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Batman and the Masks We Wear
This Batman Day—yes, that’s a thing—what can Tim Burton’s and Christopher Nolan’s differing takes on the comics vigilante teach us about ourselves?
FOR THE LAST SEVERAL YEARS, fans of the Caped Crusader have celebrated “Batman Day” on the third Saturday in September.1 This year, the folks at DC Comics and Warner Bros. have a host of events planned around the world, including re-releasing older Batman movies in theaters, streaming more titles, and of course, selling lots of Batman merchandise. (Did you know that Amazon has a whole Batman store? You do now.)
It’s worth using the occasion of this pop-culture neo-holiday as an excuse to reflect a bit about the character of Batman, the American character, and how art changes and is changed by our wider culture. Admittedly these are immense subjects, not least because of how many variations of Batman there have been on paper and on screen since his debut in 1939, but let’s narrow it down by discussing the two with the widest cultural footprint over the last half-century.
Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster Batman was one of the most important superhero films ever made, one of the most popular films of the 1980s in any genre, and the start of a four-film franchise that brought in $700 million at the box office.
And Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy—which is back in theaters this weekend—earned more than $1 billion at the box office. That series launched with the surprising success of Batman Begins in 2005, but it was the second installment, The Dark Knight in 2008, that exploded expectations for the superhero genre, winning an Oscar for actor Heath Ledger and causing the Academy to rethink its definition of the “Best Picture” category.
What do these two high-grossing but very different film series tell us about Batman, and about us?
TIM BURTON, WHO IN THOSE DAYS was best known for bizarre and at times unsettling comedies like PeeWee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, headlined his 1989 Batman with Michael Keaton, whose two previous big hits in the 1980s had been in the title roles in Beetlejuice and the comedy Mr. Mom.2 Burton entered the world of filmmaking by way of Disney animation (where his experience had been notoriously awkward) and his design ethos gave the Batman noir a decidedly offbeat and Gothic take. Christopher Nolan, on the other hand, was known for sleek and stylistic thrillers with a sci-fi twist, like the celebrated films Memento and The Prestige. To lead his Batman films, Nolan selected award-winning dramatic actor Christian Bale and set the whole thing in a stubbornly realistic world.
These choices for the lead actors signaled something essential about the differences between the two filmmakers’ approaches to the same material: Nolan created Batman characters that could reasonably fit into our world. Burton created a world that could reasonably fit the Batman characters.
Let’s start with Burton’s Batman. As a kid watching these films, I remember this sense of intrigue and, frankly, frustration that I couldn’t figure out when this Batman movie was happening. The architecture of Gotham was early-twentieth-century Art Deco. The cars and suits were Depression era. But Batman’s tech and gear was from the future (I mean, did you see that killer CD player Bruce Wayne had in 1992’s Batman Returns?!). So much of the critical attention on those films focused on the way that Burton’s neo-Gothic sensibilities infused his version of Gotham, but this misses a more important explanation for the movies’ stylings: By 1989, Batman had amassed five decades’ worth of creative content (or baggage, depending on your viewpoint). Burton’s blended aesthetic wed elements from across the years and created an entirely new world capable of containing the equal parts cartoonish and horrifying characters of the films.
In Burton’s hands, the Joker (Jack Nicholson) became physically altered, unable to stop smiling even in a manic rage. The Penguin (Danny DeVito) was born deformed and animal-like, rejected by his wealthy family, raised by actual penguins, and tormented by envy of the city’s young elite. Even Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), who managed to avoid any visible damage (despite being pushed out of a window several stories above the Gotham city streets), was perhaps the most psychologically troubled of all the villains. The worst villain of all in Burton’s world, though, had no comic book gimmick at all, just pure, unadulterated, capitalist villainy. Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), billionaire business tycoon and mastermind of a plan to rob Gotham City blind and then charge a fee to fix the problem, set out to hurt more people than the other three classic Batman villains combined.
All of Burton’s characters were comic-bookishly over the top. The Penguin actually ate raw fish. Catwoman actually gave herself tongue baths. Bruce Wayne actually slept like a bat hanging upside down. Perhaps they were just outrageously literal. Either way, the shadowy, Gothic world Burton created was a place of warmth and character where none of the DC Comics characters felt out of place. In this world you were watching, people must really be like that. And in the late 1980s and the 1990s, as the Cold War and the whole century of deadly ideologies juddered to a halt, and were followed by a new uncertainty about the future, there was plenty of room for strange, even absurd, new visions of today and tomorrow. In that climate, of course men could become bats or penguins or survive toxic ooze with a permanent smile.
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN FLIPPED the Burton script. Nolan’s approach to Batman reversed Burton’s approach to reclaim the character from the weight of 75 years of previous creative ideas. This led to two important outcomes, one widely discussed at the time, but another widely missed. By restarting Batman back at his origins in Batman Begins, Nolan was able to weave a new mythology drawing on different strains of the comics lore. This Bruce Wayne learned his crime-fighting skills from a secret martial arts cult, the League of Shadows, and its leader, Ra's al Ghul (Liam Neeson). Much of the technical work on iconic tools like the Batmobile and Batplane, which had in most iterations been done by Bruce Wayne in the isolation of his Batcave, was now outsourced to the engineers at Wayne Enterprises under the guidance of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman).
Nolan was deeply influenced by the earliest stories of the Batman comics, especially in The Dark Knight. Scene after scene drew from story elements of Batman #1, written by Bill Finger and drawn by Bob Kane. Ledger’s Joker used a playing card as his sign, announced his crimes on mass media, disguised himself as a police officer to assassinate city officials, and fought Batman in a final showdown upon an unfinished skyscraper before being saved from falling by his caped nemesis—all elements straight out of the 1940 comic book. But Nolan embedded these comic book ideas firmly in the real world of the 2000s. Where Burton had largely ignored direct references to the politics of his time, Nolan embraced it. Batman was not protecting Gotham in anything more than name in The Dark Knight. He was fighting a crazed, clown gangster in the streets of Chicago, one of the most gun violence–plagued cities in America. Nolan’s Batman was fighting in the era of George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror, complete with illegal cellphone surveillance and “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Beyond a skillfully written and shot film, The Dark Knight connected with audiences because, in many ways, they were already living with some of the kinds of anxieties and moral questions it brought to the screen.
TODAY, BOTH BURTON’S AND NOLAN’S Batman films stand up. This is a testament not only to their skill as artists but also to the incredible versatility of original character created by a couple Jewish young men from the Bronx in 1939. And it is a reminder of what we actually need from our art. Sometimes we need to have the absurdity hidden in the mundane pointed out to us. Other times, we need to see ourselves, our fears, and our hopes reflected back at us.
Whether he be bizarre and otherworldly or all too real and humanly fallible, Batman is always with us.
The latter two movies in the series were directed by Joel Schumacher and starred other actors—Val Kilmer and George Clooney—as Batman.