It started with the logo. They didn’t even put the name of the movie on the teaser poster, because everyone already recognized the universal symbol of a comic book character from decades ago. but this bat-shaped oval was. . . different. It didn’t look like an ad for a kids’ movie, even though it was a superhero movie. it gave the impression of being ominous, gloomy, darker. this was not your father’s batman. and he wasn’t your super friend on saturday mornings either.
Then came Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman trailer, featuring an intimidating Michael Keaton in a black-on-black bat suit: Mr. mom broke bad! – and everything changed. Gone was the guy in the gray jumpsuit who said bam, pow, zap! this was a brooding, pouting, psychologically breaking loner. Down these mean streets of Gotham City, turned so fatalistically noir by Anton Furst’s groundbreaking production design, goes a man who isn’t bad himself (more or less), who isn’t tarnished (arguable). nor scared (bingo). he is the hero; He is everything Batman couldn’t be before on screen. exit the caped crusader. the dark knight enters.
yeah, okay, some of this seems a little cheesy now. (forget it, jake, it was the late 1980s). but long before the mcu was a gleam in kevin feige’s eye, batman changed superhero movies: everything that’s happened since has been a variation of his tortured superhero fight with supervillains and personal demons, or a reaction to it. And with the release of Matt Reeves’ The Batman on March 5, the latest on-screen incarnation of the DC character once again doubles down on obscurity. looking like he’s taking a break from fronting a my chemical romance cover band, a stained eyed robert pattinson gives us another bruce wayne in another gotham town gone to seed, battling another bunch of bad guys familiar but slightly revised. the song remains the same: it’s more like a dirge than ever.
paraphrasing a certain well-known agent of chaos: why are you still so serious? because that’s the batman who is now embedded in the public imagination, a 180 degree turn from the four color scout master of the 1950s comics and the idea of a boob tube and batusi dancing do-gooder of the sixties. The original Batman was more of a Chandleresque braggart than the father figure of Adam West’s “careful old friend.” but to many, he was still a comic book character with pointy ears and endless bat gadgets, and that meant it was child’s play. The TV show’s producers wanted something that resembled a series of pop art panels to come to life, and that’s how we got what writer Glen Weldon called “The Camp Crusader.” For years, this was what people who weren’t regular comic book readers thought of when they thought of Batman:
On TV screens, the masked man and his wunderkind sidekick punched their way through a different, garishly costumed bad guy every week. or, when he was granted a big screen outlet in 1966 through Batman: The Movie, a quartet of stars all at once. in the pages, d.c. embraced and rode the wave of popularity of bat-a-go-go until the show went off the air in 1968, at which point publishers of batman-related titles began to look back to the roots of him as the world’s greatest detective Robin went to college. the stories started to get a little more gothic and gritty, the longtime villains a little more unstable and psychotic. Before the caped crusader became a staple of Saturday morning cartoons in the late 1970s, writers and artists could be seen taking advantage of a lonely man who played detective and vigilante, taking on criminal syndicates and cackling maniacs from dusk till dawn. (If you want to see the shape of things to come, go back and read Denny O’Neill/Neal Adams’ run in the early ’70s. He’s still top-notch superhero pulp.)
Then, in 1986, writer-artist frank miller’s The Dark Knight Returns dared to ask: what kind of person dresses up as a bat every night and beats up criminals? the answer: someone who is undoubtedly psychologically broken and probably psychotic. Suddenly, the idea that not all superheroes wear capes, but an antihero could, became an intriguing pop culture ideology. Because Batman’s superpower is not the ability to fly, run fast, or talk to fish. is that he has a pathology. he must put on the costume and fight. he’s a damaged good who’s trying to use that damage for good, or something like that.
batman continues to position the superhero as a handsome millionaire by day and a crazy, sexy, cool warrior in a mask by night. but it also takes a page, or two, or a dozen of miller’s idea and introduces the idea that, even at the multiplex, it could be a larger than life urban legend and the second coming of travis bickle, violent enough how to get excited. -looking for teenagers but complex enough to stroke the chins of adults. add years of pre-made brand recognition and you had yourself a marketable “cutting edge” success. The entire template for tortured, neurotic screen superheroes and their popularity (we love you superman, but we’ve chosen darkness) starts here. And every time Batman started to return to camp territory (two words: bat nipples), the franchise would take a timeout before hitting a reset button and dragging the character back into the shadows where he belonged.
that, and stop treating it like a bat joke once and for all. That’s why Batman Begins, the first of Christopher Nolan’s groundbreaking trilogy, is closer to a bat procedural than a superhero movie; Christian Bale doesn’t even put on his mask until an hour later. The Dark Knight (2008), still considered the gold standard of the genre, may be best remembered for Heath Ledger’s deranged and unnerving take. the joker, but it’s also a morality tale about the dizzying gray area that exists in the phrase “the end justifies the means.” at least the nolan trilogy continues to delve into the notion of how what happens outside the batcave affects what happens inside bruce wayne’s head, and vice versa.
but the movies, especially the dark knight, also serve to remind you that when it comes to movies, there is a batman for all seasons. every decade gets the dark knight it needs: the millionaire-a-go-go from the west and his teenage sidekick are running around beating up bad guys and keeping the status quo of ’66 intact as the american empire engaged in a cold war with russia, a war getting hotter. in asia, and with internal conflicts at home. (it’s all one big cartoon adventure where the good guys win, kids! trust us!) the 1980s caped crusader comes to the end of a decade when social inequity and urban paranoia had reached their boiling point taller, and rambo and bernhard goetz were considered folk heroes. So it’s no coincidence that the idea of a villain who just wants to watch the world burn resonates several years after America’s worst terrorist attack. uu. earth, or that a superhero would see a surveillance state as a necessity during a protracted war on terror.
When Bale hangs up his cape in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), the movies have fulfilled Wayne’s claim that, “As a man, I am flesh and blood, I can be ignored.” I can be destroyed, but as a symbol… I can be incorruptible, I can be eternal.” As Symbol and Intellectual Property: Nolan’s films did more to enshrine Batman as a mythical figure and perpetual moneymaker at the very moment that superhero movies became the ultimate sure thing in Hollywood. Rough, the willingness to cross the line if it gets the job done: These are hallmarks of the obsessive vigilante we now see as Batman’s touchstones, period.He’s our eternal avatar of grim escapism, which can be as much a feature as it is a bug. that’s why the “battle movie” we see in zack snyder’s early dceu movies feels so suffocating it’s practically a parody of the dark knight title you can imagine snyder sitting in a movie theater and watching nolan’s movies and declaring, “the dark knight? yes, it could completely obscure it.”
no offense to ben affleck, leading chin or not, he’s much better as a character actor than a caped crusader. (And don’t worry, Batfleck fans, you’ll reportedly get more of your Batman, as well as the Michael Keaton version, in the upcoming multiverse-fueled Flash movie. I love Bat-nostalgia.) And while he’s still technically in circulation, of course we’re getting another Batman: The character is too much of a cash cow for the producers and too much of a village in a hood for the actors to let him go gently into the night. But that’s what makes Pattinson’s iteration of Welcome to the Black Parade so potentially interesting. the emo-volatile vibe of him, in beast mode, battling a world that’s falling apart, feels like an all too fitting fit for our moment on the brink. (“He has a kind of inner rage,” Reeves said when asked what inspired him to seek out the Twilight star for the part. “I can feel this desperation.”) Read Pattinson’s pre-release interviews. , and you’ll hear the words “weird” and “trauma” come up a lot. “It’s about him trying to find some element of hope, in himself, and not just in the city,” he notes. “Normally, Bruce never questions his own ability; he questions the city’s capacity for change. but I mean, it’s kind of crazy: the only way I can live is to dress up as a bat.”
It may be the newest flavor of grim, but you may have noticed that we’re living in grim times, and that’s why we may need a new batman so he can get into the same raging, unstable psychological space as everyone else. We have been for the last half dozen years. the keaton and bale versions are products of their time; If we’re lucky, Pattinson has given us a hero who makes perfect sense for our broken moment. At his best, the dark knight rises to reflect the world that happens outside of theaters and screens. in 2022, this antihero has a lot of work ahead of him.