Finally, the real Batman is here

After Tim Burton's gothic makeover of Batman in 1989, and Christopher Nolan’s innovative 
bat fest in 2008, Matt Reeves releases 
the classic crusader.

By Vinay Kamat

Published: Sat 12 Mar 2022, 10:47 PM

Last updated: Sat 12 Mar 2022, 11:23 PM

It’s the Joker, stupid.

While this may not be entirely true, the story of Batman has been flexible enough to accommodate, magnify and exaggerate evil. Directors have been measured on their ability to heighten the hateful. For purposes of defining the ultimate bat movie, let’s look at three greats who have reinterpreted the nocturnal comic: Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan and Matt Reeves. They have recreated the vigilante through set artistry (Burton), innovative screenplay (Nolan) and clinical action (Reeves). Although Nolan excels in other departments as well — cinematography and editing — post-modern Batman cannot be profiled without the contribution of the other two.

Their movies— Batman (Burton), The Dark Knight (Nolan) and The Batman (Reeves) — enrich cinema with comic noir or bat noir, which is a layer cake filled with urban existentialism, see-sawing values, suspense, twists, frenzied killing and vengeance. In Burton’s hands, the genre gets a fresh coat of surrealism; Nolan uplifts the story by unravelling morality; Reeves prefers to stick to the grisly basics. Lighting, silhouettes, and shadows enhance the bat noir aesthetic.

Burton’s Gothic Gotham

In 1989, just after giving a Gothic twist to Beetlejuice (the story of a sylvan suburb rocked by the bizarre), Burton gets a chance to reinvent Batman. That turns out to be epochal as he forgets the cape and starts playing around with capers. To achieve that, he casts the overwhelming and intense Jack Nicholson as Joker and recreates a universe of horror and madness around him. Batman, the brooding Michael Keaton, is subsumed in this universe. Keaton simply crowns the bad guy king, raising kidlit to adult horror. He reshapes Gotham into a grotesque city, aided by art director Anton Furst. Danny Elfman’s music deepens the dread. All of them conspire to shove the crusader out of bat light and give the Joker his due.

Perhaps the scene that symbolises Burton’s morbid fairy tale is Joker’s vandalism in Gotham’s art museum accompanied by Prince’s music. This scene not only establishes the Joker’s total control of the storyline, but it is also a surrealistic break in Burton’s Gothic landscape. Burton’s bat noir aesthetic is visible in his latter movie, Edward Scissorhands (1990), an eerie fantasy that feeds on teenage angst. Vile Gotham (Batman’s city) can stomach a disruption, idyllic Lutz (a Florida suburb in Edward Scissorhands) cannot withstand the slightest disturbance. Both places have a distinctive persona, much like the characters that inhabit them. Burton colours them like an expressionist painter.

Perhaps Burton’s greatest contribution is his amplification of evil (Joker/Penguin) to Gothic heights, a fear that becomes a fixture in everyday life, creating a protagonist who wins because goodness must simply triumph. The most famous line in the cult movie The Usual Suspects goes like this: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” The greatest trick that Burton plays with audiences is convincing them that Batman rules when he doesn’t.

Nolan’s ace craftsmanship

It’s difficult to pinpoint Nolan’s best movie. There are many contenders for the stop slot: Tenet, Dunkirk, Memento, Inception, Insomnia, The Dark Knight (2008) … The list is long and varied. But The Dark Knight is the definitive Nolan for several reasons. It’s a dark reveal of morality.

Who exactly is Batman? How many shades and shadows does good and evil have? Are they one and the same thing? Nolan’s story has no single protagonist; it leaves the audience to decide that. By deconstructing and unmasking Batman, Nolan explores the world of the powerful and the powerless. His is not a crusader’s story but a story of flawed characters.

Nolan’s treatment of Batman may have some origins in his earlier film, Insomnia (2002), the story of a detective (Al Pacino) and a serial killer (Robin Williams) set in Alaska. Dark and brooding, the storyline tracks the moral journey of the protagonist as he battles his conscience. A similar battle is played out on the roofs and in the alleys of Gotham as Bruce Wayne assays his complicated relationship with Batman. Like Insomnia’s detective, Wayne is the soul of the movie. And like Insomnia’s serial killer, it’s Joker who tantalises our grey cells.

Not only is Nolan cinema’s best craftsman, but he also frees characters from their comic book templates to expose their frailties.

It’s action at its best. There is no better opening scene in the Batman universe than The Dark Knight’s. The heisty sequence establishes the tone and the pace of the movie, drawing comparisons with Michael Mann’s cult crime thriller Heat.

It also introduces the Joker (Heath Ledger), whose Oscar-winning performance matches Nicholson’s Joker in Batman. Like Burton, Nolan ends up creating a larger-than-life evil.

Reeves’s real Batman

Matt Reeves recent box-office hit The Batman lacks Nolan’s innovation or Burton’s artistry but creates a tight thriller shorn of Batman paraphernalia. Yes, Batman (Robert Pattinson) has a menacing car, but he has no Q (his technology man) to turn to. There’s no Maggie (Wayne’s childhood friend, in The Dark Knight) either. He’s possibly the most austere Batman compared to Burton’s and Nolan’s creations.

The thriller, a linear film noir, reminds you of David Fincher’s Zodiac and Se7en and takes you through every nook and cranny of the criminal investigation process. Batman wears three action hats; those of a detective, an avenger, and a hero.

Pattinson’s Batman is not as presidential as Michael Keaton’s personification nor is he as flamboyant as Christian Bale’s character. He’s classic, understated and simply Batmanesque. There’s no extra muscle, grey cell, or idiosyncrasy.

Even as cinematographer Greig Fraser (he of Zero Dark Thirty and Dune fame) captures the story of good versus evil in his own noir style, the lighting is subdued, often grimy, but with the right balance to reveal shadowy detail. Along with Mattson Tomlin (screenplay writer), Reeves first accentuates good versus evil and then blurs it. Tomlin’s story is possibly the simplest rendition of an adult morality tale where good is not as good as good makes it out to be. Armed with a rivetting story, a standard-issue Batman, a Zodiac-type Riddler, and Ronin-type pace, Reeves produces an ace. But it is Pattinson’s show all the way as he demonstrates effortlessly that Batman can also be searching, curious and unembellished. By the end of the movie, handsome Pattinson becomes the right model for noir chic.

As Reeves moves in for his next installment, it may be pertinent to ask: What will The Batman 2 be like? Will it be vividly dark as Burton’s Batman Returns, deeply grey like Nolan’s The Dark Knight or elegantly dark like The Batman?

In a world dominated by Jokers, perhaps it’s time to get acquainted with Batman. In an elegantly dark way.

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