erik lundegaard

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Dark Knight My Ass:
Why Batman descends into camp

For the past 65 years, through two serials and six feature films, we’ve been watching Batman change on the big screen. He originally drove a plain black Cadillac (in 1943’s Batman serial), then a Mercury convertible (in 1949’s Batman and Robin), before the ’66 movie and TV series turned an experimental 1955 Lincoln Futura into the first true Batmobile. He once put bat stickers on the foreheads of captured criminals, while the only thing he kept in the original “bat’s cave,” introduced in ’43, was an old oak desk. His ’49 cowl was so loose that actor Robert Lowery, poor bastard, had to run with his head tilted back just to see.

Social changes are inevitably reflected in these films as well. In the ’43 version, Alfred, the help, is comic relief, a scaredy-cat British butler who wants to be a hero but folds in the clutch. By ’49 he’s a humorless professional man and even doubles for Batman, a pattern the ’66 version continues — with a touch of class from Alan Napier — and by the ‘90s he’s the closest thing Bruce Wayne has to family. By 2005, their positions have been reversed: Bruce Wayne is now the butt of Alfred’s jokes, while Alfred heroically saves Bruce’s life from a fire engulfing Wayne Manor.

Women? In the ‘40s serials, Bruce pretends to be a bored socialite to keep them at bay and his identity a secret. By the swinging sixties Batman has figured out women are fun to play with, particularly Catwoman in that black lurex catsuit, but he never lets them get under his cowl. Since the ’89 version, however, every one of his women — Vicki Vale, Catwoman, Dr. Chase Meridian, Rachel Dawes — not only finds out who he is but leaves him and breaks his heart. Makes the Bruce Wayne who kept women at a distance look positively brilliant.

But the most fascinating change in the cinematic Batman isn’t progressive but cyclical. The Batman oeuvre can be divided neatly into three series: 1) the ‘40s serials, along with the ’66 movie, which was a hipster comment upon those serials; 2) the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher movies; 3) and the current Christopher Nolan movies.

In the first two, the same pattern develops: Batman starts out as a vigilante, becomes an institution, then descends into camp. The bad news for fans of the current series is that this process may be inevitable.

Batman as victim
Although Batman was introduced in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939, we didn’t get his origin until six months later. It’s a short origin, encompassing one and a half pages of Detective Comics #33, but as Gerard Jones has written in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, it’s the first time a superhero is given a psychological rationale for fighting crime.

A young couple with their child, returning from a movie, are held up. The father, Thomas, tries to stop the mugger and is killed. The wife, unnamed, shouts for the police and is killed. The boy cries. Days later, by candlelight, he swears vengeance on all criminals. Once he’s a man, once he’s mastered science and athletics, he broods by the fireplace. Because “criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot” he wants a disguise that will “strike terror into their hearts,” and just then a huge bat flies through an open window.

This origin has been added to, rewritten, deepened. The father was given an occupation (doctor), the mother a name (Martha) and the mugger not only a name (Joe Chill) but sometimes a rationale for that seemingly senseless act (crime-boss revenge against a meddlesome Thomas Wayne). In the most notable revision, Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, Bruce Wayne’s initial foray into fighting crime involves dressing up, not in a bat costume, but as a drifter with a scar, but the bad guys don’t fear him. Afterwards he asks his dead father, “What do I do...to make them afraid?” It’s implied that the bat flying through the window is his father’s spirit giving him the answer. More importantly, Bruce knows the bat is the answer not because bats terrify criminals (that cowardly lot) but because they terrified him. In Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns — alluded to in Batman Forever and dramatized in Batman Begins — a young Bruce falls into the bat-filled caves beneath Wayne Manor and is traumatized for life. In choosing bats as his symbol, he’s using his first childhood trauma to overcome his second.

Batman as vigilante
This is the Batman that makes sense: A shadowy vigilante who uses a scary image to scare criminals. And this is the version we get, more or less, in the first incarnation in each series: Batman (1943), Batman (1989) and Batman Begins (2005).

In the ’43 serial starring Lewis Wilson, Batman may be in league with the federal government but he’s still a vigilante at odds with the local police — particularly the publicity-seeking Capt. Arnold. At one point, too, Batman uses his “bat’s cave” to terrify a criminal into talking. Those shadows flitting against the cave walls? “Just some of my bats. Hope they didn’t disturb you. You see, it’s near their feeding time…”

Batman is even scarier in the beginning of the ’89 movie with Michael Keaton, where he’s an urban myth called “The Bat” who is responsible, in some tellings, for draining blood from victims. This myth-making gives Batman a psychological advantage, particularly when crooks shoot him and he rises again. Add the ninja arts, as 2005’s Batman Begins does, and add the science to ultrasonically call thousands of bats, as Nolan’s movie, borrowing from Batman: Year One, does, and you’ve got a pretty scary dude. What is he? Why is he? And why is he after us?

This incarnation of Batman is effective even after everyone realizes he’s just a man. Because if a man is nutty enough to do what he does, what won’t he do?

Batman as institution
Ah, but success breeds familiarity and we know what familiarity breeds.

As a child, I loved the bat signal. I remember wanting to put a bat image on the searchlights at auto shows in my hometown of Minneapolis, so, for a brief moment, you could see a bat signal lighting up the sky and imagine we lived in that world.

Now I realize the bat signal is the beginning of the end of Batman. It was introduced in the second serial, 1949’s Batman and Robin, as a kind of modern smoke signal, a way of quickly disseminating information and furthering the plot, but it means Batman is no longer wanted by the police (as a vigilante) but wanted by the police (as a crime-fighting institution). It changes him.

Look at the difference in the two Tim Burton movies. In ’89, we first see Batman stalking the dark Gotham rooftops. He’s on the job. In ’92, in Batman Returns, we first see him as Bruce Wayne doing...what exactly? Sitting around. Brooding at Wayne Manor. He only stands to act once the bat signal appears. The bat signal may be cool but it encourages our hero’s passivity.

Once Batman becomes a crime-fighting institution, partnered with Commissioner Gordon, there’s no longer a question of what he won’t do. We know what he won’t do; he won’t break the law. At this point Batman loses whatever psychological advantage the costume gives him and it grows heavy with absurdity — never more so than when he and Robin stand around Commissioner Gordon’s office sussing out a crime, as they do in the ’49 serial. Just a couple of cops on the job. One dressed like a bat.

As if to distract us from this absurdity, more stuff is added — bat-colleagues (Robin, Batgirl) and bat-coutrements (batmobile, batplane, batboat, batcopter) — but each addition just weighs him down even more. In Batman Forever Joel Schumacher and company even make the colossal mistake of psychoanalyzing Batman, of releasing his repressed memories, of turning him from a Batman who must fight crime to one who chooses to fight crime. Batman should travel light with a heavy conscience, but he made Batman travel heavy with a light conscience.

Eventually the whole enterprise can’t help but descend into camp.

Batman as camp
Camp, by the way, is not necessarily a bad thing. Some purists dislike the ’66 movie and TV show starring Adam West and Burt Ward, but I grew up on it, and in some ways it’s the best of both worlds. It’s for kids and adults. Kids think Batman’s cool; adults get the jokes.

Besides, it’s beyond camp; it’s a satire of who we were and what we watched. If the resolutions to cliffhangers were preposterous in ’43 and ’49 (Batman falls...and lands on a window-washer platform or soft tree), in ’66 they were legitimately laughable (a torpedo is shot at Batman...but a porpoise hurls itself into the torpedo’s path to save him). Batman is not just an institution here, he’s a super-institution. Cops put their hats over their hearts when the batcopter flies by. During a press conference Batman feeds the press misinformation as easily as any politician. That disappearing yacht? “Nonsense. How can a yacht simply disappear?” That exploding shark? “Doubtless an unfortunate animal who chanced to swallow a floating mine.” He and Robin are accused of being what they once were, vigilantes, and Commissioner Gordon huffily responds that, no, they are “fully deputized agents of the law.” Robin, fist pounding palm, adds, “Support your police! That’s our message!” It’s funny.

Compare this with the Batman movies of the ’90s, when Joel Schumacher managed to turn Batman into a joke without being funny at all. Neat trick.

Yes, you could say camp elements infect the Tim Burton movies, too, but Batman himself is always treated seriously. He maintains a stoic monotone throughout. Basically he’s a masked Clint Eastwood casting a dubious eye at every over-the-top Eli Wallach (Nicholson, DeVito, Pfeiffer) who comes to town.

Schumacher ruined this dynamic. The first thing out of the mouth of his first Batman, Val Kilmer in Batman Forever, is a teenager’s joke: “I’ll get drive through.” Burton’s Batman was grounded in reality — he did the seemingly super but we knew it wasn’t — but Schumacher’s Batman actually performs physically super acts. He rides an acid-filled safe back into a skyscraper. He rides a rocket into space, blows it up with a bat-bomb, and then “surfs” back to earth on the escape-hatch doors. Each movie must outdo the previous one until our incredulity is snapped.

George Clooney, in 1997’s Batman & Robin, didn’t help. As an actor and celebrity, Clooney is forever looking at himself from the outside and making dry, ironic comments. Batman can’t afford that. It shouldn’t even be part of his DNA. He should be obsessed, trapped, blindered. Here, he’s always aware of his crappy comic-book universe. When Robin wants a batmobile because “chicks dig the car,” Batman responds, “This is why Superman works alone.” When Gordon tells Batman the name of the latest supervillain, Batman repeats the name to himself, drawing out its absurdity: “Mr. Freeze.” When Batgirl chirpily introduces herself, he comments on how politically incorrect her name is. “What about Batperson or Batwoman?” he suggests.

The ’66 Batman gave itself value by humorously exposing what was false about an earlier age. The ’97 Batman & Robin only exposes what’s false about itself and thus undercuts any value it might have. Every frame of the movie is basically telling the audience, “This is stupid.” The audience agreed. The series died.

Batman as racket
The current series, starring Christian Bale, is at the “Batman as institution” phase: bat-signal, working with Gordon, etc.

Can it be saved from descending into camp? It’s possible, but it’ll take a firm hand. Stick around long enough and almost everything becomes a parody of itself. Recall what social critic Eric Hoffer said about movements: What starts out as a cause (Batman as vigilante) becomes a business (Batman as institution) becomes a racket (Batman as camp).

Here’s an idea. While our main storytelling model was once episodic — the same characters having one adventure after another, with a sense of continuity but not a deep memory — it has become, since the 1980s, the reboot. How can we update this familiar story (Superman, Zorro, “The Brady Bunch”) for the modern age? So why not simply embrace this trend? Instead of increasingly crappy sequels and the inevitable decline into camp, just reboot the myth every 5 or 10 years. Tell us that story again, Daddy. We’re almost at this point anyway. Only 16 years separate Michael Keaton’s first Batman from Christian Bale’s.

But the easiest way for to save Christopher Nolan’s Batman is to yet again follow Frank Miller’s lead. In The Dark Knight Returns, Miller simply introduced a new, tight-ass commissioner to Gotham, one who didn’t like Batman, and thus returned the caped crusader to his primitive vigilante state. Consider it like Mao’s perpetual revolution. Except with a hopefully happier ending.

— June 16, 2008

Read the follow-up, “Why The Dark Knight is the Smartest Superhero Movie Ever Made,” here.