With the turn of the century, superheroes blasted full-force onto the scene to take back their spot in the forefront of the communal psyche. The era of mainstream superhero blockbusters had dawned, and the X-Men, Spidey, Superman and colleagues claimed the silver screen as their battle grounds.
Superhero films surely existed before this era. No one who knows anything about American popular culture could forget Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman or Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. Now regarded as somewhat of a classic, Burton’s film introduced us to the Dark Knight, who would become perhaps the most long-lasting and most revered superhero of all. He is the only commonly known superhero to show up regularly (at least when compared to the records of his counterparts) on the big screen. He has featured in countless comics and animated films and series, and even when he’s not the month’s hot topic, young boys wear his costume for Halloween and buy toys embellished with his logo.
With the 2005 release of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and today’s release of The Dark Knight, we’ve seen Batman take a turn down a dark alley. Everything is a little dirtier, a little grittier, a little less flamboyant. The trumpeting, somewhat playful theme song of the Burton films and the flashy neon lights from Schumacher’s vision have melted into a world that appears frighteningly real and frighteningly, well, frightening. Batman doesn’t have a credit card but he does use a saw to carve his logo into a piece of metal. The Batmobile is a military prototype rather than a sleek sports car. A damaged, scary Joker wears a smile we don’t know we want to see; a mischievous clown no longer sports a grin at which we can almost giggle.
Why the change? It’s probably fair to say Nolan is a director who just has a more realistic, less ornate perspective on the world. While Burton is the American master of optimistic macabre fantasy, and Schumacher revels in various levels of flamboyancy, Nolan prefers to examine reality without dressing it up. But are there deeper reasons to illustrate why Batman has changed? Do the changes go beyond Nolan’s perspective? Could Burton or Schumacher have achieved the same reception if their films had been released now?
I’m not so sure. That’s not to say Nolan’s Batman films are necessarily better than Burton’s or Schumacher’s (I have to admit, I’m a big fan of Batman Forever). But it is important to note how Batman has changed, and what this says about filmmaking, and to dig even deeper, society. It’s remarkable that Batman has pervasively penetrated our culture so consistently for so long, and in order for this to have happened, his mythology must have adapted to the times.
A lot has changed since Burton first revealed the caped crusader and a misty Gotham. Society has seemed to shift focus on the world’s grimmer details, and has began a trend of identifying real people who do good things– without masks, capes, Bat-credit– as heroes. Likewise, average people, at least in terms of skill and stature, have become the most renowned villains of our time.
The terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, those in Europe in the following years, and the American-led war in which we’re currently entangled undoubtedly changed our Western society. A fire of patriotism sparked in citizens who previously had been rather complacent. The masses clamored to find a hero everywhere they could: firefighters working at the demolished Trade Center in New York, hostages who survived their captors, young men from small towns fighting and dying in the Middle East. The hero of American culture was no longer someone gifted with special powers; the mythic stature of characters like Superman, with only one weakness, or George Washington, who through the years has acquired qualities beyond the normal man, paled in comparison to the idea of the ordinary man doing unordinary things to produce extraordinary results.
That’s where Batman, and Nolan’s realistic take on his mythology, comes into play. Batman is not really Batman, not in the same way Superman is Superman or Spiderman is Spiderman. Batman is Bruce Wayne. He has no special powers and no special gifts other than the large fortune his parents left him, the assistance of the always-loyal Alfred and in Nolan’s take, physical training he paid for with blood and sweat. While Superman and Spiderman cannot separate themselves from their powers, Batman is always an ordinary man. When he comes home, takes off his Batsuit and goes to bed, he’s not Batman. He’s Bruce Wayne, a normal man. He is a representation of that firefighter, of that passenger, of that small-town boy in that he has no unique power, but chooses to fight for what he believes is just. Nolan’s Batman best exemplifies this.
Christian Bale, who plays Bruce Wayne/Batman in Nolan’s works, commented in yesterday’s amNewYork, one of the city’s free papers, about the differences between the Batman of then and the Batman of now. He said, “The other movies– these were, with all due respect to them, and Tim Burton is a wonderful film maker, but ultimately these were men walking around dressed up like a bat. These were not people who became a different creature.”
Bale has a good point. Keaton, Kilmer and Clooney (sounds like a law firm) each brought something to the character (and some brought better somethings than others), but none of them brought the realism Bale delivers. This is due mostly to the environment in which each Batman was cast. The reason Bale’s Batman seems the most life-like is due to the transformation Nolan shows us in Batman Begins. We see how Bruce Wayne, first a scared child, then a broken man, turns into the Dark Knight. We see him not getting enough sleep, getting sick. Nolan forces us to remember we’re learning about a human.
Burton and Schumacher’s Batmans are more like fables: ideals, icons that teach us, but still remain a little removed from our daily life because of the fantastic elements of their characters. They’re fun to watch, but as men, unbelievable in the end, because other than a look at Wayne Manor, a glimpse of Bruce’s women and the occasional scene in which our hero ponders his fate, there’s not much to show us that Batman is actually the “other creature” Wayne becomes to fight Gotham’s forces of evil.
Likewise, Nolan’s Joker exemplifies the contemporary villain: someone committing crime with fervor for his own purposes, disregarding the innocence of anyone in his path. This sounds shockingly similar to the current notion of a terrorist, which is, by many, currently the most despised villain of all. A terrorist, like the 21st century hero, is an individual with no special gifts. He (or she) has no extra-human powers and no army at his command. He operates alone or with a small group, plotting destruction so he can disturb the peace. See Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight for further illustration of that concept.
Jack Nicholson created a legend to rival Batman when he played the Joker in 1989, but he was a different kind of enemy than Ledger appears to portray. He was an enemy you could smirk at, at least for a little while. He was a showman, a charismatic figure in charge of a brigade of goons. He was more of a crime lord, not a terrorist. Ledger turns that idea of the Joker on its head. Based on the trailers, Ledger’s Joker looks to be more of a one-man army and a more subtly disturbing presence than Nicholson in the original film. Ledger’s Joker also has goons but looks as though he will be more adept than Nicholson’s at carrying out the crucial parts of his demented schemes on his own. His appearance even mirrors the common perception of a terrorist; his face and his clothes both look a bit unordinary, a bit foreign. Ledger’s Joker looks to be the exact sort of criminal we’re all taught to fear in this age, making his presence on screen that much more tangible.
The Dark Knight has definitely received an enormous amount of publicity even before opening. This is due in part to the world’s eternal love for Batman, in part to the success of Begins and in part to the recent death of Ledger. It’s also fair to say everyone is excited for the Batman mythos to come full circle. We will finally see the showdown between our beloved hero and his arch nemesis once again, although Nolan and company have remodeled the characters to fit 21st century notions of good and evil and have updated their battle to reflect real-world conflicts, giving us a film that will hopefully not only entertain, but connect to its audience.