BATMAN ON FILM, since June 1998!

6 Things I Want To Say To Mr. Nolan
Author: Robert Kent

(EDITOR’S NOTE: BOF proudly bills itself as "The Voice of the Bat-Fan." We stay true to that motto by allowing our readers to contribute to the site. It must be noted though that the opinions of our guest writers do not necessarily represent the opinions of BOF or the editor-in-chief.)

Dear Mr. Nolan,

First and foremost, thank you. From the bottom of my heart, and hearts of Batman fans everywhere, thank you for Batman Begins. Once there was a good man—though more than a little eccentric—who restored the onscreen persona of Batman to the dark and serious Batman we fans have always loved. Then that man went a little crazy and was replaced by a bad man; a wicked, cruel man who broke our hearts by returning Batman to his former state of campiness, and past it into a pale imitation of his once great self. Batman fans everywhere despaired and mourned the loss of their film hero until a savior, a good man undid what the bad man had done and gave us back our hero. You Mr. Nolan are he who redeemed Batman and brought him back from a state worse than death.

However, it has occurred to me and it may have occurred to other Batman fans that the place where your predecessors, Mr. Burton (the eccentric good man) and Mr. Schumacher (the very bad man), went awry was in their second outings as Bat directors. Batman (1989) was beloved, while Batman Returns was not; Batman Forever was accepted, while Batman and Robin may well be one of the worst abominations ever made. So please be careful, Mr. Nolan. Be very careful in planning your second Batman film.

I don’t know what it is about a second Batman story that causes storytellers to falter, but even the great Frank Miller met with fan disappointment when he released DK2—The Dark Knight Strikes Again. So, in the interest of offering just a little advice—and I’m sure BOF readers will chime in as well—I thought I would point out four things that might help you to avoid the troubles of Mr. Burton and Mr. Schumacher and to deliver us the first ever second Batman film that is better than the first:

PLEASE REMEMBER: BATMAN DOES NOT BELONG TO YOU!

Batman belongs to all of us. No one, not even Bob Kane, has the right to claim him for his own. Your fairly strict adherence to comic lore in Batman Begins suggests that you recognize this already, but as this is where your predecessors went horribly wrong, I believe the point bears repeating: Batman does not belong solely to you.

Batman Returns is a pretty good flick if you watch it from the perspective of a Tim Burton fan—but if you watch it from the perspective of a Batman fan, it leaves one wondering if Tim Burton ever even read a comic book. I think Batman Returns is a lot of fun if you watch it with the notion that Tim Burton was able to get away with almost anything provided he tossed Batman in once in awhile. Seriously, have you ever seen such a hilarious use of big-budget studio money? I like to imagine Warner Brothers executives visiting the set and raising an eyebrow at the giant duck car, the hideous bird man with the poop stain, the circus freaks, the hundreds of penguins with missiles on their backs, and just as they were about to ask what the hell kind of movie Burton was making anyway, Keaton walked by in the Batsuit and they foolishly figured that Burton would be more responsible with their funds. Suckers.

The problem with Batman Returns is the same as with Batman and Robin: A director let his own ego get in the way of telling the story he was hired to tell. Just as Burton did just enough for Batman Returns to still be considered a Batman movie while making his own vision and ignoring the source material, so Schumacher did with his second outing.

To hear Schumacher tell it on the DVD commentary, the problem with Batman and Robin is that he let merchandising and corporate greed take over the story, and while those things are clearly evident, so is the all-around lazy filmmaking of a bad man spending more time wasting studio money on sets than telling a story. You’ll all recall the scene in which Batman flies into the camera and the film cuts to Batman standing triumphant over Mr. Freeze, implying that a battle has taken place, but cheating us out of our action sequence and the sort of big-time fight we paid to see in the first place—this is the laziest scene I’ve ever encountered in an action movie.

More than Schumacher’s lazy direction, I think the thing most fans find truly objectionable about Batman and Robin is the pervading presence of homosexual erotica. Batman and Robin is, among other things, a gay fantasy, and to paraphrase Adam Sandler, any guy who watches the countless shots of tight butts and nearly naked muscular men who avoid the drag of women at all cost and claims they don’t see the homosexual content “is either gay himself, or not straight.”

Please understand, I am not being intolerant of homosexuals or of homosexual erotica—I am only being intolerant of the presence of homosexual erotica in Batman movies. I have a few gay friends and even they have told me that Batman and Robin was “too gay.” If Joel Schumacher wanted to make “Joel’s Big Gay Fantasy” and he could secure studio funding for it, more power to him. But Batman is not the place for Schumacher’s overactive libido.

Like Burton, Schumacher allowed his own selfish desires to override his better judgment and misused blockbuster funding to make the film he wanted to make rather than the film he should have made. The difference between these two crimes is that Burton, though underplaying Batman and overplaying his own beautiful weirdness, respected the characters (with exceptions, I know), while Schumacher made the characters into thin parodies of themselves and intentionally transformed the world of Batman into something virtually unrecognizable to the fans.

This is not to suggest that innovation does not have its place. Batman is literally reinvented every so many years and he is one of the most versatile characters in all of literature. After all, fans love both Adam West’s Batman and Christian Bale’s Batman, and they appear to be completely opposite sides of the same coin. If further proof is needed, consider that Danny Elfman and Prince were both able to write appropriate music for a Batman film. Most notably, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns took several major departures from traditional Batman stories and in addition to being hailed as THE great Batman story, it redefined Batman for an entire generation.

There is no reason why Batmanand its sequels should not resemble Christopher Nolan movies, but they must first and foremost be Batman movies. At the risk of being repetitive, allow me to state once again that Batman does not belong solely to you and he is not yours to manipulate in any way that you see fit. Batman was here before you and he will be here after. Therefore, with every departure that you make, ask, “Is this what’s best for Batman, or is this what’s best for Christopher Nolan?”

I’m sorry if I seem a bit defensive, and I’m sure you’ll do a wonderful job on your next Batman film, but remember, at one time we fans loved and trusted Tim Burton and some of us loved and trusted Joel Schumacher. We Batman fans have been burned before.

BEING REALISTIC IS NOT THE SAME AS BEING SERIOUS

One of the great things about Batman Begins is that, unlike previous films, it takes the characters and their world seriously. However, though it is a real-world version of Batman, I don’t think anyone would go so far as to consider it realistic. This is an important distinction. We the audience do not necessarily need to believe that Batman could happen so much as we need to believe that Batman is happening while we watch the film. The story and the elements of the story need only be real to Bruce Wayne and the characters who inhabit his world.

I mention this because one of the great things about Batman stories is how outlandish they can be. Killer Croc, Man-Bat, Clayface, and virtually all Batman villains are probably not characters who could exist in real life, and in real life, someone would probably shoot Batman in the mouth sooner or later. Batman is a fantasy. When we come to see Batman, we are not looking for a gritty, real-world crime drama—if we were, we would have paid to see something else—Insomnia, perhaps. We want Batman, and Batman is larger-than-life fantasy, even when that fantasy is gritty, dark, and similar to real-world crime drama.

In a way, the image of a real-world Penguin would be as offensive as Burton’s creature. When we see the Joker, we want a larger-than-life clown prince of crime complete with unnatural grin, green hair, offensive laugh, electric joy-buzzer, acid-spitting flower, and an elaborate purple outfit—not a low-key creep in a trench coat. And if you have time for an origin story for the Joker, for the love of all that is holy, somebody give that man a red hood! If you give the Penguin a rifle instead of an umbrella in the interest of being more realistic, it begs the question: “Why have the Penguin as a character at all?”

One of the great flaws of Batman Begins, as has been mentioned elsewhere on this site, is the treatment of the villains. Ras Al Ghul alluding to being immortal is not an acceptable substitute for his actually being immortal, and a sort of creepy Jonathan Crane in a sack is not the same as The Scarecrow, master of fear. The Scarecrow, as we fans know him, would never go down at the hands of Rachel Dawes. Batman is only strong as the villains he fights. How challenging can The Scarecrow be if a girl with a tazer can stop him? Why does Gotham City need Batman at all? It seems to me they simply need more tazers.

If you replace classic elements of these characters with more realistic conventions, it almost suggests that the film is ashamed of its source material. As you managed to have the Batmobile “fly on rooftops” in Batman Begins, I’m sure you’ll manage to find a balance between being realistic and telling a traditional Batman story. Your job, Mr. Nolan, is to take these characters seriously, not to force them to be serious.

WIDE CAMERA ANGLES ARE YOUR FRIENDS

Many critics have said this already in regard to your action sequences, but I’ll say it again: wide angles are your friends. There are several scenes in Batman Begins that could be improved by simply pulling the camera back a bit. For example, the shot in which one of the members of the League of Shadows blows a hole in the wall of Arkham Asylum could have been better established with a wider camera angle. The film cuts to this shot after a series of shots of Wayne Manor burning. In the fire sequence, we have several bad guys running around a dark brick building causing mayhem. The shot at Arkham is in close as a bad guy runs in front of a dark brick building and causes mayhem. When you watch the film a second of third time, this sequence runs much smoother, but the first time, for me, at least, I find it draws attention to itself because I’m trying to figure out why the guy is blowing a hole in a building that is already on fire. In a later shot, when inmates come flooding out of the hole, I understand that he blowing a hole in Arkham Asylum, not Wayne Manor, but by then I’ve already been taken out of the movie because I was trying to make sense of what I was seeing. If the shot had been wider, revealing something like the door that is clearly the entrance to an institution and not a mansion, or even a sign that reads “Arkham Asylum”, the location would have been better established and I would not have been disoriented.

Another example of this disorientation is in the scene where Bruce watches Rachel and Finch chatting—which is very stalker like, by the way—would have been better established with a wider angle. As is, we see a wide shot of the two talking, followed by a close-up of Bruce in disguise, that seems to come out of nowhere. The first time I watched the film, I thought it Bruce was just another homeless guy in need of a better coat. It was only on the second viewing that I realized that homeless guy was Christian Bale and only on the third viewing that I realized he was stalking. The reason for this disorientation is that there is no shot establishing where Bruce is in relation to Rachel and Finch. We cut from a conversation between the two of them to a close-up of Bruce watching them; the effect is sudden and jarring and makes the viewer wonder where Bruce came from. Had this close-up first been established with a wider angle showing us Bruce, even just his back, standing at the phone booth, with Rachel and Finch in front of him, so that we can see where he is and where they are, this scene would have been better established and the disorientation could have been avoided.

There are other shots like this in the film where wider angles might have been more appropriate, but I don’t want to belabor the point. Suffice it to say, wide camera angles are your friends, especially in action sequences and establishing shots.

SCENES THAT EXIST SOLELY FOR THE PURPOSE OF EXPOSITION ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS

There is one scene in Batman Begins (scene 20 on the DVD) that when I watch it at home, I skip over it entirely. I’m talking about scene where Unnamed Corporate Lackey hurries into the boardroom of Wayne Enterprises to tell Richard Earle that Wayne Enterprise has lost a microwave emitter and then explains to us that it uses “focused microwaves to, uh, evaporate the enemy’s water supply. We, the Batman-savy audience, think, “Gee, I bet that will come in handy when The Scarecrow tries to cover Gotham City in Fear Gas!” The non-Batman savvy audience thinks, “Who is this guy, why is he telling us this, and where the heck are the main characters?”

My problem with this scene is that it disrupts the flow of the movie entirely. It’s like the film has been interrupted for a very special report. We don’t know Unnamed Corporate Lackey and as he has nothing else to do in this film except deliver us this very important bit of information and look shifty, we never get to know him. As for Earle, he is not a major character—at least, not in the traditional sense. Major characters have arcs; Earle’s arc seems to be his journey from bad guy to foiled bad guy.

When I watch this scene, all I can think about is how it could have been better. If nothing else, this scene could have been moved to the hotel, which is the very next scene, and that way we could have been watching Bruce make a fool of himself in the background. Or perhaps Lucius Fox could have discovered this important information and then shared it with Alfred, and then we would at least have had a conversation between two interesting characters that we like. Better yet, Commissioner Gordon could have come into possession of this information. This, incidentally, is one of Gordon’s primary functions: to provide exposition without having to resort to cutting away to non-primary characters having a forced conversation about exposition.

In a film as wonderful as Batman Begins, a scene like this is easily forgiven. The audience takes in the information, stores it away for later, and forgets all about Unnamed Corporate Lackey. Still, in the interest of superior film making, in the future always strive to find a way to involve our main characters in all elements of the story unless this is simply impossible.

WHEN IT COMES TO BATMAN, LESS IS MORE

One of the things Tim Burton intuitively understood about Batman was that Batman does not want to be front and center. Fans complained that Jack Nicholson’s Joker upstaged Batman in the 1989 film, and they’re right, but Batman probably does not mind. Batman wants to hide in the shadows and be a myth as opposed to a known entity. In Batman Forever, there is a shot of Batman on the cover of TIME magazine. Batman would never pose for a magazine. Time would be lucky to get a hazy photo of him from a distance that would be about convincing as a bad UFO photo.

The audience wants to see Bruce Wayne and we want our main character to be the star of the show, but there’s a thing about Batman that the longer he’s on screen, the less impact he has. Part of the appeal of Batman is the mystery of his nature, and the rule of diminishing returns applies heavily here. If Batman is on screen too often, the thrill of seeing him diminishes and we become accustomed to him. He becomes just a guy in a rubber suit rather than a mythic figure to inspire wonder.

One of the best moments in Burton’s version is the scene where Batman holds Jack Napier over the acid in Axis Chemicals. This is one of the few close-ups of Batman in the film and his face is vague and virtually unreadable. He appears to be struggling, but is he struggling to hang on to Napier, or is he struggling to shake him free? It is unclear whether Batman accidentally or intentionally drops Napier into the acid. It is this ambiguity that makes Burton’s Batman great. From that moment on in the film, we may root for Batman, but we’re not entirely sure we can trust him or his motives. We are almost as uncertain about Batman as the other characters in the film are.

While we’re on the subject of the character of Batman, I might mention that Batman Begins has gotten just about all the mileage it can out of the death of Bruce’s parents, so please don’t make us sit through their murder again and again like other incarnations have done. Batman is not motivated to fight criminals by a desire to avenge the death of his parents, although he may sometimes think he is. Nor is Batman motivated to fight criminals because it’s the right thing to do or even because he values justice (though he does). I believe the following line from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns sums up the entire essence of Batman’s motivation: “My parents… taught me a different lesson… lying on this street—shaking in deep shock—dying for no reason at all—they showed me that the world only makes sense when you force it to…”

Batman is not interested in doing the right thing because it is right. Batman wishes to remake the world in his image by ridding the streets of corruption because, he, Batman wishes it done—not because it should be done. Batman is the manifestation of a helpless boy attempting to control the world around him and restore order as he would have it be, not as it is. Batman does not kill, not because killing is wrong or ineffective, but because it is his will that he not kill.

Incidentally, this is the reason The Joker is Batman’s greatest adversary. It is not that Batman and the Joker are complete opposites, but because they are the same. The Joker also wants to remake the world in his image, which is insane and chaotic—everything Batman is struggling to purge. From this perspective, Batman verses the Joker is not a metaphor for good verses evil, but of two men possessing an incredible will and having a major disagreement. Both agree that the world, or at least Gotham City, should be altered, but they have opposing viewpoints as to how it should be altered.

THERE’S NO REASON TO REINVENT THE WHEEL; JUST GIVE US MORE OF WHAT WE WANT

That’s my final comment on how to make a great sequel. You’ve already done the hard part, which is winning audiences back after Schumacher’s debacle. We want Batman again (some of us never stopped wanting him) and we want more of him. You’re under no major pressure to give us something too new and exciting in the Batman Begins sequel; you only have to give us more of what we want.

One of the great sequels of all time is The Godfather part II, and I believe the reason it is generally considered to be so great is that it simply takes the themes and characters from The Godfather and expands them. There are no stunning departures in character or story, only more of what we loved about the first film.

More relevant sequels, perhaps, are Superman II and Spiderman 2. In both films, now that the origin business is out of the way, the filmmaker asks us the ever interesting question, “what would happen if our hero stopped being a hero?” In both films, the action sequences are bigger, the drama is greater, and the villains are tougher, but both films retain the themes and characters from the originals. They simply give us more of what we paid to see.

And so, in Batman Continues, or Batman Strikes Again, or Batman Keeps On Keeping On, or whatever you decide to call it, just give us more of what we paid to see and raise the ante. You’ve already solved the problem of bringing us a tougher villain—they don’t come tougher than the clown prince of crime. Now just focus on bringing us more of what was great about Batman Begins, and improve some of the stuff that could have been better.

Raise the bar on those action sequences, and for the love of God, shoot them with a wider lens so we can see them. Give us more of those WOW! moments that are so great in Batman Begins (Bruce throwing his gun into the river, Bruce standing in the Batcave for the first time, Batman’s first terrifying appearance—with obligatory “I’m Batman”—Batman scarring the hell of Flass, Gordon getting his first look at the Batsignal, and so on). There’s nothing wrong with making those big moments bigger—this is mythology and it takes on an almost sacred quality in places—and there are a lot of those moments coming up. For instance, Batman’s first encounter with the Joker can’t be their bumping into each other at the supermarket—it’s got to be big.

Also, don’t worry about implementing too many original ideas—originality is in some ways a moot point when you’re making the sixth film in a franchise, anyway. Another of the great things Batman Begins does is to draw on the already great comic book stories. One could do worse than to continue to crib from Frank Miller and there are plenty of Miller ideas still available for the taking, such as Batman fighting the Joker in the sewers of Gotham and breaking his neck ala “The Dark Knight Returns.” Sure, Joker at the World’s Fair has been done, but we like him there and he seems to like it there so why not give us a Christopher Nolan World’s Fair and be assured of satisfying audience expectations. One of the advantages you have is that you’ve already set a precedent of borrowing directly from our favorite Batman stories in Batman Begins so that you have free reign to draw from any of the hundreds of already great Batman stories available.

I apologize for the somewhat negative tone of this letter. Some may accuse me of nitpicking and over criticizing and they will be right to do so, but please know that I do it only out of love. I love Batman Begins and I want more than anything to love its sequels, and it is in the interest of making the sequels even better than the already great Batman Begins that I point out the flaws as I see them.

And again, from the bottom of our hearts, thank you, Mr. Nolan for Batman Begins. We fans love you and support you and believe that you’ll do everything in your power to bring us more of the greatest Batman we could hope for. God be with you and everyone on your team in your next endeavor

Respectfully yours,
Robert Kent, blathering fan boy

If you’ve bothered to read this, probably you’re wondering who the hell I am to criticize the genius of Christopher Nolan. Who the hell I am is a fan boy. I’ll be the one fighting through a line for a ticket to the first showing I can get into. I’ll be the one buying all of the new Batman action figures to put on my shelf next to my figures from the other films. I’ll be buying the ball cap and the tee-shirt and the poster and the Christian-Bale-bust cookie jar.

Does this give me the right to criticize Christopher Nolan? Of course it does. As Batman fans, we have the right to express our opinions in an open forum in the hopes that Warner Bros. will hear them. And after all, not long ago there was a fan boy who started a web page to express his opinion on the Batman films and he managed to help sway Warner Bros. into giving us Batman Begins instead of Batman Triumphant. If we are to have the Batman movies we want, we must follow Jett’s example and make our voices heard. Warner Bros. wants us to be happy so that we’ll buy their product, so let’s tell them what we want. I assure you they’re listening.

Oh, and if any of you are bored and you’ve run out of superhero news to read, you can check out my website at JIMSMONSTER.COM. And buy my book! It will change your life.

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