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Scott Mendelson

Scott Mendelson

Posted March 13, 2009 | 11:32 AM (EST)

Batman In The Movies - The narrative arc of Bruce Wayne in the first film series...


This is an essay I wrote last June on Mendelson's Memos, in advance of The Dark Knight's theatrical release. Since it specifically concerns the original Batman series that has just been released on Blu Ray, I am sharing it with you today.

The first four Batman pictures are many things to many people. In this essay we will be dealing with the connective tissue of all four films, under the concept that, be it accidental or intentional, there really is a continuity in the four original Batman films, specifically with the character development of Bruce Wayne. It isn't ironclad and the differing creative hands weakens the thru-line, but there is a narrative continuity that indeed exists from Batman to Batman & Robin.

Batman- As a person in Gotham City, Bruce Wayne is merely a non-entity. As we see throughout the picture, he is merely a name, 'that rich guy' that people have heard about but few have actually met. No one recognizes him at his own party in his own house, and Jack Napier doesn't recognize him when he crashes Vicki Vale's apartment. As far as we know, Wayne Enterprises does not exist and his charity work is halfhearted at best. The only evidence of his charity is a donation basket at the Mayoral Ball, which collects money to 'save the 200th anniversary festival'.

Since Bruce Wayne is not a public figure and barely a cipher, his emergence as Batman does not raise any red flags in relation to Bruce Wayne. In the first Batman, Bruce Wayne is barely a shell of a man, not even a disguise but merely a vessel to create and purchase the things that Batman will need to function. For all intents and purposes, Bruce Wayne does not exist. Only Vicki Vale and Alfred Pennyworth make half-hearted efforts to bring Wayne out of his cocoon. Referring to Bruce's obsession with his parents' murders, Alfred bitterly exclaims: "I have no wish to spend my few remaining years mourning the loss of old friends... or their sons."

Forced to choose between loving Vicki Vale as Bruce Wayne and risking losing her as Batman, he chooses Batman. At the end, Batman avenges his parents and establishes himself as a force for good in Gotham City. TRIVIA - In the original Sam Hamm script, reporter Alexander Knox figures out Bruce's secret when Vicki does and confronts him about it. Vicki and Alex are closer friends in this draft and he demands that Wayne make a choice between being Batman or loving Vicki as Bruce Wayne. In the original script, this is rendered moot when Knox is killed in the climactic festival massacre.

In this context, Jack Napier's transformation, physically and mentally, into The Joker is an example of a rational man completely giving himself over to a new, more extreme identity (this is a reoccurring theme in the Batman comics, especially with the rogues gallery). Jack Napier is dead, Joker claims, and he is right. Jack Napier has been submerged, permanently, and only The Joker remains.
When The Joker and Bruce Wayne confront each other in Vicki Vale's apartment, Bruce Wayne makes a calculated decision to 'be Bruce Wayne' in a situation where Batman would be more appropriate. In this moment, we see a flash of what Bruce Wayne might be like if Batman completely took over his personality. In essence, we see Batman pretending to be Bruce Wayne. The irony is that it is in this scene that he learns the knowledge that will allow him to avenge his parents and begin the eventual slow slog to contentment and mental stability. Batman's triumph is Bruce Wayne's defeat, as he risks completely destroying the Bruce Wayne persona in his quest for vengeance. At the end of Batman, more so than even at the beginning, Bruce Wayne is a non-entity and there is only Batman.

Batman Returns - With Bruce Wayne's parents avenged and Batman considered a friend to Gotham, Bruce Wayne is pretty much irrelevant. More importantly, Bruce Wayne is forgetting how to be Bruce Wayne in any normal setting. He is awkward in business meetings, has no life as himself, and struggles to be in a relationship as Bruce Wayne. We first see him literally sitting in a chair, staring at a wall, waiting to the Bat Signal to give him a purpose. As the picture unfolds, the three villains who emerge seem to represent various sides of him - the bitter, abandoned orphan (Penguin), the ruthless businessman (Max Shreck), and the reckless vigilante (Catwoman). These are all things that Bruce Wayne could become.

Wayne's initial suspicion comes from Cobblepot's overly forgiving attitude towards parents who literally tossed him into a sewer when he was a baby. Since Wayne probably occasionally harbors feelings that his parents abandoned him, and then the guilt that follows such thoughts, he is suspicious if not jealous of this fellow orphan. Here is a freak of a man, living in the sewers for thirty-three years, and, on the surface, he seems better adjusted than Bruce Wayne.

Max Shreck is the ruthless and psychotic businessman that most people probably expect Bruce Wayne to be. If Bruce Wayne is to use his money and power as a means to do business, Shreck is a warning sign to the kinds of moral shortcuts and contempt for fairness that Wayne must avoid.

Catwoman is a wild murderous vigilante who inspires both Bruce Wayne and Batman's interest. Of course, because Bruce Wayne is now an act, and a poor act at that, Bruce Wayne's relationship with Selena Kyle (who is also now playing pretend while out of costume) is doomed. Only as Batman and Catwoman can these two people be themselves and find a connection. While on their first date, Bruce and Selina make awkward small talk, only creating sparks when they drop their acts a little bit (of course, once that happens, the bruises and scars from their other lives interfere). One could argue that Selina only falls for Bruce because he is the first man to be kind to her in a long time, but that is for another day.

In the end, The Penguin (the bitter orphan) is dead , Max Shreck (the corrupt businessman) is dead, and Catwoman (the reckless, murderous vigilante) is presumed dead. These three parts of Bruce Wayne that he fears unleashing have been squashed. Selina has died partially because Bruce was unable to relate to her as Bruce. Due to The Penguin and Catwoman's prior machinations, Batman is viewed with distrust and suspicion and Bruce Wayne is still a complete non-entity.

Batman Forever - In the years since Batman Returns, Bruce Wayne is now a vibrant and important part of Gotham society. Wayne Enterprises is now a major force for business wealth and social good, he is a popular and respected socialite. His morals are beyond compare as is his empathy (faced with the apparent suicide of an underling, he demands full benefits for the man's family, even if the insurance policy won't cover it). He is respected and admired, and he has a measure of success as Bruce Wayne (and, unlike the comics and the Nolan films, he doesn't have to play a useless idiot in public to deflect suspicion away from his other identity... a stupid storytelling choice that neuters the whole character as a force for good).Now, however, it is Batman that is struggling. Both of the villains in the picture, The Riddler and Two-Face are concerned solely with killing Batman. In fact, it is Bruce Wayne's abdication of his role as Bruce Wayne that creates The Riddler. Responding to the bat-signal (a false alarm, no less), his swift departure from a meeting with Edward Nygma fuels his mania and sends Nygma over the edge. Ironically, while The Riddler helps Two-Face attempt to humiliate and murder Batman, Edward Nygma concentrates on humiliating and crushing Bruce Wayne. In a film about duality, Edward Nygma seems to do the best job of juggling his two identities.For much of the film, he struggles with just why he is forcing himself to be Batman, whether he should give that up and just be Bruce Wayne. He has fallen in love with Dr. Chase Meridian, but she seems more interested in Batman. He is almost incompetent as Batman, allowing Two-Face to constantly escape and finding himself unable to track down The Riddler.

And after Dick Grayson's parents are murdered by Two-Face (in a bid to lure Batman, no less), Wayne is faced with repressed memories dealing with his own parents. Plus, he sees Dick Grayson going down the same murderous path that once left Bruce Wayne isolated and alone (the original script had direct references to the fact that Batman had shed blood in the first two films). Deciding that he can do more good as Bruce Wayne, and wanting to save Dick Grayson from going down a similar path, he decides to quit being Batman and just be Bruce Wayne. But, in a twist of fate, his enemies have just discovered his secret and invade Wayne Manor. On the very night he resolves to abandon the cape and cowl, an emergency emerges that demands that Batman take action.
Of course, in the end, he rescues both Chase Meridian and Dick Grayson because neither part of his life need dominate the other. By the film's end, he has absolved himself of guilt for his parents' death. Further fleshed out in the original script and deleted scenes on the DVD, Bruce realizes that while he asked his parents to go to the movies the night of their deaths (the source of his guilt), it's not his fault as they ended up seeing the movie that Martha wanted to see. Plus, he has maintained new relationships with both egos. Dick Grayson loses his need for murderous revenge and becomes Robin and Dr. Chase Meridian is willing to try a relationship with Bruce Wayne. Because Bruce Wayne no longer feels guilt over his parents, being Batman is now a choice and thus he can do it purely because he wants to help his city. For the first time as an adult, Bruce Wayne and Batman can co-exist and thus are happy.

Batman & Robin - Bruce Wayne is content. Batman is a beloved force for justice. Wayne has dealt with his parents' death and remains a billionaire socialite do-gooder. The crime that exists in Gotham is in no way caused by Batman (both Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy are created by outside forces and basically exist outside the primary story arc). All is well.In this film, the challenges for Bruce Wayne involve the future. Bruce Wayne struggles with being a father figure to Dick Grayson, even while Alfred, his own father figure, lies at death's door. These are new challenges to Bruce Wayne, but they can be overcome because he is healthy and sane.

As the film progresses, Bruce mends fences with Dick Grayson, accepting him not as a son but as a brother and trusted friend. Bruce confesses just how much Alfred has meant to him while Alfred uses his time to contact long-lost family and thank Bruce for allowing him to be part of the good that Batman does (take away everything else from this justifiably ridiculed movie, but the conversations between Bruce and Alfred are genuinely moving and compelling).

Alfred is saved from illness, but Bruce knows that when Alfred dies, it will be ok, both because he has accepted that he can't save everyone and because he has built a new family, with Dick and Alfred's niece Barbara, that Alfred, Thomas, and Martha would be proud of. The End.
Despite the fact that the fourth film is terrible, the story being told actually makes a fitting conclusion to the story as it began in Batman back in 1989. We go from Batman overtaking Bruce Wayne, Bruce Wayne struggling to justify his existence, a newly emergent Bruce Wayne struggling to be both Bruce Wayne and Batman, and then a content Bruce Wayne/Batman dealing with the future and starting his own family. The man who had his family ripped from him at a tender age now happily exists as a respected and beloved do-gooder with a new family of his very own.

Scott Mendelson