Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Tale of Two BATMANS

One of the highlights of THE LEGO MOVIE has to be Will Arnett's wonderful vocal performance as Batman.  As a longtime fan of the character, I felt the parody was pitch perfect, pretty much taking everything familiar about the character and tweaking it just a bit.  In the comics, Batman is often pretty insufferable and arrogant when dealing with his fellow heroes and one of the sheer delights of THE LEGO MOVIE is how it takes that persona and exaggerates it ever so slightly so that what seems "badass" in one context becomes fodder for humor in another.

And so as I reflected on Arnett's performance, I found myself thinking of the previous silver screen Batmans.  Interestingly, the more I thought about the disparate takes on the character, the more I realized there might be a blog post in this.

It feels like often when we try to discuss films in the superhero genre here, there's always some idiot in the comments who pops up to say, "It's stupid to take such dumb films seriously."  I think that's a pretty close-minded view. Not only is it ignorant to dismiss an entire genre of films just because some films in it have been bad, but the superhero genre is currently one of the hotter genres.  It would probably behoove you to understand WHY some of these movies work.

With so much debate about what kind of Batman Ben Affleck will make, I keep finding myself comparing the Burton Batman film series to the Nolan series.  Between the two, I vastly prefer the Nolan series, largely because it feels like a better interpretation of the version of the character I grew up on.  But I'm open to other interpretations if they're done well.  There's no one RIGHT way to do Batman, which I think is something that gets lost in a lot of internet hand-wringing about any adaptation.

But in an objective sense, I think there's a lot that the Nolan series gets right that the creators that preceeded him got wrong.  I was watching the excellent documentary that's exclusive to The Dark Knight box set recently and screenwriter David Goyer made a really important observation.  I didn't write down the exact quote, but he says that earlier films always seemed to start with "Who's the villain going to be?" while the Nolan films always were conceived by thinking about "What's the story we want to tell?" and figuring out which villains best serve that story.

It also has the result of making each of the Nolan films a story about Bruce Wayne.  The story revolves around Bruce/Batman and what he's going through.  The Burton/Schumacher series tends to have Batman overshadowed by his colorful antagonists.  He's always reacting to them and trying to stop them, but there's no meat to the Batman part.

The first film in the Nolan series, Batman Begins, is an origin story.  By definition, that makes it a character-driven tale in a way that Burton's original film wasn't.  Sure, Burton showed us Bruce's parents being murdered and eventually revealed the Joker was the killer, but he doesn't delve into Bruce's psyche beyond that.  Burton might touch on the motivation to become Batman, but Nolan shows us the process of how he gets there.  Batman Begins is about a journey.

Batman '89 really isn't the same sort of film.  I rewatched it recently and realized it didn't age well for me.  I loved it as a kid, but far less about it resonates today.  Nicholson's Joker is a lot of fun, but there are large portions of the movie that feel inert.  As a kid, I didn't grasp much of what was going on in the mob plot and I just went with the flow.  Now that I'm older and can actually follow the story beat for beat, it definitely feels thin.

What's funny is that I remember upon its release and for years afterward, this was hailed as a more "realistic" Batman.  Technically that's true when your point of reference is the Adam West Batman, but with some distance, you realize Burton's Batman is often just as campy in it's own right.  For better or for worse, it became the template for many a comic book movie attempted in the next decade.  The villains were the stars of the film and the heroes were just someone to bounce off of.

And yet, that's why I suspect Nolan's films will endure longer than the series that came before it.  It boils down to this - at the end of each Nolan film, Bruce Wayne is not the same person he was when the story started.  Begins is an origin story, and then The Dark Knight becomes a story about Bruce dealing with the consequences of the life he's chosen.  He created Batman to be a symbol that would inspire people to stand up to crime, and yet now that's literally happened, he's disturbed by vigilante's appropriating that symbol and putting themselves in danger.

Worse, the escalation Gordon spoke of in the first film arrives in the form of The Joker.  All Bruce wants throughout the movie is to be able to walk away from his life as Batman.  He feels a duty to continue, but it's evident this was never a long-term plan for him.  He merely saw it as a corrective measure to help get Gotham back on the right path.  With Harvey Dent's rise to power, Batman sees the day when the city institutions will be strong enough to take over and he can step down and have a normal life with Rachel.

Bruce's entire arc in The Dark Knight stems from that desire.  It's the spine of the movie in a way that none of the Keaton/Kilmer/Clooney Batmans managed to achieve.  By the end of the movie, he's essentially succeeded on one front, but failed on another.  Batman comes out of The Dark Knight a changed man.  Name any of the films in the first series where Bruce Wayne is a significantly different person at the end of his journey.

That's pretty significant considering that Keaton's Batman confronts his parents' killer in the first film.  He finally faces the person responsible for the tragedy that drove him to this life of vigilantism and yet, it seems he gets no closure from it.  Hell, he KILLS the guy and there's not even an acknowledgement of any emotional fallout for him.  If Bruce had a moment of reflection where he realized that resolving his parents' death wasn't going to bring him peace, that would be one thing.

It's sort of curious.  In the final film, both the revelations that the Joker killed the Waynes and the fact that Bruce avenges them is kind of weightless.  Remove either of those points from the screenplay, and you really wouldn't feel any difference.  Some of this certainly is a reflection on how these movies where developed back then.  I don't know how fair it is to hold Burton's Batman to a standard that hadn't been set at that point.

However... it is totally valid to contrast the two in terms of examining why one approach makes for a higher level of film.  I don't begrudge anyone who enjoys the first Batman film but I definitely feel like Nolan and Goyer really had goals beyond making a fun popcorn blockbuster.  The result is a movie that would be compelling even if it wasn't built around Batman, but instead an original character.

The lesson here should be that good stories are about the transformation a character goes through.  It's why most origin stories end up as pretty good movies even when the main plot is so-so (looking in your direction, Iron Man and Spider-Man (2002). )  In your own work, never neglect this.

And yes, there are exceptions to this rule.  X2 and The Avengers both manage to be rather strong comic book movies without really pivoting around a central protagonist's character arc.  Those films are more about the relationships among the various characters.  They take some outsize personalities and have them interact in interesting ways.  But that's probably worth examination in another post.

The bottom line is - no matter what your story, it can't be hurt by building it around a solid character arc.  If I can't see where your protagonist changes via the events in the script, I'm more likely to throw it in the PASS pile.


  1. What's interesting about the examples of X2 and Avengers is that even though the larger arcs they trace are about team dynamics, on a micro level there are still character arcs; they're just structured differently, with smaller beats, because there are more characters to service. It's microcosmic and I'd argue there'd be no motion in the larger arc without those in the smaller ones.

  2. The Nolan films being about transformations the character goes through is why I absolutely love The Dark Knight Rises. I love seeing Bruce emotionally and physically beaten down as a result of the events of TDK, being forced back into becoming Batman, being beat down, having to fight back, and then being able to find peace. I agree that there is room for different interpretations of Batman. But I'm not sure anyone can top what Nolan did for me with the character.

  3. Great insight into the various film incarnations of the character. Like James Bond and Sherlock, Batman is a malleable character, able to handle the shifts in tone and style from one presentation to another. I love the Nolan films but also can enjoy the Burton installments. With Burton, I happen to love the performances, production design and Danny Elfman's music, whereas with Nolan it goes further into really digging the story, character arcs, themes, action and more. For me, each of the Chris Nolan-led Batman films are a triumph, even with the differences between each of them.