This summer director Christopher Nolan & writer David S. Goyer bring us their version of the Dark Knight. Is a prequel really the answer to the Bat franchise, asks Ibrahim Hussain Shihab:
I wish I could say I was a true Batman fan from the beginning but I can’t. I had read comics off and on when I was in my pre-teens, teens, early twenties… you get the picture, BUT I was never truly a fan. Don’t get me wrong, I was, and still am, a fan of the first two Batman films by Tim Burton. I mean, let me put it to you this way, when a 5’9” Michael Keaton, wearing platforms and a rubber suit said “I’m Batman” I believed him, Tim Burton made me believe.
Following up to the first “Batman” (1989), Tim Burton and the soon-to-be-released film in general were dissed by a lot of fans because they didn’t believe Keaton had the stature to pull it off but the both of them pulled it off, with no lesser a contribution, in terms of the musical score, from Danny Elfman. They got Gotham. It was dark alleys, fog, crime around every corner and dirty cops lining their pockets with mob money. It was dank, depressing and devoid of colour except for that partly yellow logo on Batman’s chest.
But they didn’t really nail down Batman -- I mean he did have the angst, he did brood but he also slept upside down and was a wee bit chattier then I would eventually know him to be. And if you think I am nitpicking, you may be right but this one will be the kicker -- he shot people and the real Batman… well we’ll get to that later.
Batman returned in “Batman Returns” (1992) and I have to say, I loved him more. I could not put my finger on why most of my friends didn’t like “Batman Returns” more than “Batman”, but their tastes aside, “Returns” would truly be the defining moment on my path to true Batfandom. The story, the characters and the themes were darker and Batman was more relentless yet also forgiving at the same time; that is, he did not kill. On the down side, ok I DO realise why some of my friends hated it, the plot had a few *coughs* holes and, while I admit Keaton was at his best in this film as the title character, Bats was still chatty -- still not really Batman.
Then came the forgettable “Batman Forever” (1995) and the regrettable “Batman & Robin” (1997), which should have been titled “Batman: How to kill a franchise”. I was mortified and considering I had only Tim Burton’s Batman for comparison. (Words don’t really fail me but I’d like to think of myself as a better man so I won’t go there).
At this point let me give you an inkling of how royally pissed I was with “Batman: How to kill a franchise”; its writer (Akiva “never leave the cave without it” Goldsman received an Oscar for “A Beautiful Mind” in 2001) -- if Batman was gunning for Goldsman, I’d provide Bats with a map and a GPS locator beacon AND mark the map with a huge X on where Goldsman was located. For further impact please note the following: I LOVE good writers and I would admit that there’s some good writing in “Mind”. “Phone Booth” (2002) and “Tigerland” (2000) are not bad films and I’d think twice about doing the same to Joel Schumacher but I’d still do it to the director as well.
All hope for a good comic book movie, much less a good Batman, seemed lost. Then this little movie called “Blade” (1998) came out and got me to thinking otherwise. In the meantime, due to an honest to God university assignment, I chanced upon Batman again, but this time in the form of the purest comic book incarnation and I defected to the dark side.
While walking down a dark alley on their way home from the theatre, little Bruce Wayne sees his parents gunned down by a thief. He survives and blames himself, it was his idea to see the movie, and it was at his suggestion that his mother wore the pearls which was seemingly the target of the attack. As he stands at their graves, he swears that he will do everything in his power to prevent this from happening again. He’s rich, he has the means and he vows to acquire the skills to fulfil his promise. He travels the world, building himself physically and mentally and when he comes back to Gotham he will come full circle -- because all his travels and all his skills are just tools. It is a creature of the night that will define him, in his weakest hour, in Gotham.
Here is a man driven by the death of his parents, a death he blames himself for, to right the injustices of the world, to fight crime and to bring criminals to justice. He doesn’t use guns, but he uses other “weapons” in his arsenal to extremely good effect AND he does not kill, although sometimes those he goes after would have wished death rather than the Dark Knight. Oh and about being chatty -- he hardly ever speaks, the dude has a monopoly on monosyllables and that too when he absolutely has to.
Switching back to “reality”: in 2002 another little film called “Blade II” caught my attention and I remember thinking “this is how Batman should be filmed”. Fast-forward a few months and I’d have to view “Memento” (2000) in a class screening and as I was watching, I revelled in the pure noir of the film, I mean Chris Nolan handles darkness like David Lynch handles weirdness.
I know some of you think you see where I’m going with this but if you expect me to come away applauding, saying this is the Batman I want to see you’d be wrong. “Blade Trinity” was a travesty and Nolan is so adapt at filming morally grey characters that if he trips up, I’d be twice disappointed.
Comic’s greats the likes of Dennis O’Neal, Jeph Leob and most significantly Frank Miller have defined and moulded this Bob Kane creation to a knife’s edge. You touch this thing the wrong way…
Batman has never been done true to his purest incarnation and so far the best thing about this has been that an origins story has never been attempted; I’m dreading “Batman Begins” while at the same time giddy as a comic book freak with anticipation.
(This article was published in The Evening Weekly on 21 March 2005)