With the release of The Dark Knight ’tis surely time for a Batman debate…
By Fiona, a contributor to The Stub.
*The Dark Knight Review is now up and can be found here.
*A second article on The DarkKnight can be found here.
“You look like a man who takes himself too seriously” It’s the line that the grimey, grainbag-sporting Scarecrow used to undermine our hero Batman in the most recent instalment of the Batman franchise. But is he right? Has Batman come too far from his comical capers on TV and ended up looking like a serious nut, trying to occupy a moral high-ground while still, clearly, dressed as a bat? Or has he finally become the true dark knight, revelling in the shady corners of the human psyche, managing to really resonate as a character, far beyond the comic book realm?
We probably won’t be sure until July 18th when The Dark Knight is released and we get the chance to see the most psychotic of villains face the most messed up of all heroes. In the eagerly awaited follow-up to Batman Begins (2005), Christian Bale, as the new Batman, will battle none other than The Joker.
But we’ve seen this war before. In Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Jack Nicholson took on the role of the not-so-funny man who wrecks havoc on an art museum, and taunts Batman with style. Nicholson played the part as a simmering madman, but one who also simmers with an unnerving charisma. He could crack a joke, even better than he could crack a smile (and that’s saying something for a man with a permanent grin). At one point he quips “Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?”
And whatever about its power to heal, Burton’s Batman definitely did provoke the laughter. Even if The Joker, and Batman were troubled individuals with obvious personality issues, Burton never made it an issue. They remained comic book characters with a firm grip on unreality. Batman and, of course, Batman Returns, are all about creating a fantastically gothic atmosphere, paying attention to the fact that comic book heroes are really nothing without their implausibly perfect costumes, and keeping a character arc simple and memorable. We never delve too deep into the soul of The Joker, Catwoman, The Penguin or, of course, The Bat-Man himself. Let’s be honest, if we wandered too far from the surface, and if these people really started rambling on about their feelings, they’d all end up in therapy. Part of the reason the world loves comic heroes is because they’re not complicated. They experience a terrible and shocking childhood incident, but they quickly lock it up in the proverbial closet and set to work styling a costume on the sewing machine. Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) didn’t experience even a twinge of back pain despite falling from a reasonably tall building. She just got back up (off the pile of cats which probably cushioned her fall) and got on with her disturbing life. I’m not saying they “get over it” but comic heroes don’t’ dwell on it, at least no longer than it takes to spit out a fight-charged one liner or two. Amidst the punches Batman and The Joker enjoy the following exchange:
Batman: I’m going to kill you!
The Joker: You IDIOT! You made me. Remember? You dropped me into that vat of chemicals. That wasn’t easy to get over, and don’t think that I didn’t try.
Batman: I know you did.
The comic hero film has always been a spectacle of human personality, as opposed to a reflection on society. A sort of gaudy showcase of core values; The good guys fight the bad guys. The bad guys are usually the product of accidents involving too much ambition, and, er, too little caution when it comes to scientific experimentation. Good guys put duty before love and remain unattached as a result. But I’m not enough of a comic book fan to really comment on their place in popular culture. All I want to comment on is Batman. He’s been gradually wandering into a darker place. Darker than the alleyways of Gotham. And darker than his own underpants (the ones he used to sport outside his tights back in 1966, when the first movie of the T.V. series was made). Burton revamped the suit, making it a more brooding all-black ensemble. And he gave our hero some screen time to comment on his rather alternative existence. Vicki Vale even puts it to him: “Well let’s face it, you’re not exactly normal are you?”. To which he replies “Well this isn’t exactly a normal world, is it?” On one hand, he might be making a comment on the society we live in today, where there are no limits to the oddities of human behaviour. But on the other hand, he really doesn’t live in a normal world; he lives in Gotham city, a fantasy land.
Which brings us to Joel Schumacher, the director who took up the reins after Burton left Batman lie following Batman Returns. Batman Forever (1995) kept its Batman (played by a pouting Val Kilmer) firmly in fantasy land. Like with the previous two instalments, there’s not much time for talk of Batman’s troubled mind, other than a two-hander between him and psychologist Chase Meridian played by Nicole Kidman.
Batman: I don’t blend in at a family picnic.
Dr. Chase Meridian: Oh, we could give it a try. I’ll bring the wine, you bring your scarred psyche.
The look was colourful, from the skinny green one-piece Riddler suit (crowned with his flame red hairdo), to the garish assorted animal print half of Two-Face’s ensemble. With Kidman, of course, providing the necessary blonde highlights. There was some light banter between Batman and his trusty side-kick Robin, which, admittedly, was quite amusing at times. A reference to the days of Adam West told us Schumacher wasn’t necessarily taking all his cues from Burton’s vision.
All the same, it seemed Robin was ushered in, in order to share the weight of expectation which Kilmer could clearly not manage. Divide and conquer as they say, and if our attention was divided between two and not one superhero then we would surely find less to criticise and more to please.
Burton at least left the red-breasted annoyance out of the picture. Maybe it’s just me but I think a partner in crime fighting compromises Batman’s whole persona. Bats don’t fight crime in pairs now do they? I rest my poorly researched case. Nevertheless, Schumacher didn’t do Batman an utter injustice. Batman Forever pulled in the crowds, topping Batman Returns (but not Batman, which was the most successful film of 1989 and the highest grossing of any of the Batman films to date). He should have left it there.
Unfortunately, George Clooney was at a loose end, having recently completed One Fine Day with ex-feline fatale Michelle Pfeiffer. Perhaps they got talking about Batman on set and Clooney developed a dangerous interest in playing the dark hero. Whatever the reason, Schumacher made bad decision number one in casting Clooney. Bad decision number two came with the introduction of Batgirl, another side-kick to take the heat off our rapidly diminishing hero. How my heart sank when I saw Alicia Silverstone in her shiny bat suit try to fit into the already cramped batcave. The colour and lightness of Batman Forever was brought up a notch, but it didn’t sit well with the storyline. The plot attempted to cover the themes of Alfred’s impending death, and Robin’s need to step out from under Batman’s shadow. It was a plot that also had Dr Victor Fries (aka Mr. Freeze), preserve his ill wife in the cold, punishing Gotham for failing to help cure her. If anything the film demanded an even darker, more brooding Batman than we had seen before, one who could mirror the Doctor’s anguish-spawned malevolence with his own pain. As it were, Clooney’s charisma couldn’t win us over. Batman and Robin (1997) earned the producers the lowest figure of all the Batman films, and earned none of the fans respect.
Bearing that travesty in mind, one really cannot blame Christopher Nolan for going over the dark side. The world had rejected a Batman deemed too happy for our liking. The story had also become too cluttered with heroes and villains. Eight years after Batman and Robin, Nolan decided to sweep the streets of Gotham clean and start again. He wanted to show us how an ordinary, extremely wealthy orphan becomes a vigilante in a bat suit. Previously, all we knew about Bruce was that he took a dislike to criminals after one individual shot both his parents dead during a stroll down a dark, empty alleyway. He sought to avenge their deaths and to strike back at crime, albeit using controversial methods. Burton gave us a hint at the back-story in Batman, showing the shootings but left it there.
But Nolan took his cues from the Batman: Year One comics, detailing the young Bruce’s travels to the Far East and his ninja training (which explains his ability to expertly fight evil without having any actual superpowers…). While showing sense in not making things too light, Nolan took a big risk in spending so much time showing us Bruce the man as opposed to Bruce the Batman. It’s nearly an hour into the 2 hours and 20 minute long film before our hero even picks up the mask. Batman Begins is essentially Nolan Explains. From the affinity with bats, to the batcave and the batmobile, the film is all about explanation, quite a dangerous thing for a comic book film. Obviously the origins of comic heroes are an incredibly important part of their story – What would Spiderman be without the run-in with the genetically modified (formally radioactive) spider? Or Superman without his crash landing in the cornfields of Smallville? But usually the most these heroes get is their 15 minutes of explanation or less. With supervillains it is almost certainly less. The Green Goblin was created quicker than you could say “Oops I should have tested this formula on more monkeys before I tried it out on myself”. Catwoman had macintosh converted to catsuit before you could..well..meeow. With Batman Begins however, delaying the inevitable makes it all the more thrilling when it happens. Whatever die-hard fans may feel about Christian Bale being the new man in black, watching him suit up for the first time and declare in the raspiest voice yet “Who am I?-I’m Batman!” to a terrified thug, one cannot help thinking “Yes, goddamnit, he’s back!”. Not since Batman Returns have we really felt that Batman was exciting, frightening and just a little bit creepy.
Ah yes, there’s nothing creepier than reality. It’s one thing to have a man dressed as a bat climbing around a clearly fantastical city, but to watch the same playing out in a gritty crime-hole of a place is far weirder. The Gotham created by Nolan and cinematographer, Wally Pfister is one which is jaundiced by street lights, stricken with the homeless and plagued by crime. By night, everything in the film is either a sickly yellow, a toxic orange, or an all-consuming black. By day there is only the fresh green isolation of Wayne manor, far from the influence and hues of the city. Gotham (unlike New York, which is under Peter Parker’s watch) was always very definitely a fictional city. But just as a fuming Rachel Dawes drives Bruce down into the underbelly of Gotham to reveal to him that “the city is rotting”, Nolan shows us Gotham could be real. The problems it has are real, with drug pushers controlling the gangs and drug users committing the street crimes. Fair enough, the plot dreamed up by the Scarecrow to truly take over and destroy the city is hopefully not grounded in realism but the society upon which he unleashes said plan is a reflection of our own.
So you have to think – is Batman really taking himself too seriously or is Nolan just being smart in taking us to a place we’ve never been before? We all know that comic heroes aren’t real, we know Batman would actually be locked up if he were really to make an appearance on our streets. But doesn’t part of us enjoy the spectacle all the more if it seems just that bit more plausible? Batman is probably the only hero who can truly have one foot planted in realism, given that all the others are the product of gross scientific inaccuracies. The only important thing is that he keeps the other foot firmly on the side of fairytale, and one part of him at all times tethered to unreality. Because while we live in a world with problems far more overwhelming than any supervillain, we can do with all the fairytales we can get.