I turned 50 a few months ago. To some people that may seem old, but I like to think I’m young at heart. I’m in reasonably good shape. I’m constantly seeking out new music, and I take great pains to reject curmudgeonly impulses.
Few things have made me feel older than the largely positive response given to The Batman. To me, the film shows a complete misunderstanding of what makes the Caped Crusader such a compelling character.
Like most people, I first discovered Batman when I was a small child. It was either through the smash hit 60s show starring Adam West and Burt Ward, or it was through animated shows like Super Friends or The Adventures of Batman. While the 60s show was incredibly colourful with its super-imposed sound effects, a lot of the humour went over my young head, and those animated shows didn’t make me a Batman fan, not when there were other characters with neat powers like Superman, Aquaman and the Atom.
I didn’t really become a fan of the character until The New Adventures of Batman debuted in 1977, another animated effort bringing together Batman, Robin, Batgirl and Bat-Mite. While this is not a fondly remembered show, producing only 16 episodes, it featured thrilling action and kid-friendly comedy supplied by the well-meaning magical imp Bat-Mite. But what I liked most was the emphasis on all the Bat-gadgets in the utility belts. Batman, Robin and Batgirl had everything to fight crime. Suddenly I found the fact that Batman had no superpowers compelling, forcing him to fight criminals with only his many gadgets and his wits.
Later on, I developed an interest in comics. By this time it was the mid-eighties, and I picked up my first Batman comic. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I don’t remember the issue, but it had a very noir feel, with the title character acting as a shadow-clad hard-boiled detective. The gadgets and acrobatics were still present, but the bright colours and wackiness from his 70s animated adventures were gone. Still, Batman was hardly the most popular comic book character at this time, barely able to hold a candle to the red-hot X-Men and Spider-Man of the day. In a few years that would change.
The 1989 Batman movie descended upon movie theatres like an asteroid. Starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, it cemented the Caped Crusader as one of the top-tier comic book heroes of his day, a status he has held ever since. This movie, directed by Tim Burton, contained a lot of that filmmaker’s flair for noir and twisted whimsy. There were scenes delving into Bruce Wayne’s ongoing issues with the grief for his murdered parents, but they were balanced out by thrilling sequences with the very cool Batmobile, Batwing and Batarangs. This was the biggest movie of 1989, and Warner Brothers would do everything they could to milk every dime out of Batman that they could, including getting their animation wing to produce what I contend is the definitive version of the character.
Batman: The Animated Series was quietly released on television on September 5, 1992. The brainchild of animators Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, this was a show made by people with the utmost respect for this character’s then half-century-long history. The art deco design of the show’s Gotham City was a nod to the hero’s origins in the 1940s. Some of the stories were direct retellings from comics written by Denny O’Neil and Steve Englehart in the 70s. However, the writing was very sophisticated and emotionally-weighted, much more so than you would expect for a show airing as part of FoxKids. Kevin Conroy possessed the perfect voice for both Batman and Bruce Wayne, and Mark Hamill did some of the best work of his career voicing the Joker. I think this show would turn the most jaded person into a Batman fan, and I hold Batman: The Animated Series up as one of the greatest television shows of all time.
In 1993 much of the cast and crew from The Animated Series banded together to release Batman: Mask of the Phantasm into theatres. This movie does an amazing job retelling the murder of Bruce’s parents, and his subsequent training to become the hero we know and love today, but it juxtaposes that story with a tragic account of Bruce’s lost love, Andréa Beaumont. It’s a movie with thrilling chases and crashes, but balanced out with emotional heft and quippy one-liners between Bruce and Andréa, along with genuinely hilarious remarks from Hamill’s Joker. People can say all they want about any of the Batman movies that have come out over the past three decades, but, for my money, none of them have topped Mask of the Phantasm. It’s a film that has slowly grown in renown over time, providing the basis of the currently ongoing Batman/Catwoman comic mini-series written by Tom King with art by Liam Sharp.
There are many reasons why I think the 90s animated iteration of Batman has resonated with my so strongly. He is a character that is putting in the work to rise above the trauma inflicted upon him at such a young age. He is trying to be the best version of himself possible, and enacts strict ethical boundaries on himself – no guns, no investing in military weapons. He can be very kind, and often recognizes that villains like Two-Face and Clayface are victims themselves, and tries to help them reform before locking them up. He doesn’t brood 24 hours a day – he can let loose with a wry quip. Batman is not always the bleakest character on the screen.
On October 10, 1998 an episode aired entitled “Legends of the Dark Knight” which showed various kids in Gotham City describe Batman from their unique perspectives. One kid described Batman from the Silver Age of comics, full of silly sight gags and witty remarks shouted at villains. Another described an ultra-gritty scene lifted right from Frank Miller’s seminal ultra-gritty 1986 comic mini-series The Dark Knight Returns, complete with our hero grappling with a mutant gang leader in a mud pit, uttering the line, “You don’t get it son, this isn’t a trash heap, it’s an operating table, and I’m the surgeon,” while he snaps the guy’s leg.
There are a lot of people who love that latter version of Batman, and I believe he appeals to a power fantasy. He appeals to a fan who wishes they could enact their own brand of justice on everything they view as injustice, with nothing holding them back. As a fan, that version of the Caped Crusader has a limited appeal to me, and The Animated Series understood that. The rest of “Legends of the Dark Knight” put on full display how the show’s version of our hero was a precise blend of everything, taking the best of all eras to form what I still hold as the definitive iteration of the character.
Yet, over time I feel that more and more younger fans and studio executives only want the character from the trash heap. The film trilogy directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale was, at times, brilliant, and highly celebrated. However, The Dark Knight, with an Oscar-winning turn from Heath Ledger as the Joker, showed Batman descending into an increasingly dour tone and authoritarian behaviour, like surveilling every Gothamites’ cellular phones. The public was now accepting a version of Batman with loosening ethical boundaries. Bale’s depiction of Batman grew more and more moody, and his gravelly voice soon became a target for parody. But the box office doesn’t lie, and the lesson learned by Warner Brothers seemed to be that Batman worked best in a hyper-noir, grim and gritty setting. The more moody the Batman, the better.
When Nolan completed his trilogy, and Bale couldn’t be lured back into the cowl, Warner set about casting a new Batman for their DC Extended Universe, and under the guidance of filmmaker and greenscreen enthusiast Zack Snyder, they settled on Ben Affleck. I have never considered Affleck an actor of any noticeable ability or talent, and his work as Batman didn’t make me reconsider my opinion at all. However, his acting wasn’t my biggest problem with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Among my hundreds of problems with that movie was the gatling gun installed on the front of the Batmobile, and our hero’s seeming comfort with being the cause of his opponent’s death. Snyder referred to this as “death by proxy,” because Batman wasn’t shooting at criminals directly; he was shooting at explosive objects in the vicinity of the criminals. If they happened to be standing near those explosive objects, how is that Batman’s fault?
This represents another move further away from ethical hero with a strict moral code that I held dear. The version of Batman voiced by Kevin Conroy would never have created excuses so he could justify murdering people. Instead, we saw Batffleck actually set out to kill Superman. Batman V Superman proved to be one of the most polarizing movies ever to come out in my lifetime. As much as I despise it, I know other people who absolutely love it. Still, while it made a profit, it wasn’t the profit that Warner was hoping for. They brought in Joss Whedon to provide a lighter tone for Justice League, but the results proved disastrous. So, the studio lowered their commitment to the DC Extended Universe, and again recast and rebooted the Dark Knight.
And here we are with The Batman. As I type this, it has been number one at the box office for three weeks in a row, and the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. Warner, along with director Matt Reeves and co-screenwriter Peter Craig, seem to have internalized the lesson that Batman has to be as moody as possible or he’s not Batman. Reeves has gone so far as to repeatedly employ a Nirvana song called “Something In the Way” to help set the miserable tone. Kurt Cobain wrote this song about his mother abandoning him in favour of her romantic partner. The lyrics depict Cobain as being so unwanted that he’s living under a bridge. This song might make sense in a Crow movie, but Batman?
I don’t think filmmakers have to make all the choices that I would, but if I’m a fan of Batman, and the character on the screen doesn’t resemble the character in any way, I think we have a problem. Batman, at his best, is a master of stealth. Criminals will be in their lairs planning a heist, and when they least expect it a batarang will be flung from out of the shadows, meaning that the Caped Crusader was in their hideout all along. In The Batman, we see our hero actually knock on the front door of the Penguin’s Iceberg Lounge. Batman actually tells the doorman he’s here to see the Penguin. He doesn’t sneak in via the skylight; he knocks on the front door like he’s canvassing for the Liberal Party.
I’m also ready for a Batman movie where our hero uses the acrobatic fight style from the comics and cartoons. None of that is here. There is one instance where Robert Pattinson hops over a railing, and that’s it. Otherwise, it’s the grappling from the trash heap. All I can remember Pattinson grabbing from his utility belt is an adrenaline shot and a flare. The Batmobile, from what I was able to make out through the constant rain and chop-chop-chop editing, is nothing more than something Xzibit would cook up on an episode of Pimp My Ride. Batman barely even swung from a rope! Add in the interminable and completely unjustified length – there are so many scenes that go on way longer than they have any business to – and we have a movie whose sequel I already know I’m skipping.
It’s clear to me that I’m now in the minority. The Batman has an 8.4 rating on the Internet Movie Database. Over the past few decades, the most celebrated stories from Batman comics have been the dark and gritty ones, starting with Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, and more and more stories have been coming out through DC’s Black Label imprint which show a pissier and more fascist Batman. There has long been an increase in online conversations bemoaning the fact that Batman hasn’t gone ahead and killed the Joker already. This seems to be the Batman for whom the population is clamouring. My question is: “Why?”
What does this version of Batman add to our culture? Sure, this version of Batman learns the ramifications of living solely for vengeance. But after learning that lesson, the movie ends. Why take a pre-existing character representing a highly capable detective with a strict moral code and change him into a gullible simp who eats up lies from gangsters? Why take a kind character who sought to reform society’s worst and turn him into someone selfish enough to send a woman into a highly dangerous situation for his own interests? This isn’t the best Batman can be. You can’t convince me that it is.
If this is the direction Warner is hellbent on continuing to take Batman, then Make Mine Marvel.