Having gone to see The Dark Knight yesterday, my friend Justin and I watched three different Batman movies today, from three different directors:
Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin (on cable television)
Tim Burton's Batman Returns (on DVD)
Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (on DVD)
I realized something while watching them - The Dark Knight has changed how I view all of them.
First, Batman Begins is pretty slow in spots, just like I remembered (the early scenes with Liam Neeson seem to last hours), but it's also pretty great - once Bruce gets back to Gotham, it's non-stop excitement. That said, considering how revolutionary it seemed when it was released three years ago, it's shocking how much it feels like a prelude to The Dark Knight - almost as much as The Terminator plays like a text scroll for T2. In Batman Begins, we watch Bruce get to where he needs to be to become Batman. I won't deny that the second half of the picture is thrilling. But it's most exciting at the end, when it points boldly forward by saying "The Joker is coming". The Dark Knight delivered on that promise. In fact, it reinforces that point by giving Begins villain The Scarecrow a brief cameo where he gets defeated in about five minutes. "If you thought that guy was scary last time," the movie seems to be saying, "wait until you see what's coming up next."
Until today, I maintained that Begins was not the best-ever Batman movie, often loudly proclaiming that that honor went to the never-slow-for-even-a-second Batman Returns. Tim Burton's second Batman movie - his first, entitled simply Batman is good, but spends too much time being nothing other than a Joker origin movie - is insane in the best way. While Nolan's recent movies have been grounded in reality, Burton's pictures are like cartoons brought to life. Everything is over-the-top, and no character is allowed to behave like a normal human being. Danny DeVito's Penguin is a garish caricature, eating raw fish and biting people in the nose. Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman is brought back to life by the magic licks of street cats. A powerful businessman is played by Christopher Walken. Actual penguins waddle around with rockets strapped to their backs. Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle struggle to cover up their respective battle wounds during a make-out session. Over the years, the movie has gotten a lot of criticism for being wacky fun that never takes itself seriously, but that's what I love about it.
Here's the thing though - Today, I realized that Batman Returns doesn't look nearly as good to me now as it did a week ago. As you can hopefully tell from the preceding paragraph, I had a good time. But it's not quite the same. For over a decade, I always tossed off Returns whenever anyone would ask me my favorite Batman movie. I felt that Begins, in taking itself just a little bit too seriously, didn't live up to its full potential. "It's just not as much fun as Batman Returns", I would say. And it isn't. But The Dark Knight totally is. It does everything right. It's dark and serious and funny and exciting. It just might be the perfect Batman movie. Watching Batman Returns today, I felt like I was running into an old high school girlfriend. You know, someone you used to think was amazing, but now, compared to your wife, you wonder what you ever saw in her.
Yes, I just compared Batman Returns and The Dark Knight to my non-existent high school girlfriend and equally non-existent wife.
Conversely, The Dark Knight made me feel quite a bit better about Batman & Robin. Yes, it's still laughably awful - full of terrible acting and painful wisecracks and eye-infecting costumes. But now that we've gotten two stellar Batman movies in the years since, I don't really care anymore. I used to complain about Joel Schumacher all the time. I'd yell and scream "What is wrong with Warner Brothers?! HOW COULD THEY LET THAT HAPPEN?!" Today, I just laughed. "This is a really awful movie. You're a silly man, Joel Schumacher," I said aloud. But Warner Brothers has righted that wrong. Batman & Robin is just this unfortunate thing that happened one time. It didn't kill Batman. There's no reason to hate them or Joel Schumacher. Not anymore.
Thank you, The Dark Knight. You've helped me confront my pain, and made me a happier person.