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The Dark Knight (2008) -vs- Batman (1989)

Beau DeMayoThe Smackdown

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.

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The Challenger

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.

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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.

The Scorecard

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.

The Decision

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.

22 Comments on The Dark Knight (2008) -vs- Batman (1989)

  1. Batman 1989 is a masterpiece.The dark knight sucks ass

  2. I like Both Batman movies It seems like people try to compare great with outstanding there’s no real difference.Just seems like Burton had more fun and creative control with his, while Nolan was forced to take on a franchise that was popular and was nearly destroyed by the worst filmmaker that Burton should had been more careful givng it to.Just seems if a movie is good don’t compare it with another great one instead compare to piece of crap that was Batman and Robin.By the way I wish someone could reincarnate Robin as well if Batman can be saved why not Robin.

  3. What?! Most of the people here actually prefer that old campy Batman over the Darker and grittier Batman movie of the 21st century? WTF has happened to humanity?! But I guess only idiotic and scared-by-TDK 80s kids would do that. Still, you can’t change the fact that TDK is the Greatest superhero movie of all time.

  4. Could people have it more wrong?!?!?!

    first off, who is batman? what is his character? batman has a high moral code, he does not kill, he catches the bad guys and leaves their fate to the justice system, he does not believe he has the authority to take a life, and his moral code prevents him from such actions.

    Hold up, then why the hell does batman in 1989 kill nearly all of jokers goons, throws that black guy he fights off the church and finally kills the joker by causing him to fall, obviously they have it wrong, batman is not a killer. Regardless of what you idiots will say how, batman should kill the joker bc joker kills thousands and it would be more convenient..blah blah blah….. no, batman does not kill out of convenience, this is what villains do, and batman is not a villian, so why does this movie portray him as a killer? and to top it off, the police department cherishes him afterwards… you got to be kidding me right?

    what else about batman? isnt he supposed to spend all his time physically and mentally training? then why in 1989 is bruce wayne / batman so damned un-muscular. clearly batman should be at least a bit toned, not looking like a police officer that sits at a desk all day. His lack of muscles would probably explain why he pretty much got his ass handed to him by jokers goons at the top of the church, untill he sneakishly tosses the black guy off the ledge. Clearly he needs to spend more time physically training.

    I also remember batman speaking to the blonde girl very disrespectfully while attempting to reveal himself as the batman, why would they portray someone that should have such high morals to be so disrespectful? sure he needed to get a point accross, but that doesnt mean he needs to be rude and forceful. once again, batman in 1989 fails.

    as you can see, batman in 1989 FAILS HORRIBLY at portraying batman in the physical sense and in the moral sense.

    The one thing i loved about batman in 1989 is how the joker was portrayed, joker is supposed to be funny, the dark knight portrays joker to be a psycopathic maniac, his name is joker for crying out loud, he should be laughing.

    However, the movie is about batman, and not the joker, which is why id have to go with dark knight as being far superior because of the way batman was portrayed.

    • You all have been fooled. The Dark Knight is not the masterpiece you think it is!

      You’re all missing the point. Batman was better for a few reasons. The biggest is that it was one of a kind. Burton made a truly unique fantasy film that redefined a genre. The Dark Knight, while well made, was basically Heat with a superhero. Whatever flaws Burton’s Batman had, he pulled off the impossible, and he did it with a style and showmanship that TDK just doesn’t have. You can prefer the realistic Dark Knight over Batman’s comic book world. But Batman 89 is a masterpiece of pop art. Nolans is just a big crime movie.

      I won’t argue Ledger vs. Nicholson. Both were great in different ways. But Keaton was a far better Batman than Bale. If you guys are REALLY honest with yourselves, I can’t see how you don’t realize that Bale looked and sounded a bit silly as Batman. Obviously the voice was a problem (though downplayed by most people, for some reason). It would be like Superman saying everything in a mock heroic voice. It’s forced. And Bale didn’t look good in the costume. SO many shots where he just looks…off. Keaton was truly iconic and mythic, whereas Bale looked like a navy seal with pointed ears and a cape.

      And I’m sorry, but the plot was WAY too busy and expository. It tried to be complex, but just ended up complicated. It may have made sense, but was emotionally scattered. Too many storylines to follow.

      Batman’s music is far superior. As is the cinematography. Basinger far more compelling that Maggie.

      Batman’s action was better. TDK had some great stuff, but it was also badly edited and confusing. Batman’s action was imaginative, heroic, and varied. And COHERENT. And when Batman hit someone, it was powerful. When Bale hit someone (almost always with his elbows), it was underwhelming.

      On and on. TDK was a finely made movie. But somehow everyone has blown far out of proportion. I think I know why. It was all the Joker. If Ledger wasn’t so great, TDK would have been as ecstatically received as Batman Begins. Which was much less. Why? It was just as well made as TDK. Perhaps not as epic, but it was no worse a film. But Ledger was SO surprising that it created the illusion that the whole movie was as compelling. You don’t realize this on a conscious level, but it’s very possible.

      And lets not forget that TDK owes it’s qualities to Batman.

    • Very toned people can look physically average while wearing clothes. And we only see one shot of Keaton from behind without his shirt, so for all we know he was in shape.

      Yes, Batman killed. But the original Batman did have a gun, so it’s not so horrible. And, personally, I was never crazy about Batman’s rule against killing. It’s a rule like that which allowed all the villians to murder thousands of innocent people by being allowed to live and escape. True, that was needed to keep the characters around. But I actually liked a more stringent Batman. He only killed people who are an immediate threat.

      Batman 89 doesn’t fail as often as you say. If it weren’t for that movie, TDK wouldn’t have the qualities is has. Obviously Batman succeeded in many ways.

  5. batman 1989 was so much better. better costumes, actors, and plot. although dark knight was great too.

  6. sooooo wrong!!! batman 1989 has better costumes, better actors, and a better plot! although the dark knight was really good too.

  7. Ok, Batman is much better, but they are also two different movies, Michael Keaton played a much better batman by the way. Christian Bale always seemed a bit too tryhardish and he appeared constipated when he talked as batman. Jack Nicholson was going on a more comic Joker approach and he did not play much of a psycho because i mean look who the director is. Heath Ledger played a great psycho because its the 2000’s, everyone goes for action more than a story, and thats exactly what they gave them. People nowadays are more brawn than brains when it comes to movies. Tim Burton gave a story, a backstory in fantastic ways, AND action! The Dark Knight is shit in comparison and you sir are a stupid fuck.

  8. This is nonsense. I have had to defend this opinion way more often then I could have ever imagined. They are two entirely different movies, so an honest comparison is difficult, but there is no doubt that the original Batman(1989) is a far superior interpretation of the comic hero. Nolan’s is a creative and entertaining psy thriller that just happens to have a guy dressing like a bat and using a growly voice (even when he’s talking to his butler who knows he’s Bruce Wayne).
    Tim Burton, Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Prince and Danny Elfman ALL AT THEIR PRIME!
    I’m not saying Heath Ledger is not good in Nolan’s adaptation, but Jack freaking Nicholson?? There is no comparison. Ledger plays a fine psycho, but that’s about as far as it goes. Anyone can act silly and menacing. NO ONE CAN BE JACK. And even more-so, NO ONE CAN BE JACK PLAYING THE JOKER!
    The original Batman has so much going for it in this genre. It’s dark and menacing with one of the best scores in the history of cinema. It’s playful and tongue-in-cheek in all the right places without insulting the viewer. Every character in the original has a purpose.
    Don’t get me wrong, I like Nolan’s movie. I just isn’t Batman.
    Burton’s Batman was epic. Epic in a way that movies have ceased to be as of late. Cinematic perfection. Burton’s Batman is why I used to cherish the movie-going experience. Nolan’s Batman is why I have a netflix account. So I can smoke weed and work on other shit with stuff happening in the background.

    • Well said!

  9. I love them both

  10. I was merely being satirical about the views of modern society on films. Both jokers are two different personalities from two different films and cannot really be compared.

  11. I don’t normally disparage people on this site, but you’re an idiot. That doesn’t even make sense.

  12. Me is regular filmgoer. WOW! Pencil in guy’s eye! Best film ever! OH noes, these people talking for longs times, is boring. COOL! freaky face shoot down flying bat thingy. Now This is best film ever! Oh mans, this film contemplating the moral consequences of batman’s vigilantism and questioning what defines a vigilante from a villain and THIS film questions which ego bruce wayne/ batman really is. Is boring. Both films must be rubbishes den!

  13. Fitzroy, I lack the vocabulary to tell you what my brain is thinking of you right now. I suggest that you are incapable of coming up with anything creative on your own, and thus must resort to baseless insults to start some sort of flame war.
    My suggestion?
    Go back to whatever intellectually shallow gene pool you spawned from and save the film analysis for people with, oh, a brain.

  14. only pseudo intellectuals who use fancy words to make their points look more relevant would prefer the shit sandwich of the dark knight over the giant douche that is batman.
    oooh its so edgy and has psychology from my highschool class…lol
    oooh look a hang mans reference symbolising the jokers demise in part one and foreshadowing his demise in part two… oh wow, so ingenious!

  15. Do you suppose Katie Holms sits in her Colorado fortress and stews about turning down the part in “The Dark Knight”? As a mother, I applaud her dedication to raising her child at home, and not on set, in early toddlerhood, but somewhere deep in the recesses of her ego (and let’s face it, everybody’s got one) this part that “got away” (in the biggest blockbuster of all 2008) has gotta’ burn. As for the movie itself, I have a soft place in my heart for heroically ironic endings.

  16. Batman was a superior movie. It was much tighter and engaging. TDK was boring and preachy. All the psycho-moral babble is stupid. keep it simple. that’s why Batman suceeds and TDk fails. batman – 4/4. Tdk – 2/4

  17. I think it’s an appalling understatement to say that Heath owned the movie and carried every scene. I think what was so amazing about his performance was that it was restrained and focus; he wasn’t show-boating.
    Also, the Joker’s arrival in The Dark Knight is so keenly gleaned from clean craftsmanship in both writing and directing, not just acting.
    I also think it’s a misconception to say that The Dark Knight showcased Batman winning. For me, it ended one of two ways:
    1) A draw. Joker lost to taking over Gotham (if he ever really wanted it in the first place). Batman lost Harvey Dent. The villain taking the hostage was not just the villain taking the hostage. What was at stake their was Harvey’s innocence and sanity — Batman nor Gordon were able to talk him back from the edge. He was lost to the Joker’s machinations.
    2) Total failure. Batman loses his reputation, his ability to inspire good (which was his character’s goal and motivation since the first one), his lover, and his allies. How is this winning? The Joker found the central weakness in Batman’s life and took a sledgehammer to it. The pieces fell accordingly and the next Batman film will most likely showcase him picking up the pieces. He makes a heroic decision in the end, but it’s one that makes him give up the last thing he had — his ability to be a hero and inspire positive change. With that lost, Batman’s mission becomes one that rests solely on his shoulders since no one will be joining his vigilante crusade.
    For me, I believe version 2 is more precise and accurate.

  18. Andre, that’s an interesting point, but do you think the movie would have had the same emotional impact if the Joker won? Or that it would still be a Batman movie? I don’t think the Dark Knight succumbed to the maudlin trap to a “a Spiderman-style-ending”; it’s ending was as tragic an ending as I’ve ever seen in any movie, let alone a superhero movie, a genre which usually ends with shots of the protagonists looking triumphant in high places. So I don’t think I can agree with you that this would have been a better movie if the Joker won. It would have been a whole different movie, with a different focus, better off called “The Joker” instead of “The Dark Knight”. And, it would have been an implicit celebration of nihilism, while the whole pleasure inherent in the Batman franchise is the hardly (and in this case, barely) won triumph of sometimes-futile nobility over nihilism.

  19. The key strength of The Dark Knight lies in Heath Ledger’s performance. Without him, the quality would have been way down below that of Keaton’s Batman. Who would you think controlled the screen time? Obviously Heath, not Bale, not Eckhart, not everyone else. There’s always some hunger in us, to want more of Heath than anybody else. The fact that Heath played so well made this movie also “implicitly an absolute tragedy” because it was the last one from Heath. I doubt that there would be anyone who could replace him with the same quality. Bale and the rest of the cast were, I must say, supporting characters. The story was not that remarkable, the bad guy entered, the bad guy escaped, the bad guy takes hostages, the bad guy fights the good guy and the bad guy lost. Typical. It would have been a better ending if the Joker won. Depressing, maybe, but there’s the quality. If Nolan wanted to make this movie dark, so be it, make it as dark as it can be. Don’t fall into some kind of Spider-Man-style-ending.

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