This year marks the 75th “birthday” of Batman, arguably one of the most popular comic book superheroes on the planet. While Bats has been in the public eye for years recently Batman has reached almost celebrity status. It’s not hard to see why either. He answers to no one, has unlimited gadgets and funds at his disposal, drives some of the best vehicles ever conceived of and, has his pick of beautiful women lining up to be with him. Oh, and don’t forget that he can kick ass. In fact, it’s that last quality that I believe has catapulted him to the superstar heights he currently exists at. There is only one problem with all of that. It misses the point entirely.
The thing is that it’s easy to characterize Batman as the ultimate badass vigilante, solving all of his problems with violence and leaving a trail of broken criminal bodies in his wake. That’s pretty much how’s he’s portrayed in popular culture. And he isn’t just a badass he is THE badass. He wins any conflict against anyone by sheer virtue of being Batman. I swear the next person that tries to tell me that Batman would beat Superman in a fight is going to get rage vomit all over them.
The problem with this view is that it leaves very little room for the things that really make Batman who he is: not just as a crime fighter, but also as a man. It’s easy to overlook that man what with all the gadgetry, ladykilling, and asskicking that is supposedly going on. As I said before in my Superman post, I can understand where the allure is in this. A Batman that seeks justice at any cost, that swoops down upon the guilty like a dark god and crushes every person that gets in his way, is much more romantic in a time when the average American has very little power in their own lives. Batman is autonomous in a way most people can only dream of being. Yeah, I get that. It misses the point though. To understand Batman two things must happen. First, you must understand Bruce Wayne. Second, and most importantly, you have to forget one of his most popular recent depictions. I am talking of course, of Chris Nolan’s Batman movies.
Batman Begins was the movie that was going to save Batman. It was going to be the Dark Knight Returns of Batman movies. While I find it to be the best of the three though, it still has some pretty significant problems. No, I’m not talking about Katie Holmes. I’m talking about what it misses. Almost the entire opening is devoted to Bruce Wayne learning combat and how to be an effective warrior. It sets him up as an angry, spoiled, shiftless person. Even writing that makes me shake my head. It completely ignores not just the fact that Bruce was driven to make himself achieve that heights of what a person could do from a young age, but the exact nature of what he did.
The movie completely glosses over the fact that at the same time that he was training with masters of combat, he was also learning how to be a detective. He learned forensics, psychology, and criminology. He is well versed in physics, engineering and chemistry. He studied with the best investigators he could find. His journey was not just about honing his body but also developing his keen mind. Bruce Wayne is far more than an excellent martial artist, he is a man ruled by science and logic. This is the part that Nolan pays no attention to. He is so busy trying to make Batman as scary and vicious as possible that he completely ignores the biggest part of what the character is about. I mean come on, even Ra’s Al Ghul calls Batman “The Detective” because that is what he sees as his most apparent aspect. It kills me that despite being the main baddy in the film, this part of their relationship is COMPLETELY IGNORED! It’s ridiculous.
The problems with the films only spiral out from there. Batman Begins is solid despite the problems I’ve just listed, and The Dark Knight is okay if you pretend it’s not about Batman and don’t look to closely at the Joker’s overly involved and frankly ridiculous master plan. For purposes of retaining my sanity I will refrain of talking about the myriad problems with the third movie, which have as much to do with out and out bad filmmaking as they do with mischaracterizations of the main characters. However, it exemplifies the problem with all of them: Nolan wanted to make a Batman movie, but he didn’t want to make a comic book movie, and you just can’t do that. Batman breaks in the real world and not just because the idea of a man dressed as a bat is inherently ridiculous. When you make Batman too dark, when you deny the part of him that is a man of science and logic, you deny the part of him that is most interesting. How interesting is a character that always solves his problems in the same way? Not that interesting at all.
The truth is that the reason the Nolan films fail (at least the last 2) is because they deny the character. They present a “realistic” Batman in a “realistic” Gotham and completely miss the point of the character. Batman doesn’t scream at bad guys. Can you guess why? Maybe because the whole point of the costume is to scare the piss out of bad guys so that he doesn’t have to raise his voice. Batman doesn’t solve all his problems; with violence, he uses his brain to think around them. The reason the Joker is the Ideal Batman villain is not because Joker is trying to bring about some kind of social change and is willing to go to extreme lengths to do it. It’s because at the end of the day, Batman is afraid that he is the same as the Joker. That he is so ruled by his mission that he has crossed over into madness and become like the person that he holds nothing but spite for. By denying the comic book nature of Batman, Nolan made him even more ridiculous.
Now, I am realistic enough to understand that there are always things that are going to need to be changed in an adaptation. Clearly there is importance in the vision of a director, or a writer. However, I truly believe that when you are borrowing from the vision of another you should be aware of that and do the best possible job of translating that vision. An excellent example of this is Batman: The Animated Series. It takes place in a distinct universe, is not beholden to comic book continuity, and even created some of the most popular characters that exist in the Bat-Books. It embraces the nature of Batman completely and yet one would be hard pressed to call it campy or silly. It tells incredibly complex and moving stories, all the time acknowledging the entire being and mythos of Bats. This greatness runs through not just B.T.A.S, but is also present in The Adventures of Batman and Robin, Batman Beyond and, Justice League, and Justice League Unlimited.
It’s no coincidence that all these shows have one thing in common: they were all written by people that had worked on comics. They understood the motivations and methods of the characters they were writing and so were able to portray them in interesting and novel ways. Ways that made the characters understandable and approachable. They were written with love. There is no love in the Batman movies of Chris Nolan, just a detached and misunderstood idea of what a superhero might be in the real world. Now before you go saying that comic books are kids stuff and that it is a necessity to make them more “real” let me just point out that Marvel is destroying it right now with their movies, and every single one of them is unapologetically a comic book movie. Period.