Batman: Christopher Nolan: Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008)


As far as I’m concerned, Christopher Nolan gets Batman. But Batman is a modern myth, and unlike other popular fictional characters, such as Sherlock Holmes, and despite what DC may claim, there is no definitive Batman text [1]. The character has been constantly reiterated and refashioned over the years. So, to rephrase, perhaps Nolan is the first to interpret the character and mythos in a live-action motion picture in a manner that closely aligns with my own views on Batman.

Batman: The Animated Series, which Anders discussed earlier this week, also understood Batman. Anders pointed out the iconic nature of the television series, especially its minimalist visual style and indeterminate setting in time. I would add that the show’s iconicity is enhanced by the serial nature of TV. Batman was originally conceived by Bob Kane (and Bill Finger) in the late 1930s for comic books, also a serial medium, and the episodic, repetitive nature of Batman’s crime-fighting has been identified as an important component of the character [2].

Tim Burton offered us a freak show. Burton essentially sees Batman as one more abnormal person, albeit a slightly less psychotic one, in his sideshow called Gotham City. As Aren noted in his article, the Joker is really the main character in Batman: The Movie, and the Penguin, Catwoman, and Max Shreck all overshadow the hero in Batman Returns.

Joel Schumacher returned Batman to the camp of the 1960s TV show, although he sprayed over his films with a 90s pop neon gloss. Batman Forever and, to an even greater extent, Batman & Robin use the superhero chiefly as a vehicle for spectacle-filled silliness, some of it fun, some of it boring, some of it embarrassing.

Christopher Nolan’s films are the first live-action Batman movies to be preoccupied with the person of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Batman Begins (2005) is probably the most fully developed exploration in any medium of why someone would become a crime-fighter dressed as a bat—more so even than Frank Miller’s celebrated graphic novel Year One (1987). Nolan makes fear and legend the central themes. The Batman persona is something above and beyond the mortal man, Bruce Wayne, and his personal motivations, which is what makes Batman a superhero and not a vigilante. In their screenplay, Nolan and David S. Goyer develop the themes in such a self-consciously serious manner—to counter the strangeness and silliness that had come before—that moments seem to pause for gravity and many lines come across as sententious maxims. For example: “But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal . . . then you become something else entirely.”

Batman Begins is still a great film. I take a lot of pleasure in the early scenes depicting events in Bruce’s life few had presented before. I also find the creation of the Batman, his costume, and his equipment, to be absorbing. The climactic final conflict with Ra’s al Ghul is solid, but I find the building of the character more compelling than the action. It is important to note, though, that Nolan was the first to make a Batman movie that centres on detection (who’s contaminating the water?) and action set pieces, particularly ones that resemble and rival other action movies (e.g. the Tumbler car chase).

The summer of 2008 marked a shift in the superhero: from then on film, not comic books, would be the dominant medium for superhero narratives. This shift was anticipated by the success of the X-Men and Spider-Man movies in the early 2000s, but it was primarily marked by two events. First, in May there was the unforeseen success of Marvel Studios’ big-screen version of a second-tier superhero, Iron Man [3]. With Iron Man, one of the two big comic book companies would actively control and directly produce their own films, and not just licence their properties to studios. (Importantly, Disney later purchased Marvel.) Time Warner has owned DC Comics for years, and produced all of the Batman movies, but DC never really had similar control.

The other marker was Nolan’s The Dark Knight. If Batman Begins comes across as a slightly imperfect melding of superheroes and serious, artistic filmmaking, The Dark Knight was a resounding success, solidifying the two. The popular outcry denouncing the film’s absence from that year’s list of Best Picture nominations made clear that a superhero film was being considered a work of art. Indeed, the debate that still continues is proof that they are being considered artistic objects worthy of admiration, analysis, and evaluation (and not just ticket sales or fan adoration).

As many have noted, The Dark Knight probably has more in common with The Godfather or Heat than other superhero movies. As in Batman Begins, regular criminals and the mob play a large role in the events, and the opening bank heist recalls, and rivals, the works of Michael Mann. Nolan’s Gotham City eschews Burton’s Gothicism and Schumacher’s gaudy bigness, for a corrupt, realistic city (shot mostly in Chicago). Nolan had the sense to place Batman in the real world, which highlights the extra-ordinariness of Batman and the super-villains he produces.

In The Dark Knight the focus on Bruce Wayne/Batman is less tight, but he is still one of three central characters. Batman and the Joker are dueling angels or demons pivoting around district attorney Harvey Dent, struggling for his soul, and for Gotham City’s. In a corrupt world, the Batman represents and enforces order, whereas the Joker is chaos. Batman follows his rules, almost involuntarily. The Joker laughs at everything in a world that he believes has no rules. As the ferry filled with citizens and the ferry filled with convicts must choose whether to kill each other in order to survive, Harvey Dent transforms from noble idealist to rage-filled avenger. Harvey falls, becoming Two-Face, as the City endures. Christ-like, Batman ultimately takes the blame for Dent and is hunted in order to preserve the City.

The film is not just serious stuff though. The action sequences are skillfully made and exciting, and there are moments of humour, both dark and fun. The special effects, the acting, the cinematography, and the editing are all excellent.

If film is now the dominant medium for superheroes, Nolan’s films, with their interest not in endless repetition and serial storytelling, but rather in epic storytelling with a clear beginning and end, are the most significant contributors to the shift, as they seek to tell the Batman story in specifically cinematic ways. I am more than eager to see how Nolan’s legend of the Dark Knight will end.


[1] Some of this article’s ideas are from my conference paper, “Authorship and Authority: The Origin Story and the Authorization of Batman in Frank Miller’s Year One.”

[2] See: William Uricchio and Roberta E. Pearson. “I’m Not Fooled by That Cheap Disguise.” The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media. Ed. Uricchio and Pearson. New York: Routledge, 1991. 182-213. Print.

[3] By “second-tier,” I mean that Iron Man had then not permeated the public’s consciousness like a Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man.