Your book seems to be as much focused on working through some core theoretical debates in media studies using Nolan and the Dark Knight as it is on using theory to explicate this particular franchise. What makes this film series such a good vehicle for asking these kinds of theoretical questions?
The longevity of Batman as a cultural icon and his visible role in popular culture for several decades, across various media, means that recent articulations of Batman are particularly rich examples for considering the role of authorship and the nature of adaptation. I draw various comparisons in the book’s first two chapters, which focus on these questions, between Batman and other popular texts, to demonstrate the extent to which Batman is a broader and more diverse archive of images, interpretations and variants than other stories and franchises.
Batman has been circulating for fifty-eight years longer than Harry Potter, for instance. Unlike other pulp heroes such as Tarzan and the Shadow, he has remained popular throughout every decade since 1939, by changing and adapting to fit the cultural concerns, the audience and the new media of each period. Unlike, say, George Orwell’s novel Coming Up For Air, which was published at around the same time as Batman’s first appearance, Batman cannot be pinned down to a single primary text or definitive version, but exists as a shifting, fluid, multiple figure (within a fixed template of identifiable features).
So the idea of adapting ‘Batman’, this seventy-three year-old archive of stories across various media forms into a feature film, raises more questions than usual about the role of the author and the nature of translation.
It challenges the notion of the director as author, and suggests instead that Nolan’s creativity lies in his role as editor or ‘scriptor’, collaging and compiling existing Batman stories and imagery into a new form.
It also problematises the straightforward, one-to-one relationship that is often assumed between primary text and adapted text, as Nolan’s trilogy adapts from several graphic novels, is shaped by previous Batman films and TV series, and in turn influences Batman in other media such as comics and video games.
I am not treating Nolan’s franchise as exceptional though, but suggesting that it provides a particularly visible and vivid example of the way all texts operate within a ‘matrix’, and offers us a way of seeing, with particular clarity, the dialogic process of authorship and adaptation.
As you note, the core comic book readership is too small to successfully open a major Hollywood film (witness what happened to Scott Pilgrim) so the producers need to expand the market to more casual viewers, some of whom may be anxious that they lack the basic background knowledge to fully understand a film about a character with a long history in other media. Do concepts like fidelity, continuity, and consistency have any negative consequences for expanding the viewership?
Not in this case, because the ‘fidelity’ of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy to the existing mythos of Batman was extremely selective, and therefore easy for producers to manage and for a broader audience to understand.
Grant Morrison’s run on the main Batman titles from 2006-2011 is more ‘faithful’ to Batman in that it engages with, interrogates and re-incorporates every key articulation and incarnation of Batman from 1939 to the present day. Morrison’s Batman RIP does capture a mosaic cultural icon, and it’s a complex, fragmented narrative that I think would be difficult for a broader, non-fan readership to understand.
By contrast, Nolan’s Batman was ‘faithful’ to a small group of titles from a relatively narrow period, within a specific aesthetic and approach. His films are directly informed and shaped by Denny O’Neil’s short origin story ‘The Man Who Falls’ and his Ra’s al Ghul tales from the 1970s, by Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Year One from the mid-to-late 1980s, by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, and by a handful of other 1990s storylines such as No Man’s Land and Knightfall.
A movie adaptation that was truly faithful to ‘Batman’, even in terms of his diverse depiction in comics alone, would result in a kaleidoscopic, encyclopaedic film that might be extremely interesting but would be more of an art project – and perhaps more suited to another medium rather than cinema.
The discourse of ‘fidelity’ at work around Nolan’s movies, particularly Batman Begins – which needed to establish his approach – was more about stressing a distinction between this reboot and the previous Schumacher films, and using ‘fidelity’ as an anchor to a certain tradition within Batman comics. This tradition – dark, tough, masculine, ‘realistic’ – is only a specific strand of what Batman is and has been.
The Dark Knight series had to initially overcome negative perceptions of some earlier media versions of the character, especially the 1960s Batman television series and Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin. The problem in both cases had to do with their camp aesthetic and thus anxieties surrounding homosexuality in relation to the character. So, what are some of the ways the filmmakers signaled a new approach?
The widespread use of the term ‘reboot’ alone helped to signal that Batman Begins was a new approach. ‘Reboot’ is a complex term, and one that media scholar Billy Proctor has been working to define and explore in a series of recent articles, but there is a general understanding that it implies a new, clean start within the existing system. The essential Batman template remains, but the previous characterisation and story are overwritten (though I argue that the older content always shows through).
The producers circulated the distinction between Nolan’s Batman Begins and the late-1990s Joel Schumacher movies (which in turn were broadly associated with the 1960s TV series) in a variety of ways, through publicity materials, interviews, previews and trailers; and these meanings were embraced and confirmed by journalists and fans, creating a powerful discourse that separated Nolan’s project from the previous Batman films.
My book discusses in detail the way this forceful, coherent message of a new, ‘dark’ Batman was articulated – through the visual materials such as shadowy poster designs and a logo based on a rust-coloured throwing-knife, through leaked details such as Bale’s rigorous physical training regime and the focus on actual hardware and stunts rather than CGI, through specific disavowals of the Schumacher approach in interviews with Nolan and his colleagues, and through the tough, no-nonsense tone and language used in reviews and features.
The producers were aided in this approach by the fact that this ‘dark’ Batman was an already-established construction – within fandom, certainly, and to an extent in the broader popular consciousness – and was already set up in opposition to what I call the ‘Rainbow Batman’, an incarnation of the character associated with play, camp, queerness and colour.
The filmmakers were not creating a new set of meanings but rearticulating an existing distinction between ‘dark’ and ‘camp’ which had been played out between the 1960s TV show and the 1970s Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams Batman, and then the 1960s TV show (again) and the 1986 Frank Miller Batman.
As such, then, the producers could harness the idea of ‘fidelity’ (to the 1970s O’Neil and 1986 Miller Batman, which in turn claimed fidelity to Bob Kane’s 1939 Batman) to insist that they were going back to the ‘original’ and that their version had the benefit of authenticity.
My own view is that the ‘Rainbow Batman’ is equally authentic, ‘pure’ and valid, and that it can equally be evidenced as ‘faithful’ to the comic book texts – albeit of a different period, and by different creators.
Indeed, I argue that the ‘dark Batman’ consistently defines itself in relation to the camp version, and always brings that brighter, Day-Glo variant back to light when it tries to bury it – in repressing it, it makes it visible again – and further, that every version of Batman exhibits a dynamic struggle between these tendencies towards camp and control, play and seriousness, queerness and containment.
Will Brooker is currently Director of Research in Film and Television at Kingston University, London, and incoming editor of Cinema Journal. His books include Batman Unmasked, Using the Force, Alice’s Adventures, The Blade Runner Experience, the BFI Film Classics volumeStar Wars, and Hunting the Dark Knight (I B Tauris, 2012).