Christopher Nolan’s history of Batman

Now we’ve absorbed Christopher Nolan’s completed Dark Knight trilogy, Seb delves into the comics to see how the filmmaker drew from Batman’s classic stories...

As the dust begins to settle on Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie trilogy with the release of The Dark Knight Rises, it becomes apparent that not only is it an outstanding set of films in and of itself, but it also represents the greatest translation of a particular superhero character that the genre has ever seen. While there have been many superb superhero films over the last few decades – some or many, depending on your perspective, individually better than Nolan’s – they’ve generally tended to be quite narrow in how they’ve chosen to draw from their source material.

This isn’t necessarily to those films’ detriment – however, filming Batman in particular represents a distinct challenge. The character is unique among superheroes for the sheer number of different tones and interpretations there have been in the 70-odd years of his existence – and you’d have to be especially wedded to a particular version to argue that they’re not all as valid as one another. Superheroes generally, due to their longevity, have to change with the times – but Batman has almost revelled in it, serving as the David Bowie of comic books.

Of the many impressive things about the three films written by the Nolan brothers and David S Goyer, however, is that between them they manage to cover an astonishing amount of Bat-history. It’s staggering just how many of the different interpretations have found their way into the films somehow and somewhere.

The following list may not be entirely exhaustive, but we think it gives a pretty fair idea of just how comprehensive a version of Batman the films have given us…

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The Golden Age (1939-1940s)

The very earliest version of Batman – who really only existed for a year or so before a smilier, friendlier version was joined by new sidekick Robin – is different from the later interpretations in perhaps more ways than most people realise. Most obvious is the fact that – shock horror – he’s seen to carry a gun in some of the very first stories. Of course, we know this now as entirely against the ethos of his character – but perhaps we can see a germ of influence in the fact that the Nolan’s earliest version of Bruce-as-vigilante, the young man who wants to take revenge on Joe Chill, also briefly considers this otherwise forbidden tool. But where Nolan has Rachel Dawes step in to remind Bruce that this shouldn’t be his way, in the comics it was the creators who realised that the character would have better long-term appeal as a hero with an oath not to kill.

While the Nolan films may not draw much specific story inspiration from this particular era, it’s worth noting that both The Dark Knight‘s villains – the Joker and Two-Face – debuted in that first decade, in 1940 and 1942 respectively. Although both characters would see almost as many personality changes as Batman over the years, the earliest versions clearly show a lot of influence on the films – the Joker in particular showing an obvious parallel with Heath Ledger’s version when, in his first story, he appears on the radio to pre-emptively announce the deaths of selected victims.

The Silver Age (1950s-60s)

With the introduction of the Comics Code in 1954, comics changed dramatically – and in filling the gap left by the cancellation of hugely popular pulp horror titles, superheroes shifted focus to bright, colourful, over-the-top adventures. Bizarrely, Batman’s stories took on an increasing sci-fi influence – featuring frequent team-ups with Superman and even occasional visits to other planets. This makes it hard to find a counterpoint in Nolan’s usually-firmly-grounded films in this era – although we might argue that some of the over-the-top use of technology in The Dark Knight in particular falls a little bit into this bracket.

The Adam West Series (1966-1968)

You’re looking at us oddly at this point. We know. We can feel it. But honestly – despite being a version of the Bat-myth that generally takes everything seriously, the Nolan films know that the high camp of the Adam West-starring TV series (and feature-length movie) of the 1960s is still a valid version of Batman, and one that deserves to be paid tribute.

After all, if the climax of The Dark Knight Rises, in which Batman desperately tries to rid Gotham of a deadly bomb, isn’t a deliberate and direct homage to this piece of wonderfulness, then we don’t know what it’s all about:

The Bronze Age (1970s-80s)

Two major sets of creative forces transformed Batman’s outlook (if not his sales fortunes) dramatically in the 1970s: writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams were inextricably linked with the character throughout the decade, although they only actually worked together on the books for a couple of years. Aside from the overall legacy of being the creators who moved Batman away from the camp excesses of the 1960s, perhaps their most lasting contribution was the creation of Ra’s and Talia al Ghul in 1971. This family unit, of course, gave both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises their main antagonists. Both characters are somewhat altered in motivation and methods from their original appearances, but retain the overall spirit of the comics-based originals fairly strongly.

The other major Batman run of the Bronze Age was by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, whose late 70s Detective Comics stories were a huge influence on subsequent creators, and most notably on Tim Burton’s 1989 film. That said, there’s less of an obvious, direct influence on the Nolan films – although a more demented, homicidal interpretation of the Joker, as seen in The Dark Knight, undoubtedly traces its roots to their dramatic reinvention. We might also suggest that giving Bruce a love interest that knows his secret identity owes a debt to Silver St Cloud, the Englehart/Rogers creation who has yet (in name at least) to turn up on screen. Miranda Tate, pre-Talia reveal, definitely shares some characteristics and apparent social background with Silver.

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In both cases, however, it’s in treating Batman deadly seriously – even when the concepts and stories could sometimes still veer into the fantastical – that the 1970s comics show their strongest influence on the Nolan trilogy.

The Dark Knight Returns (1986)

Unsurprisingly – given the title – Frank Miller’s classic future-Bat-story is a significant influence on Rises. But, in fact, the trilogy has been taking cues from Miller’s distinctive style right from the beginning – in refashioning the Batmobile as the tank-like Tumbler, Begins wore the reference overtly on its sleeve. Meanwhile, the opening scenes of The Dark Knight saw a gang of Batman-inspired vigilantes in home-made costumes running riot in Gotham – just as they had done following Bruce’s re-emergence in the 1986 comic.

Rises, however, takes certain plot dynamics more directly from Miller’s work – most specifically, in Wayne faking his death at the end for the benefit of a Gotham that feels it no longer needs him. Unlike in Nolan’s film, however, Miller’s Bruce “retires” the Bat-mantle in order to wage his war on crime in far more clandestine, underground fashion. There’s also a fun nod to Miller when Batman first reappears – with two cops, one young and one old, differing greatly in their reactions to the vigilante, just as they had done in Returns.

Batman: Year One (1987)

Frank Miller’s other Bat-classic (and no, we’re not including All-Star Batman & Robin in that particular canon) is one of the foremost individual influences on Nolan’s trilogy. This is most obviously manifested in Jim Gordon, who is really for all intents and purposes the four part miniseries’ lead character (despite his title) and in Begins in particular seems to have stepped right off the page in the form of Gary Oldman’s deeply engaging portrayal. Other members of the Gotham police department such as Detective Flass and Commissioner Loeb also take their names from this book, although their physical and personal characteristics differ significantly.

Meanwhile, the briefly touched-upon thread in The Dark Knight of Gothamites suspecting that Harvey Dent might be under the mask of Batman had its genesis here – as it was Miller who first delved into the background of a pre-Two-Face Dent, making him the third spoke in Batman and Gordon’s crusade against a corrupt Gotham. Although Harvey’s accident doesn’t occur in the pages of Year One, the way he’s presented in the story makes the knowledge of his eventual fate that bit harder to bear – just as it does in Nolan’s film.

You’d expect that a book about Batman’s first year of operation would have little to offer a film about his final days – but in fact, there’s a final legacy present in Rises. Although Juno Temple’s character is never actually named onscreen, the young friend of whom Selina is fiercely protective is clearly a version of Holly Robinson, the teenage prostitute created by Miller for Year One. The characterisation of Selina herself, meanwhile, comes from many sources, but this is certainly among the most noticeable.

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Batman: Year Two (1987)

After the huge success of Miller and Mazzuchelli’s Year One, it was unsurprising that DC would follow up with a Year Two. Published in the pages of Detective Comics, writer Mike W Barr’s story was a disappointing sequel, however (although it’s worth pointing out that it had originally been written as an “early years of Batman” story a few years earlier, and dusted off and repurposed following the success of Miller’s opus). We mention it here largely because, once again, the notion of Batman using a gun in his early days is toyed with, before he quickly decides it’s not his way – so this could, perhaps, be another potential origin for that brief piece of development in Begins. Also, while it perhaps seems unlikely that there’s any intentional connection with Rachel Dawes, this is the only story we can recall where Bruce has a love interest with that first name.

The Killing Joke (1988)

Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s controversial graphic novel about the Joker doesn’t really lend anything in the way of direct plot to Nolan’s films – but thematically, it’s something of a biggie. Aside from the characterisation of the Joker – and his assertion in the book that “If I’m going to have an origin story, I prefer it to be multiple choice” being directly reflected by The Dark Knight’s various “how I got these scars” stories – the book tries to examine whether Batman himself is just as strange and insane as his mortal enemy. Furthermore, the Joker spends the book attempting to prove that “one bad day” can drive anyone mad. In Moore’s version, it’s Jim Gordon, and he fails – but Nolan seems more willing to prove the villain’s point, as Harvey Dent is driven to become Two-Face as a direct result of the Joker’s chaotic actions on one such day.

The Late 1980s

The regular Batman titles in the late 80s saw a somewhat up-and-down period of sales and critical success – with a mixture of both memorable and uninspiring stories. A particular standout of the period was the controversial Robin-killing A Death In The Family. This was characteristic of the stories of the time, which tended to focus on the psychological effects that Bruce’s life as Batman had both on himself, and on the people around him – and it’s this that is, perhaps, the largest tonal influence that Nolan’s films drew from writers like Alan Grant and Doug Moench.

A handful of individual stories can be seen to have had a more tangible effect on the trilogy, however. A Lonely Place Of Dying, the 1989 Marv Wolfman-penned story that introduced Tim Drake as the third Robin, did so by having Drake (whose name just happens to rhyme with “Blake”) essentially forcing himself into the role by deducing Bruce’s secret identity and pestering him. Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, Denny O’Neil’s The Man Who Falls – also published in 89 as part of DC’s Secret Origins series – centred on Bruce’s time travelling the world and training in the aftermath of his parents’ murder, and was another book specifically named by the Nolans as an influence. It also inspired directly the visual of a young Bruce falling down into the cave of bats. And finally, Jim Starlin’s The Cult, in placing Gotham under martial law, shares some plot elements with Rises.

The Tim Burton Movies (1989/1992)

Although Batman has always made use of an extensive array of gadgets, in earlier years they generally just tended to be there to serve a purpose. The Burton films, however, kick-started a fresh trend of almost absurd fetishisation of Bat-gadgets – from hand-held devices (“Where does he get those wonderful toys?”) to a hugely stylised Batmobile and the fantastic Batwing.

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Although Nolan’s films reject many of the tropes of their cinematic predecessors, this is one that they arguably take to a greater extreme – okay, so almost all of the gadgets are given a more functional appearance and some kind of practical original purpose, but at times it almost feels like this Bruce is more James Bond than Batman…

Knightfall (1993)

The mid-90s crossover epic is the most obvious influence on The Dark Knight Rises, as uber-villain Bane comes to Gotham City and breaks Bruce Wayne’s back. Although the two stories diverge in many ways – particularly regarding Bane’s background and motivations – the actual back-breaking scene was done in a remarkably (visually) faithful way, while the original conception of Bane as a “dark mirror” of Batman is played out well.

Both stories shared as a theme the exploration of a Batman pushed beyond all endurance. And while people may have criticised the apparently straightforward way in which Bruce recovered from his injuries in the film, we think it’s still better than the comics’ use of bizarre mystical healing powers.

It’s also worth noting that while the notion that Alfred would ever walk away from Bruce – as seen in Rises – may seem unthinkable for some, it happened for very similar reasons during the Knightquest chapter of this particular story.

The Joel Schumacher Movies (1995/1997)

Obviously Nolan’s films deliberately steer as far away as possible from Schumacher’s gaudy nightmares – and Batman and Robin in particular. But the line “So that’s what that feels like” in Rises, apparently delivered directly to the audience? Come on, admit it: that’s pure Clooney.

The Long Halloween (1996-1997)

Published a decade or so afterwards, but clearly a direct sequel to Year One (and a far better one than Year Two, to boot), Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s noir masterpiece is the last of the books directly namechecked by the Nolans (after Year One and The Man Who Falls). It was The Long Halloween and its own sequel Dark Victory that expanded further upon the crime family headed by Carmine Falcone and Sal Maroni – such a prominent part of the first two Nolan films – and also sought to bring further pathos to the origin of Two-Face. There’s a hint of Dark Victory’s morally-ambiguous Catwoman in Anne Hathaway’s portrayal, too.

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Late 90s/Early 2000s

The run of big flashy 90s crossover stories in the comics came to an end with the huge No Man’s Land epic – which, in its portrayal of a Gotham City cut off by the government (although, in this case, it was the government’s choice rather than being coerced into it by a terrorist), reduced in various places to rubble, and overrun by a now dominant criminal element, is an obvious touchstone for Rises.

Elsewhere in the early 2000s, the plot in Dick “Nightwing” Grayson’s own comic of his becoming a cop for a while may not have directly inspired Robin John Blake’s own career, but it’s a nice subtle link nevertheless. And perhaps the most recent obvious influence on Hathaway’s Catwoman could be found in her own series, written by Ed Brubaker around this time.

Grant Morrison (2006-present)

So much of what Morrison’s epic long-form storyline (he began on the Batman titles in 2006, and is only scheduled to finish for good some time next year) has done well has been in reflecting all the previous versions of Batman discussed above – so in a way, all it can really offer to Nolan’s films is that same inherited influence (and that’s to say nothing of the fact, of course, that his run began after Begins). And indeed, Morrison’s Batman is far more of a “superhero” than a “vigilante” – the pinnacle of human endeavour, he’s basically undefeatable by virtue of his ability to “think of everything”.

Nolan’s Bruce, conversely, is far more fallible – his ultimate victory preceded by the various defeats from which he learns, and the psychological blows he takes on the chin. Nevertheless, the dashing international adventurer of Morrison’s books is perhaps evident in The Dark Knight’s ludicrous air-bound Hong Kong kidnapping; and a recurring element of the Morrison run has been the increased focus on Talia as an out-and-out villain – just as she ultimately turns out to be in Rises

…But what’s missing?

Of course, as extensive as this list is, it doesn’t cover everything. Nolan’s films, in compressing Batman’s career into a period of just a few years, notably skip over ever telling of a time when he serves as Gotham’s nightly vigilante, with only a brief nod at the beginning of The Dark Knight to routine crime-fighting exploits. At all other times, he’s battling a huge, specific threat rather than serving as all-purpose protector. The films also choose to focus on the physical and gadget-based elements of his armoury – the notion that Bruce is “the world’s greatest detective” is rarely, if ever, put into practice. And of course, there’s the exclusion of all those many classic villains – we’d suggest that the Riddler’s absence was perhaps the most keenly felt.

Despite this, however, it’s hard to deny that the myriad incarnations of Batman are incredibly well-served by Nolan’s films, in a way that we might never see of a comic book translation again.

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