This is a championship match, sure to incite and divide. It’s Gotham’s defender’s revered cinematic debut in Tim Burton and Sam Hamm’s Batman versus the sequel to Christopher Nolan’s & David Goyer’s Batman Begins.
Michael Keaton was the riskier choice to play Batman back in 1989 as he’d made a number of comedy films. A lot of people wondered what Tim Burton had been smoking by casting Keaton back then, but it didn’t keep them from the box office.
Christian Bale, on the other hand, has made a career out of very specific, dramatic characters and few thought he would bring anything less to the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. He was coming in after Keaton, Val Kilmer and even George Clooney had tried on the cowl for size.
Yet, for this Smackdown, the Battle of the Bats isn’t the defining role. These two films give us a rare chance to see two generation-defining actors take on the role of the iconic Batman villain — first, Jack Nicholson, then Heath Ledger.
With the same hero and the same villain in both films, let’s just get right to it and see what chaos ensues. And, oh yes, there will be chaos.
The Dark Knight’s causing quite a stir. Touted as anything from a masterpiece to the best comic book film ever made, Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins finds the director teaming with his brother Jonathan to continue the story of a hero who wishes to inspire a corrupt city to good. Batman has two allies this time around, good cop James Gordon and DA Harvey Dent. Together, the trio take out most of Gotham’s crime elements, leaving a vacuum that can only be filled by something far deadlier: The Joker. Among exciting action, heart-wrenching drama, and unbearable tension, Heath Ledger’s Joker forces Batman to confront his own morality as he pushes Batman to his knees.
The Defending Champion
Believe it or not, Tim Burton’s Batman is my earliest childhood movie memory. It was just so fantastic, watching the Caped Crusader tackle Jack Nicholson’s Joker, a clown of the highest and most sadistic sort, just like those comics I read day in and day out. Highly stylized, Burton allows Batman and Joker to play in Gotham, the two characters doing circles around one another using cool tricks, awesome vehicles, and neat action sequences. Matched with an unforgettable score by Danny Elfman, Batman brought credit back to superhero movies following the Superman’s franchise’s demise.
I went in The Dark Knight expecting this to be a hard one. I was right, but not for the expected reason. No joke, these two movies are such different creatures that it’s almost hard to believe. Let’s start with the Batman. Burton’s Batman, like Nolan’s in The Dark Knight, is an already established vigilante whose war against crime opens a vacuum for a crazed psychotic killer to rise to power. In Batman, Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is hardly a character, just a mask, and his Batman is a kinetic deus ex machina aimed against the criminal hijinks of Jack Nicholson’s outrageous and comedic Joker.
Nolan’s Bruce Wayne operates as more than a simple mask; he’s a man faced with the cost of his ambitions, realizing that his war against crime may be producing more harm than good. Instead of inspiring, he may be instigating. His Batman is an even more haunted figure, consumed by his desire to eradicate Gotham’s corruption. A breathtaking scene in Hong Kong demonstrates how far Batman will go to fullfill a mission born of his parent’s murder. As Gotham falls to the terrorism of the Joker, Bruce Wayne must decide between the safety of Gotham or the symbol of Batman.
Now let’s get to the Jokers. It’s easy. Jack Nicholson’s Joker was a mass murderer. He decapitates Gotham’s crime families, gases an entire restaurant, and unleashes more lethal gas on an entire city while offering them cash in a cruel joke.
However, Nicholsan’s Joker is not Heath Ledger’s Joker. Ledger’s Joker is a terrorist, plain andsimple. Although Ledger may not rack up the body count of Nicholsan’s Joker, who he kills and how he kills them is more sadistic than anything Nicholsan attempts. It’s quality not quantity here. Gassing a restaurant is one thing, but placing a bomb inside a thugs stomach so you can blow up Gotham’s Police Department is on another level. Dangling the love interest off a church tower is expected, strapping two lovers in separate rooms wired to explode with a phone so they can talk to each other as the bombs tick is just torturous. Funny and entertaining describes Nicholsan’s Joker; sadistic and fearless describes Ledger’s. Mix sadism with fearlessness and the result is a terrifying villian who will stop at nothing to get what he wants — but what does Nolan’s Joker want? Nothing and everything. This static character is an unnstoppable force that Batman simply cannot handle, and the perfect villain to test the virtue of Batman’s deeds in Gotham.
You cannot however talk about the quality difference between Batman and The Dark Knight, it’s heroes and villains, without talking about the writing. Most of the time, I allow the writing of the film to be implied by my review. However, The Dark Knight arrives from such a well-crafted script that it demands singular attention. Sam Hamm’s draft for Burton’s Batman is linear, single-layered, and fun. Jonathan Nolan’s script for The Dark Knight is exhausting, but in that way that all great drama is. The character arches are so intertwined, the dramatic narrative so tight, that it rewards attentive viewers with a complexity rarely seen in superhero films, nevermind regular films. There’s an ambition in Jonathan Nolan’s script, to create something new and to pull Batman into our world, using a character as far-fetched and over-the-top as the Joker.
Take for example a key turning point in the film. MASSIVE SPOILERS. Joker kidnaps Rachel Dawes and Harvey Dent, placing them in separate rooms wired to explode along with a phone so they can hear one another die. Joker then provides Batman with both addresses, allowing him to pick which one to save. Batman chooses Rachel, sending Gordon after Dent. However, when Batman arrives, he realizes he’s been duped as Joker’s switched the addresses. Rachel, having rightly believed Batman would come for her, hears Dent being rescued and is crestfallen thinking Dent was chosen over her. Dent is saved, although left horribly scarred mentally and physically. Rachel is not. Afterward, Bruce mourns Rachel, believing that she was leaving Harvey to be with him. However, Alfred holds a letter from Rachel stating that she was in fact going to marry Harvey, who has now become a disfigured freak hell-bent on breaking whatever laws necessary to avenge Rachel’s death. his is just a sample of the beautiful and determined writing in The Dark Knight, these reversals and plays on expectations that keep an entire audience hushed with their eyes on the screen. I’ve never seen so much popcorn go uneaten.
The Dark Knight is also a more rounded film, respecting its material with a manic seriousness. Nolan’s Batman operates in a scarily real world. The addition of Harvey Dent is a welcomed, and essential, character that creates must of the dark tragedy that The Dark Knight will most certainly be remembered for. Dent’s transformation from the White Knight of Gotham to the lost, angry Harvey Two-Face is the Joker’s final trump card against Batman, who realizes a series of terrible truths by the film’s end and is forced to make one final decision that forever changes his mission. Stakes are key to any dramatic narrative. The Dark Knight simply has more. All it’s major characters are in danger of losing something, and not just any old thing. A classic drama axiom is to put your main character in a tree and start throwing stones. The Dark Knight throws boulders, all directly linked to the Jokers chaotic dog-eat-dog philosophy. Batman: his identity, his mission, his values, his friends, his love, and his city. Gordon: his family, career, and friends. Rachel: her lover, her ex- over. Alfred: his surrogate son. Harvey Dent: his reputation, his life, his love. Sure, Burton’s Batman has the stereotypical “city-in-danger” and “love interest” dangers. But it’s nowhere near as potent as The Dark Knight’s execution, where these dangers challenge the very existence of Batman. This dichotomy is totally absent in Batman.
Both Burton and Nolan’s Batman strive to be about Gotham’s dark and noble hero. Burton’s Batman beats you over the head with this, the last image being a dramatic shot of Batman perched heroically atop a high-rise, staring at the bat-signal. Contrast this to Nolan’s ending where a wounded Batman hobbles through warehouse stacks, hounded by both the police and their dogs, as Gordon takes an ax to the bat-signal while declaring a citywide man-hunt on Batman. When the hero faces more than just comic hijinks and celebrity acting, and must pick himself up in the face of devastating tragedies, there is a desperation and humanity that can only be described heroic. This is Nolan’s Dark Knight.
This isn’t hard. The Dark Knight not only beats, but throws Batman out of the ring and then buries it in an unmarked grave. Burton’s Batman is a relic. With the rising cost of movie tickets, The Dark Knight represents the type of movies audiences not only deserve, but should be grateful for having seen. Batman vanishes while shrouded in the mature and compelling dramatic shadow of The Dark Knight.