Batman Movies – An Examination

OK, this is sort of a follow-up to my last article, which, as you may recall, was an analysis of Batman villains in the movies. Going over all those characters has put me in a pensive, Batman-ish sort of mood, so I figured ‘hey, why not? It won’t be the first time I’ve followed a theme.’

I was initially thinking of doing simple reviews of the Batman movies from start to finish, and examining them that way – but you know what? That’s a lot of work simply to make a point; the latest one isn’t out on DVD yet anyway, and honestly, I’m not in the mood. I have other things on my plate, and a solid two months worth of Bat-reviews would become a bit of a pain rather quickly.

Instead, this is a looser, more free-form sort of thing, just a sort of general examination of Batman in movies so far – what’s been done right, and what’s been done wrong, and what could be done right in the future. (Warning – this is probably the most rambling thing I’ve ever written for this site, so if you’re short on time or concentration, come back later.)

All right, so Batman movies.

Hmm.

Well, let’s start out with Batman himself. Gosh, Batman is sure a cool character, isn’t he? Yeah. Sure is.

One of the things that makes him cool is that there’s literally something there for everyone. The character and his supporting cast have been around for so long and been through so many different incarnations that you can find something to appeal to the tastes of almost anybody. Like brooding darkness? Plenty of that. Like light-hearted character pieces? Fair amount of those, too. Action? Yep. Mystery? You betcha. Science fiction, fantasy, romance, camp, artiness, noir, horror, comedy, tragedy? Hey, take your pick.

And therein lies the rub (as well as the real beginning to all this). Since the Batman franchise does contain all those things, a ‘definitive’ filmic interpretation of the character is pretty darn difficult to pull off. Unless there exists some cinematic genius who can come up with a dark-but-also-sorta-light action sci-fi/fantasy/horror tragicomic romantic art movie with elements of camp, I’d say we’re kinda shnookered.

Still, that doesn’t mean people can’t try, and simply because Batman is more complex to adapt than most hasn’t stopped him appearing on screen a good number of times. Some of them have been pretty good, too. The question is, what’s the magic formula for getting it right?

If there is one, I don’t know about it. But one can always extrapolate from what’s already been done, and see where to go from there. Hindsight, after all, is a useful thing.

Now, some might start at the very beginning of the Dark Knight’s career on the screen and go forward from there. Me, though, I’m gonna try something a little different. Let’s instead start with the Bat-movies that have recently been on everyone’s mind – the Nolan trilogy.

Whatever you think of them, there’s no denying that Batman Begins and its sequels are going to be the forces to reckon with for any aspiring Bat-filmmakers in the future. All three of them have been whopping big successes and made the studios great heaping mountains of filthy lucre. So the chances are pretty good that the first thing the studio is going to say to the aforementioned filmmakers is ‘make it like the Dark Knight movies!’

The question, therefore, is ‘is this a good thing’? Is the trilogy a worthy blueprint for future Bat-films, or is it a mixed bag that should be reached into carefully?

My answer? A little of both. Perhaps a bit more of the latter.

Just to clarify here – for what they are, I do not have a problem with the Nolan films. They’re good movies. My issue with them is that they’ve been overrated, and there are a fair smattering of people going “the Bat-films have never had it this good”. I disagree.

Why? Well, to answer that, let us first take a look at how they came about in the first place.

Setting aside the various animated series and whatnot (which would constitute a whole other article, so numerous are they), the history of screen Batman can basically be narrowed down into three different approaches, as it were, each separated by a good span of time. One, the TV show of the ‘60’s. Two, the Burton/Schumacher films. And three, the recent trilogy.

Each of these was hugely influential in its day, and each following one has been a reaction against the last. The TV show first cemented the ‘Zap! Pow! Wham!’ image of the character into people’s minds, one which would remain there even while the character and comics in general evolved past it (which, indeed, they were beginning to show signs of doing even as the show was still at its height). The Burton films attempted to counter this image, and were hugely influential on their own until they petered out with the wretched excesses of the Schumacher entries. These latter ones were what kept Batman out of theaters for years afterwards, as there was no real way to follow logically from the disaster that was Batman and Robin – until Nolan finally decided to simply start all over, and you know the rest.

Logically, this last effort was pretty much the only thing that could have been done. If Batman was ever to be taken seriously as a screen presence again, a more serious approach was required – I get that, and I applaud the trilogy’s successes. But that does not make them free from failures, and ultimately, I think the films are just as flawed as either of their filmic predecessors.

Mark my words; there is a pattern being followed here, and one that has been in place for a good long time. The pattern is success followed by overconfidence and ultimate collapse. Basically, we are talking about three (sort of – we’ll get to that) excellent adaptations of the source material that each got too big for their boots.

Now, I know that the TV show has been more or less in disgrace among Bat-fans for years, due to the effects it had on the perception of the character. Here’s the thing though – at the time it was made, it was spot-on. If you look at the comics of the late Golden and early Silver Ages, upon which the show was based, all its elements are in place. The bright colors, the fanciful deathtraps, Batman going around just as much in the daytime as at night, the general over-the-top nature of everything – it’s all there. The problem wasn’t the execution; it was the fact that it took the ball and ran with it just a little too far until it entered the realms of ridiculousness.

Similarly, the Burton movies were a good-faith effort to at least get the mood of the Batman universe right, and one which overall succeeded very well. Sure, there were a few creative decisions made that were perhaps a tad dubious, but when I think of Gotham City, I tend to think of Burton’s version first. The series began to teeter and ultimately fell when the studio lost faith in the series’ direction and brought in Schumacher.

Which brings us, of course, to the Nolan films, which, as indicated above, both do and don’t follow the pattern in question.

Let’s start with the “do”. The trilogy does follow the pattern in that it made a strong start, ultimately got too high an opinion of itself, and ended on a slightly weak note. (This is just my opinion regarding the last movie, of course, but I’m not alone – see it yourself and tell me if I’m wrong.) It doesn’t in two important ways, which are as follows:

One, unlike its predecessors, it did not end on a financially downbeat note. In fact, it’s been hugely profitable from start to finish – hence, as I said earlier, there will be pressure to imitate it when the next batch of movies rolls around.

Second – and here, finally, is where we start getting an answer to the question that started all this – it is not a clear-cut adaptation of the source material.

I sense some furrowed brows in the audience. ‘Wait just a minute’, some of you are doubtless thinking. ‘How can a Batman movie not be an adaptation of the source material? Batman is a comic book character, so any movie based on him must draw on the comics, right?’

Well, yes, if the movie had been made a number of years ago. At this point, though, no.

Let me explain what I mean. Batman is a comic book character, yes, but his adventures have long since spread out beyond the comic books. Even leaving aside the cinematic examples we’ve been talking about, he’s also been depicted in just about every other medium imaginable, from picture books to animation to freakin’ beach towels. His primary home is still the comics, yes, but the Batman mythos, at this point, is legion. Hence it is perfectly possible for someone to know exactly who Batman and his main villains and supporting characters are without ever having picked up a comic book.

Now, I’m not saying that Nolan therefore did not draw on the comics when making his movies. Of course he did; several classic Batman stories such as Batman: Year One, The Killing Joke and Knightfall, among others, were adapted into the scripts. If you were to go purely on plot synopses, you’d probably go ‘hey, yeah, I recognize this! And this, too! This guy knows his comics!’

But… does he? That’s the real question.

Sure, Nolan did his homework while putting the things together, but here’s the thing – very rarely did I get the feeling that he really liked Batman all that much.

Of course, a movie is not the product of merely one man, and the trilogy certainly has its share of pleasantly geeky moments. But as the films went on, this began to happen less and less, until, by the time DKR hit theaters, they had transformed almost entirely from movies about Batman into movies about the stuff Christopher Nolan wants to talk about.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. I mean, they are good movies; they’re well-made and everything, and the themes examined are all worthy ones – the nature of society, terrorism, the danger of worshipping false idols, etc. As movies in and of themselves, they’re fine – but all things considered, I’m not sure they’re really Batman movies.

Now, just to make myself clear, there is a notable exception to this. Batman Begins was manifestly an origin story for the character, and a pretty good one at that. But in retrospect it seems like a bit of an anomaly, like Nolan was playing it safe until he knew how the public would react – once it was a success, he changed from making Batman movies to making his sort of movies that just happened to have Batman in them. Dark Knight struck an acceptable balance between the two, but by the times Rises had rolled around, Batman himself was practically an afterthought. It’s not about him anymore, it’s all about Gotham, a city which has less and less personality as the trilogy continues. At least in Begins it’s got the whole “hive of scum and villainy” thing going for it – in Dark Knight it’s more or less just regular Chicago under an assumed name, and in its third incarnation it’s lost even that, being cobbled together out of several different cities. It’s Everycity, a concept that has served some past films well, but in this case it’s just a staging ground for Nolan to bounce his monologues off. I find it difficult to believe that anyone could have made one of the most legendary urban hellholes in fiction boring, but he went and did it.

Furthermore, there’s that damned obsession with realism. I brought this up a bit in my last article, but it’s worth going into more detail about here, because it’s really at the root of my whole problem with the series. Nolan has stated more or less directly that he was drawn to the idea of directing a Batman movie in the first place because (I’m paraphrasing) “he’s the only superhero who could exist in real life”. Hence, he took pains to present him as such.

Now, I’ve heard this argument before, and it’s fair enough – yeah, Batman himself is one of the more realistic superheroes, given that he gained his abilities through training, study and practice rather than a rock from space or a radioactive warthog or something. And if he existed in a vacuum, that’d be fine – but he doesn’t. Batman may be a realistic superhero as far as superheroes go, but he’s still a superhero, and he still lives in a superhero universe. Even if you don’t bring it up in the movie itself, Gotham City happens to be part of the same real estate that includes a flying man with X-ray vision, an organization of space cops with weaponized jewelry, and an island of beautiful immortal women who made a living baby out of clay and prayers to the gods. Hell, even if you completely ignore everything outside the city limits, it’s still home ground for a shapeshifter, at least one cyborg that I can think of, a reptile-man, a were-bat, and a human popsicle with a freeze-gun – and that’s just for starters. You don’t have to directly address these things within the context of a movie franchise, of course, but you should at least acknowledge in some way that this is a place where the regular rules of reality do not always apply.

Nolan does not do this. In fact, he directly ignores the issue. His Bat-universe is basically ours only with Batman in it. It doesn’t look or feel in any way different.

To be fair, there are clearly plenty of people who approve of this approach. Once again, these movies have made a metric buttload of lucre, so I am not saying it was a disastrous artistic choice – if nothing else, it worked as a tactic to get butts in seats. Personally, though, it is not one I agree with. Not at all.

Here’s the thing – generally speaking, a superhero comic is a fantasy. It’s a variety of escapist fantasy; that’s why the hero fighting the villain and winning has been the standard for decades. You think Batman drives the Batmobile because it’s practical? Heck no, he drives it because it’s cool, and there is not a Bat-fan in existence who has not wanted to ride in that thing at some point. This is why the Marvel and DC Universes are similar yet different from our own – you don’t necessarily want to live in a world that supervillains try to blow up every other week, but you do want the ability to daydream that your world is just close enough to their world that some of the coolness might rub off. The real world, but with Cool Stuff – that is the essence of a superhero universe.

Most good superhero movies contain this elusive element to some degree. The Spider-Man movies (and yes, I include the recent reboot) have it. The X-Men movies have it. The Superman flicks (at least the first couple) have it in spades. Nolan’s movies do not.

The Dark Knight trilogy plays lip service to Cool Stuff, but there is precious little of it there. Sure, there are Batmobiles and Bat-Pods and Bat-Whatnots, but that’s about it – otherwise, Nolan is interested in a world with Fox News and NPR and politicians yelling at each other. He’s interested in our world, not the comic book world, and hence, his Batman does not live in a comic book world. He has adapted the characters, but he has not adapted their world, and without that, it cannot be a true comic book adaptation.

Color me unsophisticated, but when I watch a movie with Batman in it, I don’t want a sociology lecture. I want to see freakin’ Batman. I could care less if his world is strictly realistic; as long as there’s plenty of Batman doing Cool Stuff, that’s good enough for me.

Like I said, though, this sort of Batman movie was almost inevitable considering the tenor of the last one. Had Begins been at all on the silly side, it would most likely have been savaged by every critic in existence as being too similar to Batman and Robin. That, in turn, most likely would have led to almost everyone else in the universe going “Batman and Robin? OH NO, NOT AGAIN!” and staying away in droves.

Note that I said ‘almost’, though. I probably would have been an exception.

OK, OK, put the talismans and garlic away. I’m not saying I liked Batman and Robin – it was a floundering mess – but I didn’t like it due to its internal problems (the plot, the character flubs, the poor casting choices, the endless puns, etc.), not because of its tone. Sure, said tone was silly as all hell, but it was a case of aiming for something and missing, and what it was aiming for was a replication of Batman Forever’s tone, under the theory of ‘if this worked in and of itself, the same thing amped up to fifty will do wonders, right?’

Well… no. But overall, I like Forever. It’s far from my favorite Bat-movie, but it was successful in the same way that the previous two movies were successful, in that they achieved the feel of a world where Batman seems right at home. Hell, in that case, even B&R succeeded, due to the fact that its Batman was just as goofy and weird as everything that surrounded him. So if you’d told me that it was receiving a direct sequel, I wouldn’t have screamed and hidden under the bed, I would have gone ‘yay, Batman!’ and hoped that they wouldn’t screw it up.

Yet that never happened, and the cinematic Bat-universe is now a very different place.

So what now, then?

Time will tell. But if any future filmmakers happen to be reading this, here’s my advice.

Clearly, there’s no going back to the more directly comic-booky feel of earlier approaches. That ship has sailed – it’s the 21st Century now, and for better or for worse, both studios and audiences are going to demand a bit more realism in their Bat-flicks. You’ve got to emulate the Nolan films to some degree, but there is more to Batman than that. So here are a few pieces of advice.

#1: Don’t try to directly emulate The Dark Knight. I know that sounds a little weird, given that it’s undoubtedly the most widely-praised and financially successful of the lot, but A: it’s lightning in a bottle; if you try and replicate its success, you will inevitably fumble, and B: it’s in Dark Knight that the trilogy took its first steps towards the non-Batman-ishness I mentioned earlier. There are aspects of it you can try to incorporate, sure, but as a whole, it’s territory into which one should tread carefully. Instead, take a look at Batman Begins, a movie that, while not without its flaws, served both to introduce a new cinematic treatment of the character and to achieve a reasonable balance between comic bookiness and realism.

#2: Don’t be afraid of things that are technically implausible in real-world terms. The people watching your movie will applaud realistic touches, sure, but most of them will likely be fans of the comic and will forgive stuff that’s a tad goofy if it’s basically true to the source material. It doesn’t matter if strict realism is not achieved – this is based on a comic book, and comic books can get silly sometimes. Accept that and move on.

#3: A Batman movie does not have to be relentlessly grim. Batman himself is a dark and brooding character, yes, but there is room in his world for a little lightness. It contrasts well with the darker stuff, and audiences will walk out of the theater quoting the lines.

#4: Do not be afraid to reach into the distant past for inspiration. Batman has been around for decades, and has had countless stories told about him – don’t think you have to stick to the ones that everybody knows. (Not that you can’t, of course, but you don’t have to.) Nothing brings tears of joy to a nerd’s eyes like seeing something incredibly old and obscure paid homage to on the big screen. If it strikes you that, say, the origin of Golden-Age Clayface is the one you really want to use, then go for it.

#5: Get the characters right first. Batman is all about the characters – flub them and you’ve flubbed everything else.

#6: If you don’t at least have an appreciation for the mythos, acquire one. Batman’s world is a thing people love. If you make a movie about it without at least an inkling of that love, you will not be doing it justice.

Here’s to the future!

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8 Comments

  1. Tangentially, I think the Arkham Asylum and Arkham City games struck a nice balance between “plausibly semi-realistic” and “totally absurd”. I think movies could play in a similar space, between Nolan and Burton.

  2. It’s almost 4 am while I’m writing this, so hopefully what I’m trying to say will get across.
    In Eunice’s World where she has all power over everything this is how the Batman movies would’ve went:
    Harvey Dent would’ve lived at the end of DK and been the villain of the next movie becoming full on Two Face (keeping that comic bookiness), and Catwoman? yeah she’d be there too. But kinda introduced.
    Then Scarecrow would get his own movie, with Catwoman returning in a bigger role.
    Finally (in this universe Heath Ledger isn’t dead) Joker comes back being broken out of Arkham by Dr Quinzel. And not in the costume from the games, her proper Harlequin costume.

    Keep a grounded feel (no neon, no batnipples), but let the characters be who they’re supposed to be. Now those are the movies I want to see.

    • In Deneb’s world, things might have gone a LITTLE bit differently from what you described – I probably would have put the Penguin in there somewhere, and I’m not sure I would have bothered with the Scarecrow – but not by much.
      In fact, I’m guessing that the reason things went as they did was precisely because they took place in a world where Ledger DID die. Had he lived, I’m guessing the courses of both Dark Knight and Dark Knight Returns would have been radically different – in this world, Nolan had to change all his plans in a hurry and work with the footage he already had, which seldom leads to perfect results.

  3. Pingback: Batman Rises. Dark Night Rises: 5 Starts | Yareah Magazine. Arts and writing

  4. Pingback: Batman. Cocktail of Films, Comic and Literature | Yareah Magazine. Arts and writing

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