Dark, rigid, tormented, brilliant.
Of all of the superheroes flying and jetting around in comic books and on the silver screen, Batman cuts the most immediately identifiable figure. A complicated soul, Batman protects his native Gotham City from a nearly bottomless cache of lunatics, but, more often than not, his greatest struggle is with his own internal darkness.
He also keeps a dinosaur and a giant penny in his underground hideout.
The Batman aesthetic has always had two sides, there’s the one, more popular version that features Bats as the brooding martyr on a selfless quest to fight evil, but then there’s also the version of Batman that drives a rocket car with his face on the front of it.
He was the eager Caped Crusader in 1940’s; was really weird throughout the Silver Age; he biff-bang-powed his way through the 1960’s; went back to his roots in the 1970’s; suffered a death in the family and a broken back in the 80’s and early 90’s. Today, comic book Batman has hit a kind of balance, he’s dark and serious, but he still flies a plane shaped like a giant bat and teaches his son the ins and outs of beating the shit out of criminals.
The Batman in the broader pop-culture spectrum, however, is a different story.
Between Christopher Nolan’s trilogy and Rocksteady Studio’s wildly successful pair of broody, violent Arkham video games, it’s clear that people like them some Batman, and that people like their Batman dark.
With Warner Bros. promising a new Batman franchise after the conclusion of Nolan’s Dark Knight series, the time is ripe for Batman to make a tonal re-adjustment. After three movies depicting Batman as a vengeful vigilante ninja who rides around modern U.S. cities in a tank and body armor, I’ve developed a a yearning to see a Batmobile that actually has big, doofy batwings on it.
The problem is, the 1960’s TV series and Joel Schumacher’s desperate flailings left a permanent stain on playing up Batman’s comic book aesthetic, which makes bringing back the Caped Crusader aspect of the character a hard sell.
Most people dismiss the idea outright, Schumacher did too poor a job making the franchise legitimately light and appealing with his two at-bats (ba-dum-tsh) for many to think that it’s even possible. But it’s important to remember that Joel Schumacher is a hack, and when you hire a hack director he’s going to do a hack job.
Batman Forever, this week’s Guilty Pleasure in the VHS Vault, comes close to striking a solid balance between an “adult” Batman movie and a campy adventure, but it’s rife with poor casting choices, nipple suits, and just way too much of everything cranked up way too high. And the jokes? “I’ll get drive-thru?” “Chicks love the car?” They’re all rooted in that wave of winking, sneering, awful character dismantling that became such a popular gag in the 90’s.
If you’re going to make a Batman film campy, Batman needs to be the anchored center in an insane world surrounded by insane characters, not cracking one liners about credit cards or car phones or whatever.
Still, Batman Forever had promise, its just that Tim Burton’s dark tone and Schumacher’s terrible ideas never married well, making for an entertaining train wreck that’s largely saved by Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones’s hyper-kinetic insane-o performances.
It’s been nearly twenty years since Batman Forever, and today’s climate for super-hero films has drastically shifted.
There are a few things in the cultural air that indicated that a light, live action version of Batman could work in this sad, cynical world. The first is Rocksteady’s recent decision to take its next game back to the Silver Age, a controversial decision in light of how dark, and, at times, downright sexist and nasty Arkham City got. Rocksteady is a skilled development team with an eye for talent when it comes to writing and voice-work, and I have faith that they’ll be able to develop a lighter tone without losing the character in shake-up.
I also think people will buy it.
Then there’s the funny, energetic and refreshing TV-series “Batman: The Brave and the Bold.” Unashamedly aimed at a youth audience, this Batman series actively embraced Batman’s campy past, throwing the character back into a world markedly similar to the 60’s TV show. Batman plays the straight man to a murderer’s row of quirk ridden characters from the DC Universe like Plastic Man, Clock King and Aquaman, who’s played as an extraordinarily stupid hanger-on.
The show caught flak from fans, to the point where writers were forced to defend themselves within the show, breaking the fourth wall and having Bat-mite, of all characters, say: “Batman’s rich history allows him to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. To be sure, this is a lighter incarnation, but it’s certainly no less valid and true to the character’s roots than the tortured avenger crying out for mommy and daddy.”
And really, Bat-mite sums up what I’ve been trying to get across for, oh, 800 words or so. Batman is The Dark Knight, Gotham’s cowled savior. But at one point he also ran around a pier trying to find a place to dispose of a comically shaped bomb.
My gut tells me that the next franchise will likely focus more on Batman as ‘The World’s Greatest Detective,’ which is perfectly fine, unexplored territory with a lot of great comics to draw from. But my heart wants the camp.
It’s a tall order to make a billionare super-hero relatable to the public at large, and Nolan’s approach worked by stripping away the fluff and highlighting Bruce Wayne’s humanity. But that doesn’t make it impossible to see an appealing Batman ride around on screen in his rocket car and his super-jet, punching clowns, clay-people and ventriloquists right in their silly faces.