods. This story, with its Oedipal associations, describes the basic facts of family descent and competition.”

B) Ebert spoke of mythology in
Goodfellas: “What finally got to me after seeing this film - what makes it a great film - is that I understood Henry Hill's feelings. Just as his wife Karen grew so completely absorbed by the Mafia inner life that its values became her own, so did the film weave a seductive spell. It is almost possible to think, sometimes, of the characters as really being good fellows. Their camaraderie is so strong, their loyalty so unquestioned. But the laughter is strained and forced at times, and sometimes it's an effort to enjoy the party, and eventually, the whole mythology comes crashing down, and then the guilt - the real guilt, the guilt a Catholic like Scorsese understands intimately - is not that they did sinful things, but that they want to do them again.”

C) Of James Bond, Ebert wrote in his
Diamonds Are Forever review: “The cultists like the early James Bond movies best, but I dunno. They may have been more tightly directed films, but they didn't understand the Bond mythos as fully as Goldfinger and Diamonds Are Forever. We see different movies for different reasons, and Diamonds Are Forever is great at doing the things we see a James Bond movie for.” Even if your story flops, that does not mean it didn’t have any mythology. It just won’t be generally accepted as mythology unless it becomes extremely popular in the public mind.

So… if you’re trying to create a popular franchise or story, how do you carefully construct the mythology (before the public catches on)?

Here are 3 considerations:

1) Comparative Mythology – take a page from Joseph Campbell whose contention was that the myths of almost every society are fundamentally similar retellings of a few archetypal stories and see what other elements you can add to your story. In fact, Ted Friedman, in an article called
Star Wars and the Dialectics of Myth illustrated how Lucas followed point-by-point Campbell’s model from his book, Hero Has a Thousand Faces. This isn’t just comparing other films of the same genre, it’s the incorporation of other elements and structures from literature, history, culture, and religions. Mario Puzo had constructed the script for Superman: The Movie as a mythologic story based on a Greek tragedy, a structure that naturally lends itself to comparisons and deep mythology. While he denied it then (due to death threats), Richard Donner freely admits now that the beginning of Superman wasn’t simply about the birth of Superman. This was God sending His Son to earth and they did it with such class with Brando saying, “You will travel far, my little Kal-El, but I will never leave you. Even in the face of my death the richness of my life shall be yours. All that I have learned, everything I feel, all of this and more I have bequeathed to you my son. You shall carry me inside you all your days. You will make my strength your own, see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father the father becomes the son…” They were willing to make some parallels to Jesus to add to the mystique of his mythology but they weren’t about to go overboard with those analogies either. Finally, I should mention that Thomas Bulfinch's extensive mythology books, Age of Chivalry, Age of Fable, and Legends of Charlemagne, are available online for free thanks to Project Gutenberg.

2) Character Depth – One can’t design popularity. However, I think your characters must have
depth to ensure a sustained public interest over the long haul. There has to be different sides to your protagonist, yet definable overall characteristics (even perhaps the archetypes of mythical constructs), while also possessing strengths and weaknesses, inner conflicts, and dare I say – charisma? Consider our Character Development Sheets. When you’re writing a franchise-starter, I think that more important than plot is character. The public has to connect to your character, first and foremost, and be willing to spend time with him/her again and again. And here, I question their attempts at mythology. To take the route that Agent 47 is almost super-human and bred from the world’s deadliest criminals takes a huge risk of putting him at an even greater emotional distance from the audience. How are they going to connect to that? Why not have him an orphan or that he lost his family to the world’s worst criminals? At least this way, we’d feel something about him along the lines of sympathy that might make us care. There’s also something to be said about nurturing a little mystery in your protagonist, too, and not explaining every single thing about that person. I’ll throw in another page from Donner’s Superman playbook - he had a sign hung in his production office while filming that said “verisimilitude,” which is the state or quality of something that exhibits the appearance of truth or reality.

3) The Mysterious Third Element
Pamela Jaye Smith wrote about considering the Mythic Themes, Mythic Statements, Mythic Psychology, and Mythic Symbols and Imagery in your stories. And there is, of course, that spiritual element. My friend Jennifer van Sijll, author of Cinematic Storytelling, shared with me an article she wrote called Nature as Mythic Storyteller. It’s great. She shows how the active participation of nature in the plot lends a story to mythic qualities. Here’s one example: “In Jane Campion’s film, The Piano, the protagonist lets the ocean itself decide her fate. Ada (Holly Hunter) steps into a loop of rope she knows will hurl her into the ocean. When the ocean throws her back up, Ada accepts nature’s decision that she must live. Ada simply assumes that nature is active in the world and that it is more knowing than she. She now has its blessing.”


The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Writers
By Christopher Vogler

Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them
By Hans Beidermann

Cinematic Storytelling
By Jennifer van Sijll


Matt said...

While I completely agree with you that ultimately option 1 is the right way to go, leading to sound drama, I really like that scene that Aronofsky and Miller cooked up.

First off, it plays off of the audience's expectations. I'm not sure where in that script it falls, but I'm guessing it's not in the first 15 pages. An audience in a Batman film is, by definition, waiting for the moment that he dons the cape and the mask, and that, for me, was an exciting and different way to portray that. And I think an audience would've enjoyed that.

It is a perfect example of that Mysterious Third Element. Bruce is looking for a symbol, and he asks his dead Father for advice... with the answer coming in the form of his Father's ring (if I'm reading that scene right). It's his Father answering him for beyond the grave, and it suggests that there is a guiding force pushing Bruce to fight injustice that doesn't exactly exist on this spiritual plane.

This was a fascinating series and a hell of a lot of fun to read. Thanks!

terraling said...

Couple of days late with "Friday's" post and I'm thinking, Hey, maybe MM has a life - but, nope, he has his head buried in mythology esoterica!

The key difference between the three bat-revelation moments is that in both the Batman: Year One versions Bruce is actively thinking about what sort of identity his vigilante should have and it is fortuitously handed to him via some timely outside event. In Batman Begins although we only see it in flashback at the relevant time, the key events took place in another era and Bruce already has the seeds of the identity within him.

Not sure that I can tell you anything about myths vs legends etc., you've clearly studied it a great deal. In screenwriting terms, though, my instinct tells me that legend pertains more to plot and myth more to character. Footage from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has been on the TV a lot this weekend, and you can think about the legend of Butch and Sundance relating to their deeds while their is a wider mythology relating to them as people, the why's and wherefore's, the culture and world they lived in etc.

Anonymous said...

I think the great thing about the Nolan/Goyer version is that the scene was a nexus, in that it served so many purposes. It starts to layer character (Bruce's fear of bats), plot (it sets up the batcave), theme (fear), arc (Bruce's eventual overcoming of his fear), and it inspires his alter-ego.
I used to love the notion of the bat crashing through the study window, but in comparison it doesn't seem to do as much. By the time it happens in Year One Bruce is already an adult, already beginning his crusade. The "Begins" version seeds it in him early, pushing this notion that Batman may be his true face and Wayne the disguise.
I thought at the time that the ring was a novel idea, a different spin, but it doesn't seem to hold as much weight because it feels too coincidental an occurrence at just the right time in his life. You can argue that it's fate or divine providence, I suppose, but for me, the Begins version does it better because it multitasks.

maltinghead said...

2 & 3 are coincidental, the answer handed to Bruce on a platter. Thus they have no emotional resonance, regardless of how intriguing the ring twist is.

Only option 1 is an active decision.
Still not entirely convinced it couldn't be even better [when myth clicks, it all seem "inevitable", and I didn't feel that with his choice of Bats in Begins]. But at least the fear angle was the right sort of direction.

JJ said...

In "Year One" that's supposed to be the same bat that scared him as a kid.

It even says it in the thought balloons: "I have seen it before....long ago..."

I beleive this same image is also in Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns. If you're gonna talk myth, in this case the huge, gigantic bat is literally mythic, like a familiar, or Bruce's guardian animal spirit, or a messenger from the gods, a visitor from the spirit world.

Anonymous said...

All of which just kinda confirms that the ring origin for the bat is a bit... coincidental? Weak? Simply not as iconic or organic.
Bruce's fear in both "live bat" versions gives it weight.

Luzid said...

I'm finding it very difficult to understand exactly how Aronofsky and Miller were *paid* for that draft.

From what I've read so far, it's all lazy description, coincidence and just plain dumb ideas (the Big Al/Little Al characters, for example. Laaaaaame.)

You have to go with BB on this one - as noted above, it accomplishes many things at once, is more creative, and feels organic.

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