(Spoilers for the Nolan Batman films and maybe others.)
With the dust settling over the casting of Ben Affleck as the next Batman, I thought I’d finally dig into my feelings on the recently-completed Batman trilogy and its predecessor. I enjoyed Batman Begins greatly. It was a return to the serious world of the Batman and promised a first cinematic exploration of the relationship between R’as al Ghul and Bruce. That relationship, while naturally not slavishly true to the comic canon, was at least partially addressed and, as we know now, would be a large part of the trilogy’s payoff. The Dark Knight was…well, it was pretty damn great, wasn’t it? Not much to criticize, really, even if the R’as angle was pretty much forgotten for the duration of the film.
Then, Dark Knight Rises happened. I’ve asked euphemistically how does one make a mainstream hugely-successful Batman action movie? Easy—remove the Batman…and most of the action. Without checking the clock on it, it seemed to me that Bruce Wayne and James Gordon spent 80% of their time in the movie on their backs, either in the hospital, recovering, in prison or something. (Ok, that one scene with Bruce on his back had a little more action, but that’s not what I’m here to discuss.) Relatively dull fight scenes, car chases we’ve seen before—the only truly exciting parts were when the Bat appeared, which were not coincidentally about the only time Batman seemed to be doing anything. Yeah, he fought Bane hand-to-hand and beat up a bunch of thugs with Catwoman. Yawn. We know the name of the movie, and any longtime comic fan knows there won’t be a Batman movie where Batman dies, at least until Frank Miller produces one.
I hear the complaints—this isn’t Transformers, this was a thinking Batman movie. That’s why they got Christopher Nolan. I’ve read a review comparing TDKR to Inception. Guess what? I don’t go to a Batman movie looking for Inception. I’m not after mindless action, but I don’t expect any movie, even a three-hour movie, to prod me to reconsider my role in the universe through the lens of the Batman. I’m not incapable of being moved to deep thought by movies, but I don’t think Batman is the proper vehicle for that. Nothing against Batman; I don’t want to see a Superman movie created by Darren Aronofsky or Thor by Ingmar Bergman.
I understand that this is the Batman of record for a generation. Good thing he didn’t die, then, right? (Or maybe it would have been better, given the New 52, but that’s another story.) It doesn’t really surprise me that this is the Batman movie we got for the new century. Let’s think: the first Batman movie was the serial that came from the almost-pulp stories of the 1940s. Then we had the ’66 Batman and that movie, putting the topper on the Silver Age, before Tim Burton returned us to the serious side. That made sense in 1989, after the comics had turned more serious thanks to The Dark Knight Returns, Year One, and stories by writers like Doug Moench and Dennis O’Neill. Joel Schumaker began to turn the corner with Batman Forever, a huge commercial success and toy-mover that returned Batman to the kids while still appealing to adults.
Then came Batman and Robin, and we’ll be coming back to that.
In the comics, Batman was getting more and more…intense. Humorless and grim, pathologically dedicated to ridding Gotham of its poisonous criminal element, a mission roundly acknowledged as impossible and actually symptomatic of a death wish on Bruce’s part, to kill himself (or actually, to be killed) while pursuing an impossible goal, finally atoning in his mind for surviving the assault that killed his parents. The mind of this broken bat would prove to be, among other things, the means of at least two major overhauls of the DC Universe: the OMAC Project and its fallout; and the rise of Prometheus, whose theft of Batman’s “protocols” for dealing with a Justice League turned rogue. That established Prometheus as a major DC villain and set up a number of significant (and reprehensible) deaths, including Prometheus’ own at the hands of Green Arrow. (All this, of course, pre-Flashpoint, so no one cares anyway.) Additionally, Batman’s role in the events leading to Identity Crisis, including his mind-wipe by Zatanna, also led to his increasingly paranoid, megalomaniacal…well, let’s just say psychotic behavior.
As far as the thinking comics fan, it’s been a matter of fact for a while that Batman, arguably DC’s most recognizable hero, is also crazy as a football bat. In the fabled “real world,” no one would want to work with him. The dead sidekicks pile up, his illegitimate son is raised by the leader of the tellingly-named League of Assassins, he cavorts around Gotham and the universe fighting godlike beings and mass murderers in sweatpants with a Tupperware liner…he had to quit visiting Arkham because they were locking the door behind him.
The rest of the world, though, only saw this as being “serious.” Batman is a good guy, he takes no crap from anyone, and “he could defeat anyone with enough prep time.” Whatever. Nuts is as nuts does. The thing is, as far as the Batman Protocols, let’s remember Chekov: if there are methods to defeat the Justice League on the mantel in the first act, the League better be defeated by the third act, and so they were. That should have served as enough reason to confront the Bat about the state of his belfry.
Instead, we saw the outgrowth of all this seriousness in the comics (and a very successful darker cartoon series) in the Nolan films. And that’s fine. No one wants too much reality in their fantasy, I know. That’s why the movie-going audience can make Iron Man movies wild successes while they laugh along at essentially the same character as Bruce Wayne doing what makes sense (build a form-fitting jet fighter plane and beat on the bad guys) while taking the billionaire-karate-detective seriously. I’ve been told by more than one filmgoer that the Nolan incarnation will be their Batman because it came out at the proper time. Why the Burton movies or the TV series can’t be I don’t know.
But whither George Clooney?
I saw Batman and Robin in a theater, early in its release but not before bad word-of-mouth was circulating. I didn’t care; I just attributed it to comic haters. The credits rolled and it was pretty cool. Then we see Clooney in the cowl, right off the bat. A screen pops up in the Batmobile (a new one!) and Commissioner Gordon (who looks more like Chief O’Hara) tells our hero there’s trouble at the museum. “I’m on my way.” And he drives the Batmobile over the building’s skyline. Ok, it’s gonna be that kind of movie. More butter, please.
Is it perfect? Of course not. The Poison Ivy number is about three times too long. Bane is utterly wasted and can’t even be compared to the character in Rises. So much of the bile directed at the movie, though—Batnipples and codpieces? Ugh!—just seems like piling on once it was decided that the movie should be shunned, excised from the catalog. I’d much prefer to see DC/Warner disavow Superman Returns; that movie, in my opinion, deserves to be forgotten. B&R is still entertaining. It’s bright and colorful; even the movie poster made it clear what we were going to get. It was reminiscent of Dick Tracy in its use of color…and, for that matter, of the ’66 series, which I consider its actual spiritual ancestor. Batman ’66 is now considered a camp classic; when I watched it the first time, all I knew was Batman, Robin, Joker, Riddler, Catwoman, and all these cool, crazy characters who didn’t exist anywhere else—King Tut! Bookworm! Louie the Lilac!—would crop up with mad missions and wacky weapons, diabolical deathtraps and hilarious henchmen. It was cool. Ten-year-old cool. So is Batman and Robin. The Dark Knight Rises is ten-year-old dull.