The Christopher Nolan movies
Batman Begins (2005)
Uslan on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight: Uslan didn’t actually compare either of Nolan’s movies to specific eras from the comics, but he did say that when it came to Nolan’s movies, you could say with a straight face that they’re really films. I submit that you could say that about either of Burton’s movies, but that’s just me.
Tony’s take: So let’s talk about Begins. Uslan didn’t place Nolan’s Batman reboot in a specific comic-book era, so I’ll give it a shot. For me, Begins shares a lot of DNA with the Batman of Frank Miller. No surprise. I’m thinking The Dark Knight Returns and Year One, as well as the aforementioned Long Halloween and Dark Victory, by Loeb and Sale. Nolan aimed for a dark, realistic and psychologically truthful Bruce Wayne, and he succeeded.
But when it comes to how Nolan succeeded, you have to look a little deeper into the Batman mythology – and here I have to admit that I’m venturing past the boundaries of my knowledge. In the 80s, the comics introduced a major backstory to Bruce Wayne that took him to the far east to learn martial arts. I happily invite correction here, but I did some research and according to a few different sources, writer James Owsley introduced this storyline in 1989’s Batman #431.
Nolan also had the balls to dip very deep into the Batman rogue’s gallery to find two great villains who served each other very well. I didn’t think that either the Scarecrow or Ra’s al Ghul would work in a movie. I figured Scarecrow would look too stupid, and I figured Ra’s would be too boring.
Obviously, what the hell do I know?
Nolan downplayed the Scarecrow, reducing his costume to a creepy mask worn by Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), while also tasking his creative team to conjure up some very scary effects for the Scarecrow’s fear-toxin gas. At the same time, the writers had the good sense to press the Ra’s al Ghul character into duty as Batman’s chief mentor during his martial-arts training. I thought this fit the character very well, and Liam Neeson made a surprisingly awesome Batman villain because you didn’t see him coming. Neeson is a huge guy, but he doesn’t play the role in a physically imposing way, and all of his character’s villainy centers around his desire for balance.
And then there’s Christian Bale. OK, Batman the character can be divided into many parts – the dark knight, the great detective, the brooding dude, the millionaire playboy, the martial-arts expert and more. Bale captures almost all of these qualities while also giving us the right physical look for Bruce Wayne.
But he’s not a great Batman. He’s a better Batman in Begins than he is in The Dark Knight, and I think that has a lot to do with a better script in Begins and the fact that Bale’s Batman-voice hadn’t completely gone off the rails yet.
(Side note: Batman Begins might be as good as Batman Returns. Might.)
Which brings us to …
The Dark Knight (2008)
Tony’s take: Like I said, Uslan didn’t specifically place The Dark Knight into any one era of the comics, and while I think it owes a lot to the Batman of Loeb and Sale, I don’t think you can place it in any era of the Batman comics, because it’s simply unlike any Batman comic book, ever. For better or for worse, it is. Let me explain:
When I saw TDK, here was my reaction: It felt like Nolan built a magic portal between our world and the world of Batman. He then pulled everything “Batman” through that portal, which transformed everything about that world. We recognized the characters and trappings of the Batman world, but nothing looked the same. To wit:
Batman had transformed into a paramilitary operative.
The Joker had transformed into a terrorist.
The Batcave had transformed into a featureless, industrial installation.
Wayne Manor was gone, replaced by a penthouse atop the Wayne building downtown.
Gotham City had transformed into Chicago.
Elements of TDK succeeded or failed based on how well they weathered the transition through that magic portal. Bruce Wayne did fine, but Batman looked pretty silly whenever he stayed still long enough for Nolan’s camera to get a look at him. Commissioner Gordon weathered the transition just fine, largely due to Gary Oldman’s perfect performance.
But let’s talk about the villains. Heath Ledger’s Joker could only exist in the world Nolan created. The Joker probably emerged from the magic portal having undergone the most dramatic transformation, but we wound up with one of the best movie villains in recent memory. Yes, the creature Ledger gave us had green hair, red lips and a purple suit, but he didn’t look or sound like any Joker I had ever imagined.
Two-Face: Aaron Eckhart made a great D.A. Dent, but when Two-Face appeared onscreen, the movie lost steam for me. A lot of that had to do with its overlong third act, but let’s go back to that magic portal. Two-Face came out of the portal looking almost exactly like he did in the Batman world – and that was a problem. In case you don’t quite understand what I’m getting at, let me ask you this:
Where is Arkham Asylum?
Arkham was located at the edge of an island called the Narrows in Begins, but both the Narrows and Arkham seem to be MIA in TDK, and it’s no surprise, because I don’t think they could exist in this world. I don’t think a lot of the Batman world could exist here. Seriously – can you imagine the Riddler in this world? Or the Penguin? Or even Two-Face? (I think including Two-Face was a misstep in TDK.) No bullshit – when the Scarecrow appeared, I just laughed because he looked so out of place.
Nolan managed to smuggle a great cinematic experiment onscreen in TDK. He placed one of the craziest and most of gothic comic-book creations into the real world, and he stunt-cast its most iconic villain. Remember earlier when I argued that Burton had no choice but to deliver a “definitive” Joker in his movie? Well, because Burton did that – and only because Burton did that – was Nolan able to offer us the fringe interpretation of the Joker that he did.
I think there could only be one Batman movie in the style of TDK, because I don’t think Batman works in the real world. Batman has to inhabit a reality that’s gothic and heightened to some degree.
So needless to say, TDK has not aged well for me. Overall, I still give it a thumb-up for its humorless commitment to showing us a real-world Batman (along with several excellent scenes), but nary a scene goes by where Nolan and his creative team aren’t telling us exactly what to think and feel. In the opening bank-robbery, the henchmen can’t just do their jobs – they have to pepper their actions with leaden dialogue that explains everything:
Henchman 1: “So, why do they call him the Joker?”
Henchman 2: “I heard he wears make-up. To scare people. You know, like war-paint.”
Yes, I know I’m being nit-picky, but that exchange is symptomatic of a problem that plagues this script. Screenwriters Christopher and Jonathan Nolan couldn’t just trust their audience to go along with the ride. They have to remind us that it’s OK for the Joker to be wearing makeup – even though we live in a world with the likes of John Wayne Gacy. Harvey Dent must tell us the movie’s theme in simple language with the seemingly good line “Either you die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” (Spoiler alert: It’s a terrible line.) When Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) sees Batman’s sonar array, he must tell us it’s unethical. When the people on the two ferries don’t blow each other up, Batman must tell us that they believe in the forces of good.
When I watch TDK and I spend two and a half hours being told how to feel, I can’t help but think back to that mesmerizing scene where Selina Kyle plummets to her death, is revived by cats, returns to her apartment, reenacts her sad little life – and destroys it all so she can dress up as a cat.
No one has to tell me to believe that scene, because Burton and Pfeiffer don’t give me any choice. It couldn’t be any other way.
Finally, I’ll offer my informal ranking of all six movies, in descending order of goodness.
1. Batman Returns
2. Batman Begins
4. The Dark Knight
5. Batman Forever
6. Batman & Robin
I await your correction in the forums.