Batman NOT Beyond The Censor's Reach
by Michael Hutchison
Folks, I'm not one to scream "censorship" needlessly. It isn't exactly a knee-jerk reaction for a person of my political temperament. But in my examination of the recent Batman Beyond controversy, there's no other word for it. "Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker" was hurt by censorship.
I bought the DVD of ROTJ a few months ago, and viewed that movie first. I was aware of the controversy but didn't know what to truly expect from the edited movie. It was interesting but it seemed a little muted.
A few weeks later, David Schock mailed me his copy of Batman Beyond unedited. (Apparently it's taken from Japan, as there are Japanese characters here and there.) This movie is similar to the released version. It can at least be said of the Warner Brothers reps who censored the movie that they didn't outright remove any scenes; all they did was change the tone and content of the scenes.
So really, how different could it be? A few nips here, a slice there, a single word changed here, a sentence changed there. So what, you might say? What difference could the edits make?
A world of difference, actually. The Return of the Joker which was released is an interesting movie, certainly, detailing the final fate of Robin (in the animated series, natch!), the Joker and Harley Quinn. The officially released movie is well done and enjoyable. But the movie, as originally intended, would have been as momentous and intense as The Killing Joke. Seriously.
Before I go any further, I should mention that this is a spoiler-filled discussion. If you are reading this and haven't seen "Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker" yet, and you'd rather not have me ruin it for you, then stop reading. If you read beyond this point, don't blame me.
A short synopsis of the original movie:
Now, admit it...isn't that flashback story amazing? I mean, Tim Drake captured and tortured. The Joker learns all of Batman's secrets. Harley and Joker meet their demises, and Batman's protege has committed murder. Batman, Batgirl and Robin sharing a hideous secret. Wow!
Wow wow wow!
I keep wondering how much impact this story would have had if my viewing of it hadn't been preceded by my watching the watered-down version...which itself had been preceded by months of controversy, discussions of deleted bits and pieces, etc.
See, what happened was that the movie was done. Ready to go. Completed and finished. And it was turned over to the Warners execs, who looked at this movie and said, "Doesn't this have a lot of violence for a cartoon? What if parents and politicians start using this as evidence of how we peddle violence to children?"
Certainly, that's a fair concern for the Warners execs, but the appropriate time to express concerns about it would be in the planning stages, I should think. When you're dealing with a full-length animated film, the time to complain about the violence would be when Paul Dini first said, "Hey, how about a movie where Joker tortures Robin and then Robin kills the Joker?" But no, let them complete the whole movie, painstakingly animating all these scenes, then rethink the whole bloody point of the movie.
This movie is more violent than some throwaway action cartoon like "He-Man" or "Pokemon", yes, but it's not unprecedented. After "Mask of the Phantasm" (where all these mafia goons die horribly) and the direct-to-video "Sub-Zero" movie (the one where Mr. Freeze is going to butcher Batgirl in order to make her an unwilling organ donor for his wife), you couldn't say that this film is significantly more violent than the other animated Batman movies. And considering the dramatic depth of this film, it could be argued that a little blood, stabbing and shooting (just enough for PG, of course) are warranted by the story.
Still, logic was not as relevant to the decision to edit this movie as was a panicky fear of reprisals. There's no evidence that watching one of the bad guys kill another bad guy or trying to kill one of the good guys causes violence in young viewers. I doubt anyone's going to draw a line from the latest school shooting back to the kid's having watched the animated Batman cartoons.
And a very good argument could be made that it's not watching *violence* which is damaging in and of itself, but perhaps exposure to amoral and immoral characters as role models. After all, it isn't so much the existence of sexual situations on television which are bothersome to media critics; really, it's the widespread advocation of a guilt-free hedonistic lifestyle. The same goes for violence. Most of us are willing to watch quite gruesome scenes if they're in the context of a moralistic tale like "Schindler's List" or "Braveheart" but won't watch a "Friday the Thirteenth" movie even if the gore isn't that explicit.
But this kind of discussion about details isn't possible when thousands of parents are throwing hissy fits about any and all things that could contain violence that might turn their kids into killers. Post-Columbine, reporters and commentators were quick to pin guilt on any media which the two killers viewed, then spread outward to condemn violence everywhere. Now, I'm willing to consider complaints about gruesome video games and all that, but I think the nub of the problem lies in parents who let their kids drive around in a car with swastikas on it. Just a hunch, mind you.
Thus, regardless of the fact that "Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker" does not teach bad ethics or advocate violence on the part of the role model characters (Bruce Wayne and Terry McGuinness)... and regardless of the fact that the movie has just a modicum of violence in a film which is clearly marked "PG"... and regardless of the fact that Tim is out of his mind when he kills the Joker and then pays for it the rest of his life... regardless of all that, it was decided by the Warner Brothers mucky-mucks that the movie needed to be edited to reduce the violence.
Some of the changes, while irritating, don't really change the movie. Some fight scenes are shortened by a punch or two. Language is changed to avoid the word "kill", although this is ridiculous since the meaning is still the same. Bonk is gassed instead of shot (which is stupid, since either way involves Joker murdering him). A cool opening scene where Bruce hurls a Batarang at a Two-Face dummy and decapitates it is left in...except for the dummy, so that it now looks like Bruce is impressed that he can throw a Batarang and catch it again.
But then there are the cuts which really hurt...although my terminology is inappropriate, since all knives, blood and extreme pain are removed from the film! That's right. Batman can't even use a knife to cut his ropes. (The editor on this movie must be a member of a school board that uses zero tolerance policies.) Thus, Batman's leg injury is not from the fight with the Joker. Also, Dana's injuries aren't severe...a change which lessens the emotional intensity of the attack for Terry.
The central, pivotal sequence involving Tim "Little Jay" Drake is butchered, unfortunately. The descriptions of torture, drugs and brainwashing are downplayed (as if the evidence of such isn't visible to the viewer), and Joker Junior's laugh is not as intense and disturbing. And, instead of Tim shooting the Joker, Joker is accidentally electrocuted. ("Villain doing himself in" is right up there with "falls off a cliff into darkness" on the list of ways that villains can be killed without parents complaining.) This change stinks to high heaven. Why would Tim spend a lifetime tormenting himself about Joker's death if he's not really responsible?
Tim's torture and brainwashing, and his resulting murder of the Joker, is one of the reasons Bruce Wayne spends his old age brooding in his mansion. Dana's injury in the fight with Joker's goons is an indicator to Terry of how serious this adventure is, and leads up to the emotional moment where he discovers Bruce Wayne lying dead(?) with a Joker grin. By draining these scenes of their gravity, the impact of the entire film is lessened.
Before I go any further, I'll let you peruse the list of changes.
As I said earlier, I rarely cry "censorship." Most of the time, I agree that it's the producer who is putting forth the money and thus has the final word as to what risks will be taken. In this case, WB is certainly within rights to say what kind of product can be released. If they don't want an intense, emotional film involving their animated DC characters, so be it. But they should have made such determinations before okaying the script and going through the full production.
Would I have been just as upset if all of the above changes had been made to the film while in the scriptwriting process? Probably not. A writer operating under a list of standards and practices can usually tailor his writing to work within the rules and still get across the emotional impact he desires for the scene.
Alfred Hitchcock, master of suspense, and many other horror moviemakers operated under a lot of studio guidelines that interfered with showing scenes of horror to the audience. The solution was to convey scenes in some other way.
Let's say you want to have a pivotal scene where a weaselly killer slashes the throat of the femme fatale. In a modern movie, you'd just show this to the audience in a full close-up using special effects. Under old studio guidelines decreeing that such a gruesome shot couldn't be included in the movie, a director might instead have it happen offscreen with their shadowy silhouettes on a wall in the frame, or he might have the killer brandish a knife and then walk off-camera where she screams and then gurgles. BUT...what if you've already filmed the full close-up of her murder and then the studio orders it edited out? All you can do is leave the scene in and cut out a few pivotal seconds and otherwise crop out the blood.
Had Dini and Timm been told what could not be included, they may have changed entire paragraphs of dialogue, "shot" scenes a different way or redesigned parts of the movie in order to convey all of the emotional impact of their original vision.
If any of you get the chance, see the unedited version of the movie. Perhaps WB will someday permit a director's cut of their movie, or at least a DVD with edited scenes or an alternate version track. For right now, the only people making any money from Dini and Timm's original vision are the video pirates circulating copies of the good movie!
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This piece is © 2001 by Michael Hutchison.
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