I enjoyed The Incomparable’s recent episode about Batman Begins. It’s a great film that rightly recreates the tone of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One. And yet…
Whenever I watch those movies – particularly the second and third – I can’t help but come away with the impression that they’re a little bit embarrassed to be about a guy in a bat costume fighting a clown. That trilogy feels like the product of a generation of fans who never really got the charms of fun, campy 60s Batman and were never able to reconcile the character with Frank Miller’s grim, gritty approach.
Here’s a secret about Batman: he’s such a resilient character that he can be both the smiling Caped Crusader who shakes Robin’s hand after solving a case and the Darknight Detective who broods in the shadows. He doesn’t have to be both at the same time, but no Serious Batman approach can ever get away from the fact that, ultimately, he’s a dude who dresses up like a bat to scare criminals.
Christopher Nolan is such a fabulous talent that he’s able to pull off a take on the character who ignores his campier roots, but only just. Every element of the movie’s design screams that it’s trying so, so hard to make you take it seriously. It’s the production design equivalent of the old, “they’re not comic books, they’re graphic novels!” retort. The costume keeps the Bat ears but tones everything else down to a dull black. He technically wears a Bat symbol on his chest, but it’s black on black. He has a utility belt, but it’s a tarnished gold and doesn’t really hold many gadgets. The Batmobile – sorry, The Tumbler – is where it breaks. The movie doesn’t want him to have a car so he has a… weird tank thing that jumps? But this is Serious Batman! It has guns and stuff.
Again, Nolan is a great director, so I want to say that I think he does mostly pull this all off. Unfortunately, lesser filmmakers would follow in his footsteps who didn’t get this balance right. The comics, too, have taken things too dark. Last year’s Free Comic Book Day Batman story was literally eight pages of The Joker torturing a guy. A recent Walmart-exclusive Superman story depicted Lois Lane getting murdered over and over.
And, like, I get that the Joel Schumacher’s movies were full camp in a way that audiences rejected. Where Tim Burton’s brand of camp worked wonderfully (at least in his first entry), again we have a case where his successor didn’t understand what parts of the earlier movie’s tone to keep and which to rethink. But look at the Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon for a perfect example of how to do The Dark Knight that totally works yet is very different than Batman: The Animated Series. Both approaches work. Judging by the success of Nolan’s films – The Dark Knight broke a lot of records – Nolan was right to set the tone how he did. But somewhere – I don’t just think in my head – there’s a straight line from the sort of entitled fan who got exactly what he wanted in Serious Batman and who, a decade later, threw a fit when The Last Jedi dared to take a different arc than they expected with Luke Skywalker.