But is it Batman?
Here's what I know about Batman, having lived on Planet Earth in the latter half of the Twentieth Century. Stop me if I come up with something you've never heard before.
"Batman" is the alter ego of millionaire Bruce Wayne, who lives in Wayne Manor. His home base is a place called The Bat Cave, which is located below Wayne Manor, where he keeps his Batmobile and other assorted Bat-objects; plus he can do crimesolving on computers he keeps there.
Have I lost you yet? Anything new so far?
Batman's secret identity is known by his faithful butler, Alfred. It's also known by his ward, Dick Grayson, who tags along with him to fight crime under the name Robin. This dynamic duo has a liaison in Gotham City police with whom they trust, a police commissioner by the name of Gordon.
Still with me? Are you saying "yeah, yeah, I know all this" yet?
Batman, with the assistance of Robin and Commissioner Gordon, fights criminals in Gotham City. When there's trouble, Commisioner Gordon calls for Batman by using a big arclight that shines the Bat Signal into the sky, alerting Batman about criminals who dress up in costumes and have clever names. These individual villains usually have accomplices who dress up in similar costumes. One of these villains is named The Joker. There's one called The Riddler, and one called Catwoman, and one called The Penguin. When Batman captures these criminals, he sends them to a looney bin called Arkham Asylum.
Hey, bet you didn't know the name Arkham Asylum. Or did you?
You know, I liked that new Batman movie. I like that it's called "The Dark Knight," which hearkens me back to the day I sat and read the entire Frank Miller graphic novel "The Dark Night Returns" in trade paperback format back in 1988.
References abound in Miller's tale - some I was aware, some slipped past me while I raised my eyebrow. I could not look up on Wikipedia who this baddie was or that reference was - I just had to read the story, and wonder how much deeper my enjoyment would have been if I'd spent 40 years reading Batman comics. But in truth, I didn't need to. The story was so engrossing, the tapestry so well woven, that his more obscure references simply inspired me to want for more - I didn't feel left out of the tale being told.
And so now here is a movie that may just be the second highest grossing film of all time. I didn't love it. It didn't grab me and compel me, like my experience with Miller's untouchable piece. We can talk about Heath Ledger, who, yes, does an amazing performance and actually seems like The Joker. But as with anything, that which is written on the page will always be greater than what is on screen, because of the individual readers' tailored imaginations filling in the pauses. Miller's vision overcame my imaginings and overwhelmed them - Tim Burton's did not. Nolan's have not. The latter has come close. But the last two Batman movies, to me, haven't seemed like Batman.
Don't get me wrong - I liked them both, and I saw Dark Knight twice in subsequent Sundays. I enjoyed it the second time far more than the first screening, mainly because I wasn't sitting so close to the screen and I had preemptively peed. As it began, I thought for sure we were starting out on the right foot - The Joker had henchmen who dressed like him, and he puts a grenade in a guy's mouth that poofs out colored smoke. It's the familiar in a new way.
What entangled and snarled me in Miller's book is all that was familiar to me already was presented in a new, dangerous, and exciting way. These new movies are filled with new, but not so much of the familiar. After the big opening sequence, very little of what I already know comes through again. Sure, there's a batcycle, of sorts, and once again we get a filmed version of the story of Two-Face. But why do we never see Gordon's daughter? So we can cast the part later? Is there anyone on earth who doesn't know who Barbara Gordon becomes?
You know what - maybe there is. But my guess is most people know everything I wrote at the beginning of this. Sure, we can keep making film after film to tease out the story over multiple years, but you know as well as I do that Nolan and Bale won't keep making them; we've got one more, at best, that is any good. Isn't it time we had a movie that is as good as this Dark Knight AND includes everything we already know about Batman? In a new and daring way?
I keep waiting. And if you are, too, then go pick up Miller's book - it's the best Batman movie ever made.