3. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, Batman Begins, 2005; The Dark Knight, 2008; The Dark Knight Rises, 2012)
Let’s get the elephant out of the room first. The voice.
“OMGTHROATCANCERWHEREISRACHEL.” Yeah, yeah, yeah.
In both the Dark Knight as well as Dark Knight Rises, Bale uses “the Batman voice” even when talking to people who know his secret identity (Rachel, Selina, Lucius) and even when talking to himself (“So that’s what that feels like”) to speak.
So yeah, some people think of that as a flaw of the movies. But you know what? I actually don’t consider that a flaw. When Batman is by himself, Bruce is in character as Batman, so I totally buy that he would be committed to the role and wouldn’t sell it out even in the moments where he thought he was by himself. And I don’t think the voice sounds bad. So let’s get that out of the way.
Also, there were a huge number of flaws with “The Dark Knight Rises” that I’m sure you’re thinking about right now, and it was overall a disappointing movie. Being as that one concluded the trilogy and is the freshest in your head right now, that’s probably coloring your judgment of the character a bit right now.
But please, let’s not let that cloud our judgment too much, and let’s remember how incredible and brilliant Batman Begins and the Dark Knight are.
Christian Bale’s Batman was portrayed very, very well in the Dark Knight. But more specifically, his portrayal in Batman Begins is what puts him all the way up at number three on this list, a movie in which this character was portrayed fantastically.
I had a huge smile on my face while watching Batman Begins. It really is the first serious live action film that’s really, truly, mostly about Batman. As much as I enjoyed what Keaton did with his portrayal, the focus of the first movie was clearly the Joker, who got more screen time than him. In Returns, I’m not sure how the screen time breaks down exactly, but it definitely felt like the Penguin was the A-plot and the Batman stuff was the B-plot. In Begins, there’s no ambiguity. This story is about Batman.
The thing I kept thinking to myself throughout this film is “My god, I can’t believe how perfectly this movie is getting me to realistically believe that a billionaire would dress up like a bat and fight crime.”
His journey throughout the film was great, and filled with lots of nice touches. I especially like how he infiltrated criminal gangs by stealing from Wayne Enterprises – he’s able to get ingrained into the criminals without actually stealing from anyone but himself.
I also liked the use of his technologies and weapons, with most of them already existing and being developed by teams and by Lucius. It would have been too much to have Batman both be such an excellent proactive fighter as well as a guy with enough time on his hands and expertise to create all of his own weapons.
The rationale for why he chooses to dress like a bat is also handled extremely well. The talk of “I want to dress up like a bat because I want to frighten criminals, and bats frighten me” is nothing new, but its handled exquisitely. Having him fall into the bat pit as a child was one thing, but it was also great that his being scared of bats is what caused him to convince his parents to leave the theater, thus resulting in them getting killed, so his fear of bats gets an extra layer and causes him to think of his parents’ deaths.
The talk of how he want an alter ego because he wants to be a symbol is also great, and really sold us on why this billionaire would try to further his goals by dressing up and fighting crime instead of throwing money around to appropriate places. In a lot of interpretations, Joe Chill killing his parents causes him to fight a war on criminals in general, because a criminal was responsible for his parents’ deaths. This Bruce Wayne, however, takes the analysis a little deeper – he realizes that Joe Chill isn’t just “some criminal,” but a man driven to be what he is and created by a corrupt Gotham system. Instead of just waging war on criminals, Batman wants to help purify the corrupt Gotham environment that allowed someone like Joe Chill to be created.
Importantly, the ability to make me believe he had skills at his disposal to do it was excellent. Having him train with the League of Shadows was a great touch, and we saw him pull off and develop his ability to “work with the shadows” and basically act like a ninja, so when we saw it pulled off later it felt earned. His ability to work with the night and darkness really sells what sets Batman apart from just “guy who can fight well.”
And then when we finally see Batman in action during that first fight scene with the criminals, it’s quite a sight to see. Even though we’ve spent the entire time with this character, we know everything about the circumstances that led Batman to exist, when we first see him, there’s still at least viscerally a sense of mystery and terror around him. The thugs have no idea where he is, where he’s been hiding, or how he’s been doing this. Batman was the night – he was hidden in the darkness, and the criminals were all terrified of him.
And like I said, even though we know pretty much everything about Bruce Wayne as a person, Batman can still be legitimately frightening. I know everyone’s complaining about the deep voice now, but I don’t remember hearing any complaints about it in the scene where he is dangling Flass, and when Flass says “he swears to God,” we then hear a frightening “SWEAR TO ME!
Towards the end of the movie, there’s been a lot of debate about whether he “killed” Ra’s Al Ghul by refusing to save him. Some people think that it was justified, that it’s a necessity as Batman is learning from his mistakes, as saving Ra’s earlier is what allowed the current destruction around them to take place. Others feel that it’s a violation of his code as it’s basically the same thing as killing him. Whichever interpretation you want to go with is totally valid. The only thing I’ll say about it is that this debate is obviously intentional – you’re meant to ask that question and debate it. Whichever way you feel, it is absolutely not a flaw of the character himself and is a good way of bringing up a philosophical question.
In any case, words can’t really express how thrilled I was that I got to see this version of Batman onscreen in Batman Begins. Of course, he does appear in two other movies.
In the Dark Knight, he isn’t given quite as much focus or screen time as in Begins. However, I felt that this was totally and completely justified. As much as I complained about the Keaton films not focusing enough on Batman, I was totally cool with him taking a backseat at parts in Dark Knight because I felt the character and Nolan had absolutely earned it through Batman Begins.
And it’s not even like Batman is given the shaft too badly – sure, there are times when it feels like the story is focusing more on the Joker or Harvey Dent, but Bruce Wayne/Batman overall gets more screen time than either (unlike in 1989 Batman where the Joker gets more screen time than him). And he does get an arc and plenty of stuff to do – he has to come to grips with the fact that, although he’s helped clean up Gotham to some degree, without him the Joker would never have come into play, since Batman was the one who escalated things to the degree where the Joker was necessary. He also has to deal with the fact that Joker doesn’t fit in to his existing philosophy – he just wants to watch “the world burn.” And we see his optimism at the fact that Dent might be cleaning up the streets to the degree that Batman might no longer be necessary, and he might be able to retire and live a normal life with Rachel, only for him to see that all fall apart.
On a bit of a side note, I really like his relationship with Harvey Dent. They’re both men who, despite being in a love triangle (although Harvey doesn’t really realize it), have tons of respect for each other. Bruce isn’t jealous of the fact that Dent is dating Rachel, he is a bit jealous but mostly doesn’t really care, as he’s more excited about the possibilities that Dent brings for Gotham. I also thought it was pretty interesting how Bruce absolutely loved the fact that Dent was cleaning up the streets largely in part because it meant that he might be able to hang up the cowl and spend time with Rachel – never mind the fact that Rachel is currently dating Dent! He never really thinks of Dent as a threat and just assumes he can steal Rachel back as soon as he tells her he’s not going to be Batman anymore based on something she previously told him. I usually hate love triangles in movies, but this one was great, since our protagonist doesn’t view the other guy as a threat romantically at all, and instead, very ironically actually thinks of him as actually being the necessary conduit that will allow him to eventually end up with his love interest. It also added some depth and flaws to the character – as we saw with Rachel’s note, Bruce was being far too arrogant here, as she did not intend to run off with him after all.
I guess one of the complaints with this character is that his relationship with Rachel (both the Holmes and Gyllenhaal versions) doesn’t have a huge amount of chemistry. Not sure why that is. Holmes I understand since she's usually regarded as a subpar actor, but Gyllenhaal is usually a pretty good actor so I'm not entirely sure why it fell kind of flat. I don’t necessarily think it’s Bale’s or this character’s fault, though, as his chemistry with Hathaway in Rises is great. But in any case, despite all that, I don’t really mind too much, especially since the Dark Knight had the cajones to do something pretty much unprecedented in superhero movies – they actually killed off the female love interest. Very rare, and it really raised the stakes in a great way and was a great plot point that challenges our hero and what he was planning on and thinking. (Jean Grey and Elektra don’t count since they were superheroes/villains in their own right. And in 2 out of their combined 3 “deaths” it was obvious they were coming back).
It’s interesting to note the parallels in the scene between Bruce and Alfred after Rachel gets killed to the scene in Batman Begins between Alfred and young Bruce after the Waynes are killed. The first few lines of dialogue are exactly the same. Alfred enters the room and says “I thought I’d prepare a little supper,” gets nothing but silence from Bruce, then says “very well,” and after a pause Bruce says that it’s all his fault. In Begins, Alfred responds by saying it’s not Bruce’s fault, but in Dark Knight, he can’t quite say that (because his becoming Batman is what caused the escalation that led to the Joker being created) so instead what he says is that Bruce has inspired good, and that something like this was inevitable. An interesting parallel that I didn’t pick up on until several rewatches.
Batman himself gets some nice moments to shine. One moment I thought was great was when he was dangling Maroni over the balcony, and when Maroni mocks him for not being a high enough fall to kill him, he replies “I’m counting on it” and drops him. Probably his most badass moment in the film. Overall, I think my favorite scene with Batman in it is when he goes to the Joker’s interrogation room. Obviously the audience is fixated on what the Joker is saying and doing at that point in time, but the movie also does a great job showing us what Batman is feeling as well. He starts to listen intently to him, and you can see Batman almost start to be a little hypnotized, he starts to think maybe Joker has something resembling a point…and then he realizes what’s happening, and slam’s Joker’s head on the table and starts harassing him. Great stuff.
Despite his good moments, however, and the fact that he has the most screen time, there are times when we sort of take Batman himself for granted throughout the film. This is largely because of the greatness of Ledger’s portrayal, the huge thematic emphasis on Dent, and the fact that we’re already familiar with Bale’s Batman from the past film so we’re more focused on the new elements.
That being said, for me personally, the fact that I was sort of taking Batman himself for granted a little bit throughout the film made his ending sacrifice much more powerful. When Batman offered to take the fall for the killings, what went through my head at the time was “Oh yeah, I’ve been so caught up in all this Joker and Two-Face and other stuff, I haven’t been fully appreciating the fact that there’s a guy heroically risking his life every day to help make the world better.” I really thought it was a fantastic ending, perfectly earned with what we saw his thoughts on Dent earlier, and you really feel bad for him and the weight of this sacrifice.
(By the way, regarding the “Did he kill Harvey?” debate – like I said with Ra’s, whether you think Batman broke his code or not doesn't matter, because in my opinion it is intended to raise debate and I don’t consider it a flaw of the film or character at all).
So, obviously we all love Batman Begins and the Dark Knight, but there is the matter of that third film to be addressed.
Now, obviously, there are major flaws, plot holes, and unexplained things. I won’t get into them all here, but one of the ones that really bugged me (regarding the character of Batman in particular) was how he magically got back to Gotham after he escaped the prison in the Middle East despite not having any resources. Would it have been too much to show a quick shot of Bruce sneaking onto a plane by grabbing the wheels and crawling into it, or something? A lot of uneven editing and pacing also drag the film down.
There were plenty of positives about this character in the third film, however. Bale himself still does a good job acting. His chemistry with Hathaway was great, much better than with either Rachel. I thought the scene in the doctor’s office was pretty funny, and his scenes with Alfred and some of the other supporting characters were good as well.
Now, regarding the ending. I know some people didn’t like it because of the idea that he’s “giving up” being Batman, but I dunno, I liked it. It kind of made sense to me. We’ve already established in Dark Knight that he’s willing to give up being Batman for his personal happiness if Gotham’s deep corruption and crime problems are fixed (since we saw him consider if when he thought Dent would be able to create peace in TDK). I mean, sure, there will always be petty crime to some degree in every city, but in Begins we established that he was specifically setting out to become a symbol and the main thing he wanted to fix was Gotham’s ridiculous corruption and crime problems. After Dent’s death, the Dent Act more or less fixed this and Gotham became a more purified city with an ethical police force and no mob scene that we could see. That’s why Batman was in retirement for 8 years, only coming back to deal with the threat of Bane and the League of Shadows – with the Dent Act, he wasn’t needed. Now that the League of Shadows threat has been dealt with, it’s natural to assume that Gotham will more or less go back to the purified way it was before Bane got there. I mean, sure, Dent was exposed as a guy who went crazy and killed people, but that particular fact being exposed isn’t going to suddenly create a large mafia scene or suddenly cause the now-ethical police force to suddenly become corrupt. After eight years of being extremely effective and cleaning up the city, the Dent Act isn’t going to be repealed just because its namesake turned out to have gone crazy after his life was ruined – all it means is that it will probably be re-named.
And to that point, the city hasn’t lost the fact that it had a moral crusader who bravely died defending the city and trying to protect it – it’s simply replaced the identity of their icon. Instead of rallying around the sacrifices of Harvey Dent, the city can now rally around the sacrifices of Batman – as shown by him getting a statue. Batman was always intended by Bruce to become a symbol, so I don’t think him giving up crime fighting to live a happy life is necessarily cheating – because he realized that Batman at this point could have more effective and longer lasting power as a fallen hero than he would have as a guy who beats up petty thugs in a city with a low crime rate. So I actually thought it made a lot of sense.
And then…alright, I’m burying the lead. I LOVE the fact that this is the first Batman we’ve seen to actually have a full, complete arc. Even Justice League’s Batman Beyond wrap-up episode “Epilogue” still had Bruce actively working to help Terry be Batman. I love the fact that Batman was able to ride off into the sunset and live a happy life. I know some people think it’s a cheat and that the character is only satisfying if he can never be happy, but I don’t care. I love the fact that we saw a Batman who was able to actually live a happy life…and I especially love the fact that he was able to go off and life a happy life with Selina Kyle. I even liked the fact that they actually showed him and Selina together at the end instead of cutting at Alfred’s smile, which I think is an opinion I’m probably completely alone in. I liked the absolute visual confirmation and the chance to get a glimpse of Bruce and Selina in their new lives. It was extremely cathartic for me.
Even if you disagree with me on that last point, I think the strength of Batman Begins and Dark Knight are more than enough to justify this character a spot in the top three.