We Need to Re-Assess Who Batman Is

How did we get from kitsch Adam West to brooding Ben Affleck?

|
Nov 23 2017, 2:56pm

One of the most jarring things about Justice League is that Batman doesn’t want to be there. No thanks to a lethargic performance from Ben Affleck, the dark knight has become a total drag. Look, Batman is expected to brood, but this is bad. Affleck is eyeing the exits from under the cowl in every scene like an emo teenager. It’s baffling to see one of the most popular characters in DC Comics history reduced to a bloated sad sack. Over the past 75 years Batman has become a titan in pop culture, and the character has proven to be malleable, but we’ve reached a breaking point. We need to call a timeout on Batman, and it will be for the better. Think of it as a trial separation. A little breathing space will allow us to assess the incredible legacy of the character before the next step in his evolution. After all, absence makes the dark knight grow fonder.

There’s been a version of Batman in existence since the 1930s. The character was used sparingly outside of comics in the early days with the live-action Batman (1966), starring Adam West and Burt Ward, the biggest step from the page to screen. There’s a generation of fans, most discovering the series via reruns, who will talk fondly of the ’66 Batman without a hint of irony, because throughout the 70s and 80s it was the only live-action Batman around. The character hadn’t reached the unrelenting saturation point it has now in pop culture. Fans were appreciative of any adaptation, and there was no preconceived notion of what Batman “should be”. In 2017, being spoilt for choice with Batman means you always get nerd-bros lecturing you about the rigid rules Batman must abide by to be successful as an adaptation. The ’66 Batman has grown in stature each time the modern interpretation of the character has taken a huge misstep. The live action Batman of the late 1960s now looks like a multi-coloured beacon of hope during these dark times.

How did it get so crowded in the Bat-Cave? Everything changed in 1989, when Tim Burton’s Batman smashed box office records and delivered an urban gothic take on the character, which then turned the ’66 Batman into a joke it would endure for the next decade while the more appreciative fans came of age. In the late 80s, the rate of Batman suddenly accelerated to the point where a new film dropped, on average, every three years throughout the 90s: Batman Returns (1992) , Batman: The Mask of Phantasm (1993), Batman Forever (1995), Batman and Robin (1997). On the television front, Batman: The Animated Series won over news fans with its luscious art deco animation style and emphasis on telling great Batman stories with a focus on his detective skills and a deep dive into the rogue’s gallery. Somehow, within a decade we got more Batman than ever before, and experienced his rise and demise.

Batman & Robin killed the character’s mojo. The proof is in how long it took him to return to the big screen: eight years. Somehow, the timing was right. We got a period long enough to take stock of Batman before Christopher Nolan would redefine the character with the Dark Knight Trilogy, which pushed the comic book movie beyond its limits. Critics praised the film and Heath Ledger won an Oscar for his chilling portrayal of the Joker. The Dark Knight was nominated for eight Oscars in total; Batman wasn’t just blockbuster fodder anymore, the character had serious cred in cinema history.

Still, the rate of a Batman film every three or four years picked up again during this period, which has persisted through to now with Batman versus Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad (Batman has a cameo, but it counts) and Justice League. Amongst all this, Batman got bricked in The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie, which further complicated things (in the best possible way) by offering a self-aware, meta take on the character’s existence. The Lego Batman Movie functions like a thesis on the contradictions of Batman’s long history, differing characterisations and varied adaptations. Any take on Batman that follows the Lego version has to work hard to outpace the way it joyfully makes fun of itself and the entire Batman canon.

Batman got called back into action, prematurely, because of one major event: The Avengers. Marvel executed their dream of a shared cinematic universe and no blockbuster was ever going to feel the same ever again. Warner Brothers scrambled to squeeze their heroes into this model of filmmaking with their rejigged, mopey take on Superman, Man of Steel—the first to take flight. Naturally, Batman had to be shoved in as soon as possible. DC Comics have been adding Batman to things like a bad habit for years. Batman’s presence can significantly boost sales because the character has always been a Bat-Magnet for fans. You can always tell which comic title needs a bump or is about to be axed when Batman shows up. But as soon as Batman appeared in Dawn of Justice it was clear more time was needed to catch our breath from The Dark Knight Rises, which provided an ending worthy of giving Batman a well-earned rest.

Warner Brothers is expecting to lose up to $100 million on Justice League after it failed to draw a big enough audience in America to chip away at the film’s $300 million budget. When a film studio can’t make bank off the back of a team of iconic heroes, which includes Batman—one of the most profitable characters of all time—there’s a huge problem (also, maybe don’t spend $300 million on one summer movie?). While most of the blame lies with the film itself, I can’t help but feel Batman fatigue has crept in, and it’s heartbreaking. It’s a betrayal of Batman’s legacy, which is now full of rich interpretations no matter how you feel about ’66 Batman, Burton Batman, cartoon Batman, Bat-Nipple Batman, Brick Batman or Nolan’s reboot.

Another Batman film is in the works with director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) at the helm (for now), with the strong possibility that Batman will be recast. Batman’s best ally at the moment is time. We know the magic number is eight years, and it’s not like there’s a shortage of Batman in the world. Use the time to revisit ’66 Batman in its entirety, watch the remarkable animated film The Mask of Phantasm, or appreciate the brilliance of the only Batman Christmas movie, Batman Returns. I’m confident the next great interpretation of Batman is on the horizon, but a break would be nice.

Follow Cameron on Twitter

Stories