So here we are.
For the first entry in our series, I decided to examine the different portrayals of The Caped Crusader. The Dark Knight.
The evolution of the Batman character itself has been fascinating. As mentioned in the Introduction blog, Batman speaks to certain identity issues that my generation currently is experiencing.
Batman’s gone from brooding, serio-comic figure to seeker of pop psychobabble, to an aimless half–wit, returning to a brooding seeker forced to be a stalwart in a world defined by its lack of definition.
Michael Keaton: 1989 & 1992
The summer of 1989 was an exciting time. We still believed in heroes.
For me, it was the summer between freshman and sophomore years in high school, and I had made no real new friends outside of Mike. I still hung out with my younger cousin Ron a lot, which..hey, wait. I still do that.
Then Batman came out. It’s the first movie I really remember as being a “must see” event and to a lesser extent, a “must like.” It seemed that everyone saw it and everyone that saw it loved it. There were good reasons why.
Unlike Superman, the previous gold standard for comic book movies, there was no tongue-in-cheek chiding of childish fantasy. These characters were treated as real (if bizarrely real) people. There was tremendous theme music, Batman in armor (to up the believability factor) and Jack Nicholson playing Jack Nicholson’s version of the Joker. Most importantly, though, it treated our childhood fantasies with serious veneration, not ironic amusement.
Michael Keaton’s Batman is sure of himself, strong and focused. Whether in the armored suit or tailored coat, this guy is singularly aware. And why wouldn’t our heroes be this way? We were in the heady days of the Fall of Communism, when we believed in strength and the need to be protectors for all the helpless who were victimized by the corrupt and manipulative.
This expression of the character extended into Batman Returns, though it did express Bruce Wayne as the alter ego and Batman as the real man. At the end of the film, when he’s trying to talk Catwoman out of her nefarious plot (to…um, die…again?), there’s an attempt for him to disavow Batman. But we all know that Batman is the real self, and walking away is never a choice. If anything, Bruce Wayne would have to dissipate. The hard choice to make was not to be the hero, but to be anonymous.
Then Batman Forever veers sharply left and accelerates into the era of pop psychology.
Val Kilmer: 1995
Oh, Val. Val Kilmer. The man who gave us a brilliantly fairy tale version of Jim Morrison. The man who made Doc Holliday awesome. Who would also appear in Heat later this same year, in yet another brilliant performance.
He tried to bring the same sort of weight to Batman that Michael Keaton invented. But he’s playing straight man in a very twisted funhouse. He also participates in the first great swell of a sea change in the character.
Batman loses his sense of surety in Batman Forever, the meticulously constructed sense of purpose established by Michael Keaton. He is haunted by dreams of a red book (?) that was a diary his father kept. He is a tentative Batman, acting as hero out of a sense of meekness instead of strength.
In one key scene, he immediately capitulates to Two Face (again, played horrifically by Tommy Lee Jones) and disavows his “alter ego” for the sake of not the greater good, but his own conscience. And as my pal Joey points out, how the Hell anyone missed him shouting out that he was Batman in a crowded room?.
There’s even a psycho-babbler played by Nicole Kidman, who guides him to get in touch with his feelings about the red book.
And is it a surprise? The 1990s were a corner turned, when we learned to “Feel Your Pain” There was a self-help book explosion. The best was written by Dr. Denis Leary, and everyone should have bought it, including me. (warning: NSFW)
By the end of it all, we have well-resolved man dressed in a bat suit, who’s more concerned with making sure everyone feels content than correcting a system or leading. He’s a short-term thinker, focused only on the present. And this continued into the next iteration of the character.
George Clooney: 1997
Batman & Robin. Clooney’s wooden performance is almost an afterthought, but I will say that he’s quite charmed to have been the only one to come out of this mess with an intact career.
We see glimpses of a happy childhood in the loving care of Alfred. Gone are the pain and desolation that formed him. Instead, all that remains is for Batman to become a gentle den mother to Chris O’Donnell and Alicia Silverstone.
I’ll go ahead and say it. This is a non-manly Batman. He’s not even a father figure; he’s a Mommy. He is not troubled but caring, so sensitive that he has to put on a cape and armor and clean up silly messes in a disco nightmare.
And that’s about all I can bring myself to say about it. The late 1990s, though, were a lot like the Roaring 20’s, so it makes a bit of sense. The dot-com bubble was still forming to give us all a falsely-inflated sense of prosperity, our foreign policy was ignorant of a growing threat even after WTC 1993. This treatment of Batman is completely in line with the thinking that there are no real “problems” in the world. Instead of battling a corrupt system, Batman is now an arm of the system (like the 1960s show) and the outside threats are not so much threats as inconveniences from people who just need to be hugged a little harder.
Christian Bale: 2005, 2008, (2012)
Then the real world hit us all in the face a few times and we needed our heroes again.
Batman was reborn as an avatar of our times yet again, a leader bent on showing us how to defeat an outside enemy that had worked its way into our society: by being brave and standing tall. By fighting back. Even though the odds are stacked against people, they are good at their core and able to be awakened to bravery if only someone shows them how.
This speaks definitely to the dormant desire in the hearts of people who feel powerless in the context of an insane world where one human can so callously brutalize another, for no other reason than to generate a video on YouTube. Where bystanders watch and film instead of trying to help.
Bale’s Batman speaks to the desire to inspire people to be better. To raise themselves up. To acknowledge the good and improve the world simply by being the people we know we’re supposed to be. This Batman is a leader by example, not someone who will be at our beck and call; he wants to help those who help themselves. He believes in the individual to make this choice, not the imposition of the choice about what to do. Besides, in a corrupt system, how can those imposed rules be trusted?
This Batman also wrestles with issues of torture. He struggles with his principle of life’s sanctity, growing from a willingness “not to save” a villain to working to save even the most vile. I wrote about it in great detail before, so let’s just say that this Batman is rooted in the great spiritual crisis facing us all right now: how far are we willing to go, for the sake of protection and safety? What are we willing to do and sacrifice for the sake of principle? Is there a core inside us all that shines like a beacon, simply waiting for us to turn it on?
If we’re to accept the answer of this version of the character, evil is contagious and does exist, but good can and must overcome it. But we all have to be willing to take that leap of faith and risk it all to prove that it can.
I know I’ve gone on a while, but I feel that this was worth it. Batman has always been the most fascinating of the superheroes to me because he’s the most human.
That humanity has been what’s made it possible to see ourselves in him. We’ve grown and we’ve changed, but if the development of our hero story here is any indication, we’ve found our way back to what can make us great again: accepting the burden and doing what must be done not just to survive but to deserve our lives, our principles and our souls.