Chalk up another summer for the genre of the superhero film. The latest—and most anticipated—is the third and, supposedly, final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy: The Dark Knight Rises.
Being a committed superhero fan from way back, I admit to having something of an emotional interest invested in seeing to it that these cinematic adaptations of iconic comic book characters remain faithful to the traditional lore.
It is this desire that accounts for why I despised all four chapters of the first Batman franchise just as much as I loved Nolan’s reimagining of the Dark Knight.
I remember seeing Tim Burton’s Batman on the night that it first opened back in the summer of 1989. Michael Keaton portrayed the hero and Jack Nicholson his arch nemesis, the infamous “Joker.” The movie was a phenomenal financial and critical success.
Though the best of the series that it spawned, I hated it.
And I hated it for a variety of reasons.
As of now, there are at least three things that I can recall vividly: Batman killed criminals without hesitation; among the criminals that he killed was “the Clown Prince of crime,” the Joker; and his unfailingly loyal butler, Alfred, took it upon himself to disclose his master’s duel identity to his love interest, Kim Basinger’s Vickie Vale.
For those of you who are in the least familiar with the history of Batman, I needn’t explain any further why a Batman fan would find all of this utterly unacceptable. Besides, inasmuch as it stands in glaring contrast to the 1990’s non-canonical depiction, Christopher Nolan’s conception of Gotham City’s caped crusader illuminates these inadequacies of its predecessor and more.
Bruce Wayne is a mega-billionaire whose parents were gunned down, before his very eyes, by a mugger when he was but a child. The Waynes’ trusted butler raises him, supplying him with all of the love and emotional support that one would expect from a father. Still, Bruce is forever traumatized by his parents’ slaying. He is obsessed with it, and it is this obsession that all but compels him to devote all of his energies into transforming his whole person—mind and body—into the perfect weapon with which to combat evil.
Repeat: Batman is a hero, yes, but he is concerned first and foremost with fighting evil—not inspiring goodness.
In Batman Begins, Nolan seems to get this. It is in the first of the trilogy that Bruce Wayne resolves to become Batman so as to serve as a symbol—a symbol of fear: as Batman, he hopes to instill dread into the hearts of the lawless.
Here, Nolan is consistent with the Batman mythos. But by the time the most recent film comes to a close, he seems to have forgotten this, for it is here that Batman reveals that all along the idea behind the cape and cowl has been to inspire others to heroism.
Sorry, but this doesn’t wash.
Superman is a figure who is self-consciously committed to inspiring the good in others. With his bright, flashy colors—and, crucially, bare face—he intends to be a symbol of hope, truth, and justice, a light in an otherwise dim world. Thus, it is not for nothing that parallels between the Man of Steel and Jesus have been drawn for decades.
In other words, if Bruce Wayne sought to make others heroic through the symbol of The Batman, then he should not have chosen to dress as a creepy, nocturnal creature like a bat!
No, Batman may very well inspire goodness. And he may be pleased that he is able to do so. But this is not what he sets out to do.
He sets out to battle evil. In fact, this may be too strong a characterization of his intentions, for Bruce Wayne’s decision to become Batman is just barely a choice.
He is driven to it.
Batman is a hero, but he is a tragic hero. He doesn’t enjoy his life. But he can’t have it any other way. He refrains from killing his rivals, not because he has the least bit of compassion for them—he doesn’t—but because he is perpetually haunted by the fear that unless he draws that line for himself, he will become them.
Nolan brilliantly executes a happy ending for Batman. Yet this is a mistake, for in so doing, he fundamentally transforms the character into something that it isn’t.
We may as well arrange for Romeo and Juliet to go riding off into the sunset together.