In a previous post, I had talked about improving western superhero comics. It was there that I discussed certain aspects of cape-comics that I felt need to be downplayed considerably if not completely thrown away, not least of which being the overly serious attitude generally found in many works. A few of my friends read the article and asked a question that stirred around in my head for a while: What About Batman?
And they are right in asking. Batman is not only a big name in comics but a massive pop culture icon in general. He has been interpreted and re-interpreted in a number of ways across the globe, from award-winning programs to lesser-known Japanese re-imaginings. I personally think that this is all because Batman himself is arguably the most malleable mainstream superhero in existence. Maybe not the best, but certainly the easiest to play with.
What do I mean? Let’s talk about The Batman Paradox and find out.
Some context before we proceed: I grew up with Batman merch. In my youth, I vigorously devoured some comics my parents bought, as well as some of my dad’s old single issues from the 1960s. Recently, I enjoyed The Long Halloween, and adored Grant Morrisson’s entire Batman library, Batman Secrets, and the original Bob Kane run from the 1940s. I watched the Adam West show and the Bruce Timm-animated series, as well as both Tim Burton films and the first Joel Schumacher flick in my adolescence, rightfully avoiding Batman and Robin. As a grubby university student, I had my fun with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and now as a grubby manchild I eagerly await The Dark Knight Rises and had a hell of a time with Batman: The Brave and the Bold. So, it’s safe to say that I get Batman as much as the rest of you nerds.
Everyone has the own visions of Batman’s portrayal, whether he be The Caped Crusader or The Dark Knight. A lot of people ragged on the Schumacher films (mostly the second) because they were cartoony and overly campy toy commercials, but there were those who also rallied against Batman Returns for being too grim, and I’ve heard ordinary people compare The Dark Knight to a horror film. Certainly, we’ve had a range of styles and tones throughout the years, but which one works? Well, the answer is both of them; sometimes at the same time. This is the Paradox we face with Batman and the key to his malleability.
Here’s why: he’s a tortured, traumatized billionaire who has everything except a loving household. His parents were murdered before his eyes, and he had nobody to turn to except his aging butler. In his grief and glaringly apparent psychological torment, he enacts vague, violent revenge on the criminal underbelly of his home city…
…while dressed as a bat.
Seriously, that is such a major part of Batman and yet it is the silliest thing about him, especially since he has a bat-themed everything – a Batmobile, a Batcopter, a Batbike, a Batplane, Batarangs, and a Bat Cave. When you take away the Bat Family – which includes several Batgirls, Nightwing, a host of young boys in green undies, and Ace the Batdog – and his increasingly ludicrous rogue’s gallery, what do you have? You have a man with a lot of bat-paraphernalia and a full wardrobe of spandex suits beating people up out of a sense of justice that makes sense only to him. I remember having this conversation long ago with Loading Ready Run crewman Alex Steacy, and how he himself could not take Batman seriously because his cowl had ears.
Really, what more is there to say? When the basics of an idea are so vastly different from each other, it’s easy to fall into either side of the campy-versus-serious debate. You can make him dark. You can make him the techno-hero who casts aside his humanity and adopts the image of an animal as he beats down on assassin syndicates, serial killers, and mobsters. Yet, you can also make him silly; you can make him a total blowhard with a lot of disposable income who takes himself way too seriously, our sole defender against an array of colourful creeps and kooks.
With that in mind, he also works well in any kind of scenario, whether part of a shared universe or as a standalone character. On his own, he works because he’s an incredibly grounded hero. You don’t have to use fantastical or science-fictional elements because you could just toss in gadgets and real-world tech for him and the bad guys to play with. As part of a larger universe, he also works as a kind of misanthropic straight-man in a world gone mad. I always found it astounding how well Batman fit in with the Justice League, a group that also employs aliens, wizards, and The King of Atlantis. I wonder if the bat-suit helps in this, that dressing like a proto-furry is an image thing he keeps up so he doesn’t feel out-of-place when next to the rest of the rodeo clowns.
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single mainstream superhero that has this advantage, where they can be dark and silly at exactly the same time, or where creators can use either style without it feeling out of place. Superman and Spiderman always worked best as the boy scouts, sailing in with a wink and a smile, good-naturedly disposing of bad guys in time for bed. The Fantastic Four and The Flash are just really pleasant people who experienced the best workplace accidents ever, and nobody seems to know what to do with someone like Wonder Woman.
Batman, however, can afford to be dramatic and bleak, just as Batman can afford to channel Golden and Silver Age ridiculousness. He’s the moral hero and the dark one, able to adapt to any environment and for better or for worse has become an integral part of pop culture.
See you next time,
P.S. Some of you may be aware of Hans Zimmer’s call to have people around the world add their voices to a massive chant he’s composing for the final cut of The Dark Knight Rises. Well, I decided to add fuel to this fire and add my own. Enjoy.
EDIT: May 23, 2012. Minor, minor edits.
EDIT: May 23, 2012. Minor, minor edits.