In 2005, in a semi-crummy theater in Waco, Texas, I saw Batman Begins on opening day, hoping that the film would do what the critics said it did and restore my favorite superhero to big-screen glory. I was not disappointed.
I loved Batman Begins. Still do. I love that writer-director Christopher Nolan opted to give us two villains (The Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul) that never had a chance at live-action before. I love that we got to see the whole process of how Bruce Wayne actually, logistically as well as psychologically, became Batman. I love Gary Oldman as the new Commissioner Gordon. I love pretty much everything about that movie, and I love its successors The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises even more.
And yet, Batman Begins bugs me now, not because of anything it did intentionally, but because so many people seem to have learned all the wrong lessons from it.
Comics critic Chris Sims has a phrase he likes to throw out whenever someone brings up the legacy of comic book staples like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, both books that were released in 1986. Sims has dubbed 1986 “The Year Great Comics Ruined Everything”, and though I think that’s a bit hyperbolic, I can’t deny that he’s on to something. Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns were hailed as breakthrough works for comics, books that “serious” adults who read “serious” literature could happily pick up if they wanted depth and “realism” with their superheroes, and sarcastic quotation marks aside, that’s still true of those books today. The problem is, though, that so many people come to these comics, even now, and come away with the idea that “dark” and “serious” are the only ways to go when it comes to comic book storytelling. Wander into any comments section or message board devoted to Batman, and you’ll almost always find someone preaching the gospel of Frank Miller (who created Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, which Begins drew from), and declaring that Batman was always supposed to be that dark and gritty, and that comics were always supposed to be that serious.
Which brings me back to Batman Begins. Now, I’m not going to declare 2005 “The Year That Great Superhero Movies Ruined Everything,” because it didn’t, and neither did Nolan’s Bat-films. Nolan didn’t invent the “dark” superhero movie, nor did he invent taking a more “realistic” approach to a comic book character (go back and watch 2000’s X-Men and try not to cringe a little at the matching black leather uniforms), but his success with a darker Dark Knight, particularly after the mess that was Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, did send a message to both moviegoers and studios. As Tina Fey said at the 2014 Golden Globes “This is Hollywood, and if something kind of works, they’ll just keep doing it until everybody hates it!”
So, Hollywood got to work. Superheroes got brand new origin movies. Some worked (X-Men: First Class), some didn’t (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but we’re likely nowhere near the end of them (Fantastic Four and Ant-Man are both on the way in the next two months). The Star Trek franchise rebooted and, rather than telling brand new stories, ended up making a brooding Wrath of Khan mixtape by the second film. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles returned to the screen looking less like fun-loving, pizza-eating dudes and more like hypermuscled hulks. And then, of course, there’s Man of Steel.
Now, I don’t want to make this a “do this, not that” lecture, both because I don’t want to declare “darkness” in superhero movies off-limits, and because there are parts of Man of Steel I still really like. The sequence when Superman flies for the first time gives me chills. I like that Zack Snyder put some real thought into what it would actually look like when a Kryptonian punches something at full strength. Michael Shannon’s scenery-chewing as Zod delights me. It’s not a terrible movie, but I don’t think it’s a very good Superman movie, because there’s just too much emphasis on the darkness, right up to the neck-snapping finale. Superman feels like a fighter, but almost never like a hero. Writer David Goyer emphasized “naturalism” in his approach to making the film, but the muted color palette makes it look like it takes place on an alien world where everything is two or three shades grayer. In interviews to promote the film, everyone from Goyer to supporting cast members made reference to Nolan’s Batman films (which Goyer helped write), as though Man of Steel was almost a sister movie to Batman Begins. Words like “edgy” and “grounded” and “realistic” were thrown around a lot.
Which brings us back to that whole “learning the wrong lessons” thing. Now, if you’re the kind of person who agrees with the gospel of “realistic” superheroes…well, there’s a good chance you’ve already clicked away, and if you’re still here, I’m about to basically reject your entire entertainment premise. It’s OK, though, because you can still go watch whatever you want while grumbling about that idiot on the internet who doesn’t get your superheroes. Anyway, here’s what’s wrong with all these grasps at gritty, grounded, edgy, realistic superheroes, especially when they cite Batman Begins as an example:
Batman is inherently unrealistic.
I know, he has no superpowers, and there are even actual real-life people right now who roam the streets of American cities at night trying to do their own vigilante thing, but come on, none of those dudes will ever have to fight something like Bane. Batman is a billionaire who’d, for some reason, rather dress up as a Giant Bat and fight crime than, say, spend all his money improving the worst parts of his city. He lives in a mansion that is somehow immaculately maintained by a single butler, who’s also his nurse, confidante, getaway driver, and occasional co-combatant. He drives what’s essentially a tank through a city where there’s somehow never any traffic to block his way, but no one ever thinks to follow said tank to see that it’s headed back to stately Wayne Manor. His corporation somehow has pretty much every piece of equipment you’d ever need to be a super-soldier just sitting in the basement, because governments around the world don’t want to pay for stuff that would make their troops almost invincible. He goes out pretty much every night to throw punches and get punched in return, and somehow he just rolls out of bed the next day for his morning push-ups. Then, when one of his knees finally goes (in The Dark Knight Rises), he just attaches a magic brace that allows him to kick through bricks, then later heals a broken back by hanging from a homemade sling. He’s a detective, he’s a ninja, he’s a forensics expert, he’s a playboy, and he’s a one-man army. How “grounded” is this all sounding now?
The lesson of Batman Begins, and one of the key lessons of Batman, in general, is determination. Batman doesn’t give up and he doesn’t give in. He keeps fighting against all odds, even when he has to fight an army of ninja Man-Bats (and yes, that did happen once). Because he keeps fighting, because he doesn’t give up, he becomes a symbol of right and good, just as Superman does by devoting his impossible powers to helping people when he could just as easily rule the Earth as a god-king. That’s the realistic part of these crazy movies. That’s what grounds the film, and the hero, in something we can all relate to.
If you don’t believe me, go watch Batman Begins again. You’ll find it eventually.