As teased by Lacey over at Machine Ghost, this is my defense of TDK, or if you prefer, my rebuttal to Lacey’s slanderous charges against Nolan and co.
But first, per Lacey’s permission, the e-mail she sent me that started this whole sordid affair:
I think you might be the person to help me out with this. Your excitement towards the new Batman flick is pretty obvious on your blog. However, I saw it last night and wasn't that impressed. Can you help a sista out: what did you find [most] redeeming in film? Did you follow the comic book? (I didn't, and perhaps that's why I'm missing something.) Or...generally, what did you think of the film? I'm very disappointed, and am looking for some extra insight.
As people much cooler than me say: let me drop some science on you.
I have read many of the various Batman comics off and on through the years, but I’m not, at present, an avid reader of comics. Well, a correction: I am when I can get them. I don’t buy them on a weekly basis, and I only own a handful on graphic novels or collected editions at present–none of the Batman, oddly enough. But some of the libraries round these parts are starting to develop some solid catalogs of graphic novel/comic book collected editions, and that’s primarily how and when I try to catch up: at the end of a semester, or maybe once or twice during the summer, I’ll check out like 20-30 trade paperbacks of comics material and spend a blissful week or two indulging in some four-color glory.
So it’s fair to say that I have a lot invested in comics in general, and it would be fair to say that Batsy is one of my favorites. Part of it is that Batman is one of the key heroes connected to a number of events important in the maturation of the superhero genre: Denny O’Neill’s work on the character (and on the Joker, as well) in the 1970s returned the hero to his dark, grim roots after two decades of pop absurdity; Frank Miller’s Year One storyline in 87 or so told the story of a neophyte Batman against a realistic and recognizable urban background; similarly, Miller’s willful excess on the alternate-future Batman of The Dark Knight Returns in 86 (or so) offered an embittered, aged Batman giving into his legend as a high-tech urban terrorist–albeit one who fights (more or less) on the side of order; and a pair of great Joker stories must be mentioned here: Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (often considered the definitive Joker story) and Jim Starlin’s A Death in the Family (in which, by reader demand, second Robin Jason Todd is beaten to a pulp by Mr. J. and then later left to die in an exploding warehouse). More recently, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s miniserieseses (how do you make that a plural, anyway?) The Long Halloween and Dark Victory returned to Year One territory with engrossing mystery plotlines and sharp noir visuals. Sure, there have been some pretty lousy storylines in there too: I for one never got the appeal of the “Hush” storyline from a few years ago, and the stuff that the usually admirable Grant Morrison is doing with the current “Batman R.I.P.” arc seems pretty silly.
I start by answering this question because I think it’s key to understanding why Nolan’s Batman films are so great: they are the Batman films every comic geek has always wanted. The 89 Burton film sure seemed great at the time; it went a long way to establishing in the public imagination the menace and terror not just of the hero but of the noirscape of Gotham itself, an art deco urban hell terrorized by petty thugs and freakish crime lords. Really, however, twenty years on, the movie is dreadfully dull, saved in moments by Jack Nicholson’s then-iconic take on the Joker (although I think Heath’s will soon replace Jack’s as the iconic performance of the role). The sequel, Batman Returns, largely offered more of the same, but the ghoulish bits of Burton’s imagination threatened to overwhelm the film and its hero too often. (It’s fair to say here that I liked Michael Keaton in both Burton films, and I enjoyed Michelle Pfeiffer’s fragile/furious take on the Catwoman as well). Regarding Joel Schumacher’s two Bat-Abominations, I turn to Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” The first four modern Batman movies all suffer from the same flaw: the villains become more interesting than the character, and Batman/Bruce’s own character arc is essentially relegated to one obligatory shot of the character brooding in a corner of Wayne Manor.
In Nolan’s Batman Begins, however, Bruce is center stage, and the story really does live up to its title: it’s not just about how Bruce makes the decision to take up a life fighting crime, but it’s about the origins of the myth of The Batman (as Kim correctly reminds us he was originally and still occasionally called). The film took Bruce and The Batman seriously, tried to show how such a scheme might play in a city only a degree or two removed from real urban decay and class warfare. This Gotham was a city not under attack just from a freak-of-the-week villain but systemic moral and ethical corruption, and The Batman (as is emphasized throughout Nolan’s films) becomes a symbol of the good that individual men and women can do against a seemingly all-powerful despair.
This is not to say the film is perfect, of course. Many fans complained that the fight scenes were sloppy and that the film’s climax was pretty hokey: a giant microwave-gun-thing that will vaporize fear toxin and make the citizens of the Narrows (Gotham’s skid row) turn into psychopathic freaks? Or something? I agree that the last 10-15 minutes are generally weak, and I don’t really agree or disagree about the fight scenes. In part, this is because I think Nolan correctly understands that, really, martial arts and fighting and shit is the least interesting thing about Batman. What that film got right (and that the earlier Burton-Schumacher joints didn’t) was that the Batman isn’t just an eccentric dude who gets his rocks off beating up people while dressed in a leather-daddy outfit. Rather, Batman is motivated by his own tragedy (and it is significant that Thomas and Martha Wayne, Bruce’s slain parents, get more facetime here than they do in any other Batman film) but is not bent on revenge: he’s interested in justice, yes, and protecting Gotham’s law-abiding citizens, but he always wants the city to be what it once was: a symbol of hope, prosperity, and renewal. As is mentioned in the new Dark Knight, Bruce essentially understands Batman as a temporary measure until the honest citizens of Gotham can reclaim the city for their own.
Of course, this is where things get tricky. Although I think the Nolans’ wisely underplay this fact, Bruce is actually nearly as much a sociopath as the Joker (in a pair of relatively recent comics story lines, Bruce Wayne: Murderer? and Bruce Wayne: Fugitive?, the Batman comes close to shedding the Wayne “persona” to fully dedicate himself to his war on crime). In The Dark Knight, watch the subtle mirroring of Bruce and the Joker in the Dent fundraiser scene: both crash the party, both enter asking “Where is Harvey Dent?”, both ask where Rachel Dawes is, both grab a champagne flute only to toss its contents out without drinking. Of course, the Joker later makes this a bit more explicit in the great interrogation scene when he tells Bats “You complete me.”
This is what points to the greatness of the films for me. For Batman geeks like yours truly, it’s plain they not only take these characters seriously but also understand many of the thematic richness that has accrued around them over seventy years. Consider, for example, the way the film’s Joker–relentless, heartless, no respect for life, property, or propriety, echoes the portrayal of the character in his first appearance:
Here is a Joker (unlike Nicholson’s) who toys with the police and the Batman not because he wants to consolidate Gotham’s mob but because, what the hell, it’s fun. If people die? All part of the game. I’ll spare readers here my encomia to Heath’s performance, but I’ll note that Heath achieves something that Nicholson never did: he makes the Joker scary. The best scene to underline this, for me, is the video we see sent to the police by the Joker showing him torturing a copycat-Batman vigilante. As the hostage blubbers, the Joker asks him: “Why is Batman so important to you?” Through tears, the guy responds: “Because he shows us we don’t have to be afraid of freaks like you.” The Joker, unseen (he’s holding the video camera) makes some mock whimpering noises and then speaks: “Oh, no, you do–you really do.”
Without stressing the point, the video camera scene is so effective because it alludes so powerfully to the videos we’ve seen of hostages terrorized by al-Qaida in Iraq and Afghanistan–held, tortured, beheaded. This is a Joker who exists just on the real side of our collective nightmares and anxieties: not a hopped-up superthug but someone who kills to make his point: that order and law and sense are just illusions: “It’s all . . . part of the plan,” as he later tells Harvey.
And what about Harvey? Really, I think his slide into the Two-Face persona is handled remarkably well, even if it does go off the rails in the last ten minutes or so. Spoilers follow here: Why does he kidnap Gordon’s family? Huh? What does he hope to achieve there? And, by the way, is Harvey dead or alive at the end of the movie? I’ve seen it twice now, and I thought both times that he was dead but Teh Intarwebs have cast some doubt on the matter: see here and here. Spoilers at both links, btw. End Spoilers here. Still, Harvey (and Two-Face) is presented as credible foil for the Batman, which, again, underscores where these films really triumph.
Looking over my comments and Lacey’s, I find it interesting that she twice faults the film for weak character development, when I think that, by far, that is where the film excels. It raises an interesting question–or rather, Lacey’s already implied it. Do comic geeks like myself have an advantage in watching this film? Do we read into scenes like the interrogation or the Harvey-Joker hospital convo something that isn’t really there–or, rather, do we read these scenes as something like a wish-fulfillment fantasy where the characters we’ve known and followed for decades are brought to life on screen? Are non-comic fans confused by the Joker’s alternate stories about the origins of his scars, while the fans will appreciate the nod to The Killing Joke (in which it is strongly hinted that the origin story shown there is only one version, and the Joker’s origin and his memory thereof is only as stable as his own personality)?
These are questions (or possible questions) I’d like to see Lacey answer. I’ve gone on (and on and on) about why I think this film is important to me, and it is largely because of the relationship it has to the sense of the characters developed through my knowledge of their comics history. While the film doesn’t follow any particular comics arc, it succeeds by distilling these characters and relationships into something like an alchemical pure form: these are versions of the characters presented both at their most basic (the Joker is a twisted f-ck, Two-Face is a tormented former hero, the Batman treads a line between heroism and terrorism) and within a complex, adult plot that doesn’t give in to easy answers and resolutions. Protagonists die. Villains survive. Heroes fall.
In a later post, I’ll respond to Lacey’s 7 points and provide some of my own. But this should be plenty of fodder to get rolling.