A 31-year-old Houston man left a movie theater more than 10 years ago disillusioned. The movie had not yet finished, but the injustice he witnessed was too much to bear. Batman and Robin were wearing rubber nipples.
Bill Ramey looked at the silver screen as Batman used politically correct terms, carried a credit card in his utility belt and, if that was not enough, he was smiling.
It was summer 1997. Director Joel Schumacher’s “Batman ‘ Robin” was in movie theaters.
“The whole thing just seemed off,” Ramey would later post on the Web.
Much like another dispirited, albeit fictional man, Ramey set out to ensure that what happened to him would never again befall moviegoing comic book enthusiasts. He started a Web site, a dramatic example that would shake Batman moviemakers and fanboys alike out of apathy and into action.
Ramey, who last week saw a press screening of “The Dark Knight,” the highly anticipated sequel to “Batman Begins,” recalls how his creation, Batman on Film, and similar fan-created Web sites, provided a target audience a forum with which to demand a definitive Batman origin movie, telling Warner Bros. Pictures everything from who should be cast in the title role to the fabric from which the costume should be made.
Christian Bale and Kevlar, a synthetic fiber used in protective helmets and vests, were often demanded. Warner Bros. Pictures obliged to the former, but decided to go with black foam and latex for the latter.
“I think they were paying attention to what the fans thought, who they were suggesting for certain roles … and maybe if there was any interest in a new Batman film,” Ramey said.
“Batman Begins” screenwriter David S. Goyer, Special FX Supervisor Chris Corbould and Executive Producer Michael Ulsan said that they often visited the Web site during the production of the movie, the Batman on Film Home Page shows.
Mark S. Reinhart, author of the Batman Filmography, said Batman on Film “had such a positive impact on Warner Bros. in terms of the direction they are now taking their Batman film series,” the Home Page shows as well.
But Batman on Film was not just a bully pulpit with which to strike fear into the hearts of filmmakers who might misrepresent a nearly 70-year-old comic book legacy.
Ramey and like-minded, albeit anonymous, agents of the bat with access to Warner Bros. Pictures’ movers and shakers provided his Web audience with the latest news about the movie franchise, from its years in development hell to its resurgence in 2005.
“I don’t reveal ‘spoilers.’ I don’t think that’s my job. My job is to say, “Hey WB, we want Batman films and we want good ones,'” said Ramey, though not everyone on the Web seems to subscribe to such a code of ethics.
“The one thing that comes to mind is the leak of the movie’s script online. For a time, I thought it would deter from the film,” said Ramey, who is known to his Web audience as “Jett.”
Ramey said he read the script himself out of curiosity, but it almost spoiled the movie for him. This is why he chose to “stay in the dark” for the sequel in terms of looking at leaked scripts.
Rumors were posted on the Web site as well, especially in regard to who would be cast as the Joker in this summer’s “The Dark Knight.” Jude Law, Paul Bettany and Lacy Hulme were at one time considered to be top contenders to portray Mr. J. Ultimately, the late Heath Ledger landed the role, even though his name was never mentioned during the online scuttlebutt.
Fans of the Batman were conflicted. The movie franchise was something sacrosanct of which they were losing control, like the Dark Knight’s affinity for a city he sets out to take back from criminals and corrupt public officials.
“Batman ’89 basically started the whole ‘superhero movie’ genre. It affected everything that has come since. That’s the positive,” Ramey said. “On the other hand, the other three Batman films showed everyone how not to do a comic book-based film. ‘Batman ‘ Robin’ almost killed the genre.”
Twenty-three-year-old independent director Aaron Schoenke said he was inspired to become a filmmaker by the first two movies in the series, “Batman” and “Batman Returns,” directed by Tim Burton.
“The first and second Batman films opened my eyes to filmmaking and all the extraordinary possibilities that the film medium had to offer creatively,” said Schoenke, who founded the Calabasas-based Bat in the Sun Productions to direct character-driven interpretations of The Batman and his gallery of rogues.
Schoenke’s films, such a Patient J, which portrays the manic romance and exploits of the Joker and his moll, have a loyal Web fan base.
Though Schoenke said he does not strictly adhere to comic book source material in his fan films, ” I think many fans get lost here … they tend to solely focus on accuracy and not the creative filmmaking side.”
“Don’t get me wrong, accuracy is very important, but it’s not the sole reason a film is good or bad,” Schoenke said.
Edward T. Halloran, film literature professor at Cal State Northridge, said Batman became the victim of the synergistic industrial model of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when companies such as the Kinney National Company, the owners of which knew nothing about filmmaking, purchases insolvent companies such as Warner Brothers-Seven Arts.
Once the Ronald Reagan administration relaxed FCC regulations in the 1980s, they vertically integrated their assets, Halloran said.
“This way when a Batman movie comes out, so will a comic book adaptation from DC Comics and a soundtrack from Warner Records, both of which are subsidiaries of one corporation,” Halloran said. “”That’s synergy, taking a product and exploiting it.”
How fanboys saved Gotham City from the Hollywood machine involved reminding filmmakers about its psychological and visual history, which was defined by different interpretations of its heroes and rogues in comic books, television and movies.
More elements from Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams comic books from the 1960s, yes, but not so much from the Adam West TV show, with Frank Miller-esque action from his graphic novels and a dash of heart from Batman: The Animated Series.
Ramey, who in 2004 was invited to visit the U.K. set of Batman Begins, Director Chris Nolan’s attempt to reboot the movie franchise, not only documents this history on his Web site, he provides the analysis to keep its creators honest.
Four years later, Ramey said he talked to Nolan and “The Dark Knight” producer Emma Thomas at last week’s press screening about how the movie, which he describes as an “intense, urban crime drama that happens to have characters in crazy costumes,” is “badass.”
“The Dark Knight,” which will be released in movie theaters July 18, will answer what happens when Heath Ledger’s interpretation of the Joker escalates crime in Gotham City.
As to what will happen when Web savvy people create commercial Web sites using Ramey’s fan site model, the fight for online audiences seems to be more civil.
Jim Littler, a former toy marketer who created the Web site Comicbookmovie when Hollywood started producing several superhero movies in 2000, said, “I have great relationships with lots of fan sites. They send me in lots of the news I post.”
“I’d say 75 percent is reliable and the rest is rumor from the set, but we do our best to ferret out falsehoods by checking sources, even though we’ll still publish ‘rumor’ if it comes from someone whose proven reliable in the past,” said Littler, who calls himself a lifelong “comics geek” and fan of movies.
Ramey, who continues to provide like-minded comic book geeks and movie lovers news tidbits, reviews, history and analysis, never though a fanboy with a computer could help save a movie franchise, let alone The Batman.
“I just hoped that a good Batman film would finally get made,” Ramey said.