The Bat's First Flights: A Retrospective Comparison.

We review and compare the first entries and origins of Batman on film.




A new Batman will soon eclipse the cinematic universe with a fresh vision that's bigger than it ever has been. This inspired me to take a look back at a dozen Batman films live-action or otherwise and compare and contrast them all. It wasn't as easy as it sounds. Or maybe it doesn't sound easy? I'm not sure, but simply reviewing each film wouldn't be enough. After watching back-to-back Batman for days and weeks, it was an enlightening, yet tiring, experience as I saw things in a different light and was able to find spiritual relationships between some of the entries. In part one of my excursion into this epic sling of Batman reviews, I'll be reviewing and comparing three of the best and most well-known origins or first entries in the Batman universe on film by Christopher Nolan, Tim Burton, and the animated adaptation of Frank Miller's critically acclaimed graphic novel. Hopefully this will inspire you, the reader, to see some of these works in a fresh way like rewatching them did for me. Contrary to our usual practices here at TMS, considering the age of these films and the fact that they have been reviewed a thousand times in the past, there will be some very minor spoilers ahead.
BATMAN (1989)

Growing up, I watched this VHS tape until it literally melted. I loved it. Ever since then, I've been in love with the darker, gothic, thick, smoky atmosphere of the Batman universe and it inspired me to seek out other films like it. The music was amazing to me, and to this day, in my opinion, it has one of the best comic book movie scores ever written by a man that would go on to be one of my favorite composers, Danny Elfman. Batman (1989) inspired so much of what I look for in films, but seeing it now from a critic's point of view, it's not perfect. Do I still enjoy it? Of course I do, but I couldn't help but be bored by some of it. Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson's performances still are pretty solid today and the production design still impressive, but it's the story that while I can't say it doesn't hold up
it mostly doesbut it's far less interesting than I remember it being.

Even up until recently, I considered Jack Nicholson's Joker performance to be one of the best, but when I really boil it down, there wasn't much else to compare it to. We have Cesar Romero and Heath Ledger. That's mostly it unless you get into the animated works. There has never been a "bad" Joker performance, even from Romero, which was cheesy, sure, but it was a sign of the times before there was reference material with any depth. For all intents and purposes, Cesar Romero gave us the best Joker possible considering the sources to pull from at the time and the original TV series' production. Joker was nothing more than a kooky comic book bad guy at this stage. This was different, however, in 1989 when Jack Nicholson took the reins of the character. The Joker had just recently been twisted into something far more psychologically terrifying in Alan Moore's masterpiece, The Killing Joke, released only a year prior to Tim Burton's first Batman film. This was and still is considered not only one of the best Batman books of all time, but one of the best in comic book history. Things were changing for the character in bigger, more psychologically disturbing ways. On the other hand, consider the evolution of film culture in the '70s when films like The Godfather, Scarface, and Nicholson's own, The Shining were still in recent memory all of which sported highly memorable darker characters. Nicholson had much deeper material to pull from than Romero. Granted, this Joker didn't make much practical sense in origin, nor did it necessarily feel like the Joker that was evolving in comics, but he certainly turned it into his own memorable stamp on comic book film history.







Where Batman (1989) falters for me is Joker's origin and equally weak arc with Keaton's Bruce Wayne. The character arcs seem to parallel each other only as a means to an end, therefore creating a tonal inconsistency within the film. For example, sure Nicholson's Jack Napier was a bad dude from the start, but there wasn't a reason to make the drastic psychotic switch he did after being dropped into a vat of chemicals. It's one of those early super villain transformations from the late '80s and '90s that didn't make any sense, and no one cared. Before Batman curiously "dropped" him into the vat, he wasn't all that animated or disturbed, but after the accident, all of a sudden, he's dancing around a room, spinning in circles, firing a revolver into his former boss and maniacally laughing about it. Is it a joy to watch? Yes. Is the character still one of the most iconic in all of cinema? Of course. Is he still a great Joker? Absolutely, I think so! You either go full-bore, thoroughly laying out Joker's background and reasons for his psychosis or you leave it a complete mystery so that the audience can fill in the gaps. Proper foreshadowing isn't provided to support his wild change either. Yeah, of course he was a bad guy, but just because he's a professional criminal doesn't automatically mean he flips his shit completely and start wearing purple, orange, and green suits with acid spewing corsages. This isn't a slight against Nicholson who delivered a legendary villain performance, but a slight against the writing.


Similar shortcomings can be noted for Keaton's Bruce Wayne, who I still love watching, but he doesn't come off as a guy struggling to balance two lives with the trauma he experienced as a child. Again, this is just kind of how it was with superhero films back then, there wasn't much depth, purpose, or inner conflicts driving anything. On the surface there was, sure, but besides seeing Batman fight goons and Joker dancing to Prince in a museum, we don't get much. We just have a good guy and a bad guy, they fight, and the bad guy dies at the end. Even if the story wasn't about Batman, a character we've come to know as someone who doesn't kill, we're watching a man who's supposed to be a hero murdering disposable baddies left and right. He blows up an entire building full of men, throws another down a giant bell tower shaft, and kills Joker at the end. Before hand, he even tells Joker outright that he's going to kill him. Like I said, even if this weren't Batman, it still makes for kind of a dull, by the numbers hero, but someone a six-year-old boy would totally think kicked ass enough to buy all the toys. Guys like the Punisher are really exciting heroes who kill mercilessly, but it's brutal at the very least, and that brutality makes for a cathartic, visceral cinematic reward. Batman is neither heroic enough nor brutal enough to be interesting here and the story does even less to inform what he might be thinking or gaining with his actions. It's a testament to Burton's direction and the strength of Nicholson and Keaton that the imperfect writing seems to be hidden behind their talents.




 
I might be digging into this much more than I should because after all, there wasn't much like Batman (1989) at the time. It still feels big. It was fun as hell and it crushed the box office.  The production design set a great standard for the gothic, murky tone of the Batman franchises  that followed—putting Schumacher's goofier efforts aside—and did its part in inspiring the tone of the excellent Batman: The Animated Series. Regardless, of its faults, it still has a couple of the most iconic comic book movie scenes in cinema, including the awesomely imagined parade scene where Joker is throwing money everywhere with giant cartoony balloons spewing Smylex gas onto the ignorant greedy crowds. Batman comes to the rescue, clipping the wires of the balloons in the epic debut of the Batwing before Joker shoots him down with his ridiculously long revolver. It's expertly crafted blockbuster grandiosity and remains one of the best scenes in superhero cinema. Tim Burton's first film still sticks with me as one of my favorite childhood films, and like I said, it was probably the first film that I can say really inspired so much of what I look for in movies to this day.

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BATMAN BEGINS (2005)

After Schumacher's amazingly terrible Batman and Robin, audiences were salivating for a return to the darker, more serious Batman that Tim Burton had introduced to us in 1989, and one closer to the tone of acclaimed comics like Long Halloween and Year One. I was ecstatic to see a director I loved at the time commanding some of the best actors around. Christian Bale was proving his worth as an insanely dedicated craftsman who had just previously shed over 60 pounds down to a disgusting skeletal structure for the Lynchian psycho-thriller, The Machinist and he had also made a big impact as the psychotic Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. This was an awesome casting decision and I couldn't wait to see what was going to happen with this film. After seeing it for the first time, I was woefully disappointed. I thought it took itself far too seriously, considering the over-the-top silliness of some scenes and the mystical elements coupled with the by-the-book crime drama angle made for bad tonality. My opinion, more or less, has stayed the same, and I've taken a lot of heat for it, but I've come away from this recent viewing enlightened to some elements I missed before. 
 
I sincerely appreciate Nolan's translation of the Batman universe. It's a respectable perspective, one clearly inspired by books like The Long Halloween or Year One, where Batman and his world are grounded in reality. However, coupling that with some of the more fantastical elements of the Batman universe such as Scarecrow's fear toxin, the contrived inclusion of the microwave emitter, and the League of Shadows to name a few, make for a tonal dissonance that creates some unintentional silliness. When you introduce those elements into real, crime drama kind of cinema, it serves to make the threats that are based in mysticism and comic-book tropes appear more ridiculous by comparison—they just really don't fit in this style of filmmaking. In Miller's Year One, by contrast, which I'm getting to later, the realism is fully committed to, making for a much more solid, believable experience which Nolan wouldn't totally warm up to until Dark Knight.




 
Even so, it's a moderately enjoyable movie. It's engaging at least to see Bruce Wayne subject himself willingly to defeat and hardship in order to acquire a genuine empathy for the people he's fighting for and grow as a man. It's compelling character drama to see him fail as Batman again and again, haphazardly falling from rooftops, being set ablaze because of carelessness or arrogance, and wrestling with social and personal battles from having to keep his life a secret. Writer, David Goyer's Bruce Wayne story and his struggle with two disparate lives is much more pronounced here than it was in Burton's 1989 efforts. Bale's Wayne is more focused and motivated than Keaton's Wayne, which again I'm not faulting Keaton for that. Begins, after all, is more of a Bruce Wayne story than it is a Batman one.

I was also surprised to see how relevant the background theme of classism is still today. Ra's Al Ghul preaches the eradication of anyone and everyone in Gotham City, but the reality is that the rich are still safe in their luxurious homes, hotel lobby parties, and deep pockets in criminal money. Even the cops are in with the criminals who are running the city, and the poor are ground zero for the launch of Al Ghul's evil plan. One could argue that maybe this is an oversight in the screenplay as Al Ghul sees everyone as guilty, but the poor are the ones who will bear the brunt of the scheme as they always do in reality. I choose to see it as a statement against classism, one that is subtle, tasteful, and yet probably the most brilliant undercurrent in the film. It could have also been an emergent or accidental element of the script, but I'll choose to see the message as a conscious decision by Nolan and Goyer.

 
Liam Neeson is inoffensive, but effective in the first act as Bruce Wayne's mentor, but it's later that his Ra's Al Ghul comes off as too deliberately evil. His character was written too overt—or maybe it was his direction—I can't tell. He would have made for a more compelling villain had he been harder to hate. If you could find yourself feeling guilty for finding compassion for him or his ideals, it would make for a powerful irony played on the audience, since he reiterates to Bruce that compassion is his greatest weakness. I feel this was a hugely missed opportunity. Al Ghul instead preaches the cold, often bloody, eradication of an entire population of people regardless of class, sex, or age, making him a typical one-dimensional, evil-monologuing bad guy. If we, as the audience, deep down felt like he was making sense, Al Ghul would have made for a timeless, more exciting villain.

 
I find Batman Begins to be a far more effective crime drama than it is a good Batman film, yet tonally deficient. The story begins drenched in the theme of fear and finding oneself in overcoming personal hurdles. This is made more potent by the anticipation of knowing Bruce Wayne becomes Batman and seeing how all of it comes together is wonderful. Once it does, however, is when it turns into an average action film, but with some intriguing messages running underneath that have nothing to do with Batman at all. In fact, once the fear theme is resolved with Wayne taking on the Bat symbol, the aftershock of seeing Batman redirecting that fear against the criminals is played a little too safe, in my opinion, and the cathartic satisfaction of seeing criminals cower before him felt like an afterthought. I didn't find Batman very scary or intimidating. I found him rather silly and there was no way a guy like this would be feared by the criminal elite in the real, grounded world that Nolan created. Batman would be scoffed at.

A great alternative to keeping the fear theme going would have been Scarecrow and Cillian Murphy's solid performance as the character. Unfortunately, even when things are ramping up with Batman, I wanted to see more from Scarecrow, and there wasn't. He would have made for a highly compelling villain. Instead, it's his fear toxin, not the actual character, that gets the most attention. On top of that, he's easily disposed of by getting tasered in the face by Rachel Dawes in a lackluster scene that felt almost like they forgot about Scarecrow and had to figure out a quick way to get rid of him. Murphy's talents and the thrilling source material the character is based on are wasted here. Terribly wasted. By the time he truly embodies the transformation into Scarecrow, Nolan and Goyer have already given up on him.

 
Speaking of fear as a theme, it was far stronger in the first half of the film as Bruce was being taught to understand and control fear to use it to his advantage. This was fascinating and served to heighten the anticipation of his inevitable turn into Batman. Once he took on the Batman role, is where this theme was treated more literally and the subtle mysticism and fantasy for ninja culture was replaced by a fairly run-of-the-mill action thriller with a mediocre chase scene, replete with hilariously bad one-liners regarding the make of his vehicle by cops made to look like donut-stuffing dolts rather than treating the profession with any kind of respect. "But, but, he drove on the rooftop! That's so rad!" Cool, man, he drove on some rooftops, but seriously compared to most action films that precede it by decades, it's nothing special. Christopher Nolan, as much as I adore certain qualities of his craft, he still has no idea how to direct very impactful action segments and virtually all of them here are horribly edited at worst and mediocre at best.




 
For me, Batman Begins is a mix of good and not so good. Sometimes it was a mix of great and silly. This makes for a tonally inconsistent ride that doesn't go up far enough before something weak holds it down. The cinematography adds virtually no character to the film, doused in drab color and wholly uninteresting shot composition mainly consisting of shoulder high shots of people talking. We're treated to rather dull, matter-of-fact camera work that did little to excite the action, or elevate the theme of fear.  Through the lense, we're not feeling much and we're not connecting deeper to the gritty, criminal underworld Batman is scraping around in, nor is the camera telegraphing much about fear and relies mostly on a handful of admittedly cool visual effects when bats are climbing from Scarecrow's mouth or Batman's face turning into an oil spewing demon. Burton's world, in my opinion, oozed atmosphere and drenched Gotham in serious personality. Watching Batman (1989) even now, feels like I've been transported to the Batman universe and not a preexisting American city with a Gotham blanket over it. True there are some great undercurrents and stronger themes in Begins that can probably be talked about for years, but as a Batman film it's weaker than its subtleties with villains that don't get enough screen time or are too explicitly evil to be as interesting as the screenplay's messages.


It tries, and while I respect the attempt to ground Batman, it doesn't make sense this go 'round to couple that with some of the wilder characters and themes. It's not until Nolan's following film does this approach start to see a little more control and the themes and characters fit into the world he created. I'd put Batman Begins just a notch below Burton's first attempt in 1989. Each film is a decent appetizer, but doesn't fully commit to the entree until each director's second outing where we really start to see each director's blood pumping through the veins of the films.

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BATMAN: YEAR ONE (2011 film, 1987 graphic novel)

Year One isn't adult in the sense that it's overtly violent and racy. It is the kind of animated film that I don't think could even remotely appeal to children. It's a slow burn, cop drama in the vein of early 70s thrillers, but transposed to the animated Batman universe. It feels more like The French Connection and to a lesser degree The Godfather. Based on Frank Miller's work of the same title, Year One, sees Bruce Wayne putting on the suit for the first time and making a lot of mistakes as a caped crusader. He's not perfect, he gets hurt, and his methods are rough. Nolan's Batman Begins takes more than a few of these notes straight from Miller's work down to specific exchanges of dialog, Batman's tricks, color scheme, shot choices, and tone. Much of this is likely purely coincidental, but some of it is ripped directly from the original material such as the bat-calling device that summons a swarm of Wayne's most feared creature to his aid just like in Batman Begins. So, if you thought that trick was unique to Nolan's universe, it first happened in Miller's work in 1987.



 
What's perhaps most unique about Year One as an animated entry is its lack of cheese and shoehorned humor. It's played entirely straight as an adult drama circling the lives of seemingly average people taking on the drudges of life in a corrupt, downtrodden city. Not one character comes off as larger than life or unrealistic.
Not even Bruce Wayne in his struggle in becoming the Batman. There's no mysticism, ninjas, or microwave emitters to interfere with the realistic tone. Sometimes with these animated features, the producers or writers feel it necessary to pad the story with sillier characters or circumstances that don't make sense when adapting from the source material. No one is pandered to with this film for better or worse. While this is easily one of the best animated features to come from DC, the adaptation is so precise and so lean that its biggest shortcoming is actually its length. Its shorter run time appeals to children with small attention spans, but the story appeals strictly to adults. In an otherwise flawless film, in my opinion, it's over too quickly, with a third act that wraps much faster than expected.
 
Maybe Christopher Nolan hadn't read Frank Miller's Year One, but rewatching these films back to back, the similarities between Nolan's universe and this one are uncanny. While I actually prefer Year One as a Batman film to Nolan's first attempt, it was Frank Miller and Darren Aronofsky who were originally supposed to reboot Batman, using Year One as a foundation. It's clear that after Aronofsky and Miller bowed out, Warner Bros. retained what they did and carried that over into Goyer's script for Batman Begins.

Like Begins, Year One sees Bruce Wayne return to society after a twelve year hiatus training to defend his city, a job that the Gotham City police aren't doing, while Jim Gordon struggles to stay good in a world gone bad—Gordon, in my opinion, being far more compelling in this adaptation than he was in Nolan's. In Year One, however, we get a deeper look into Gordon's struggles in his marital life, his age, and as defender of the peace, unsettling the corrupt cops around him. We're taken several times inside the home of Gordon and his pregnant wife as he sits at the edge of the bed disturbed and distracted while his wife sleeps lonely beside him. The film and Frank Miller's original work go deeper into the head space of the people of Gotham and it's a more rewarding experience because of it.
It doesn't stop with Jim Gordon. We're also taken inside the life of Selina Kyle before she takes on the Catwoman identity as we explore her cramped apartment and questionable, sex worker lifestyle and her relationship with the pimps on the street and an innocent child distorted by the grime of Gotham.

It's not all "boring" adult drama either. Not a moment is wasted despite the slow burning of character development and world-building. The action has a genuine physical weight to it, not in the hyper-stylized kinetic feeling of the best anime, but in a raw, human sense. The majority of Year One's action is simple man to man skirmishes and it's not made pretty. If I were to see a man in a bat suit clobbering thugs in the streets, or an embittered good cop taking vengeance on a corrupt partner this is how I'd imagine it looking. Even during the biggest action segment of the film, it felt believable, yet tense despite its cartoony facade.




 
Interestingly, five years before Ben Mckenzie would take on the role of Jim Gordon himself in TV's Gotham, he was the voice of Year One's Batman while Bryan Cranston who has been a fan choice for years, lent his Walter White cords to Gordon. Both fit the roles perfectly as a younger Mckenzie took Batman to his roots as a crime fighter and Cranston as Gordon is simply a dream come true. Hopefully, this casting isn't the last we'll see of Cranston as the bad ass do-gooder and fans will get their ultimate wish of seeing him on the big screen along with Affleck's Batman one day.


Year One I feel is the current best Batman origin, even standing a few inches taller than Nolan's Begins. In my own ideal world, we would have gotten Nolan's mountain scaling, ninja-training story with Ra's Al Ghul and finish the story with the entirety of Year One as a complete film. If you haven't yet seen Year One, you'll be shocked how much was done first before Nolan took the reins and you might even be shocked out how much more powerful and believable it is regardless of its cartoon renderings. Despite my nostalgia for Tim Burton's 1989 take, and some of Christopher Nolan's own ideas, I feel Year One as a book and a film is technically the best first Batman entry we've had so far even if by a margin. While Burton's got the best atmosphere and production design, and Nolan might have the best origin story, it's Miller's Year One, or the animated adaptation, that has the deeper character drama and it makes you believe that a Batman could really exist.
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  -written by J.G. Barnes