Eighty years after his first appearance in Detective Comics, Batman has become an icon of the superhero genre.
Just this month, Gotham’s caped crusader made a new and critically acclaimed entry into theatres and cinemas across the globe.
How we have come to see Batman, and how he fits into society, owes a lot to the Christopher Nolan trilogy and the Arkham Series video games, produced by Rocksteady Studios.
Nolan said he was inspired by the 1989 Batman movie starring Michael Keaton, which was “extraordinarily stylised, quite brilliant and very visionary”.
But Burton’s Gotham was so strong visually, Nolan said it denied him the understanding of what it meant to be Batman standing out against “a relatively ordinary environment”.
Burton’s film delivered a sense of over-the-top grandeur and glamour, taking away the turmoil and realism of Gotham’s streets and its suffering people.
For Nolan, and to a certain extent Rocksteady Studios, that meant that to deliver what they wanted to show, they had to strip the character down to its core, and then to ground it in a relatable environment.
Both Nolan and Rocksteady Studios set out to deliver a series of stories and a world of characters and settings where the audiences could understand what it meant to be Batman and everything he stood for.
Powerful game series
The Arkham series is one of the most universally praised and critically acclaimed games ever produced, with the Batman: Arkham City game receiving a score of 96 on Metacritic. It is one of those rare events where the gaming community agrees.
It was a product that showed what true passion and love for the genre, platform and the character could create collectively if given the time and freedom to do so.
The studio took almost two years just to get the cape physics right.
Players said the games “made you feel like you were Batman”. The action and movement felt impactful and weighty, and the gadget mechanics and tools elevated the experience of what it meant to be Gotham’s greatest detective and protector.
The environment was captured perfectly, and the player was exposed to interactions and events with some of the biggest characters from the Batman franchise, notably Mark Hamill voicing the maniacal Joker. Kevin Conroy was the voice behind Gotham’s Dark Knight.
The characters were managed in such a way where their roles, interactions and relationships were complex enough to not be labelled and put into boxes of good and evil. Relationships were not strict or defined.
Being exposed to these environments and characters while playing as Batman made the player realise that ideologies, psyches, motivations and relationships are complex, grey and ever-changing.
The games take you through Bruce’s fight against himself and his justifications for a crusade he must see as more moral than those he is pitted against. It is his fight with his inner demons that makes Batman a symbol of hope rather than of fear. That is the essence that the Christopher Nolan trilogy succeeded in representing on screen.
Nolan’s Batman, like the Arkham games, stands above the rest simply because to a significant extent, it answered the questions the award-winning director was after.
Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is the icing on the cake, helping the audience to feel the emotions and environment visualised by the director.
A dose of cinema reality
Nolan’s Batman was never about Bruce Wayne doing extraordinary things in an extraordinary world.
The Batman trilogy of movies stripped away the over-the-top representation of Gotham’s environment and setting to display a sense of realism where the actions of Batman and Bruce Wayne had substantial consequences.
Just like the Arkham series, Nolan’s starting point was a deep love for the character of Batman. He also dove deep into Bruce’s character. His story is a tragedy, as he finds himself in a state where he is no better than the man who killed his parents. It fuels a search for purpose and meaning, pushing him to gather the courage to rise again.
Bruce’s encounters with his demons and antagonists, and his resulting actions and choices, are relatable and human. His drive to avenge his parents’ death in the middle of the courthouse is primal and chaotic – and it is the beginning of his journey towards justice.
In the end, the movies and games have brought about a change in how audiences experience the superhero genre.
Batman as a fictional icon has come a long way from the days of the POW, WOW, BANG and ZAP of the ’60s TV show.
More than special effects
The Nolan trilogy and the Arkham series together showed audiences that the superhero genre is more than special effects and fan service.
Grounded in reality, and highlighting characters and stories rooted in the best and worst of human nature, these representations showed us that this genre does not have to be, as Scorsese might have put it, theme park content.
A generation of young and old people see the Nolan trilogy as one of the greatest trilogies ever made. As a cinematic journey it did not just entertain us, it was a hero’s journey that inspired us and made us think.
The Batman/Bruce Wayne character – and the circumstances he lives through – is extraordinarily complex and flawed. That made him a symbol and personification of hope.
Audiences got a hero who was nothing like them in terms of wealth or ability and yet the trials, tribulations, failures and redemption story of Bruce Wayne as Batman struck a very human chord.
Fans globally have huge expectations from superhero movies. After the catastrophes that were Batman vs Superman and The Justice League, the expectations grew even higher.
Most of us just want to see if Gotham’s Dark Knight can inspire hope within us again.
This is part of a series looking at the impact of the Batman films, in the context of the release of The Batman film, starring Robert Pattinson.