Two Dances with the Same Devil: Tim Burton vs. Christopher Nolan
This essay was originally featured on VeryAware.com.
Even though they may seem to be of the same species, the same kind, even the same ingredients, there is a world of difference between bright, almost jovial look of an M&M and the dark, distinctly grittier and bolder taste of a square of chocolate with the flecks and dustings of cocoa throughout its center. They both taste good, and even though they are essentially the same thing, they are so fundamentally different that they serve different purposes. M&Ms are for fun. They’re pretty looking, not very serious, and appreciation is rooted in fun and good humor. That square of cocoa, however, is bolder, leaving a certain tingle on your tongue, the cocoa dust either causing you to run for a glass of water or making you salivate even more. It is, honestly and blatantly, more serious in nature. Is it possible to enjoy both? Certainly. But they are different nonetheless.
The same can be said of Tim Burton’s approach to bring Batman to the screen and Christopher Nolan’s vision. Burton’s candy coated, expressionistic techniques are fun and closer to the older comics. Nolan’s gritty psychoanalytic revisionist take is bolder and more real. They both have their merits, however. Burton’s two films, BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS, were major successes, as were Nolan’s two films BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT. Their content, thematic approaches and style, however, differ in dramatic ways, each one suiting a particular mindset.
Tim Burton is well known for his distinct visual style, one that is very reminiscent of expressionism. His sets, props, even characters rarely resemble what they are modeled after and instead are heightened to a point of disbelief. It works for his Gothicism that has been imbued in his work from the beginning, even with PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. With his first Batman film, BATMAN, filmed at Pinewood Studios in England, and his Gothic/Expressionist style would once again take the center stage. His Gotham City resembles less the metropolis of New York or Chicago, but the Metropolis found in Fritz Lang’s titular silent sci-fi masterpiece. His buildings and his architecture are dark, tilted, almost seedy and crooked in nature. The sets that inhabit the Gotham City in both BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS almost seem to be the manifestation of the crooked villainy within Gotham. Even Burton’s cinematography, which occasionally takes on the tilted and jarring angles of Carol Reed’s iconic noir THE THIRD MAN, oozes an expressionistic style, in a way that realism is pushed onto the back burner in favor of something more exciting and fun. Burton’s color scheme, however, remains as dark as Batman’s cowl. Greys and blacks permeate the entire film, again recalling that of film noir.
Despite its noir-ish stylings, the tone of the film is light hearted, clashing against the dark expressionism that Burton utilizes. It’s cartoonish. Both BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS present a tone and style that is deliberately a juxtaposition of the dark villainy and the cartoonish fun that was a part of the Batman comic in the 1960s. It almost seems like a contradiction on Burton’s part to have something as dark, even sadomasochistic as Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman slink into frame in a very dominatrix-esque suit and then hiss comically at Batman. But that contradiction and clash of tone and style is exactly what Burton seems to be going for. His two films seem to be more of an accurate representation of the comics, thus recalling flair for snappy dialogue and action sequences that seem like they were paneled from cut to cut.
Burton’s presentation of the characters is just as cartoonish as the tone of his films. Less Gothic in nature than SWEENEY TODD, but less comical in style than BEETLEJUICE, Burton balances both, tight wire walking between silliness/action of the comics and the drama/darkness of Burton’s traditional style. The two manage to compensate for one another, neither element outweighing the other for too long. Between Batman and his rogues, though, they maintain the same unbelievable twistedness of some of the early incarnations. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is campy, and it seems that the Joker is definitely aware of how campy he is. Perhaps his self-awareness (the only character in both films that seems to be that self-aware) is another part that makes Nicholson’s Joker so insane. Nicholson’s Joker emblemizes the campiness of Burton’s films, as well as the dark expressionistic tones. He’s campy like Cesar Romero, but he’s dark and insane like Dr. Caligari. Danny DeVito’s Penguin is the epitome of the weirdness that seems to have always been a part of Batman’s rogue gallery. He seems to be a fairly traditional villain with a fairly traditional motive. What he does have that the others do not is his look. You would never expect a penguin to be so nasty and conniving. And Selena Kyle, otherwise known as Catwoman, is the archetypal femme fatale that brings the series’ film noir connections full circle. She is at once profoundly irresistible and utterly repellent. She’s Barbara Stanwyck in polyester.
Batman himself, and the playboy Bruce Wayne, played by Michael Keaton, seem like late era Sean Connery as James Bond, but with more sensitivity. He is handsome, wisecracking, and Kim Basinger can’t resist him. What Burton does not do, however, is make his Batman hefty or over emotional. Rather than make the audience strain, Michael Keaton’s Batman is a relatively simple guy. There’s less of an internal conflict regarding the secret identity in Burton’s Batman, with more concentration on Batman defeating the bad guys. And fun is exactly what the audience has.
What Burton’s films do is tap into the character, not bothering to establish an origin story, or even giving the character much weight, in a very lighthearted way. Burton is able to manifest the darkness of the series without it being overbearing. His films are theatrical representation of the comics.
But, as most heroes do, Batman evolved in order to best reflect the social anxieties. James Bond did it. Iron Man did it. Every hero does. And yes, Joel Schumacher’s films were arguably campier than the 1960’s TV series, but jump to 2005 and you get an entirely new breed of Batman. In a post-9/11 world, a campy and light approach to the character won’t cut it. Not only does the tone of the series change, not only do the motivations change, and not only does the entire presentation of the universe and the people that inhabit it change, but Bruce Wayne himself gets a revisionist makeover, seemingly starting from scratch in BATMAN BEGINS and continuing in THE DARK KNIGHT.
Christopher Nolan is a man who likes his protagonists enough to give them a reason to live. In FOLLOWING, MEMENTO, and INSOMNIA, his leads all deal with heady internal conflicts that make his films darker and enrapture the audience even further. For Batman and Bruce Wayne, he and David S. Goyer, established an origin story that is stronger than most origin stories that have appeared on the screen. Concise though it is not, it is a morbid, psychoanalytic approach to the character. This is an approach that gives the hero palpable, realistic fears and motivations for Bruce Wayne to become the Dark Knight of Gotham City. More than before, the dialogue carries the same punch that the action has, and the action has the same emotional weight as the dialogue. The characters matter as much as the tone. Christian Bale portrays Bruce Wayne and Batman with grit and vulnerability. He’s still pithy, but not clownish. He’s sexy and eligible, and he’s also a badass. And he is able to perfectly convey the layers within the character, all in one scene, all in one moment.
Nolan’s Batman Trilogy may take place in Gotham City, but this Gotham is the real world where danger is very real and possible. The mobsters that live in the seedy underbelly are kind of like the guys in GOODFELLAS, as opposed to the romanticism of the other mobsters in the Batman universe, which might be more comparable to THE GODFATHER. Its Chicago/New York look, again, presents a new kind of realism. This kind of realism is even applicable to the police station and the way that the government is set up in this universe. Before long, you forget that you’re in Gotham City.
The realism that Nolan gives the series is best represented by the villains that exist in it. The mobsters are ready to embezzle and whack people off, of course. But, first up, you have the Scarecrow (aka Dr. Crane, played by Cillian Murphy) and Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson). The former is a psychotic doctor who employs various drugs to kick his victim’s phobias in to a point where it incapacitates them; the latter was at one point Bruce Wayne’s martial arts mentor. Both villains represent something that Wayne/Batman must overcome. The Scarecrow is the manifestation of all of Wayne’s fears (including bats, in this revisionist history) and Ghul, the overcoming of the past. Nolan manages to apply the microscope to nearly every facet of his films, and whatever character or piece of the universe is analyzes, it all relates back to Batman himself. The way that both the Scarecrow and Ghul are able to exploit Batman and make them extremely vulnerable make both villains unique to the film franchise. In THE DARK KNIGHT, a fallen political hero takes the form of Harvey Dent, who becomes Two Face. He plays loss and revenge with a coin, by chance. This symbolic answer to the public’s perception of vigilantism is striking.
Let us not forget the biggest bad guy of them all: the Joker. Heath Ledger’s legendary portrayal brings a sense of insanity, fear and socio-political awareness that accentuates the realism in the series. Heath Ledger’s maniacal Joker, who has no reason to create chaos other than for chaos’ sake, is the answer to domestic terrorism in the United States. Yes, villains, including the Joker in Burton’s films, have threatened the people of Gotham City, and the various pieces of architecture, but in Nolan’s Batman, these attacks feel more personal and more frightening. The Joker’s obsessive need to constantly counterpose everything that Batman stands for, even in a way where he shakes Batman’s footing and confidence as a hero, makes the portrayal one of the best in cinematic history. Ledger’s Joker is like Alex from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE plus Charles Manson multiplied by Nicholson’s self-awareness. What the Joker offers, besides a very yin and yang symbiotic relationship between him and Batman, is a veridical threat. Their relevance to contemporary, post-9/11 society is all the more obvious with the inclusion of the Joker. He is the perfect nightmare.
What I often find surprising about Nolan’s Batman films is that Nolan is able to handle an enormous scale incredibly well. More used to his calculated, character driven small films like MEMENTO and THE PRESTIGE, he is able to handle large set pieces, explosions, and the like in the Batman films like a pro. He is able to convey the adrenaline rush of any big budget director, but with a coherency and style that is often lost in the process of other blockbusters (ahem, Mr. Bay). It’s a spectacle, both visually and emotionally.
Christopher Nolan appropriates Batman’s timelessness in a very specific frame of thought, making the impending and inevitable violence and fear more real. He gives the characters depth; he gives his protagonist fears and desires. Taking inspiration from many a different comic, including ones by Frank Miller, Nolan’s revisionist take on Batman is new and powerful. Nolan makes Batman less a character from comics and more a human being.
Burton’s films have just as much merit, with their fun visual style and general lighter tone. Their exploration of a Gothic and expressionist visual style counterpose with that lighter tone. Most representative of the comics that existed prior to darker graphic novels, both BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS have their place in the franchise as a nostalgia filled, retro joyride. Nolan’s films will remain just as memorable for their unique approach for character drama. The films are dark because the atmosphere that they were created in is dark. BATMAN BEGINS, THE DARK KNIGHT and, soon, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, will become indelible in both Batman and cinematic history, just as Burton’s before them. Though the two auteur’s approaches are fundamentally different in tone, style, setting, and presentation, you have to admit: it’s just two dances with the same devil in the pale moonlight.
To Rise from Darkness: The Dark Knight Rises
I guess I might as well be honest while I am here: I miss indie-minded Christopher Nolan. I miss that stylized simplicity of Following, the complexity of simplicity of The Prestige, the non-linear emotional/cerebral rollercoaster of Memento, and the guilt laden suspense of Insomnia. That is not to say I don’t like his Batman films; in fact, I love them. All that independent, creative, and mind bending sensibility is definitely imbued in his Batman trilogy (to some extent, with a sledgehammer), but you can tell that both he, as well as some of his audience, cannot wait until he makes another small, non-humongous budgeted film. It is his desire to give his stories and characters layers that makes his Batman films so interesting. The fear and desire in Batman Begins and the internal conflict of vigilantism in The Dark Knight (with other political subtext, of course) are what make the films so compelling. Nolan’s grand finale to his Bat-Trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, is no different in its intentions, but, as I said, you can tell he’s ready to revisit his roots. Make no mistake, The Dark Knight Rises is incredible, but, perhaps to the fault of high expectations that could never be met, I left the theater a little let down.
Picking up eight years after The Dark Knight, the third film in the trilogy begins with Bruce Wayne having turned into a rich recluse, the kind that the public would be quick to make a snark allusion to Howard Hughes. However, he comes out of hiding when Gotham City faces a new threat in the form of the hulking monster that is Bane. Bane is ready to destroy the entire city, blowing it to smithereens. And while there are plenty of explosive action sequences, the focus here, as usual, is on the story and the characters. Sort of.
While Batman Begins and The Dark Knight both handled large action scenes and even larger, more powerful scenes of drama and suspense, The Dark Knight Rises seems to have trouble reconciling the two. You either get scenes of great emotion and contemplation followed by a somewhat lackluster action sequence, or you get something rather trite and heavy handed followed by “action poetry”. Is it the running time or is it something else? It takes a while for the film to focus properly, balancing the two perfectly, allowing both drama and action to occur very closely together and balance well. But the film seems hesitant to make up its mind about not what to focus on but how to do it. You have a stunning prologue in a similar fashion to The Dark Knight’s Kubrick inspired first six minutes, and then for the next half hour, it seems, it’s all Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne and Michael Caine’s Alfred discussing how much Gotham, and Wayne himself, needs “the Batman”.
While the trouble in focus is a problem, the presence of the weighty internal conflict is welcome. As heavy handed as it may be, the fact that it is there at all and the fact that Nolan gives us a protagonist, an iconic one at that, whom we can explore psychoanalytically is one of the blessings of the trilogy’s existence. If anything, it’s the realism and the psychoanalytic approach that make the films (greatly aided by Bale’s awesome performance), not the huge set pieces. Michael Caine also does quite well as the loyal and conflicted Alfred, trying desperately to motivate Bruce Wayne to do the right thing, which does not always necessarily mean become the Batman. Here, it’s all about the battle between hope and lost faith. But, what Bale does here, once again, is show that Batman is human and that every facet of desire and motivation is real. Bale’s realism and humanity in playing the character is stunning and one of the best things about this film in particular.
In The Dark Knight Rises, we are introduced to a new villain: Bane, a character who, in the past, was a steroid pumped demon, usually working under or with another villain. Here, embodied by Tom Hardy, he is like Bronson on steroids. Er, well, more steroids. The point being, he is more human than he has been in other iterations, yet still monstrous. As far symbolic representations go, you can draw comparisons between the maniacal and chaotic Joker and driven and deliberate Bane. The Joker likes to create chaos for the sake of chaos, both as a means of pure joy and pleasure as well as a way to turn Gotham’s finest into Gotham’s most twisted and evil. He is real world terrorism without motivation that the public can understand. The destruction he creates is as enigmatic and flamboyant as he is. Bane, however, has a very specific goal. His objective is socially oriented (which may or may not recall strains of the Tea Party movement and the Occupy movement), so that he can bring Gotham down from within. He is the terrorism with a driven ideology, and one for all to hear. However, as good as Tom Hardy is, simply because Heath Ledgers performance has been forever embedded into our minds, his villain is not as good. Maybe because Bane has a definite objective, he seems less interesting than a villain without reason. Maybe mystery is sometimes the best thing for a villain. Regardless, even if he is not the best, Hardy plays him to the hilt, and the deep, electronically manipulated voice is effective once you get used to it.
The police have a larger role in the film, with two characters taking the leads: Commissioner Gordon, riddled with guilt about Batman’s exile from society, and newbie John Blake, a dedicated cop with a broken past. It really is nice to see Gary Oldman have a larger role here. Much the same way that Jude Law has done with Dr. Watson in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, Gary Oldman brings intelligence and pathos to a character for whom layers did not exist in the films prior to Nolan’s. Oldman is skilled and plays Gordon fantastically. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was in Inception, plays Blake with sensitivity and intelligence, though his character is often relegated to acting like a junior detective. However, once his character begins to take control, Gordon-Levitt’s performance is all the better and more interesting. He is able to side step some of the cheesiness that seems to be inherent in the script regarding his character’s past, but not so much that the audience would not be able to identify with him. In short, both actors do extremely well.
The women of Nolan’s Batman trilogy have faltered, mostly because there has only been one, and she did not seem that important in the grand scheme of things. The women of Batman’s world never really have, with few exceptions. Selina Kyle, however, is one of those exceptions. Played with verve, class, wit, and sex appeal by Anne Hathaway, Catwoman manages to be a rather compelling character in this finale. Given no real origin story, only alluded to as someone trying escape her past with a clean slate, the mystery surrounding he character, and the vulnerability that Hathaway is able to portray (without being too sappy or cliché) makes Catwoman even sexier. Her new suit is sleek, yet simple and minimal, as opposed to the dominatrix outfit Michelle Pfeiffer wore in Batman Returns. Once again, the tension between Batman and Catwoman is palpable. You could cut the sexual tension with a bat ranger. Anne Hathaway surprised me because, as much as I adore her, I was honestly not sure if she would be able to pull off playing Catwoman. She did pull it off, and very well. Marion Cotillard, who worked with Nolan on Inception, joins the cast as well, also vying for Bruce Wayne’s heart. Cotillard does fine, if not spectacularly. She’s enticing, but her character, Miranda Tate, a wealthy philanthropist, does not seem to be the kind of man that Bruce Wayne would legitimately fall for. She does not seem to fit with Wayne. Sure, she “stands” for something, but she never gives the impression that she would go out and do whatever it took to do what needs to be done, in the way that Rachel Dawes did, especially the way Maggie Gyllenhaal played her in The Dark Knight. For there to be a convincing love interest, he or she must be other’s equal, and Tate is not, even if the woman who plays her is one of the finest actresses around.
One of the film’s biggest flaws, aside its slightly plodding story and pace, is its setting. In the previous films, Gotham City, no matter how much it may have resembled Chicago or New York, always had a sense of anonymity about it. Gotham is supposed to be Any Metropolis, USA. Here, we are given New York City, plain and obvious. From sightings of specific bridges (Brooklyn, for instance) to Saks Fifth Avenue, the anonymity disappears from the setting and, in those moments, the films steps out of the limbo between Batman’s universe and reality and just sits in reality. It is extremely jarring to see locations that are supposed to exist generically and realize that not only do you recognize them, that you have probably been there. Here, Nolan’s focus again seems unbalanced. With the inclusion of a new, fun vehicle called the Bat, we are once again ripped form one realm and shoved into another. The Bat is like the Tumbler, but it flies. This, to me, seems silly. It reminded me of the invisible Aston Martin V12 Vanquish from the James Bond film Die Another Day, and they both don’t work for the same reason: for characters that are so rooted in reality (for their respective interpretations and approaches), the use of such a gadget seems counterintuitive. Obviously, things in the film would never happen, but even the carnage and destruction that goes on feels real because that is how Nolan has approached the films. All of a sudden adding what is essentially a flying Batmobile is a strange move. Here, in both cases, the biggest problem of the film is demonstrated, in that it does not know when to be real, when to be fantastical, or when to balance the two.
The Batman films have molded and conformed thematically to whatever the contemporary social and political atmosphere is. Here, we plainly see strains of various recent social movements, and again, it is the focus that trips up the pacing and the story. Nolan handles the socio-political material better than anyone else would have, but as clear as the extremism is in the film, it sometimes gets caught up in itself. Strains of the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party Movement stand out the most, with dialogue form characters that read out the conceits as obviously as the final speech in The Dark Knight. As soon as the lesson in political science is put on the back burner, but still present yet subtle, the representations that the characters become and their motivations stand for seem smoother and more easily digestible than some of the ham fisted and overt ideas.
The action, though, seems of a different flavor that one is used to. It still remains fairly coherent in its editing and execution style, but you get the sense that, once again, there’s difficulty in reconciling the action epic of Michael Bay proportions and the thrilling, almost poetic action to counterpose the emotional weight of the story. The final forty-five minutes, however, are very satisfying to watch on the big screen. Especially, in IMAX.
The film also seems to be more stylistically different than those from the rest of the series, but its ties to the universe make it so that the film would not be able to stand on its own very well. That is not inherently bad, but while the other two films can be their own entity, it is harder to compartmentalize and separate The Dark Knight Rises from its counterparts. The film, though, does nice tie some things together, and it ends up being a fairly satisfying ending.
As “disappointed” as I was, I will still contend to the fact that it is a pretty splendid film. Maybe it isn’t the masterpiece everyone wanted it to be, but with the sky high expectations, can you blame it? While the film is flawed in several ways, it is a pretty incredible and fantastic way to end a superb film trilogy. Though the film has trouble with its pacing and its ability to focus, its strengths in acting and pieces of its storytelling outweigh its weaknesses. Similarly, in the film, the light is able to makes its way through the darkness in Gotham, if barely.
Also, check out my essay comparing Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s approaches the Batman at VeryAware.com!