Quick, name three Batman films released in the last decade. Not hard, right? Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and the new The Dark Knight Rises, all directed by Christopher Nolan, who brought technical expertise and an in-sync-with-the-times sense of dread to the Batman movies. But what of the other Batman movies from the last decade? Films like “The Last Laugh” and “City Of Scars.” Or “Seeds Of Arkham” and “Death Wish.” Or the Spanish-language “Duplicity.” If none of those ring a bell, take a moment to enter the strange and ever-expanding world of the Batman fan film, which reveals as much about what some fans want from the iconic hero as the official entries, if not more.
Unlicensed films featuring copyrighted characters have been around for almost as long as films have been around. And Batman is no stranger to unofficial adventures, including a whole series of Filipino knock-offs released from the mid-’60s through the early ’70s). But with the spread of affordable and easy-to-use cameras and editing software that began in the late ’90s, fan films took off around the turn of the decade, and Batman has become one of their most popular subjects. That’s been particularly true since 2003, a sort of year one for modern Batman fan films that saw the appearance of both “Revenge”—which used Legos and stop-motion animation, and became a viral hit when it appeared on the Internet the following year—and “Dead End,” a professional-quality production that premièred at the San Diego Comic-Con and quickly spread to the Internet. A veteran of special-effects work, commercials, and music videos, Sandy Collora shot the eight-minute film for $30,000, partly (by his own admission) out of love of Batman, but mostly as a calling card for bigger, paying projects.
While dramatically questionable—in spite of a spirited turn by the late Andrew Koenig, best known as “Boner” from Growing Pains, as The Joker—it’s technically impressive, realizing a threatening, rain-drenched, but recognizably contemporary Gotham a couple of years before Nolan ran with that idea in Batman Begins. It also satisfies a bit of fannish wish-fulfillment. Not only does Batman confront The Joker, he also has to fight the xenomorph from Alien and a Predator. Those franchise crossovers had previously occurred in comics, but seemed unlikely to happen in any officially licensed film.
Collora took that wish-fulfillment a step further with the following year’s “World’s Finest,” a trailer for a film featuring a Batman/Superman team-up. That movie existed only in Collora’s imagination. At root, though, that’s what fan films are ultimately about: making the impossible real (or at least the highly unlikely), albeit often on a modest scale. But they’re also often about working within parameters established by bigger studio efforts. Watch almost any post-2005 Batman fan film—say, this one or this one—and you’re likely to see an effort that owes quite a bit to one of Nolan’s movies, from Batman’s gruffer-than-Clint Eastwood voice to the smeared-lipstick Jokers inspired by Heath Ledger to the sickly fluorescent-lit interiors (at least in the films not obviously shot in someone’s garage).
But why? There have been countless different takes on Batman in the character’s 60-plus years of existence. Why do fans devoted enough to the character to pick up a camera and attempt to make their own Batman films repeatedly opt for a variation on the same themes and images from Nolan’s movies? It isn’t just that they portray Batman as an unsmiling avenger. The grim/gritty Batman didn’t begin with Nolan’s movies, nor is he confined to them. His roots are in the character’s first adventures after his creation by Bob Kane and the uncredited Bill Finger, which made him a dark avenger of the night. But Batman had already started to return to those roots in the ’70s, with stories that moved away from the lighthearted ’50s comics and the color and camp of the ’60s TV series. By the time the one-two punch of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One arrived in the mid-’80s, any take on the character that didn’t emphasize his tortured psyche and unmoving scowl had become the exception. Today’s Batman comics take a grim Batman as a given, but everything from the inventive, Scott Snyder-penned Batman to Grant Morrison’s wildly creative Batman Incorporated to the generally miserable The Dark Knight offer a different angle on that grimness.
But go to batmanfanfilms.com, which collects dozens of fan efforts, and in both the relatively polished productions and the attempts that barely meet the standards of the average home movie, you’ll see one ersatz Nolan Batman after another, as if Warner Bros. and DC—which tolerate fan films so long as their creators don’t try to profit from them—were on set offering creative input. “Duplicity,” for instance uploaded by a user named “batmannolan” and set in a Gotham City that looks an awful lot like Madrid, focuses on the notion, first expressed in various Batman comics, but stressed in Nolan’s Dark Knight, that Batman’s villains offer dark reflections of the hero. When watching the two-part film, be sure to savor the awkwardly translated subtitles, which include exchanges like this:
Batman: You’re only trying to release a message of fanaticism.
Joker: Is it the same message you’re releasing through your mask?
Granted, some of the Batman fan films do have standout elements that set them apart. “The Last Laugh” features some truly impressive stunt work, while others use a lower budget to their advantage, following Collora’s example and skipping the expensive, armor-plated bat-costumes to illustrate how men (and occasionally women) fighting crime in tights might look in a real-world setting. (The answer: Not that silly, so long as the lighting is kind.) Only a few, however, explore the possibilities of being able to tell any kind of Batman story the filmmakers like.
A few have taken steps toward getting there. The trailer for the imaginary movie “Grayson” imagines Dick Grayson taking up his Robin costume to avenge Batman’s death. That film could only be made unofficially. (True, it doesn’t look that great, starting with the silly grave for Batman, but at least there’s a new idea in there.)
More promising still is “City Of Scars.” Though dramatically clunky, it features an ending you won’t see in the comics. (Spoilers after the video.)
Yes, that’s one dead Joker, killed at the hands of a crime-traumatized kid whom Batman sees as a reflection of his own past. (The less-impressive sequel, “Seeds Of Arkham,” deals with the consequences of the Joker’s death, or at least pays lip service to it.)
“City Of Scars” illustrates fan films’ ability to explore a pocket of an established pop-culture universe that a more mainstream production would likely ignore. It’s still, however, distinctly Nolan-esque. And maybe that’s unavoidable. Maybe fan films, like cosplay, are more about getting the details of what fans love right than about creating an original take on the material. Or maybe it’s this: The Nolan Batman struck a chord for a reason. His Batman films offer a vision of an America that aspires to be better, but keeps threatening to get worse. They echo contemporary political anxieties and some of the extreme measures with which we address those anxieties. And they feature a hero defined by his seemingly paradoxical decision to take on the appearance of a terrifying beast in the interests of saving humanity. Perhaps Nolan, to echo the last words of The Dark Knight, has given us the cinematic Batman we deserve, and no one else has thought to imagine we might need something else.