Monday, June 25, 2012

Why Burton’s “Batman” is Better than “The Dark Knight”

Five reasons why the original 1989 flick is a better movie than Nolan’s highly revered 2008 film

In a few weeks, the last installment of Christopher Nolan’s “Bat-Trilogy” will hit theaters, and conservative estimates have the movie making approximately infinity dollars at the box office this summer. Obviously, there is an absolute tsunami of hype behind the movie - not at all being fanned by the director himself, who said that the movie is the most epic film since the heyday of silent cinema - and since outdoing the last installment of the series (if not commercially, than most certainly critically) is about as likely as Mitt Romney naming a half-eaten turkey sandwich as his running mate, it looks like “The Dark Knight Rises” is absolutely destined to be a disappointment. And if you ain’t buying that, try reading some of the spoilers out there - apparently, the entire freaking movie is a blatant metaphor for the rift between capitalist bankers and the 99 percent…with Bane quite possibly serving as an oblique stand-in for a certain black dude in the White House.

Before we go any further here, I guess I have to say something that really shouldn’t have to be stated, but since people on the Internet like to go into tizzies over the most trivial of things, I suppose I have to. “The Dark Knight” was a fantastic movie. In fact, it was a great movie, one of the best comic book films ever and really one of the best action movies of the 2000s. That said, it’s greatness really can’t compensate for a lot of flaws the film had, especially now that we’ve had a good four years to look things over. In fact, now that I’ve had time to let everything sink in, I’m pretty damn certain that, as good as Nolan’s 2008 flick was, Tim Burton’s 1989 original is STILL a better overall picture.

Yes, Internet dorks, I said it. Not only is “The Dark Knight” not the best movie ever made (as a LOT of fan boys claim), I’m completely convinced that it’s not even the best movie featuring the Batman character. As a matter of fact, I’ve compiled five succinct reasons as to why “Batman” from 1989 is a better movie than the highly praised film from 19 years later…and I think even the most hardcore of Nolan fans can’t argue against these claims.

Michael Keaton was a way better Batman than Christian Bale will ever be. 

I don’t know if anybody has noticed it, but the character Christian Bale plays in “The Dark Knight” is essentially the same character he played in “American Psycho.” His intonation, his mannerisms, the way he interacts with the cast; essentially, he’s doing the exact same role, albeit with a lot less hooker-killing and a whole lot more groveling and running things over in space-age tanks.

The growling criticism is pretty played out by now, but Bale’s over-the-top chewing, grunting and generally sore-throated performance in “The Dark Knight” was, at the absolute best, distracting, and the absolute worst, completely self-parodying. Considering all of the muttering and snarling that he did in the movie, I’m kind of surprised Ricola didn’t sign on as a chief sponsor of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Michael Keaton, obviously, brought a whole lot more humanity to the Batman character with his performance. Throughout “The Dark Knight,” I never really thought of Bruce Wayne as being this paranoid, hyper-traumatized nutso, which, really is the great, unheralded reality behind the Batman character: the dude’s a freaking psychopath. With Keaton, you could feel a palpable sense of insanity, this pulsating undercurrent of flat out lunacy pretty much every time he was on screen. Bale’s performance, however, turned the character into a figure that was WAY less amoral, essentially painting the character as a self-righteous messiah as opposed to some crazy ass rich dude with a lot of weapons. Bale’s Batman, you saw as this almost deified hero, whereas with Keaton’s Batman, you saw the character as this obsessed guy on a power trip, making the figure almost as horrifying as the Joker. Not only was Keaton’s performance as Bruce Wayne more intricate and complex, it was a far more interesting take on the character than what we saw in “The Dark Knight.” Which, in turn, brings us to a statement that might just prove mildly controversial…

Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker was truer to the comics than Heath Ledger’s. 

At this point, it seems almost sacrilegious to say anything negative about Heath Ledger’s performance in “The Dark Knight” - which isn’t at all ironic, considering the hissy fits fan boys threw when it was announced that he would be playing The Joker to begin with.

Like everybody else, I though Ledger’s performance was very, very good. Unlike a lot of people, however, I quickly realized that Ledger’s Joker was, in essence, nothing more than a slight tweaking of Alex DeLarge and Sid Vicious - compare Ledger’s performance in “The Dark Knight” with Gary Oldman’s in “Sid and Nancy" or check out “A Clockwork Orange,” and you will see EXACTLY where the inspiration for his performance stems from.

That, and Ledger’s Joker really wasn’t all that comparable to the Joker presented in the Batman comic books, either. The intrinsic beauty of the character is the inversion of the intrinsic beauty of the Batman character - whereas the hidden reality behind Bruce Wayne is that he’s genuinely insane (and doesn’t realize it), the hidden reality behind the Joker is that he knows he’s incredibly intelligent and, compared to most of the people in Gotham, quite stable-minded. You never really got that with Ledger’s performance, but you sure as hell get it with Jack Nicholson’s, who played the character as an egotistical - and brilliant - criminal mastermind that knew how to bend the public’s support to him instead of Batman and the police force. I’m not necessarily saying that I thought Nicholson’s performance was better than Ledger’s, but this much is absolutely incontestable: Nicholson’s performance, no matter how you slice it, was much, much closer to the comics than what we saw out of Ledger in “The Dark Knight.”

“Batman” embraced the inherent goofiness of the concept and STILL managed to be a more believable movie than “The Dark Knight.”

The next time someone calls a Nolan Bat-movie “realistic,” I’m going to punch a wall. Let’s summarize “The Dark Knight,” shall we? A really, really rich dude - with weaponry and technology he stole from the military - appoints himself as protector of New York City (while wearing S&M bondage gear, no less) and does battle with a homeless dude dressed up like a clown, who is somehow able to take an entire metropolitan area hostage using a workforce comprised primarily of escaped mental institution patients. Clearly, this is something we see every time we turn on the evening news, isn’t it?

I’m certainly not the first person out there to say, hey, maybe the plot devices in “The Dark Knight” were just a little unrealistic. For example, just how in the hell did The Joker manage to plant twenty gajillion tons of explosives in the basement of a hospital without ANYBODY noticing? For that matter, how exactly did he manage to rig two ferries (generally, government property that’s prone to extremely thorough inspections, several times a day) to explode? Did the shipmen just sort of forget to check the ship’s hull that afternoon or something?

Burton’s “Batman,” unlike “The Dark Knight,” is a movie that doesn’t try to abandon its comic book roots, and fully embraces the total absurdity of the premise. And even though “Batman” wasn’t constructed as a “this could potentially happen” story, it still somehow managed to provide a more believable narrative than Nolan’s flick. When, precisely, was the last time a single person managed to ensnare an entire U.S. city in the grips of panic via threats of mass terrorism? In the real world, The Joker would have had the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms right outside his hideout the week after he robbed that bank, ready to David Koresh his ass as soon as the ATF noted movement through their night vision goggles. Oddly, it’s The Joker’s much more “comic-ish” plot in the first “Batman” movie that gives us an actual, real world precedent. Poisoning the city’s food supply? Using nerve gas to wipe out massive throngs of people? Hell, even the idea of using balloons as weapons of mass destruction? Not only are such actions more believable than the scenarios presented in “The Dark Knight,” all of the above instances actually HAVE happened before. A dude put cyanide in Tylenol bottles in Chicago, a bunch of crazy ass Japanese nationalists tried to launch a chemical attack on subway riders and I’ll let you do your own research on “the fire balloon” programs of World War II. Of course, there are some aspects of “The Dark Knight” that are very much rooted in reality, but as we will soon see, that’s not necessarily because the producers wanted to make a more “believable” film - it’s because they wanted to promote their own political agendas.

Burton’s movie wasn’t bogged down in all of the socio-political commentary that Nolan’s film was. 

If you didn’t read “The Dark Knight” as a clear parable for the “War on Terror,” you must have been accidentally watching “Mamma Mia!” instead. Clearly, Nolan intended for The Joker to represent any number of Islamic fascists, most notably the recent departed OBL. A guy, using suicidal human bombs, that targets major metropolitan infrastructure, who frequently records videos of murder and mayhem and sends it to U.S. media? Yeah, that doesn’t sound familiar. At all.

The really controversial aspect of “The Dark Knight,” however, seems to be that the entire movie serves as an  apologist statement in support of the Bush Administration, with a band of super-rich, super-secretive, self-ordained “protectors of the people” deciding to do away with that whole “civil liberty” thing and do whatever it took to eliminate Gotham’s terrorist threat. Suspension of habeas corpus, interrogations that border on torture (you know like, having your head slammed against a table by a dude dressed up like a rubber owl), and wiretapping an entire city - or we talking Bruce Wayne here, or the NSA? 

And don’t even get me started on the parallels the movie makes between Harvey Dent and a certain guy who may or may not be President right now. There is absolutely ZERO doubts as to whether or not Nolan intended to make a political statement with “The Dark Knight,” which is yet another reason why I prefer Burton’s generally agenda-less 1989 flick to the later offering. If given the choice between watching “homeland security” agitprop or Bob the Goon vandalize modern art while Prince plays in the background, I think you definitely know which one I’m going to vouch for.

There was never a VHS release of “The Dark Knight,” so you never got to see awesome, ephemeral stuff like this…

This is sort of an off-kilter reason, but I stand by it. While both films resulted in a pop cultural sensation, I’d have to say that “Bat-Mania” circa 1989 was way, way more enjoyable than “Dark Knight-Mania” circa 2008. If you look at how the two films influenced American culture, I think it’s a downright obvious assertion that Burton’s film had the greater - and most definitely, more prolonged - influence on Western entertainment.

It’s really hard to overstate how important “Batman” was. Not only did the movie basically create the summer blockbuster (an idea that had been dead since “Jaws”), the mega-multimedia-bombardment campaign behind the film totally revolutionized the concept of marketing in entertainment. Really, Burton’s film was only a sliver of the total product experience - after watching the movie, you could go play your kick-ass NES game, eat a bowl of your kick-ass Bat-Cereal and if you were lucky, pick up a Bob the Goon action figure on your way home from the Revco. Hell, a year after the movie came out, the influence was still pretty palpable - there were Batman jokes on “Tiny Toon Adventures,” you could watch Batman hawk Diet Coke over and over in the intro to the VHS version of the movie and in a few years time, we were given “Batman: The Animated Series,” - arguably the single greatest animated program of the last 25 years. Needless to say - that’s an absolute shit-ton of influence for one movie to have on contemporary culture.

The extent of “The Dark Knight” influence on pop culture, I am afraid, was rather limited, and for the most part, annoying as all hell. Really, the greatest impact the movie had was a two-fold celebration of the Joker - first, as Heath Ledger’s posthumous performance (as before, not really ironic considering the outrage of the Batman fan boys when the casting announcement was made), and secondly, as this made-for-the-Hot-Topic-crowd anti-hero counter-cultural brand name. Whereas “Batman” gave us a renaissance in multimedia experiences, the “Dark Knight” gave us nonstop Internet memes and a pseudo-idol for dumb teens that like to commit petty vandalism.

That, and the cultural reactions to both films were quite drastic. Compare the two news reports below, and tell me which one sounds like it created a more entertaining, enjoyable social phenomenon:

What a mass-media social phenomenon resembles - 1989

What a mass-media social phenomenon resembles - 2008

So, in 1989, “Batman” produced this mass-media, super-spectacular trans-cultural sensation the likes of which have never been seen before, and in 2008, “The Dark Knight” gave antisocial nerds something to obsess over and revere, while the rest of normal America scratched their collective chins and wondered how nobody else noticed that the movie bore so many resemblances to “Heat.”

“The Dark Knight,” while still a fantastic movie, was obviously insanely overrated by fan boys and critics alike, with most filmgoers overlooking its generally uncreative narrative and plot structure. That, and let’s just come out and say it: had Heath Ledger NOT died during filming, there’s no way in hell his performance would have been vaunted as much as it was, and that Oscar win was most likely just an opportunity for the Academy to capitalize on a maudlin moment.

Every time “The Dark Knight” is shown on cable, I skip it. But every time “Batman” is on? I just have to watch it. There’s something so fun and free-spirited about the flick, and it’s certainly a more enjoyable motion picture than Nolan’s movie. Like “Willy Wonka,” Burton’s movie is the kind of flick you can watch over and over, and still walk away with a smile.

Almost a quarter century later, “Batman” is every bit as fun and captivating as it was in ‘89. And just four years down the road, “The Dark Knight” is already showing signs of temporal rust. Will we be able to look back on Nolan’s movie, 25 years from now, with the same amount of timeless splendor we have while watching Burton’s movie today?

That, my friends, I highly, highly doubt.


  1. Heath Ledger deserved that Oscar and you know it...10 actors were nominated from the grave never won except Peter Finch, get over it..that being said I like both movies...


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.