Do you know the feeling when something is nagging at the back of your mind for a long time (maybe even for years) and you just can’t quite get a handle on it? That’s how I’ve felt about live action Batman movies dating back to my first theater experience of caped crusader–the Michael Keaton movie directed by Tim Burton in 1989. I haven’t quite known how to go about expressing these nagging thoughts until I’d rented and watched Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises again–and I couldn’t finish it.
I was not a serious comic book reader as a kid, although I considered myself a fan of the medium. I spent most of my money on video games as a teenager. At the time I was aware of most of the popular characters through animated TV series. I was not a hardcore fan until many years later when I began to actually read instead of just watch. In other words, I was a Batman fan due to film, not from reading the comics. I watched the syndicated Adam West TV series as a kid, along with Star Trek and Star Blazers, like most kids in the 1980s. I did not read the comics much.
(Image: Michael Keaton with Bob Kane, the creator of Batman)
Tim Burton Trilogy
There’s a big difference between fans of the Batman films and fans of Batman, the iconic DC character. Film fans know nothing about the character beyond the films. They may or may not be aware of The Dark Knight and Detective which have contributed possibly even more to the character than the Batman comic has done over the years (by the fact that they must compete for readership while remaining “in the family”).
The first Tim Burton film in his Batman trilogy was 1989’s Batman, starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as Joker. It was a wonderful movie, and the first of the modern era. But, Batman was out of character most of the time. Batman never kills criminals, but he does in this movie. The origin story for both Batman and Joker are presented here, and it was very well done, despite the aforementioned problems. I’m sure many fans today are in the same club, having been introduced to the character by this movie. Those fans would also tend to believe that Batman occasionally kills villains.
Was Batman in character in this film? Partially. All of the basics were covered but his behavior was a strange balance of justice versus vigilantism. He was not the detective, nor the dark knight, he was more of a visceral monster in a way.
In Batman Returns (1992), Keaton reprises his role with two new villains: Michelle Pfeifer as Catwoman and Danny DeVito as Penguin. In both cases, Burton completely failed to understand the characters. He went for pseudo-realism in his portrayal of them both. Catwoman does not have feline DNA as a result of her attempted murder, and Penguin does not have avian DNA as a result of being dropped in any icy river as a baby. Ridiculous!
And again, great fun if you don’t know anything about these characters. Penguin is not a penguin-man, he’s “The. Penguin.” As in, a mobster with a long nose. He does not live under Gotham as a recluse and a freak of nature, he’s a businessman of sorts. Bob Kane himself is credited with writing the characters for this movie, so does that make it canon? Hard to tell. Did Burton follow his own creative direction with them or did Kane come up with them? Either way, they were not true to the comic source material, which brings up another issue.
Why is it that writers and directors of superhero movies feel the need to legitimize the settings and characters, to make them as realistic as possible? Do they feel that audiences will reject a fantastic character without a cause or reason behind their powers?
Was Batman in character in this film? A little better than the previous film, although he’s surprisingly violent again. In one scene, some of Penguin’s men are running toward him, and he starts up the Batmobile’s afterburner to light them on fire.
1995 saw the release of Batman Forever, with a new actor playing Batman in Val Kilmer. The villains include Jim Carrey as The Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones as Two Face. This movie also introduced movie fans to Robin, played by Chris O’Donnell. Also of interest, Drew Barrymore (“50 First Dates”) plays a girlfriend of Two Face named Sugar, while Nicole Kidman plays a love interest for Batman and Bruce Wayne.
This movie was just plain fun, through and through. It was definitely my favorite of the three, which is why the fourth was so shocking–it was as if some studio exec’s 10-year old was given the next movie… But I digress. In contrast to the previous two, Batman Forever doesn’t take itself too seriously. Val Kilmer brings a fresh new face to both characters and he does a great job with them both. The villains, Two Face and Riddler, seem to have been inspired by the 1960s TV show more so than a modern interpretation.
As I conclude this section on Burton, I’m reminded that Frank Miller was a star writer at DC, having produced Year One and The Dark Knight Returns during the 1980s–stories which audiences simply weren’t ready for until two decades later. Honestly, I really believe that those stories could not be done properly on film (either animated or live action) at the time, due to right wing parenting groups that had a strong voice at the time.
It was a different era with quite different expectations. So, while I have no doubt Burton read Miller, he couldn’t use any of it, and the Two Face (Harvey Dent) and Riddler (Edward Nigma) of the comics stood aside while their cartoon-like caricatures were brought onto the stage.
Strangely enough, Batman Forever went quite against the standard set by the two prior films by not insisting that these characters were 100% realistic. Jim Carrey was brilliant, while Jones had a slightly more subdued presence. My favorite scene is the one where they are fighting over the brain wave machine, sticking the suction cup to their foreheads. Nevertheless, these were TV characters, not drawn from the source comics and certain not canon.
Was Batman in character in this film? Much more so than the previous two. Kilmer gave the character more of the compassionate side of Bruce Wayne rather than the careless messenger of brutality seen previously. He uses his gadgets are more often here.
Joel Schumacher’s Disaster
Batman & Robin is widely known as one of the worst films in the history of superhero movies, possibly only eclipsed by Pitof Comar’s Catwoman (featuring Halley Berry). The director seemed to take the balanced humor in Batman Returns to an inappropriate new level, misunderstanding basically everything about Batman. His irreverence is obvious in the way the film presents one absurd scene after another. It’s almost like Schumacher was forced to do this film and wanted to spite the studio without completely ruining his resume in the process.
One reason why fans were so angered by it is the wasted opportunity to present some beloved characters in live action for the first time, including: Arnold Schwarzeneggar as Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy, Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl (!). George Clooney, who is known for his natural talent for humor, was cast as Batman, and it all went downhill from there.
Was Batman in character in this film? It doesn’t even matter.
Chris Nolan Trilogy
Years go by with Batman fans in a funk over the disaster that was the last Batman film likely to ever be made, because it was such a train wreck. What studio in their right mind would green light another Batman film? Enter Christopher Nolan.
Here in Nolan we have a fan’s fan who has read the print material and knows Batman canon. He cites Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, and The Long Halloween for at least part of the inspiration behind his approach to the character. Rumor has it that his pitch to Warner Bros only lasted a quarter hour before he was enthusiastically approved and funded.
The first Nolan film is, of course, Batman Begins (2005), which is the origin story for Batman from the source material. There are some scenes taken right out of The Long Halloween. This graphic novel was written by Jeph Loeb, illustrated by Tim Sale, originally published as a 13-issue run in Batman during 1996-97. This story strongly features Catwoman (as very nearly a partner to Batman, a femmé fatale love interest rather than a villain), Harvey Dent as the Gotham DA, and James Gordon as the GPD commissioner.
It is the dynamic trio of Batman, Dent, and Gordon that is first portrayed by Loeb’s story, and clearly evident in Nolan’s writing (as co-author of the screenplay). One might draw upon Frank Miller’s Year One and The Dark Knight Returns stories as the source for Loeb as well, regarding the crime-fighting trio. I found Nolan’s interpretation of Dent (aka Two Face) and Gordon to be spot-on from this perspective. These were real people ala comic people, not fantastic characters forced into the mold of reality as we know it.
Do you see the major difference here from prior movies? This is a character-driven story, not an actor-driven movie. Huge difference! A fan of the prior movies will have been shocked to learn that this is the Dark Knight as he was meant to be portrayed. Slam dunk, Nolan!
The cast: Christian Bale as Batman; Michael Cain as Alfred; Gary Oldman as Gordon; Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow (for the first time!); Ken Watanabe as Ra’s al Ghul (for the first time!); Tom Wilkinson as Carmine “The Roman” Falcone (very exciting for Loeb fans); Mark Boone Junior as Flass (a cop from Frank Miller’s Year One). Unknown characters include: Liam Neeson as Ducard (of Ra’s al Ghul’s Assassin’s Guild); Katie Holmes as never-before-seen friend, Rachel Dawes.
Was Batman in character in this film? Yes, Nolan completely nailed the character, perhaps for the first time in movie history. Bruce Wayne acts like the real Bruce Wayne (from published canon), and Batman acts like Batman, with considerable depth.
The Dark Knight
The second Nolan film, The Dark Knight (2008), had to exceed the standard set by Batman Begins, which was no minor challenge. Of course, the most memorable thing about TDK is the Joker, played by Heath Ledger, who passed away after filming but before the movie’s release. Sadly, his death led to a morbid curiosity in the general public which led to increased viewership (and box office sales).
Ledger had a tough challenge in this role, since he was competing with Jack Nicholson’s Joker from the 1989 Burton film. Who in their right mind would want to compete with Nicholson? Ledger seemed like an unusual choice for the character until we saw him on the big screen, complete with make up job. I’ve often wondered which version of Joker Nolan wrote into the script. Was it Loeb’s Joker, Miller’s Joker, Starlin’s Joker, Winick’s Joker, or even the TV show Joker (played by Cesar Romero)? I’m sure Ledger consumed all of the material while preparing himself for the role.
It seems to me that his portrayal most closely matches the Joker from “A Death in the Family”, the story arc that resulted in the death of Robin (Jason Todd), written by Jim Starlin and illustrated by Jim Aparo in 1988. Judd Winick wrote the script for the animated feature film, Batman Under The Red Hood, which was a movie adaptation of the infamous story. If you haven’t seen the film, it’s a must see, and will open your eyes to the director’s source material for Ledger’s Joker.
In this story, the Joker is hired by Ra’s al Ghul to kidnap Robin in order to distract Batman from his attack against the Assassin’s League. Only, Joker takes it a bit far, nearly beats Jason to death, and then finishes the job with a bomb. And, in a surprising twist, Batman did not arrive in time to save him. Although Red Hood (2010) followed The Dark Knight (2008), the original story featured a truly brutal Joker.
Was Batman in character in this film? That depends, because this is very nearly two films in one. On the one hand, there’s the first half featuring the Joker’s rise to power in the criminal underworld of Gotham. The second half is a bizarre and hard-to-follow terrorist plot that at first seems to be in character for Joker, except that he just doesn’t play games as portrayed (he tends to leave that to his old pal, E. Nigma, the Riddler). The two barges full of people, the mind game involving the triggers, it just didn’t fit in–and this was a trend Nolan followed even more so in the third film. I would say yes, Batman was in character, but Joker wasn’t quite right in the second half, and his capture was anti-climactic. For some reason, Nolan seemed to have 9/11 on the brain here and especially in the next film.
The Dark Knight Rises
First of all, I’ll clear the air up front by just stating outright that I hated this movie, and still feel very strongly that it ranks up there with the worst of the modern films. It’s not nearly at stinky as Batman & Robin, but I’d say it is close. Admittedly, that’s not a popular opinion. But then, when was the majority rule ever capable of making intelligent decisions? This does not in any way reflect my opinion of the previous two Nolan films; it stands on its own as a poor representation of the character and thoroughly botches canon due to creative license.
Why was it so over the top with the Bane storyline? What is up with the ridiculous digitally-inserted Sean Connery voice?
Movie fans were likely unfamiliar with Bane. His character was true to the source by literally breaking Batman’s spine. The original story is fond in a huge collected edition TPB called Knightfall.
At the time of my first viewing, TDKR reminded me of The Siege (Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington). If you aren’t familiar with it, this film is about a terrorist attack against New York City, with events, scenes, and a story that mirrored TDKR in many ways. It dealt with government abuse of power when martial law is declared, and the danger of having the military police a civilian population. But, isn’t that exactly what happens in TDK Rises? I’m reminded of the scene with Blake escorting a bus full of people across the Brooklyn bridge, with soldiers threatening to blow it if they didn’t stop. It was a powerful scene.
There are some fascinating scenes in this movie for fans of Miller and Loeb, such as Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman playing a love interest and partner for Batman, while still trying to remain aloof (and not really succeeding). Although unrelated, Marion Cotillard’s Miranda as the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul–isn’t her name Talia, the mother of Damien? Maybe al Ghul has more than one offspring but I was only aware of Talia. Secondly, there was the age of Batman, and his associated aging woes, reminiscent of Miller’s TDK Returns. In that story, Bruce had given up Batman for 10 years and only grudgingly came out of retirement when he couldn’t stand the violence taking over the city again. (For reference, be sure to see the animated film adaptation of this remarkable story with a bonus–Batman fights Superman at the end!).
The real problem with this film is a punishingly long terrorist siege of New York City very reminiscent of the aforementioned movie, The Siege. Terrorists…yada, yada, yada. Honestly, the terrorist thing should have been put to rest quickly. We had enough going on in this film so that a long, ridiculously drawn-out scene (over an hour) that it could have easily been cut in half without losing a single important detail. Ultimately, it was leading up to Batman’s sacrificial death and the similarly seemingly endless series of homages to him that followed. Seriously, this needed to move along, it was unbelievably boring, considering this was most of the cast and the same director we saw in the previous films. But, like I wrote earlier, Nolan was already leaning in this direction with his Joker terrorist scene which also dragged on way too long.
And, that’s the gist of it. The movie was too long, and the terrorism thing just wasted too much time that could have been devoted to really interesting scenes with Bane and other characters. Or how about flying the Batjet through the Grand Canyon for 20 minutes? That would have been at least pretty if not similarly wasteful.
Was Batman in character in this film? Seriously, no, not at all. Something changed in Bale’s performance or Nolan’s direction of the same. He was trying to portray an aged Batman, 8 years hence, who was worn out and (like Miller’s story) not quite willing to come out of retirement until he had no choice in the matter. This aging effect was over-played. The struggle to rise up again was the theme of the film, but it was done with nauseatingly fine granularity when, again, the story just needed to move on. It’s one thing to give fans everything they want. It’s another thing to give fans everything they want, and end up with a crowded film.
We’ll see how Batman and Superman handles the character in 2015, under the direction of Zack Snyder (Man of Steel). I’ll try to be objective, knowing Ben Affleck is wearing the cowl. He’ll be playing an aged Batman again, like Bale just did.