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Batman’s Decline From Hero to Just Another Angsty White Guy

The first time I saw a grown-up get angry about a comic book movie was in the summer of 1988, at a sci-fi convention outside of Philadelphia. I was 12 years old, and, as such, was wearing a Batman hat. A lumpy vendor-slash-Alex Karras-replicant saw me digging through his back issues, and started headed in my direction. Soon he was standing over me, his arms folded firm, his grimace held tight.

“Did you hear who they picked to play him?,” he asked. “Michael Keaton! The guy from Mr. Mom is gonna be Batman!” With that, he shook his head and stared at the ground, looking as though he was going to spit on the unsold back-issues of Rom: Space Knight piled underneath. A few feet away, another dealer shrugged and exhaled dramatically, a show of chagrined solidarity.

Fans knew we were in the midst of a creatively gilded age, a time when the medium’s ambitions and visibility were reaching an intertwined, mutually nurturing apex. Only one person could screw it up now: Batman.

Their reaction may have been a little extreme, but it’s hard to fault them too much, as by the late ’80s, we comic book lovers were on the defensive. For months, a masked vigilante had been tracking us down and taking us out, one by one, in a past-rectifying attempt to—wait, sorry. That’s actually the plot of Watchmen. The real-ish threat facing fans was far less lethal, but worrisome nonetheless, especially since things were going so well for us: After decades of barely being taken kinda-seriously, comic books were finally inching closer to mainstream acceptance, perhaps even semi-coolness. They were weightier, darker, and more vividly executed than ever before, and they’d even festooned themselves with a new descriptor—the hilariously hoity-toity “graphic novel”—that, in retrospect, was the desperate-image-makeover equivalent of a freshman English major tattooing “Franny” and “Zooey” on his or her knuckles.

And while there were still plenty of cruddy titles (Secret Wars II, for example, was the Stayin’ Alive of Marvel sequels), fans knew we were in the midst of a creatively gilded age, a time when the medium’s ambitions and visibility were reaching an intertwined, mutually nurturing apex. Only one person could screw it up now: Batman.

Michael Keaton as Batman: 1988’s Concerned Nerd Talking Point No. 1

Specifically, Keaton’s pending version of Batman, the hottest topic of a discussion that rang through specialty shops, convention centers, and summer-camp pow-wows. Debating the merits of superheros (and superhero movies) may now be the fossil fuel for much of the modern internet, but trust me, we were just as obsessed with this stuff in the pre-dial-up era; you would not believe how many sleepovers devolved into parliamentary debates on the relative suckiness of Alpha Flight.

Batman, though, was that year’s Concerned Nerd Talking Point No. 1. The character had recently undergone an astonishingly dark rewrite, one that had begun with Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, the future-set 1986 series that depicted its hero as a bitter retiree who returns to Gotham City to put down gangs of punks and eventually tries to take out Superman. Then came 1987’s Batman: Year One, Miller’s only slightly less grim retelling of the Caped Crusader’s origin; 1988’s The Killing Joke, an Alan Moore one-shot that deepened (and popularized) the Joker’s psychotic tendencies; and then, finally, Batman: A Death in the Family, a headline-making stunt for which readers were invited to spend 50 cents to call a 1-900 number and decide whether Robin lived or died (he died). Batman was never the peppiest character in the DC universe, but by the end of the ’80s, he could have won a frown-off against Peter Murphy.

With the on-the-stands Batman now so thoroughly gritty, the worry was that Keaton—a stand-up turned comedy star—would revert the character to his way more brightly lit (and, in some fans’ eyes, far dimmer) TV-version roots. In that incarnation, Adam West’s Batman (dry and mighty) and Burt Ward’s Robin (spry and stupid) fought cartoonish-even-for-a-comic book villains, and got caught up in a never-ending series of astonishingly ill-planned traps. I loved West’s Batman: He was noble, even-keeled, and resourceful enough to carry around shark-repellant Bat Spray at all times (he also had that catnippy bubblegum-boogie theme song, with its nah-nah-nah-nah mantra). But I also recognized the show as kids’ stuff, and espoused the virtues of the bummed-out, vengeance-seeking Batman to any sneering kid (or patient adult) who listened.

We got our way. But in the process, Batman may have lost his.

For most non-diehards, though, the memory of the campy Batman was impossible to forget. The series had been off the air since 1968, yet thanks to reruns the show persisted as the media’s main reference point for not just Batman, but for comic book culture in general. Every “comics are for adults now!” article featured some lame Zap! Boom! Pow! reference (a sure sign you were reading an article written by a fusty square). If Keaton’s Batman was going to try to be funny, we believed, comic books would lose their still-fragile cachet. So we huddled harrumphed during our back-of-the-comic-shop chop-it-ups, and prayed that Hollywood would deliver the darkest, dourest, most integrity-edifying big-screen version of Batman possible.

We got our way. But in the process, Batman may have lost his.

A Billion Ways to Be the Bat

Because no one’s allowed to write about Batman movies on the Internet without first establishing their superhero bona fides—look it up; it’s buried deep in the Affordable Care act—I should confess that my comic book cred is shaky. My primo obsessive years started in 1983, when I purchased Marvel’s adaptation of Krull from a Manhattan newsstand, and lasted until around the summer of 1990, when the first issue of Todd McFarlane’s new Spider-Man was launched amid a sad blast of hoopla and collector-baiting special-edition nonsense that even I, as a Stan Lee-loving teenager, found dispiriting. So I checked out. I’ve since dipped back into the comics world—and how can you not, in an era of Paper Girls, Sex Criminals, Saga, Ms. Marvel, and the like?—but the gaps in my knowledge are bigger than a Snark ship (that’s a deep-cut Power Pack reference for all the Simonson/Brigman-heads out there).

Yet throughout the height of my comic love, there was no character I followed more closely than Batman, whose exploits I revisited whenever I could. I still have my original paperback copy of The Dark Knight Returns; it looks like it’s been through the gentlest of wood-chippers (the same goes for my editions of Year One and The Killing Joke). I can recall blood-spattered panels from the brutal 1988 mini-series Batman: The Cult—some of which gave me nightmares—with ease. I spent at least 10 bucks voting for Robin’s death.

And every time I’ve wandered into a comics shop in recent years, or gone down a conversational batcave with a comics-following friend, I’ve wound up exploring (and loving) modern Batman stories like Scott Snyder’s Batman: Black Mirror and The Court of Owls, or Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka’s cop-procedural Gotham Central. I’m still drawn to the character, even if I can’t follow the Bat-signal as closely as I once did.

For the most part, the Batman stories I loved adhere to the enjoyably downbeat vision of Batman that’s made him a pop-cultural fixture for more than 75 years: That of a loner detective, haunted by his past and taunted by his foes, who commits fully to whatever definitions of justice and mercy he tends to be into at that point (in his early years, Batman had seemingly no problem with killing off bad guys, though by the early ’80s, he was more likely to drop them off at Arkham Asylum). And while I admired the character’s toughness, I also dug his nifty accouterments (Giant pennies! A dinosaur!) and the fact that, unlike Superman or Wonder Woman, he was a superhero without any special powers. If you’d asked me when I was 11 or 12 what job I wanted to when I got older, I would have replied “guy who gets to read a lot about Batman.” But the more honest answer would have been: “Batman.”

The Best Bat-Manifestation Yet

So I was surprised and relieved when I finally saw Tim Burton’s Batman on opening night on June 23, 1989. Have you watched that movie lately? Even if you never cared about comic books, it’s a deeply dippy delight: An over-budgeted, studio-spawned oddity that somehow seems both painstakingly thought-out and completely made up on the spot. There are scenes so goofy, you can just imagine Burton and Jack Nicholson—two guys who no doubt shared an almost clinical disdain of big-business execs—wondering, “How should we fuck with the suits today? I know: What if you punched out a TV and yelled about enemas while dressed like Grape Ape’s pimp?”

But while Burton’s film has to-the-core elements of the glower-tripping Batman we fans were hoping for—the goth-deco architecture, the baroque mutilations, and an ending that ultimately plays as a downer, no matter what song you put in the end credits—its biggest asset was Keaton. In both Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns, Keaton plays Batman (and, more importantly, Bruce Wayne) as daffy, detached, and slightly bemused by his own predicament; it’s as though the actor just waltzed in from the set of a screwball comedy he was filming a few soundstages away. When he’s out of costume, Keaton’s eyebrows aim skyward like quizzical cathedrals, and his mouth flashes unexpectedly to a strange half-smile. There’s torment within Keaton’s Batman, to be sure, and a barely tempered anger, yet as troubled as he is, the world doesn’t weigh on his shoulders; it just kind of hovers there.

Keaton’s take on the character—which had initially inspired so much anxiety among comic fans—was, for me, the most satisfying Bat-manifestation yet. Positioned between the haunted Dark Knight of the comics, and the goofy charmer of the ’60s series, this new Batman seemed less like an existentially enraged, near-biblically burdened martyr, and more like a too-smart-for-his-own-good weirdo. For an insane millionaire, he was relatable, so much so that many an impressionable mid-teen spent the fall of 1989 grabbing his or her friends, pulling them close, and grunting “I’m Batman.” Being Batman looked like fun.

The immediate Batman sequels (and actors) that followed Batman Returns tried, in varying ways, to recapture the odd-duck feel that Keaton and Burton had embedded within the character. But sourpuss pin-up Val Kilmer couldn’t fake the fun in 1995’s Batman Forever, and even if he had, he would have been overshadowed by sentient ham-hocks Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones. Meanwhile, George Clooney’s Batman & Robin turn in 1997 was way too glib and hokey-jokey—no mean feat in a movie in which Uma Thurman dresses up as a sultry gorilla. By the end of the decade, Batman, and the Batman movies, had strayed from the gray but springy strangeness of the first two films, and gotten a little too light (and, for the sake of argument, I’m sticking with the flesh-and-blood Batman films here).

The Later, Darker Christopher Nolan Years

The necessary corrective would arrive a few years later, in 2005, with Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan’s relentless, pained (but still occasionally funny) Batman, a tech-enabled bruiser facing down maniacs and devout terrorists. The Nolan films—more controlled than the previous entries, and intent on Grappling with Big Stuff—were action-packed and satisfyingly stark (for all my Keaton-stumping, 2008’s The Dark Knight remains my favorite Batman movie). By the end of 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, though, the Cookie Puss growls and sad-pants scowls that had become the character’s easily mockable hallmarks were starting to wear on me. On the big screen, Batman’s glummy approach to everything was starting to feel one-dimensional.

I longed for a little more humor or jarring weirdness—for a Batman that seemed to enjoy being Batman, even just once in a while. I was the mook following Batman down the street on a hot summer’s day: Come on, baby! You’ve got a nice smile! Use it or lose it!

But Batman never turned around. Instead, he kept on walking straight toward Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

The Darkest Timeline: Zack Snyder’s Batman

What can you say about a superhero movie in which two of the three main saviors seem neither particularly super nor heroic? About an action film in which we learn of the existence of four new, amazingly empowered characters via a series of grainy videos somebody watches on their hotel-room laptop? About a Serious Movie that features a scene in which Holly Hunter has a stare-down with mason jar full of urine?

All I can say is: Not my thing, thanks.

But maybe you loved Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. A lot of people did—even if few of them are employed as film critics—and, for the most part, I get why: There are swell explosions and some pummeling fights, and Snyder’s camerawork has a sense of scale and space that other big action films lack. And Ben Affleck (whom I’ve always liked, even if I suspect he would have prank-called me in high school) is very good at playing privileged victims.

There’s even a case to be made that one of the appeals of Dawn of Justice, and director Zack Snyder’s Kill-’em-all Valhalla in general, is that they provide yet another needed corrective to the comic-movie canon. In his world, our superheroes are witnesses to (and often the cause of) massive losses of life and unquantifiable amounts of unearthly destruction. The Iron Man and Avengers films are also rife with such destruction—but even their most po-faced Marvel heroes can still occasionally make a joke. There’s no such wisecrackery in Dawn of Justice; it has more sad-sack expressions than a Bright Eyes concert in 2002. It’s as if Snyder wants us to realize that the price of having heroes in our lives means we either all end up dying, come close to dying, or just become perpetually bummed out by all the dying around us. Everybody’s miserable with these guys around, and in that very weird, narrow way, Dawn of Justice is probably one of the more realistic superhero movies ever made.

There’s no wisecrackery in Dawn of Justice; it has more sad-sack expressions than a Bright Eyes concert in 2002.

Affleck’s Batman, meanwhile, feels equally true to life: He’s embittered, depressed, overworked, and seemingly apathetic about sex (as much as I like Affleck and Gal Gadot’s performances, the two have about as much heat as as pimento sandwich and a bicycle pump). He’s become angry enough to brand his villains like cattle, and he doesn’t even seem to get much satisfaction from detective work, which he mostly outsources to Alfred and some cool-seeming apps. He’s pissed off and out for revenge, and he’s probably the closest we’ve come to the hardened Batman that many comic book fans wanted to get on the big screen nearly 30 years ago.

Or, at least, that we thought we wanted. I’d be surprised if there weren’t other former Batheads who walked out of Dawn of Justice thinking, “Wait—why did I like this character again?” Batman, for all his shadowy impulses, was once an aspirational figure. But it’s hard to look at the gloomy version of him in Batman v Superman—the one whose every silent-sigh gesture looks as though it should be accompanied by bottom-of-the-screen depression-medication fine print—and think, “Man, that looks like a cool gig.” By stripping him of any inner weirdness or levity or even the slightest inclination toward joy, Snyder has turned Batman into little more than a rich, angsty middle-aged white dude. Maybe that’s who he really was all along. Either way, I don’t need to see any more movies about those guys.

And Lord knows, if this is the kind of Batman that Snyder and Warner Bros. want to bring back to the big screen every few years (he’ll cameo in this summer’s Suicide Squad, and help anchor 2017’s Justice League Part One, which I’m sure will begin with Darkseid flame-basting a Romanian orphanage), they certainly don’t need to cater to me. In the last few decades, the character’s become so malleable, and so prone to reinterpretation, that pretty much anyone can look at a particular era/title/movie and feel, “That’s my Batman.” There are plenty of people who will watch Dawn of Justice and think just that; I genuinely hope they enjoying digging into the character as much I did more than 30 years ago.

Yet I still hold out hope that, the next time Batman returns, Snyder and Affleck will grant the character a few moments of delight or absurdity or even just a hint of swaggering cuckoo-ness. He may be an insane trust-funder who dresses up as a winged mammal, but my Batman was also likably, heroically human. I miss him. And until he decides to come out of the shadows, I’ll be in my cave with my back issues and Blu-rays, savoring every zap, boom, and pow.

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