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Burton and Nolan: Watchful Protectors of an Icon

December 4, 2012 Leave a comment

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by Hans Schroeder

Comic books are one of the most active fringe commodities available. Stories that range from realistic and relatable to wild and unimaginable have been devoured by readers, as well as Hollywood executives, for decades now. Sans Comic is Streetlight’s ongoing series looking at film and television adaptations of comic books, and where Hollywood has failed as well as succeeded.

Be advised that the following contains spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises, as well as a small handful of Batman comic book story arcs.

Today marks the DVD release of the final installment in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Though box office sales were less than projected (due in part to an awful circumstance that was in no way the fault of the studio, director, or screenwriters), the DVD/Blu-Ray is expected to be a high grossing item for the year’s first fiscal quarter. Considering the loose controversy surrounding the film, as well as a general influx of DVD sales that tends to accompany the holiday season, it can be more than expected that the movie will make up what it lost in potential viewers from the theatrical release. Additionally, those of us who were able to see it in theatres can now watch it again. And again. And again.

Not exempt from this viewer category is a very specific demographic of argumentative and skeptical comic book fans who will be looking to dissect this film at every possible point of incision. This over-analysis of the film’s logic, dialogue, continuity, and relation to source material is a time honored tradition that has been upheld with every live-action adaptation of a comic book or graphic novel for as long as they’ve existed. I’m sure that if a caveman ever saw a painting on a wall and decided to act it out, there was at least one viewer somewhere who thought it was total bullshit when compared to the original piece. “Hey, Karg! You am see Womp’s one-man show Fire and Wheel?” “Yus, Karg am saw. Karg am think Womp visionless amateur. Cave picture am better. In cave picture, Tarb am killed by big kitten, no other way round. Womp need stick to romcoms like Maid in Manhattan and leave real story tell to artists.” Ah, scrutiny. The language of aimless, undeserved discontent.

The analysis that a Batman movie receives is a unique case of nitpicking. He’s a cultural staple. A character that’s older than most people alive today. The World’s Greatest Detective has become almost ubiquitous during his near 75 year presence in the western pop cultural canon. Many consumers, especially those of us born within in the last 30 years, couldn’t even tell you what our initial exposure to Batman was. We’ve just always known that there is something called Batman. His first published appearance was in 1939, and has since then impregnated every facet of cultural and subcultural interest. Most important, though, are the variances of his persona and his universe as people continue to write his legend. The Batman that many of us come to know and love during our childhood (thanks in part to a certain early ’90s animated series, and before that a man named Adam West) exists in stark contrast to the one we realize as we grow older. With The Dark Knight Rises returning temporarily to the limelight, also returns the question that’s been asked countless times before: which Batman is best? This question is a common subject of debate, and since the mid-2000s the incarnations contesting have been Tim Burton’s Caped Crusader in the red corner, Christopher Nolan’s Watchful Protector in the blue.

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Ultimately, this argument is over before it even begins, as there is no truly right answer. Comparing the portrayal by Michael Keaton against that of Christian Bale is as pointless as comparing the eponymous antagonist of Alien against the loveable protagonist of E.T. Both are remarkable, fantastic creatures from beyond the stars. Both attract the misguided interest of a wealthy super power. Both only truly exist within the mythos of their creator’s mind. But the similarities stop there. Tim Burton’s Batman is as different from Christopher Nolan’s as can be, and for good reason. And it’s within their differences in personality and circumstance that each director succeeds in their interpretation.

Burton directed a Batman that came 50 years after his first appearance. In those 50 years, creators and writers working for DC were forced to heavily edit and censor themselves. Since many retailers refused to sell books that didn’t bear the Comic Code Authority’s seal of approval, DC felt it was fiscally responsible to operate under their set of ludicrous, McCarthian regulations. (Reading those regulations today makes the corny and goofy, but undeniably loveable version of Batman we know from the television program of 1960s far more understandable.) When Burton signed on to do a Batman movie, the content he had to work with was from an era of code censored material. Very few Batman stories had been written that presented dark themes, or adult subject matter. Creating a Batman that could be in any way similar to the one many comic readers think of today would simply not have made sense. That Batman was just barely being crafted.

Nolan, on the other hand, had a massive selection of Batman stories from the Modern Age of comics. An age that not only saw the CCA loosening their regulations, but an age where DC was comfortable with publishing titles that didn’t meet code criteria, and therefore wouldn’t bear their seal of approval. It’s because of the change in content offered by the Batman comics of their respective eras that Burton and Nolan could make such different movies and have them both be spectacular.

Burton made a movie that was essentially a comic book come to life. Bruce Wayne a la Burton is a dedicated, albeit slightly detached, philanthropist who has extended the reach of his care for at-risk Gotham citizens beyond financial support. This Bruce Wayne has decided to offer a more direct service to the city he loves, not because he must, but because he can. He’s the Batman Bob Kane would have imagined while he drew panel after panel of a masked man smiling contentedly as he once again saves the day from the perils of drugs and communism. Alternately, Nolan gave us Bruce Wayne as told by masters such as Grant Morrison and Frank Miller. Manic, obsessive, vengeful, depressed, tormented, struggling, broken. He gives us a Batman that no one would have dared create before the mid-1980s. A Batman who is far from perfect. A Batman whose existence is as selfish and vindictive as it is just and necessary. Burton gave us a Batman we wanted to see. Nolan gave us a Batman we deserved to see.

An odd dichotomy of fantasy and reality is what has made Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy so great. He has taken characters and scenarios directly from an impossible, unthinkable universe, and presented them in a way that many of us can actually believe. Although outlandish, the details of Nolan’s trilogy don’t feel like they’ve been taken from a comic book, but rather from the pages of a newspaper in some alternate (but close) dimension. The villains are never over the top, at least not when compared to other comic book movies. The motives make sense, if only a little bit. There are no super powers, and any uses of super human abilities are either explained by fairly acceptable scientific invention, or are backed by reasonable allowances for audience forgiveness. Burton required we suspend our disbelief over the Grand Canyon. All Nolan asks for is the Brooklyn Bridge.

First and foremost, Batman is a comic book character. He’s been made into a film star, a radio personality, a television icon, an animation staple, and even children’s pajamas, but before all that, he is the stuff of panels and pages. It’s obvious that Nolan operated as not only a creator, but also a fan. His movies are an homage to the comic masters of our time, as well as a series of winks and nods to obsessed fans who have been more than happy to accept them. Although the stories are credited to Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, their constructs are an amalgamation of the imagined scenarios, dialogue, settings, and characters from the minds of the canon’s leading creative powers.

After the regrettable and shameful 1997 Joel Schumacher film (see what I’m doing here? I’m acknowledging that this movie exists. And now I’m telling you that I don’t wanna talk about. It happened. Joel Schumacher is sorry it happened. Warner Brothers is sorry it happened. We’re all sorry it happened. Let’s just move on), many of us were convinced we would never see the darker incarnation of our favorite costumed hero come to life. But thanks to Nolan and Co. we have. The odd, tank-like Batmobile is the design we remember seeing crash into the Mutant Gang’s clandestine meeting during Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. Another invention of Miller’s, the Falcone crime family, was used extensively in the first two films. Batman Begins gave us a villain that had made very few appearances in mainstream depictions, even though he is one of Batman’s worthiest opponents. Ra’s Al Ghul and his League of Assassins (or League of Shadows, depending on who you ask) had been the founders of much of Bruce Wayne’s torment, but it wasn’t until …Begins that he was presented to us as the enemy he is in the DC universe. Not only did the first film of the trilogy make Ra’s a household name, but his appearance gave fans the satisfaction of reviling at his twisted intentions on the silver screen.

It’s not just little tidbits of characters and settings that make Nolan’s trilogy so satisfying. His films weave together plot points from story arcs both famous and obscure, and he does so seamlessly while keeping the scripts from becoming cluttered, or compressed. Knightfall is a classic but rarely read story arc that’s about Bane’s obsession with the Batman’s defeat in the form of an ultimate surrender. He wants Bruce Wayne beaten and ruined, and alive to see his failure. In the middle of …Rises, Bane bests Bruce Wayne in hand to hand combat, as well as in psychological fortitude. At the end of their fight, Bane takes hold of a tattered and disheveled Batman. With absolute confidence and collectiveness he looks to Wayne and says “I will break you” before his limp, dispirited body comes crashing down onto Bane’s knee, breaking his back. When seeing that in the theatre, I remembered the closing moment in the first act of Knightfall which ends the same way and whispering to myself “Fuck. Yes.”

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The well of source material continues to saturate Nolan and Goyer’s screenplays. Much like the near dystopian wasteland that Bane creates in …Rises, the 100 issue saga No Man’s Land tells of a post- earthquake Gotham that has been cut off from the rest of the world, leaving its citizens in the hands of the criminals who have taken claim over the city.

The Long Halloween is Jeph Loeb’s classic noir retelling of a district attorney named Harvey Dent. Dent’s unrelenting dedication to the law, truth, and justice gains satisfying victories for the protagonist, but furthers the brutality of Gotham’s villains. Provoked by Harvey’s determination to rid the streets of murderous scum, a thug attacks him, leaving his face horribly disfigured. As Dent lapses into a psychotic state that challenges everything he’s ever stood for, Batman and Commissioner Gordon are left to stop any more deaths from staining Gotham’s streets. The Long Halloween presented a relationship built between Gordon, Dent, and the Batman that set the tone of desperation and perseverance shown on camera in 2008. The phrase “I believe in Gotham. I believe in Harvey Dent.” is strewn throughout the story, just as it is in The Dark Knight Rises.

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Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s chilling masterpiece Arkham Asylum gave us the version of the Joker that we saw live inside Heath Ledger, a brilliant performance that made the film better than anyone could have anticipated. Nolan’s use of previous material functions not as only story points, but as guidelines for his interpretation of the universe. This tapestry style storytelling has made his films live up to the high standard held by Batman fans for years.

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While little can come from arguing over who did Batman better, there is one small feat that Nolan accomplished where Burton wasn’t even able to attempt. Nolan was able to wrap up his continuity. Tim Burton made two superb Batman films, each with Burton’s signature brand of darkness and comedy that’s made all of his movies definitively his. After that, he was able to act as producer for the next film in his Batman universe. And while Batman Forever wasn’t a complete failure, it began to change the tone of the franchise set so coldly by Burton. And after the (god damned) release of (fucking) Batman and Robin, fans as well as the studio were left with a franchise in absolute shambles.

Nolan was able to hold onto his child, and was allowed to present a universe that he could give birth to, bring to health, and eventually end. In Christopher Nolan’s continuity, Batman was incinerated a few miles off the coast of Gotham’s frozen harbor. Bruce Wayne is an identity that never has to be used again. Selena Kyle met the fortune she deserved. Gotham City, after all of its trials and tribulations, will finally be a haven for safety, justice, and social progress. The former no-goodniks of Gotham will realize the importance of law and order, and will all enroll in night classes at ITT Tech to get a certificate in drafting, or plain surveying. And if crime and corruption make their way back to Gotham, Joseph Gordon-Levitt will be there to charm it into submission with his good looks and intimidating voice that in no way sounds insincere or forced. Everyone is happy, and there is no need to keep the story going.

At this year’s San Diego Comic Con and Annual Carpel Tunnel Victim Gathering, rumors of a Batman reboot were whispered into the ears of the event’s attendees. This will be DC’s foray into building a universe to base a Justice League of America film around after the wild success Marvel had with The Avengers. While I personally support this move (‘cuz seriously, who doesn’t want to see a JLA: Tower of Babel flick eventually?) I have my doubts that the new film series will be able to maintain the integrity and power presented to us by Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan.

Come back next week to read the author’s updated analysis of The Dark Knight Rises after he’s had a chance to watch the movie too many times, find things in it that annoy him, and most likely rescind the praise offered here today.

As always, the films mentioned in the post above are available for your viewing pleasure at your friendly neighborhood Streetlight. Additionally, the comics and graphic novels discussed are available from our friends at Comocopolis (Santa Cruz), Atlantis Fantasy (Santa Cruz), Hijinks (SanJose), Heroes (San Jose) or any independent local comic book retailer.

Categories: Sans Comic