Saturday with the Dark Knight(s)
You think of weird stuff when you’re home sick.
Julie and I are only just now beginning to recover from this vile bug that has been burning through the Seattle schools like a California wildfire. Been missing way too much work (not to mention blowing off this year’s Antiquarian Book Fair, which I’m still surly about.)
The one consolation is that I am catching up on all kinds of reading and DVD-watching. I have a bad habit of ordering half-a-dozen things at once, usually on impulse when they’re cheap, and then suddenly there’s a whole pile of unread books and unwatched TV shows and movies…. and I’ve been taking my enforced bed rest as an opportunity to catch up on it all. So both Julie and I have mostly been home under a quilt on the couch watching TV, getting up to speed on shows we’ve recorded or DVD sets we’ve bought and haven’t yet screened. And this weird thought struck me.
Every TV show we’re watching lately steals from Batman.
I know it sounds silly. The sort of thing that pops into your head when you’ve had too much NyQuil. But once it was there I couldn’t shake it.
Look at Arrow, for instance.
Everything about this show is a Batman riff…. Oliver Queen spends his early adult years in a faraway place training in all kinds of exotic martial arts disciplines, then returns to a corrupt city and vows to clean it up by using his vast personal fortune to become a fearsome urban vigilante, adopting the identity of a feckless, shallow playboy by day so that no one suspects him of being the masked hero striking terror into the hearts of criminals by night.
Of course, Green Arrow started in the comics that way too, with the kid sidekick and the Arrowcave and the Arrowcar. So it’s not like there isn’t precedent. And so far Arrow is an entertaining, if not terribly original, television show. (The first couple of episodes have left us with this weird déjà vu feeling…. the story elements are all Batman things but the look and feel of it all is that same slow-paced mopey Vancouver atmosphere that hangs over all the other TV shows shot up there– Smallville, early X-Files, Once Upon A Time, and so on.)
What surprised me, though, is how many of the same Batman riffs Arrow is stealing also pop up on ABC’s Revenge.
That’s also a story of someone who spends her early adult years in a faraway place training in all kinds of exotic martial arts disciplines, then returns to a corrupt city and vows to clean it up by using her vast personal fortune to become a fearsome urban vigilante. There’s no costume, but otherwise, Emily Thorne is just a Y chromosome away from being angry young Bruce Wayne.
She’s got a sensei who keeps warning her not to let personal feelings get in the way of the mission (the mission to vent her personal feelings of Revenge, you know, the name of the show, but just go with it) and, with this season, an ex from her training years who’s an awful lot like Henri Ducard. And her BFF Nolan is a combination of Robin and Alfred– he can serve in either role depending on the needs of the story.
Hey, it’s not just me that noticed. Over at the Tom and Lorenzo fashion blog they routinely refer to her as “Hamptons Batman.” (Incidentally, if you are watching Revenge, their morning-after reviews of the show are not to be missed. Even if you’re not a Revenge fan they’re still pretty damn funny.)
But the one we’ve been watching lately that’s been seriously working the Batman thing isn’t a new show, but rather one from a couple of decades back that I somehow missed. I spent a large part of the 1980s screwing up my personal life and thus did not watch a lot of TV. So I never got to see this particular television series until a couple of weeks ago when we picked up the first season on DVD. (This amazed my bride– Julie said, “Really? You NEVER saw this? It’s so completely your kind of show!”)
But I finally found it, and now that I have, I’m swooningly in love with The Equalizer.
Not only is it a great throwback to all the 1960s superspy stuff I grew up on, but I swear to God, it’s completely a riff on Batman. A very particular Batman– the aging one depicted in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
Both Dark Knight‘s Bruce Wayne and The Equalizer‘s Robert McCall are angry men in their 50s who act outside the law to take down criminals the police can’t or won’t touch. Both originally retired from crimefighting because they felt responsible for an innocent’s death, and both returned to it because they can’t stand the urban cesspool each of their respective cities has become. And most of all, both of them are still terrifying opponents despite being middle-aged men.
Robert McCall has secret safehouses loaded with cool equipment– a lot like Bruce Wayne’s auxiliary Batcaves. His toll-free number with its anonymous answering machine is the equivalent of the Bat-signal. And McCall’s friend Control is essentially the same guy as the Dark Knight version of Commissioner Gordon– the aging comrade-in-arms who’s still bound by official rules and bureaucracy, but willing to bend the rules for his vigilante pal.
But what seals the deal for me is the way both Dark Knight and The Equalizer posit that living in a major American city means you are risking your life whenever you set foot on the sidewalk.
Their cities are so full of monsters that you wonder why the citizens don’t all just get the hell out and nuke the place from orbit. In an environment that horrible, with deadly menace lurking around every corner, vigilantism seems like the only sensible response.
Now, this is not actually a criticism. And I don’t for a moment mean to suggest that there was any kind of plagiarism here. Or even influence, really– I can’t imagine any of the people involved in making The Equalizer were avidly reading Batman comics back then. But the parallels tickle me.
We aren’t all the way through the episodes yet. Maybe by the time we get to the end of this particular season set the show will have turned into something completely different. So far, though, as far as I can tell Woodward’s Robert McCall is a half-step away from being Miller’s Goddamn Batman in a trenchcoat. And I love it. I’m almost at the point where if anyone asks me what my favorite film adaptation of Batman is, I’d probably say “Edward Woodward as The Equalizer.”
In fairness, though, I have to admit that could just be the cold medicine talking.
See you next week.