Modern cinema. A canvas hundreds of artists attempt to make their mark on, with only very few actually hanging their final piece. It is rife with 'genres' and categories that many everyday viewers don't even know about, sometimes combining many to create an entirely new genre. However, since about 2006, the comic book genre has been mastering both the box office and the minds of viewers all around the world. You don't have to be an avid follower of either Marvel or DC, but most moviegoers know the stories are the stuff of fiction, originating from the pages of comic books. But sometimes that just doesn't cut it for audiences paying $17 at a theatre. They want a hero to inspire them in the real world. Someone they can actually look to and say, "It is actually possible to be him." Christopher Nolan brought that possibility to life in 2005.
The character of Batman has been saving the citizens of Gotham for about 75 years now. He first appeared in Detective Comics #27 and has been stopping evil maniacs and super-powered beings ever since. He was rich. He was just a man though. But he had spandex 'armour' that seemed to allow him to do things no other man had done before and only young boys had dreamed of doing. He was a hero for those who had survived the second world war to look up to. Someone who they could empathize with on a certain level. Heroes often live two separate lives. One that would often play out at night time, and the one that would be in the public during the day.
Despite the serious sounding tone, the original Detective Comics were actually actually quite a light hearted read. Hence the name, "comic" book.
Batman was, in a way, a source of comedic relief for all the various atrocities that were occurring in the world at the time. However he wasn't as comedic as other superheros such as Captain America and Superman. However, the character finds himself in a dichotomy. He is in a comic book, intended to be funny, however he was intentionally created as a more serious character than Superman or The Flash, fighting crime in a dim and disgusting city, mirrored off of Detroit.
Crime fighting wasn't his trade though. That came shortly after he was created. Batman was actually born a detective who ended up fighting the criminal he was after. Much like Gordon is in Gotham.
Playing in the playground, one boy always pretended to be the caped crusader, while the others played the villains and henchmen. Criminals such as The Joker, Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman, Man-Bat and Clayface (just to name a few) became cult classics and were always attempting to take down 'Bats'. And why wouldn't you when you have the fame of a Hollywood superstar.
Bridging the Gap
Before television there were books. However when television came along, producers sure weren't too far behind. Before there even was a television in every American home, there was a 15 part Batman serial. Released 1943, Batman made his big screen debut and he was well received both in the U.S and internationally, especially Japan. He would later have his own manga devoted to his and Robin's adventures.
It wasn't until the 1960s that Adam West and Burt Ward really brought Batman and Robin into the homes of many. They brought a comedic and campy style to Batman; one that has never been forgotten and one which still has many young viewers today cringing in their seats.
The 1990s brought a renewed interest in Batman with Tim Burton's iteration - a much darker and more well produced Batman and (eventually) Robin. However by the 3rd of the 4 films, the appeal had fallen by the wayside and many stated that the cowled figure had had his final days of cinema screen time.
It was the early 2000s and nobody wanted to touch the Batman franchise, for fear of ruining the legend once more. However a young aspiring director of just a handful of films, Christopher Nolan, arrived at Warner Bros studios to negotiate the terms of bringing Batman back in an all new way. An unforeseen way.
2005 was the birth of the cinematic Bruce Wayne in the form of Christian Bale.
2005 was not just a year for another telling of the Batman story, but it was the beginning of the story detailing who was behind the mask itself. Up until this point, people knew that Bruce Wayne was a millionaire whose parents were killed in front of him at a young age, only to be then raised by his butler Alfred. But who was he?
Nowadays, all blockbusters are asking that of their well-known leading characters (see: James Bond in Skyfall). But prior to Batman Begins, we didn't know what made Bruce Wayne tick. Why was he Batman, and what did he do in his spare time?
It is with these questions in mind that Nolan made his film. He doesn't just aim to rehash the Batman story, but rather tell it from a different angle; the angle of the man driving the beast.
Batman Begins sets in the motion Bruce Wayne's transformation into 'The Batman.' We follow his growth, both physical and mental, and how he overcomes the troubles that he has in daily life. Following one of his earliest outings, we see an interaction between Alfred and Wayne, detailing how Bruce is only human and he can only take so much. It doesn't take long for him to answer stating that his wounds only make him stronger.
The reason he wears the mask isn't to protect his identity per se'; rather it is a symbol. A symbol for the people of his city so that when trouble strikes, they know that they will have someone to look after them. His mask doesn't offer any protection though. A Batman has never had the amount of human weaknesses this one had. He was affected by Scarecrow's gas, he was shot, stabbed, beaten. Over and over again. To the point that in the third movie, we are almost purely following Bruce Wayne.
The main character isn't Batman in the third movie. Or even the second one. Or even the first for that matter. All three villains address him as the man behind the mask. Attempting to find out how far he will go as a man. The entire ploy of Bane was not to kill the Batman. It was to break the will of the man behind the mask. The Joker's idea was to break the man's moral code. The first movie details the formation of both aspects. Ra's unlocks Bruce and trains him in both moral and physical aspects.
The Batman is a side character who is influenced by the decisions that Bruce Wayne makes. The world that Batman operates in isn't his world. It is the world of the millionaire. When Bruce is beaten to the point of permanent damage and takes the fall for society, the Batman doesn't return. He disappears for almost a decade. Not because the cowl doesn't fit. Or even he doesn't want to put it on. Rather, the world Bruce has shaped, as Batman, doesn't allow him to wear it anymore. The human limitations that are placed on the so-called 'superhero' hinder him from doing anything 'super'.
A Comedic Tragedy
It is rare for a smile to be cracked in The Dark Knight Trilogy, and never does the viewer have a chuckle at Batman himself. you would expect a comic book movie to have you (at least) chuckling at its characters. This is why, after seeing The Dark Knight I under appreciated films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Why? Because they weren't serious enough. They weren't in the real world. However, once I went back to the source material from the 1960s it begun to sink in. These aren't serious stories about real men and women saving the day. These are campy and (at-best) semi-serious stories about the spandex saving the day.
And that is what a true comic book movie is about. The Avengers has 6 superheroes saving New York City from aliens and a demi-god. The Dark Knight has one man stopping a psychological freak from blowing up two cruise liners. Yes. The latter does have elements of a comic book in it. However the trilogy as a whole cannot be classified as a 'comic book' film series. It is too much of an epic as a whole. Too much of a dramatic cinema masterpiece. Modern cinema will try and recreate it, even in true comic book movies.However, unless they pick a side, the clay will never quite fit the mold.