Why I Never Wanted To Be Batman
July 13, 2012 2 Comments
I’ve taken some stick in the last few years – ever since Christopher Nolan released Batman Begins on an inexplicably adoring public – over my complete and utter disinterest in his near-complete Bat-trilogy. It seems to have taken over my life, as an inordinate number of film-related conversations since have broached the subject, often leading to a lecture on why it is exactly that The Dark Knight (the 2008 sequel, as if you didn’t already know) is one of the best movies of all time. I’m as guilty as anyone, I suppose, as I duly rise to the challenge and recycle my counter argument almost verbatim.
While I have myriad problems with Nolan’s films – that Batman looks out of place in his own movie, that Gotham never looks the same twice, that the Lucius Fox character is completely superfluous, Rachel Dawes in general, Christian Bale’s growly performance, that half of the character’s mythology is abandoned as it doesn’t fit with Nolan’s gritty and realistic take on the character, that Nolan’s gritty and realistic take on the character nevertheless includes bat-ears, mobile phone sonar and (as of The Dark Knight Rises) a flying tank – my issues go far deeper than that. I’ve simply never been that interested in the character. As a kid, I never wanted to be Batman.
“Why should this matter?” I hear you ask. “You liked Jaws, but I bet you never wanted to be the shark?” True, except I’m not sure that anyone else has, either. The superhero (vigilante, whatever) genre is different, you see, as it uses as its source material revered comic books that have helped inspire generations of fans, prompting a loyalty, dedication and following that most movies simply don’t enjoy. Through action figures, playing cards and even fancy dress nights at your local nightclub, people have been putting their feet in their favourite characters’ shoes for years, making them more than just traditional characters. They’re icons. For me it was always Peter Parker’s Spider-man who captured my imagination most; a superpowered teenager finally able to turn the tables on his bullies, win the affections of the girl he likes, and who could escape his many concerns and issues by web-slinging his way to the top of the tallest skyscraper. It inspired me as a child, as a teenager, and still does to this day.
But with Batman I’ve simply never understood the appeal. A middle-aged billionaire playboy who aims to clean up the mean streets of Gotham in order to avenge the death of his parents, Bruce Wayne dresses like a bat – a caped crusader – so that he can tackle the city’s criminal underbelly by night, hiding his identity to protect those that he loves (well, Alfred). That’s about it, right? Nothing much else to add? Personally, I’ve always found the supporting cast more interesting: the morally ambiguous cat-burglar, the clown-faced psychopath, the poison-lipped eco-terrorist and the adoring side-kick acrobat. As such, the films of Burton and Schumacher (though even I’ll admit Batman and Robin was pretty terrible) were at least able to distract me from the charisma-vacuum at their centre with a campy tone, Gothic aesthetic and diverse gallery of villains. I suppose I like Batman Returns most because the Batman/Catwoman dynamic is genuinely interesting.
Enter Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker keen to take Batman back to his “roots” and re-establish the character as a dark, brooding detective. Sadly, Nolan’s rebooted universe had no use for the more outlandish characters of the Batman past, the director refusing to use the likes of Penguin, Mr. Freeze and Robin through fear that they might make the whole thing – a grown man in a cape punching another man dressed as a scarecrow – seem a little silly. Whilst the other comic book characters living it up in multiplexes the world over are engaging in feats of great daring, love, self-improvement, friendship, wit and superheroics, then, Christian Bale is wearing designer suits, disingenuously trying to win the affections of an underwritten Rachel Dawes or growling through his cowl as he intrudes on an otherwise perfectly reasonable crime procedural. Who am I rooting for again?
My protests usually provoke the suggestion that I don’t want complexity from my comic book movies, that I’d rather forego maturity, intelligence and depth in favour of “slapstick, primary colors, and just plain old fun.” This is simply not true, I merely struggle to see why there needs to be a distinction between the two in the first place. The X-Men franchise deals with prejudice and acceptance, while featuring characters in yellow jumpsuits who are as at home with witticisms as they are with angst; Hulk addresses the psychological concept of “the self”, while having a big green rage monster lay waste to an army of tanks; and Spider-man deals with the guilt of being responsible for a relative’s death, while making full use of the character’s sharp tongue and irrepressible optimism. None of which sacrifice complexity for fun or entertainment. And, even if they had, it’s not like one is fundamentally worthier than the other, anyway.
Nor do I have a problem with the fact that he’s a vigilante, lacking in any super abilities or powers. After all, billionaire playboy Tony Stark built himself an armoured costume (and he didn’t need Morgan Freeman to do it for him), widowed mercenary Frank Castle stockpiled weapons and Dave Lizewski bought a bodysuit off of ebay – not a radioactive spider-bite between them and yet they’re three characters that I find just as interesting and evocative as many of their superhero peers. Kick-Ass in particular is an interesting example. While Bat-fans argue that Nolan’s films are among the most ‘realistic’ in the genre, Batman’s struggles apparently all the more impressive due to his relative normality, it is impossible to deny that Bruce Wayne is nothing compared to Lizewski: a kid who takes on a superhero persona “just because”, who has no fortune, no friendly police chief and no weapons genius to fall back on.
But each to their own, and if you ran around your living room pretending to be Batman as a kid then I fully respect why you can enjoy Nolan’s films – or the Batman franchise as a whole – without feeling completely underwhelmed and uninvolved (incidentally, I don’t doubt that my love of Spider-man played a part in my above-average enjoyment of Marc Webb’s film). You don’t need a reason to like the character, you already do, and therefore the franchise’s inability to provide an emotional entry point will not hinder your enjoyment. It’s just that for me the character is dull, tedious and one-note – “cool” rather than interesting. The films, however supposedly complex, simply don’t engage me. And the fact that every superhero franchise going is now being rebooted in The Dark Knight‘s darker image is doing little to invite me to give it another try. Six films in and I still don’t have any real sense of who Wayne is as a person.
Still, there’s always a chance that the next one will be different; that The Dark Knight Rises will engage on an emotional level instead of exclusively an intellectual one. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s in it, after all. Maybe Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman (sorry, Selena Kyle) will bring some personality to the role of female foil in a way that neither Katie Holmes or Maggie Gyllenhaal could ever manage. Perhaps Tom Hardy’s Bane will provide a viable physical threat instead of just a cerebral one. And even if it doesn’t, this is the end of the road for Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale; maybe the reboot’s Justice League-compatible incarnation won’t be quite so self-serious, pretentious or impenetrable.
Regardless, let’s agree to disagree and leave it there. You can be Batman, and I’ll be someone else.