Friday, January 23, 2015

When did we become too cool for Batman?

Evolution of Batman, from Comic Book Movie
I like Batman. I like reading Batman comics, watching Batman movies and cartoons, and playing Batman video games. Yes, he dresses like a bat. Yes, he fights criminals who all have some sort of gimmick. And, yes, his parents are dead, and he will brood about it.

And I love it.

But lately I've noticed a backlash against Batman. People seem to think either that Batman is a silly children's character, or that he's a joyless sociopath. What happened?
Batman should be both fun and cool, but the problem is finding the right balance. The fundamental issue with Batman is how to present a guy who uses his fortune build crime-fighting gadgets, then puts on a bat costume and fights criminals.

If the writers decide that wearing a bat-suit and punching criminals is a goofy thing to do, they present Batman in a tongue-in-cheek way. This allows Batman to be fun, but he's not very cool. Of course, the most well-known example of this type of Batman is Adam West's campy TV series. Why stop at dressing like a bat, wielding batarangs and driving a Batmobile? Why not add Bat-cuffs, Bat-radar, and even a Bat-spectrographic Criminal Analyzer? (See this wiki page for the full bat-list.) The punching side of things gets a similar treatment, with fight scenes reduced to the famous BAM! and THWACK!

Some other portrayals of Batman that were too lighthearted to be cool were Joel Schumacher's (with the Bat-credit card) and the Brave and the Bold animated TV series.

One alternative, if the writers want to justify and rationalize such extreme behavior, is to create such a bleak backstory for Bruce Wayne that engaging in sociopathic, borderline psychotic behavior seems like a legitimate choice. Brooding and wearing black may seem cool, but being driven to all-consuming vigilantism by the traumatic death of your parents is tragically unfun, so versions of Batman like Christopher Nolan's don't work for me, either.

Christopher Nolan's version of Batman removed any hint of levity. Instead, we got three movies about Batman's iron resolve, his drive, his focus, and his pain. The box office confirmed that it made for good cinema, but only at the expense of fun. As much as we enjoyed seeing this Batman on the screen, but we no longer wanted to be Batman.

Nolan's movies had another problem that went even deeper than how dark they were. By taking themselves so seriously, the films invited audiences to take them seriously as well, and that's where some troubling questions started to come up: why was Bruce Wayne dressing up in a bat costume anyway, and was it the best course of action? Or was Batman actually encouraging villains to be increasingly more dangerous and psychotic in response, leading to an endless spiral of super-crime and crime-fighting?

The Nolan movies tried to be so realistic that the Gotham City in the movies is largely indistinguishable from the real-world New York City, but therein lies the problem. If you're going to see a Batman movie, you shouldn't have to justify Batman's actions. If you present Batman's world as realistic, you need to explain why someone would realistically want to be a superhero. But if the world already feels stylized, an audience can more easily accept someone like Batman. That's what Bruce Timm and Tim Burton understood, and what made their visions of Batman both fun and cool.

For a lot people in my generation, the animated version of Batman in Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League will always be the canonical Batman. The animated series takes place in a Gotham City with Art Deco buildings, where fashions and technology feel like they were designed in the 20's and 30's. This is a world where gangsters use Tommy guns, huge computers clatter, and the main industries seem to be bubbling things in vats and loading or unloading crates on the docks. Perhaps, for this world, the best course of action for fighting crime really is to dress up in a cape and cowl.

It's easy to grow cynical about something we liked as kids, and it's tempting to see Batman as either a goofy children's character or a joyless sociopath. I think if you approach Batman from the right angle, though, you can still love the Caped Crusader. So rather than asking yourself why you would want to be Batman, perhaps ask instead, if you lived in Batman's world, why would you ever want to be anyone else?

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