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Batman and Fan Films

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While Star Wars and Dr. Who are the most popular subjects for fan films, Batman gets more than his share of the superhero fanfilms for one simple reason: he’s only human. Granted, he’s got superior athletic ability, superior detecting and critical thinking skills, a massive pile of money, and a dark rage to avenge his parents’ murder, but he is still only a man. That makes filming his adventures quite a bit easier than those of Superman or the Flash or Spiderman. Although the costume isn’t cheap….

Most fanfilms tends to be on the short side, five to fifteen minutes long, but a few are feature length. Some are quite good. One that caused a stir a couple of years ago, Batman: Dead End was made by a wannabe Hollywood director as his calling card introduction. In it, Batman is fighting the Joker in a rainy alley. Just as he finally brings him down, another villain appears behind. From another movie franchise. You see this monster and wonder if Batman could possibly win this one. It’s a jaw-dropper and tantalising.

The same director then made a “movie trailer” called World’s Finest. It was the “coming soon” featurette announcing a new movie, but there’s only the trailer. No movie will get made. That’s becoming another trend: making the trailer alone. They’re short and have only the highlights. World’s Finest is, of course, the teamup of Batman and Superman. The trailer has Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White. Lois Lane is both hot and snarky. Batman fights in the alleys, Superman catches a dropped truck. They stand side by side against the sunset, discussing what to do. The production values are high, and so is the acting. Especially the actors playing Batman and Superman, who are pitch perfect. I remember the first time I saw this, as soon as the “Coming Soon” title appeared at the end, I was shouting “Yeah! I’d go see that!” only to realise that there would be no movie. Ever. Both of these shorts are more than worth your time. You can find them, and a lot of other genre films, here. The diversity, inventiveness and sheer exuberance of many of these films will surprise you.

And there’s more. You can go here for screencaps, posters, trailers, reviews and links to a lot of other films: superhero, action, horror, you name it. Even comedies about a heartsick Superman who can’t handle Lois Lane’s rejection and so mopes are Jimmy Olsen’s apartment, and “Cape Chasers,” about the private lives of public heroes. I’d recommend you visit just for the delight of seeing what’s out there and how good some of it is. You can also take a look at this article from Britain’s The Sun, which also has some pictures, including a fan Lara Croft! Hubba-hubba.

That’s the point. There will be no more Lara Croft movies, but fans want to see one. There will never be a movie teaming of Batman and Superman. Too much legal wrangling. You’ll never see Spiderman fight Batman, no matter how exciting the prospect. Alien vs. Predator, the movie, only happened becuase genre fans drooled over the prospect for years, leading a comic book company to create a series. The success of that convinced studio heads to try a low-budget version. The failure of the movie has killed any chance of sequels, most likely. The people in control have other concerns than just the simple desires of the fans.

But back to the Batman. There’s something potent in the mix of rage, vengeance, crime fighting, film noir and moral ambiguity that attracts so many back to him. He is iconic: the lone figure standing over the city skyline eternally on watch, the shadowy shape in the corner of your eye that makes you catch your breath, the righteous figure dealing justice to the criminal. No wonder we are drawn to him. Once you get past the expense of the costume (which can go into the thousands), making films for him becomes pretty inexpensive.

I truly believe that fan-made entertainment is the wave of the future. Just as inexpensive computers, easy to use software and the Internet led to the fan fiction explosion and then the birth of the blogosphere, so will cheap cameras and editing software lead to an explosion of fan movies and series. The tools get more and more accessible, then more people get hold of them. It’s already happening, bubbling under the cultural radar and rising.

One newer variant is the all-CGI movie. Several folks have created Batman and Supergirl movies done entirely with computer-generated characters. Star Wars, too. Others have learned how to harness video game rendering engines to make the game characters “act out” their movie scenarios. Even MTV has caught on to this trend with their “music video mods,” where videogames are turned into lip-synched music videos. Try Bloodrayne singing Evanescence’ “Going Under.” Whoo!

I mentioned the other day on my blog Channel 101, a fan-run “television prime time” made up of original pilots and episodes that are voted on monthly. People come to a theater, watch the new episodes of returning shows and the new pilots of hopeful series, then vote on what stays. The originality and creativity is astonishing, as is the number of people taking part.

Right now there are two blocks in the way of fan-developed fun. One is the lack of broadband connectivity. Once more than half of the country is on broadband, watch for fan entertainments to explode. Even short, five minute films are large downloads, ten to twenty Mb. Longer programs, like you find on Star Trek: Hidden Frontier run to 60 to 100 Mb! Full length features like Nightwing: A Knight in Bludhaven run even larger. Only with broadband can these be easily shared and we’re just not there yet.

There’s also copyright. At present the studios are treating fan films benignly. The general sense is that as long as you don’t charge for, or sell, your creation — don’t profit in any way — you’re fine. Usually a legal disclaimer and props to the copyright holder are sufficient; maybe a linkback to the copyright holder’s website. Occasionally, a cease-and-desist campaign will happen, as did with Harry Potter fanfiction when too many folks started writing pre-legal age sexual adventures involving Harry and his teachers, as well as Harry and Hermione.

There was also a flap at last year’s Comicon, in San Diego, California. This is the nation’s largest comic convention and, in recent years, a launching point for promotional and “buzz” campaigns for science fiction, fantasy and horror films from the big studios. The stars come out to talk with fans, new trailers are released to huge hype, panel discussions with filmmakers are held. Tens of thousands attend. The studios threatened to withdraw all their support from Comicon when fan films started being shown. The convention holders, of course, had to acquiese, but fans were still angry.

That’s the nub of this. Someone creates a hugely successful character or story (Sherlock Holmes, Bugs Bunny, Batman, Star Trek and Star Wars), fans immediately want more, more, more. Studios can’t move fast enough, or bravely enough in some cases, so fans take it into their own hands to make more. Star Trek and Harry Potter fan fiction are both rife with romantic adventures the producers just won’t take a chance on showing. People make fan films to revisit odd forgotten corners, or favored secondary characters, like Boba Fett of Star Wars.

It’s the central issue in Henry Jenkin’s seminal book Textual Poaching, which looks at the issue of the popular spread of literary (in the book’s case, but it applies to cinematic as well) figures and settings into the wider culture, the appropriation of the specific into more generalised thematic uses. In precisely the same way that the stories of the gods and heroes of old have come down to us and been used in a hundred ways, so do the popular figures of today get taken up by this generation.

Captain Kirk became the symbol of manliness, virility and action. Luke Skywalker, the symbol of finding your destiny. Harry Potter, too. Superman became the embodiment of the American Way as Batman became the symbol of flawed men fighting the endless fight against evil. X-Men: society’s outcasts finding new societies, and the struggle against bigotry. Star Trek: unbounded optimism, friendship over fighting, and the Kennedyesque New Frontier.

Normally, this would be a good thing as new generations take up the heroes of old, re-examine them, recontextualise them, take them apart to study them, then rebuild them in new ways. Look at all the ways Cinderella has been explored over the centuries. Or Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet, for that matter. Shakespeare might never have imagined his play done the way Baz Lurhman did in the Danes/DiCaprio version (actually, I think he would have approved), but it reconnected with a new audience in a vital way.

A recent minor example? George Lucas has admitted he isn’t interested in the Clone Wars saga of Star Wars. A group of fans (professional animators and writers) managed to get major studio backing and approached him to take that story up. Lucas approved and the Clone Wars animated adventures came to be, done in a non-Star Wars anime style. An examination of part of the mythology in a new setting! Lucas also resisted novelisations of his movies and characters, but once he finally gave in, we got the story of the Jedi Knights and the Rebel Alliance. People want what they want and creators who don’t give it find their works taken and explored against their wills.

Where before these fan works existed in obscurity or out on the fringes, the Internet Age allows them to find their audiences much more easily and far faster. Star Trek fan fiction was a field only known to a few hundred before the Internet. Now hundreds of thousands read and take part. Now the producers of Star Trek use the tropes of fanfiction (Andorians live on an ice planet and have complex families.) in the actual series. It becomes a dynamic process rather than the one-way feed of the past.

The problem is that studios resist this appropriation. They will lose their copyrights and hence, their profits. Copyright used to extend only seventeen years past the life of the author, allowing popular images, figures and settings to enter the wider culture freely. But now, with changes in copyright, studios and estates can keep their copyrights up to one hundred years! For example, Mickey Mouse and a host of other Disney characters should have been public domain decades ago, but aren’t. Only a few specific variations of the early design are at this time.

The public wants to take up these symbols, so the struggle is on. Studios must enforce their copyrights or else lose them, hence the cease-and-desist actions every so often. The issue hasn’t really come to a head yet, but it will soon. And the public will lose out. So will the wider culture. As a natural activity becomes criminalised and more and more people flout the laws, so will respect for other laws erode.

The public is already voting. Downloading of songs, movies, anime, and other works is a major portion of traffic on the Internet. It’s not going to stop, no matter how the studios and publishers try. Once broadband becomes the de facto standard of accessing the Internet, all bets are off. Already the MPAA and the RIAA are filing hundreds of lawsuits, trying to stem the tide. The puzzled and angry reaction of the public tells you how their campaign will fare.

You’ll see an explosion of fan-made works based on studio-owned works. People will get used to making their own stuff and watching the works made by others, although there will always be a market for studio works too. (The idea of freely sharing your creativity versus expecting to make a living with it is a whole ‘nother post.) It then only becomes a matter of creating sites to bring these fans together and getting the word out. The Internet is spectacular in that regard.

The future is just ahead, and I think it looks great.

You can find more stuff on Batman films and more here and here.

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  • heidi

    : waves from the Potterverse. Actually, the C&D’s from JKR’s people didn’t demand that people stop writing & sharing fanfic – they just insisted that it be unGoogleable, and that barriers be placed, like passwords, to keep underage kids from accessing it. Don’t forget – the age of consent in the UK, where the stories take place, is 16, not 18. If you’re interested in another take on the legalese, take a peek at – it’s a pdf, so it’s a large file, but it’s an interesting take on the topic – and I’m not just saying that because I beta read the Note.