Don't tell George Lucas, but guess which scene got the biggest reaction from a capacity audience at Orange's Cinedome theaters at a recent premiere of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?"
The zeppelin bit? The tank battle? How about the rats?
Nope. The "Batman" trailer.
"They went wild, " said George Mastroianni, head of the radio, TV and film curriculum at Cal State Fullerton, who attended an opening-day screening with his son. "They were more excited with that trailer than they were with Indiana Jones. As soon as the bat image came on the screen, they started cheering and whistling, and when it was over they applauded. Applauded the trailer. "
Today, with the general release of the film--after a pre-release publicity buildup remarkable even for Hollywood--bat fans are expected to form long, worshipful lines at U.S. box offices, braving early summer heat, humidity and long, long waits to gaze upon their hero.
They may yell for Indy, and they may root for the Ghostbusters, but--holy cultural icon!--Batman is different.
Who is that mask man?
"He's like a costumed Indiana Jones, except he's fighting crime instead of Nazis," Mastroianni said. "He's a vigilante, and the vigilante idea is something from our historical past, in a way. It's the individual having to take it upon himself to fight crime because others can't do it adequately, because they have to operate within the law. Batman never really violates the law, but he's able to do things the police can't do."
Also a few things Madison Avenue cannot do. After years of relative dormancy, Batman comics and paraphernalia of all sorts are causing cash register bells to ring like carillons.
"If you can put a bat on it, you can sell it right now," said Barry Short, the owner of 21st Century Comics and Toys in Orange. "We've got a great big Batman display in our window right now."
Comics, posters, T-shirts, memorabilia--all are disappearing from the shelves, and that does not count several lines of bat toys that are just beginning to arrive at county retailers.
"It's been blowing out," said Phil Jimenez, who works at Comics Unlimited in Westminster. "We sell out of the comics constantly, and we have so much merchandise coming in, it's amazing. People are constantly asking about the stuff. We tend to sell out very quickly."
All this because of some guy in a bat suit? What sort of nerve in the collective psyche goes twang when Bruce Wayne skins into his black outfit and roars out of the Batcave to fight evil in Gotham City?
According to Short, it's the same nerve that contains nothing less than the American dream.
"They key thing is that Batman is the super-hero who's achievable," he said. "Anybody who really put their mind to it could be Batman. You could never be Superman--you can't be an alien from another planet--but Batman's a guy who trained himself."
Jimenez said Jeanette Khan--publisher of DC Comics, which features Batman--once said Batman's popularity is based on a belief akin to that of budding presidential timber, that "if you started young enough and really had the determination, you could be a Batman."
It does not hurt, of course, that the movie's Batman is a brooding, shadowy figure, taking vengeance for a horrible wrong.
"It says something about the frustration many people feel with circumstances around them," Short said. "It's not always easy for people to overcome the life around them that's very tough in many ways. A lot of people would like to put a mask on so nobody could identify them and go out and bust a couple of skulls."
What? Bust skulls? Could this be the same mom-and-apple-pie Caped Crusader that we know?
No. Batman in his present celluloid incarnation has come full circle and has again become the character he was when his comic books first appeared in 1939: an obsessed, darkly fearsome, vengeance-hungry crime-fighter who lurks and strikes from the shadows and does not bat an eye at cracking skulls--or worse--when the situation demands.
After all, as a youth, the non-TV Batman had witnessed the murder of his parents. Such a personal history does not make for the Marquis of Queensberry rules--or the Galahad-like Adam West Batman of the low-camp TV series of the 1960s.
"Batman does what he does to avenge a wrong done to him, and he can get back at people who have hurt him," Jimenez said. "People can relate to that."
Still, he remains a heroic character, Short said. "Oh, definitely, yes. He's not randomly violent. He doesn't pull his punches, but he channels his anger. He's often been shown to be able to walk right up to the edge, but he never quite goes over it."
Apart from the vicarious thrill of watching Batman take on thug after thug, Mastroianni said audiences are sure to rediscover their love for the ubiquitous bat gimmicks.