Batman: The Lite Knight (The Dark Knight Rises part one)

Batman (alone) cartoon

As the final part of the Dark Knight Trilogy rises into homes, the first of two posts on the most successful superhero trilogy of all time.  First, a look at how much of Batman was in the Dark Knight.

LIKE MOST OF A TIME-CONSTRAINED POPULATION who didn’t see The Dark Knight Rises nine times on the big screen, I’m still a little conflicted about whether Return of the Dark Knight is quite as good as The Joker Strikes Back.

In a year of many faint praise reviews, most critics tussled with rewarding The Dark Knight Rises (DKR) as a film in its own right or as the end of a rather impressive trilogy.  Most went with the latter.  The same happened with the final part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy of course, but I doubt DKR will challenge that on the Oscar front.  However, as with The Return of the King, if DKR does come up a little short in its own right, then it doesn’t by much.  Because an impressive trilogy it is.

The Dark Knight trilogy differed from other Batman films in one crucial respect

Seldom has such a fully formed universe been realised consistently on celluloid, regardless of genre – especially 15 short years since the franchise was creatively bankrupted.  In fact, what Chris Nolan has achieved is incredible.  Until The Avengers, his Dark Knight saga was the superhero franchise to emulate.  In the last few years, many new films have sought to describe where they sit on the Dark Knight scale as part of their publicity splurge.  Only Marvel’s Avengers were collectively strong enough to swim against those ‘darker’ waters.  But while The Dark Knight made billions, Batman had already been making millions in his other iterations in the preceding decades.  Upon it’s release, Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman had a similar influence, albeit in a less superhero saturated market, on many films such as Russell Mulcahy’s Shadow five years later.

Now the Nolan trilogy has concluded, Batman will again be rebooted and repackaged by another creative team for further assaults on the box office.  In 20 years, a complete Batman box set may well include UV copies of the Dark Knight trilogy with four other films either side of it.  Even if the imminent reboot proves disappointing, it will still be unclear how significant the seven year reign of this Dark Knight will prove to be.  There is however, one real problem which was not so much acknowledged in the DKR, but integral to it.  As successful, deep and even epic as the films are, they differed from other Batman films in one crucial respect.  They weren’t really about Batman.

The Bat Begins

To be clear, the Dark Knight trilogy is a great achievement and a fitting chapter for a deservedly cultural icon.  Countless comparisons that can be made to other trilogies, both better and far worse, illustrate that.  However, while many may struggle to decide which their favourite part is, one thing is clear: I still remember how I felt when I walked out of Batman Begins (BB) in 2005.  That feeling marks me apart from many who’re tussling with the question of favourites: I didn’t think it was all that.

Seven years and one concluded trilogy later, that feeling has abated slightly.  A few of my apprehensions dwindled and actually a lot of them were blown completely out of the Bat cave.  But still, a few niggles remained.  Something wasn’t quite right.

I was partly to blame and some of my reasoning was clearly restrictive: I perhaps didn’t want to like BB because there were already good Batman films in existence, particularly the Burton duo, and there will undoubtedly be more good versions in the future.  This was reinforced by the fact that it didn’t really feel like a Chris Nolan film.  I was already quite a fan of Nolan’s work.  Memento and Following were wonderful and his Insomnia remake even better.  In BB Nolan’s touch seemed very light.  There was a typical Nolan totem true, here in the form of Wayne senior’s stethoscope, but nothing so personal as those that appeared in the director’s previous films or would be subsequently developed in the sublime Prestige and perhaps reach their ultimate form in the incredible Inception (both of which fed considerably into The Dark Knight (TDK) and DKR respectively).  But it wasn’t so much that Nolan’s hand was lessened as much as perhaps both his hands were tied.  It was a massive studio IP…  And it was an origin film to begin with.

No Batman fan should have any problem with another retelling of the Caped Crusader’s origin.  I probably read the Bob Kane original twice a year or so – it’s only two pages, so I can generally stretch to it – but in BB, as integral as it was, it fell a little flat.  BB was the third celluloid retelling of Batman’s origin in 16 years, and while repetition may contribute to a malaise, it rather its mishandling by multiple previous creative teams that cast a long shadow.

The otherwise sublime 1989 Batman was ruined by one thing: once the Burton/Keaton Batman had killed the man who killed his parents, the character’s motivation was gone.  There my still be crime in Gotham, but on a personal level the Waynes’ murder had been avenged: Bruce may well have just moved to the Med with Catwoman.  The Bat franchise, no matter how loosely connected, struggled on with this pretty significant problem for the best part of a decade.  It prompted a virtual remake in Batman Returns (1991), a laboured origin flashback in Batman Forever(1995) and then, well… Maybe it would have helped with Batman and Robin (1997).  It was hardly a problem that dogged the 1940s or 1960s films which concentrated on crime rather than the psychology of the character but of course, that treatment  was no longer acceptable in the 21st century (outside cartoons).  The Nolan-machine duly made sure that the same problem wouldn’t surface in BB and in fact this facet and its open ended-complications fed into the film and its sequels at every level.  Indeed, Nolan’s recent comments confirm that it was linked to the overall and concluding theme of the trilogy.

In the Dark Knight Trilogy Batman never stopped beginning

But for all the acceptance of the Batman origin being paramount, and requiring constant reinforcement, there are times where it has to develop.  The comics have battled with this for years and necessarily come up with all sort of answers.  Among them have been the introduction of Robin (several times), faceted villains (the al Ghul’s) and an extended Bat family (all the way to the Justice League).  In the Dark Knight Trilogy however, Batman never stopped beginning.

War of Attrition

The Tumbler was never going to streamline into the Tim-Burton-mobile…  Hits you like a grappling hook

BatpullThere were aggravating factors in BB’s version of Batman’s origin that were easier to dismiss.  If so inclined, you could buy into the Tumbler as the first of a long lineage of Batmobiles which would eventually become the Tim-Burton-Mobile when Batman grew up.  But that Batman never came.  The Tumbler was never going to streamline into the Tim-Burton-mobile.  A fact that can hit you like a grappling hook.

Personally, I always found far more interest in the mature Batman locked in his role as guardian of Gotham City, rather than the many accounts of his origins. The guardian Batman is one built into the fabric of his city, locked into an unending fight against crime not by just one tragedy, but many and constant tragedies which continue to curse him to endlessly paper over an abyss he could fall into at any time.  It’s a war of attrition and there is always the possibility that he might not win.  Melodramatic and gothic it may be, buy many of those ideas surface in every iteration of Batman.  While the Nolan films did tap into those elements, the attrition and the multiple tragedies, in the course of the trilogy they served to stop him beginning.

Time should be as inconsequential as plot holes when it comes to works of fiction, but in the Dark Knight Trilogy, it’s an integral part of the story.  BB covers the longest stretch of time, even disregarding the flashbacks to young Bruce, as the 20s Wayne develops his Kevlar persona.  Then, despite a great sequel hint, TDK certainly doesn’t take place immediately after BB.  The world’s greatest detective clearly thought a playing card call sign bank robber quite inconsequential.  Gotham Knight, the canonical animated film that led into TDK bridged the gap by showing a still fresh faced Batman tackling comic mainstay Killer Croc in the sewers.  It was a minor miracle to fit that villain into the Nolanverse, but it’s only real contribution to the ongoing story was to establish Arkham as an island.  It surely can’t have been too long following that before Batman faced the Joker, and Two-Face’s cameo (but really, what else can you do with that character on film)  and then immediately take an eight year hiatus, or as he saw it, retirement.  Instead of operating as a vigilante, DKR reveals that Batman just disappeared, the main cause being the second great tragedy of his life rather than the GCPD.  In DKR, we catch up with Wayne in his 30s, but after eight years out of the game, he isn’t the iconic and controlling force the comics show at that stage of his life.  The fact he’s still beginning is something DKR’s plot reinforces.  The cop chase resembles those against a young vigilante, he’s still meeting and greeting villains and crucially, one consequence of a Batman stuck as a rookie is inescapable.  He has a great need for father figures, something Nolan provides in plenty.

Each father figure in the Dark Knight trilogy carryies a virtue of Batman

Those father figures are hardly new in Batman, in fact they’ve been rather integral over the last 70 years.  But here they are extended to the maximum, with each father figure carrying a virtue of Batman: Alfred is Bruce’s wisdom and conscience.  Ra’s provides drive and revelation that lasts the trilogy.  Gordon is the inspiration, clarity and motivation.  Then of course there’s Lucius Fox.  The gadgets and toys that once invoked jealousy in the Joker take on a different role in the Nolanverse.  They are a visceral definition of Batman, Bruce Wayne and Wayne Enterprises.  In fact, they so define Batman that he can’t function without Fox, even when he’s lost Alfred and Gordon.  The Wayne legacy of money can be easily disposed of on the stock market, but Thomas Wayne bestrides the trilogy in forms far beyond that incident int hat alley.  It’s not an ineffective take on Batman by any means, and it certainly creates a nuanced and layered hero for Nolan to work with.  In fact, it’s also neat get out of the Robin issue.  You can’t have a Robin mentored by a Batman, when the Dark Knight himself is still Robin.

But of course, when you share Batman out among a load of different characters, there is little left of Bruce Wayne.  And perhaps that’s the point.  Nolan has recently stated that the intended conclusion was to develop the concept that anyone can be a Batman (also neatly quashing the rumours of Gordon-Levitt taking on the mantle in the future).  It’s effectively realised in the trilogy, but again ensures the Batman of prolonged attrition would never appear.  It could be argued that in film’s natural narrative shortening, Bane’s impressive isolation of Gotham condenses decades of that attritional war from the comics – it certainly references several story lines.  But it was crucially Nolan’s decision to remove Batman from the frame for eight years and allow Gotham to naturally thrive that ensured he could never become a guardian with longevity.

It was also a deliberate step to draw villains into Batman’s origin.  This is not unprecedented in the comics, and BB drew on some characters from the printed stories, but is certainly enhanced in the trilogy.  In fact, each of the villains really draw out the impact of the Bat’s extended origin.

A Serious Punch line

The Joker is the greatest villain ever created

While it may not be the deciding factor in itself, it was immediately evident that the villains of BB were untouched by the previous four Batman films.  Not so coincidentally, they were also villains who, though not household names, could neatly lay out the new realistic take of the Dark Knight trilogy.  They were in effect, untarnished but also disposable.  If BB had failed, then there would have been another relaunch a few years down the line which would have been even better placed to reboot the 1992 Penguin.  Conversely, if BB was a success, the path was laid down for villains to return by one simple playing card.  And that is a trump card that many sequels would die for.

The Joker, frankly, is the greatest villain ever created.  Not only conceptually brilliant, he draws on cultural references and fears from the dawn of civilisation, politics and phobia.  He’s as versatile, empty, complex, dark and comic as you want him to be – and many different writers have provided many different takes.  Surfacing from very little, six decades have sculpted him into a brilliantly realised yet constantly enigmatic foe.  Not only is he a character perfect for reinvention, but also a palette that can lift and elevate a story or deliver the savages twist.  In the comics he’s killed a Robin, paralysed a Batgirl, and had the greatest number of different origin stories and yet, none (as TDK referenced).  Some proof comes from Grant Morrison’s late 2000s piece The Clown at Midnight.  Not many comic book villains can sustain a completely prose newsstand comic book.  And then, as inevitably as that clown on your doorstep at midnight means the worst… And at the end of BB, Batman gets handed that playing card.  It was enough to dispel any other trifling concerns.  It was serious: How could any variant on the Joker fit into that realistic universe?

Of course, TDK dispelled those concerns.  Heath Ledger’s Joker was brilliantly realised.  True to the producers’ words, he sprung from the first comic stories and from then the script gleefully and haphazardly straddled every compelling character point.  He was a bank robber who was an anarchist who was a nothing… Without the Batman.  The eternal joke, the unstoppable force.  Further proof of the verity of this Harlequin of Hate was Azarrello and Bermejo’s Joker graphic novel.  That developed a very similar version of the character at the same time as the film, but had the misfortune to come out afterwards.

The Joker booted Bruce Wayne back out of the cowl

But while I was pleasantly, horrifically surprised by how pencil-blindingly great TDK was, it brought the concerns of BB to fruition.  Like a good Joker, he’d banished the silly problems and highlighted some large ones.  Nolan’s focus on origin in BB continued to overcome his hand.  In TDK, the Joker is introduced with an adaptation of his first appearance in the comic, but soon becomes the film’s anarchic metaphor made flesh.  He didn’t develop Bruce Wayne into Batman, his actions booted him back out of the cowl.

A film later, Nolan would again draw heavily from early villain origins, particularly the 1970s Batman wonder stories, where Denny O’Neill’s script and Neal Adam’s art rebooted, reframed and elevated Batman above the recent and mercifully short-lived 60s period.  It was O’Neill who created Ra’s al Ghul, aiming for a villain who posed a modern and intellectual challenge to a Knight in desperate need of darkening.  O’Neill also brought globetrotting to Batman, something Nolan has drawn heavily into each film.  In the Nolanverse, the al Ghul and Bane stories wrap around Bruce Wayne like (Poison) Ivy.

In Batman, Nolan not only drew on the 1930s origins, but the constant ongoing explorations of Batman’s early years: Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s wonderfully recent additions to the myth The Long Halloween and Dark Victory.  These comics were less reboots than gentle massagings of retconning; eking out character traits and sticking manure in the shoes of background characters.  That’s necessary in a medium where so many characters – Catwoman, Batman and the best rogue’s gallery int he business – exist in the cultural consciousness and so deserve and require constant re-exploration.  This is generally why you can’t begrudge a retelling of any comic origin.

But so strong were the trilogy’s leanings toward Batman’s beginning that when Catwoman was confirmed for DKR, speculation focussed on tales of Batman’s origin to find her role.  The irony of this entangled origin was the intangibility of each villain that appears in the trilogy (bar Dent, although ‘villain’ is probably a little strong.  Most of the villains in the Nolanverse have little approaching an origin in the classical sense.  DKR comes the closest, but arguably only for the sake of a twist.  The difference to the Caped Crusader’s extended origin, to which many of them relate, is stark.  Throughout the decades, the arrival of new villains constantly provided new challenges for the Dark knight, alongside the chance to explore different facets of his character: a quest for The Grail every time.  But it was crucial to the Dark Knight trilogy that these built on each other.  The attritional war was actually one of the villains versus Wayne psyche.  And this struggle was set against the real, constant, major player in the Batman myth as the franchise crept further towards reality: Gotham City.

Two Tales of One City

The last of the trilogy enabled the emperor’s cloak to fall

In the first decade of the 21st century, Nolan had created the superhero film of to which all others aspired.  And it’s a big field.  In the days following DKR I recklessly bought a ticket to see The Amazing Spiderman.  It was a nice solid film, well made and engagingly acted.  That said, in the end I wasn’t surprised at the lesser box office this iteration generated in comparison to Same Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy; after all it followed hot on the heels of that successful trilogy and for all its faults, Spiderman 3 was no Batman and Robin.  But following a couple of hours of light plot and re-origins, my overall impression was that it had terribly bad luck to be the worst New York-set superhero film in Summer 2012.

Gotham from the Anglo-Saxon for Goat’s Town

Long before DKR, Gotham was a rather blunt metaphor.  But after three films, Nolan had abandoned any pretence that Gotham wasn’t New York itself.  In the comics the dark industrial East Coast port town of Gotham has been constantly abandoned by America, its name piercing the ear alongside other DC Comics fictional cities such as Star and Central City.  However, removed from those other fictional metropolises, Gotham has always carried a grain of truth.  It’s not just an important character in the Batman universe in its own right, but a fine Dickensian caricature.  The name Gotham was in fact coined as a nickname for New York in ever disparaging terms by Washington Irving in 1807; from the Anglo-Saxon for Goat’s Town.

And when the last of the trilogy enabled the emperor’s cloak to fall, Nolan’s vision of Manhattan were stunning.  Few films have shown off the city better, and New York is filmed often.  That is also in acknowledgement that the film was directed by Chris Nolan, not the most visually pioneering of directors it’s fair to say.  His shots are often stunning in their clinical precision, functionality and mechanics and that’s not at all faint praise.  His love of IMAX is natural – tailored to the scope of the action and all its contributing elements rather that simply the 25 or so paintings that appear on screen per second.  Nolan’s films are never simply big fake robot smash big fake robot.  You get what few blockbuster director’s can deliver: all parts of the film working in unison.  In DKR this worked brilliantly from the outset; though more than reminiscent of the opening to License to Kill, the plane hijack combines menace, character introduction and stunt on the IMAX screen like few other films could.

The reality of the trilogy is a huge contributing factor to its overall success.  It doesn’t matter that Gotham has a bridge that is Manhattan Bridge or that Gotham’s financial district is in fact Wall Street.  The city metaphor had shortened since BB’s Gotham of monorails and Kowloon, just as the villain metaphor, interestingly, had stretched it.  Bane’s motivation may seem the most far-fetched, but it feeds directly into contemporary concerns of the western world in a way that Ra’s or the Joker couldn’t.  In comparison, The Amazing Spiderman’s main problem was that despite a confident reboot with excellent casting and superb chemistry, it focussed on a bland, completely CGI villain.  Quite a mistake considering Spiderman hardly had less time in development than DKR and, as with other Marvel properties, it has a far longer run of direct comics continuity to draw from (albeit dragged down by the unnecessary decision to include an origin).  While Spiderman had some narrative and plot faults which it carried right next to its web slingers, so did DKR (just a little less sticky).  The real difference is that The Amazing Spiderman is incredibly light froth compared to the shaded complexity and sheer scope of DKR.  Some may highlight this as a fundamental difference between Marvel and DC Comic, but I’d never be so downright incendiary…

The Wrong Cape

The themes and focus of the Dark Knight trilogy are one franchise out

To reveal Batman’s city to be bona fide New York but under it’s 19th century nickname was a necessary one.  While at various points it was patrolled by the Batmobile, Batpod and then The Bat it was always a novice behind the wheel.

Despite all the little things that have ebbed and flowed over the last seven years, adding and building on a familiar character, this Batman never lost his Begins.  And the true effect of this concentration on origin was really drawn out by DKR.  While not a fundamental problem to the films themselves, their themes or function, it is a fundamental problem for Batman.  It’s not that the Batman Begins title lasted the series, but that the last two films’ titles are mischievous.  In making the characters origins so crucial, yet showing the ‘rise’ of a legend that could fall to anyone meant the Dark Knight never appeared.  In fact, while it hits close, the themes and focus of the Dark Knight trilogy are one franchise out.  Nolan actually made a damn near perfect Superman film.

Next: The Dark Knight Rises: How Christopher Nolan made the perfect Superman film…

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