Batman (1989) vs The Dark Knight (2008)

I recently had to write an essay for my film and media studies class about a movie and it’s remake. In honor of my deep and passionate love for Batman I dedicated the paper to his stories in film through the eyes of Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan. I hope you enjoy the paper as much as I enjoyed writing it.

A common man made hero, Batman is a cultural icon taking a stand for true justice in the wake of a city that is built on just the opposite. In Tim Burton’s 1989 version we explore a crime heavy Gotham City that is taken by surprise when local gangster Jack Napier is remade into a beloved criminal better known as The Joker. Throughout this film we watch as Batman and The Joker battle in hopes of revenge while making Batman a symbol of justice. Christopher Nolan tackles a different view in 2008’s The Dark Knight where an unknown villain wreaks havoc through the streets of Gotham leaving them desperate for a hero. The battle throughout this version focuses on Batman, whose moral foundation is eroding away with every fight The Joker throws at him. By using a post-Cold War setting, Tim Burton’s Batman highlights the strength of an immutable symbol, while in contrast Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight explores the breaking point and moral foundation of a man that reflects the moral confusion of the late 2000’s.

In the comics, the evolution of The Joker always center on the time period. Burton and Nolan take that into account when creating a man descending into madness. In Batman The Joker mimics the Soviet Union by having a strong leadership coming to the end of its time as a power player, and yearning for the days where it still had authority. Batman examines this by playing off of his perfect purple suit and orderly makeup to showcase his insecurity. His desperate need to wear makeup shows his longing to appear as his former self. The Joker uses this as his driving force of revenge, targeting both his former crime boss and Batman. Burton heightens this by shooting The Joker from high angles to make him appear more vulnerable despite him being the head of crime in Gotham City. This is seen in a scene featuring The Joker and his henchmen destroying art in the local museum, when they stumble upon a dreary and depressing picture of a man he tells them not to destroy it because he “likes this one”. The painting reflects The Jokers inner turmoil, and how he feels after his transformation.

Nolan plays this out by having The Joker that has no true identity. The Joker’s lack of identity is common in today’s culture; his anarchist views are not driven by motives or reason, but for the thrill of pure chaos. With his lack of story, his disheveled appearance enhances his lack of sanity with a battered purple suit and disorderly costume makeup. The mutinous Joker uses fear to exploit man’s moral foundation in trying times. In The Dark Knight, The Joker is constantly trying to erode Batman’s strength by destroying the things he holds dearest. His true power is exemplified through Nolan’s extreme low shots of The Joker. It is especially exposed when Batman is hurling full speed on a motorcycle, and The Joker shoots at him while constantly repeating, “Hit me”. The extreme low angle emphasizes the mayhem that lurks inside him, while making his scars prominent with dark shadows. The Joker has always been the binary opposition to Batman’s driving forces, giving Batman a reason to fight.

Batman is the face of a neutral good vigilante, but Burton and Nolan add a symptomatic layer to his complex character when exploring the idea of how much Bruce Wayne needs Batman to survive. To highlight his needs for the cape, both directors use Alfred as a resounding voice of reasoning throughout Batman’s encounter with The Joker. Burton uses Batman as a representation of the United States in the post- Cold War period as a sturdy and dominant figure in who people could find safety and protection. In Batman we are offered a limited scope into the life of Bruce Wayne, making it clear that Batman is the object we care about. This is explored when Vicki Vale and Alexander Knox, who are completely enthralled with Batman, wander the Wayne mansion and talk about the joke that is Bruce Wayne. Separating the man and the costume gives off the impression that he is nothing more than a symbol to the people of Gotham City. Furthermore, Batman is tempted several times to kill The Joker, even having The Joker encouraged him to do it while he is flying the Batwing. Ultimately Batman succumbs to revenge and exterminates The Joker which makes Gotham City a safe town. At the end, Batman prevails as a symbol of justice by presenting the town with a call signal to ensure the town feels like they have security at all times. Burton uses Batman as a symbol for justice and safety within Gotham City. He captures Batman in high angles to present the symbol as a superior and dominating character to villains who choose to terrorize Gotham.

Nolan’s interpretation of Batman showcases the struggle of being true to one’s self, despite the overwhelming qualms pushing you in unfamiliar directions. In The Dark Knight we meet a man who desires to retire the cape due to the lure of being able to lead a normal life. Bruce Wayne is so desperate for this he causes the death of a loved one and the demise of a friend. He dons the mask to protect the people and city he loves, but is slowly losing himself and his moral footing. The Joker tries to exploit this by using fear to create chaos, but Batman prevails with his people as they both shun The Joker’s tumultuous ideology. When faced with killing The Joker, Batman denies this opportunity because it would take away his sanctity and moral code. This highlights Bruce Wayne and Batman as more than a symbol– also as a human being. Nolan acknowledges this fact and shoots Bruce Wayne/Batman from high angles to heighten his vulnerability, but switches to low angles to contribute to his sense of strength when he rediscovers the meaning of his quest.

Although Gotham City provides a home to Batman, the atmosphere of the town is bleak and leaves a sense of hopelessness to those who enter it. “Decent people shouldn’t live here, they would be happier somewhere else,” (Nicholson 1989). Although a prosperous town, Gotham City is known for being run by criminals and mobsters. Burton hints at this early on by forecasting Gotham in dark hues and ominous shadows that lurk through the alleys. The townspeople seem devoid of emotion, as most townsfolk are dressed in greys, blacks, and whites, giving them a gloomy appearance. The buildings reflect Burton’s German Expressionism style which is reminiscent of the set of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Nemesis 2010).  This shines through with the architecture, where the buildings appear overstretched and distorted.  The crime that takes place in Gotham City revolves around dirty cops and gangsters; their desperate need to coexist gives Batman a reason to look over and protect this city.  Burton’s portrayal of Gotham City falling apart asserts that Batman is needed in Gotham City.

Nolan carries over some of this same sentiment with his version of Gotham City. We are first introduced with this city through a large aerial overview that paints Gotham City in dark light. Gotham is covered in towering skyscrapers that make it appear thriving, but the looming darkness hints that it is not a happy place. The streets are buried in crime with henchmen and police men working for the dominating mobs who offer them protection and money. They even downplay Batman’s importance by asserting that, “Gotham needs heroes like you, elected officials, not a man who thinks he is above the law” (Rosen 2008). Nolan takes away Batman’s importance by showing how people can protect Gotham without wearing a mask. This complicates Bruce Wayne’s role in Gotham City by showing how the town needs a true hero not a dark knight. Both directors, respectively, make their story of Batman come alive through their unique directing styles that are reflected throughout the films.

Directing is an important part to any movie, but the directing that takes place in these movies help further Batman’s storyline in their respective universes. Burton carried over his darker style when painting Gotham City, but his underlining story of The Joker and Batman further the plot of his dark tale. In Batman The Joker is the only character to wear color, and by having the purple suit reflect against the dark tones in Gotham City it helps intensify the unstable demeanor of his character. The inspiration of Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs helped to create a sinister smile for The Joker that aided his villainous role. While the Joker turns the tables on Gotham City’s style, Batman compliments Gotham City’s style by wearing black when fighting for its people. Burton’s use of non-diegetic music, such as the Batman theme song, highlights the action and heroism throughout the film as it reflects the high points of his character. Burton use of dark lighting reflects how Batman mimics a bat by lurking in the shadows and only comes out when something startles him.

Nolan uses parallel editing and various camera angles to heighten the need of a character in a moment. In Nolan’s establishing shot, he uses parallel editing when introducing two separate sets of criminals robbing a bank. The editing allows the audience to assume these actions are occurring at the same time, and that these characters are working together. Nolan continues this illusion by having quick shots to intensify action scenes. This is especially crucial in the final battle scene between The Joker and Batman where it amps up the thrill by providing moments where Batman’s technology cuts out and right as it comes back on we are met with The Joker scurrying towards him. The camera angles are a crucial part of The Dark Knight because they allow the audience to see the character’s true state in a scene. The best example of this is in the final scene where Batman is shot in a medium, low angle shot as he takes the blame for the damage made to preserve the hero Gotham City wanted. This highlighted the need for Batman in Gotham City because it underlines the idea of a true hero.

Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan created two different images of a hero, but both exemplified Gotham City’s need for Batman. Burton’s portrayal gave us an image of a prevailing symbol that provided audiences with a sense of hope and security. His use of a Post-Cold War era gave an Americanized feel that was supported through complex stories of his character and camera angles to showcase their importance. Nolan’s interpretation gave the audience a glimpse of a struggling hero who was trying to rediscover his meaning. This ideology compliments the moral confusion experienced throughout the late 2000’s due to a failing economy. Both films exemplify the need of a hero while using symptomatic layers to depict their meaning.


One thought on “Batman (1989) vs The Dark Knight (2008)

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