Christopher Nolan never made a good Batman movie. Don’t get me wrong, Heath Ledger was pretty great as The Joker in The Dark Knight but almost everything else about that movie along with its sequel and predecessor is for crap. Especially the tone. That apologetic, permission-seeking faux-realistic tone. That tone that establishes Chris Nolan, a cinematic wizard with several masterpieces to his credit, as just the most recent director in a long line of directors who can’t seem the grasp the fact that Batman is simultaneously ridiculous and noble; stupid and awe inspiring; goofy and terrifying. Batman is a superhero and as such he needs to be all of those things all of the time. There was a time when Frank Miller understood that and brought several of those key components back into the world of the character. Christopher Nolan never did. He was too busy apologizing for making a superhero movie.
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Batman Begins came out in 2005 to marginal acclaim and moderate success. But that was enough. After 1995’s Batman Forever and 1997’s Batman and Robin had rendered the franchise asunder in a Schumacherian plume of crotch shots and bad puns, nobody was expecting Chris Nolan’s first turn in the skates to do much more than take a lap or two around the ice and apologize to all of the people in the stands for just how bad the last two Batman movies had been. And that’s all it did. In its every move, from the casting of Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman and Michael Caine to turning the Batmobile into a tank and calling it the Tumbler to reducing the Batcave from a completely implausible underground cathedral complete with giant dinosaur models and supercomputers to just a cave with bats (although somehow Katie Holmes and Batarangs were still okay). That’s all that Christopher Nolan did: apologize. Over and over again. And then again with The Dark Knight and again with The Dark Knight Rises. Chris Nolan’s entire BatOeuvre consists of him apologizing to you for liking comic books and then asking you if you still think he’s cool. Well, he made Momento, Inception and Insomnia, so he is still cool but his Dark Knight Trilogy isn’t. It’s nothing more than a seven-hour long mea culpa.
Chris Nolan’s Batcave is the perfect summary of everything wrong with his entire trilogy. Where the comics abandon reality and engage in a fantasy so over the top and ridiculous that it makes the Grand Canyon seem about as amazing as a damp cardboard box, Nolan’s movies try to reconcile a man who wears two spikes on top of his head as part of a practical garment with a sense of realism. It’s an effort doomed to fail. Even worse, it’s an effort doomed to boredom. The cave as it had been envisioned for decades was just as amazing as it was limitless. It was iconic and singular. It was The Batcave. The cave in Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is a place that’s been surveyed, can be found on maps and just like that it goes from fantasy to reality. It goes from something singular to something boring. Just like Batman, the Batcave isn’t realistic. It shouldn’t be realistic because there’s nothing real about the character it’s supposed to serve.
C’mon, let’s face it. Batman isn’t realistic, Batman is stupid. Even his costume is stupid. He doesn’t even look like a bat. He doesn’t look like anything other than Batman but that’s so much more than enough because while Batman is totally stupid he also totally amazing. Of course he’s amazing – he’s a superhero. Just like Superman or Green Lantern, Batman is a power fantasy. People get thrown off by the supposed lack of superpowers and start to think that Batman is relatable. Anybody who thinks that Batman is relatable in any way is so, so totally wrong. Let me tell you why:
- Everybody calls him “The Batman.”
- He’s a multi-multi-billionaire with a personal butler who is also a trained combat medic.
- He has a photographic memory.
- His cartoon body is so naturally perfect that it has destroyed the internal body images of multiple generations’ worth of men.
- His car looks like this:
There is nothing relatable about him except for maybe his motivation and even that, with its darkly iconic imagery, is steeped in some pretty serious mysticism. Of course it is. He’s Batman. He’s beyond reality. He’s a superhero and he should be treated as such. Any apologists who try and reframe this fantastical mess of a thing into something pedestrian enough to fit into our humble world of day jobs and tax brackets are doomed because this mythology can’t do that and retain any of the spark that makes it worthwhile in the first place.
But that’s enough of that. Now let’s talk about men who understood the magic. Let’s talk about the wizard that was Frank Miller, and William Dozier – the man Miller reacted against.
In case you didn’t know, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was a comic book mini-series that ran for four issues in 1986. At the time of its publication the Batman franchise had been struggling with nearly two decades worth of public perception issues stemming from the delightfully ridiculous tone of the Batman TV series created by William Dozier and starring Adam West as a smiling superhero who actually enjoyed fighting crime. With its humour, bright colours, penchant towards the absurd and ongoing life in syndication long after the final episode of the series, William Dozier’s Batman series defined the franchise in the eyes of world. Batman was not a Dark Knight Detective; he was a goofy dude in a silly costume who carried shark repellant around in his helicopter.
For a while nobody cared about these “perception issues” because they weren’t a problem. When the television series was popular it seriously increased the sales of the comics. Batman and it’s sister series Dectective Comics were actually in danger of cancellation at the time, and arguably saved the entire franchise from a premature death. DC Comics, Batman’s owners, weren’t just “not bothered” by the public perception of Batman that the television series created, they were thrilled by it because it meant that the public finally knew who Batman was. It’s weird to think that there was a time when Superman was the main superhero in town, with his comics routinely selling double the amount of Batman’s, but there was. Adam West and William Dozier ended that by making Batman more popular than he had ever been. But eventually the series ended and the comics’ sales dropped. Tastes changed. By 1986 people didn’t want smiling heroes who lived with their aunt and thought that surfing contests were a perfectly viable medium through which to fight bad guys (see “Surf’s Up, Joker’s Under” for details), they wanted something darker. They wanted something angrier. They wanted their heroes to be less heroic and more metal. With his story of an aging, greying alcoholic who returns from obscurity to save his city from the internal chaos and external structures that would destroy it, that was exactly what Frank Miller gave them. His Batman was a reaction against the “Bamf, Boom, Pow” of public perception. It was a return to the shadows for a character who is, after all, still a vigilante.
The brilliance of The Dark Knight Returns is its ability to balance the ridiculous with the profane. The story is brutal and often over-the-top but it never goes further than it’s supposed to because Frank Miller understood that Batman is a superhero and that he lives in a universe populated with aliens, magic, robots and some very flexible laws of physics. Miller is able to take these silly “comic book” elements and effectively marry them with the sadness and brutal violence that are inherent to the Batman character. He never hides the things that make superhero comics so easy to mock – like Batman riding a horse or wearing a robot battle suit – but instead brings them into a very dark story and uses them as narrative counterpoints, as lights in the darkness.
Batman is an incredibly elastic character that is equally compelling when being portrayed as a laughing do-gooder who fights crime because it’s both fun and “the right thing to do” or as borderline psychopath who fights crime because he doesn’t know how not to, or as a permutation in-between. While the character is mutable in so many ways there are a few elements that cannot change: the “bat” imagery, the orphan mythology and the sense of wonder that he is meant to inspire.
Where Christopher Nolan gave us a soft Batman who pines over his childhood sweetheart and lives in a world with about as much mystery as your average office cubicle, Miller gave us a truly deranged anti-hero who goes too far too easily, relishes violence, hurts the people who love him and lives in a magical world where mansions rest atop dark caves that baffle logic by stretching straight through eternity and into our dreams, into our fantasies.
Theodore Wiebe is a writer living in Calgary. You can follow more of his important nonsense on Twitter (@TheodoreWiebe) or Tumblr (writingafterdark.tumblr.com).
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