Friday, 9 December 2011

Batman Begins and The Dark Knight

I'm going to do something a little different this week. Firstly, since I was too busy to blog last week, I'm going to write a double post this week - on a series of movies that I love. Secondly, I'm going to start writing my post, then watch the two movies back to back, then finish writing with what stands out to me this time around (my fourth or fifth viewing). 

Some obligatory speculation on what the third instalment in this trilogy will bring will probably be included, but that's not what this post is about. This post is about appreciating a series which has elevated a 'mere' comic book into a spectacular tale interwoven with fantastic production values and deep explorations of themes. This is Christopher Nolans' Batman.




I'll start by saying I have very little history with Batman lore prior to these films. I saw Batman: The Animated Series a few times in my childhood, and I saw Batman action figures aplenty back then as well. I never saw Tim Burtons' films (but I think I remember seeing Batman Forever), and I certainly never saw the 60s serial. I learnt about all these after seeing Batman Begins. 

From what I understand, Spider Man was the movie that demonstrated how a comic book about a super hero had the potential to achieve commercial success as a blockbuster film, with huge crowd appeal and spectacular action. Batman Begins was the first time a comic book character achieved all that and could be taken seriously. The gritty realism in Batman Begins coupled with the believable characters, dark and serious themes and a powerful atmosphere made for a blockbuster that was unique, and thoughtful, unlike much of commercial Hollywood.

The Dark Knight was even more remarkable - firstly because it was a blockbuster sequel that deepened rather than destroyed the canon of the first film. But mostly because it took the comic book blockbuster to a whole new level of credibility. It carried on the themes, characters and world of the first film, but developed them from that origin story. It introduced new elements (most notably the Joker) to discuss different themes, as well as delivering more action and powerful drama. The film played like a conventional crime thriller, and despite the fact it was basically about a man in a bat costume fighting a clown, it was executed so well people were clamouring for a nomination for Best Picture.

There's a lot to be said about both of these films, especially The Dark Knight. My favourite discussion has to be from Christian podcast More Than One Lesson, which explores the underlying philosophies behind Batman and Joker, tracing the latter back to Frederick Nietzsche, and drawing comparisons between TDK and Lord Of The Flies.

And without further ado, I'm going to interrupt this blog with a screening for myself of the films in question. I will be back in a few hours to give my thoughts on the series as a whole, and whatever else springs to mind.

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5 IN-MOVIE HOURS LATER... BRING ON THE SPOILERS!

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Alright, I'm not going to try do this again. It's been 24 hours since I wrote the first half of this post, and spaced out across that time I have watched both Batman movies. Life just gets in the way of everything doesn't it.

I'll start with the big issues of Batman. Justice, for one, is laboured upon heavily in Begins, with the League of Shadows representing an absolute system of justice and punishment, while Batman forges his own path of compassion, intended to inspire redemption of the city. The second film focuses on the role of the hero - as times change, people begin to rise up against the corruption of their city (inspired by Batman), but begin to look to others, such as Harvey, to be the hero.

It is fascinating to see the transformation that goes on in Bruces' mind from grand idealism (in childhood, following his father) to mere vengeance (wanting to kill his parents murderers) to seeking justice (training with the League) to finding a balance between justice and compassion (inspired by Rachel, and in opposition to the League). In TDK he gets even further from his initial concept of justice, leaning more and more towards compassion for the people of Gotham. Eventually he sacrifices his own reputation in order to save that of Harvey Dents'. Jesus parallels abound, and the final montage of TDK sums up his position perfectly: people deserve to have their faith rewarded. Bruce realises that justice is not about revenge, not about balance, not even about himself, the hero, but the thing he started out to create; an idea. Batman symbolised the beginning of the end of corruption in the city, but could not see it through. He had to set aside his lone hero persona, in order to let Gotham save itself.

Initially, it seems, Harvey goes on a similar journey to Bruce Wayne; from the sweeping idealism of the political hero, the good man in the spotlight; to suddenly losing it all, and thirsting for revenge. Who knows, if given time and the right influence, maybe Two-face could have become more like Batman. But Gotham no longer needs Batman; they need a White Knight. And because Batman has taken responsibility for his crimes, Harvey is immortalised in the minds of the people as the ideal; the public face that they can aspire to be.

One scene in TDK reminds me of a video game. It's a shot that spins around the trio of Gordon, Harvey and Batman - in a way that's stylish and effective at presenting them as the three pillars of good in the city - but somehow feels a little like the cutscene right before a mission in a game. Gordon and Harvey argue, while the Batman silently watches; the player character. After some exposition, some character moments, some conflict, the pair of them turn to Batman as if to say 'we've laid it out for you, now go play the level.' Batman of course says yes, because that's always the answer video game heroes give. He then proceeds to Level 10: Hong Kong, where we witness our next action set piece. That's not a criticism, just an observation. Perhaps indicative of the way video games rely on the 'hero' concept for almost every story they tell.

But The Dark Knight shows us Batman as the perfect hero, in a way that most games, and most movies for that matter, don't. Batman is the perfect hero because when it comes time for him to step aside, he does so. More than that, he takes on a heavier burden to allow other people to continue what he started. He set his goals in Batman Begins - to become a symbol and to inspire people to stand against injustice - and stayed true to them to the point of self sacrifice. For most heroes, if it came down to something like that, their pride would get in the way.

It occurs to me now, I've pretty well finished my raving, I haven't said a thing about The Dark Knight Rises. Well, I have high hopes for the film. And having just watched these two, I'm all the more excited. I've heard talk about the idea that Batman may die at the end of the next film. I honestly can't tell whether or not that's something that Christopher Nolan might do! Or something he might want to do, but the studio would never allow. In any case, I feel like that ending would be (on the one hand) appropriate, to completely round out the story, carry the themes of justice and sacrifice, and bring a real gravity to the film. That is, of course, if it is executed well... doubtless it will be though. On the other hand, Batman is a character who should endure. The appropriate ending to a Batman movie is one like the other two we've received; the Dark Knight overcomes all obstacles and ends up standing on a rooftop, surveying his city, which he will continue to defend. Of course, the discussion of Batman passing on his mantle in TDK casts some doubt on that ending, and TDKs ending itself carried some implications for Batman that are bound to make the next film completely and utterly unique, even amongst these two already different films.

In sum: I don't know what's coming, but I sure look forward to it. Batman has lived long enough to see himself become the villain... and don't we all want to know what he'll do next!