If I’m infamous for anything at this point, it’s for being the guy who didn’t like Batman Begins. Which isn’t really true, by the way – I liked it enough that I felt the lazy, stupid ending truly killed what was an otherwise good film. That’s what annoys me so much about the movie; if Batman Begins had been bad from frame one I wouldn’t have given a shit that the third act goes the way that it does. But director Christopher Nolan and company get off to such a strong start that the strike out at the end hurts so much more.
The recently defuncted comments section was lit aflame when I said that I thought Iron Man would prove to be the best superhero movie of the year. Despite the fact that I didn’t say any other superhero movie would suck, the immediate reaction was that I was shitting on The Dark Knight. Because, you know, I’m the guy who hates Batman Begins for no apparent reason. What’s hilarious is that no one commenting had seen EITHER film, and I wasn’t saying anything bad about The Dark Knight. But the way that Batfan’s feathers are constantly ruffled has made me decide to put aside finishing my Iron Man review for a moment and talk a little bit about Batman.
First of all, I don’t think Batman tends to be an interesting character. I’m getting this out of the way up front because I want to give people the ability to opt out of this editorial immediately and because I think this is fundamentally part of the problem with the modern Batman films. Batman has been an interesting character, and I think some writers in modern times have done fascinating work with him – namely Grant Morrison and Frank Miller. A lot of people will be shocked that I think All Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder is brilliant, but it is. The book is sheer satire, Miller taking the tropes of the character that have been painfully enmeshed over the last three decades and dialing them up to 11, exposing them as sociopathic and fascist fantasies with weird sexually stunted overtones. Morrison, meanwhile, has been looking to break Batman out of the gothic claptrap of grimness (which he is partially responsible for, thanks to Arkham Asylum) and return him to his status as an adventure hero, a change that’s almost revolutionary.
Batman tends to be one note, an obsessive nut who can’t get past his early childhood traumas*. It’s interesting to see that most of the creators who have worked on Batman seem to have understood how dull he is – Batman is constantly surrounded by supporting characters because he only becomes interesting when he’s being bounced off someone else, or is reflecting aspects of someone else. And because the last few decades of Batman’s history has been a race to the bottom in regards to depicting him as humorless, grim and super-serious, this element of the character is only getting more magnified. Batman sheds no light, he absorbs it from others. He may be the only iconic superhero whose villains are endlessly more interesting than he is.
It’s that problem which informs the first four modern Batman films. In each one the villains upstage the hero, but it’s hard to see how it could be any other way (Nolan solves this problem by making his villains mostly as flat as Batman in Begins). Batman’s character is established quickly and easily, and then that’s it. There’s nowhere else to go with him. He’s a character who never learns anything, and the only growth he ever shows is to become more and more withdrawn and crazy. Conceptually that’s cool, but in a franchise setting that’s… boring. Imagine going to theaters to see Taxi Driver IV: The Final Fare. Although, to be honest, I do feel that Travis Bickle is a more nuanced character than Batman has ever been.
All of this is compounded by the false math that says dour is more meaningful; it’s the high school reaction that says love songs and dance songs are never going to be as good as the really heavy songs about death and wizards. People claim that Batman is more relatable because he’s human; in many ways this makes him less relatable to me. If I had super powers, maybe I would go out and do superheroic things. If my parents were murdered I would probably be less likely to dress up as a bat and punch out criminals. It’s an insane reaction, frankly.
But also, what does Batman say about us? Spider-Man is about being a regular guy and trying to do the best with what you have. Superman is about the American ideal. Iron Man is about taking responsibility for what you’ve done. Batman is about… how horrible life is in modern urban areas? Being an obsessive sadist weirdo? The thematic element that has people excited about The Dark Knight – that Batman’s very presence escalates things in Gotham City – is itself a post-modern take on the character, not what the character is actually about. Maybe the most interesting thematic element to Batman is the idea that no matter how much we improve ourselves physically, it doesn’t make a difference if we don’t improve ourselves emotionally, but I somehow don’t feel that most fans are interested in Batman as a cautionary tale.
Christopher Nolan seems to have bought into the idea that songs about death and wizards are cooler than songs about being in love; all indications point to The Dark Knight being exponentially darker and tougher than the first film. I’ve thrown up my hands at this trend; everybody but me seems to think that the things they loved as kids should become scaled up as they become adults. If the Baby Boomers felt this way we’d probably have had an R-rated Howdy Doody movie by now. Of course a lot of people don’t understand where I’m coming from – I’ve had readers and friends alike tell me that there’s no way to do Batman lighter without turning it into Batman and Robin, and I understand the fear. I just think this kind of binary thought process is wrong.
Batman can have adventures. He can be an adventure character. His villains don’t need to be ruthlessly rooted in reality and psychology – if anything it would probably be more interesting to see the modern, ‘realistic’ Batman going up against more fantastical elements in his movies. The idea of Batman being the mirror image of his insane foes is so boring already – let’s see a Batman movie where he’s the model of rationality going up against something profoundly irrational. R’as al Ghul would have been more interesting with his Lazarus Pit and mystical mumbo jumbo intact from the comics because those elements are so outside of the modern movie Batman’s comfort zone. I don’t want a realistic Joker, one extrapolated from a place of reality. I want a Joker who is larger than life, who approaches the cartoonish, because the laugh-a-decade Batman going up against him is more intriguing that way. Hell, I’d be happy with a Batman movie that dialed down the goth overtones and went back to the character’s real roots of noir. How about a Batman film where the world’s greatest detective detects stuff? A crime movie with Batman as the PI. There are so many possibilities, and they don’t all lead to the examinations of tortured psyches or the clownish bullshit of Adam West.
Twenty years ago, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight and Alaan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen kicked off the trend of deconstructing and psychologically examining comic book superheroes. It was intriguing and fascinating for a while, but the characters can’t remain deconstructed if they’re going to continue on in movie franchises. I’m hoping that the movie version of Watchmen does the opposite of what the comic version did, that it puts that genie back in the bottle, that it’s the last word on the subject. That’s what I love about Jon Favreau’s Iron Man – the hero isn’t being deconstructed, he’s not a closet case or a deviant or a freak. Who would have thought that a mostly psychologically undamaged heroic superhero would be refreshing?
*It is important to note that, no matter what a fan may tell you, there is no one Batman. The character has changed drastically over the decades, and each of the versions of Batman is just as relevant as all the rest. For the sake of argument, though, I’m talking about the Batman who came about in the comics in the 70s and who was really solidified by Tim Burton in his films.