Can Batman be considered to be something more than a cartoon? Or will he always be shadowed by his past? We consider why Batman is more than a comic book hero…
Recently, whilst at a family BBQ, (a rare event in our current climate) I was discussing The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR from here on in) with my older brother. He had not seen the film, yet was impressed to find that critic Mark Kermode gave it a glowing reception. At this point, my sister-in-law piped up with a giggle and mocked Mr. Kermode for the seriousness of his sincerity toward TDKR. When I asked why it was so silly, she replied without hesitation, stating: ‘Because it’s a cartoon’.
As an avid fan of The Batman since childhood, I took this as an affront despite the jovial manner in which sis-in-law made the offending statement. Yet any attempt to tell her otherwise was ultimately futile. To her, Batman is a comic, a cartoon to entertain kids and any serious notions towards the character is ludicrous.
Family-related anecdote aside, this got me thinking. Having recently seen all three Christopher Nolan Batman movies in quick succession, it becomes quickly apparent that they are something more than just a cartoon. To anyone who has seen Nolan’s masterful Batman trilogy, you will know that he has crafted a series of films that go above any beyond what is expected of a comic book movie. Whilst there are clearly fantastical elements in all, the overriding factor is that we truly believe, no matter how fundamentally silly it is, that a psychologically damaged billionaire could dress up as a bat and fight crime.
This notion of a gritty Batman isn’t new. Whilst Batman’s creator Bob Kane once said he could never imagine a realistic depiction of his most famous super-hero (which will explain the painful campness of the Adam West era), the idea of Batman for adults has been around for thirty years. In the wake of Alan Moore‘s Watchmen, which perfectly demonstrated that a comic could deal with weighty and socially relevant issues, the floodgates were opened for comics to move into more adult material.
For Batman, it was something of a renaissance, with Year One, The Long Halloween and Alan Moore’s own The Killing Joke all being released during the 80’s. Yet it was Frank Miller‘s The Dark Knight Returns, in which an aging Bruce Wayne comes out of retirement to become Batman again (a plot point used for The Dark Knight Rises) that reintroduced the character to a whole new audience.
It also took the character into some very dark places: Wayne is deeply and emotionally effected by his actions as Batman, Gotham’s trust in him has weakened due to the policies of a new police commissioner that wants him arrested and the Joker has been re-imagined as having a sexual obsession with his nemesis.
It was a risk that ultimately paid off, re-inventing Batman as a man powered by grief, with Bruce Wayne, the arrogant playboy as the mask and Batman the embodiment of his true, psychologically scarred persona. All memories of Adam West and his shark repellent Bat-spray were gone, culminating in the flawed by terrifically dark Tim Burton Batman movies in 1989 and 1992 respectively.
Despite the epic missteps of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, the character was now synonymous with all things moody and bleak, which may explain why the Joel Schumacher entries were so badly received. More prevalent however was, much like Watchmen, the resurgence of a grumpy Batman, proving that despite being written via the comic book medium, these new stories were not for kids.
This was the entire basis of my anger when being told that Batman is a cartoon. Just looking at the Nolan trilogy shows that there is little light-hearted fun to be had in the company of Bruce Wayne and co. Where once there were Bat-nipples, we now have thought-provoking drama that deals with our hero’s troubled psyche.
Yes, he dresses as a bat and yes, in a real world context, this would be silly, but that is not the point. There have been many comparison’s with Nolan’s take on the Batman/Joker relationship with that of the dynamic between Hannah & McAlly in Michael Mann’s Heat. By making this comparison demonstrates that the latter entries (especially The Dark Knight) transcend the expectations of a comic-book adaptation.
The Dark Knight is a crime film that happens to star Batman and The Joker. The Dark Knight Rises is a movie about urban warfare that happens to have Batman in a flying machine. The trilogy aims to elevate itself above the norm whilst never forgetting its roots, ergo, we can still have The Scarecrow’s fear toxin and a Two-Face with an impossibly unrealistic deformity.
But, even amongst all this, Nolan understands that whilst there are car chases, dogfights, fistfights, mammoth explosions and superbly written supporting roles for both allies and enemies, Bruce Wayne’s story has always been the focus. We see him develop from frightened child to lost soul to super-hero without any sense of repetition or lethargy.
Who didn’t feel a profound sense of emotion at the unveiling of the Batman memorial statue toward the end of TDKR? To have invested so much time in the world of Gotham City and its inhabitants, to have garnered an emotional response through the series’s darkest and most harrowing of moments unquestionably obliterates any notion that Batman is merely ‘a cartoon’.
With a reboot having been confirmed whilst TDKR was in production, I can only hope that whoever takes over ‘gets’ the character in the same way as Chris Nolan and friends.
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