“Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in where a man dressed up as a bat gets all of my press?” The Joker (Jack Nicholson) memorably complained in Tim Burton’s 1989 masterpiece Batman.
Burton’s film — which took an infinitely darker yet still refreshingly humorous approach in updating the classic comic book character created by Bob Kane and later brought to brightly colored life in the popular '60s TV series and film — seemed to provide the definitive take on "the man, the myth, the bat." That was until Joel Schumacher took over the franchise and turned it into a campy, overcrowded mess in the late '90s, but that all changed when Memento director Christopher Nolan took the Batmobile out for a test drive with his Greek tragedy-tinged epic Batman Begins in 2005.
While nostalgia for Burton’s film grew each year as fans mourned the wrecked franchise, Nolan admirably avoided the temptation to try and rebuild the unstable remnants of Gotham City still left standing by Schumacher. Instead, like a master chef, he started from scratch, taking what he wanted from the comic book and earlier films and, along with his co-writers, inventing a richer, far more devastating interpretation of the Batman mythology. In stark contrast to the socially awkward, slightly bumbling and more lighthearted portrayal by Burton’s star Michael Keaton, Nolan opted to go further in depth into the origins of the tale itself. By putting a completely different spin on the character, he illuminates just how “his” Bruce Wayne came to be the existential, less than gregarious and downright arrogant man he serves up, therefore making Nolan’s Batman a genuine shock to fans, including myself, who remembered seeing Keaton's original characterization in the theatre.
While I still prefer Burton’s version — although I’m possibly biased, as much like one never forgets a first love, they never forget their first Batman -- Nolan’s adaptation of the series is uniquely his own. Upon watching Begins once more in preparation for this review, I became infinitely more impressed by Nolan’s filmmaking craftsmanship and the way he not only set up the character of The Joker in the finale of Begins but also subconsciously prepared audiences for the ultimate darkness that would fill his aptly named sequel, The Dark Knight. And indeed Knight is so entrenched in ominous, forbidding tones that it instantly recalls the nighthawk work of Michael Mann (most notably from Heat, Miami Vice, and Collateral) and makes Tim Burton’s ’89 venture seem downright sunny by comparison.
Admittedly, while Batman films have always been by their very definition distinctly preoccupied with the Bat, the events of Dark Knight’s post-production and the unspeakably heartbreaking loss of its star Heath Ledger earlier in 2008 turned all of the media attention to not only Ledger’s final completed performance — frequently cited as his best — but The Joker himself. Hearkening back to that unforgettable opening quote, somewhere in an alternate universe of movie characters, The Joker - as played by Nicholson in 1989 - must be grinning at the realization that finally it is he, instead of the Bat, who’s been given all of the press. And, this being said, is it any wonder that Nolan’s film is the first one in the series to neglect including the name Batman in its title altogether, thereby making each and every self-proclaimed “freak” in the film a Knight of darkness, if for no more than at least a few minutes?