The history of Batman on film has been a rough ride for fans of the Dark Knight. It started with an amazing, jaw dropping blockbuster in Tim Burton’s masterpiece starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson.
Burton’s film was and still is one of the best comic to film adaptations ever made. The style and darkness of the comics were brought to life on screen and it was respectful of the material. It took it seriously and didn’t dumb itself down.
The second film, Batman Returns, decided that two villains (3 if you count Christopher Walken’s Max Shrek) would be more fun. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Devito’s Penguin diverged from the comics version of himself far too much and distracted from the stories far more interesting plot of Selena Kyle’s descent into Catwoman (beautifully portrayed by Michelle Pfeiffer) and her similarities to Bruce Wayne and his own dark half.
When Batman Forever was released things started to go downhill for the franchise. More villains, more flash, and less depth. Batman became a vehicle for Jim Carrey, who’s over the top Riddler took over. Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face was useless and Val Kilmer’s performance was like watching a stick of wood in a cowl. This film also introduced us to Robin, played by Chris O’Donnell.
Batman and Robin, the last of THAT series, was the nail in the coffin. George Clooney donned the now infamous “nipple suit” this time around. The script was garbage and Arnold Schwarzenegger should be ashamed for allowing himself to say lines similar to “Ice to see you.” while playing Mr. Freeze. Then you have a character like Bane, who is known for the fact he broke Batman’s back in the Knightfall series of comics who does absolutely nothing but lumber around after Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy. The movie introduces us to Batgirl too, but who really cares. The film was utter trash, and wasn’t worthy of being used for Ivy’s fertilizer.
Many fans had lost faith in film ever being able to capture the magic that Burton’s first movie did. And then Chris Nolen showed up.
Nolen is the director of the mind reeling film Memento and the dark thriller Insomnia. Both excellent films and both reasons why I had a feeling this man could take Bats to a place he needed to be. Turns out I was SOOO right.
Batman Begins is just that. It tells the story of how little Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) became the Dark Knight. It starts with him as a boy falling into what would become the Batcave. Young Bruce is terrified of the bats that swarm him and that fear stays with him as he grows up.
That fear is important as it plays a part in the death of his parents right before his eyes. That tragedy molds Bruce into a troubled young man who leaves everything behind after another tragedy that pulls him away from a possible relationship with idealistic DA employee Rachel (Katie Holmes), a childhood friend.
Bruce travels the globe, joining criminals to learn how they think and work. He winds up in Asia and is drawn into the world of Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows, a group of trained ninja warriors who are pledged to fight crime. There he is trained in the martial arts and how to face his fears, to come to terms with his parents death, and how to be an effective warrior.
Let’s just say that Bruce and Ra’s wind up not seeing eye to eye and he heads back to Gotham city to battle crime in his own way. Using the power and prestige of Wayne Enterprises Bruce creates what we now know to be Batman’s gadgets and arsenal with help from Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Alfred (Michael Caine.)
This movie brings back to the screen what makes Batman so great and why it’s popularity has never diminished. The duality of Bruce Wayne’s character speaks to all of us. How we each have a darker more primal nature and the fact that sometimes we have to let that darker nature work for us. But there is always a risk it can take us over and we’ll lose ourselves to it.
That part of the Batman mythos is what resonates with so many people and why the characters constant struggle to remain true to why he does what he does keeps us reading and watching. Nolen understands that and brings it to the screen. Christian Bale grabs hold of that torment and doesn’t let go throughout the film. His Batman is angry and he lets the darkness run free when the cape is on. He’s not quite the Frank Miller giant of a Batman, but he’s more than just a rubber suit. He’s fit and dangerous. Bale actually bulked up to 220 pounds for the part, and was so muscular that he was tearing the suits that were fitted earlier in his weight routine.
Nolan’s Batman is more real and gritty. As was done in the X-Men films by Bryan Singer, Nolan takes comic fantasy and brings it to a nearly believable reality. It makes the experience that much cooler to see Batman driving a Batmobile (the vehicle is never actually called that in this movie) that looks like a working piece of machinery.
Burton’s Batman was a gothic film noir comic book on screen, which has its place in the Batman universe. Nolan’s film is more a gritty crime/action film which also fits into the realm of Batman quite easily. That is the beauty of the character and this world. And that is what is understood by Nolan who has resurrected the Dark Knight from the ashes and made one of the best comic to screen films I’ve seen.
I would also like to point out that last month we lost a member of the Batman family. Frank Gorshin, who brought to life what many consider the epitome of the Riddler in the Batman TV series passed away. Gorshin was an amazing mimic and performer and actually appeared as himself in the season finale of CSI that was shown just days after his death. He’ll be missed by many, especially fans of Batman.