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It’s a gloomy old town, Gotham City. Everywhere, there’s despair. Batman, Commissioner Gordon, Alfred… even poor old Bane ends up in tears during The Dark Knight Rises. Everyone’s just kind of down; there’s so much regret. Maybe it’s the time of year?

The same is true across the pond at MI6, where another old stager, James Bond, is also pretty maudlin and mopey about things. His story, Skyfall, doesn’t end so happily, either. It was a tough year for our big-screen heroes.

Both Batman and Bond have seen better days. When we reacquaint ourselves with him in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne is hobbling around with a cane, and his doctor’s prognosis isn’t too good. Scarring on the brain? No cartilage? That’s getting awfully close to reality, the true butcher’s bill for a streetfighter.

Ditto Bond, in Sam Mendes’ Skyfall. The British superspy, with his bullet holes and his greying stubble, is made to do a horrible series of pull-ups as part of his physical examination – which he fails. Nice abs, all the same, 007.

But aren’t they a gloomy pair? Batman and James Bond are two men living in the past. Deaths haunt them, peg them back, clip their wings. The two heroes can’t move forwards. If they were your friends, you’d worry. You’d think about having a word with them. Nice and friendly, like, in a pub you both know. If you were, say, Felix Leiter or Wonder Woman.

The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall were bad films, made by directors who should know better. Both had their plus points, featured fine performances and were beautifully shot. But their sins far outweighed their graces. For Batman, the plotting had its backside out the window, and the structure and pacing was awkward from the opening moments. For Bond, bad narrative choices were made in the name of servicing a 50-year legacy. Why all the childhood stuff? It was curious. Did we actually need the backstory?

Daniel Craig is a great Bond, but hardly charm personified. If you were to describe the character of James Bond in five single words, “suave” would probably be in there. But there’s no “suave” about Craig’s performance. He is a physically imposing 007, but he couldn’t draw a bead on Moore’s cheeky patter, or Connery’s velvety malice, or even Brosnan’s sheer smarm. For years, we’ve been told that if he was a real person, James Bond would be a barely functioning psychopath. That being the case, then at last the film-makers have got the character right.

Over in Gotham, Christian Bale is a superb fit for the cowl. But he seems to have had the least fun out of anyone who’s played the caped crusader. Even Michael Keaton’s Batman had a few laughs fluttering around in his belfry once the suit was hung up for the night.

These troubled, dark heroes, who failed as much as they succeeded in this year’s offerings, have some common DNA. And it comes all the way from Shakespeare.

Hamlet had mummy and daddy issues. Like Bond, he had a curious relationship with mother figures in his life; Bond and M’s bickering and counter-punching reminded me a little bit of the Dane’s cut-and-thrust with Gertrude, in her chamber. Don’t forget that Freudian brush-off in M’s house, once Bond returns from the cold: “You’re not bloody staying here.”

Batman, obviously, has people missing in his life, his parents’ murder being a catalyst for his psychotic rage against criminals. So, too, for Hamlet, who is driven to action – and inaction – on his murdered father’s account.

There are more oblique parallels to be drawn. In the Dark Knight Rises, Batman takes a little turn against Alfred, his substitute father figure, protector and confidant. Of course, Alfred’s character doesn’t have the same psychosexual overtones as Claudius, but he takes a Polonius-esque skewering through the arras from a crushed Bruce Wayne once he uncovers the deception his faithful butler used to protect him in the last movie – burning a “Dear Bruce” letter from his lost love, Rachel Dawes.

These heroes are haunted by their past, and by ghosts, like the Dane. Bond the orphan’s choice of the family home in beautiful Scotland for the final showdown with Silva couldn’t be more symbolic. The place is blown to matchwood, though 007 isn’t quite as angry about this as you might suspect. He says outright that he hated the place, and had far more of a dander up about his beloved Aston Martin being turned into fiery scrap. As an aside, I wonder what the Scottish Government, never slow off the mark when it comes to tourist connections, made of Bond’s unsentimental feelings towards his bleak ancestral pile?

Another orphan, Bruce Wayne, also has issues with his childhood, and by extension his very identity. Although Wayne Manor has been rebuilt after the League of Shadows torched it in Batman Begins, Bruce isn’t too keen on staying there once the roof falls in on his business empire. What Alfred knows is that Bruce Wayne’s health and happiness are dependent on him leaving home, getting away from Gotham, and not being a slave to duty.

In both men’s sense of desolation, we can again see something of the Dane, and his apparent madness sparked by his father’s murder, as well as the burden of duty when he accepts the ghost’s mission of vengeance. It’s duty that brings Bond back to MI6 in Skyfall – nothing else.

Hamlet’s notions of the office of king, and the honour of Claudius, the man who would become one, are quite precise on this score. A king may make his way through the guts of a beggar, indeed. But has the prince seen something of his own progress in this, too? And can we see echoes of this in Bruce Wayne’s handling of Wayne Enterprises? Both men seem all too eager to bring the curtain down on it all.

In Hamlet’s Ophelia, there’s another echo of Batman, who sees his true love taken from him in The Dark Knight. You even could argue Wayne’s tragedy is down to an inability to act. Had he simply killed the Joker, the villain would not have been able to carry out his atrocities, including the murder of Rachel Dawes and the fateful disfigurement of Harvey Dent. We could look not to Skyfall, but to 2006’s Casino Royale, for Bond’s Ophelia – Vesper Lynd, twisted and turned this way and that by her quarry-turned-lover, before finally dying the same way as Hamlet’s girl.

So, we have dark heroes, unresolved complexes, deadly hang-ups and – the key driver for all three – enormous, overwhelming grief. What Skyfall and The Dark Knight Rises shared, though, was a hopeful conclusion, or at least, a sense that they’d moved on. Batman passes on the cape and cowl to Robin (nice touch, incidentally). He then finds happiness with Anne Hathaway. And who wouldn’t?
Bond, meanwhile, allows himself a deep breath. Everything has been destroyed, his childhood home rubbled and his mother substitute, M, buried. But there’s a new family in place. Here comes Ralph Fiennes as the fatherly M, and Moneypenny’s there to fret over him out in the field.

So there is some light out of the darkness, a sense of moving on.

And thank goodness, because I’m sick of the gloom. The Dark Knight felt like a breath of fresh air in 2008. Nolan’s masterpiece took Joker-esque glee in showing us there are no easy answers in life. Far from a fascist fantasy where a rich guy gets to slap poor miscreants around, it seemed to me like an acknowledgment that our governments and authorities lie to us – and those lies have consequences.

Ian Fleming’s source novel for Casino Royale in 2006 was a post-war reappraisal of western heroes, their place in the world and a sense of disillusionment in the grubby businesses our governments get involved in for the sake of security. While eschewing those politics, the movie version sticks close to Bond’s personal arc. He is a husk at the end of that movie, far from your favourite uncle, and he has not cheered up since.

But aren’t blockbuster movies meant to be about escape? I’ll probably revisit Joss Whedon’s The Avengers the most, out of 2012’s marquee releases. For a start, it was fun. Its most tortured hero – Bruce Banner – didn’t get sulky. He turned into “a giant green ragemonster” and broke stuff. And the Marvel movie dared say things outright which the Nolans’ Batman films only hinted at through gritted teeth. I admired Nick Fury’s candour: “We made some mistakes along the way.”

When Batman and Bond return, I suspect we’ll see different heroes to the ones who’ve scowled at us from big screens over the past decade. They may still be tough, they might still have issues, but there’ll be a bit of colour in there, too. Let’s hope they have not lost all of their mirth.


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