Batman in Cinema – An Observation
Preface – This was written for a college class in ’09. A simple compare-and-contrast paper. Moving this here for posterity.
In 1988, Tim Burton released the movie ‘Batman’ onto an unsuspecting public, and forever changed the face of the Batman series. With the subsequent sequel ‘Batman Returns’¸ his dark, harrowing shooting style brought us a revised vision of that world with lead director Burton at the camera and actor Michael Keaton behind it as the lead protagonist. These two movies set the stage for the campy, ridiculous, and generally over-the-top sequels that would follow. While, in comparison to today’s Batman, Burton’s vision was clearly modeled against his own vision of film making and not the Batman universe and lore, the Joel Schumacher-funded train wrecks of the 1990’s known as ‘Batman Forever’ and ‘Batman and Robin’ nearly destroyed the franchise’s relevance. It was not until twenty years after Burton’s interpretation of Batman did the Dark Crusader get properly reintroduced to the world with ‘Batman Begins’ and the subsequent 2009 comic-book masterpiece, ‘The Dark Knight’. There are clearly some differences between the two sets of movies that set them apart and make director Christopher Nolan’s works the superior, relevant Batman lore.
First, Batman would not be who he is without the money, skills, and psychological damage that shaped and defined Bruce Wayne. The first four movies moved through this plot line as a side point, unnecessary to the action and plot progression. The Nolan films plumbed the depths of Bruce Wayne’s psyche, explained not just that he was Batman, but why he is Batman. The stability of actors also dimmed the effectiveness of the personal trauma Bruce experienced in the pre-2000 films. Shifting between Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and lastly, George Clooney as Batman took away from the experience, and changed the element of delivery of emotion. With Christian Bale, current Batman, and director Nolan committed to take the series as far as DC Comics and Warner Brothers want to take the franchise, the consistency in vision and character presentation will make the gritty, realistic representation of Bruce Wayne and his broken alter ego a relevant portrayal for all time.
When Bruce Wayne slides into the Bat Cave and transforms into The Dark Knight, his defining characteristics are three things: His suit, his cowl, and his “wonderful toys,” as The Joker said in the very first movie. His best “toy” is his car, the ephemeral Batmobile, which every kid has ever wanted and can be identified on sight by hardcore and casual fans alike. In the 1988-1995 versions of the movie, the car is much like the other qualities of that generation’s Batman: over-the-top camp, and unexplained in feature or function. The 88-95 model Batmobile is a jet car, a rolling bullet-proof limousine with room for two and a plethora of tools and functions available at the press of a button. Compare this to the Tumbler, Nolan’s vision of a cast-aside Wayne Enterprises military project, stuck in a closet, until the heir to the company happens to find a surprisingly useful application of it in an urban environment. The Tumbler, this generation’s Batmobile, brings relevance and realism to an otherwise highly unexplainable vehicle used in the Batman Universe.
Batman’s suit was a point of contention when Batman and Robin came out. George Clooney is still embarrassed by that suit, which was less Bat-Suit and more stylized S&M gear. The suit was mostly leather, anatomically incorrect in all the wrong places, and had nipples. This was, and is, still a hilarious ode to just how ridiculous the costume design crew went with the outfits in the movie that nearly killed Batman forever. Contrast this against Batman Begins, where Bruce Wayne, digging through Wayne Enterprises’
Military Research facility, finds prototype body armor designed for use in military combat. The suit is designed for function and modified in the movie to support Batman in his urban endeavors. It has been argued in many tabloids, blogs, and other publications that this sequence was written into Batman Begins to help clear the palette of fans who were disturbed and saddened by the ridicule their beloved Dark Knight went through at the hands of Producer Schumacher and others.
In any story, there is no protagonist without an antagonist, seen or unseen. Jack Nicholson’s Joker was amazing for his time, a psychotic madman with a penchant for clown suits. His smile, presence, and sadistic goofiness made Burton’s presentation of Batman’s arch-enemy unlike any villain seen on film. Stealing another actor out of One Flew over the Cookoo’s Nest, Danny Devito scared and disturbed everyone who watched him as The Penguin. Noone can forget Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, and the interplay between her and Keaton’s Batman. This is where Burton’s movies really outshine the Schumacher-produced films. Burton tookthe time to flesh out the characters, and really build the evil, nuanced, and crazy aspects of his villains. One low point for Burton was the poor decision to parade The Joker up and down Main Street to extremely bad ‘80’s music. Otherwise, Burton’s presentation of his antagonists was much more palatable than that of Jim Carrey’s spandex clad Riddler, Uma Thurman’s painfully over-the-top Poison Ivy, and Tommy Lee Jones’ ill-conceived Harvey “Two-Face” Dent.
All of these Batman villains pale to Nolan’s Rhaz Al-Gul and the unforgettable, tragic performance of Heath Ledger as a much darker, scarier, crazier and modestly hilarious revamp of The Joker. In the first of the reboot films, Batman Begins, a little known mentor-turned-villain from the Batman lore is introduced to audiences. Liam Neeson brought intensity to the role, giving Bale’s Batman a foil to operate against. The existence of Rhaz Al-Ghul explains the existence of Bruce Wayne’s abilities, and more so, the creation of Batman. Even more memorable than Neeson was The Scarecrow, a standard character in the Batman saga. With Nolan’s direction, CGI, and a well-written script, Scarecrow’s character was larger than life and exponentially darker and more disturbing than any of the villains before him.
Overshadowing all the villains in the Batman franchise that had come before him was Heath Ledger’s Joker. A character of limitless evil and sadism, it has been argued that Ledger’s Joker is the best villain of all times, not just the Batman series. Giving his last full measure to the art of acting, Ledger brought a squealing, variable tone to his voice and a haphazard lackadaisical mania to the Joker. His Joker was real, his Joker was insane, and his Joker had no campy misgivings to the matter. The Joker in The Dark Knight took a good Batman reboot, and made it amazing; magical even. Ledger posthumously won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in a genre that generally never wins Academy Awards for anything more than CGI or Audio work. This alone should be testament to amazing performance found in Ledger’s reinterpreted Joker.
From his original conception in 1939, Batman has been delivered in many forms: Comic books, television shows, movies, animated television shows, and video games. There have been many interpretations of Batman, his life, his world, and his enemies. There have been varying quality results of these interpretations. Clearly, Burton’s two first films helped whet the appetite of the cinema-going masses for Batman. Schumacher’s legacy in the Batman franchise is marked as well, if for all the wrong reasons. It can be argued that without Schumacher, there may have never been a desire to give the franchise a reboot. With that reboot, Batman fans were given the ultimate tribute: Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are the most realistic interpretations to date, and, as evidenced, the best.