Since I wrote about the “Arkham” games last month I have been thinking about Batman slightly more than usual (this includes playing “Arkham City” and lamenting the Catwoman portions of the game more and more). I figured I would look back thru my “Ideas” folder, a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency section of my hard drive just in case I get the drive to get some words out of my head. I needed to see if I had any Batman related thoughts this year that I could turn into a full blog today to help me work out a few other ideas that are related but I need some distance from them. I have two Batman files, and this one relates more to the other thing. (I will probably put the other one up next week).
Let’s look back on the 1989 “Batman” film directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. A mysterious figure appears on the scene to fight crime, corruption, and inadvertently creates Joker, a crime boss who is using his knowledge of chemicals to poison people on a massive scale, because he thinks it’s funny, “LOL”.
|He'll look pretty different by the time the Fourth movie rolls around.|
At the time it was a cultural phenomenon, with an avalanche of toys and other merchandise, and the best interpretation of the character in the animated series was created specifically to capitalize on this movie’s success. “Batman” was (perhaps) the most iconic film of the year. I thought it was pretty boring at the time (I was four), and now I just look back on it with only two complaints of any substance:
1) The story structure is completely insane, most of the movie we are left following a reporter and photographer… Who seem to line up personality wise with Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane…? Or, we are following Joker’s rise with Batman mostly relegated to the shadows. There is also the decision to make Vicki Vale into the target of a love rhombus, as she draws the attention of the reporter, Knox; Bruce Wayne (& Batman); and becomes the taste of the month for Joker’s violent obsession. The story is kind of all over the place.
2) I think that both Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton were miscast in their roles. I think that Alec Baldwin would have been a better Batman, and I think that Michael Keaton should have played Joker. If you think that is an odd choice keep in mind that Baldwin later played “The Shadow” (the character that Batman was originally the rip off of) and Keaton was already known for playing “Beetlejuice”, who is basically what people would picture the ghost of the Joker to be anyway, and a film that had Baldwin too, playing against type as the put upon everyman.
Keeping those two things in mind, there are two complaints that lots of people have that I do not share. One that many fans of Batman would point to as a fundamental betrayal of the source material is the comically high body count Batman has by the end of the movie, which includes not only Joker, but the dozens of henchmen in the Ace Chemical Factory, and at least a handful of goons killed in hand to hand combat. The Murderous Vigilante angle doesn’t bother me for the simple reason that not killing is just not brought up as an issue in “Batman”. They chose not to make it a part of this Batman’s mythos, so it isn’t. You are allowed to ignore elements of a character for the sake of telling a story in a new medium. You are allowed to make a fundamentally different interpretation of a character. They are, after all, fictional.
The other complaint is actually the one that inspired me to write this blog. And that is this, “Joker did not kill Thomas and Martha Wayne in the comics, and by making him the killer the world gets very small and makes Batman’s character more about revenge than seeking justice.” I disagree with this too, but keeping with my deluded fantasy of me being a mad genius, I disagree with this for reasons you will not expect.
|"You ever danced with the devil in the pale moon light?"|
"I always ask that of all my prey. I just like the sound of it."
In Tim Burton's "Batman", you could make the argument that Jack Napier wasn't the killer of Bruce's parents. That Bruce just conflated the two. It might be that every criminal Batman punches in that movie shares a face with his parent's killer, Jack was just the one that stuck out and crystallized in Bruce’s mind because the transformation into the Joker mirrored Bruce's transformation into Batman.
That change made Bruce think of Jack as a suitable foil to Batman. A good last chapter to him being the dark knight, a final dragon for him to slay to get his happy ending. At the time Bruce probably thought that if he killed Joker he wouldn’t feel the drive to be Batman anymore. Bruce already wanted out, that is why he wanted to tell Vicki Wale (A REPORTER) his secret identity, he wanted to be just Bruce, he wanted the hurt to stop, he wanted things to be okay again.
|The theme of Bruce wanting the hurt to stop is explored deeply in this animated movie.|
In it he speaks these words to the grave of his parents.
Bruce Wayne: It doesn't mean I don't care anymore. I don't want to let you down, honest, but... but it just doesn't hurt so bad anymore. You can understand that, can't you? Look, I can give money to the city - they can hire more cops. Let someone else take the risk, but it's different now! Please! I need it to be different now. I know I made a promise, but I didn't see this coming. I didn't count on being happy. Please...tell me that it's okay.
Why do I think this is the case? Because it is the theme that carries thru the rest of the franchise. “Batman Returns” has him fighting three villains that all mirror him in ways.
1) Penguin, a disfigured millionaire who was abandoned by his parents as a child who grew up to become a criminal that uses gadgets and a legion of goons to commit crimes, which is a pretty distorted reflection of millionaire pretty boy who had his parents taken from him and uses gadgets to fight a lone war on crime.
2) Catwoman, a person victimized by crime who takes up an animal totem in a black outfit to strike back at who wronged her and those like them.
3) Shrek, a millionaire who wishes to use his good will with the city to push thru development to drain the city. In the original script Shrek was supposed to be Harvey Dent who gets burned and transformed into Two Face at the end of the movie in the scene with Catwoman using the electrical cable… in the final version it just toasts him to a skeleton because they didn’t need him for a sequel.
“Batman Returns” is about duality, and trying to take away the rest of the world’s power to hurt you by hurting it first. Seems like killing the Joker was not the denouement Batman was hoping for.
|FYI: This is my favorite of the 90's Batman movies.|
It takes the crazy and darkness of the first movie and commits more fully to them.
In “Batman Forever” you can tell his being Batman is wearing on him because he talks about it with Dick Grayson, "You make the kill, but your pain doesn't die with (him), it grows. So you run out into the night to find another face, and another, and another, until one terrible morning you wake up and realize that revenge has become your whole life. And you won't know why." Bruce can't stop. He can't feel closure. Though at the end of "Batman Forever" he makes peace with the idea. "You see, I'm both Bruce Wayne and Batman, not because I have to be, now, because I choose to be." You’ll notice I spend less and less time on these movies, because we are getting away from my original point, bear with me.
|This movie also has a theme of duality.|
In case that wasn't obvious with Two-Face, and Riddler asking "Who are you?" as the climax of the movie.
But, to say this movie is less subtle would be an understatement.
As strange as this may sound, “Batman and Robin” continues the trend by having Bruce create a legacy with Batgirl and Robin just as Alfred, the man who raised him, slowly dies. This makes narrative sense, forcing Bruce to acknowledge his limitations and the need to accept death, something he has been fighting against since he was a child, “No one dies tonight” is a common refrain for Batman in the comics.
|This movie has an additional theme of, "Action figures make us a lot of money."|
To recap: Batman is a crazy person who projects his inner demons outward, and internalizes his villains as part of his psyche. This is not an original interpretation of the character. Grant Morrison has written a lot on this with “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth”. This theme also appears in “Batman: Earth One” in which it is shown that the city of Gotham is designed like a giant spiral (or drain) that pulls in and traps crazy, and that Martha Wayne’s maiden name was Arkham, and her family had a big part in the design of Gotham.
You could say that 1989’s “Batman” differs in that the person who killed Bruce’s parents is an idea, while the Joker is a person. In the comics and other media Bruce’s parents were killed by a person, Joe Chill, while the Joker is an idea, in that his secret identity is not known and his origin changes constantly (I have my own theory, I won’t get into it right now as this is already super long).
Whenever you look back on that scene of Bruce recalling young Jack Nicholson saying, “Ever danced with the devil in the pale moon light?” that Bruce is a crazy person desperately seeking closure on the event that has dominated his thoughts and life since he was a child, and that scene might just be a metaphor for him constructing his own ending to the story… an ending he never gets to keep.
|Until Nolan came along and realized the symbolic nature of Batman allows for him to carry on without literally still fighting.|
Also, spoilers for a movie that is now 4 years old and has been seen by everyone.
Let’s take this all a logical step forward and apply these lessons to our own lives. That when trauma damages us, not only on an individual level, but at a cultural and national level, that we must remember not only the who and the why, but go deeper than that.
Rather than transform ourselves into vigilant and vengeful monsters, out to destroy the various skulking predators of the world. Out to stop those who seek to remake our safe world in their own mad image. Instead, let us walk a different path. Let us acknowledge that for some wounds there is no closure. That for some things no justice can ever be fully felt.
We must stop constructing new targets and seeing every stranger as a potential foe. We must stop demonizing those who are different from us or those that are like us but for small nuances. There are two wolves within every person, one of good and one of evil, and as they battle only one thing can determine which will be the victor within each of our souls, the one with the strength to succeed will be the one we have fed with our own deeds.