Remakes are nothing new. From the silent era onward, filmmakers have returned again and again to the same stories, re-interpreting them and updating them either for the sake of modernization, to expose them to a broader audience or to just make more money. We modern film geeks tend to roll our eyes and groan cynically when a new remake comes down the pike, but the fact of the matter is that when done right there are few things as satisfying as a seeing a story we love get a good cinematic spit-shine. Remakes are a part of the grand tradition of storytelling and cinema history, and love them or hate them, they’re here to stay.
But in the last decade, the term “remake” has become something of a dirty word, and as a result Hollywood spin doctors and internet journalists have given us the new terms “reboot” and “re-imagining”. Do these terms actually have meaning, or are they just empty buzzwords? The mission statement of this ongoing column will be to answer that question by comparing an original film to a re-do and determining if the newer version fits one of the following definitions:
Remake: A straight re-telling of a story for the purpose of updating it for a contemporary audience, or making it accessible to a different culture or region.
Reboot: A course correction done with the purpose of restarting a franchise. A reset. Fealty to the original story or film is not a priority.
Re-Imagining: A re-telling of a story, but only in the broadest sense. Characters and some story elements may be retained, but mostly plot and story have been repurposed.
I also will make a judgment call on which version is superior. Some controversy may ensue.
BATMAN VS. THE DARK KNIGHT
The story: In recent months, the crime riddled city of Gotham has come under the protection of a black-garbed, Bat-motifed vigilante who calls himself Batman, and the criminal underworld is reeling. Into this troubled stew comes the ultimate wild-card; a clown-visaged criminal mastermind known as the Joker who is determined to plunge the city into chaos and madness. Naturally the two are pitted against one another, finding in the other their ultimate nemeses, and the battle is joined as the soul of Gotham City hangs in the balance.
So what’s the deal?: OK, look, I’m not seriously positing a theory that The Dark Knight is a remake of Batman. It isn’t. We all know that. But in the growing hype of The Dark Knight Rises, I found myself in the grip of a fever I have every so often, Bat-fever. I think some of you may be familiar with it. It is a sickness that forces me to consume and revisit all manner of Bat-related media, a veritable gorging of my favorite fictional characters and the crazy world of Gotham City as I prepare for the release of another major cinematic Bat-event. So as I sat in the grip of my orgiastic fever I thought to myself, “Hey, maybe I can turn all this nerdish obsession into an installment of my new column, and thus alleviate a tiny amount of my Bat-guilt for being such a Bat-bum. Yes, that is exactly what I shall do, old chum.”
But how was I going to do that? The Batman movies have never been remade. The 1966 Batman film was just an extended episode cash-in of the TV show and frankly I don’t consider it a real movie, sorry. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film/phenomena tried desperately to distance itself from the 60’s incarnation altogether, though I could argue that it fails in that regard more than people are willing to admit. Each subsequent sequel were almost reboots themselves as only the barest elements were carried over, and by the time we reached the wretched excess of Batman and Robin it felt like in a weird way we had come full circle back to the 60’s TV show, only with molded rubber instead of tights. It was a strange Bat-cave we had fallen into, and it took Christopher Nolan’s radical reboot of the franchise, Batman Begins, to bring us back to a take on the character fans and audiences could stomach. It was a less fantastical and almost obsessively grounded approach, but let’s face it, it was what Batman needed to do after so many years of crazy production design, stage bound sets and hysterical, campy performances. If any character in the history of cinema had ever demanded a total reboot, it was Batman.
And thus with Batman Begins came the first real coining of the term “reboot” to define a film’s standing in regards to a franchise. Aside from characters and the vaguest of elements (the forced callback of the line, “I’m Batman”, for instance) Batman Begins bore no resemblance to the ’89 Burton film. It basically tells you the viewer that what happened in the previous films did not happen. This sort of thing is so commonplace now that it doesn’t seem like a big deal; hell, we’re getting a Spider-Man reboot this year (and you can bet your ass I’ll be covering it) and the original is a mere 10 years old. But back in 2005, this was a quasi-revolutionary move. Not even the James Bond series actively contradicted the previous films. Batman Begins established the reboot as a viable artistic approach for a film franchise, and as a result we have entered a cinematic era where the reboot seems like the preferred option to any franchise that is suffering any sort of diminishing returns. It is so commonplace at this point that we are likely to soon experience the inevitable critical and financial backlash. Where Hollywood goes from there is anyone’s guess.
But back to the two films in question. Despite all of the obvious differences, Batman and The Dark Knight actually share a startling amount of commonalities. First off, read my story overview. Of course I write the overviews in a reductive method that serves to illustrate how for the sake of comparison the two movies can be boiled down to the same synopsis. But considering how different Batman and The Dark Knight are, it was shocking to me that they both could be summed up in the same paragraph. The subplots may be wildly divergent, but the broad strokes are remarkably similar. In both films, Batman is already in operation. Batman 89 is an origin story, but of the Joker, not Batman. The Joker’s origin is the primary difference of the two films as he is given a clear and defined origin in Burton’s film but in Nolan’s film he is given none. However, The Dark Knight does have an origin story, that of Harvey Dent/Two-Face. So the element of seeing an iconic villain become who they are is present in both films. It’s really the central story and thrust of The Dark Knight, the same way that the Joker’s story is the central thrust of Batman. It’s an odd commonality in two films which both bear the moniker of their arguably sidelined hero as the title.
But what about the details? Watching Batman and The Dark Knight back-to-back brought to light some interesting similarities in the small details as well. In both films, the Joker is depicted at times with streaked make-up that reveals flesh-tones. Big deal, right? Except that he has never been shown that way in any media outside of the two movies. Also, in the climax of both movies, the Joker is caught mid-air by Batman’s grapple around the leg after a fight in a high building. The end results differ, but it is a little weird that the character’s story comes to an end in such a similar fashion. It’s not like there isn’t any other way to deal with the Joker. And what about the way in both films there is a standoff in which Batman is speeding towards the Joker in one of his Bat-vehicles and the Joker guns him down, causing him to crash? And these are just the similarities I noticed on casual viewing. One has to assume that these things are intentional callbacks on Nolan’s part as I can’t imagine his detail obsessed brain didn’t catch them. Coming in a series that is so clearly attempting to distance itself from the one spawned by Burton, the echoes warrant consideration.
Aside from achieving cultural phenomena status and breaking box office records, there’s one thing both films prove on a meta-textual level — that the role of the Joker is the holy-friggin’-grail for an actor. Much has been said about Heath Ledger’s Joker blowing Jack Nicholson’s performance out of the water, but really they are apples and oranges. Both actors approach the role completely differently. Nicholson tailors the Joker to his already larger-than-life personality, and though he used this same trick to death in later films, in 1989 it was electric. It was the talked about performance that year, and it was really hard to imagine that anyone would ever be able to make their mark cinematically on that character to the effect that Jack did. But boy, did Heath Ledger prove the world wrong. Unlike Nicholson, Ledger wasn’t the obvious choice for the character, but he made it his own by taking the exact opposite approach; he disappeared inside the Joker. There was nothing of the public Heath Ledger in that performance, a point I bring up when people wrongly dismiss it as “over-rated”. I don’t know who the hell that terrifying freak in The Dark Knight was, but he wasn’t the same handsome leading man from A Knight’s Tale, that’s for shit sure. It was a performance that achieved the impossible; it redefined a character that had already been indelibly cemented in the public’s consciousness by another actor. It was a feat that was never pulled off before in such grandiose fashion and isn’t likely to ever again.
So what is the point that I’m trying to make? The point is that I think in its own small way, The Dark Knight is Nolan paying a little homage to Tim Burton’s Batman, and could be considered a re-imagining in the broadest sense. It’s almost as if after totally ignoring the original series and essentially laying it to waste with Batman Begins, Nolan is tipping his hat a bit by acknowledging some things he felt that the groundbreaking ’89 film did right. He understood that most of the time, great Batman stories aren’t about Batman, they’re about the villains. He understood that his film would hinge on a career-defining performance of the Joker. And he understood that there were some scenarios of the 89 film that could be re-used and retro-fitted to great effect without seeming recycled or unoriginal. I believe that the ties that bind Batman to The Dark Knight are much stronger than initially realized, and as the world of Batman gets once again rebooted and we see new interpretations of his never-ending battle with the Joker, I anticipate that the similarities between Batman and The Dark Knight will be cast into even sharper relief.
Which film is better?: Though Tim Burton’s Batman has a lot of great things going for it in the performances and overall design, in my opinion it is egregiously flawed and uneven on a story level and is now remembered fondly for nostalgic reasons more than anything. The Dark Knight however, was the Batman film I had always wanted. Is it the greatest movie of all time? No. It has problems. It’s a bit overstuffed, overlong, has a few failures of omission and could be accused of taking its comic-book subject matter too seriously, which is ironic considering the promotional usage of the Joker’s “Why so serious?” line. It isn’t the second coming of cinema, but it is the second coming of the superhero film. It’s a film that dares to be ambitious but still manages to be entertaining, and as a Batman fan it was everything I had hoped for and more. You may personally enjoy the 89 Batman more on a nostalgic or aesthetic level, but in my mind it is clearly the inferior film. The Dark Knight wins all the way.
Hat tip: When I was looking for images to steal I found this comparison of the two films on Whatculture. I haven’t read it yet because I didn’t want it to influence my article, but it saved me some Photoshop aggravation (I am admittedly terrible at it) and therefore I will link to it because it looks like a fun read.
Up Next: Friday the 13th.