Batman Live?

Several weeks ago, my family and I were able to catch a performance of the touring stadium show Batman Live (English site here, German here) in Hamburg. All in all, it was lots of fun. And it also happens to tie in with my current research on plurimedial serial figures. I had planned, therefore, to write a sort of review of the show, but as I can’t foresee finding the time to do so anytime soon, here are a few scattered thoughts.

As the title Batman Live indicates, the show is all about “liveness,” but the cultivation of the latter, which might be said to constitute the show’s main conceit, involves the performance in all sorts of paradoxes. One might, of course, say (with reference to Derrida, perhaps) that all performance, insofar as it involves the iteration of a script, renders “liveness” problematic, as the present is bound up in the pastness of the patterns and discourses that it repeats. But the paradoxes of Batman Live are much more concrete than all that…

By what means does Batman Live contrive to make Batman live? Naturally, by employing a live actor to embody the figure on a physical stage. “Live” is here contrasted with “recorded,” and it would seem that film, which also employs live actors (at least sometimes) but preserves their actions for later playback, is the particular medium of reference here. (Incidentally, film serves a double role here, as the show undoubtedly seeks to profit from the popularity of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, while defining itself against them with the implicit claim that “more live” = “more real” or more spectacular.) But, at least, in the German-language version I saw, this claim to liveness is undermined with the very first words uttered on stage, as the actors quite clearly lip sync a pre-recorded soundtrack.

Furthermore, the stage/screen dichotomy as a basis for the claim to liveness is unsettled by the presence of a gigantic digital display behind the stage. We’re used to this, of course, from big-budget musicals and, increasingly, even smaller-budget theater productions, but the backdrop in this case is used to make constant reference to other media (especially to comics and video games), the pre-existence of which must be seen to complicate the purported “liveness” of the performance.

For example, when Batman and Robin race away in the Batmobile, exiting the stage through one of the many discreet passageways that open up when necessary to allow traffic onto or off of the stage, their high-speed journey to Arkham Asylum is continued onscreen, framed quite obviously in the visual forms typical of digital racing games. (The layout of Arkham Island and the interior of the asylum, as depicted on the screen, in fact seemed to be pulled directly from the console game Batman: Arkham Asylum; an uncanny sense of recognition, an identification of the digital backdrop with my own TV screen hooked up to a PS3, transported me momentarily out of the arena and into my own living room.) The backdrop is also used for the purpose of narrative ellipsis, as a means of summarizing the events that occur between on-stage scenes; significantly, this takes place in the idiom of graphic narrative: we see digitally animated comic book pages flipping, the virtual camera zooming from panel to panel, revealing what happens “in the meantime.” Indeed, one might claim that the “meanwhile” is the temporal register that superhero comics in particular have perfected more than any other medium; such direct recourse to it, though, radically unsettles the here and now of the “live.”

On the other hand, though, we might say that these intermedial references are not so much at odds with, but in fact an integral part of the performance’s cultivation of “liveness,” which consists not only in the present-ness of the actors and their actions in a physical space shared by us, but precisely in the act of “bringing to life” the places and events depicted in film, video games, and comics — effectively imbuing these media with life by expanding them onto the stage, where Batman, Robin, the Joker, and others relate to the (intermedially determined) screen as part of their (diegetic) world.

Furthermore, this permeability of the screen, which alternates between embodying an expansion of diegetic space and an extra-diegetic, specifically narrative function (with concrete references to the narrative/representational techniques of other media) is caught up in paradoxes much like those informing the deployment of 3D techniques and technologies: they, too, oscillate between a) claims of establishing an intensified immersive experience that would bring represented characters and events to life for us in an unprecedented manner, and b) an emphasis on the unprecedented nature of the whole affair, a celebration of the technological infrastructure that enables such spectacles, and hence a foregrounding of the event itself in a manner that is radically at odds with the notion of “immersion.”

Indeed, the discourse of “immersive experience” is referenced in the video clip embedded here, where the “physicality of the stage” plus the awe-inspiring technology are foregrounded, but purportedly “wrapped up” in an immersive “package.” I am inclined to believe that this kind of equation never adds up — and that it’s never in fact meant to: from the “sensational melodrama” of nineteenth century stages and early-twentieth century screens (as explored by Ben Singer) to 3D techniques and “immersive” video games today, the attraction of all such spectacles consists in the maintenance of tensions between realism and a feeling of awe at the sight or spectacle of realism (itself no longer beholden to the impression of realistic-ness), for example, or between immersion and amazement at the power of a medium to involve us (recognition of which takes place outside the space of immersion). Batman Live is above all a spectacle of this sort, and the paradox of its “liveness” is — for those who take pleasure in such paradox, at least — not so much a shortcoming as a productive element of the attraction, which itself is inextricably bound up with the fragmented dispersal and plurimedial lack of coherence that characterizes Batman qua serial figure.

Well, in any case, it was all good fun…

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