Specs & The City: Story Tone and ‘Batman’

Know what story you want to tell before you sit down to type FADE IN. It’s the best single piece of advice a writer can be given, but too many of us still don’t follow it. Now, I’m not talking about knowing your characters, or having a firm plot outline in mind, or knowing how your screenplay will end – though these are all good things to know, and I’ve talked about most of them in previous columns.

Rather, when I say to know the story you want to tell, I’m talking about tone. Tone is the mood of your script, and it should be present in every aspect of it, from the way the characters talk, to the word choices you make in your action blocks. The decisions you make with these choices will steer your reader in terms of the expectations they have of your screenplay, and living up to those expectations can mean the difference between receiving good coverage, and getting tossed onto the reject pile.

Does your main character sprint after the bad guy, or plod after them? Do they smile, or smirk? Does a bomb go BAM, or KABLOOEY? If your choices suggest one tone, but your screenplay’s plot suggests another, then you’ve got a problem.

But can choices of tone really make that much difference to the end product? You don’t have to look very far in cinematic pop-culture to find evidence that the answer is a resounding, “Yes.”

Tone and ‘Batman’

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Created by Bob Kane in 1939, the tone of what constitutes a Batman story has changed consistently with the times. But, let’s just focus on the one’s we’ve seen on screen; the versions of Batman that most people are generally aware of.

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Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb.

Adam West – Campy Batman
BAM. POW. BOFF. The 60’s were a serious time in the real world. TV was an escape for people, and so West’s Batman represented the same kind of kitschy fantasy you found on I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, and most of the other popular shows of the time. It didn’t take itself too seriously, and invited the audience to come along for the ride.

Michael Keaton – Offbeat Batman
Keaton’s Batman, as directed by Tim Burton, was a little ahead of its time. We were about to enter the era of grunge, and Gen X, and this version of the caped crusader tapped into that. To a degree, it’s more of a statement about Burton than the times, a vision of a hero through a cracked mirror.

Val Kilmer – Transitional Batman
A lot of you probably just said, “Oh man, I’d totally forgotten that Val Kilmer was Batman!” I’m including him here for the sake of completion, but Kilmer’s which came out in 1995, feels like a Dear John letter to Batman fans. Joel Schumacher knew he was going to break up with Burton’s version of Batman, but he wasn’t quite sure how to tell us yet. Unfortunately for us all, he figured it out.

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Yeah…so this happened.

George Clooney – Self-Parody Batman
With Schumacher fully in creative control, and the backlash against the dark, gritty, dirty era of the early ‘90’s in full swing, we got…bat-nipples…and Alicia Silverstone as Bat Girl. The serpent had completely swallowed its tail, and the character had become a joke, but without the knowing wink to the audience that Adam West’s version had.

Christian Bale – Grounded-in-Reality Batman
Post 9/11, audiences were no longer interested in happy-go-lucky super-hero capers. The world was full of real danger, real villains, and we needed a Batman that lived and breathed in that world. To paraphrase, Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale gave us the Batman we wanted, not the Batman we deserved. Devoid all anything resembling frivolity, this most recent version of Batman struck a serious tone that resonated with movie-goers in desperate need of a hero.

Ben Affleck – ???
We still don’t know how Ben Affleck’s Batman will differ from his predecessors, but you can rest assured, it will. The country is in a different place now than it was, even a few years ago (when tonal fatigue led to lack-luster reviews of The Dark Knight Returns and an embracement of fun with The Avengers), and this new Batman will strike a tone all its own.

So pay attention to the tone you’re establishing in your screenplay, and make sure you’re telling the story you really want to tell.

Until next time, put a call in to Commissioner Gordon, and keep writing!

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