So we know how it ends. Batman retires and Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, which began with the magnificent Batman Begins, draws to a majestic close. I’ve been a Batman fan almost from the time I learnt how to read and have loyally followed the character through good (Frank Miller’s re-invigoration of the legend; the first Tim Burton movie; Nolan’s Batman Begins; the death of that nasty little creep, Jason Todd, who was the second Robin etc.) and bad (the 1960s TV show; Batman and Robin, possibly the worst movie in the history of cinema; and the introduction of Aunt Harriet as a character in the Wayne household). But never has the myth of The Batman seemed as potent as it does now, after Nolan’s trilogy.
Spoiler alert: if you have not seen The Dark Knight Rises and intend to see it, then you should stop reading here lest I give away too much. There are broadly two kinds of Batman fans: those who know him from the comic books and those who know him from movies and TV. Even within those categories, there are subdivisions. If you liked the Batman TV show, then you are probably not considered cool by fans of the later movies. If you liked the Sixties and Seventies comics when Batman and Robin came across as a pair of boy scouts (or like scout master and scout), then ‘real’ comic fans don’t see you as cool. If you like the graphic novels that have populated the Batman universe over the last two decades, then you are so cool that you might as well be a nerd. (The line between fanatical graphic novel fans and geeks is a thin one.)
I’m not sure which of these categories and sub-categories I fit into. I got into Batman through the Sixties comic books and though they seem pretty lame now (at one stage there was a whole Batman family of Batwoman, Batgirl, Batmite and even Bat-Hound), they appealed to kids of my age. And many of the elements that we thrilled to: Batman’s secret identity as playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne, the Batmobile, the Batcave and such villains as the Joker and Catwoman have stood the test of time. What I did not know, when I first read the Sixties comics, was that they were sanitised takes on the original Batman. Created in May 1939 as a masked avenger along the lines of Zorro and the Phantom (who predates Batman and was clearly an inspiration), the character was first called The Bat-Man, tended to appear only at night, was on bad terms with the cops, wore a mask as much to avoid the police as to protect the people he loved, and had no hesitation in dispatching criminals to their death.
But within a year, DC Comics had begun to soften The Bat-Man by giving him a young sidekick called Robin. And soon, when Batman’s original creator Bob Kane failed to come up with enough comics, a platoon of new writers and artists, each of whom had his own vision of the character, took over: Dick Sprang, Carmine Infantino, Mort Meskin, Jim Mooney etc. Almost as influential as Kane himself were writer Bill Finger and artist Jerry Robinson who created the Joker. Kane, however, insisted that his byline always appear and was reluctant to share credit.
Even in this softer form, Batman went on to become an international rage, was featured in two movies in the 1940s and got his own hit TV show in the 1960s. The dark Bat-Man of the original comics was more or less forgotten for over 40 years till Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns. This was a series of comics set outside the normal continuity which imagined a future where a middle-aged Batman came out of retirement to fight crime. In Miller’s world, the public had turned against superheroes, TV was full of the same idiots debating the same issues every night. And corruption had seized control of society.
Almost all retellings of the Batman legend have drawn from Frank Miller’s version of the character. The idea of a dark and dangerous Batman intrigued Hollywood and a Dark Knight movie with Mel Gibson (playing Batman as an anti-Semitic midget, presumably) was planned but never got off the ground. Eventually the project went to director Tim Burton, known for his weird and fantastic view of life. Burton took a dark Frank Miller-like Batman and placed him in an imaginatively designed Gotham City which was described in the script as looking “as if hell had erupted through the sidewalk.” Because the studio was not sure that Michael Keaton (who Burton cast, against type as Batman) had enough star quality, Jack Nicholson played the main villain, the Joker, and stole the movie. Burton made one more Batman-in-a-weird-Gotham-City movie, costarring Danny DeVito as a depraved, sewer-dwelling Penguin. By then the comics had also decided to focus entirely on grown-up themes and a much darker Batman. Bane, a muscle-bound villain, was introduced and in 1995, in the long-running Knightfall series of comics, he actually beat Batman, breaking his back across his knee.
Even as the public thrilled to a darker Batman, the movies lost the plot. A new director, Joel Schumacher, made the comic book-like Batman Forever (with Val Kilmer as an excellent Batman) and then followed it up with the disastrous, campy Batman and Robin which even the casting of George Clooney as Batman could not save. That movie, as Clooney often admits, sunk the franchise.
When the Batman movie series was revived, the British director Christopher Nolan agreed to direct only after he could start afresh, wiping out memories of the last dud picture. The studio agreed and Nolan’s reboot of the franchise Batman Begins starred another Brit, Christian Bale, as Batman and told the story in a more realistic, matter-of-fact manner. (The movie was packed with Brit and Irish actors: Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson etc.). But Nolan went back to the idea of a Dark Knight, abandoning the comic book persona of the last two Batman pictures.
Batman Begins, a terrific movie, was followed by a film actually called The Dark Knight which most people (except me: I thought it went on for too long) regard as the finest Batman movie at least partly because Heath Ledger played a Joker who was as dark and dangerous as Bale’s Batman. (Jack Nicholson had gone over-the-top with his portrayal).
But Nolan also introduced topical themes. At many levels, the Dark Knight was an allegory for the America of the post 9/11 era, fighting a battle against terrorists whose motivation it could not understand. The end was morally ambiguous: Batman beats the Joker but pays a terrible price. And serious contemporary subtext kept cropping up.
The Dark Knight Rises begins eight years after the events of The Dark Knight and freely borrows from the Frank Miller series and from Knightfall. Batman has retired. He has not been seen for eight years. The villain is Bane who wants to take over Gotham and who releases all of the city’s criminals. Bane is in league with Ra’s al Ghul (as in the comics), the villain from Batman Begins. There is even a reprise of the famous scene where Bane breaks Batman’s back across his knee.
From my perspective, it is the best comic book movie ever made partly because it is tightly plotted, well-acted, (Anne Hathaway almost steals the picture) and well put-together. And once again, Nolan taps into America’s current concerns: Wall Street is bad; Bruce Wayne is cheated out of his fortune through bogus futures trades. America is no longer the land of opportunity and the cracks beneath the surface are coming to the fore – in this movie literally – right after the Star-Spangled Banner is sung at a football game!
I won’t give more away. But even if you have no previous interest in Batman, go and see this picture. For once, every element in the Bat pantheon is brilliantly integrated. And the end has an emotional power that is unusual for comic book pictures. What a pity it is the last movie in this trilogy!
From HT Brunch, July 29
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