Are the Batman movies better than the comic books? Well... I am a huge fan of Batman, and have been my whole life, and yet I don't own a single copy of any of the Tim Burton/Joel Shumacher/Christopher Nolan movies. That odd fact didn't occur to me until my most recent discussion with another Batman fan about the movies and why they can't seem to get certain heroes right. It also occurred to me that I had been making the same arguments for years, and now it was time to stop cornering fans of the movies at random events- NOW it was time to bring my arguments into the online world and see who else shares this opinion.
In my youth, there were two main access points to Batman stories: comic books and TV. My first introduction to Batman was (I think) the cartoons and the live action TV show-which kept fairly "costume accurate" to the characters in the comic books. There was color, a clear sense of right & wrong, and most importantly, there was an underlying respect for life and a strong moral objection to murder.
When I was collecting comics as a teenager, the Frank Miller masterpiece "The Dark Knight Returns" hit the comic stands and essentially redefined Batman and the world he moved through. It became the source reference for Burton & Nolan to shape the look and tone of their movies. In fact, both filmmakers have sequences that can be directly traced from the comic books, which is a good thing. Shumacher's sequels after Burton returned to an earlier comic book look and feel, but the scripts became too absurd and simplistic, and that's all the space I have for them here.
Getting back to Frank Miller. I will devote a separate blog on the importance of Frank Miller to the comic book world, the movie world, and to the entire world in general another time. For now, after the Dark Knight created such a seismic shift in the Batman and the comic book industry as a whole, Miller was commissioned to have a go at Batman again, and this time, instead of having Batman coming out of retirement as in the Dark Knight, Miller was asked to take on the origin with "Batman: Year One".
Here we were given another complex emotional story that elucidated Bruce Wayne's voluntary trial by fire in becoming Gotham's Greatest Hero.
There are two reasons these works by Frank Miller are so fundamentally important to Batman and how we perceive the character today. The first reason is because both the Dark Knight Returns and Batman Year One depict very clearly how Batman, through his attempts to fight crime, actually inspires worse criminals to put on a mask and take up their own cause. In the Dark Knight, the Joker snaps out of his catatonia upon hearing that Batman is back in action- and in a brilliant scene- frames Batman for his own death. In Year One, we are given two origin stories: one for Batman and one for Catwoman- both emotional, sensible, and compelling in their own way.
The second reason these two stories matter is the most critical, most important aspect of Batman's character that Miller wisely clung to as emphatically as Batman's original Creators. It is what every other writer outside of Hollywood seemed to understand. That is the moral objection to murder. It is the one clear line that Batman, as depicted in the comic books, NEVER crosses, and yet it is the one thing that the movies seem to overlook as a matter of course. Indeed, capturing criminals, having them face justice for their crimes, and have an opportunity to redeem themselves- that is a core element of Batman's character, and in my eyes what kept him separate from the common vigilante out for revenge.
Sure, the material wealth and cool gadgets and all that elevate him and help keep him interesting, but no where in the Batman comics would you find the line: "I'm going to enjoy watching you die." Nor would Batman ever say: "I'm not going to kill you, but I don't have to save you either." Because YES, Batman would be compelled to save any life that was in danger, even if it meant risking his own. Even if that life were that of a murderer who had just killed Robin, that criminal would face justice, not a grave. It was one of the main reasons the police never bothered to hunt him down- criminals were being caught, and nobody was getting killed in the process. It was also one of the reasons the Joker was such a great counterpoint, because he understood that no matter what he did, Batman would not kill him. Joker would throw himself off a bridge because he knew Batman would catch him.
Why? Because when his parents were killed in front of him as a boy, Bruce Wayne understood loss at a level few children can comprehend. And to cope with that loss, he swore to bring criminals to justice, and in so doing, to prevent other children from facing this sense of loss that he had to suffer. That sense of protection and hope for the future is what the cinematic Batman sadly lacks. Instead our movie Batman is angry, mopes over a sense of love he never really had, and it's never really clear why he cares about anything he's fighting for outside his own selfishness.
There is more than revenge to Batman. More than wealth and gadgets. There is a sense of morality. A sense of Hope. And moreover, a sense that there is good in this world and things worth protecting. Without life, there is no hope for the future, and murder has consequences that condemn everyone involved. This to me is the core of the Batman character from the comic books. This is what elevates him from a vigilante and makes him a hero- his sense of hope and willingness to jeopardize his own life to save another.
Tim Burton's Batman has a car with machine guns and missiles arbitrarily blowing up buildings with people inside. When the Joker falls, the Batman lets him die. His movies bear his influence so heavily that even such an iconic character as Batman is perverted into some "Burton-ish" caricature, lacking the depth and morality of the original. The most potent imagery in his movies are clearly inspired by the comic books, not his own understanding of the character. So his Batman movies suck.
Nolan has Bruce Wayne go and train with a group of Assassins before becoming Batman, completely undermining his character's morality from the beginning. He then uses the Harvey Dent storyline to have Batman create a massive lie that forces him into hiding and keeps him from fighting for truth and justice, completely contrary to what Batman would actually do- tell the truth and continue to protect the innocent. And ultimately, Nolan concludes his 3-picture deal with Bruce Wayne retired in France- so not only has he given up on fighting for justice, he has given up on Gotham entirely. For those reasons alone, the Nolan movies suck.
Who cares if Batman doesn't use guns if he's still a killer? Anybody can kill, or stand idly by as murder is committed. Only a Hero rises above the urge for revenge and seeks justice, bringing in a criminal to answer for his crimes, allowing that criminal the opportunity to redeem themselves and become a better person.
Why shouldn't the cops hunt him down if there's all this property damage and innocent civilians suffering? What hope is there for the residents of Gotham when Batman is as much a menace as the criminals? None of the movies ever mention the little bit of trivia that, because Bruce Wayne is a billionaire, he has a few (very privately owned) Non-Profit Organizations within the city that help pay for damages incurred when Batman goes after a criminal- Bruce Wayne pays for Batman's mess. At least, that's how they did it in the comic books.
As to the future, nowhere in any of the Batman movies is there a park with kids playing, a beautiful sunset/sunrise, a moment that lets the audience know there is hope, there is something we are fighting for, there is a higher purpose other than fighting against an abyss of unavoidable darkness. Where is there some comfort, some elevating purpose that motivates us to fight against evil? Where is the character who represents the kindness and generosity of spirit? Even the good guys are depressed and downtrodden, so what is Batman fighting for in these movies?
Instead of Hope, Batman himself is a liar, allowing people to die to suit his own sense of right and wrong, not justice. He has no hope, and because of his malaise neither does Gotham. The Batman of the movies is not the Hero that lives in the comic books. Hollywood's lust for blood and a clear cut, short ending have removed from Batman the very thing that made him a hero- a sense of Honor, a Love for Life, and a Hope for the Future. I don't own any Batman movies because the Batman I grew to admire doesn't exist in the movies. That's why the Batman movies suck. They suck out the very core of what makes Batman a Hero. Turn off the DVD, read a comic book.