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Duality and Fear: The Nolan/Burton Pathos of Batman
Thursday, July 7, 2005, by Greg Bray

Batman is clearly a character who has become a cultural deity, in that the interpretation of his character has been through many striations, each fiercely defended by a particular group who follows their ‘definitive’ interpretation. To penetrate one school of thought with another can be a task worthy of pages and pages of talk-back forum debate, comic book convention conversations, and good old fashioned comic book shop dialogue.

The problem is, neither side will walk away understanding why the other party thinks their interpretation of Batman is superior, one way or another. This paper will not attempt to solve the debate by taking a particular side, but will examine two specific interpretations of Batman, and weigh them, side by side. On equal footing to understand the thematic elements, the visuals, the narrative structure, and the influences from the comics that ultimately create each interpretation. The two interpretations I wish to compare, in terms of character, themes, and narrative device, are Tim Burton’s take on the story ("Batman," 1989 and "Batman Returns," 1992) and Chris Nolan’s endeavor to start a new franchise ("Batman Begins," 2005)


First and foremost, let’s take a look at how each filmmaker had decided to explore their characters. Both interpretations are from the comics, although they appear to be from different eras. When Tim Burton explored his Batman, he and screenwriter Sam Hamm borrowed from the original Kane stories, including "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate." These comics allowed for a more brutal Batman, and also incorporated influences from expressionistic and silent filmmaking, ranging from "The Bat Whispers," "The Mark of Zorro," and "The Man Who Laughs." This is in keeping with Burton’s take on Batman.

It has been noted by many, that Burton’s method of exploring his characters is through outside devices. He tends to use expressionism, which is a form of narrative art where a character’s internal thoughts/feelings are expressed by the outside environment, much like some of the films listed above.

In addition, he tends to look upon his characters as an outsider looking in. If we as an audience do not immediately relate with Bruce Wayne or Batman, it is because he is to be ensnared in his own psychological make up. It will take the audience some time to aquatint themselves with the unraveling enigma of the Bat—while getting cues from the visual surroundings.

We first see the character "Batman," in Burton’s first film, as a shadow moving across a rooftop. Within five minutes we’ve heard of him being an urban legend through two punks who have just mugged a family of innocents in an alleyway. After making short work of the thugs, Batman warns them to "tell all your friends about me," leading to the now famous lines: “What are you?” “I’m Batman.”

We next hear of Batman via a reporter, Alexander Knox, who questions less-than-honest Lt. Eckhardt. “Is there a six foot bat in Gotham City?” The character, Knox, along with Vicki Vale, endeavor on a journalistic crusade to uncover the mystery of Batman. We see them in the office, several times, as they try to discover if Batman has a "flight pattern," or if Vicki’s pictures will lend credibility to Knox’s story of this urban legend.

Even Bruce Wayne is given this treatment, as will be explored in a moment. How does Nolan treat his central character in his film?

In "Batman Begins," Nolan goes for an approach that is more keeping in Bruce Wayne’s timeline. He examines the character of Bruce Wayne, more or less first person. We see Wayne as a young boy, being frightened by Bats. Wayne in a prison. Wayne’s training. Each element is put on the screen for the audience to witness firsthand. Batman does not appear until the halfway point, and when he has his first close-up, he gives a nod to his predecessor with the line "I’m Batman."

When Batman is present on the screen, in both incarnations, he shares a few common physical traits—the armored knight for instance. He dispatches with foes from the shadows (you may reference either the Axis Chemicals scene from "Batman" or the pier scene from "Batman Begins").

The major difference in the character presentation, is Batman actively kills in Burton’s vision, and not in Nolan’s. There is some gray area here. In the Burton films, Batman is responsible for the death of The Joker, Johnny Gobbs (implied), several of Joker’s henchmen at Axis Chemicals (via remote control), the Penguin (although it was really the bats that did it), and the strong man (bomb on chest). It is not clear as to whether or not the fire breather survived his torching.

In the Nolan film, we learn that Bruce is no executioner. This idea is taken from the post-Golden Age era that showcases a seeker of justice who will not cross a line. This character is indicative of the post-Frank Miller age. Look no further than "Batman: Year One" to see Batman saving the life of a thief he apprehends. "No," he tells himself when the thief nearly plummets off of a fire escape, "I’m no killer."

In "Batman Begins," Bruce sidesteps an opportunity to kill a murderer in Ras Al Ghul’s lair. When his loyalty to the League of Shadows is tested, he avoids the active killing, but he does destroy Ra’s housing structure, which results in the death of Ra’s and a possible number of ninjas. This is arguably on equal footing with Batman’s actions at Axis chemicals, when the Batmobile destroyed The Joker’s lair. Ra’s death in the mountains could be equivalent with Batman’s laissez faire approach to offing the Penguin in "Batman Returns." Both scenes show Bruce or Batman, in combat with his foe, and in both instances the foe has died as the result of Bruce’s actions, although it’s not an active murder.

It has been stated all over the internet, that scribe David S. Goyer ("Batman Begins") did not want his hero to kill off the villains, and felt that Burton’s decision to have Batman kill was ultimately a mistake in his vision. The problem Goyer and Nolan were faced with, then, was how to construct a third act that would work for Batman fans, and for a movie going audience who is used to the villain being dispatched in the third act. The compromise, it seems, was to have Batman in a desperate fight aboard an out of control train. As the train is about to crash, Ducard (the Neeson character) is clearly beaten, but alive. Batman secures his own escape, offering the line, “I’m not going to kill you, but that means I don’t have to save you.”

This line will likely inspire debate among fans, those who feel this line is equivalent with excusing manslaughter, and those who believe that Batman is giving Ducard (in actuality, the "real" Ras Al Ghul) the opportunity to create his own escape route. The debate, I argue, is contingent on whether or not Ras appears in a sequel. I feel that Batman more or less knows what he’s doing when he flees, and allows the train to crash, and understands the consequences the first round when he allowed Ducard/Ras to survive. We will see if this conundrum is handled at all in the subsequent installments of the new series. (Note: While the sequel has not yet necessarily been green-lit, it is fair to assume there will be at least one sequel)

While neither technique of exploring the character is superior, as it lay in the eye of the beholder, it is interesting to note their differences, not only in terms of the Batman persona, but in terms of Bruce Wayne as well.

“I’m sure he’s wonderful company, but doesn’t the gold-plated bachelor bit get a little stale?” So asks Selina Kyle of Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton’s "Batman Returns." And it is a fair question. Much like the exploration of the Batman persona, Burton decides to handle the Bruce persona as an equal mystery. When we first meet him in "Batman" he is throwing a charity party for the 200th Anniversary Gala for Gotham City. Despite the publicity, even Gotham’s journalists are unable to identify Wayne immediately. While Alexander Knox and Vicki Vale seek out Commissioner Gordon, they wind up in Bruce’s arsenal. They ask each other "Who is this guy?" as the move from suit of armor, to suit of…straw? When Bruce appears to introduce an awkward moment, he seems to know who the two reporters are, but neither is sure of who he is, or what, exactly; he does for a living. Some of these questions are answered in "Batman Returns."

Bruce Wayne is a wealthy recluse on top of a hill, in his mansion. He sits, often alone in the dark either in his library, or in the Bat-Cave, and seems to do very little until the signal is lit, and it’s time to go to work.

The exploration, as I’ve noted in my "Batman Returns" opinion section, is of a character with a fractured psyche. He has two personas that he is attempting to rationalize, as he explains to Selina Kyle in "Batman Returns." He has some difficulty with duality that he is attempting to address and work out through the utilization of his costume.

Nolan sees Bruce a bit differently. Both have witnessed their parents die in front of them, and both have sought the means to fight injustice through the suit, but the psychological motive is a bit different. While Burton deals with the duality as the result of rationalizing trauma, Nolan sees Batman’s quest as a means to bury his anger. Bruce, in "Batman" is out for vengeance, and eventually disposes of his parents’ killer.

Nolan’s Wayne has the opportunity to kill taken away from him, but still has his anger, and his guilt, to deal with. The added layer of guilt results when Bruce becomes frightened in an opera, and compels his parents to leave—which they do—and into the waiting gunfire of mugger Joe Chill.

Nolan adds another layer to this character, by clearly giving us another Bruce Wayne mask—that of an aloof billionaire playboy who may have inadvertently burned down his own mansion. His mannerisms, speech patterns, and communication ability changes greatly when faced with business partners, European models, and the public at large. While Burton gives us a Bruce Wayne who shuns public affection, Nolan gives us a Wayne who wears not only the mask of Batman, but the mask of Wayne—a man so socially awkward that it’s impossible to think that he and Batman maybe one and the same. This may throw off the general public, but we know that Bruce is actually using this image as a decoy—moving the general public away from Bruce’s deep fears, and desire for justice.

Not only does Nolan’s Wayne not have the opportunity to enact revenge, he also has to deal with his guilt, and ultimately, come face to face with his fears.

As previously mentioned, Burton sees Batman as dual personas inside of one body. Not personalities mind you, but personas. The difference in the conscious choice to move from one face (Wayne) to another (Batman) based on the surrounding circumstances. A crime, or the signal, will tell Wayne to adopt the other persona. As also mentioned, Burton uses expressionistic techniques in his films to further support his themes of duality. Batman and Joker in "Batman," for example, represent (among other things) the yin-yang of order and chaos. One creates the other, as Batman is responsible for Joker’s creation—which then creates chaos through his Smylex schemes. Joker, in the meantime, is responsible for the creation of Batman, who is determined to end Joker’s chaotic schemes and bring order (or justice) to Gotham.

In "Batman Returns," the trio of villains each represents an aspect of Bruce Wayne. The businessman (Schreck), the Tragic Orphan (the Penguin) whom is also born with a silver spoon, and the costumed vigilante/thief (Catwoman). Each represents a split in Bruce’s persona, and each persona is given a twisted doppelganger to grapple with (for further exploration, please take a look at "Remembering Batman Returns").

Nolan does something similar, in that he uses his villains to explore Bruce’s own inner turmoil. Bruce’s first motivation for seeking justice is the guilt over his parents’ death. He later buries his guilt with anger to continue. But there is a much stronger theme that Nolan grapples with, and that is, in a word, fear. Bruce is afraid of bats, which is one of the reasons he assumes the persona. “Bats frighten me,” he tells Alfred after being asked why the symbol of a bat. Ducard tells Bruce to confront his fear, destroy his fear, if he is to succeed at instilling fear. He is told to become fear itself. When Bruce attempts to confront Mob Boss Falcone (after Falcone has murdered Joe Chill), Falcone psychologically overtakes Wayne. “You always fear what you don’t understand.” The third villain, Scarecrow, exists only to instill fear into all of his victims. He uses an inhalant, a military hallucinogen, to give his victims fearful visual delusions.

Each villain exists to help Batman confront his fear—his fear of Bats, his fear of failure, his fear of criminals. Ultimately, he is afraid of his fears, and nothing more. The film illustrates him confronting his fear, and using the bat-mask to actually become his own fear, to instill in evildoers. It’s an interesting transition, to say the least. It certainly warrants several viewing to catch the nuances that Nolan has woven into the fabric of the subtext.

When the Scarecrow is defeated in the third act, he offers the famous remark - "There’s nothing to fear but fear itself." He’s ultimately right. The only thing he is shown fearing is Batman—a product of fear, a tool of fear, and fear itself.

Batman, as a tool of fear, is ultimately in the best surroundings possible, as he looks over a fearful populace in nearly every incarnation.

Commissioner Gordon attempts to explain to Mayor Borg why the population may be reluctant to show up for Gotham’s festival. “A lot of people may stay away, mayor, they’re scared.” Pre-Joker Jack Napier tells his mistress Alicia that decent people should not live in Gotham.

When we look at Gotham in "Batman Returns" we see an evil more nightmarish landscape, where innocent victims are pulled into alley ways for horrifying acts, and where the population can easily turn against its heroes when presented with even the slightest of incriminating evidence. This sheep mentality can be the result of a public gripped by paranoia, as expressionism tends to illustrate (look no further than Murnau’s "Faust" for example).

"Batman Begins" also shows a population gripped by panic. First of all, the crime rate is insurmountable. The area known as the Narrows shows a society without hope. Depression and despair appear to be status quo for that area, while many are too timid to step up to the major mobsters who appear to be keeping things as is. Eventually, the fear gas is unleashed in this area, resulting in a populace gripped by the kind of panic that THEY could not even anticipate despite the paranoid cityscape they dwelled in on a daily basis.

Batman operates in each world, according to the design of the filmmaker. Burton’s Batman exists in his expressionistic world, and thematically fits in to the nightmare folds of the story’s fabric. In Nolan’s version of events, Batman is needed. Truly, strongly, and desperately needed by Gotham. While Burton tends to show Batman as a loner/outsider attempting to rationalize his way in a nighmarescape, Nolan takes a city rife with graft and urban decay, and demonstrates, clearly, how this city needs to have Batman in it, in order to end criminals coming out on top.

This is only scraping the thematic surface of two filmmakers’ attempt at adapting a creature of modern folklore and mythology. Both are successful in their own right, and neither mimics each other too greatly in terms of the narrative devices. All three are excellent films, films that I will view on a regular basis, I’m sure, and each one has something different to offer. Fear. Duality. Necessity. These ideas freely exist in the three films commented on in this paper. Nolan and Burton each put a spotlight on different attributes of this world, and through their goggles, remind us that Batman’s universe will always be subject to study and interpretation.

Which do I prefer? It is difficult to say. Burton’s films and Nolan’s first effort equally awe me. I am more than pleased that Nolan did not rehash any territory that Burton went over, and gave us a character from the post-Miller age by adapting elements of "Batman: Year One," and "The Long Halloween" by Jeph Loeb. I look forward to future installments in this franchise, to continue comparing the themes, structure, and influences of each film.

I would like to thank the posters on the BATMAN ON FILM FORUM for sharing their ideas with me as I entered into this paper, and to Jett and PJ for running a web-site and forum that celebrates one of the most complexly interesting characters in our culture.


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