I believe we are in about the second or third wave of superhero movies. I remember the ones from when I was a kid–Christopher Reeves’ Superman, Flash Gordon–and those movies were very much the “Whiz! Pow! Bang!” cliche that comics have carried for so long. Then there was the Batman series from my high school/college years in the nineties, and they were a little bit better but still bubblegum; these comic book movies still didn’t take the characters too seriously. I remember Jack Nicholson parading around with his waxy-lipped smile as the Joker, gamboling, and while I loved the costumes, the Batmobile, the tongue-in-cheek humor, I was not convinced of real menace.
With this new Batman series, I believe the film industry is finally getting the comic/graphic novel-based movies right. I loved the dark Batman Begins of a few years ago, though it was very male dominated. I think the strength of that movie lies in the very evil character of the Scarecrow. Cillian Murphy’s portrayal convinced me very much that there was real peril in the story line. Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight sets the bar even higher for the dark foe (which is making this series so successful, in my opinion). I really think they get the darkness quotient right in this installation and how necessary the fear, the chaos is to make the hero (in this case Batman) necessary. I love the Joker’s wickedly funny line to Batman in The Dark Knight: “I need you. You complete me” (which can play as straight dialogue or winkingly as postmodern irony).
My only complaint with this series is its lack of women. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a fine Rachel Dawes–she is my kind of actress (smart and sassy with a forehead that moves)–but her time onscreen is brief. I think of this movie and how it hits the hero archetype correctly as The Empire Strikes Back installment of George Lucas’ Star Wars space opera. But where’s our Princess Leia? I think a part of world building is describing an imaginative, fantastical place that bears some sort of resemblance to reality–and part of our reality is a population that’s half female. I hope to see Catwoman in the next Batman movie–and a very scary, weighty one–or I will begin to feel shortchanged.