A Tale of Two Batmans: A Visual Dissection of ‘Batman’ and ‘Batman Begins’

“I am the dark. I am the night. I am… Batman.” These few words came to mean so much to cartoon and comic book fans alike. Bob Kane’s character known as Batman came to embody both fear and heroism. He offered protection for the innocent and served justice to the wicked. So many people saw a true hero in the form of this pop culture icon who subsequently struck fear into the hearts of criminals while living an honorable life by an established code of ethics. However, these ideas are fairly easy to present in the typically one-dimensional world of comics or the small screen for television. However, the question of Batman’s transition to the big screen is one that could not be answered quite so easily. Arguably, the first attempt at a “serious” Batman film was Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman. The film received both critical and commercial acclaim at the time of its release, but the franchise was diminished over the years, thanks in part to the box-office and critical failure of Schumacher’s Batman & Robin in 1997. However, in 2005, it was realized that a new hero was needed. Nolan opted for an old hero reborn, a point he makes clear in his film Batman Begins. Although both films star an incarnation of the figure known as Batman as well as several other similarities, both Burton and Nolan highlight their differences stylistically, thematically, and ultimately visually in both Batman and Batman Begins.
In order to understand the differences between the two, it is essential to recognize some of the similarities. The similarities between the two films are very basic in their presentation. For instance, the imagery that is frequently associated with Batman, such as the iconic cape and cowl, are by and large the same. The similarities are typically the details that precede the reputation of Batman. For instance, even most people that may not have seen either of these Batman films can recognize the emblem. There are some small, stylistic differences such as the insignia that vary, but that is to be expected with such defined design-oriented directors. There’s also the tragic origin of Batman that is similar in its execution, highlighting the innocence lost as Bruce watches his parents gunned down. However, the scene of the mugging is the most similar in terms of composition and the visual. Both function as a visual representation of moral decay in an urban environment. The Waynes are shown as wealthy on a visual level, based on their clothing, in both and, although today’s audiences may view it as an antiquated standard, the theater used to stand as a representation of class. The fact that they are leaving the theater in Batman and the opera in Batman Begins is visually telling the audience of their status. Furthermore, the juxtaposition between the attire of the Waynes and the dark alley setting, even to those who don’t know the story, seems to warn the audience that these folks are out of their element. It is only when confronted with their mugger that the audience’s fears are realized. What follows, in both pieces, is a very telling action on the part of Thomas Wayne. In both films, Thomas complies with the mugger, who is telling Thomas to hand over his wallet, but when his wife is directly threatened, such as grabbing her string of pearls, Thomas springs into action. Although this leads to the murder of both husband and wife, it instills the quality of protectiveness in our hero, a trait that directly contributes to his transformation into Batman. This scene is one of the best examples of the visual similarities between the two films. It establishes what kind of man Bruce’s father was and foreshadows what kind of man Bruce has the ability to become. It seems both films realized the power of the visual in establishing the heroic figure of Batman. As previously stated, the similarities between the two films are kept very basic and crucial to the development of the Batman identity more than anything else.
Although there are a few similarities between the two, the differences are far more pronounced. Although there are many differences between the two, they are more thematic than anything else, but are manifested visually. For instance, one of the biggest ideas of the 1989 film is Batman at odds with the corruption in the city of Gotham. Although this is also true of Batman Begins, it is not nearly as crucial to this film. The importance of corruption in Gotham is downplayed in this film, but is a topic re-visited in Nolan’s sequel, The Dark Knight. Furthermore, the ideas of corruption and evil-doing are represented very differently between the two pieces. Burton’s version puts Batman up against the city as a whole. This is seen in a variety of shots throughout the film, which help the audience to visually identify with Batman’s plight. It is overwhelming to think of one man protecting an entire city when Burton presents his audience with the expansive set against the frame of a sole actor. However, this thematic issue is represented visually and is arguably one of the most memorable aspects of the film. Some of the most iconic movie stills from Burton’s incarnation are images of the cloaked figure atop a building looking down on his city. This idea of one against many is given further credence in the film when it is shown that most of the inhabitants of Gotham are self-serving and greedy people. This is demonstrated in the scene when Joker rides his float down the street, tossing out money and people are shown debasing themselves and crowding in the streets for a few extra dollars. Alexander Knox simply states the idea of this scene when he says, “Get pictures of this. Gotham’s greed.” By this stage in the film, Batman’s quest against most of the city has been fairly established. Although Burton attacks this huge idea, he also attaches a memorable figurehead to it, a sole villain for the audience to identify with. In Batman, the Joker stands as a premier figure of all that is wrong with the city. This concept is furthered even more in the film when it is shown that Jack Napier, the man who became known as the Joker, is the very man that killed Bruce’s parents. This leads Batman to confront his alter ego Bruce Wayne for a split second in the film’s end. His commitment to justice wins out though. As Joker attempts to fly away, batman fires a Batarang to keep the Joker where he is. It is Joker’s struggle that leads to his fall, through no fault of Batman’s. There is no longer inner turmoil about what to do, because action has already been taken and Joker is already dead and Batman’s conscience is clear of any wrong-doing. Even before his death, Batman’s angst at his parent’s death is given very little screen time. The most memorable portion and his flashback to the death of his parents isn’t seen until about 90 minutes into a 125 minute movie.
This is the crucial difference between the two films. In Batman Begins the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne is at the forefront of the film. It is also seen in a flashback, but at about 15 minutes in to the film. It drives Bruce to become the guardian of the city. Furthermore, he struggles with his code of ethics and his anger, as is seen in a variety of scenes but most notably the prison yard in a Chinese prison. His rage is unleashed on the prisoners who are trying to start a fight with him. It is only after he is forced to re-live his past, through nightmares and hallucinations, that he begins his training, which leads him to the recognizable figure of Batman. However, even before he becomes the guardian of Gotham, his recent past is established so audiences are aware of the anger that he has been carrying with him for years. This is illustrated in the scene that he goes to the courthouse for the ruling on Joe Chill’s case. Even though the audience clearly sees that time has passed since his parent’s murder, he still feels strongly enough that he makes it clear, by going to the courthouse fully prepared with a gun to kill his parent’s murderer, that he wants revenge. Almost all of the flashbacks in this movie demonstrate Bruce coming to terms with his anger. However, his inner conflict remains even after he assumes the identity of Batman. Although it is discussed through dialogue it is also demonstrated visually in many ways. One of the ways is the environment that Bruce/Batman is frequently found in. As the film progresses, it seems that most of the geography is more defined and as a result, it seems to trap the character as well as the audience. This is illustrated in most of the earlier scenes by having the character indoors or in other instances, such as when Bruce goes to confront Falcone, the framing and the location work together. The shot is filmed right outside of a bar that is underneath a set of tracks. This serves two purposes, to show that this is the underbelly, but also to show that the character is confined. At this point in the film, Bruce has decided that he doesn’t want to be like Joe Chill and murder those who have hurt him, as demonstrated by him throwing the gun in the water. However, just because he doesn’t want to kill people, doesn’t mean that his pain is gone, which is also illustrated in this same scene. Right before he throws the gun away, the screen flashes back to right before his parents were shot. This conflict is a driving force in the film and remains throughout most of it and even into its sequel. Nevertheless, one of the strongest examples of Bruce/Batman’s entrapment is in the film’s end when Batman drives his car over the raising bridge, fully aware that he is isolating himself and is effectively trapped with Ra’s and his men. This embodies the hero’s sacrifice in the film and remains a powerful example of Bruce/Batman’s confinement. Although these are more coded representations of Batman’s central conflict with his past, the more obvious embodiment is one of the central villains, the Scarecrow, who uses a toxin to manifest his victim’s innermost fears. When Batman is gassed there are flashes of bats and his parents’ murder. Even as a physically powerful hero to the people, the conflict rages on between his past and his present. However, another battle that Burton barely touches on is also present in Nolan’s film: the battle between the persona of Bruce Wayne and the actions of Batman. Whereas Burton rarely shows Michael Keaton outside of the Batman costume, Nolan plays off the costume. His dialogue with the audience asks them to decide which one is real. This is accomplished by giving Bruce Wayne screen time in addition to the heroic actions of Batman. Scenes such as Bruce Wayne buying the hotel so his supermodel girlfriends can swim show a character that the audience is slightly uncomfortable with. Especially when juxtaposed with the knowledge that Bruce Wayne is out all night fighting crime as Batman. In essence, Nolan’s is a crisis of identity whereas Burton’s focus is on one man against many.
Both Batman and Batman Begins detail the story of a cloaked hero, but Burton and Nolan each tell the story in their own stylistic and thematic voice. Although much of the film’s pivotal origin scene is similar in both of the films, most of the similarities stop there. Batman is more abstract in its portrayal of corruption, greed, and evil. Although he is faced with one central villain, arguably the city itself is villainous as well. Batman Begins is much more inwardly focused. Through visual storytelling, Nolan tells the story of a man struggling with himself as well as other demons. Batman’s exploits as he fights corruption bigger than himself and even as he fights his past and his persona, he remains a hero.

2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Batmans: A Visual Dissection of ‘Batman’ and ‘Batman Begins’

  1. Pingback: TSR Blog: A Tale of Two Batmans: A Visual Dissection of ‘Batman’ and ‘Batman Begins’ — The Scorecard Review

  2. Pingback: TSR Blog: A Tale of Two Batmans: A Visual Dissection of ‘Batman’ and ‘Batman Begins’ — The Scorecard Review

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