How did we get here and why does it matter? (This is the first in a four part series on the past, present, and future of Batman at the movies.)
On the Friday morning after first seeing Batman v Superman I woke up still disappointed from the night before. I didn’t think any better of the movie after sleeping on it, but I tried to stay hopeful for the future: Wonder Woman is in the movie so little that she is untainted by it; like Wonder Woman, the other meta-humans that have cameos in the movie are mostly untouched by its problems; the (very underrated) version of Superman from Man of Steel is intact after BvS having mostly just been out of place in a story that doesn’t suit him or develop him much at all (lack of development is not the same as bad development). Even the new DC cinematic universe can be redeemed via other directors helming other films in the new canon. The only character that really, deeply took a disastrous hit in BvS is our dear Dark Knight, sullied as he was by repeated use of guns, flagrant killing, torture, and the insinuation that he has a drinking problem.
Why does this matter so much to me and so many other nerds? It matters because Batman is no longer a comic book character created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane. Batman is now a modern, archetypal figure of myth found in comic books, movies, television shows, Legos, action figures, and the imaginations of children and adults all over the world. Here in America, Bruce Wayne as Batman is a paradoxical combination of our dreams, fears, past and future. He combines great privilege with terrible tragedy, vast wealth with hard work, great power with great discipline, and disdain for authority with deep principles of community. In a nod to the recent past, Bruce Wayne is the ultimate Americanized ideal of noblesse oblige – doing good works by day as an industrialist and philanthropic billionaire. At night Batman is in his primal form as a modern, urban hunter – preying on the wicked and unjust in an attempt to serve and protect his village. At a personal level, I believe the Dark Knight represents for many of us the idea that the pain of our childhood – and we all had some – can be the source of our greatest works and gifts as adults. For these reasons and others, myself and a great many people have many, many, many fucks to give about how Batman is portrayed on screen.
And so I found myself that Friday morning so immersed in an effort to cope with my sadness and anger about a pretend portrayal of a fictional character that I started writing. My idea, the case I want to make, is that the early 90s Batman: The Animated Series is by far the best version of Batman ever on television and certainly better than any of the movie versions, and as such could be the basis for either an entirely new take on Batman or some kind of cinematic salvage operation on the Snyderstroyed version now inhabiting the DCEU. The resulting post got too big and unwieldy so I’ve decided to break it into four parts: part one, an introduction to the importance of Batman movies (done) and their problematic history (coming next); part two will use Zack Snyderp’s defense of his own Batman portrayal as the best possible indictment not only of BvS, but of every Batman movie before it; in part three I make the case that the only proper on screen portrayal of Batman as an American mythological figure was in The Animated Series (and some other related series and films); part four will discuss how to replace or rehabilitate the DCEU Batman in the upcoming Justice League movie and/or a solo project helmed by Ben Affleck (please Warner Bros. just greenlight the thing now, please).
Bonus: if I receive enough feedback/criticism of these posts via email and/or comments, I will compile them into a fifth post.
A pithy history of Batman movies and their problems
I present to you, on no authority whatsoever, The Latter Procedure’s concise and snarky history of Batman movies:
- Tim Burton’s Goth Knight (1989 – 1992)
Tim Burton made two movies (Batman, Batman Returns) with Michael Keaton starring as Bruce Wayne / Batman. Burton is an auteur so these really are Tim Burton movies first and Batman movies second. And they’re fine, I suppose. The late 80s and early 90s are the Stone Age of superhero movies so Burton and Warner Brothers (WB) deserve credit just for trying. That said, there is nothing especially compelling about these movies and they don’t particularly embrace or eschew guns and killing. Burton’s version is an agnostic Batman based more on the director’s style than on the character’s mythology.
- Joel Schumacher’s Star-Studded Shit Show (1995 – 1997)
Schumacher’s two entries in the cinematic history of the caped crusader (Batman Forever, Batman & Robin) are risible in their best moments and execrable in their worst moments – and the films are mostly made up of worst moments. It’s like the guy had never heard of Batman before seeing the Tim Burton movies, then decided to make two movies focused only on Batman’s toys, some bright colors, and a lot of souped-up and gentrified B-movie contrivances. Schumacher’s take on the caped crusader is iconoclastic in the worst possible way; I can’t imagine ever sitting through these films again.
- Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (2005 – 2012)
While not without problems, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) are the first movies that really made an effort to get Batman mythologically correct while also being culturally relevant beyond mere spectacle (Schumacher) or style (Burton). Nolan’s Batman eschews killing, with few exceptions, and those exceptions are mostly failures to save bad guys from themselves. He only uses vehicle-to-vehicle guns, although Catwoman does eventually use his batbike guns to kill Bane, which is a bit sketchy, but okay. The biggest flaw of Nolan’s version is that he is very much isolated in a world without other superheroes and, you know, the voice thing. Not that Batman and Bruce Wayne having different voices is a bad idea, just that the Batman voice that Christian Bale used in the films is distractingly, laughably bad. Still, compared to the films that came before, this trilogy is an immeasurably large improvement. Nolan’s take is our first doctrinaire Batman-as-mythical-figure at the movies. Good stuff.
- Zack Snyder’s Pretentious Hack of Frank Miller’s Vigilante Fever Dream (2016 – ?)
On the upside, Ben Affleck does as good a job being Bruce Wayne/Batman as the material allows and he/Snyder even found a good solution to the dual voice challenge. I’ve already said my piece about the downsides in my review of Batman v Superman. Basically: Batman uses guns and kills people, flagrantly – even methodically – while also engaging in torture. This is Dick Cheney’s kind of Batman.
Ripped off frominspired by Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Snyder seems to have decided to begin building a new cinematic Batman around an interesting, but ultimately misguided, caricature of the caped crusader’s worst psychological maladies and political implications. The movie version is not as far out there as the version in the graphic novel, but it is pretty far out there. Snyder’s Batman is so wrapped up in the Dark that he has lost touch with the Knight.
So that’s what has happened so far. Come back tomorrow for part two – a deeper analysis of why the problems with these movies are problems and not just things some nerds don’t like.
Batman fans sound off! Do you agree? Do you disagree? Tell TLP! Send an email, comment on Facebook, or tweet on Twitter. There is also Tumblr and the comment field below, if you’re into that kind of thing. The best responses will be added to this post or included in a follow up post.