Reading Frank Miller’s influences on Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy

Posted by @ 8:01 am on September 10th, 2012

One more post on the Batman, if you’ll please. It’s no secret that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy drew a lot of inspiration from Frank Miller—specifically, from his 1986 mini-series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and its 1987 follow-up, Year One (which featured art by David Mazzucchelli). And so I felt like taking some time to note all the connections (or at least the ones I can see—feel free to chime in as to what I’ve missed!).

I’ve already commented elsewhere on how Batman Begins took:

  • the Tumbler design (The Dark Knight Returns);
  • Batman’s escape from the police by means of a bat homing device (Year One);
  • and the ending in which Commissioner Gordon muses about the arrival of the Joker, having received one of his calling cards (Year One).

And there are still more connections. Commissioner Gordon’s character arc in that film is similar to the one he follows in Year One—he even has a corrupt partner named Flass. Furthermore, Bruce Wayne distances himself from the Batman by cultivating the image of a drunken playboy:

That’s everything that I can see in the first film.

The Dark Knight is I think the least indebted to Miller of the three films. Nonetheless, its ending, wherein Two-Face kidnaps Gordon’s family, echoes the mob’s kidnapping of Gordon’s family at the conclusion of Year One—Batman even saves Gordon’s son from falling:

Moving on to the The Dark Knight Rises

There are numerous connections.

1. We open with Bruce Wayne retired from being Batman. Roughly the same amount of time has passed. (In The Dark Knight Rises, it’s been eight years; in The Dark Knight Returns, ten.)

2. Alfred spends time berating his master, expressing the wish that he settle down.

3. Alfred later finds Bruce Wayne in the Batcave, now clean-shaven.

(In Rises, Bruce Wayne shaves off a full beard, as opposed to just a mustache in Returns, but this Batcave scene is still the one where he’s done it.)

4. In order to return to being Batman, Bruce Wayne has to stick a limb in a mechanical brace. In Rises, it’s his leg; in Returns, it’s his arm:

5. Mathew Modine’s character, Deputy Commissioner Foley, is very reminiscent of Captain/Commissioner Ellen Yindel. He spends the first half of the film wanting to catch Batman, even pulling cops from their pursuit of Bane. But he later allies himself with Batman. (That said, the film does this quite differently than in Returns, mainly due to its inclusion of material drawn from Knightfall and No Man’s Land.)

6. When Batman reappears, chasing Bane, two cops see him. The older cop says to the younger one, “Oh, boy, you are in for a show tonight, son!”

And just like in the comic, the younger one tries to apprehend Batman (he draws a gun on him and accidentally shoots him). Batman basically ignores him.

7. Bane is in some ways more like the Mutant Leader than he is like Bane, lacking his Venom drug, and instead being more concerned with creating an alternate army that rules Gotham. (There’s even that odd line where Bane taunts Batman for fighting “like a younger man, nothing held back—admirable, but mistaken”—which perhaps hailed from the Mutant Leader’s many comments about Batman’s age? I’m really speculating here, though.)

8. A nuclear threat hangs over Gotham. (Although in Returns, the bomb actually does some real damage to Gotham.)

9. Both the film and the comic are TDKR (and yes, it does annoy me a little that when I use that initialism now, Google thinks I’m referring to the film).

10. Finally, the Selina Kyle we see in Rises takes a lot from Miller’s portrayal of her in Year One (even down to her sidekick Jen, who’s based on Holly):

Now, I’m not criticizing Nolan for stealing from Miller—not at all! (It’s too bad, however, that Miller never gets so much as a thank you. I assume that’s a legal issue? But still!) I believe strongly that art proceeds by derivation, and I also think originality overrated. And I adore Miller’s Batman comics, and think that if you’re going to steal—steal from the best. (Indeed, one of the things I like best about The Dark Knight Rises is how it merges so many different Batman storylines; Batman Begins does something similar, with Year One and The Long Halloween).

But that said. I do think that Nolan has missed a substantial element that made Miller’s versions of the Dark Knight so brilliant—and that is the argument that Batman is a psychopath. And a criminal, to boot. He’s not a nice guy! He isn’t a person that you can be friends with!

In Nolan’s version, Batman is very noble. He takes the rap for Harvey Dent. He seems driven by the purest intentions: to save Gotham (like his father tried to, through philanthropy). But Miller’s Batman is obsessed with fighting crime, to the point of myopia, mainly enjoys beating the shit out of criminals.

What’s more, in Nolan, Batman is pursued by cops because he’s been unjustly framed. But in Miller, Batman’s pursued by criminals because his actions are illegal! (They’re illegal, too, in Nolan, but no one says a word about that there.)

In Miller’s version, the cops are perfectly correct to pursue Batman—he’s committed any number of serious crimes. But Miller uses this opportunity to actually ask whether laws ultimately serve justice. He wants to know whether we should have forces outside the law. Gordon argues precisely in favor of that to Yindel:

And Yindel eventually comes to agree with him:

In other words, Miller out and out acknowledges that Batman is a fascist fantasy, and requires us to recognize that point in order to enjoy his story. Indeed, he claims that that is precisely what we enjoy when we enjoy Batman. He compares Batman to Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch:

I think that in order for [Batman] to work, he has to be a force that in certain ways is beyond good and evil. It can’t be judged by the terms we would use to describe something a man would do because we can’t think of him as a man. […] [I]t’s very clear to me that our society is committing suicide by lack of a force like that. A lack of being able to deal with the problems that are making everything we’ve got crumble to pieces. As far as being fascist, my feeling is … only if he assumed political office. [Laughter.] If there were a bunch of these guys running around and beating up criminals, we’d have a serious problem. (Kim Thompson, “Interview Two,” Frank Miller: The Interviews, page 34)

In the end, Miller has the courage of his convictions, while Nolan wants it numerous ways: Batman as vigilante, Batman as super-cop, Batman as a friend to school children, Batman as a collectible toy. At the end of the day, Nolan’s Batman is the one who has to appeal to every demographic—and falls far short of the vision Miller argued for 26 years ago in his comics.

OK, that’s enough Batman for now, I think. My next few posts will cast about for something else to talk about. (Although is there even anything besides superheroes? I no longer remember.)

Until then, have fun pretending you’re a fascist.

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