The country is still reeling from the tragic shootings in Aurora, Colorado, that occurred at a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Nonetheless, the film, which might have been the most anticipated Batman movie ever, has proved a huge box office draw and critical success.
Until this year, when Marvel Studios released “The Avengers,” there had been no comic book character adapted for the screen as successful as the Batman. Making his debut in Detective Comics 73 years ago, Batman was the brainchild of Jewish illustrators Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Together, they came up with the concept of a masked hero who struck fear in the hearts of criminals and who, without the help of superpowers, used his physical prowess and wits to defeat the likes of colorful villains like the Joker and Two-Face.
Kane and Finger developed Batman and his secret identity, billionaire Bruce Wayne. Through the ensuing decades, Batman was drawn and scripted by dozens of other artists and writers. The Batman, billed as the world’s greatest detective, was alternately known as the Winged Avenger, the Caped Crusader, the Dark Detective and the Dark Knight.
The success of DC Comics’ Batman character led to the launch of a campy TV show in the mid-1960s starring Adam West as the Caped Crusader and Burt Ward as Robin, the Boy Wonder. A film starring the TV show characters fizzled at the box office, but no one could have predicted the success the figure would achieve on the silver screen two decades later.
Warner Brothers released the Tim Burton-directed “Batman” in 1989 and the sequel “Batman Returns” in 1992, both of which starred Michael Keaton. The film franchise continued with Joel Schumacher directing the less critically and financial successful “Batman Forever” with Val Kilmer in 1995 and “Batman & Robin” with George Clooney in 1997.
When Warner Brothers decided to retool the film franchise with director Christopher Nolan at the helm in 2005’s “Batman Begins,” he chose to cast British actor Christian Bale in the title role and to display far more of his character’s dark nature than ever before. The 2008 follow-up “The Dark Knight,” with Bale reprising his role opposite the late Heath Ledger as the Joker, shattered all initial weekend box office records and is still the third-highest grossing film ever.
Nolan’s final entry in his Batman trilogy is “The Dark Knight Rises.” Nationwide, advance tickets were being sold by scalpers for as much as $100 per seat, and the advance nationwide receipts for just the midnight showings were $30 million, placing the film into position to surpass any other non-3-D movie opening.
One of those with an advance ticket was Zach Yanowitz, a New Orleans Jewish comics collector who hails from Holliston, Massachusetts. Since childhood, he has been an admirer of the Winged Avenger because of the moral code to which he subscribes. “He fights crime as a crazy person,” Yanowitz said. “It’s his idea of the law.”
The high morals Batman exudes is in marked contrast to that of the criminal element he pursues and fights. “He won’t kill anyone, which drives the whole cyclical relationship with the Joker,” Yanowitz said.
Yanowitz has been a fan of the first two Nolan films because they draw back to the earliest incarnations of Batman that existed just prior to the start of World War II. Although he claimed to like Bale’s previous performances, he felt the truest rendition of the Caped Crusader may have been in “Batman: The Animated Series,” a well-received Fox TV series which ran in the mid-1990s and starred voice actor Kevin Conroy.
Yanowitz has been so inspired by comic books and latter-day graphic artists like Will Eisner that he has embarked on his own fledgling comic book career, writing scripts for development with an artist friend in New York. They collaborate over the Internet.
A recent graduate of Tulane University, Yanowitz intends to take a couple years off to work on his comic project before eventually returning to graduate school. He has snagged an interim job at a local comic book store, where he had become known to the store management as a collector. Now he has the best of both worlds: discussing and selling comics to other would-be collectors and established clients while checking out the latest issues.
Another devotee of Batman comics whose career has been inextricably changed due to his attraction to the Caped Crusader is Rabbi Cary Friedman. Friedman, an author and former pulpit rabbi, is currently an associate editor with the Orthodox Union Press.
Like Yanowitz, Friedman believes Conroy in the animated series may have captured the true essence of how the Batman should be represented. He said is more partial to Keaton’s performance, finding Bale’s interpretation somewhat “whiney” and suffering from a lack of the purpose Friedman felt reading the comic book Batman. “There’s a certain sense of happiness or a sense of mission that ennobles him,” Friedman suggested. “All of that is missing in (Bale’s) screen performance.”
While working as a chaplain at Duke University in 1999, Friedman began to construct various ways in which he believed the Dark Knight lived a virtuous life and how others could benefit from it. He reinforced these examinations of the Batman character through the study of the Torah and Talmud and an initial draft of a volume of life lessons evolved.
Eventually this volume was released in 2006 as “Wisdom from the Batcave: How to Live a Super, Heroic Life,” a small book with large ideals published by Compass Books.
Friedman’s spiritual application of Batman has had profound implications for law enforcement agencies. His work as a motivational speaker and expert on Torah ethics caught the attention of a high-ranking FBI official. That led to his becoming an adviser and lecturer to the FBI about how law enforcement officers could utilize various exercises and humanity-affirming approaches in dealing with their demanding and challenging careers. His work at FBI headquarters in Quantico, Va., for the Behavioral Science Unit encouraged lawmen to connect to their own spirituality, but was designed to not promote any one religious philosophy.
Friedman’s “Spiritual Survival for Law Enforcement” (also published through Compass Books) has become required reading for police officers, state troopers, deputies and sheriffs across the country dealing with stress.
What is important to remember is that much of the inspiration for his work has been that which he gleaned from the pages of Batman comics. “The Dark Knight Rises” is merely the end to the Nolan movie franchise. Friedman said he has little doubt other directors and producers will explore these characters again.
“As far as these movies go, they’ve been good,” he sais. “I have a problem, though, anytime you see everybody worshipping at the altar of these movies as the defining vision of these characters.”
Friedman remembered speaking with Jerry Robinson, one of the three Batman writers who helped create the concept of the utility belt and the characters of the Joker and Robin. Before Robinson died four months ago, Friedman had gone to visit him. Robinson told him that the creators of Batman all spoke in larger-than-life terms about their character. “They attempted to create a real superhero who spoke in these noble terms and values,” Friedman recalled.
Friedman hopes that movie goers who see “The Dark Knight Rises” will be inspired to work for justice or decency in their own lives. “I want to make the persons watching it to be transported, where they see their ideas could be realized and where they say, ‘I could do something in my life to work for the good in that titanic struggle for good against evil,’” he concluded.