Let’s All Go to the Lobby: “It’s Like The First Ones Were Jokes!”
What makes Batman Begins particularly fun for me is my wife’s reaction. After it was over, she turned to me and said, “I get it now. After that, the first movies seem like jokes.”
My distaste for Tim Burton can be found in another post. How he messed up Batman is a fine example of his shortcomings as a filmmaker. His Batman movie was about a clash of weak goth archetypes (Tormented Outsider vs. Evil Clown) played out in a cartoony city.
The city and its denizens were small, lesser people than the Hero and the Villain, a mere backdrop to the Important Action. At least twice, Batman went so far as to murder people.* But hey, Burton implies, they’re only goons. No big loss. The story is in Batman and the Joker!
Burton’s Batman is heroic according an ancient standard, in the manner of Achilles. He is the Superior Man, he is Better Than You, he is More Than You. This approach is entirely in keeping with Burton’s films’ disdain for "normal" (i.e., "non-self-proclaimed outsider") people.
Christopher Nolan’s version of Batman takes a different tack. Nolan's Batman makes a point of never killing, insisting that every life matters. Rather than tell of a Superior Man gallavanting around a fantastical city jousting an Evil Clown, Batman Begins was about a man overcoming his fears to do the right thing and help ordinary people against criminals.
In contrast to Burton, Nolan’s Batman is heroic by the modern standard: he performs heroic actions. He is not the Superior Man, but rather a man with failings and shortcomings who acts the hero anyway.**
The Burton interpretation of heroism retains a bit of resonance in the modern era. Folks respond to Troubled Outsiders and the Superior Man, yeah. Unfortunately, this interpretation lacks depth and human feeling. Batman and the Joker are not men, they are props that maneuver around Burton’s pre-fab fantasy land.
The Nolan interpretation, which takes into account the variations of humanity and the value of individual life, resonates much deeper than Burton’s fairy tale. And it’s a much better movie for it.
On another note, for those few out there who haven’t seen the Adam West/Burt Ward Batman movie from 1966, you must catch it. Bat Shark Repellent Spray! The Penguin’s Exploding Octopus! And the immortal line, “They may be drinkers, Robin, but they’re still human beings.”
*First, when the Batmobile drops a bomb in a factory filled with goons, presumably killing them all. Second, when he’s fighting a goon in a church belltower and flings the goon down the shaft to his death.
**Okay, okay, he’s mind-bogglingly wealthy, handsome, brilliant, talented, and so forth. But he’s not a God Among Men. Nolan’s version of Bruce Wayne is an angry man who has to find his way. One can find humanity in him somewhere. Burton’s Batman had the humanity of a shiny carousel horsey.