While "The Batman" has taken the world by storm, Matt Reeves and Robert Pattinson still stand on the shoulders of Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale. The "Dark Knight" trilogy, especially its eponymous middle chapter, has yet to be surpassed.
With how much Batman and superhero stories since have worked in its shadow, "The Dark Knight" is the most influential thing to happen to Batman since Frank Miller. A large part comes down to Bale's performances as Bruce Wayne and Batman. It's often said that Batman is the most human superhero, but Bale was the first to really embody that.
Batman is the most flexible superhero, which is how two iterations as different as Christian Bale's and Adam West's can coexist. The most memorable parts of West's 1966 "Batman" show weren't Bruce and Dick chatting with the oblivious Aunt Harriet, but Batman and Robin POW-ing evildoers. The next Batman, Michael Keaton, was a departure from West's, being not just broodier but more eccentric. Producer Michael E. Uslan told /Film:
"It was Tim Burton who realized that if we were going to do the revolutionary first feature film of a comic book superhero that was dark and serious, then the audience needed to believe in Bruce Wayne, and the actor had to be able to convince them that Bruce Wayne was someone they believed was so driven and so obsessed to the point of being psychotic, and that they would therefore say, 'Yes! That's a guy who would get dressed up as a bat!'"
To sell this, Uslan and director Burton recruited Keaton. In "Burton on Burton," the director wrote:
"A bat is this wild thing. I'd worked with Michael before and so I thought he would be perfect, because he's got that look in his eye. It's there in 'Beetlejuice.' It's like that guy you could see putting on a bat-suit; he does it because he needs to, because he's not this gigantic, strapping macho man. It's all about transformation. Then it started to make sense to me … Taking Michael and making him Batman just underscored the whole split personality thing which is really what I think the movie's about."
It's a shame neither of Burton's "Batman" movies did much with this. Burton, who did not come to "Batman" a fan, is clearly more enamored by the villains of Gotham City. Burton was quoted on the cover of a 2008 reprint of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's "The Killing Joke," calling it "the first comic [he] ever loved." That choice is very telling. Much like Jack Nicholson is the real star of "Batman," "The Killing Joke" is more a Joker comic than a Batman comic.
The Schumacher Years
The next "Batman" director, Joel Schumacher, was a fan of the character and wanted to explore Bruce Wayne in ways the previous films hadn't. "Batman Forever" shifts gears, turning Bruce from the recluse of the previous films into a playboy businessman. Val Kilmer's performance winds up an inverse of Keaton's: a solid Bruce Wayne, but an underwhelming Batman. "Batman Forever" was also filmed with a subplot of Bruce finally coming to terms with his parents' death, in particular, his guilt complex that he "killed" them by urging them to go to the theater on the night they were shot. Tragically, the scenes were cut.
As maligned as "Batman & Robin" is, that film also contains one of the best summations of Batman's character, courtesy of Alfred (Michael Gough):
"Death and chance stole your parents. But rather than become a victim, you have done everything in your power to control the fates. For what is Batman if not an effort to master the chaos that sweeps our world? An attempt to control death itself?"
That said, George Clooney's performance is best left in the past; he's breezing through the movie as Bruce and totally out of place as Batman. Thankfully, such an underwhelming "Batman" film demanded the next one be a reinvention. This left the door open for Christian Bale to deliver the best Batman yet.
What Bale Did Right
Christopher Nolan's and Christian Bale's goal was to make Batman more than an icon, but a human character who audiences could invest in even when the cowl came off. In a 2008 interview with GQ, Bale recounted:
"Heath [Ledger] would have done whatever he felt was necessary for the role. He was someone who took his work incredibly seriously. And that's what Chris [Nolan] and I were aiming for with these movies: to see through the comic books and cartoons and make the characters real and terrifying and twisted and human. With the first film critics were like, 'What? Take Batman seriously? Are you kidding?' — it was laughable to many, but that's precisely the road that we wanted to take."
So how did Bale improve on the past Batmen? Some of it can be chalked up to the writing. While previous versions had touched on the origin, "Batman Begins" was the first time we saw Bruce Wayne become Batman. This alone gave him a stronger character arc than Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer or George Clooney.
Bale plays up the dichotomy between Bruce and Batman, whereas Keaton only scratched the surface. Bale's greatest asset is his chameleon range; he's a perfect fit for a role that's two parts in one. He obviously drew on his "American Psycho" experience to play the apathetic rich boy Bruce pretends to be, adding a layer of comedy ("Guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues") to Bruce's scenes, which previous "Batman" films lacked.
The "Dark Knight" trilogy has the strongest supporting cast. Michael Caine and Gary Oldman were the first who got to play Alfred and Commissioner Gordon as characters with their own dimensions, while Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox was a nice touch, too. At the same time, the villains of "Begins" didn't take over the film; Liam Neeson's Ra's Al Ghul and Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow are compelling because they're foils for Batman. When we did get a scene-stealing villain in Heath Ledger's Joker, it was in the sequel, after audiences had built an attachment to Batman himself.
Ben Affleck and Robert Pattinson's Batmen stood in the shadow of Christian Bale's. In the aforementioned GQ interview, Bale said one of the goals behind "The Dark Knight" was bringing consequences to Gotham City:
"In 'The Dark Knight,' Bruce Wayne's naivety comes to the fore. For some reason, he thought all this crime-fighting would be a finite endeavor; he thought once he had cleaned up the city of criminals he would be able to hang up his suit and go back to a relatively normal life. In this film he realizes there are consequences to his actions, things have changed because of him and he has more responsibility than he presumed. He can't hang up his cape and walk away. Everything evolves — even crime."
"Batman V Superman" is similarly invested in the idea of consequences, doubly so since it's set in a world with bona fide superhumans. That said, Zack Snyder handles the post-9/11 political subtext far more clumsily than Christopher Nolan did. Affleck and Snyder's Batman is best described as a mix of Frank Miller's and Nolan/Bale's. Everything from his banter with Alfred (now Jeremy Irons) to the moments where he gets to put on the mask of Bruce Wayne has a "Dark Knight" trilogy flavor.
"The Batman" doubles down on the realism of Nolan's world; there's no playboy Bruce Wayne with James Bond-style bat-gadgets. Ironically, Pattinson himself winds up drawing more from Michael Keaton, playing Bruce as a cynical recluse with little dividing line between his personas in and out of costume. However, "The Batman" ends with Bruce realizing he needs to be a symbol of not of fear, but of hope; the kind of symbol Bale's Batman set out to be from the start. Whether that means Pattinson's next performance as Bruce Wayne's will be closer to Bale's remains to be seen.
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