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The Adam of Your Labors

In 1818, Mary Shelley’s fictional doctor Frankenstein used electricity to breathe new life into static human remains. These remains, stitched together from disparate specimens, resulted in an eight foot tall creature with translucent yellow skin and shaggy black hair. But belying these wondrous, terrifying traits, Frankenstein’s monster also had a sensitive soul and a quick wit. He yearned for understanding, companionship, and the chance to find his place in the run of humanity.

Shelley’s masterpiece has lived on through the collaborative effort of multiple generations. Some mangling has taken place, most notably in the 1931 James Whale film, which grafted the image of Frankenstein’s monster as a lumbering, flat-headed brute to our popular consciousness. This image persisted for decades (and still does, at least during Halloween), and can be seen on film in dozens of variations. Only Sir Kenneth Branagh’s movie Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) has tried to redeem the novel, with grisly make-up, an arctic framing sequence, and a creature who mourns his creator’s death in the end- the main elements shuttled throughout a century of adaptation.

What Shelley might think of this legacy is beside the point. At its core, Frankenstein is a tale of the nobility and savagery that propels life forward. Storytellers have continuously tried to interpret its elemental profundity to prove themselves in their craft. In this light, the breadth of a creation’s iterations, from Shakespeare’s plays to Star Trek, is a measure of its importance to culture. Yet, a new version of something we love always features a built-in question: does it improve upon, or even surpass, the original?

A moonlit race with the crime-fighter Batman, across the rooftops of popular entertainment, seems only too appropriate. Christopher Nolan, director of stylish, detail-oriented films like Memento (2000) and Inception (2010), has this month finished his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises. His tech-savvy treatment of the Caped Crusader is only the most recent interpretation in the character’s seventy years of adventuring. Over the decades, comic book creators have fleshed-out Batman’s origin, making it believable superheroics and thrilling world-class literature. But they’ve also made him shimmy down a giant telephone receiver. Nolan’s trilogy, not unlike Frankenstein’s monster, is a patchwork of Batman’s best comic book tales, enlivened by Nolan’s electrifying flair for intricate narrative. The built-in question here is whether the films rise above, sink below, or even live beside the comics to which they’re indebted.

Created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger for National Publications (DC Comics) in 1939, Batman was the dark synthesis of literary characters like Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan and science hero Doc Savage. This meant he was a perfect human specimen, capable of astounding physical and mental feats that criminals, a “suspicious and cowardly lot,” couldn’t hope to match. Starting in Detective Comics 27, Batman swung through the concrete jungle known as Gotham City, using a grappling line of his own invention and fighting crime with superior powers of deduction.

Yet it is Batman’s fictional origin, a gleaming ruby of comic legend (polished carefully for decades), that explains his cross-generational vitality. As the wealthy Wayne family- Thomas, his wife Martha, and young son Bruce- exit a movie theater showing of The Mark of Zorro, they are held at gunpoint by a mugger. Thomas, a surgeon and philanthropist, doesn’t attempt any heroics. He hands over his wallet and remains calm- until the mugger goes for Martha’s pearl necklace. A struggle ensues, and the mugger shoots Bruce’s parents, leaving the boy alive and escaping nearby police.

Bruce grows up deeply scarred by the event, vowing to rid Gotham of the organized crime and political corruption that led to his parents murder. The Wayne family billions allow him to travel the world, seeking wisdom and physical discipline. Returning years later, he finds that Gotham has only rotted further. In his decision to wage war on urban parasites, he realizes that a mere man cannot do the job. He must become a fearsome idea that the entire city will respect. The caves below Wayne Manor, full of squeaking denizens, supply the inspiration.

Typically, billionaires are fearsome. Something changes in a person with too much money, akin to when a grasshopper becomes a locust. Fortuitous circumstance pushes aggression and indifference to dominate the higher faculties of compassion and reason. But Bruce Wayne isn’t typical. Indomitable will and devotion to his parents’ legacy prevent him from tuning out the needs of those less fortunate. He was the ideal man during the Great Depression that spawned him, and now, in our economically polarized society, he’s just as important.

Perhaps the greatest boon to Nolan’s success is that he acknowledges Batman’s history and takes it seriously. The severe realism of Batman Begins (2005) served to clear our minds of the neon fiasco that was Batman and Robin (1997). To be fair, the 90s weren’t the best time for superhero films in general. But director Joel Schumacher, in his attempted homage to the campy live-action Batman TV show of the late 60s, butchered a once healthy Warner Bros. franchise. Batman and Robin is a sexed-up, dumbed-down cartoon, commendable only for its hallucinatory color palette. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays villain Mr. Freeze, and with lines like, “You’re not sending ME to the cooler!” never passes on reminding viewers that they could be doing something else. Chris O’Donnell, as Robin, wears more lip gloss than Uma Thurman’s evil Poison Ivy. George Clooney and Alicia Silverstone, as Batman and Batgirl, sleepwalk through the movie wearing apologetic grins. You can almost still hear co-creator Bob Kane spinning like a dervish in his grave.

Thankfully, a definitive blueprint exists for anyone hoping to reignite the Caped Crusader’s legend, and it’s a graphic novel called Batman: Year One. Written by noir fanatic Frank Miller, drawn by perfectionist Dave Mazzucchelli, this 1986 tale begins with a youthful Bruce Wayne returning to Gotham after twelve years abroad. We see his transformation into Batman in terms of the heroic and the naive: the disastrous street brawl, the clumsy fire escape imbroglio, fighting off the police. Yet, it almost feels low-key compared with the robust portrait of honest cop Jim Gordon. New to the city, Gordon contends with his fascist partner Flass, and the prospect of raising children in a place where all the police, even his boss, Commissioner Loeb, are crooked. As their narratives intertwine, Bruce grows more comfortable serving hoodlums their own teeth, and Gordon soothes his despair in the company of Detective Sarah Essen. Gotham itself, red-lit by sirens and sex-clubs, pulses with character as Mazzucchelli’s shadows layer phenomenally with colorist Richmond Lewis’ pastels.

Properly adapting Batman: Year One in full would have been a career-defining moment for any director. Nolan, like a doctor performing his first miracle, instead listens for the heartbeat. He translates those key thumps that bring Batman and Jim Gordon together against a city that would destroy them separately. In Batman Begins, untouchable crime boss Carmine Falcone owns virtually every Gotham cop except Gordon (played impeccably by Gary Oldman). When Batman targets Falcone’s shipping operation, terrifying his thugs and leaving the boss himself gift-wrapped for Gordon, the legendary partnership begins.

Convincing the other cops that Batman sits atop Gotham’s law enforcement food-chain is trickier. Batman: Year One features a burning tenement scene, in which our titular hero dismantles an armored task force from the shadows, then summons hundreds of bats with a sonic device to cover his escape. Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer opt to show us the bowels of Arkham Asylum, where the Scarecrow (a splendidly creepy Cillian Murphy) poisons Gotham’s water supply. In escaping, Batman (Christian Bale) summons bats with a sonic device just like in Year One. The graphic novel, in a quick panel afterward, bothers to show people treated for rabies. Nolan’s film, for all its adherence to realism, doesn’t. We instead get a wonderfully chaotic chase scene, with Batman jumping his assault vehicle across rooftops. The police, struggling to follow in choppers and cars, are astonished.

Batman Begins ends with the Bat-signal pointed at the sky, and Gordon warning that an arms race has started. Thrillingly, he holds a Joker playing card. This slyness, and a limited reliance on computer effects, help the film avoid the schlocky chasm that swallows most summer blockbusters. Unfortunately, Nolan and Goyer stumble early in showing how Bruce Wayne decides to wage war on crime. They give us Bruce traveling the world, studying the criminal mind, and ending up in a prison camp. There, a man named Ducard (Liam Neeson) drops in from absolutely nowhere to rescue him. This happy accident leads to extensive ninja training, knowledge of a terrorist cult, and instills in our hero a sense of the theatrical. It also critically deflects the drive to become Batman from Bruce himself.

The first punch in Nolan’s trilogy overcompensates for the atrocious Batman and Robin, but it nevertheless gives us a great popcorn movie. A stripped down film exactly as subtle and character-driven as Batman: Year One would have been preferable. Then again, the monolithic brilliance of the trilogy’s second film makes you forget the first entirely.

The Dark Knight (2008) earned over $1 billion in theaters worldwide. Superficially, Heath Ledger’s visceral, awe-inspiring turn as the Joker is the reason why. But a study of The Dark Knight’s elaborate bank heists and betrayals reveals a lineage in epic crime sagas like The Godfather (1972) and Heat (1995), not in the colorful superhero genre. This gives Batman’s celluloid universe a tone and weight better reflecting the way comic fans, emotionally invested in his exploits, view him. And once again, Nolan (with screenwriting brother Jonathan) follows the dramatic tattoo of a landmark graphic novel. From 1996, this one’s called The Long Halloween.

By writer Jeph Loeb, with haunting art by Tim Sale, The Long Halloween is the tale of a Gotham serial killer who murders mobsters on holidays. Batman, Commissioner Jim Gordon, and energetic new District Attorney Harvey Dent, struggle with parsing motive from madness in a huge cast of characters: mob boss Carmine Falcone, his son Alberto, rival boss Sal Maroni, banker Richard Daniel, and a dozen others. They also mix with the rogues who distort Batman’s mission like cracked mirrors, including the Riddler, Catwoman, Joker and the Scarecrow.

From the first page, Loeb’s script flaunts a spacious, lyrical quality. Bruce Wayne says simply to the reader, “I believe in Gotham City.” Sale’s art (superbly aided by Gregory Wright’s coloring) often uses more shadow than light, and his figures glare outward with gothic intensity. The depth and detailed composition of his panels, from Wayne Manor to Gotham’s sewers, is routinely breathtaking. These elements propel the narrative of who the “Holiday” killer could be into heady territory, especially when signs begin pointing at Harvey Dent himself.

Dent, as we see in The Dark Knight, is torn between serving the law and dishing out justice. Loeb and Sale offer the definitive version of his descent into the insane Two-Face persona (once half of his face is irreparably scarred, he begins choosing whether his victims live or die with the flip of a coin). Every panel he’s in, whether he speaks or not, is freighted with dread. Sitting in the basement, handling a shiny object in shadow, he tells his wife:

I was so sure that Bruce Wayne was doing favors for the Falcone family. But, a “jury of my peers” didn’t agree with me. It’s like they flipped a coin. Heads he wins; tails I lose. And Bruce Wayne. With all his money. His good family name. Goes back to high society. Leaving the rest of us to take care of what needs to be done…

The District Attorney finally snaps after Sal Maroni throws acid into his face from the witness stand. Nolan teases in The Dark Knight by having a witness pull a gun on Dent instead. Played with swagger and charm by Aaron Eckhart, Dent snatches away the gun and dismantles its non-metal components before the court. They cheer when he asks to finish examining his would-be assassin. And throughout the film, like in the comic, Dent’s dialogue trumpets the war in his soul: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Nolan was wise, and tremendously ambitious, in basing his masterpiece on Loeb and Sale’s. He fully encapsulates the brilliance of The Long Halloween while rearranging its parts to film a stunning companion piece.

As for Dent, he both lives as the villain and dies as the hero. His legacy as a crusading D.A. who made Gotham truly safe is where Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises picks up. “I believe in Harvey Dent,” says Commissioner Gordon, eight years after his death (and the events of the last film). Gordon and Bruce Wayne have allowed the city to blame Batman for Dent’s murder, hiding from everyone that he was Two-Face. This gives Wayne an excuse to retire not only the cowl, but himself. He becomes the butt of Howard Hughes jokes, nursing knees with no cartilage and a mind beset by grief. Mobsters and thugs fill Blackgate prison, with no chance of parole. Only the appearance of jewel thief Selina Kyle (a refreshingly bombastic Anne Hathaway) stirs Wayne’s old detective skills.

The idea of Batman taking an extended leave from Gotham’s stage is simple and provocative. It’s from the 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. Written and drawn by Frank Miller, DKR is widely agreed upon by readers and writers of comics to be the finest Batman story ever told. Miller gives us a glimpse of America during the Cold War’s final decade, in which both ends of the political spectrum don’t so much hold a national conversation as waste the space between TV ads with hypocritical blather. Batman, meanwhile, hasn’t been seen for ten years, and a murderous gang called the Mutants rules Gotham’s streets. Bruce Wayne, almost sixty (with the mustache of a dour old man), is a suicidal thrill-seeker, looking for a “good death” in race-car wrecks and street fights.

Not until Harvey Dent is supposedly cured of his Two-Face persona does the hero’s instinct resurface. According to his plastic surgeon and psychiatrist, “Harvey’s ready to look at the world and say, ‘Hey- I’m okay.’” Commissioner Gordon is skeptical, and Bruce, without even remembering it, has shaved his mustache (a lovely commentary on just who mirrors who when Batman faces his rogues). When the hunt for Dent ends in commiseration between the former friends, Batman can only say, “I see a reflection, Harvey. A reflection.”

For his third Batman film, Nolan deftly staples elements of DKR to a less prestigious tale. Batman: Vengeance of Bane (1993) introduced an absurd villain in a wrestling mask who simply wanted to “break the Bat.” And so he did, over his knee, crippling the Caped Crusader and goosing sales the way Superman’s supposed death did in his family of comic books the year before. Knightfall, as the extended story is called, has none of the artistic charisma boasted by Nolan’s other choices. When a director has talent to spare, however, gold will come from dross.

In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane is the reason Bruce returns to public life. The hulking, would-be warlord of Gotham (Tom Hardy) sets up shop in the city’s vast sewer. After he and his thugs put Commissioner Gordon in the hospital and tamper with Wayne Enterprises’ stock value, Bruce brings the battle to him. The showdown, similar to the The Dark Knight Returns match between Batman and the leader of the Mutants, is bitterly harrowing. Christian Bale gives us a Batman that fights knowing he’s older, slower, and desperate for an end.

But Bane knows this as well. After breaking Batman’s body, he seeks to ruin his mind. He places Bruce in a prison at the bottom of an enormous pit. Full of ragged old monks, it is a place only the physically superior can escape, as Bane himself once did. Bruce is forced to watch via satellite as Gotham is overrun by freed prisoners. The core of a clean energy reactor, acting as a neutron bomb, keeps the military at bay.

As months pass in the film, with snow on the ground and the police trapped in a bombed-out sewer system, Nolan builds Gotham’s hopelessness to a fever pitch (Hans Zimmer helps, with a noticeably brilliant score). The entire city’s been looted, and Bane’s army stalks the streets, keeping the citizens terrified and the bomb on a truck that’s always moving. When Batman finally does return, the catharsis is incredible. He’s aided by Selina Kyle, Detective John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and Gotham’s newly freed police force. If the Caped Crusader fails to route Bane, our hearts will break. If he succeeds, giving everything that an aging hero has left to offer, they might anyway.

While The Dark Knight Rises is full of the reversals and twists that seem effortless to Nolan (and increasingly familiar to us), it’s the emotional payoff that boosts the trilogy into untraveled airspace. Batman Begins is an entertaining, all-ages introduction to the character. A few of its flaws carry over into The Dark Knight, including Bale’s in-costume rasp (and occasional lisp). The second film, however, is a rhapsodic parade of the shockingly new that feels fresh with every viewing. The Dark Knight Rises, then, must be a different kind of reward, or leave this Batman’s tale unfulfilled.

Ultimately, our reward is this: I can show Nolan’s Batman trilogy eagerly to a friend who knows nothing about the character or his world. I can struggle not to interrupt each film, to explain just what the director took from which graphic novel. Later, I can hand over the paperbacks, knowing that the films are different in ways that enrich the reading.

Capes and cowls dominate this moment in cinematic history. But many superhero films fail to earn the respect that fans give the comic books themselves. Fans, after all, decide whether or not an adaptation has soul. Does it run shrieking into the night like an abomination. Or, like Nolan’s Batman, does it sit at the piano, playing its transplanted heart out.

____
Justin Hickey is a freelance writer living in Boston and completing his first science fiction novel.

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