With his first two Batman films, Nolan re-imagined Batman as something a bit more plausible in today's world: a self-made, one-man special forces unit with lots of money, a kick-ass R&D department and tons of anger issues. But beyond that, he made Batman more than a superhero: a catalyst to explore the very human concepts of the crippling force of grief, justice vs. vengeance, and corruption — both institutional and personal.
In the first film, "Batman Begins,"we learned about the kind of trauma it would take to send a man jumping off rooftops. Its sequel, "The Dark Knight," showed us the havoc a high-functioning sociopath could cause through Heath Ledger's definitive portrayal of the Joker (sorry, Jack). It illustrated how polarizing ideals — Batman as an agent for order, the Joker as his opposite for chaos — can lead to escalating acts of violence and blowback: As entertaining as it was, "The Dark Knight" could easily be an allegory for terrorism and the threats posed to civil liberties by strong state response.
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"Batman Begins" loosely followed Frank Miller's now-classic "Batman:Year One," a rebooted origin story that not only detailed Bruce Wayne's clumsy, sometimes inept beginnings as Gotham City's protector, but brought with it a vulnerability (and ultimately, heart) readers had yet to see in the character. As for "The Dark Knight"? It pretty much went off the rails of any story previously published by the character's parent company, DC Comics.
And since every copy of"The Dark Knight Rises"script is under lock and key, we're not sure what to expect. All we have to go on is the official synopsis: The story takes place eight years after the events of "The Dark Knight," where Batman took the fall for Harvey "Two-Face" Dent's spiral into madness. It's a polite way to say Dent — formerly a charismatic district attorney — killed a few people.
After years of lying low, Batman (Christian Bale back in the mask) is called to face a maniacal terrorist named Bane (played by Tom Hardy) and Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman in the comic books, although promotional materials for the film don't refer to her as Catwoman. Whatever. Anne Hathaway plays Catwoman.
Much like other villains Nolan has used, Bane and Catwoman have storied histories in the funnybooks. And if you want to bone up on these characters before the movie hits theaters Friday, here are a few graphic novels you should check out.
Batman: Knightfall Vol.1, DC Comics, $29.99
If there is anything you should know about Bane, it's that he broke Batman. Literally, as in "Bane broke his back." In this "re-mastered" trade paperback — which collects issues from "Batman," "Detective Comics," "DC Showcase '93" and "Batman: Shadow of the Bat" — Batman meets Bane, a ruthless crime lord whose size, strength and speed are second only to his genius. Think Hannibal Lecter on steroids. Again, not a euphemism: Bane is on a steroid called Venom that empowers his already hulking form (Nolan replaced the steroid with a pain-killing gas in the movie). Now, you'd think that would be enough to take out Batman. But just to be safe, Bane releases all the crazies from Arkham Asylum, forcing Batman to waste time and energy recapturing them. It's only when Batman returns home, exhausted, that Bane strikes, beating and then breaking Batman, forcing him into retirement. Also included is the "Vengeance of Bane" one-shot, which answers the question: How does someone end up a murderous, calculating behemoth? Hint: Growing up inside a South American prison helps.
Catwoman: Nine Lives of a Feline Fatale,
DC Comics, $14.95
If ever there were a character in need of a career counselor, it's Selina Kyle. A brief summary of her work history includes: International jewel thief. Government agent. Bounty hunter. Vigilante covering Gotham's East End. She even put in work as a prostitute in Miller's "Batman: Year One" series. Thankfully, the good folks at DC Comics, in a well-meaning effort to promote the stinker that was Halle Berry's "Catwoman" movie, collected nine very entertaining Selina stories into this trade paperback. "Nine Lives" chronicles the character's journey over the decades, but it's worth the money just to read her first appearance in Batman #1 (1940). Then known only as "The Cat," Selina boards a yacht disguised as an old woman and steals $500,000 in jewelry. Soon, she's discovered by Batman, who delivers what remains one of the most ridiculous lines in the history of comic books. Go ahead, get the book. Thank me later.
Batman Versus Bane by Chuck Dixon, Illustrated by Graham Nolan, DC Comics, $12.99
Yes, you get the same "Vengeance of Bane" one-shot you'd find in "Batman: Knightfall." But you also get "Batman: Bane of the Demon." As Bane searches for his actual father, our protagonist meets Ra's Al Ghul, who decides that Bane should not only succeed him as head of the League of Assassins, but also see to the destruction of Gotham City. Sound familiar? If not, that's your cue to order "Batman Begins" on Netflix.
Catwoman: Selina's Big Score, written and illustrated by Darwyn Cooke, DC Comics, $17.95
Selina returns to her thieving, robbing roots in this stylish bit of crime noir from Eisner Award-winner Darwyn Cooke. There's a train carrying millions in mob money en route to Canada. Selina's job? Hit the truck. Steal the cash. Get out clean. Sounds easy enough, sure, but where's the fun in that? Cue in the double-crosses, dead gangster molls, criminal ex-lovers and a Javert-esque P.I. named Slam Bradley. It's campy. It's over-the-top. It's everything wrong and wonderful about comic books because, at the end of the day, it's about a thief named Selina who does one last job, thinking that it will set her up for life and send her home. Hey, wasn't that the premise of"Inception"?
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, written and illustrated by Frank Miller (with Klaus Janson), DC Comics, $14.95
At some point, the Dark Knight himself should be discussed, and perhaps the best way to do that is to look at "The Dark Knight Returns." Originally published in 1986, Frank Miller's four-issue series (and collected paperback) stands alongside Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's "Watchmen"as the benchmark for sequential storytelling, one that moved comic books away from the campiness of the '60s and '70s and established them as a literary medium. With "The Dark Knight Returns," Miller creates a Batman who, at age 55, is about 10 years out of the game and still mourning the death of his last Robin, Jason Todd. Along with that, the folks in Washington have outlawed vigilantism, forcing all the superheroes (with the exception of Superman) into retirement. When Harvey Dent — reformed and dapper thanks to some major surgery — returns to a life of crime, Bats takes up the cowl but soon finds out his skills aren't what they used to be. What makes "The Dark Knight Returns" such a success is that it reveals Batman to be a man, one just as frail and decaying as the people he protects. And while the sharks — street-gang leaders, old enemies, even Superman — start churning the moment his blood hits the water, Batman finds himself surrounded by the very people he's helped, ready to train and fight in his name. And isn't that the goal of Batman in Nolan's great tale? To create a legacy? A symbol? Something "incorruptible" and "everlasting," as Wayne says in "Batman Begins?"
Glenn Jeffers is a Chicago-based freelance journalist.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times