After groaning through a prehistoric glacier’s worth of ice puns in 1997′s Batman & Robin, I was done with the Caped Crusader. This was back in an era when I could usually find something positive to say about any movie I went to see, and my comment upon completing a slow funereal march out of the theater along with dozens of other disappointed audience members was, “That was $100 million that could have gone to feed starving children.” Batman & Robin was a two-hour sensory middle finger, stitched together to become less than the sum of its parts like some ungodly Frankenstein’s monster by accountants and focus groups. The old Adam West-Burt Ward TV show had been an after school ritual for me for many years, but the kitsch that worked so well in 22-minute installments in the late 60′s was excruciating when blown up for the multiplexes. What was fun and oddly sincere in one medium became insulting in another.
Since ’97, the theaters had been flooded with one superhero movie after another, some decent but most not, as studios plumbed their back catalogue to find some obscure character in a mask whom they could dress a star as and plug into basically the same script with a hip-hop soundtrack and thus secure a pre-sold blockbuster. Drubbed to death just as thoroughly around the same time was the concept of the prequel. “We’re going back to show you how it all happened.” It wasn’t enough to let a character exist with some mystery about their backstory; now it all had to be spelled out with each personality quirk given a deep, long-simmering Freudian rationale. (We can all admit that we thought Darth Vader was much cooler before we heard his boyhood self squeal “Yippee!” in The Phantom Menace.) So when I heard there was a new Batman movie coming out and that it was a prequel, my excitement level was roughly akin to what it would be if someone told me today’s special in our work cafeteria was a bowl of hot concrete.
The trailers for Batman Begins didn’t spur much enthusiasm either. Liam Neeson doing his Jedi mentor routine again. Bruce Wayne angst-ridden about his parents, even though we’d seen him coping with that in movies one through four. The only thing that seemed promising was the casting – heavyweights like Neeson, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman, each of whom has the freedom to pick and choose and certainly wasn’t going to sign on for the same old same old. After Jack Nicholson stole the first Batman, successive films had tried to compete by doubling the number villains and cramming whatever A-lister was available into the roles, regardless of whether or not the story was served by it. Screenwriter William Goldman, when discussing working with Batman Forever‘s cowl-wearer Val Kilmer, commented on this pattern by observing that “Batman is and always has been a horrible part,” and that it existed solely for the more over-the-top villain roles to play off. The casting of Christian Bale in the lead this time, not an unknown but not exactly a seat-packing screen presence either, seemed to suggest that there were slim pickings in the ranks of volunteers to succeed Kilmer, George Clooney and Michael Keaton. The trailer scenes showed a very low-key approach to the storytelling as well, almost pleading “um, excuse me, if you don’t mind, that is, if you’re not busy, we kind of have a sort of new Batman movie for you.” The director, Christopher Nolan, had made the fascinating low-budget Memento, and the plodding higher-budget Insomnia. Truthfully, it all added up to a spectacular non-event.
Imagine one’s surprise when Batman Begins turned out to be merely spectacular.
The reasons why? Well, Christopher Nolan made one crucial decision in crafting his film. Aside from the usual reasons offered – treating the material seriously, dialing down the camp – he defied both expectation and tradition and deliberately made Batman/Bruce Wayne the most interesting character in the movie. Admittedly borrowing a lesson from the casting of the first Superman, where Oscar-winners and other screen legends surrounded the unknown-at-the-time Christopher Reeve, Nolan uses his stars to reflect their light onto the lead. The movie remains Batman’s story through and through; while there are villains, they are not given equal billing, nor is any significant screen time wasted on the complexity of their origins (the burden of all the Spider-Man movies). Like the best villains, they exist mainly as challenges for the hero to overcome – impediments to his growth as a human being. Even in The Dark Knight, the Joker comes out of nowhere and simply is, like a force of nature – he lies repeatedly about how he got his signature scars, in effect taking the piss out of the tired “villain’s motivation” trope. And there is a mystery to be solved; an actual plot to unravel piece by piece, instead of the bad guys running around trying to kill Batman for two hours. It keeps moving forward in so compelling a fashion that you forget you’re actually watching a character study, that happens to have some cool fight scenes in it.
In addition, Nolan created a complexity to Bruce Wayne heretofore unexplored on screen. He has three personas: Batman; the private, troubled Bruce Wayne; and the flamboyant, spoiled rich 1%-er Bruce Wayne – a new dimension to the man, unseen in his Keaton/Kilmer/Clooney iterations, where Wayne seemed to be just a decent guy who happened to be extraordinarily rich. Bale’s public Bruce is a trust fund brat, careless with his millions, the last guy you would ever expect to want to be Batman, let alone actually do it – which makes it even more logical that he would choose to act this way. Bale’s work is so good in the part that he’s actually more interesting as Wayne than he is in the Batsuit – which is just as well, because it’s over an hour into the movie before he finally puts it on. The Dark Knight continues this dichotomy: Bruce Wayne continues to act like a colossal entitled douchebag, deflecting all suspicion that he could possibly be the noble, driven soul determined to save Gotham City from itself. In Nolan’s Batman films, the true battles are not “Biff!” “Zap!” “KaPow!” but the ones going on inside these incredibly damaged people who are essentially representatives of the conflicts and contradictions inherent in all human beings. Batman isn’t just a token good guy – he’s us. He’s what we like to think we’d do, given the means, but more importantly, the will. And like us, he is a man who must overcome significant flaws and weaknesses to push himself beyond that limit.
The forthcoming conclusion to Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, takes place nine years after Batman went on the lam, blamed for the murders of Harvey Dent and several police officers. It isn’t much of a spoiler to suggest that Bruce Wayne’s challenge in this movie may be to question whether he can truly leave the mantle of Batman behind, if the path of a hero is ultimately futile in that it has no end, no final triumph, way to know for certain whether the entire journey has been worth it. With apologies to William Goldman, Batman is no longer a horrible part. Truthfully, it never was – he just happened to end up in some horrible movies. Handled properly, he is an ideal vehicle for an exploration into the concepts of heroism, sacrifice and morality – the stuff of what the best stories are made. So go on and rise, Batman – we’re going to miss you when the last of the credits roll.