The Dark Knight

In 2009, DC Comics will celebrate Batman’s 70th anniversary. Batman is an undeniably important part of the superhero pantheon. It takes an incredible character to match the feats of the likes of Superman, and to dwarf almost all of his contemporaries in terms of character complexity, psychology, and pageantry. Despite this excellent breeding, Batman has suffered from strings of terrible remediations. Film versions of Batman were never of much consequence until the 1990’s. Until then, all Batman was either poorly done, or full of 1950’s and 1960’s comic book camp. Adam West’s Batman was more of a lunch box clown than a hero, and more of a caricature than a character.

Batman and Hollywood

This changed in the 1990’s when director Tim Burton blended the camp of the Batman series with his signature dark, gothic style. The resulting films Batman and Batman Returns were interesting by themselves, combining some of the same styles seen in Burton’s other works like A Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, and Beetlejuice. The films launched a new era for Batman. They authored the modern conception of the Batmobile, the armored costume, and dramatic musical direction. This also marked the beginning of Batman: The Animated Series and its host of spin offs. This represented a landmark in animation, as a mainstream piece of media was produced for adults– with dark tones and concepts. The series’ were marketed to children, but in the tradition of Warner Bros. animation, were accessible to adults on a much higher conceptual level.

This winning streak was ultimately smashed by lesser reincarnations of the Batman. Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin were abysmal failures that were almost solely intended to sell products. They were bereft of the heart and style and largely embarrassing. After Burton’s dark films, Schumacher’s blend of the 60’s camp with 90’s hyperbranded computer generated shtick seemed to dress the Batman saga up in drag. In the second of the two films, musician R. Kelly has a piece from the soundtrack entitled ‘Gotham City,’ in which this most depressing and frightening and hopeless metropolis is referred to as a ‘city of justice,’ ‘city of joy,’ and a ‘city of peace.’ This demonstrates the complete lack of understanding the filmmakers and executives had for the franchise.

Later, another animated Batman series, The Batman attempted to relaunch the TV franchise. This new series was far more Schumacher than it was Burton. It lacked the panache and elegance of its predecessor, and was heavily influenced by anime. This is part of a larger trend in American animation– borrowing to an excessive degree from anime– but not in any positive way. Instead of taking the epic, detailed, fluid dramatic style of Japanese animation, these American shows borrow pedestrian character designs and formulaic plot arcs. The result is a hyperactive, soulless, hybridized art style with mincing storylines that fizzle before they can shine.

The Batman ran concurrently with Justice League Unlimited, a spin-off of the original Batman: TAS. During this run, Warner Bros. enforced the “Bat Embargo,” in which no characters from the Batman franchise other than Batman himself could appear on Justice League. This included fan favorites like Nightwing, Batgirl, and the Joker. This side by side comparison seemed to highlight the differences in the two distinct pieces of art, and never allowed The Batman to ascend as its forerunner could, despite many grains of potential.

Batman Begins

All of that is what makes this latest film, and its prequel Batman Begins, so utterly amazing. Not only do these films live up to seventy years of saga and story development, but they surpass their predecessors as well. This latest film The Dark Knight, continues Christopher Nolan’s refined film making style and couples it with incredible performances by Heath Ledger, Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, and Michael Cane. The result is one of the finest installations of the Batman series to date.

The film does not shy away from darkness. It is exceedingly graphic and spares none of the grim imagery common in Batman comic books and graphic novels. The storyline and plot details themselves belie much more mature writing than previously seen. The film is largely a psychological and political thriller– bringing forward two of the franchise’s finer attributes.

Arkham Asylum

Over the last 70 years, Batman has become a far more complex story. Nolan has woven that complexity into this film by using psychology and politics. Politically, the film is almost like an episode of Law & Order, in terms of its handling of crime and criminals. Despite this darkness, the film’s portrayal of Gotham City is far less bleak than its predecessor. Gotham has healed, and is beginning to return to life. Throughout the film there is mention of hope, and that the city has improved thanks to Batman and to other characters like Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon.

This film doesn’t take a heavy hand in the direct psychology of Batman. Instead, it quite appropriately uses the characters to spell the psychology out. Batman and his gallery of rogues have come to be a menagerie of various allegories for facets of the human mind. The Mad Hatter represents romantic obsession and manipulation, the Scarecrow represents vulnerability and the spreading of fear. This film uses its two primary villains– the Joker and Two-Face to give essay to their respective demons.

Harvey Dent is portrayed in this film as the ‘White Knight.’ He is the golden boy of Gotham’s legal system and the face of the war on crime that Batman has started. The film doesn’t go into the psychological back story of Harvey Dent’s disassociate identity disorder (multiple personalities). It curtails that convenient detail by making Dent a former internal affairs cop notorious for taking out his own colleagues in the name of justice. He becomes obsessed with chance not because he already was, as in other incarnations, but because he is at last impotent to stop the Joker’s rampage. Furthermore it was chance that led to the emotional trauma that Dent suffers during the film, and it is chance that he then becomes obsessed with.

Ledger’s Joker could possibly be the best incarnation of the enigmatic villain to date. Though the unpolished hair and make up give stray from the classic character design, Ledger has the inflections and laugh down to a science. The Joker isn’t portrayed as a gimmick mongering clown, sending out Joker-bombs and other clichéd gadgets. Instead the Joker reference doesn’t go beyond the basic playing card analogy and his penchant for putting disturbing clown masks on his underlings. In a sense, this portrayal of the Joker is more faithful to the original character than are others. His clownish appearance is meant to trade fear, not spark laughs. What was a cute, colorful character in the camp of the 1960’s has become the terrifying face of a mysterious sociopath whose only goal is to undo all established order.

Batman Beyond

Finally, we come back to Batman himself. This Batman is relatively green compared to other incarnations, like those of Frank Miller or Bruce Timm, in which he has already been in cape and cowl for years. Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher’s Batman just showed up ready for action, fully equipped and trained. Nolan’s Batman has had to learn the role, and the costume. He is a work in progress as evidenced by tech talk scenes with Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). It is becoming depressing that so many remediations of existing characters are just the same origin stories over and over and over and over and over again. Another example would be the upcoming Star Trek film.

What excuses this film series is how well it executes that story. It will be interesting to see if in the future films will be made using characters like this without drawing directly from a previous film, as in the case of a sequel, and without having to go through the rigor of establishing an origin. With another installation to this series on the way, it is heartening to know that DC Comics still has potential to translate as well to film as Marvel Comics do. DC has some amazing characters and it is great to see them finally done justice.

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