On Fear: The Sociopaths of Batman (1989) and Batman Begins (2005)

In Uncategorized on June 18, 2005 at 7:18 pm

I had not been a regular reader of Batman or Detective Comics until the mid-eighties, when Frank Miller lured me in with The Dark Knight Returns, but even before Dark Knight, my limited exposure to Batman had been enjoyable precisely because Batman’s villains were genuinely creepy. The first two villains to make a strong impression on me were Dr. Phosphorus, the radioactive skeleton from Detective Comics 469 (1977), and the Scarecrow, in Detective Comics 503 (1981).

One wonders if David Goyer didn’t have this marvelous cover depicting Batman transformed into the Scarecrow’s doppelganger on his bedside table when he penned the screenplay for Batman Begins, a film which strikingly thematizes the nature of fear by linking Batman’s origin story to Dr. Jonathan Crane’s psychopathic alter ego. For the movie plainly adopts the thematic implications of this evocative image–an image that iconically suggests the complexity of a character whose neurotic, often ambiguous “heroism” is as much a symptom as a willed act, and whose relationship with fear as much a martyrdom as a strategy.

Many elements make this meticulously orchestrated and on balance successful Batman film outshine the series of films it was designed to make us forget. Perhaps the most important of these, however, is Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow–the first genuinely scary big-screen bat-villain.

From the second Murphy appears on screen, our skin begins to crawl. His beauty is unnatural and chillingly asexual. We know that we are in the presence of a sociopath long before he dons the horrific Scarecrow mask and blows fear dust in our eyes to create some of the most archetypally nightmarish scenes I’ve ever seen in a comic book film, from the maggot infested death-mask’s bat spewing maw to Crane’s flame-snorting black steed. How appropriate that he’s a Jungian.

By far the most inspired of these images, however, are those that transform our vision of Batman himself, propelling him directly out of the clunky batsuit and into the realm of Lovecraftian myth. From the tar-oozing demon who terrorizes a drugged out Crane to the wraithlike nightmare with glowing red eyes that swoops over the fear-crazed Gothamites, the film gives us images that capture both what we imagine an encounter with a real Batman might feel like and the uncompromising spirit of the film as a whole. They also show us what it takes to produce a Batman movie that doesn’t only not suck, but that edges towards a kind of mythic grandeur.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) at the time. I was astonished at how good Michael Keaton was in the title role, and the film’s look and kineticism thrilled me. In many ways, it remains one of the great comic book movies. But even back then I had to will myself into “enjoying” Jack Nicholson’s Joker–a hammy performance that set the tone for all subsequent bat-villains in the increasingly dismal series of films. Initially, Nicholson’s scenery-chewing antics were a boon to the whole enterprise because their sheer weirdness got the movie noticed by a whole demographic who might otherwise have quite happily ignored it. For many mainstream viewers, there was undoubtedly something novel and even vaguely transgressive about an actor of Nicholson’s stature rampaging through art galleries dressed like a homicidal mime and squirting people with acid through his boutineer. Hey–even I’ll admit, it was kind of fun.

But I didn’t want it to be “fun,” exactly. I wanted it to be scary. I wanted it to be mythic. And in order to be either of these things, it had to take itself seriously.

In a way, of course, it did. At the time, people praised (or panned) the movie for its “edge,” its “darkness.” But everything’s relative, and this edginess was only notable by comparison to the camp adventures of Adam West and Burt Ward in the 1960s. Keaton’s broody Batman was a step in the right direction, of course, but Nicholson’s Joker was a throwback to the goofy villains of the show I’d watched in Sunday morning reruns, updated only by a sadism that was not in itself frightening, precisely because it was the banal sadism of all 1980s screen villains. And cinematic sadism, in any case, is rarely frightening. It might be diverting or revolting, depending upon one’s tastes and the contexts in which it is deployed. Often, it is merely tedious. Nicholson’s sadism was at least joyful, and this made it bearable. But it also made it “comic-booky,” in the worst mainstream sense of the term. It was “comic-booky” in precisely the way that real comics are not.

This is why Roger Ebert’s complaint about the original Batman film was only half-right. “The movie’s problem,” he charged, “is that no one seemed to have any fun making it, and it’s hard to have much fun watching it. It’s a depressing experience. Is the opposite of comic book ‘tragic book’?” Watching Batman is a depressing experience, but not for the reason Ebert claims. It’s not that the film is no fun, but that it’s too much fun–but “fun” is the wrong word. The peculiar feeling the movie evokes–an affect unique to Tim Burton’s art–is depressing fun, or fun-that-isn’t-fun. Not a cheerful apocalypse, not even a grim, apocalyptic joke. More like a pop nihilism that chickens out and in the end refuses the void. A timid Burtonian darkness that can’t resist being just a little bit cute.

If these weren’t problems enough, what irreparably marrs Nicholson’s Joker and absolutely prevents him from frightening us is not simply Burton’s precious gothicism, nor even Nicholson’s braying performance, but Nicholson’s celebrity itself. Ebert is right when he says that “Nicholson’s Joker is really the most important character in the movie”–and this is true only because it is Nicholson’s Joker. Nicholson cannot perform the great disappearing act that would make his Joker a truly terrifying source of chaos. We never forget that we’re watching Jack; and in this way, the sociopath is domesticated by celebrity. Even if Nicholson had given a different performance, it would never be quite as frightening as a comparable performance by a lesser known actor.

It’s no accident that the most terrifying screen psychopaths–Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers–are faceless nobodies or heavily made-up character actors. Nor is it an accident that Murphy’s hooded Scarecrow is the first Batman villain who could legitimately join their ranks. We fear what we cannot name and this why celebrity villains cannot frighten. Jim Carey’s Riddler and Arnold’s Freeze are only the most painful illustrations of this rule. The relatively more obscure (though not for long) Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow is their diametrical, creep-inducing opposite.

Batman Begins is not a perfect film. The mixed reviews that it has received are to some extent earned. For audiences that have become accustomed to the weightless artistry of films like The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon the fight scenes do feel a bit stiff and old-fashioned. Bale’s Batman voice is a bit silly, and the film does lose some of its visual power the moment that Bale actually puts on the cumbersome batsuit, which is still too heavy and militaristic. But these are minor complaints about a film that mostly gets it right, at least in all the ways that count. Its a film that restores some much needed dignity to a tarnished franshise and does justice to the spirit of the stories from which it grows.

For this reason, I am (almost) more consoled than irritated when bores like The Globe and Mail‘s Liam Lacey proclaim:

All of the story is so absurdly humourless that it is dramatically inert, as if Nolan had decided the only way to make the Batman character more substantial was to put weights on his wings. Genuine opportunities to explore a political context–the obvious post-Sept. 11 references to white powder, terrorist attacks and the political manipulation of fear–are wasted. Stylistically, the movie is similarly disappointing. Where are the dizzying perspective shots that made the first Spider-Man movie so much fun?

Where indeed, Liam? We agree about the missing perspective shots, but could it be that you’re really looking for a different Batman movie altogether? The “humorous,” “fun,” “intoxicating, mad, gothic bang” from 1989 you pine for in the opening lines of your review? What is consoling (though at the same time frustrating) about a review like this one–a review that charges the film with “humorlessness” and describes the Scarecrow as “a snidely simpering Cillian Murphy who puts a burlap bag over his head”!–is that it ironically confirms the film’s success from the point of view of a comic book audience that takes the affective power of the superhero genre seriously and is able to appreciate it when filmic adaptations attempt (and succeed) in translating comic book gravitas into a new medium. Only a mainstream film critic who does not understand the genre of superhero comics, who is unable to experience them as anything other than frivilous funny-books, and who expects his superhero blockbusters to be as airy as popcorn, could dismiss a film like Batman Begins as “humorless” with a straight face.

It’s not surprising that a certain kind of film snob will simply not “get” a film like Batman Begins. And it is all too tempting to say: well, it wasn’t made for you anyway. But the impasse is worth reflecting on. The fact that a film like Batman Begins can be made, and the aesthetic distance between this movie and Tim Burton’s Batman, or between Nicholson’s Joker and Murphy’s Scarecrow, suggest that the superhero comic book has come a long way towards recognition as a significant cultural form. The charge of “humorlessness” in reviews like Lacey’s is an index of how far it has yet to come.

Of course, this is all coming from a defensive fan-boy, and we are a notoriously humorless lot.


  • Roger Ebert, “Batman,” Chicago Sun-Times, June 23, 1989.
  • Liam Lacey, “This Batman Doesn’t Fly,” The Globe and Mail, June 14, 2005.

    Related Links

  • There’s a nice discussion of this article on the boards at Bloody-Disgusting: Horror Movie Entertainment. Thanks to Straker for starting it.
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