Oct 9, 2020
Why Burton’s Batman will age better than Nolan’s
When I find myself contemplating which Batman movie to watch, I’m amazed at how often I feel like watching either Batman or Batman Returns, rather than the three Christopher Nolan films. While it may be that the latter demand more of an investment in time and attention, as they’re longer and more intricately plotted and more closely connected, I don’t think that’s the real explanation.
As a fan of the character and the comic books, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my Batman viewing preferences, and I’ve come to the following conclusion: The two Tim Burton-directed Batman films will eventually age better than the three Nolan-directed ones.
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Let me back up a moment to clarify: I don’t mean to suggest that either of the Burton films are necessarily better as films, and I can certainly understand the perspective that the Nolan Batman films are superior in specific ways, such as writing, acting, special effects, and editing. Burton films are more often about mood or style than a strong script, whereas Nolan’s films are always structured with great care and attention to detail.
However, Batman Begins and its sequels seem stuck in a very specific period of the pop culture mindset, one that was self-consciously reacting to post-9/11 concerns, as well as fixated on the idea of something akin to “comic book realism” that keeps those films from having the kind of easy rewatchability that the Burton films have. In some ways, it reminds me of the differences between the original Battlestar Galactica and the 2000s remake. The latter deals substantively with issues like terrorism, paranoia, and security, but gets bogged down by its own solemnity. The original had a sense of fun that the reboot lacked.
Art is often a product of its cultural period, and film is no different, especially Batman films, as they’re designed to appeal to a large part of the current fanbase. In the case of the Nolan films, as well as the Burton ones, both did a great job of reacting to the mood of Batman fans at the time.
1989’s Batman came in the wake of The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke, two stories that were fantastic, dark in tone and image, yet not stymied by considerations of “realism”. Batman ‘89 was in the same vein: a 180-degree departure from the ‘60s Adam West series, but also deliberately over the top, and comic book-esque in style (note the traditional yet absurd Joker “chemical bath” origin instead of The Dark Knight’s attempt to craft a Joker origin more in line with a tragic tale(s) of knife scarring).
Nolan’s Batman films were of course a reaction to the very prominent failure of the ‘90s Schumacher films. (And it continues to fascinate me that Batman & Robin gets plenty of scorn and ridicule, but Batman Forever is largely given a pass despite a similar level of cheese and camp. Is it the $77 million difference in domestic box office that allows the latter to avoid the stench of a bomb? Or is it the unforgettable image of Nicole Kidman saying “hot entrance”?)
Nolan took a back-to-basics, grounded approach that while well-received, may strike future viewers as wrongheaded, considering the subject matter. As an example, he takes the time to show how Bruce Wayne orders his weapons and gadgets, even going so far as to detail the accounting subterfuge required to disguise the purchases. Is this necessary? Is it fun to watch? Were viewers really wondering as they watched Batman strike a foe with a batarang, “I wonder whether he paid for that with a credit card under an assumed name or used PayPal?” These kinds of things strike me as designed for the viewer who wants a sense of “realism” about Batman, of all characters, because he’s often seen as the most relatable.
The notion of Batman as the most relatable of major superheroes is simultaneously understandable and yet ridiculous, if taken too far. True, Batman has no superpowers, but he’s also a billionaire who achieved his wealth through inheritance rather than entrepreneurial skill. He had the luxury of honing his fighting abilities and knowledge of criminology because he had nearly limitless time and resources with which to do so. So yes, while Batman was able to train himself to the peak of his abilities, it’s more accurate to say that he had the money and time to devote to buying gadgets and acquiring the skills for crime-fighting. It’s not quite the grounded and realistic origin people think it is, and placing him in a grounded and realistic setting takes away much of what’s special about him.
Having Batman operate in a gritty, neo-noirish environment makes him stand out in an especially silly way, as he often does in the Nolan-verse. It has the effect of reminding us while we’re watching a tightly-plotted crime drama that there is in fact a billionaire dressed up as a giant bat who refuses to use guns, fights criminals who have guns, and yet routinely emerges unscathed. An overemphasis on realism can also make him redundant as well. If you’re just going to use Batman as a glorified noir-ish police detective, why not just tell stories about Jim Gordon or Harvey Bullock, actual police detectives, and leave Batman out of it?
Burton self-consciously creates a dark, yet still comic fantasy world, one in which a figure like Batman is at home, as well as outlandish villains like a scenery-chewing murderous clown, and a deformed, orphaned man who was raised by penguins and controls a circus-themed crime gang.
And it’s easy to see how these contrasting visions of Batman impact the character of the Joker, which is a natural point of comparison, given that other than Catwoman, he’s the only supervillain appearing in both the Burton and Nolan films. Again, it may be that Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker is the deeper, more nuanced, and complex performance. He undoubtedly earned his Oscar and all the praise he received. However, Jack Nicholson, to me, is the more fun one to watch because, well, he seems to be having more fun.
Ledger’s Joker comes across as an angry psychopath who happens to have chosen a clown theme almost at random, or as a result of the appearance of his scars. While he has clever dialogue, he’s rarely funny. Nicholson’s Joker, on the other hand, is constantly telling memorable jokes that amuse us even as he’s horrifying us. Many great lines of his come to mind, like “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” or “This town needs an enema!” Dark Knight’s Joker has “Why so serious?”, which doesn’t really qualify as a joke. Ledger’s performance is powerful, but less entertaining. Nicholson’s performance seems more suited for a comic book supervillain and truer to the character.
In addition, the Danny Elfman scores are superior to the Hans Zimmer ones, further adding to the rewatchability factor. Zimmer’s scores are dull, fading into the background or sticking too close to what’s happening on screen, never daring to outshine it. Elfman’s scores remind us that we’re watching an exciting, epic film. The opening music to the first Batman sets up the movie incredibly well, with a tone befitting Tim Burton’s vision: operatic, somewhat dark, yet still heroic.
Though this may be obvious, I’m a huge fan of the Batman character (I tried writing this much content about Ambush Bug. Didn’t work as well). One of the great things about Batman is that, like fellow fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, he’s had a myriad of different interpretations over the years, some very light and some very dark. Both Nolan and Burton lean toward the darker approach to Batman, but only up to a point, and that’s not really where the contrast lies.
Nolan’s films feel bigger now because of box office results, Heath Ledger’s passing, and because they’re more recent. As all the films in the series recede into the past, however, these things won’t seem as significant. And the demand by many comic book fans for a more grounded, realistic approach will fade as well. And once that happens, my guess is that Burton’s films will age better.