Friday, August 24, 2012

Batman trilogy comparison: Burton vs. Nolan Part 1

Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached the 50th post on this blog! And I'm celebrating with the first part of a two-part analysis. (Part 2 is here.)

Now that The Dark Knight Rises has been in theaters for more than a month, I feel comfortable enough to go into the plot of the film and analyze it in the context of the trilogy.

That means for those who haven't yet gotten themselves into a theater and seen the film, SPOILERS ARE HERE. DO NOT READ ON. YOU WILL NOT BE WARNED AGAIN.

Now that that's out of the way, I thought of this blog idea while I was doing last month's Batman-a-thon - specifically, during my review of Batman Forever.

You see, in it, I stated that had the film series not gone to a ridiculous low by adding to the story with Batman and Robin, the crew had actually created a decent trilogy. They could have ended Burton's Bat-verse right there and I don't think anyone would have gone into a psychotic rage over Joel Schumacher's work (or at least not to the extent that it would have been a death knell for his work in the superhero industry).

In an effort to make that point (and to aid my belief that if I continue to bury B&R from my discussions on the hero, it will drive the film further and further from public consciousness), I've decided to do an Old vs. New comparison of the first three films against the trilogy of Christopher Nolan movies.

To further set this as a trilogy vs. trilogy battle with reasoning besides "I hate B&R," I am dubbing it: Burton vs. Nolan. This is because Tim Burton was involved in all three movies, albeit only as a producer in Forever. 

If you're wondering what an Old vs. New comparison is like, let me show you the version that the Nostalgia Critic does:

Basically, it's like this except I will the movies will be compared as a whole, rather than film by film. But the idea is the same - I'll compare areas of the movies (like I did with the Batman Awards) and choose a winner. So here we go!

Best Batman: Michael Keaton/Val Kilmer vs. Christian Bale

This battle, much as I've done in the past, is only based on the time that the character is Batman. Bruce Wayne and Batman should, by definition, have a stark contrast and should be played and judged separately.

I have said in past posts that Michael Keaton is the best Bat of the bunch. He has the ability to be threatening regardless of the circumstances. He could be silent, giving serious dialogue or even grinning, and he is still the kind of guy who would terrify a criminal.

Val Kilmer, meanwhile, was good but not amazing. When he took over for Keaton, it was clear the threat would diminish. He still was legitimately a good Batman but that was more of the iconic suit than anything.

He couldn't serve as a three-dimensional Batman and as such lost a lot of luster when he played the character as anything but stoic and business-like. I will give him points for feeling more heroic and like a superhero than his predecessor, but a lot was sacrificed to get that feeling and if anything, I'd say that what is lost is what really makes Forever feel different from the other two of the trilogy.

Christian Bale has the advantage of being able to play the character in all three films. As such, the character never really changed in terms of how he was portrayed. His biggest drawback is that his voice always makes him sound like he's enraged and trying to be tough, whereas Keaton and even Kilmer at times could feel threatening without forcing themselves on the audience.

I ultimately grade on a trilogy-wide scale and as such, I'm going with Bale because of consistency. His performances were probably around an 8/10 each time whereas the original series diminished each time from probably an 8.5 down to a 7.

It's close, but the Bat had better writing and a set plan the second time around.

Winner: Dark Knight Trilogy

Better Bruce Wayne: Keaton/Kilmer vs. Bale

Bale once again showed consistency while the K&K express had a stark difference in performance. The difference, however, is that while Batman performances got weaker, the Bruce Wayne character got better with time.

For all Keaton did right in the first film, his Bruce was merely serviceable. I could feel his pain at times, and I get that they were going for subtlety, but he played his part so coldly and dark that I never really got into the Bruce character.

I didn't feel like there was a contrast from the alias to the hero, where Bale played the part with much more of a difference in persona. In the video above, the Critic said that he thought Bale was too odd as Bruce and that gave him away as Batman while Keaton would be a surprise given his actions as Bruce.

I disagree completely. If I saw Bale's Wayne, I may see him as eccentric, but especially in the first two movies, he just seems like too much of a dumbass to be a threat like Batman is (very much as Bruce was portrayed in older comics).

Keaton seemed to be far more realistic a choice as Batman with his Bruce. He came off as an oddball who kept to his estate and realistically could have slept with about a dozen cats - the kind of person who would be maniac that compulsively must scare the bejesus out of poor people.

However, in Returns, Keaton is far better. He starts to come out of his shell and his billionaire playboy contrast is better seen. He's clearly a competent businessman and has a far more natural charm. He's not the best here, but he's better than his first performance by a mile.

Kilmer even steps it up further in his movie. He plays up the one trait that gave Keaton a good contrast: seeming far too weak to threaten criminals. And he even adds to it.

The Bruce in this film is having to deal with his dual identity far more than in the prior installments, and he plays off being a tortured soul perfectly while still succeeding in giving a more relaxed Wayne persona.

As I said, Bale's Bruce was great in that he came off as too goofy to possibly be a concern to villains, but he did have his weak points.

He is very clearly in better shape than Keaton or Kilmer were, and so he couldn't draw on the being weak thing. At one point in TDK, he has to crash his Lamborghini to save someone, and he actually has to talk his way into making Jim Gordon believe he wasn't trying to be a hero. His problem was that he gave off being heroic through body language and actions at times and had to rely on dialogue and almost outrageous behavior to maintain an illusion of incompetence.

Another issue with Bale was that his Bruce never really showed an arc in character. Everything about his Bruce character can be seen in relation to his Batman character.

In Begins, he wants nothing to do with his Bruce persona, and it basically serves as a tool to get to Rachel and keep up appearances in TDK. In the final installment, with Rachel gone he gives up as Batman and Bruce altogether, and only returns as the full-on Wayne persona once he's ready to be Batman again.

By contrast, Keaton's Bruce is very focused on his parents' deaths, and that motivation is what consumes him, not the suit itself. He is drawn out more in Returns to date Selina Kyle. And when she is gone, although he's not as buoyant a personality, he keeps up appearances and is in a position to grow when Dr. Chase Meridian comes into the picture in Forever.

It's a close call, but I'd go with the original trilogy here. The Bruce-Batman personality difference is more shown than told and the character exists more as a true alter ego, not a figurehead.

Winner: Burton Trilogy

Better Villains: Nicholson/DeVito/Pfeiffer/Carrey/Jones vs. Neeson/Murphy/Ledger/Eckhart/Hardy/Hathaway/Cotillard

I'll go into generalizations to keep this section short with individual thoughts when needed.

Jack Nicholson plays an excellent Joker despite the just awful rewrite to the backstory. The Critic is right in that while Heath Ledger's Joker was an agent of chaos trying to spread anarchy, Nicholson was chaos and plan was anarchy.

Nicholson had no plan besides kill people while acting as out of his f***ing mind as possible. Ledger was like a Bond villain in that his plans seem nuts until looking in hindsight, where it becomes clear that everything had been a calculated move.

Ledger was a better Joker in that he felt more calculated and based in the comic character. While not as big a personality as Jack and a little lacking in the humor, the humor was still present while also being terrifying. Jack was never terrifying; he was just nuts.

Eckhart's Two-Face was clearly superior to Tommy Lee Jones' because while Eckhart held his own with Ledger by simply playing the character, Jones seemed to alter his character to absurd levels of over-the-top behavior to keep up with Jim Carrey's Riddler.

Both Michelle Pfeiffer and Anne Hathaway should be commended on how well they played the part. Overall, I'd call this a wash - Hathaway rocked the leather better, Pfeiffer's fight moves were stronger, and they acted at about the same level.

With Catwoman it all comes down to your personal preference. Do you prefer a lucid Catwoman who behaves like a badass, or do you prefer a sadistic Catwoman who sets goals and will seek their fruition regardless of the collateral damage?

The round has to go to Nolan's trilogy here. Of the remaining villains in Burton, only Carrey played his part well, and it's nowhere near good enough to match Neeson, Murphy, Hardy and Cotillard.

Nolan did the villains right and gave them each plenty of time to be strong characters. It's a quality and quantity issue.

Winner: Dark Knight Trilogy

Better Love Interests: Kim Basinger/Michelle Pfeiffer/Nicole Kidman vs. Katie Holmes/Maggie Gyllenhal/Anne Hathaway

The love interests of these movies each carried major ties to Bruce's character, but I will say that it's more defined in Burton's trilogy.

With Nolan's movies, the Rachel actresses were more symbolic - the normal life that Bruce still wants deep down. Hathaway was the rebirth of those feelings in a package that a man who enjoys beating people up would have to take notice of.

Outside of that, though, they aren't much in terms of love interest. Gyllenhal and, to a lesser extent, Holmes were more martyrs when they weren't with Bruce. They only served to garner sympathy. And Hathaway's relationship is more a Catwoman-Batman relationship than a Bruce-Selina one.

By contrast, the females in Batman's life with Burton and Schumacher served a purpose of developing Bruce's character, specifically Pfeiffer and Kidman. Being around Pfeiffer brought Bruce out into the world far more than in the first film, and the point where he thinks she dies (as I'll point out later) really seems to hit him psychologically.

This comes to a head with Kidman, who as Dr. Chase Meridian may be the best female counterpart in Batman cinema. She is the force that helps Batman to reconcile his two identities and actually allows him to complete his arc of development.

Overall, all of them act well and none of them outright destroy the other in terms of quality. As such, I have to go with the ones who drive the story more.

Winner: Burton Trilogy

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