Holy Whatever! From self-aware, quasi-homoerotic buffoon to hoarse, opportunistic alcoholic, the caped crusader sure has a colorful, and often contradictory, past


Note: This is a guest post by Brandon Engel, who is a Chicago based blogger with a keen interest in everything from cult horror film to comic books to energy legislation. Follow him on Twitter: (@BrandonEngel2)

Batman is a figure who has meant many different things to many different generations. In the thirties, DC was eager to capitalize on the popularity of Superman by creating more superhero franchises. The real-life dynamic duo who brought Batman to life was artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger. They were tasked with crafting a character who was aesthetically and thematically similar to the Man of Steel, but still had a unique personality all his own. What the two came up with initially was a character who was more vulnerable and error-prone than Superman, and thus more relatable. He was less of a superhero and more of an eccentric gumshoe who wore strange costumes and spent most of his down time wallowing in contemplative silence in a cave amongst bats. He was like an American pulp noir Sherlock Holmes, with elements of gothic horror literature texturing both his backstory and his environment.

The Batman character has gone through a whole series of changes since the thirties, and he’s meant something unique to each generation. While the more blatantly self-effacing, pop art inspired iterations of Batman might make perfect sense to comic fans and viewers who are privy to the Batman’s ever-morphing cultural context, they might not completely make sense to the kids who are only really familiar with Christopher Nolan’s film series. With therecent announcement that the Batman TV show from the sixties will be available on DVD for the first time, younger viewers, who may be seeing the program for the first time, might be alarmed by this campier treatment of Batman. If you are a nerdy parent with children who only know the Nolan Batman, you recognize that this show could be the biggest upset in your child’s young life since he found out the truth about Santa/the tooth fairy/his adoption/the trifecta. Have a talk with your kids before letting them see the DVDs. You might even consider showing them the original feature length film with Adam West first [click here for more info on streaming it in its entirety online] or at least show himthe part with the rubber shark.

 

And let’s get something straight right now — I don’t mean to badmouth the Adam West Batman anymore than I wish to mindlessly praise Nolan’s work: The Dark Knight Rises, in this writer’s humble opinion, left much to be desired. While the sixties Batman revelled in its own self-mockery, Nolan’s films can feel overly earnest in their desire to be taken seriously — never mind the obtuse run time of the third film.

 

However, for all of their shortcomings, Nolan’s films are highly important in the Batman canon, if only because they reflect the cynicism and gritty realism of theFrank Miller’s comics, particularly his Dark Knight Returns series which premiered in the eighties — comics which effectively changed the general public’s perception of the character forever.

 

But what’s also significant about Nolan’s approach is that he has gone to pains to revise the mythos surrounding each character. In Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Bruce Wayne is depicted as an older, out of shape alcoholic, who has essentially left Gotham at the mercy of a violent street gang known as “The Mutants”. Something that we see prominently in both Miller’s comics and Nolan’s films is the critique of sensational media — nightly news programs fixate almost exclusively on violent crimes. In the comic, we see Batman one night, drinking at home and flipping through channels, and he snaps! He decides to slip back into the old costume, and take to the streets once again. In the film, you’ll recall that Bruce is going through a similar existential crisis, and he also reaches his breaking point. And just as Bruce has to struggle to get back in shape in the comics, in the film, we find him nursing an injured knee.

 

You’ll recall also that the Joker in the Miller comics is nothing like the mustachioed, benign prankster played by Cesar Romero in the Adam West Show. Miller’s Joker, much like the one depicted by Heath Ledger inThe Dark Knight, is a homicidal maniac. You no doubt remember the antics he pulled in the film — bombing hospitals and having schizophrenics carrying out his evil bidding. In the comics, he escapes from his mental hospital by committing mass murder in a TV studio during the taping of a live talk show — once again returning to Miller’s pointed criticism of media censorship, and the degree to which villains use it as a forum to their own sinister ends.

 

Nolan is not just influenced by Miller, but also other comic artists who themselves took cues from Miller, notably Alan Moore and Dennis O’Neill, the former of which wroteThe Killing Joke. In The Killing Joke, the joker is depicted as a homicidal fiend and suggest that Batman could be just as unhinged as his villains (prominent in the Nolan films). Moore wrote theVenom series, which sees Batman becoming addicted to a performance enhancing drug engineered by government officials which renders men mindless killing machines — this is the very substance which Bane inhales through his cannisters in the comic book.

But Nolan has taken his films a step beyond Miller’s treatment. Nolan has, in many instances, completely rewritten the mythos surrounding certain characters, and he has constructed a Gotham which mirrors the real world evils and struggles of today — economic hardship; the disparity in quality of life between the haves and have-nots; the moral imperative of those in positions of power; the idea of transcending the perceived limitations of what you were born into, with Batman forced to literally ascend from his hole. Nolan, like Miller, is less interested in cracking jokes than he is in demonstrating how the Batman mythos can be used as a vehicle for political commentary.

Love it or hate it, the Spandex-clad hijinks of Adam West make an important piece of the Batman canon. Some people just can’t get past the artifice. The diehard fans, however, by and large seem pleased that people like Christopher Nolan are approaching the character in a way that more closely resembles the original intentions of Batman’s creators.

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