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'Batman' at 25

John Nolte mentioned that Tim Burton’s epochal “Batman” film is now 25 years old, which immediately made every aching joint in my aging body flare up, and more of my remaining hair turn white.  Twenty-five years ago?  Really?

The nifty thing about Batman is that he seems capable of carrying a greater variety of artistic interpretations than any other comic-book character.  Superman might be the super-hero template, but Batman is the icon.  People loved Silly Adam West Batman back in the day, then their socks were knocked off by Burton’s dark-fantasy reinvention, and then Chris Nolan blew everyone’s mind with hyper-realistic Batman.  Nolan’s Batman could swing right into a gritty crime masterpiece like “Heat” without missing a beat.

It’s striking to me that Burton and Nolan made equally memorable films based on precisely opposite interpretations of the Dark Knight.  To Burton, he’s crazy, but the good kind of crazy – an eccentric and tormented outsider in the mold of most Burton protagonists, shadow-cloaked lord of his own special midnight kingdom.  To Nolan, on the other hand, he’s totally sane, completely in control once he gets past the trauma that drove him out of Gotham City in his youth.  He slips and slides along the way, especially when he’s mentally and physically falling apart at the beginning of “The Dark Knight Rises,” but he always knows exactly what he’s doing, and why.  

The later films made it clear Batman is a disguise Bruce Wayne wears, to protect his identity and strike a calculated sort of fear into his enemies.  In Burton’s films, Bruce Wayne is the disguise Batman wears to move around during the daytime hours.  He’s still a child at heart, a part of him trapped forever in that alley with his murdered parents, kneeling among the scattered pearls of his mother’s broken necklace.  It worked beautifully, and then Nolan’s complete inversion of the character worked beautifully too.  The biggest question I’ve got about whatever Warner Brothers has up its sleeve next is not whether Ben Affleck can look convincing in the latest iteration of the Bat-suit, but whether the latest take on the character can make lightning strike a third time by finding something new and interesting to say about the character.

I feel a bit sorry for young people who will never appreciate what it felt like to watch Michael Keaton hiss “I’m Batman!” into the face of the terrified thug he was holding over a ledge, and know that the rules were changing forever.

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