“Mirror…MIRROR!” Analyzing Mirroring-Moments in Burton and Nolan Batman Films To Understand Why The Dark Knight Is So Serious

          “Its darker…grittier… Its basically ‘The Dark Knight’ of __________ movies.” This phrase has become a staple for filmmakers and critics alike when describing the countless remakes, reboots and adaptations that have dominated cinema for the past four years. From James Bond to Spiderman, countless action heroes are getting The Dark Knight treatment. Much like the realism movement of stage-theatre during the early nineteen hundreds, Hollywood is now catering to audience demand by giving classic heroes a darker, grittier, more realistic spin. No other

Theatrical release banners for 2012 film releases The Dark Knight Rises, 007: Skyfall, and The Amazing Spiderman, all tease at re-imaginations of classic blockbuster heroes with similarly darker, grittier tones.

person has had as big an influence on the rise of Hollywood’s realism movement as director Christopher Nolan. In his first blockbuster film, Batman Begins, one can see shades of Nolan’s neo-noir and psychology-focused directorial style that presides in his earlier films: Memento and Insomnia. But The Dark Knight changed things. It broke the mold for realistic reboots for years to come. Whereas previous Batman movie directors used art and aesthetics to tell a Batman-story, Nolan succeeded in using Batman as just another weapon in his arsenal to tell a serious, psychological crime-drama.

          Now, one has to be careful when comparing Nolan’s 2008 TDK with a movie like Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman (the first blockbuster Batman movie ever). Different directors, different actors, different scripts, and different production years are all reasons these films are distinct in their own ways. But when Batman, one of the world’s most famous superheroes, fights The Joker, one of the most iconic villains in comic and cinema history, audiences can’t help but compare the two. That being said, the purpose of this paper is not to decide which is a better movie: Batman or TDK, or who is a better Joker: Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger. These are aesthetic choices for each viewer to make. My intent is to acknowledge how differences between the two movies convey the differences in the tones and themes of each film.

          While watching TDK, a keen eye will notice scenes and dialogue that mirror Batman (Zman). Whether these parallels were intentional on Nolan’s behalf or not, is moot. Rather, these scenes can be used to analyze the impact of the differences between Nolan and Burton’s reincarnations of Batman and The Joker. One such parallel moment is Batman’s Joker using a quill to murder a mob boss, and TDK’s Joker using a pen to murder a mob boss. While both scenes are shockingly disturbing, the difference lies in the lack of gore on Nolan’s behalf; although depriving the audience of Burton’s bombastic and graphic imagery, Nolan allots

Batman’s pen-murder is graphic and melodramatic, while TDK’s pen-murder is so quick that before the audience knows what The Joker is doing with the pen, “it’s gone”.

the audience understanding of The Joker’s character while still retaining suspense. This goes hand in hand with what Nolan had to say when asked to compare his movies with Burton’s:

“There are different tones that can be taken with adapting this character to the movies . . . if you assess [TDK] carefully and analyze it with other films, it's not a particularly violent film actually. There is no blood. Very few people get shot and killed, compared with other action films. We tried to shoot it and dress it in a very responsible way so that the intensity of the film comes more from the performances and the idea of what's happening and what might happen . . . There are some extraordinarily disturbing images in [Burton’s Batman movies]. But they're coming at it from a surreal point of view . . . interestingly there are different ways to be disturbing” (Nolan).

          To further investigate the legitimacy of Nolan’s claim, let’s analyze two other scenes that mirror each other: when The Joker vandalizes the Fluegelheim Art Museum (Museum Part 1/Museum Part 2) as compared to when The Joker crashes Dent’s fundraiser party (Fundraiser). These two scenes are helpful because they are

Whether or not Nolan’s scene was an intentional mirror is not important. Since Batman’s museum scene and TDK’s fundraiser scene have nearly identical structures, they can be used to break down and compare basic elements of cinematic tone.

nearly identical in structure: both scenes have Bruce Wayne’s love interest at an event that The Joker crashes with his posse. The Clown Prince of Crime then threatens the heroine until The Caped Crusader appears and rescues the girl (Perschon). For this reason they are perfect scenes to compare differences in aspects of cinematic tone: setting/décor, sound/music, composition and acting.

          When looking at setting and décor, it’s impossible not to mention Burton’s German-expressionism influence that is evident in all of his earlier films. With this influence Burton adds a dash of ‘nineteen-forties mobster’ as a throwback to the Golden Age of Batman comics, along with a hint of 1980s crime-ridden New York. The result is visible in Batman’s opening shot of Gotham City, as well as both the exterior and interior of the Fluegelheim Museum in this scene. On designing the Fluegelheim Museum, production designer Anton Furst stated, “all the buildings . . . are dwarfed by the geometric savagery of the Flugelheim Museum whose brutal exterior is more akin to locomotive design than an art gallery.” Clearly Burton places a lot of emphasis on his films’ visual aesthetics. Nolan however, bases his franchise in realism. TDK’s opening scene is an attest to that: a sudden, bright landscape shot of Gotham’s modern skyscrapers and concrete structures. Wayne’s penthouse suite, which is the setting for the fundraiser scene, is sleek, shiny, modern – believable. “I suppose there's a sense there that might get under your skin a little more, if it relates to the world that we live in” (Nolan).

          Sound and music is an interesting aspect of Batman due to the inclusion of Prince. As Burton’s Joker is a wildly flamboyant character much like the aforementioned pop star, his music helps incite comedic relief: the basic point of the Joker’s entrance. Burton’s ever-dependable composer, Danny Elfman, clearly marks the entrance of our hero with a crashing, heroic-sounding score. The man behind the majority of Nolan’s film’s scores, Hahns Zimmer, approaches his scene differently. When the Joker enters, there is no music. The shocking silence that follows The Joker’s entrance, broken only the sound of dishes crashing to the floor, adds to the eerie realism of the scene. Zimmer begins by having a single note slide slowly up a scale, gradually reaching a crescendo as The Joker tells the second of two evidently false scar-origin stories. Zimmer does this to make the audience feel uncomfortable, further immersing themselves in the story. As well, Zimmer uses this fear-inducing crescendo to capture an entire theme of TDK: escalation. In his score for Nolan’s directorial follow-up to the TDK, Inception, Zimmer again uses this tactic of doing more to the audience with less (albeit, with a far more intriguing, DNA/cellular-surgery eloquence). Its influence can be seen today in such work as Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.

          The camera movements during the two scar explanations are useful to analyze the intensity of TDK’s composition, and how Nolan’s specific framing of each scar-origin story manipulates the audiences acceptations, and thusly, their understanding of The Joker (Fhlainn). When The Joker tells his first story to the mob boss, the shot is framed at an elevated position and consists of mostly close ups, implying an authoritative truth that the audience subconsciously accepts. At the fundraiser, the 360 degree tracking shot is used to instill a realization about the Joker for the audience: he has no true origin. “The 360 degree tracking shot creates disequilibrium in the spectator appropriate to the revelation that the Joker is not really telling the history of his scars. We move from the close-ups, which provide a direct and seemingly veridical account of his history, to the 360 degree tracking shot, which enacts the circumlocution evident as we hear the story a second time with its content changed” (McGowan). Composition in Batman is also apparent, but instead of using framework to underscore the story, Burton uses it to add to his film’s aesthetic. By purposefully tilting the camera frame at odd angles and stressing imperfect architecture, Burton utilizes his German-expressionism influence for which he is now known.

          Acting is yet another aspect of tone that differs between Burton and Nolan’s films. When analyzing these two specific scenes, one can only really look at two characters: the heroin, and The Joker. When comparing the women of each respective film, the most noticeable difference is how the role of the heroin as changed since the late 1980s. Even twenty years ago, the everyday woman, Vicky Vale, was seen as a helpless damsel in distress who has to resort to flirting and seduction to get out of trouble (“I love purple!”). Despite the fact that Rachel Dawes is simply a working attorney with no formal combat training, she is strong-minded and physically able; she’s not afraid to punch a psychopath in the face. Unfortunately for her, having “a little fight in you” is more to TDK’s Joker’s liking.

          Thus, bringing us to the comparison of The Jokers: two Oscar winning actors in two of the most iconic performances in cinema history. Each portrayal is threatening in its own way, and as a result, personifies the differences in tone between the two films. Their actions in these scenes alone display their differences: where Batman’s Joker had the museum pumped full of gas, killing countless civilians before entering, TDK’s Joker kills no one in his scene and still leaves the audience feeling disturbed (again, accomplishing more with less). It’s important to note the radical differences in each Joker’s storyline. Batman’s entire script focuses on The Joker’s character arc: Jack Napier, a high-ranking mobster, falls into a vat of chemicals and seeks to take over Gotham City and confront Batman. TDK’s Joker however, has no character arc. He seemingly came into existence as the personification of a philosophical pole; the unstoppable force to Batman’s immoveable object. So immediately, one can see differences simply with what each portrayal demanded. “Nicholson could afford to be by turns charming and repulsive, since his villain actually felt certain emotions, however perversely: sweet envy of Batman's ‘toys,’ lust for the heroine, frustration at a victim's escape, etc. But Ledger's Joker has only one emotion, the desire to destroy” (Alleva). Jack Nicholson is perfectly cast as an obnoxious, comical, yet threatening character. Although perhaps in the same category as Christopher Walken, Jim Carrey, and George Clooney (all future Batman-movie actors who have been said to have played themselves more than their character), Batman’s Joker is still recognized as one of the most influential villains in cinema. When asked about Nicholson’s influence on his portrayal of the iconic villain in TDK, Ledger stated that “to touch, what Jack Nicholson did in Tim Burton’s world, would be a crime . . . I knew it was open for fresh interpretation and I also, instantly kind of, had something up my sleeve.” Indeed, Nolan has attributed nearly everything about TDK’s Joker’s voice, gait and make-up, to Ledger’s design. Of all of Ledger’s apparent influences, one is of particular interest: British postmodern artist Francis Bacon. Bacon sought to depict human subjects in raw form by painting disfigured and distorted portraits of subjects. “His expressionist style intended to bring out the depth of his subjects in a way a traditional portrait could not” (Bellmore). It’s easy to understand how TDK’s Joker’s derelict make-up exemplifies this train of thought. “The smeared make-up indicates that it doesn’t hide the Joker’s identity but rather expresses it . . . this is why he never seems to worry about his make-up when it starts to come off” (McGowan).

          Interestingly, there is more beneath the surface of this seemingly superficial influence and the connections with Bacon, Nolan, and The Joker run deeper. Bacon is the “post-war British painter” whose work is on display in Saito’s estate during the first dream sequence of Inception. The particular piece, “Study for Head of George Dyer”, has been interpreted symbolically with the film’s story (Bellmore). As well, Bacon was an influence on Hans Zimmer while scoring TDK (Billington). It seems an odd coincidence then, that the only painting The Joker prevents from being defaced in Gotham’s Flugelheim Museum in Batman is Bacon’s 1954 “Figure With

The makeup for Ledger’s Joker (pictured here in a slaughter house alongside cow carcasses) was inspired in part by postmodern artist Francis Bacon. Nolan’s Inception and Burton’s Batman also indirectly feature Bacon’s paintings “Study for Head of George Dyer” and, (again, featuring cow carcasses), “Figure With Meat”, respectively.

Meat.” Despite drastically different interpretations of the character, it seems Burton and Nolan’s Jokers share a common influence.

          There are other scenes in Batman and TDK that mirror each other, and by analyzing the structure of these scenes, its evident that tone is not the only film aspect that sets Burton’s and Nolan’s Batman franchises apart; theme is equally different. One such parallel moment is when both Jokers dispense of a mass amount of cash. In Batman, The Joker throws twenty million dollars into crowds of greedy Gotham-ites during the city’s anniversary parade. In “‘Wait ‘til they get a

Batman’s Joker uses money as a means to both bring out the worst in Gotham citizens, and to bring the Batman out of hiding. In TDK, The Joker sets his, and the mob’s money, on fire, exemplifying his non-goal oriented state of mind.

load of me!’: The Joker From Modern to Post-modern Villainous S/laughter’’, Fhlainn describes how The Joker’s actions in Batman thematically reflect Reagan-era-America’s obsession with public adoration and self-image: “The world of Burton’s Batman is laced with modernist appetite’s for technology and commodity fetishes [‘Where does he get all those wonderful toys?’]”, and that “The Joker also seeks and hopes to attain celebrity, adoration and infamy [‘What kind of a world do we live in where a man dressed up as a bat steals all of my press?’].” Interestingly enough, Fhlainn claims that the feature that most supports Batman’s obsession with beauty is embedded in its script, and “comes from the neat structure of the film’s plot to make Jack Napier, The Joker, and Batman’s fate tie together in an overtly neat fashion.” Conversely, when presented with a cargo-ship full of cash, TDK’s Joker sets the money on fire, proclaiming, “All you care about is money. This city deserves a better class of criminal. And I’m gonna give it to them.” This seemingly irrelevant difference in monetary action by both Jokers conveys not just how different Nolan’s reincarnation of The Joker is from Burton’s, but the difference in themes between the two movies. In “The exceptional darkness of ‘The Dark Knight’ ”, McGowan describes TDK’s Joker as the embodiment of an ethical position in Kantion-philosophy:

TDK’s Joker explicitly denies seeking any object in his criminal activity, which separates him decisively from the other criminals in the film . . . He can burn piles of money or put his life at risk because he doesn’t think of his acts in terms of the ends that they will accomplish for him. . . He values doing evil for its own sake, being ‘a wrench in the gears,’ which marks out an ethical position that Kant believes cannot exist, that of the diabolically evil subject” (McGowan).

          Indeed, if Nolan’s Joker has only the desire to create chaos, than his Batman has only one rule, the same rule The Joker promises to make Batman break: not to kill. This fundamental motivation is one of the main differences between Burton and Nolan’s heroes, and its impact manifests two times in moments that mirror each other in Batman and TDK: each of the Jokers ordering Batman to fatally hit him; and The Joker falling off a skyscraper during each of the films’ climax. In Batman, The Joker eggs Batman on to shoot him via Bat-wing during the city’s parade. Batman fails only because he misses. In TDK, Batman makes a split second decision to not hit The Joker with his Bat-pod, despite The Joker’s pleads for him to do so. The Joker’s attempts to bring Batman down to

Both Jokers demand that their respective Batman kill them. The fact that one Batman attempts to kill The Joker, while the other decides not to, exemplifies the contrast in themes between the two films.

his level prove futile; Nolan’s Batman refuses to be an executioner. This is the same reason he saves The Joker with his bat-claw after throwing him off a skyscraper, whereas in Batman, the use of his bat claw causes the Joker to plummet to his death. Where Burton’s Batman is a “gruesome son-of-a-bitch”, the lengths that Nolan’s Batman will go to not kill define him, even if the lengths are too far. Many viewers acknowledge the relinquishing of rights and freedoms to fight

Batman’s hero is directly responsible for The Joker’s death while TDK’s protagonist cannot kill his nemesis because the very act would result The Joker winning.

terrorism in Bush-era-America as a dominant theme in TDK: “Indeed what may turn out to be one of the biggest financial successes in Hollywood history, turned out to be a story about terrorism and the difficulty of combating it without turning into a mirror image of the terrorist” (Alleva). Even Alfred’s monologue of his days as a bandit-hunter in Burma brings forth notions of George Orwell’s imperialism-themed short story, Shooting an Elephant: “When he admits that he only stopped the bandit in question, ultimately, by burning down a forest, he is somehow quintessentially British: We can't go around burning down forests today, of course, and we probably shouldn't have, then. But we did get the job done, didn't we?” (Ragan). McGowan’s Kantion-philosophy analysis of TDK also acknowledges this theme, but offers a rebuttal against those who view the film as pro-Bush commentary. Its interesting to note that such minor differences in the tone of a scene or motivation of a character can have roots in the very theme and message the film is conveying.

          After comparing Burton’s Batman with Nolan’s TDK, one can see how differences in setting, music, composition and acting all affect the tone of a film. As these two movies have different directors, actors, scripts, and were made in different decades, they each have their own distinct aesthetic. Burton’s Batman is set in the entertainingly surreal, while Nolan’s TDK is serious and realistic. By further analyzing other scenes that mirror each other, it is evident that even the subtle, seemingly meaningless differences exemplify the contrast in the film’ themes. At first it may seems odd that, as his Joker terrorizes Gotham City with an under toned theme of cosmetics and materialism, Burton himself focuses more on his hauntingly stylish aesthetic than story. It would be easy to conclude that Burton’s theme is ultimately self-inflicting, and this may be true when analyzing the film today. However, at the time of production, no other director had approached a blockbuster movie with as visually dark and gothic tone. This may be hard to imagine, as Burton is a mainstream director for today’s audiences. Batman’s story thematically reflects on public adoration and self-image because, in 1989, Burton was struggling for the public’s acceptance of his own visual aesthetic. Nolan’s crowning achievement though, is not his aesthetic. His focus is on the timeless, complex and in depth social commentary embedded in intricately written stories that resonate with today’s audiences. By paying homage to iconic scenes from Burton’s Batman, but altering them to align with his philosophical and psychology-focused story, Nolan goes deeper into themes and motifs that Burton’s film merely touches on.

          The fun part is, Nolan isn’t finished. One can see more examples of mirroring scenes and points of social commentary (in the plentiful trailers and television-spots alone) for Nolan’s conclusion to his Batman trilogy: The Dark Knight Rises. For example, Batman Return’s masquerade dance scene gets an homage paid forth in the 2012 Batman film. Selina Kyle warns, “a storm is coming” for the people who thought they could “live so large, and leave so little for the rest of us.” As the political landscape has changed since TDK’s threat of terrorism, TDKR tackles

Batman Returns’ masquerade scene, wherein the irony is that Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne are the only two who show up without masks, appears to be alluded to in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises.

2012’s political issues like The Occupy Movement and ‘the one percent versus the ninety-nine percent’. Even more intriguing is Nolan’s involvement with the Superman reboot, Man of Steel. Although being directed by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, and the misunderstood? Suckerpunch), Nolan and his collaborators came up with the story that conceives “how you would address Superman in a modern context”. In his Kantion-philosophy analysis of TDK, McGowan concludes that TDK’s Batman conveys “authentic heroism” because, by the film’s climax, he dons the role of a villain. Furthermore, had Batman not sacrificed his reputation, than his exceptionality to the law would cause escalation of “a legal civil war and thereby play . . . the key role in the transition from democracy to fascist authoritarianism.” McGowan notes that Superman lacks the moral complexity to be a darker hero, and because if this, Snyder turned down the opportunity to direct a Superman movie in 2008. Something Nolan and company came up with in the years since has obviously caused him to change his mind. Could Man of Steel answer some of these political and social questions that TDK also confronts, but from the view of the Boy Scout of superheroes?

          Furthermore, there is the obvious ode to License to Kill’s airplane heist scene in TDKR. Considering Nolan pays tribute to 007 films all the time (the character of Lucious Fox being influenced by 007’s Q; TDK’s skyhook as compared with Thunderball’s; Inception’s arctic-base as compared to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s), its no surprise that Nolan has expressed interest in directing a James

Nolan has openly stated that his influences include classic James Bond movies. If a Nolan-helmed 007 film ever does materialize, I guess I’d have to write a paper on that too, wouldn’t I?

Bond movie as long as it is “the right situation and the right time in their cycle of things”. But seriously, wouldn’t it be so cool if he did direct a Bond movie? It would be dark, and gritty, and have a sweet, psychologically consuming storyline…. And now this paper has turned from critical analysis to the thoughts of a gushing fan-boy. That’s my cue.

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  1. Brilliant analysis. One (minor) nitpick: it's Kantian, not "Kantion."

  2. Ahhhhh, Kantion: guilty as charged. That's a newbie error I'll not make again. I do appreciate the positive reception though.

  3. Yay! Finally I've found an article recognizing similarities between Burton and Nolan's films. I was beginning to think I was the only one. Another one I've noticed is the use of gas to terrorize Gotham City in Burton's Batman (by Joker) and Nolan's Batman Begins (by Scarecrow).


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