Why I Love Batman
"Don't kill me! Don't kill me, man! Don't kill me! Don't kill me, man! "I'm not going to kill you. I want you to do me a favor. I want you to tell all your friends about me." "What are you?" "I'm Batman."
I first fell in love with Batman because of Tim Burton's first excellent, genre defining Batman picture. I loved him because he had loss in his life and yet didn't let it destroy him, but instead turn him into a hero for the downtrodden. He would stand against injustice and make sure that the death of his parents wasn't for nothing. I also adored the Film Noir aesthetic. I can trace my love of Noir to Burton's first Batman picture. If that was it, I would love Batman forever, but there is so much more to the character.
Have a read of The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, and see the foundation of Nolan's Batman pictures. The Long Halloween is my very favourite Batman comic book. It is a brilliant murder mystery wrapped around the story of Harvey Dent's transformation into Two Face. It served as the primary basis for Nolan's The Dark Knight. The artwork is the most beautiful of any Batman comic. It expresses so perfectly everything that is compelling and intriguing about the character. He is dark and brooding and all that, yes, but he is also a great detective, tapping into those great Noir detective stories like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. I love the stories that get to the heart of what a supreme detecting fiend he is.
There have been nine live action Batman movies and a handful of animated features. I will talk about some of my favourites. The first must be Burton's Batman from 1989. It was the first time I was introduced to the character and it remains one of my favourites, even with Nolan's excellent trilogy. Along with Christian Bale, Michael Keaton is a perfect Batman and Bruce Wayne. His gift for comedy translates surprisingly well into the character, representing a man who is not quite in the real world. And Jack Nicholson! Holy shit is he good! I say he's side by side with Jared Leto for best Joker on screen. He understands intimately all of the crazy ass character details and a certain childlike sadism. What's more, he's fun, something that Heath Ledger mostly missed in his otherwise quality performance. Batman has some issues, but the overall package is so appealing that they don't really matter. Nicholson and Keaton have fierce chemistry on screen and every scene with the two is electric.
My favourite Batman by Burton though must be the criminally underrated Batman Returns, which actually manages to make The Penguin interesting and compelling as a villain, something decades of comic books failed to do. I used to write for the site Batman On Film, and there were many people in that community that had serious problems with Batman Returns. This was largely down to Burton making the characters his own and not towing the line of bullshit comic book continuity. I never understood this argument: if comic book writers and artists can reinvent existing characters to keep them fresh and interesting, why can't Burton? I don't buy any of that nonsense around a film maker having more responsibility or similar guff.
The Penguin is somebody who disgusts you, yet who you also empathize with. His story is one of parental abandonment. His evil comes from his hurt. He is a mirror image of Bruce Wayne here, who instead of trying to make the world better, just wants to see it burn. Some words should be spent on discussing Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, because fucking WOW. She IS the character. She plays Selina Kyle so well, as an insecure, unsatisfied woman working a job she hates for a boss who treats her like shit. Again, as with The Penguin, Burton reinvents the character into someone who could easily support her own movie. This was an Academy Award worthy performance. Michael Keaton is again excellent. The opening scene where he is waiting in a dark room for the bat signal is probably the best definition of who the character is. So how about that music? No disrespect to Hans Zimmer but nothing beats Danny Elfman's score. That opening theme is Batman. All of the theatricality of it, the vengeance, the relentless force used against the evil doers. Nothing will ever be as iconic as Elfman's score.
I do want to talk about Nolan's Batman pictures because I do have love for them. I don't believe, after some years since I first saw them, that they are the best Batman pictures. I feel that they got a lot right, but they also got quite a bit wrong. The most egregious of these issues is how Gotham City was visualized. Instead of the unimaginable scope and size of Burton's Gotham, here you have real cities stand in for a fictional one. I know why Nolan and co. did this: they wanted to be more realistic than what came before them. In doing that however, and appealing to the "I hate comic books so give me something that isn't like a comic book," they creatively castrated their vision of Gotham City, one of the most important thing about Batman. Burton's Gotham was something out of a dream or a vision. It is terrifying and beautiful at the same time.
My favourite Nolan Batman picture is the third, The Dark Knight Rises, which sees Batman face off against Bane and Talia Al Ghul, alongside his sometimes ally Catwoman. I love it because it finally got Bane right. Bane was custom built to defeat Batman in the comic book series Knightfall. While the first third of the story is excellent, what follows it are some of the worst creative decisions to plague a title in probably forever. This is Wrestling 101. You build a monster heel by having him mow through all competition. You have them put your big babyface hero on the shelf with an injury. A career threatening injury at that. Then you have them dominate the division until the hero finally returns to get their long awaited rematch, where they are victorious and the monster heel is vanquished. Instead of this common sense, good build up and execution, we get a too smart for its own good bullshit twist where Batman doesn't even fight Bane again. Some other dude does, who "takes on the mantle of the Bat" and turns bad. It's stupid as all fuck and I hate it. I hate it.
The Dark Knight Rises gets Bane right, and understands that the rematch is the one we want to see. Nolan and co. build him up as an unstoppable badass, and when he breaks Batman's back, it is genuinely dramatic and savage. The long journey back to health is really well written. It is painful, but by the time Batman returns to save the day, you are cheering at the screen. The Dark Knight Rises also does Catwoman well, if not quite as memorably as Burton. This is the Ed Brubaker Catwoman and she is as intriguing a character as she was in those books. I also love the way the film ends, with Robin taking on the role of Batman and Bruce Wayne finally getting to start a new life away from the grief and pain of his past. Some felt it was too happy, but I disagree. I think the character earned a good ending. Just because Selina and Bruce are together at the end, it doesn't mean they are in love. It just means that they both share a common set of experiences. I love it.
Shout out to Batman Forever for being an enjoyable, light hearted romp. It is a movie that I have written about before, so let me just say that I think it is unfairly maligned. It is just as legitimate as Burton or Nolan's movies. Yes, it's a lighter, friendlier Batman but so what? It does the Robin storyline very well and Jim Carrey is hilarious and manic as The Riddler. Plus Val Kilmer makes a really solid Batman. I have also written about why I adore Batman vs Superman, and I am still certain that it is my favourite comic book movie ever made. Smart, epic and amazing to look at, it has everything going for it. Give it another watch and enjoy!
Discussing my love of Batman must include some words on The Animated Series, the unbelievably gorgeous Art Deco vision of Gotham. I have also written about it before, so let me just skim over why it had such an impact on me as a child. I used to watch The Den on Network 2 every day after school. It was the first place where I became acquainted with the power of improvised comedy, and it helped to shape my sense of humour, along with The Simpsons. They would show Batman at half five, before The Den finished for the day. From the exquisite opening sequence with Danny Elfman's iconic Batman theme, to the immensely creative way that the writers and show runners weaved in all of the characters in Batman's history, to the stellar voice work by Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker, it touched me in a profound way. The pinnacle of the greatness of the Animated Series was the production of the feature film Mask of the Phantasm. More violent, much darker and all around more meaningful, it was for a time considered the definitive take on the characters. It remains a beautiful and touching look at the character. Highly recommended.
Comic books, movies and TV shows aren't the only mediums with great Batman stories. Shout out to Rocksteady game and their sublime Arkham trilogy. The second, Arkham City is the best of the series, balancing scope with detail and the most robust fighting system ever created. These games feature many of the actors from the Animated Series, so when I was playing them, I was brought back to that time. It was literally a dream come true. I was finally able to be The goddamned Batman. Soaring through Gotham City, swooping down and taking out all manner of bad guys remains one of my favourite video game experience.
Batman is a character who fills me with hope. We all want to believe in a hero like Batman, someone who doesn't let the world destroy his sense of right and wrong. When I was young and I encountered bullies or thugs, I would find hope and relief in the idea that Batman was out there somewhere putting wrongs to rights. As with Superman, there is something archetypal about the character, something that repeats generation to generation. We need him, just as the people of Gotham City do. I hope he never leaves us. I could say all manner of negative shit about how much I hate the crossovers and money grabs, but such words aren't the focus of this blog. So let me say that I love Batman with all my heart, and I hope you do too.