Friday, October 10, 2003

Your Virtuous Tights

Media Gadfly speaks again:
Orson Welles' Alter-Ego: Discovery May Rewrite Comic Book to Film History... Or Not

It's a great time to wear tights, even if Orson Welles never thought so.

Since the success of 2002's "X-Men," which both earned subtle praise from critics and grossed $157,299,717 during its theatrical run, Hollywood has cast a kinder gaze upon the superhero.

Men with capes. Women in bodysuits. Explosions, gadgets and cackling supervillains. No wonder films detailing the heroic exploits of such heroes were regarded as mere live-action versions of Saturday morning cartoons. And disregarding Tim Burton's two Batman films and the first two Superman films, superhero films were just that. Case in point: 1984's head-scratching "Supergirl," 1989's dreadful "Punisher" or 1994's never-released "Fantastic Four."

But all this changed when "X-Men" proved that such films entertain at least as well as any James Bond spy flick. Hollywood stars like Halle Berry joined real actors like Ian McKellen and made a damn good movie. Suddenly, reputable directors began unabashedly scanning the Marvel and DC universe for the next blockbuster. Most notably, "Sense and Sensibility" director Ang Lee adapted Stan Lee's "The Incredible Hulk."

This plethora of gloved, superstrong thumbs raised approvingly upward coincides neatly with a recent rumor about Orson Welles' newly uncovered plans to direct a Batman film — back in 1946.

Comic book fanboys' ill-fitting pants got a little moister when Mark Millar, a columnist at Comicbookresources.com, reported Sept. 26 that a Welles biographer had stumbled across production notes for a Batman film that never made it to celluloid. According to the article, Welles, a well-known fan of superhero radio dramas like "The Shadow" and the brains behind the infamous "War of the Worlds" hoax, had seriously considered bringing the Caped Crusader to the big screen. Allegedly, Welles had even drawn interest from major stars of the 40s, casting James Cagney as the Riddler, Basil Rathbone as the Joker and Marlene Dietrich as Catwoman.

Disputes over whether the 31-year-old Welles could play Batman and Bruce Wayne ended the production, according to the report.

Fanboys went mad, ignoring the sheer incredibility of the whole story. Linking a cinematic visionary like Welles to a cult figure like Batman is like finding out Jodie Foster was the first choice for the lead in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

Even Harry Knowles, the mound of sweaty red hair who runs the popular website Ain't It Cool News bought the story, writing, "To think of it. ... That in all the history books on Batman, that it was never mentioned, whispered or screamed at the top of their lungs. ... I'm stunned. Stunned."

It's simple, Mr. Knowles. Like Batman himself, the story is fiction. Dead for nearly 15 years, Welles can still pull off a good hoax.

Lionel Hutton, the alleged Welles biographer whom Millar mentioned, hides from even the all-seeing eye of Google. Besides, the Riddler doesn't start trouble in Gotham City until 1948 in Detective Comics #140. And would James Cagney ever play second fiddle to Basil Rathbone?

Nonetheless, Lionel Hutton (a soundalike for "Simpsons" shyster Lionel Hutz) got the best of even the people who know Batman best. But rather than fault the fanboys' gullibility, I think the hoax's success is instead indicative of the growing acceptance of superhero cinema.

Would anyone have believed the Orson Welles-Batman story 15 years ago, back when the word "superhero" conjured up images of Adam West and Lynda Carter? It's also debatable whether Welles would be at the reigns of a Batman film had he been a promising young filmmaker now instead of 50 years ago.

Nonetheless, "Memento" director Christopher Nolan, who is alive, recently began pre-production on a fifth Batman installment. Reputable actor Christian Bale has agreed to don the cape and cowl in the lead; meanwhile, X-Woman Halle Berry is set to slink around in an unrelated Catwoman film. Countless sequels and new franchises are scheduled to wham and bam on screens for years to come.

The superhero will guard the movie theater for a while yet — no hoax, I swear.