It’s the battle of the Batman’s, but when I say battle I really mean having a look at the characterisation of two very different, yet great Batmans. I’ll be taking a look at Michael Keaton’s Batman as portrayed in the 1989 film Batman, comparing it to Christian Bale’s Batman from the 2005 film Batman Begins.
Keaton and Bale’s Batman’s were very different. Batman (directed by Tim Burton) and Batman Begins (directed by Christopher Nolan) were very different films. When asked who is your favourite Batman, the typical answer is either Keaton or Bale. I’m not here to discuss necessarily whose Batman portrayal was better, but more so to discuss the way Batman was characterised in their respective films, and how Keaton’s Batman was about an almost mythical and god-like person, whereas as Bale’s Batman was just about a man.
Lets look at our first introduction to the character in both films. In Batman Begins we first see Bruce as a child, falling down a well, being scared. We then cut to Bruce Wayne in a foreign prison, he’s dirty and lost, but has an anger to unleash. In Burton’s Batman our first look at Bruce Wayne is of him being Batman. He descends from the sky and beats up a couple of guys. He’s confident and sure of himself.
So just from the introduction of the character in these films we get a very different perspective of this character. Burton builds Batman up as a myth and legend at the start of his film. The bad guys talk about this mysterious Bat guy who may or may not exist. And the first time we see him, he looks mythical with his cowl spread as he descends from the sky with the moonlight highlighting him. Nolan builds up Bruce Wayne the man first and foremost. He was the scared little boy, he’s trying to find himself.
It’s the image of a god verse the image of an ordinary man. Batman in the Burton films is made to seem more mythical and god-like, beyond just a man. Batman in the Nolan films is made to seem like a broken man who is trying to find his way.
What’s obviously similar about both characterisations of Batman in the films is that the character is made to seem like he is very alone and isolated. In the Burton film Bruce Wayne goes on a date with Vicki Vale. We get a shot of the two of them on a very long dining table. This evoking the idea of Bruce’s separation from the rest of humanity. Eventually the two of them decide to ditch the ridiculously long table to hang out in the kitchen, where we hear stories about Bruce being a boy from Alfred. Even though he has been built up as some mythical god by the bad guys, we the audience see that Batman is just some guy figuring his way out, but the question is does Bruce himself consider him to be just a man or more than a man?
This sense of a lost man trying to find his way is also a very big part of Batman Begins. We find out in the first act that Bruce has been gone from Gotham for years, travelling the world, trying to find some answers about what he should do and the type of man he should be.
But even though both films showcase a lost man trying to find his way, they have different perspectives on the true identity of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Burton gives us the idea that the true identity is Batman. After his date with Vicki, Vicki wakes up to see Bruce swinging upside down in his sleep, obviously very bat like, this is how he really views himself, his true nature. Nolan on the other hand gives us the idea that the real identity is Bruce Wayne. Although I want to keep this discussion mainly within the first Burton Batman movie and the first Nolan Batman movie, Nolan’s whole idea of Bruce Wayne being the true identity becomes painfully clear in The Dark Knight Rises. One of the biggest complaints about that film was that “Batman” was only shown for about 20 minutes altogether. And the reason is because Nolan doesn’t believe he is telling the story of Batman, he believes he is telling the story of Bruce Wayne (which he has said himself in multiple interviews).
This is about Bruce Wayne’s struggle. When Bruce Wayne finally gets over his massive existential crisis he stops being Batman (by the way that end scene of The Dark Knight Rises totally wasn’t a dream, Bruce didn’t die!). Bruce used Batman as a means to an end. A way to help him figure out who he is. Once he figured that out, did what he was set out to accomplish, he didn’t need Batman anymore, he could just be himself again.
And yes I know that in Batman Begins Rachel talks about how Bruce Wayne is the mask and Batman is who he really is, but Rachel’s an idiot (sorry not going to lie I could have done without her character). Bruce Wayne built Batman so that he could be the best person he could be. He grew up seeing the great that his parents did, and when he came back to Gotham he saw all that goodness died when his parents died. We see Bruce Wayne try to deal with this problem poorly by trying to kill Joe Chill, until we see him evolve emotionally until he becomes Batman. By becoming Batman, Bruce Wayne was able to overcome the emotional barrier that was stopping him from accomplishing good, but Batman was never who he really was, as I said it was merely a means to an end of his existential crisis.
So we see this emotionally flawed Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, lets take a look back at Bruce Wayne in Burton’s Batman film. There’s one scene that really stands out to me. Bruce Wayne goes to Crime Alley to place flowers where his parents were murdered. If this was Nolan’s film, we would probably hear a very slow somber score that emphasises the sorrow Bruce Wayne feels. But this is Burton’s film, and instead the score is triumphant in this scene. The score shows how Bruce Wayne has evolved so much emotionally, he has completely transformed since his parents death, he is no longer that scared little boy, he is now Batman.
Nolan’s Batman film kept reminding us that Batman was human, that he was Bruce Wayne. We see Bruce break down, we see him plead to Rachel. Burton’s Batman film kept reminding us that Keaton was the goddamn Batman. When the Joker first starts trouble in the streets we see Bruce Wayne get shot in the shoulder, to which he acts like nothing has even happened, he just shrugs it off and keeps on walking. Keep in mind he isn’t in his Batman suit at this point in time, making it seem like he was more than human, he was and always is Batman.
This whole god vs man portrayal becomes clearer when you compare the way the Keaton’s Batman fought bad guys to the way Bale’s Batman fought bad guys. Keaton’s Batman was far less restrained compared to Bale’s. When the Joker fell to his death, Keaton’s Batman didn’t really care. This whole ‘no killing’ rule wasn’t really that much of a thing for Keaton’s Batman. Keaton’s Batman was intense and aggressive and really didn’t give a shit as long as he got his bad guy. Yeah Bale’s Batman was also somewhat intense and aggressive (SWEAR TO MEEE!!!), but he was a lot more restrained compared to Keaton’s Batman. Bale’s Batman was a lot more strict on that whole ‘no kill policy’, because he did give a shit. Now I know he pretty much killed Ra’s Al Ghul but he pretty much rationalised that in his head he didn’t kill Ra’s Al Ghul, he just didn’t save him either, because this Batman, this Bruce Wayne, is a lot more attached to his humanity compared to Keaton’s Batman.
Bale’s Batman says he will give up being Batman to be with Rachel, Keaton’s Batman has a new girl by the second movie, he ain’t got no time for the one woman, he’s bloody Batman! At the end of Batman he ditches Vicki Vale to go be Batman, Bale’s Batman would have done the opposite for Rachel Dawes.
Even though we the audience see that Keaton’s Batman is just a man, I don’t believe that Keaton’s Batman saw himself as that. I believe he saw himself the way the bad guys saw him, the way the cops saw him, as a myth, a legend, almost god-like, more than a man, he chooses to always be Batman because he is Batman. Bale’s Batman understood he was just a man. He didn’t want to be Batman forever because that’s not who he is, he is Bruce Wayne.
So when the question comes up about who was the better Batman, it depends on how you like the characterisation of your Batman. Do you like when he is made to seem more than human, god-like, yet still just a man. When he well and truly is Batman. Or do you like when Batman is made to seem a lot more human, when you see his emotional and personal struggles are emphasised as Bruce Wayne. Me personally I like a bit of both. I’m hoping Ben Affleck’s Batman gives us a Batman that is somewhere in the middle between the characterisation of Bale’s and Keaton’s Batman.
But anyways what type of Batman do you prefer? God or Man? Let me know!
Categories: comic book movies