Ever since Christopher Nolan’s sepia-toned superhero noir Batman Begins appeared in theaters, I’ve participated in plenty of discussions about comic book movies. Since most of what I knew about comic characters I learned from feature films and cartoons, I was always particularly aware of how heroes and villains were portrayed on screen without the burden of being too aware of their accuracy against the source material. And Batman is a character we’ve seen a lot of on screen, for better or worse.
A few confessions: I think Tim Burton’s Batman films—both 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns—still hold up, even in a post-Nolan era. Sure, they’re campy and unrealistic, and the less said about “Batdance” the better, but Michael Keaton works well, and this was Burton/Elfman at their creative peak. It’s a unique take on a legendary character, and I’ve always been fine with the results.
My second confession is that I think Batman Begins is a superior film to The Dark Knight, but only slightly, and only in the “overall score” category. Heath Ledger’s Joker deserves all the praise it’s received and then some, but The Dark Knight is overly long for my taste, and at times looks like one long action sequence with more in common with Joel Schumacher’s regrettable messes than Burton’s knowing winks. (OK, that comparison might go too far. I apologize.)
And here we are, mere weeks away from the conclusion of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, about to discover whether Anne Hathaway out-Catwomans Michelle Pfeiffer (or at least Halle Berry) and if Bane will at any point be wearing a unitard. And looking at the complete cinematic history of Batman, it’s no wonder a new generation has so completely latched on to Nolan’s version, and why The Dark Knight Rises is so eagerly anticipated. Nolan’s movies are “darker,” of course, but they’re also more in tune with our reality—as much as any big budget action movie ever really is.
The thing that’s interested me the most about Batman over the years is that the term “superhero” doesn’t really describe him. He has no “powers” to speak of: he’s in pretty great shape, obviously, and his financial situation allows him a measure of both privacy and a seemingly endless collection of wonderful toys. But he’s not from Krypton, he’s from Earth. His powers don’t come from genetic mutations, spider bites, or magic rings: they come from inside, and his own dark past, one that we can all to some extent understand and relate to.
Which is not to say that he’s an everyman. No, he’s the 1%, but he’s the kind of 1% we like because he’s acutely aware of how the 99% lives. He’s the hero we need, or something like that, even if he occasionally resorts to illegal wiretaps and violation of extradition laws to get the job done. And at the end of The Dark Knight, when Batman runs off into the night, we know that he’s struck bottom, and there’s nowhere else to go but, well, up.
It’s easy to write about Knightfall in the context of The Dark Knight Rises, not least of all because it’s in many ways the most direct inspiration for the movie. We see Batman at a low point, feeling weakened and distracted, wondering whether he’s lost his edge. And we have Bane, a villain whose sole mission is to take on and defeat Batman. He’s smart enough to know he can’t beat him directly, so he pushes Batman to his absolute limits by blowing up Arkham and freeing all of the inmates, which includes pretty much every villain Batman has ever faced.
There’s a great build-up in Knightfall, beginning with the escape of the entire rogues gallery and how Batman has to face them one by one. It begins simply enough, with Mad Hatter and his monkey having a tea party and controlling people with hats (obviously). Batman beats him by pretty much just yelling at him, but it’s Bane who steals the scene by outright killing some lesser known villain called Film Freak. Seeing death on the pages of Batman is shocking (at least to me, anyway), and it goes a long way to showing that Bane is not a typical Gotham villain.
Over the course of the story, a number of villains make their moves on Gotham or on Batman directly. I find this odd, because you’d think at least a couple of them would lay low for a while and a few more would actually, y’know, go outside the city limits to commit a crime. But we see each of them: Victor Zsasz, Firefly, Killer Croc, The Riddler, Scarecrow and Joker working together, Poison Ivy, and others. And Bane’s plan works brilliantly.
Partly Batman’s defeat is his own fault. He constantly pushes Robin away when he could obviously use his help. His need to function outside the law—something certain to come into play in DKR—means he’s pulling double duty trying to stop villains and remain undetected. No Batman is an island, and Knightfall makes this point quite thoroughly.
There’s a telling scene where Batman first confronts Firefly at the amusement park, trying to punch his way through the fire and bring the villain down, where Robin finally calls him out. Batman once again orders Robin to “Stay with the car,” only to rush in and nearly get himself killed. Robin wonders why Batman doesn’t let the cops at least deal with some of the villains, and Batman argues, “They can’t. They don’t know the nature of these beasts. Not the way that I do.” Certainly this is true to some extent—after all, if the Gotham police were truly reliable they wouldn’t need Batman—but it’s the angry, repetitious solo act that’s wearing Batman down.
And yet all the while there’s Jean-Paul Valley (which I believe is somewhere in Napa), doing push-ups and mostly staying out of the way. Maybe Batman knows he’s getting too tired to keep this up forever, and it’s time to train a replacement…
By now you probably know how the story ends: the infamous scene where Bane literally breaks Batman over his knee, leaving him a paraplegic. It’s this scene that will most likely make it into Nolan’s new movie, with the events of TDK setting up a Batman just as weary and unfocused as we see here. It’s unlikely that DKR will end this way (Batman has to actually rise at some point, one would think), though it will likely be the critical turning point in the story.
In Knightfall, Batman’s defeat sets up something of a new order for Batman & Co., particularly with regard to Jean-Paul Valley as the new Batman/Azrael. Valley takes over as Batman for a while, makes his costume more ridiculous, goes a little insane and has to be taken out when Bruce Wayne finally recovers. Bane also causes Batman to realize that he truly can’t go it alone forever, perhaps the most valuable lesson he’s learned in his career—and one that Nolan’s Batman might even learn as well.
What I Liked:
- There were so many entertaining minor plots in Knightfall, like Ventriloquist on a ridiculous and convoluted mission to recover Scarface, his gangster-themed puppet, and Robin trying to fight Bird. It’s interesting seeing some of the minor players like Firefly and Ventriloquist get such prominent roles, while bigger names like Poison Ivy and The Riddler are over and done in a few pages. If it often seemed like Batman’s entire world was falling apart, I’m confident that was the point.
- Like Batman, the villains in Gotham are all just regular people (with the possible exception of Killer Croc). They of course have themed costumes and missions, and some of them seem to have bizarre tools and tricks that simulate powers, but mostly it’s all for show. It’s another reason Nolan is so able to ground Batman in reality while other superhero films become so fanciful (looking at you, Green Lantern).
What I Didn’t Like:
- The running gag with Dr. Simpson Flanders (groan) going on every talk show to promote his book and claim that the escaped Arkham inmates aren’t actually insane was an awfully long way to go for a lousy joke.
- You’d think Batman punching The Joker that hard would just kill him. Joker’s not a big dude, and I’m pretty sure he can’t take a punch.
Odds & Ends:
- Poor Film Freak, we hardly knew ye.
- Victor Zsasz is terrifying. He would be an interesting character in Nolan’s universe. Keep your eyes peeled for a guy covered in tally marks.
- No idea who the woman in purple was at the end who beat up the robbers, but that’s one hell of a chip on her shoulder.
I really enjoyed this one, not only because it gives me some additional context for the new movie but because it’s a great introduction to a lot of major and minor characters in the Batman universe. There’s a human element here I honestly didn’t expect, and I think I’ll actually keep reading during the upcoming break and catch up with Knightquest and KnightsEnd.
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Next up: X-Men: Age Of Apocalypse Vol. 2-4
- Starman Vol. 1-3
- Zero Hour
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