Batman, identity, and what happened to the Caped Crusader?

The modern Batman is dark, brooding and brutal. But what happened to the Caped Crusader of old?

Spoilers for Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? and other Bat-Stuff possibly follow…

Whatever did happen to the Caped Crusader? I know that he used to exist somewhere within the confines of my TV: I’d catch the merest glimpse of his blue-finned cloak as it swished across the periphery of my screen; I’d do a double-take as his yellow and black chest sigil would reflect against the darkness of my awed pupils, like a bat-signal shining high into the black gulf where the heavens should be. 

These days though? Not so much. The TV screen is dark and that Batman is gone.

The Batman has always been known by a number of epithets, and rightly so: As a character that has survived numerous re-imaginings throughout an existence spanning nine decades, it’s inevitable that you’ll need to freshen up once in a while. It seems to me though that lately, the Batman that inhabits our screens runs the risk of an… ahem, identity crisis.

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Maybe it’s a symptom of the times in which we live. Maybe this Batman isn’t the one we need but perhaps the one we deserve right now. Either way – on the screen, ol’ Bats seems to be gradually retreating into one aspect of his character at the expense of all others.

Over the last few years, largely due to Christopher Nolan’s rebooted trilogy, we’ve seen a gritty, humourless Batman come to the fore: a full serving of brutally dispensed justice served with a nihilistic side order of grim meditations upon the dark nature of humanity. All of this washed down with a ridiculously growly voice.

Now don’t get me wrong – as meals go, that isn’t a bad one. But even the finest gastronomic delights lose their lustre if they’re your sole source of sustenance. Yes, Batman is the Dark Knight, of course he is. But that isn’t all he is. He’s known by a number of handles; amongst them there’s the World’s Greatest Detective, the Dynamic Duo (of which he comprises the stealthy, armoured half – the smaller, weaker, less experienced teenage boy gets to be the bullet magnet in little more than brightly coloured underwear), and the Caped Crusader… the goddamn Batman!

He’s the Goddamn Batman. Got that?

To some degree, all of these monikers reflect different aspects of the Batman mythos. From where I’m standing though, things seem to be getting more and more unbalanced in terms of the character’s onscreen representation. Nolan took Batman to some dark places and we thanked him for it. Joel Schumacher’s colourful lampooning of the Dark Knight in the 90s (Bat-ice skates? Really?) meant that a darker, more realistic interpretation was a must before The Bat became a full-blown parody of himself.

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With the Nolan trilogy concluded, the grittiness looks to continue with this year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, directed by Zack Snyder. I know that it’s unfair to make too many assumptions based on a trailer alone, but the grimness in the promos so far look like the darkness has been dialled up to maximum. With rumours abound that Snyder’s Batman will have survived the death of at least one Robin and with the clear visual clues that his costume borrows from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (the progenitor of gritty Batman tales), it seems clear that this will be the darkest Dark Knight that we’ve seen yet.

None of this bothers me. With all that Batman has to suffer to make him who he is, there should be darkness. He should be suffering from some serious form of PTSD if he thinks it’s a great idea to go out and fight crime in the world’s most dangerous and violent city whilst dressed as a giant bat. What does irk me though, is that in the rush to embrace the fashionable darkness, other core elements of the Batman character are getting lost.

I know it’s not quite that cut and dried: there’s LEGO Batman, I know; the Arkham video games have made a passable attempt at including sleuth mechanics to push the fact that Bats is ‘The World’s Greatest Detective’. The Brave And The Bold was an animated show that really tried to elevate the light-hearted Caped Crusader dimension to the character; his dry, witty ripostes and brightly-coloured outfit recalling the irreverence of Adam West and the 60s show… in fact The Brave And The Bold‘s approach was summed up by a fourth-wall breaking speech from Bat Mite in one of the episodes: 

“Batman’s rich history allows him to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. To be sure, this is a lighter incarnation, but it’s certainly no less valid and true to the character’s roots than the tortured avenger crying out for mommy and daddy.”

Naturally it was cancelled after a couple of seasons to make way for something… yep, you got it – a little darker. The show even satirised its own demise in the finale:

Look up ‘Meta’ in the dictionary and this is what you find.

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Now I’m not calling for a complete reboot here – and I’ve no wish to go back to the days of Bat-Credit Cards either… but I do think that it’s way past time that due homage was paid to less celebrated aspects of the Caped Crusader’s character and history.

Remember that I’m still talking about screen incarnations of Batman here. Grant Morrison is a legendary comics creator and although he may not be my favourite writer, there’s one thing that I hugely appreciate about his Batman comic book run: he found a way to make everything relevant. Everything. No matter how goofy or outdated – everything was canon and therefore it was all worthy. He brought back the Club of Heroes; the Batman of Zur En Aarh; he even brought back Bat Mite!

‘Never leave the Cave without it.’ Forget ‘Batman R.I.P. – this was the real death of Batman. 

Which brings us neatly onto Neil Gaiman.

Gaiman is one of my favourite writers. If you haven’t read the Sandman books, if you’ve never read American Gods or The Ocean At The End Of The Lane then do your future-self a favour and check them out. Reality, the mythic, and the darkly fantastical all blur as one in his stories until anything is possible. Back in 2009, Morrison was in the process of killing Bruce Wayne’s Batman in Batman R.I.P.; Neil Gaiman and artist Andy Kubert were brought on board to write what is essentially, the Caped Crusader’s final tale – the Batman’s funeral. 

Sure, a lot of fans rightly see Frank Miller’s iconic works as bookends to the character’s life-cycle. Year One and The Dark Knight Returns are to some extent the Alpha and Omega of Batman continuity but this story… this was something else. Taking place (possibly) outside of mainstream continuity, this was Gaiman’s love letter to all things Batman.

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For those of you not familiar with the tale, allow me to fill you in: Batman is dead. We open in Crime Alley, where some of Batman’s greatest foes and allies have gathered for his wake. As is the custom at such events, those that knew him best stand in front of the assembled and tell stories about his life… and his death. 

Seen in some ways as a sort of spiritual successor to Alan Moore’s Whatver Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? – Gaiman’s tale is perhaps more ambitious in its construction. Gaiman is particularly deft at spinning narratives about narratives; he explored the power of mythic storytelling throughout history in American Gods, and Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader? sees him thread that needle once more. He uses a framing device (Bruce, despite seemingly being dead, narrates the story alongside an unnamed companion) and a contradictory series of unreliable narrators who elaborate upon Batman’s demise to heap myth upon myth onto the Dark Knight’s funeral bier, until the reader is forced to deconstruct the eulogies to assess for themselves what is false and what is real.

To further mix things up, Gaiman retains much of the traditional Batman canon whilst choosing to subvert other elements. Joe Chill for instance, the murderer of Bruce’s parents, is front of house at the wake, meeting and greeting, despite being dead himself within the confines of mainstream DC continuity. Even more perturbing is the tale of Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce’s loyal butler. He tells the massed throng that Bruce’s life as Batman was a sham perpetuated by himself to help restore the young man’s shattered mind and create a purpose to fill the void in his life that was left by his parents’ brutal murder. 

Wow. Guess the butler really did do it.

Gaiman’s purpose here is twofold: on one hand he is able to bring a definitive close to a host of the Dark Knight’s different eras. Catwoman’s eulogy caps the Golden Age tales whilst Alfred’s story (as well as Bat-Girl’s) seems to reflect the demise of the Batman of the Silver Age era. The Joker’s story and appearance hint at an end to the 80s Batman and so on and so forth. As well as providing a fitting finale for each Batman, this approach also allows the reader to spot the similarities inherent within the death of each Dark Knight; although each of the stories are wildly different, the same beats are present throughout. Always, Batman’s death is sacrificial. He dies in service to others, whether that be one person or the entire city. In addition to that, in each of the tales, he never, ever gives up.    

It’s an abstract approach that is clever in its execution. Whilst seemingly shotgunning a whole monkey load of Batman diversity at us, celebrating the breadth of Batman’s long and storied tenure and allowing us to revel in the various interpretations (Joker from Batman: The Animated Series can be seen at one point), it conversely focuses our thinking and allows us to strip away the varying creations and focus on what lies at the character’s core.

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I won’t spoil the ending for you in the hope that maybe you’ll go out and read it, but the final moments are heartbreakingly revealing; Gaiman’s increasingly metaphysical conclusion shows us that the Caped Crusader’s path to divinity is reversed. Unlike others, he fights not to reach a higher path but instead fights to reclaim it so he can once more reaffirm what he truly is and be that once more for the next generation. 

Why? Because every generation needs a Batman.

And that beating heart of the story is precisely why I think it would be perfect as a film adaptation.

In his Fatman On Batman podcasts, Kevin Smith sometimes waxes lyrical about his Batman. He makes the point that every generation has one. For him it’s Keaton and the 1989 movie. For me it’s the same. For others such as Smith’s fellow broadcaster Ralph Garman it would be Batman 66’s West, always West and only West. For others, Kevin Conroy’s Batman of The Animated Series fame would be the one and only. For more recent converts to The Bat, perhaps Bale’s growly, scowly Batman is their Dark Knight.

So let me ask the question: what would happen if you put all of these Batmen in the same movie? What if you gave Keaton the swansong that he never quite had? What if you let West bring the curtain down on his Batman with a last one-liner? What if Hamill’s Joker lined up next to Nicholson’s and Leto’s and somehow found a way to pay tribute to Ledger’s? It sounds crazy, right? And in most cases it would be… but with a story this abstract, this metaphysical, it would make nothing but sense to draw these disparate icons together to celebrate their part in the Batman’s screen journey.

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The huge interest in Keaton’s turn in Birdman, powered as it is by his one-time portrayal of The Bat, suggests that there’s a a real understanding (beyond the Fan Nation) in the evolution of iconic characters such as Batman, and an appreciation of the role they play in creating a new mythological fabric for the 21st century.

Yes, some of the actors would be too old to fit into the suit any more but I don’t see how that matters. In a similar vein to Tony Stark being Iron Man, Bruce Wayne is Batman. An aged Wayne played by Adam West could still find a way to save Gotham one last time without necessarily donning the cowl; Keaton would look even better in the batsuit than he did 27 years ago, and as George Clooney has basically been living Bruce Wayne’s life of a billionaire playboy for the past 20 years, he wouldn’t even have to act. 

Plus, Superman’s cameo in the story? Let’s finally get Nic Cage in the Man of Tomorrow’s tights. Years after the death of Burton’s Superman Lives he could finally fulfil his dream of playing the Last Son of Krypton.

The diversity could ostensibly spread to the directorial styles too. As there are a number of stories within the main story, bring in a coterie of individual directors with each one leaving their signature style on their particular tale. 

Get David Fincher in to chart the demise of the eighties Frank Milller incarnation of the Dark Knight – or perhaps get Darren Aronofsky in so he can finally get his hands on the character, years after his Year One adaptation fell through.

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Bring back Burton and allow him (within a much more compressed time period) to complete his trilogy of Batman films; get Nolan involved and let’s give Bale’s Dark Knight the ending he really deserves: that schmaltzy happy ending with Selina Kyle really didn’t sit so well with me at all. You could even bring back Joel Schumacher (yes, I’m going there) to direct West in an ultra-campy curtain call to the ’66 Batman. Finally, the director of the most loathed (Batman) film of all time would be in his element.

Or get in new directors, either way it’s good. Directors without the attachments to former Batman projects might be more open to using visual references from Batman’s comic book history which would add up to equal amounts of Awesome Sauce. Either way, it’d be cool to see all aspects of the Batman represented on screen – and all within one movie? Head. Explodingly. Good.

DC Comics don’t seem to have much of a continuity present in their movie universe anyway at the moment (by which I refer to the one movie, Man Of Steel, that they’ve so far released) and they’ll never, ever catch up to Marvel whose shared universe has ninety-three billion films and counting, so why not do something different? It’d make a ton of money and might just provide the deconstructive sleight of hand to wow audiences and tip the cinematic stakes back in their balance. 

I wonder if Halle Berry would come back to do Catwoman?

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