Batman doesn’t exist. Objectively, Joel Schumacher’s neon camp-fests are no less defensible than the “what if he were a real guy?” approach director Christopher Nolan and co-screenwriter David Goyer introduced 10 years ago with Batman Begins. Batman has been around so long, and vacillated so many times between Gothic pulp hero and grinning goof, that he possesses almost no characteristics that can’t be contradicted by some existing interpretation. For every version of him who glowers and broods, there is another who sings his troubles away. For every story in which Batman is a street-level bruiser, there is another that asks us to accept him as a badass man-god, standing toe-to-toe with immortal aliens and Atlantean Kings. But when Christian Bale stepped into the bat costume in 2005, after years of franchise dormancy, there was a collective desire to see the character done “right.” It was a make-or-break moment for Batman as worldwide intellectual property, and it ultimately paid off with game-changing returns, in the process elevating Nolan and Goyer into positions of vast creative opportunity.
Batman Begins at 10 is an accepted early entry in the modern superhero-film canon; Batman Forever at 20 is not. The Dissolve’s Noel Murray recently asserted that most goodwill towards the film is contributed by those who were 10 years old when it was released. But as an occupant of that very age group, I can attest that no nostalgia goggle could be thick enough to override how aesthetically obnoxious the film remains, with its visual overindulgence sometimes feeling like it’s straining to keep up with the shtick of Jim Carrey, then one of the biggest movie stars in the world. But this excess could be due for some re-appraisal. After all, something similar seems to be happening to Batman’s late-’60s interpretation as satirical camp. In 2014, this very website saw three separate contributors place 1966’s Batman: The Movie on their lists for best film of the decade, the passage of time having revealed the film’s contribution to the mod, pop-art aesthetic as no less important than those of Michelangelo Antonioni and Andy Warhol. Is there something just as urgent in Batman Forever—some progenitor of wider acceptance for sexual fluidity Trojan-horsed inside a garish Jim Carrey vehicle?
Batman’s relationship with Robin has long been a subject of speculative snickering and outright gay panic, as well as an accepted symbol of gay normalcy and the source of countless examples of fan-made shipping. But one of the most popular films of 1995 involved two grown men dressing up in leather outfits, with the only thing coming between their partnership the romantic demands of a woman. If Tim Burton gave the male gaze a fetish object in Michelle Pfeiffer’s gimp-suited Catwoman, Batman Returns invited that gaze to fetishize the male form. It’s almost a testament to audiences’ collective repression that no one objected to it. Schumacher’s two Batman films, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin (1997), stand nearly alone in the pantheon of mainstream superhero stories in making the implicit idealization of male bodies into text. Maybe the bat nipples and crotch shots of the sequel were just the film’s production team throwing their hands up in the air, going as far as they could short of having Batman and Robin just make out already. George Clooney himself attests to playing the characters as “gay”. There are plenty of superhero films worse than those directed by Joel Schumacher, but few so hated, and one wonders to what degree this backlash is owed to straight men’s anger over their fetishes finally being realized. All of this was enough to kill the franchise in 1997. Plans for a follow-up involving Howard Stern as the Scarecrow went mercifully nowhere. No one would so much as approach the character until Nolan and Goyer’s initial pitch in 2003. But if Schumacher’s Batman made audiences implicit in their own repressed sexual fantasia, Nolan’s interpretation would give them a heteronormative cold shower.
Both Joel Schumacher and Tim Burton have been criticized for not understanding their source material, but such criticism ignores the fact that many of Batman’s creators probably cared for comic books even less. The men who created Batman were of a generation in which comics were seen as a last resort for commercial illustrators, at best a place to kill time until breaking into the world of advertising. Even Batman’s creator, Bob Kane, was a notorious hack, known for attaching his name onto the work of countless uncredited illustrators while spending as little time drawing the character as he could. So when Tim Burton brags about not reading comics or Joel Schumacher reminded his crew to not take their own film seriously, they were probably in better company than we would like to admit. Nolan and Goyer’s take is anomalous in Batman’s film history: creators approaching the material with actual interest.
Granted, the limited screen time given the character indicates that Nolan and Goyer are no more interested in Batman than any of the creators who came before them—but while Schumacher and Burton compensated by focusing on their film’s villains, Nolan focuses on the man in the suit himself, reframing the bat persona as a totem drawn from childhood trauma while minimizing the amount of time Bale actually spends in costume. Playing in cinemas around the same time, War of the Worlds was giving audiences images of humans reduced to ashes, cityscapes as fragile as a real world still in the era of amber alerts and anthrax scares. Batman Begins is hardly so bleak, and it lacks an urgency War of the Worlds has accrued since. But it was the right film at the right time, a beacon of competence announcing a character’s return to caring hands.
Desexualizing of its source material aside, it’s still easy to see what drew audiences to Batman Begins. A minor miracle of editing, the film crams together disparate plot threads, characters, locations and set-ups into something that still feels unified and clean. It’s a million miles away from the bloody carnival of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, if only half as interesting (a villainous plan involving a “microwave emitter” is hardly an improvement over rocket-wielding penguins and Danny DeVito in a giant mechanical duck). But Batman Begins remains satisfying in the manner of the safest of blockbusters: the kind of movie ABC Family can show on a weeknight, however hilariously it may be advertised. This is not to say that it represents its director at his best. Its sequel, The Dark Knight, is such an improvement over the first film that its tendrils have reached back through time and enhanced its predecessor’s weaker elements by association. The marketing for The Dark Knight Rises focused on the totality of the “Dark Knight” trilogy, as if these films were constructed in a unified flash of industrial effort. And while Begins’ sequels borrow plenty of plot elements, the original is at best prototypical. It looks different than its follow-ups, and feels different both tonally and rhythmically. If Nolan’s Batman films are a director slowly learning how to make blockbusters, Batman Begins is his college-entrance essay, full of promise but wrought with glaring missteps.
Batman Begins made a point of moving away from creating Gotham City on sound stages like the previous films, shooting for real-world weight through location shooting in Chicago. Still, significant chunks of Gotham’s infrastructure, from the elevated railway to the slum paradise of The Narrows, are combinations of sets, model work and CGI. And while Nolan’s subsequent Batman films drew on CGI to enhance their cityscapes, these production flourishes lack the hefty tactility of The Dark Knight’s steely skylines or The Dark Knight Rises’ snowy Pittsburgh. Compare the seamless integration of multiple bridges onto Rises’ skyline with the digital weightlessness of Begins’ train shots, or the far-from-convincing Narrows, which consistently look like murk projected onto green screen. Much early hype was focused on the newly updated Batmobile, which is a wonderful departure from previous models and looks great zooming around in practical shots.
Yet The Dark Knight would wisely leave behind the vehicle’s silly ability to perform vehicular parkour, jumping across rooftops and destroying all semblance of physical reality. The script itself feels insecure in its action scenes, with chases punctuated by nameless cops delivering unfunny one-liners. Gary Oldman is as good a Commissioner Gordon as Nolan could ask for, but even he can’t look at the Batmobile and deliver lines like “I’ve got to get me one of those” without reminding us that the Nolanverse hasn’t quite gotten its sea legs yet. If Batman Begins’ first two acts are a high-wire act of structure and high-density storytelling, its climax is a mess of exposition, incomprehensible editing and bad CG. Batman Begins then is a victory of structure and earnestness over details, but still a shot of antibodies strong enough to kill the lingering flu still left over by Schumacher’s rejected Batman films.
The film arrived in a relative warm-up phase to the current wave of superhero films. Spider-Man 2 had scored big at the box office the year before, but aside from Batman Begins, 2005’s only other superhero offerings were Fantastic Four and Sky High. The success of Nolan’s film was modest, but the gradual expansion of superhero product wouldn’t truly begin until 2008, when The Dark Knight and Iron Man rumbled the earth hard enough to launch a wave that, through likely crested in box-office receipts, shows little sign of abating. But with that success has come the ironic result of a film like Batman Begins standing little chance of being made today. It exists within a self-contained universe, largely driven by its director and writers, un-beholden to the demands of whatever franchise potential might lurk within. Batman may be camped out at the top of the franchise mountain, but success has made him just a cog in a larger machine. He’s worth far too much now to take risks on the individual vision of a director like Nolan, let alone Joel Schumacher.
Over 26 years, the Batman films have followed a trajectory it took their source material half a century to traverse. The Gothic darkness of the 1930s comics gave way to candy-colored stories about science villains in the ’60s, only to strip down into an era of bravura earnestness in the ’70s. Likewise, Tim Burton’s dark operas reached an unmarketable peak of violence that Schumacher pushed to saccharine excess, which Nolan answered by retooling Batman as a vehicle for real-world security-state parables. But if Nolan’s Batman films owe many of their aesthetics and characters to the characters’ 1970s reinvention, then Batman’s looming iteration most closely recasts him as a beefy tactician à la his mid-’80s darkening by way of Frank Miller. All of which is to reiterate that there is no right way to deliver Batman, or any fictional character really. Twenty years ago, people responded to Batman as camp. Ten years later, they turned out in droves for a more psychologically realistic Batman.
Author Grant Morrison suggests that every phase of this nebulous character is just as valid as another. Just as a person across a lifetime can be alternatively tragic, triumphant, lonely and accepted, so too can a long-running character manifest seemingly contradictory personas. As Morrison told Kevin Smith in reference to the character, “Once I was funny, once I was sexy, once I was weird, now I’m this. I’m all of them.” We’ll get to see Ben Affleck glower his way into the cowl next year, and maybe it won’t feel right. Or maybe it will feel like the character has always been like this, waiting for someone to make it real. For someone, it will be the first look they ever get of this character, and he/she will look at that version as the true one through all the years of his/her life. Then, here’s hoping, someone will make a version that totally contradicts it, and maybe even make it a little bit gay. Someday soon, the Batman franchise will fail again—perhaps so that, in the words of Goyer’s screenplay to Batman Begins, it can get back up again.