Last spring, I encountered a feeling altogether new: There was a Batman movie in theaters, and I had no interest in seeing it. Everything surrounding Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice—the dishwater palette of its marketing material, the resurrection (and re-dispatching) of Thomas and Martha Wayne, the words “directed by Zack Snyder”—heralded a film with all the thrills and the excitement of the small-claims court case implied by its title.
Around the same time, I was reading the ideal antidote to Dawn Of Justice. The Caped Crusade by Glen Weldon is a delightful cultural history of Batman, one that traces the character’s evolution from costumed detective to campy TV phenomenon to brooding street-level crime fighter to the flinty, Christopher Nolan-inspired Dark Knight socking the mommy issues out of the Man Of Steel. Weldon’s book also closely monitors the public perception of these many Batmen, and in that I found a kindred spirit in my exhaustion with the interpretations of the character that persisted after Christian Bale took on the cowl for two good Batman movies and one great one. As he writes near the end of the book:
“The hard-core Batman nerds have gotten what they want at last. The Batman of the comics is a grim loner again, and the culture at large has embraced Nolan’s dark, humorless, and hyperrealistic Batman. In fact, teaser trailers for Zack Snyder’s Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice show us a grim, laconic Dark Knight squarely in the Nolan mode. And today, when the New York Times features coverage about comics in general and Batman in particular, the much-loathed words ‘POW!’ and ‘ZAP!’ feature in headlines rarely.
The world has accepted hard-core fans’ argument. Batman, this children’s character who dresses up in a costume to effect the change he wishes to see in the world via face punching, is serious.”
But there is, as in all stories involving the World’s Greatest Detective, a ray of hope cutting through the darkness. A light hitting the gloom on the gray, if you will: This past weekend saw the premiere of The Lego Batman Movie, a semi-sequel to The Lego Movie that takes that film’s preening, operatically miserablist Caped Crusader minifigure and drops him into his own feature-length adventure. As portrayed with gravel-throated obliviousness by Will Arnett, this version of the character summed up his M.O. in The Lego Movie by musically bludgeoning the stuff of Nolan’s and Snyder’s films. This is a Batman who takes himself seriously but is not, to borrow Weldon’s phrasing, serious. And it’s about damn time.
Because here’s what the overzealous fan worshipping at the altars of The Dark Knight, Batman: Year One, or Arkham Asylum (game series or graphic novel, take your pick) conveniently forgets: Joel Schumacher didn’t make Batman ridiculous by sculpting nipples into the Batsuit. William Dozier didn’t make Batman ridiculous by portraying the Dynamic Duo as a grown Boy Scout and his “Gee whiz” ward in the 1960s TV show. Silver-age editor Jack Schiff didn’t make Batman ridiculous through an emphasis on science-fiction adversaries and plots centered on abrupt wardrobe changes. Batman has always been ridiculous. He dresses like a creature of the night to strike terror into the hearts of criminals, and, as devoted fans of the franchise know, criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot. That lot and the “weird figure of the dark” who torments them occupy a daffy universe of theatrical wardrobes, ostentatious architecture, and “wonderful toys.” To expect this world to always conform to the limitations of our reality, or to reflect only its most sordid characteristics, is its own form of ridiculousness.
It’s in Batman’s best interest that we acknowledge the side of him that just wants to dance—whether it’s the Batusi or “Batdance”—in addition to the side that just wants vengeance for his murdered parents. Even The Dark Knight has some belly laughs, albeit of the morbid sort—remember the pencil trick? As Jesse Hassenger notes in The A.V. Club’s review of The Lego Batman Movie, Batman is a figure of many dualities; the complexities that make him a compelling character similarly make him a powerful cultural force. There is no one “true” Batman. He’s as malleable and mutable as any other pop-culture creation with a similarly long shelf life. But not Mickey Mouse, not Bugs Bunny, nor Superman himself could anchor one of the most philosophical (and unapologetically downbeat) action blockbusters of all time and one of the finest examples of television-as-Pop Art. There’s a richness to the character because enough creative people throughout the ages have refused to treat him as one thing or the other. To deny a humorous take like The Lego Batman Movie is to deny the next reinvention that takes Batman and his world seriously but removes the thudding Snyderian dullness or the tattoo-on-forehead badass posturing of Suicide Squad.
And I know, because I’ve been there. I was the teenager who rolled his eyes when his parents lamented that the sun never seemed to set on Adam West’s Gotham City, yet it was always nighttime in Tim Burton’s. I was the college student whose interest in Batman Begins and old Frank Miller and Alan Moore trade paperbacks led him to forsake his childhood favorite, Batman Forever. I certainly wouldn’t have spewed vitriol at someone for saying The Dark Knight is too grim—but I might’ve cornered them at a party to argue that there wasn’t a TV show that truly understood the franchise until Batman: The Animated Series.
I can’t pinpoint the moment I reopened my heart to Batmen of all tones and executions. But I can say that it enhanced my appreciation of the character and the world he occupies—a place that’s big enough to house stinging critiques of institutional corruption, thoughtful theses on the nature of heroism, The Hand From Nowhere, and that giant penny that’s kept among the memorabilia in the Batcave. It’s all about balance, and dimension, and Batman has picked up plenty in nearly 80 years of existence.
It’s a lot like the paradox that becomes a deadly fixation for Gotham’s Rogues’ Gallery: Could they exist without Batman, and Batman without them? The big-screen Batman of 1989 couldn’t have existed without the small-screen make of 1966. So much of what led to Burton’s first Batman movie was inspired by decisions to move the superhero away from special guest villains and comical booby traps: The gothic tinge of Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil’s ’70s stories; the satirical sadism of The Dark Knight Returns. The pendulum just swings more quickly now: It took less than nine years to get from Christian Bale grunting “Swear to me!” to Will Arnett growling “Darkness. No parents. Continued darkness. The opposite of light.”
The difference, as Weldon writes in The Caped Crusade, is that DC is more willing to be the giant hand swinging that pendulum. When Batman V Superman, Suicide Squad, the Batman ’66-inspired Return Of The Caped Crusaders, and The Lego Batman Movie can all come out within the same 12-month span, it’s a sign of our growing comfort with a Gotham City that can be many different things to many different audiences. Moods will shift, tastes will change, but Batman’s always going to be there. And at this moment in time, the lighthearted Dark Knight is the hero we deserve and the hero we need.