The Best Batman Films (that aren’t even films)
There have been many Batman films. From the Tim Burton BINOs (Batman in name only) to the grit-fest of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and all the unmentionable crap in the years between those. They’ve all had their own quirks as well as deviations from the comic book source material. Tim Burton’s Batman kills, can barely fight henchmen and is played by a tiny man.
Also, the Batsuit is black and ugly with an annoying overly stark yellow logo. In all fairness Burton’s depiction of Gotham was wonderful, but that’s Burton for you. He’s always been more interested in world building than characters and plot, the last decade has been a testament to that…
Christopher Nolan comes closest to capturing the comics in a live action format. The films are dark, Batman doesn’t kill (though he does let you die), the characters are alternative yet also surprisingly accurate takes on classic characters (particularly Catwoman and The Joker), Batman can fight competently if a little awkwardly and they homage various plotlines from the comics without doing overly direct adaptations. However the films are bogged down by slavishness to trying to be depressing and ‘realistic’. Shaky-cam and an emphasis on pseudo-philosophy rather than action driven heroics drag down the films. For all its post-9/11 imagery and symbolism the Dark Knight Trilogy is thematically aimless and without much humour or fun.
Much of the fun of the comics comes from the grimness of Batman in the face of the inherently ridiculous nature of his crusade and his enemies. Batman is a character who turned an inability to move on from his parent’s death into being a superhero. Nolan’s Batman isn’t obsessed, he wants to quit to be with Rachel ASAP. Nolan’s Batman doesn’t engage in convoluted back up plans to cope with every situation, he waits to see what The Joker will do next. Nolan’s Batman would never create secret plans to kill the Justice League members in case they turn evil. They spend no time in the films examining his slightly creepy and dogmatic tactics. Though let it be said, I actually love the Batman growl.
So what is the best Batman film(s)? It’s Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Batman: Earth One titles and they’re graphic novels. No, not comics. Graphic novels. They were released as whole volumes rather than as monthly ongoing comic book releases. Side note: I am not one to call collected editions of single issues ‘graphic novels’, they’re comics so don’t be pretentious. Given the format of a graphic novel the Earth Ones are more akin to the structure of films, whereas ongoing titles are more like television series with each issue like an episode. The general Earth One line has been a chance for writers to reinterpret famous characters separately from the main continuity, this is also the case with Batman: Earth One. So why does Johns succeed in his writing of Batman where others have failed? Firstly it has to be said that in the mainstream DC comics universe Johns lacks an ability to write Batman properly. His voice has been something Johns has never quite captured, his excellence lies in his characterisation of The Flash (Barry Allen), Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) and Aquaman. This ‘limitation’ is what helps Johns do a strong ‘film-like’ adaptation.
Superhero films are slaves to two masters. The first master is the necessity of accurately representing a well-loved character on the big screen. The second master is the reality of comic book fans being a minority and relatively ignorant regular cinemagoers being a majority. Filmmakers have no reason to service the needs of the hardcore comic fans, however there is still joy to be had in a well-crafted and thoughtful adaptation. We want to see comics come to life. Stories and characters have to be simplified, but it’s nice for the core of the characters to remain the same.
Who is Batman? He watched his parents being shot in front of him the same day he fell down a well filled with bats (which Batman Begins adapted) and then went to watch Zorro. His mind couldn’t take the trauma and so the imagery from the rest of that day poured into the part of him that cracked. He became a man who dressed up as a batified version of Zorro to hunt down criminals, all without the use of the specific weaponry that killed his parents. He is obsessively focused and driven and he plans for every contingent. He is paranoid and untrusting. He travelled the world to learn every science and martial art to the point where he turned himself into a human crime-fighting machine. He’s the world’s greatest detective. He doesn’t dream of retiring, but of raging against criminals forever.
Batman: Earth One takes those core aspects and twists all of them slightly. Bruce is portrayed as a young combat trained Batsuited vigilante who’s obsessed with finding his parent’s killer. Rather than have his quest be against all of criminality, he exists to bring the man that ruined his life to justice. When he realises he’ll never achieve this goal and his parent’s deaths have no larger conspiratorial meaning, only then does he turn his gaze to the wider criminal world. Rather than wait patiently for his full training (from travelling the world learning every science and martial art) he learns the basics from former-SAS member Alfred and charges out into the world unprepared.
If Bruce is dogmatic in his obsession and anger why would he wait until his late twenties and he’s learnt everything? He’d arguably charge right in. Thus Earth One’s Batman makes many mistakes. Throughout both volumes he regularly struggles in fights, especially against larger opponents. At the climax of the first volume he defeats a huge muscular serial killer only through blinding the man with his previously impractical cape. After this he goes to face the Penguin and charges in, rather than this being the last minute confident Batman hurrah of justice, he gets too cocky and the Penguin beats him simply by stabbing him. He only survives by the timely intervention of Alfred and his shotgun, thus rendering Batman’s more pacifistic crusade an initially upsetting failure.
Due to this sheer level of vulnerability it’s more exciting now when Batman leaps across a building or has to go toe-to-toe with even one thug. His insistence on not using guns and not killing comes across as naïve and misguided rather than noble and heroic. The fights happen in smaller and more average locations rather than sweeping cinematic set pieces. It’s all located in plain alleyways, bare rooftops and atypical prison cells. At the climax of the second volume Batman faces down against a room of criminals, more than he’s ever faced. Despite the second volume dealing with a more competent Batman the fight is still more akin to the corridor fight in Oldboy than it is the acrobatic leaps of the Arkam Asylum games.
You may notice a semblance of hypocrisy in my complements. Much of my praise is towards the realism of the volumes in spite of my criticism of The Dark Knight Trilogy. However the realism of Nolan’s films is assumed through its dour cinematography and it’s shying away from the more science fiction and supernatural elements of Batman lore. The Earth One titles have characters like killer croc but keep the realism by focusing the reality on the main character. Bruce Wayne, even as Batman, is only human. It’s not just the pain and physical exertion that represent his humanity, but the embarrassment and lack of dignity from the situations he finds himself in. When an embarassed Batman accidentally falls from a roof and wildly crashes into a dinner party and finds himself covered in food, I find that human. He’s not a God amongst men; he’s not The Dark Knight.
When Batman has his spine broken and it’s magically popped back in again that isn’t human, even with convincing pain acting. Batman: Earth One asks what would really happen if a vulnerable human being tried to fight crime in the fantastical world of Gotham. The Dark Knight Trilogy is about a gritty Batman fighting more conventional and gritty criminals in a city that may as well not be called Gotham. Simple stories with clear villains and goals that challenge the protagonist are more compelling than excessive focus on reality.
Back to the point, alongside Bruce’s relative lack of martial arts knowledge his knowledge of detecting crime is minimal. Again, because of charging into the fight as soon as he learnt the basics he never trained to become a Sherlock Holmes type sleuth. In Volume 2 we see Batman step on pieces of evidence in a crime scene, this is only brought to attention through Jim Gordon’s condescending explanation, which flags up more examples of human embarrassment. Batman then proceeds to ask Jim to train him as a detective. Bruce wanted to punch criminals in the face, he didn’t want to study years worth of scientific techniques.
However, how do the other characters fare? Firstly in addition to Alfred’s SAS background he isn’t a butler, but Bruce’s bodyguard. His pretence of being a butler was invented simply so an angrier and younger Bruce would accept his assigned parental role. When Alfred is left in charge of the youngest Wayne he doesn’t want the job. He hates parenting and has no real connection to the child. As an adult Alfred is still flawed. He isn’t a wise mentor, but just another angry man, who unlike Bruce, prefers deadly force to stricter moralities.
Detective Jim Gordon isn’t in the Batman fan club. He grows to accept Batman as a means to an end. He has no emotional attachment to him, nor is he spooked or impressed by his presence. To Jim, Batman is a kook in a silly costume. He’s also worn down by police corruption and doesn’t stand up to threats to his family but in fact is a wilful participant in his own blackmail. The Penguin is simplified to being the corrupt Mayor of Gotham and the head of organised crime. The suit alone is enough to justify him as ‘the Penguin’.
The Riddler is not Edward Nygma. His identity and motives are never revealed, thus his character makes further sense by being a riddle himself. His flamboyant clue based schemes turn out to be simply a distraction for a more banal crime and he even refuses to stand down when Batman solves a riddle. They are also means to an end rather than a genuine quirk.
Killer Croc has frequently been characterised as a criminal who suffers a skin condition and poverty that led him to crime. Rather than the cynical treatment he receives in the mainstream comics, this mostly similar version is allowed redemption when given even the smallest amount of acceptance.
I’d talk about the revelatory reinterpretation of Two-Face in volume 2, however I feel it is something you must discover for yourself. Similar reinventions also occur for Barbara Gordon, Selina Kyle and Harvey Bullock. My favourite aspect of all the character decisions however is the choice to keep Bruce Wayne from meeting his villains out of the Batsuit. It is obvious who Batman is when you have met both and volume 2 even subverts the usual trend when one of the aforementioned villains easily realises who Batman is.
The Batman: Earth One titles have excellent reinterpretation of the Batman mythos. However beyond the graphic novel structure is there really anything else to justify them as cinematic? Yes there is! Due to the format of the releases more time was allotted to the art. Gary Frank does excellent pencils for all of bodies, faces, landscapes and buildings. With Batman: Earth One Frank is able to take his time. The results are phenomenal.
These panels are more cinematic than the muggy uninspired overly contrasted colourful and dark look of the Burton films. These panels are more cinematic than the dark, brown and grey, shaky and outright cynical frames within Nolan’s films. Batman: Earth One looks real and the characters move like people and Gotham exists fully on the page.
Ultimately these two graphic novels aren’t films. However John’s inability to write the usual Batman supplements the skilful reinterpretation on display in these books. He manages to ground Batman as a character without losing the fantastic nature of the world he resides in. No aspect of the character is betrayed, in some ways he is even arguably improved. Would Batman really keep fighting crime after finding and arresting Joe Chill? Would a man that obsessed and angry really wait to perfect himself into a machine-like state? You could argue that these books fail to portray the preparedness of Bruce Wayne akin to the failures of Burton and Nolan’s films. However they created scenarios where Batman needed to think ahead and be prepared, Johns has created a Bruce Wayne who already thinks he is overprepared. Film adaptations have to change things to suit the story, Johns and Frank have found a way to do all of this in the format of a simple compelling story, without neglecting or insulting 75 years of fandom. Those of you love the 1960s series or at least those of you that fear humourlessness don’t worry, despite the beautiful if depressing picture I shall finish on, there are jokes.
P.S. I’d argue Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the most accurate Batman film, but it isn’t really better than The Dark Knight Trilogy and breaking down and weighing up their respective deviations would be boring.