In Miller's Batman, one sees a man waging war on a world that has sold its soul for empty slogans and nationalism: the Dark Knight represents a kind of spirit reminiscent of what the old world used to call the Church Militant -- he is virtue violently opposed to all forms of vice -- even those that bear the letter S. On their chests and come in fine wrapping.
Miller's graphic novel paved the way for Burton's dark film noir adaptation (the ill-fated Lt. Eckhardt is an homage to Orson Welles' fat, corrupt police chief in the noir film Touch of Evil), and the 90s found Batman back on the television screen -- this time in an animated series that had Mark Hamil (of Star Wars fame) voicing what many fans have claimed to be the best Joker of all. Batman: The Animated Series returned the Batman myth to the children for whom it was first designed, yet it did not shy away from the darkness that Burton and Miller had brought to the forefront. Joker was ever a menacing aspect; crime was ever rampant; and Batman was ever forced to be vigilant, as though the city he protected were his own soul. Miller would revisit this very concept in his own film adaptation of an early comic book series The Spirit (the opening monologue reveals a superhero whose defense of The City is as true, noble, and romantic as Don Quixote's defense of the old world through knight errantry -- "The city -- she calls").
All of that would change, however, as the Batman sequels piled one on top of another: Batman Returns, Batman Forever, Batman and Robin. By the time George Clooney had donned the cape, the franchise had returned to its campy origins and had worn out its welcome as quickly as the 60s sitcom had. The West-Ward sitcom lasted three years; Burton's Batman produced three sequels with three different directors. And that was the end of it. By 1997, the public was tired of campy superheroes (and Joel Schumacher was largely to thank for putting the nail in the coffin of camp with the ridiculous fourth installment).
With the release of X-Men in 2000 and Spider-Man in 2002 (both helmed by auteur directors), the superhero genre proved that it could still draw fans to the box office. The market for comic book adaptations existed so long as the film narratives stuck took to the terms of the superhero genre. Interest in a Batman reboot was not long in coming -- and Nolan, director of the widely acclaimed psychological murder mystery Memento, was given the job of bringing Batman back to life. Nolan would attempt to bring Batman to full maturity -- no longer campy nor for kids, Batman would be a superhero for an adult world that appeared to have lost both its innocence and its moral compass. Batman Begins would attempt to restore both even as it attempted to redefine the man behind the bat.
To do so, Nolan had to strip away a decade's worth of accumulation of campy associations. In effect, therefore, he went back to the basics: Batman Begins took audiences to a time no other Batman film had explored -- Bruce Wayne's own discovery of himself. Thus, Nolan in attempting to recreate the Batman myth, essentially destroys it as a fable per se, and grounds it in a kind of reality. Nolan wants his Batman to be immediate and real. Whereas Burton produced a Batman that was pure fable, Nolan would produce a film that would ask what if Batman were actual? That is why the film goes through the trouble of showing us where and how Bruce Wayne received his physical training. He explains how the billionaire acquired his skills; he explains the reason why he adopted the costume; he reveals the secret behind his machinery. Burton is content to have Joker exclaim, "Where does he get those wonderful toys?" In 1989. In 2005, Nolan wants an answer.
Nolan decidedly breaks with the traditional camp and fantasy to which both the 1966 and 1989 adaptations adhered -- the former more light-heartedly and comically than the latter. Nolan's Dark Knight is, in a way, postmodern. In a sense, the postmodern story illustrates the principle that there is no principle -- its meaning is that there is no meaning, at least not in modern man. Yet, the postmodern story teller, whether Robert Coover, or John Barth, or Donald Barthelme, or any of the magical realists who write in the same vein as the fabulators, is not quite content to simply underline a lack of objectivity in the modernist. What he does, rather, is impose a haunting vision of something more that seems to skulk on the edge of the postmodern consciousness -- much like the "ragged figure who moves from tree to tree" (O'Connor 2) in Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood. In this sense, Nolan gives a postmodern rendition of Batman. He scrapes away whatever preconceptions exist and creates a new fable by blending fantasy with reality without offering any excuse. If Batman (1966) is pure comedic camp, and Batman (1989) is pure noir film fantasy, Batman Begins (2005) has more in common with magical realism (something like Garcia Marquez's "Very Old Man with Enormous Wings") than with either camp or fantasy.
Nolan certainly takes his character more seriously than any other comic book movie/television series film adaptation to date (save, perhaps, Ang Lee's Hulk), yet the difficulty of solving the riddle of Batman himself without breaking the confines of the superhero genre proves impossible. Ang Lee's Hulk attempted to make sense of Bruce Banner's rage and produced a quasi-psychological superhero picture in which the climax was a kind of pseudo-metaphysical battle between the Hulk and his inner consciousness -- or was it the spiritual rage of his father? Nolan's Batman faces the same dilemma: at the same time that he desires to make the film seem realistic, Nolan appears to be aware that in the end, this is not a film about a man dressed up as a bat; it is a fantasy about a superhero -- and as hard as it tries, it cannot successfully merge the fantastic elements of Batman with the realism that Nolan wants to convey, for Nolan himself cannot simply accept the fantasy without dissecting it. Magical realism accepts without dissection. Nolan dissects before accepting -- but as the poet states, "We murder to dissect" (Wordsworth). Nolan's Batman may be all grown up, but by the time he arrives, he is a cold slab on the dissection table. What is left is neither a living, breathing fantasy nor a living, breathing reality. Nolan has done something else. What he has confected, rather, is a dialectic between modern totalitarianism and old world chivalry -- with Batman as the synthesis.
The Dark Knight
Shaun Treat reports on the way in which Nolan distinguishes his Batman from those that have appeared in the past by quoting the director himself: "We just write from the perspective of the world we live in, what interests us and frightens us…And one of the things we're very aware of right now is the idea of society breaking down. That's what we're doing with the Joker. He's essentially an anarchist" (Treat 103). As Treat, shows, Nolan admits to taking the superhero genre and fashioning it to meet the reality of the day. What Nolan sees as relevant in the real world, is what his Batman must ultimately come to face. Nolan's The Dark Knight is an expression of the breakdown of the rule of law as far as social order is concerned -- and it is not a stretch to notice that the homonym in the title also conveys a spiritual crisis, as in "the dark night of the soul" described by St. John of the Cross as a struggle within the interior life. The Dark Knight also presents a struggle, but the struggle centers on the question of law. In effect, the film desires to transcend the superhero genre in which good and evil are readily defined through archetypes. Nolan's Batman belongs, in a sense, more to the film noir genre than to the superhero genre, in which heroes like Superman and Professor Xavier assume a responsibility without question. Nolan's Batman is more of a question mark: the delineation of good and evil is less easily made out. What is good can easily become evil (as is seen in the case of prosecuting attorney and heroic figure Harvey Dent, who falls from grace and becomes the villain Two Face at the end of The Dark Knight), and what is evil can easily be enjoyed (for all of his murderous ways, Nolan's Joker is a beloved villain if only because he refuses to make obeisance before the totalitarian regime that is as corrupt as the underworld it pretends to prosecute).
Nolan, therefore, explores the superhero genre by way of…