With the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises, the third in a trilogy of highly successful Batman movies by Christopher Nolan, and the recent release of the hotly anticipated video game Arkham City, its really never been a better time to be a Batman fan. The past few years have seen a gigantic leap in popularity for DC Comic’s surly, brooding poster boy, a character that has always held a large amount of public affection in its near 80 year history.
With this in mind, WhatCulture has decided to do an article comparing the two most beloved Batman movies: Tim Burton’s Batman from 1989, the iconic and most endearing interpretation of Batman, and The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s second take on the World’s Greatest Detective from 2008, the highest grossing and critically revered Batman film to date. As soon as I heard of this, I practically pleaded for the opportunity to write it. I happen to be a huge fan of Batman and all things Batman: the movies, the tv shows (yes, even that one), the video games, and especially the comic books. And to my eternal gratitude, our editor Matt Holmes let me have it.
The two films will be analysed and compared in various categories including characters, music and story with a watchful eye on how true they are to the source material, namely the legion of Batman stories DC have published over the years. Before we get started, I’d like to point out that this isn’t a definitive “which is better” or even the thoughts of the WhatCulture staff as a whole, this will be purely be the opinions of myself, in all my Batman-obsessed glory.
With that said, get your Batarangs sharpened and don your finest cape and cowl, it’s Batman vs. Batman time!
Naturally, we start with the big one: Batman himself. There have been many incarnations of Batman; From black and white serials in the 40s and 50s to various animated shows and a certain 60s television show staring one Adam West. Arguably the most famous and iconic version (besides THAT one) is Michael Keaton’s from Batman ‘89.
Keaton’s Batman is imposing, brooding and intimidating. The first time we see him, he dangles a hapless would-be thief over the edge of a roof, snarling that he’s not going to kill him. But then he snaps his arms inward and draws the thief face to face. He might have said he wasn’t about to kill him, but he sure as hell seemed like he was going to do it. And throughout the film he keeps up that same level intensity and intimidating presence. His movements might be stiff and his voice might be a little silly, but Keaton simply embodied the role perfectly. You got a sense that this man is angry and he’s going to use that anger to help the people of Gotham. It’s never explained or explored in this movie (that would have to wait until Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever in 1995), but that doesn’t matter, all you need to know is that when Batman is out on patrol in the streets, he’s going to kick and punch his way through the night.
There is, however, one major and quite frankly unforgiving flaw with this version of Batman. Towards the end of the film, we are treated to a climactic battle between Batman and The Joker, plus whatever of his own goons he hasn’t shot yet, in a church bell tower. As he makes his way to the top of the tower, Batman dispatches a Joker thug…by throwing him off the top of the stairwell, to his death. And of course, the Joker himself meets a similar end on the roof of the tower. Both of these demises are directly caused by Batman.
I’m going to try and keep this next point brief, because essentially this is going to be a rant. Batman does not kill. Ever. It goes against every principle he has as the self appointed guardian of Gotham City. Bruce Wayne’s parents are coldly murdered in front of him, traumatising him for life and laying the foundations for everything that happens in his life after that point. The reason he fights crime as Batman is to prevent something like that from ever happening to anyone else. If he chooses to take a life, he is no better than his parents’ killer, and he will have instantly failed in his crusade. But in Batman ‘89, he does fail. Twice.
Batman. Does not. Kill.
Now, if Michael Keaton’s Batman voice was silly, then the voice Christian Bale uses in The Dark Knight is just flat out ridiculous. I once heard the voice described by filmmaker Kevin Smith as that of a child trying to sound intimidating. And I find myself in complete agreement. Its just so laughable. Bale spends his entire time as Batman shouting his way through his dialogue. Just take a look at the scene where he is trying to track down The Joker by interrogating Salvatore Maroni. “WHERE IS HE?!?”, he bellows, followed up by “HE MUST HAVE FRIENDS!!!!”. In those ten seconds, the believability of Bale as Batman slips away. Worse still is during one of the final scenes, where he tries to coax former friend and ally Harvey Dent into calming down. What he says was actually touching. “You were the best of us, Harvey.” it’s a beautiful, heartbreaking moment. Or rather, it would have been, had Bale’s voice not been somewhere between shouting and losing his voice.
Bale is fine in every other area. He is commanding, forceful, and that voice aside, yes he is intimidating. He has presence at all times, and not because he’s standing there in a mask and Kevlar armour. But that voice just makes it impossible to take him seriously. It’s a shame, really, but in truth, Keaton’s Batman is iconic and stands out, whereas Bale’s is just there. Its neither great, nor is it terrible (voice aside…). Until someone can come along and top it, Michael Keaton is the definitive Batman.
Winner: Batman ‘89
Former RAF medic Alfred Pennyworth is perhaps the most important thing in Batman’s life, aside from his mission. He is an ally, a confidant, a consultant and a safety net whenever he is needed. As the Wayne family’s butler, it was up to Alfred to look after young Bruce. And that he did…in a way. He allowed Bruce to pursue his own goals, understanding the reasons behind it and pledging his support, and has been an unflappable means of support and assistance.
Michael Gough played the irreplaceable assistant in Batman ‘89 and continued to do so for the next 3 movies and, bizarrely, in a series of commercials for the OnStar vehicle tracking system in 2001. While I always loved Gough’s performance and interaction with the three different Batmen he starred alongside, I never really felt that Alfred was a real partner in Batman’s crusade. He was always there on hand with advice and assistance, but besides telling Bruce Wayne that Commissioner Gordon had to leave his party early and should look into why, handing his employer files when asked, and for some inexplicable reason allowing a practical stranger into the Batcave, Alfred doesn’t really do anything. Its more or less a literal interpretation of him as a butler. And while Gough’s infectiously charming version is always a joy to watch, it never really struck me as the real deal.
When the franchise was rebooted, legendary actor Michael Caine stepped into Gough’s shoes as the next generation version of Wayne’s butler. Like Gough, Caine dishes out advice and information, but crucially, in The Dark Knight, his Alfred has warmth, spirit, humour and most of all, love. The Nolan interpretation goes to great lengths to protect his employer, be it trying to remind him that he is only a man and therefore has limitations just like everyone else, arranging alibis or willing him to keep going when he’s at his lowest point, at one point burning a letter revealing the true feelings of Rachael Dawes, the woman Bruce always loved, rather than let him find out the truth. As the film progresses we see Alfred in many ways act as a father figure to Bruce rather than a hired helper, and in many ways Alfred is exactly that. He is the only constant in Bruce’s world, has been there for every high and low and has never questioned or attempted to walk away from what is quite frankly a crazy as all hell plan. While the exact same can be said for Gough’s version, the relationship has always struck me as that of an antagonistic yet doting sibling, rather than a fully fledged guardian and friend. Because of that, Caine’s version is the better of the two. So long as there’s no reference to that line from The Italian Job.
Winner: The Dark Knight
A man determined to do the right thing and protect his fellow man, Jim Gordon is one of the few people Batman can truly call a friend. No matter how many people call on him to break away from the alliance or even work to bring him down, Gordon is loyal to Batman because he knows he will stop at nothing to save people.
Much like Michael Gove, Pat Hingle stared in every movie from Batman ‘89 until 1997’s Batman & Robin (but the less said about that film the better). In his first outing, Hingle’s Commissioner Gordon comes across as ineffective, greedy (just watch him gambling at Wayne Manor if you don’t agree with me) and almost lax in his duties. Despite the threat posed by the Joker killing dozens of people, Gordon’s main concern is the 200 year celebration of Gotham party. There’s a maniac on the loose killing people via seemingly random chemical attacks using everyday household products and he’s worried about a party. Our Commissioner, ladies and gentlemen!
The Dark Knight’s Gordon (in this a Lieutenant before being promoted to Commissioner) is played by Gary Oldman, and is a much more hands on interpretation, He frequently liaises and plans with Batman and isn’t afraid to get caught right in the thick of it, at one point faking death in order to trap The Joker. He truly cares about the safety of Gotham and goes above and beyond his abilities, despite being aware that almost everyone he works with is corrupt in some way.
While I can forgive the fact that the Gordon of Batman ‘89 has yet to establish a bond with Batman, you simply don’t get the feeling that he really cares about Gotham beyond the fact that he has to. He bumbles his was through scenes as light relief and doesn’t really serve much purpose to the story. As such, Gary Oldman’s take is the superior, for me at least.
Winner: The Dark Knight
There was one other upholder of the law Batman could count as a friend and ally: District Attorney Harvey Dent. Dent, arguably, was the most determined of the three in his personal crusade for justice, and for a time at least Harvey fought on the side of the angels. That all changed when he was scarred with acid down one side of his face, fracturing his psyche in two, taking on the moniker of Two-Face.
Much like Commissioner Gordon, the Dent of Batman ‘89 is only a minor character, who we sadly don’t get to see much of. This version, performed by Billy Dee Williams, is charming and likeable, but again seems indifferent to the situation around him. it’s a shame, I think Williams could have had a great run with the role but sadly that is something we will never get to see.
Aaron Eckhart had far more to work with in The Dark Knight, as we got to see him as both the District Attorney and then his tragic transformation into Two-Face. He was interesting from the start, and like Williams had charisma and charm. As the film progressed we saw that he was a man of unwavering convictions but had a dark side: he let his temper get the best of him when his back was against the wall. When the inevitable happens and he becomes Two-Face, he becomes a man on fire (literally and figuratively), his every action becoming a quest for revenge for those he felt betrayed him and led him to that point. His performance is the highlight of the movie for me (yes, even with Heath Ledger burning through his scenes the way he does), and fully encapsulates every emotion you would expect on this journey.
With that said, I have a feeling if we got to see Williams’ take on the same arc, it would almost be impossible for me to pick between the two. But with only one of the two films fleshing the character out, Eckhart wins hands down.
Winner: The Dark Knight
The Love Interest
As is the way with Hollywood movies, there is a love interest in every single movie. It might make perfect sense to a film like Pay It Forward, and many other superhero movies, but with Batman it seems a bit odd. Due to his rather…shall we say unique night time activities, Bruce Wayne lacks the capacity to settle down like most movie protagonists end up doing, but even so, in every Batman film to date (including Adam West’s to a degree) we have had a love interest as a bit part of the story. In Batman ‘89 we have Vicky Vale and in The Dark Knight we have Rachael Dawes.
Vicki Vale is perhaps the most famous and enduring of Batman’s love interests besides Selina Kyle, also known as Catwoman. Batman ’89 had Gotham’s reporter extraordinaire as its love interest and Kim Basinger was the actress brought in to step into her expensive shoes. Basinger plays the role exactly as its meant to be: sharp, feisty and flirty when she needs to be in order to get a story. She does, however, have the unfortunate role as damsel in distress frequently throughout the film, Hollywood sadly not ready to have truly independent female leads just yet. In at least three seperate occasions Vale is at the mercy of The Joker, and in every single scene like that all she does is stand there looking scared, and occasionaly delivers an ear-bleedingly screechy shriek. Combining this with the fact she somehow manages to sneak her way into the Batcave, with what looks like asistance from Alfred (to this day that confuses me, as did it Keaton himself in an early scene in Batman Returns three years later), Vicki Vale’s character is completely inconsistant from one scene to the next. There is a lot going for her in terms of how Basinger plays her and the chemistry she has with Keaton, but as she flip flops back and forth between intrepid reporter and shrieking violet (literally…my poor ears…), its hard to truly engage and like her. Maybe Burton didn’t really know her purpose in this film.
But that’s nothing in comparison to The Dark Knight‘s Rachael Dawes, played in this film by Maggie Gylenhall picking up where Katie Holmes left off in Batman Begins. While there was chemistry, and a lot of it, between Basinger and Keaton in Batman ’89, chemistry is practically nonexistent between Gylenhall and her co-star Christian Bale. These are supposed to be two people that grew up together that have always loved each other deep down but have never really been able to get together. In Begins, you get that from Katie Holmes. You can almost see the electricity between them, you can almost feel the sexual tension radiating out of them. But in Dark Knight, it just seems awkward and, at times, flat. Maybe I’m just comparing Gylenhall unfairly to her predecessor, but at no point did I get the sense that she loved Bruce Wayne, or even had the smallest of feelings for him, and that really makes the character pointless.
If it was just that, maybe I wouldn’t have too much of a problem with Rachael Dawes. But honestly, what is her purpose in this movie? She doesn’t really do anything, she’s just there as a device to advance the plot. It seems like she was purely but there so they could easily explain other elements of plot, and that’s it. She suffers, she dies….and nothing else. While she had a purpose in Begins, I genuinely struggle to find one for her in The Dark Knight, and though Burton’s take on Vicki Vale is flawed and inconsistent, she does have a purpose besides being in need of constant rescuing.
Winner: Batman ’89
Now I can’t help but shake the feeling there’s someone I’ve missed out. Someone important. Someone….chaotic.
Did you really think I wasn’t going to get to this? Let’s put a smile on that face.
Yin and Yang. Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty. Harry Potter and Lord Voldermort.
Batman and The Joker.
Of all the costumed heroes and comic book franchises Batman easily has the best assembly of villains. The Clown Prince Of Crime is the most iconic, enduring and famous of all the members of Batman’s Rouge Gallery and naturally with every new take of Batman in the media there is a new take of The Joker. In Batman ‘89 Mr. J was given to Jack Nicholson, who quite simply ran away with the role. When he was on screen he didn’t so much as grab your attention as get up in your face and made you notice him. He was playful, he was silly, he was menacing and manic when he needed to be. He was easily the best thing about the movie and it’s very easy to see why his version is so endearing and often cited as the definitive performance.
But even though its fun performance, I have a real problem with it: it’s not The Joker to me, it’s just Jack Nicholson. Jack Nicholson in a purple suit and white face paint. Yes he’s fun and entertaining but it really doesn’t strike me as any different from the Jack Nicholson we’ve seen in films like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, As Good As It Gets and even Anger Management. As much as I love Jack, he only really seems to play himself. That does work for The Joker in many ways but it really made it difficult to watch him as The Joker. Towards the end, during the climactic showdown, Jack finally turned into The Joker, executing his “number one guy” Bob for no real reason and dancing with an unwilling Vicki Vale on the roof of the church while armed thugs are all around them. It was fantastically insane and menacing and stood out to me as a true Joker moment: the perfect blend of intimidation and fun.
But besides that moment, to me it just isn’t the Joker. Yes, Nicholson is a blast to watch and is very fun but that’s just the problem: in the 20 years since the last movie incarnation (joyfully performed by Caesar Romero), there had been little to no change in how the character was presented. In both Batman ‘89 and Batman ‘69 The Joker is more or less taken literally and played up as a goofy prankster. While Tim Burton does add some flavour with the poisonous products killing Gotham’s citizens at random it still is very much played up as a fun-lover guy with a few screws loose, and for me it never truly intimidates, with the exception of the moonlight serenade and, of course, the mirror scene.
And then we have Heath Ledger. There has been a lot of fierce debate about the version of The Joker we see in The Dark Knight. There have been many arguments as to whether or not he was better than Jack, or that Jack was hands down the definitive Joker and this is no more than an imitation. There is also the opinion that had Heath Ledger not have died before the movie’s release, he would not have received a posthumous Academy Award for the role.
I will say this up front: Heath Ledger’s Joker is damn good. Is it the interpretation? The definitive rendition? That’s subject to debate. Personally speaking my favourite version of The Joker is neither Ledger’s nor Nicholson’s, but Mark Hamil’s (Hamil voiced the character for nearly two decades in various media, including Arkham City), so for me it’s a non-issue, but for other Bat-fans worldwide its either Jack or Heath. I have stated what I like and what I don’t like about Jack’s. Re-reading that, it seems as though I was more or less stating that I disliked it, but that is not true at all, I love watching it and I don’t think I will ever be able to sit through Nicholson yelling “HE STOLE MY BALOONS!” without howling with laughter. It’s just, however good Jack Nicholson was in the role, the memory of it fades away the second Heath Ledger steps in front of the camera.
Ledger’s Joker is just flat out insane. He murders, or spares the occasionally hapless victim’s life, completely at random, and every single action he does seems both pre-meditated and completely made up on the spot. As he states to Harvey Dent as he is lying in hospital (because of The Joker himself), does he really look like a guy with a plan?
Yes he does. He plans out everything, and then reorganizes over and over, telling each thug he hired different things and ultimately leaving himself to be the sole survivor. And what does he gain from it? Nothing really. He actually burns his accumulated wealth at one point, and later states that he just does things….just because. That is The Joker right there: a walking, talking random act of violence.
Also worth noting is the way he interacts with his victims. Take the scar story. It changes every time he says it, but each time it is said in a completely believable and impassioned way that both sound like the true reason. Is there a real reason? Does it really matter? While it comes across as Joker just messing with his targets, I’ve always seen it as a great reflection on how his mind works. The story might change every time because he remembers it differently each time. His methods and actions may change at random because his mind works at random. Or is that simply all performance from him too? This is why I prefer Heath Ledger’s Joker. Whereas you can understand Jack Nicholson’s actions and motivations, and follow his path as a linear story, Ledger’s constantly fluctuates between skittish and methodical. At the exact same time. That is not something you can easily pull off as an actor, yet Ledger makes it look so effortless. Another thing worth noting is his explanation as to why he uses knives to kill people. He says you can savour all the little final moments of someone in their death throws, understand their true natures. He takes genuine joy and pleasure in killing. Who in the hell does that?
A psychopath. Ledger’s Joker is a Class-A psychotic. As I said, Jack Nicholson’s Joker is so much fun but it’s extremely one note. Ledger’s is textured, crazy, scary, fun in places and a horrible human being with absolutely no regard for human life. And where as Jack Nicholson’s crimes are based upon what he himself wants, be it Vicki Vale on his arm or being more popular than Batman, Heath Ledger’s is simply an agent of chaos, destroying lives, criminal empires and even hospitals purely for kicks. That is just flat out horrifying. And that is why, in my mind, Ledger tops Nicholson.
Winner: The Dark Knight
Now you may be thinking that is all the important characters discussed, on to the next subject. But no, we’re not done just yet. There is one more character that is absolutely essential to the Batman mythos: Bruce Wayne himself.
It would be far too easy to cast aside the character of Bruce Wayne aside as unimportant. Those that do that miss the entire point of Batman, and more importantly, why he is who he is.
Bruce Wayne is a character just as important as The Dark Knight himself. It was, after all, Bruce’s resolve and determination that resulted in Batman existing, and without Wayne’s cunning instincts and skills, Batman simply wouldn’t be Batman. And while Batman is indeed his true self, Bruce Wayne is always on hand as a public mask when he needs to be, creating alibis and opportunities as Gotham’s Most Eligible Bachelor.
While Keaton quite simply nailed Batman, the same sadly cannot be said for his take on Wayne himself. Batman ’89‘s take on the Billionaire Playboy came across as very naive and shy, and in one scene just downright goofy. For those of you wondering the scene I meant, I am of course talking about the scene where Bruce goes to see Vicki Vale at her apartment, promptly followed by The Joker and a few thugs. While Joker is busy trying to court Vale in the main room, we actually do get to see Keaton’s Wayne plan an exit strategy. We see the World’s Greatest Detective in action using that brain of his.
But it’s completely and utterly ruined when, in trying to draw the Joker’s ire, he grabs a fire poker and shouts “LET’S GET NUTS!” at him. I’m sorry, but any credibility Keaton had as Wayne vanished in that instance for me. And in order to sell the idea that Bruce Wayne isn’t Batman, Wayne needs to be the man Gotham expects of him: a disinterested, carefree socialite. While Keaton certainly had the disinterested aspect, his Wayne was too quiet, too shy and too insular. If anything, his quiet, shifty mannerisms and absenteeism would only add fuel to the fire that Bruce Wayne and Batman are on in the same.
Christian Bale’s take in The Dark Knight, however, delivered that. For me, that is exactly how I picture Bruce when I read the comic books: suave and arrogant, maintaining both an air of entitlement and indifference to the world around him beyond leggy women. At least, that is how he presents himself. In reality, Bale’s Bruce Wayne is constantly conflicted between his quest for justice and his desire to no longer have to be Batman. He spends the majority of the movie emphasizing the importance of Harvey Dent in Gotham, seeing him as a way out of the world he has created for himself. He also uses his public persona, and what’s expected by him by the tabloids and general public, to his advantage. During a party he hosts for Dent at his Penthouse, he swans in late with some random beauty on his arm, and later swans off into a “panic room” when the Joker arrives so he can change into Batman. It comes as no surprise to anyone at the party. That is exactly the kind of thing Wayne needs to do in order to detract attention away from the idea that he might be Batman. And that is something I feel Keaton’s version fails at.
Now, I do have an issue with both of these interpretations. In both Batman ’89 and The Dark Knight, Bruce spends a significant amount of time considering hanging up the cape and cowl for good, purely because of a woman he has feelings for. I can kind of understand the logic in Dark Knight, as Rachael Dawes is somebody he has been in love with all his life. But Vicki Vale? Somebody he meets at a party and then later sleeps with? He’d give up the promise he made about making sure nobody ever has to go through what he did for a woman who has been in his life for all of five minutes? I’m sorry, but what in hell is that? That’s just lazy storytelling. Just because the majority of big blockbuster movies invariably has a love interest story attached, it doesn’t mean you can just throw up anything and have it make sense. Batman is perhaps the world’s biggest case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and in no way is it plausible that all of that would be given up just because a woman came along. If it was meant to be played up as if Bruce was lying to himself that he could give it up, like an alcoholic or drug addict, then I would actually forgive and even like that kind of narrative, but neither movie presents it as anything over than he wants to hang it up because he’s in love.
With that side issue rant over and done with, I return to the original comparison. Whereas Keaton’s Wayne is simply shy and coy, and often reclusive, Bale’s is a cocky, self indulgent and outgoing aristocrat (and thankfully, he doesn’t shout). For me, he’s just far more believable as a billionaire playboy.
Winner: The Dark Knight
Batman and the world of Batman isn’t just about the characters, the setting is equally as important. Gotham City isn’t simply a location or a backdrop, it’s a character unto itself. It’s a violent and unforgiving place, which circumstances so dire they directly result in things like the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Gotham City doesn’t just play home to Batman, it created him.
In Batman ‘89, Gotham is dark and brooding, a constant Gothic presence, with elements of Noir and Neoclassical. Quite simply, it’s the Gotham you see in all the books. All of the dark and sinister textures and undercurrents are there in Tim Burton’s interpretation.
The Gotham of The Dark Knight, however, doesn’t have that feel to it. Its bright, its clean…its just like every other major American city. There is no sense that this city is a criminal hotspot. I understand that Christopher Nolan is trying to ground his films in realism, but so long as you are doing a film about a man dressing up as and calling himself a bat, you simply cannot have true realism. And while the Gotham of Batman Begins does show it in the same vein as Burton’s, TDK just doesn’t. One thing Tim Burton has going for him is his visual style, and in Batman ‘89 he was perhaps at the top of his visual game.
Winner: Batman ‘89
One of the fun parts of Batman is we get to see him use a small army of self created gadgets at his disposal as he fights his one man war on crime. From Shurikens in the shape of a bat to private planes, and from grappling guns to…bat shark repellent…there has always been something on hand to assist the Caped Crusader no matter the occasion.
Batman ‘89 has a pretty nifty assortment, even though the gadgets and technically wizardly is kept to a minimum. The iconic Grappling Gun is here, as is the definitive and iconic Bat mobile (sorry, Adam West fans, but its true), and towards the end we even get a Batwing. The Batwing serves no actual purpose but my word does it look great.
Now, this category is about to become extremely one sided and unfair, purely because of the advances in technology between that film and The Dark Knight, but nonetheless, the sheer amount of gadgets in this film is staggering.
From what I noticed, we had EMP charges, explosive gel, a Batman costume with some kind of taser style security in case anyone tires to unmask him, a sonar system built into the cowl, and a gigantic tank like vehicle that then discharges parts to form a perfectly functional bike. Q Branch would be proud. The Dark Knight wins this one on volume alone, but that Tumbler to Batpod moment is just straight up awesome.
Winner: The Dark Knight
With every iconic interpretation of Batman that has come, there have been equally iconic scores and music to accompany them. The 1960’s show had a catchy jingle at the start of every episode which multiple generations of people recognise instantly upon hearing, which has set a precedent for everything Batman since.
Let’s not beat around the bush on this one. Batman ‘89’s soundtrack is the benchmark and standard against everything is measured against. Danny Elfman’s main theme is simply a near perfect encapsulation of the Batman franchise in musical form. The majority of the score neatly underpins the corresponding scenes, despite being occasionally over the top, but that is something of a trademark with Elfman and simply something that is unavoidable. It leaps out at you and demands focus, instantly drawing you in. When you hear the opening moments of the main theme of this movie, you know exactly who and what it is, and that is something often overlooked in movies.
That is by no means to say Hans Zimmer’s score for The Dark Knight doesn’t stand up well against it. I am a big fan of Zimmer’s soundtracks and with TDK he created a fantastically dark and brooding musical journey through ought the film, the score in places actually making you far tenser during the dramatic and hostile moments. But while it is good, even great for the majority, there is no defining characteristic or iconic piece that stands out to me. Yes there are recurring themes and motifs but it’s not something that you take with you and remember long after seeing the movie, whereas with Elfman’s score it does stay with you.
Now, there is one thing that needs mention in this section. The big purple suited elephant in the corner. I am of course referring to Prince and his companion soundtrack for Batman ‘89. It’s just woeful and forgettable to me, with no real spark of energy like the kind you find in Prince’s more celebrated material. Even worse is the fact that the songs feel awkwardly forced into the movie (look up the art gallery scene if you disagree with me) and as such simply distract from the proceedings, which is the biggest cardinal sin possible for a movie soundtrack. Yet for however dull and lifeless Prince’s contributions are, Danny Elfman’s are the polar opposite, with dynamic and catchy hooks and themes throughout.
As stated, I love Hans Zimmer’s work. But until he can break out a thematic score as enduring and endearing as Danny Eflman’s, if not greater, this category will always have the same end result.
Winner: Batman ‘89
There is nothing wrong with taking something and interpreting it your own way. Tim Burton proved this extremely well with his takes on the Batman universe. But this entire article has been based on how true they are to the source material, so it was inevitable that we got down to exactly what when into these two films.
On the surface of things, Batman ‘89 doesn’t rely on any source material besides the extreme basics. It has the characters and the setting and that’s it, off to Burtonland it goes. But its not that simple. While Burton has freely admitted to being very much against comic books, he did look at some of them as a guideline. There is no bigger influence in this movie than Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, released a year prior in 1988. There is actually a decent amount lifted from this, namely the origin of The Joker himself and even the passage in the book where the Joker shoots and cripples Commissioner Gordon’s daughter (albeit heavily modified as a scene in Vicki Vale’s apartment). For a very long time I assumed that was the one and only comic book influence, but in actual fact it’s one of two. WhatCulture’s Comics Editor Jamie Slough once told me during a discussion about the movie franchise as a whole that if you watch Batman ‘89 as if it was set in the style and time frame of the early books (aka The Golden Age of Comic Books), it actually makes a lot more sense thematically. The pulp, noir and gothic overtones, when looked at from this perspective, no longer come across as stylistic choices for the sake of looking different, but actually serve as a very faithful interpretation of the original version of The Bat-Man, as he was then called.
The Dark Knight takes its cues from a few bits and pieces, but no more prominent that Jeph Lobe and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween. Itself a spiritual sequel to Frank Miller’s Year One, it was only logical that since Batman Begins drew heavily from Year One, The Dark Knight in turn looked to its successor. The entire Harvey Dent and Two Face story is taken from that book, with Rachel Dawes in place of his wife Gilda, and there is even a continuation of the Falcone crime family storyline with the appearance of Sal Maroni, a supporting character in Halloween as well. We also have traces of one off story Joker’s Millions (modified and for one scene only but its an interesting story to take material from nonetheless), and even traces of The Killing Joke, in the sense that Joker at times sees himself as a part of a whole, with Batman as the other half. There are also small but noteworthy references, such as the existence of Arkham Asylum For The Criminal Insane, Commissioner Gordon’s wife Barbara and their children James and Barbara (a noteworthy villain and the most famous Batgirl in the books, respectively), and of course the inclusion of Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox as an ally. Its this subtle attention to detail that gives Christopher Nolan the edge.
Winner: The Dark Knight
While this article has been focused on the films attention to how faithful they are to their sources, I would be complete remiss in my duty writing this article if I didn’t discuss how the films stand up as movies in their own right. Taking people’s favourite and beloved books and turning them into a big budget film is risky business but overall the audience will be satisfied if you give them something that entertains them for 90 minutes.
Batman ‘89 is a very entertaining movie. It has humour, a great visual style and good character acting. The Gotham city of this movie sets tone throughout and the story has a traditional three part arc with a great climax, with a great soundtrack to boot (mostly). But no matter how good it is when the film is in its stride, the pacing leaves a lot to be desired. There are so many moments where the continuation of the story is brought to a grinding halt with a scene featuring Bruce Wayne awkwardly trying to talk to Vicki Vale, or random moments where The Joker is just…being The Joker. Its not that they are boring, its just they don’t really serve much purpose to the story.
Take for example the art gallery scene. When briefly summed up, it sounds great: Joker tricks Vicki Vale into meeting her in an art gallery, kills everyone there but her, tries to kidnap her and is then foiled by Batman. When looked at it like that, it sounds great. But it takes forever to get to the point because we are treated to an extremely goofy scene where Joker and his crew splatter paint on various works to the sounds of Prince. Suddenly we went from Batman to MTV and then back again. Its moments like that that take me out of the story and makes it difficult for me to take what is overall a good film seriously.
I also have a similar problem with The Dark Knight. It’s not that there are pacing problems or unnecessary scenes, as every little thing in this film has a purpose which is later revealed, it’s that at 152 minutes this movie is a butt numbing experience. Even Peter Jackson realised that 3 hours is a long time no matter how good the movie you’ve done is.
But with that said, I was never at any point bored or wishing the film would hurry things up at any time. The story is executed slowly and methodically, racking up the tension and the stakes throughout. Batman ‘89 was building towards the final showdown throughout the movie. The Dark Knight builds on one thing, executes it, and then moves onto another big moment that it had set up in the background. It almost feels like two films. The Joker being arrested and then interrogated feels like the logical conclusion, but then we get a whole heap of chaos thrown into the mix for another hour. It might be long, but is never at any point tedious.
There is one interesting argument an acting colleague once raised to me, however. The colleague in question, Harry Harding, is also a big Batman fan. We were both very much looking forward to this movie. When I saw it I got in touch with him asking him his thoughts and he pretty much went to town on it, calling it a comic book rip off of Michael Mann’s Heat. He went to great lengths to point out the structural similarities and therefore wrote the film off. I can see his argument, I agree with it, and the fact that Christopher Nolan himself cited Heat as a major influence when developing this film certainly doesn’t help matters. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Dark Knight is an extremely entertaining film, clichéd dialogue and Batman yelling every single word notwithstanding. And at no point in those 3 hours did I feel bored, which is sadly more than I can say for Batman ‘89.
Winner: The Dark Knight
And there we have it. If we were to weight it all up in terms of statistics from the results of this article, The Dark Knight would be the winner. I know that if I was given the choice to watch either film, I would pick TDK over Batman ‘89 every time. But does the fact that The Dark Knight is more true to its source material than its predecessor make Batman ‘89 a lesser movie? Does that make Batman ‘89 a bad movie? Absolutely not. In preparation for this article I re-watched both films back to back and was reminded of how fun Tim Burton’s first foray into Gotham City is. Its slick, its stylish and its very entertaining. Its everything a big budget movie in 1989 needed to be and is a great take on its subject’s mythos. Its also a very creative take on the original comic strips created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger all those years ago.
But for me, The Dark Night is the better movie. Of all the Batman films, it is my absolute favourite aside from Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s Mask Of The Phantasm, the first of several feature films spun out of the duo’s highly acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series (later titled The New Adventures Of Batman & Robin). It has the chaos, the wit, the danger, the characters, all the best things in the comic books and graphic novels are in that movie. And its execution, while by no means perfect, is fantastic. Both films are wonderful and worth repeated viewings, but in my opinion, The Dark Knight is quite simply the better Batman movie. On a side note, Mask Of The Phantasm and the later Dini/Timm feature Return Of The Joker are two of the best Batman films I have ever seen besides the two I have been talking about in this article, and well worth watching as well.
And thus concludes my two cents on one of the internet’s most intense debates. As I have said, this is purely my own opinion, and by all means leave your own opinions and thoughts in the comments section below. I know that there are a lot of people out there who will both agree and disagree on the various things I’ve said. But the thing to remember is these two films have brought Batman a larger fan base more than any other endeavor, including the universally celebrated Arkham video game series (written by Paul Dini…I think you can guess who my favourite Bat scribe is by now). And that is why Batman fans should love and respect both equally. That and the fact they’re both great fun.
Just don’t get me started on all the problems I have with Batman Returns.
And that goes double for Batman & Robin!
This article was first posted on November 4, 2011