I hate Christopher Nolan’s Batman. Now before you go rushing to make wild accusations that I’m being a film snob or a contrarian, I’m not saying that The Dark Knight or Batman Begins are bad films, I’m saying I hate Nolan’s take on Batman. The films in and of themselves have merits (as well as flaws), but what I’m talking about is Nolan’s interpretation of Batman and the Batman universe. It should also be said that my touchstone for Batman is The Animated Series.
What I admire The Animated Series for is its ability to craft interesting relationships between Batman and the people he faces because the series recognizes that there is a human element to the villains, that these are flawed and trouble people that perhaps need more help and sympathy than they need a righteous amount of butt-kicking. Therefore, Batman is interested in the villains as people he is trying to save, it’s the reason he doesn’t kill them, because he believes they can be redeemed, and because it’s what separates him from being on the other side.
However, Nolan’s interest in Batman is more about the troubled, psychological examination of a character study and their symbolic attributes. It’s an elegantly analytical and precise examination of the mindsets of characters, but without the sympathy or warmth of The Animated Series which would go out of its way to let the audience experience the pain, the shame, the torment and anguish of its villains.
Episodes like Heart of Ice, Feet of Clay and Mad as a Hatter demonstrate that these are not maniacal, hand-wringing villains who want to watch the world burn, but desperate people put in desperate situations who lash out at the world from a place of anger, pain and fear. Of course, the big exception—which I will get to later—is The Joker.
Nolan departs from this view for a study in the unusual and bizarre, more of a freak attraction at a circus than a look at human characters. In Batman Begins Dr. Jonathan Crane is a bland villain. He’s got no personal interest in the affairs of the film; he’s just there for the contrivance of theme and plot. It’s the man behind the scenes who proves to be Batman’s real foil.
The one, the only, Ra’s Al Ghul. While The Joker is the archetypal batman villain, Ra’s Al Ghul is a more ambiguous binary to Batman. He too fights for justice and order, but he goes to extremes, willing to wipe out the populations of cities and civilizations in the name of justice. In The Animated Series, he’s one of the most intriguing characters because he exists in a fascinating moral ambiguity, the ends are noble, but the means reprehensible.
It’s clear that Batman is opposed to him, but there’s uneasy tension between the two because both recognize and respect the other’s passion for justice. But both believe the other is misplaced in their execution of that justice. Ra’s Al Ghul thinks Batman isn’t willing to go all the way with his convictions while Batman believes Ra’s Al Ghul is blinded by a passionate vengeance that clouds his sense of justice.
While the basic dynamic between Batman and Ra’s Al Ghul is developed in the film, Nolan is never able to enter that nebulous tension where one sees how these two men have an uneasy admiration for each other. Instead, there’s a simple binary, Ra’s Al Ghul looks down on Batman and Batman chalks him up as delusional and beyond saving.
This leads to the absolutely horrific conclusion where, while on a speeding train leading both men to inevitable doom, Batman says “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.” YES IT DOES MEAN YOU HAVE TO SAVE HIM! You even ordered for the friggin’ train to be blown out. You did kill him your ignoramus. Sure, in the moment it’s a badass line, but it goes against everything Batman stands for as a character.
Nolan got it wrong. Batman isn’t about fear, he isn’t about being a symbol, he isn’t about being above the corruption of the judicial system, he’s about believing the worst person committing the most heinous crimes is worth trying to save. He will fight time and time again to stop these villains but he’ll fight even harder, to the last inch of his life to make sure those same criminals don’t die, even when it’s the easy way out, even when it means ignoring “the greater good” by offing a life that will otherwise spread more pain and misery.
When Batman does go to that dark place, when he lets someone die intentionally, or even kills them with his own hands, there are deep, deep ramifications. Hell, in The Dark Knight Returns it leads to a memorable third act where the tables are turned. In Nolan’s film, it’s a cool line and then a heroic flight into the final minute wrapping things up in a nice, tidy bow. Batman kills his mentor and the film is like no big deal. Jim Gordon should be hunting this guy down, not giving him a debriefing.
And then there was The Dark Knight. To be fair, the Batman and Joker dichotomy is well-done. The juxtaposition of justice and order with anarchy and disorder creates for a compelling dynamic both in how the characters treat one another and how their ideologies clash. Also, the notion that the two are halves of a whole struggle that one could argue has gone on since the early days of humanity provides one of the most interesting dimensions of the relationships between these two characters.
However, I think Nolan was too busy making the Joker as gleefully slick, evil and disturbing as possible to examine that there’s more to The Joker than sadistic kicks and giggles. Once again, The Animated Series oddly even teased out a human side to one of the most messed-up and bizarre characters. There are moments where he feels an existential angst and world-weary sorrow, as if he recognizes the hollowness of his own ideology.
Instead, The Joker finds himself taking sadistic glee with every moment. The Joker is relentlessly inhuman, more hyena than man. Perhaps Nolan felt he was already pushing it enough bringing up ideas that conjured the 9/11 tragedy and though that adding sympathy into the mix could make the film volatile. The end result is a character with a lot of thematic and narrative dynamics, but without the soul of the character.
But I’ve always held that in the grand scheme of The Dark Knight, it’s Harvey Dent who’s the focal point of the story. The problem is that once again Nolan botches the story. Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne are friends, or at least they should be. In Nolan’s version, they just happen to be fighting for the same thing in the same city.
What makes Two-Face as a character work is not the coin trick or the life is just a bunch of random chances philosophical outlook, but the proximity he has to Batman. Here’s one of Bruce’s closest friends who, as Batman, he must stop and apprehend time and time again, watching not only the pain his friend inflicts upon others, but also watching the pain and torment of his’ friend inner duality, the flame of what he once stood for at odds with the cruel worldview he’s gained due to the harsh turn in his life.
Two-Face’s transformation and struggle should be intimate and personal to Batman on a deep level, but Nolan strips away that dynamic element of the story. The result is a more functional character that fits into the continuity of the films, but it lacks that personal, relational and human dimension that makes Two-Face a memorable and important character.
Time and time again the problem with Nolan’s representation of Batman is that he takes the iconicity of the characters, abandoning all the messy relational and emotional baggage that makes them human characters, not just icons. These are broken, angry, dark, confused and frustrated people and all Nolan seems interested in is their higher psychological and ideological representations.
This is an issue I have with all of Nolan’s films across the board. He can craft a twisty story, make some memorable characters, but he’s not willing to invest the time to deal with messy, complex and ambiguous relationships. He needs structure, balance, order and elegance in order to craft technically proficient and nuanced films. In other words, I find little of value in his films that speak to the messy nature of the human experience.
I’m sure many of you will disagree, I’m sure that some of you find something personal in these films. I’m glad you have that experience watching his films but for the life of me I can’t find it. Perhaps it speaks to the fact I’d rather watch a film willing to be messy and rough in order to be more honest and intimate with the characters than see a masterfully crafted story or a taut action film.
Where does this leave The Dark Knight Rises? I’ll still see it, but with the reservation that I expect to be shortchanged on character relationships, especially since this last chapter is interested in adding many new faces. I’m hearing rumors of heavy influences from The Dark Knight Returns, which could be good; it could also mean he’ll botch more of the best of Batman.
It may end up being one of the most well-crafted films this year, it may be a technical wonder, a masterpiece in pacing, an elegant movement of story elements but if it can’t find me relationships and characters to invest in and intrigued by, it’ll be little more than an amusement ride to me. For me, Nolan’s Dark Knight has already fallen, time will tell if he actually rises.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing