As I mentioned in my Calvin & Hobbes Patreon post, my dad had an enormous collection of Marvel comics and trading cards when I was a kid (although his collection seemed to have stopped in about 1993), most of which I was intrigued by, but save for Spider-Man, who is still my favorite superhero of all time (and whom I could probably do a lengthy leftist analysis of), I just didn’t really connect with a lot of superhero comics very much when I was young, which would eventually lead to my discovery of the indie comics scene later on. But there was one other superhero I was deeply obsessed with as a child, one that I find myself coming back to and analyzing constantly as I get older, who kind of inadvertently forced me to keep up with comics for years to understand what was going on with him, and one who I think has been at the center of some of the most thematically rich storytelling in comic book history. Yes, I’m talking about everybody’s favorite fascist, Batman. (I say fascist, which has become a popular interpretation of the character as of the last thirty or so years, but I will talk about why that characterization has become so popular and my problems with it momentarily.)
On Christmas, Deanna and I decided that we would watch Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, which was, in its own way, a pretty perfect Christmas movie to close out 2020, with its themes of hatred for corporate-bourgeoise robber-barons and all of its goofy black comedy and gleeful perversity. But here’s the thing: after a few years of kind of disconnecting myself from Batman and my love for him— especially in the aftermath of cinematic disasters like Suicide Squad, Batman v. Superman and Justice League— watching a Batman movie again proved to be extremely joyful and even addictive as Deanna and I gladly spent the rest of the holiday break binging a shit-ton of Batman (and some Batman-related) media. I even picked up some used Batman games at Half-Price Books (because the most up-to-date console we have in the house is an Xbox 360, lol) just because I was really enjoying the time I was getting to spend with the character. And, since you all know me well at this point, I’m sure you’ve seen where this is going, so let’s get into some of my Deep Thoughts on Bruce Wayne, the Caped Crusader.
OKAY SO IS BATMAN ACTUALLY A FASCIST?
Good question! The answer obviously varies by who is writing this particular iteration of Bruce. The comics have gone much, much further in portraying him as a violent psychopath with a god complex than any of the movies (although as I’ll bring up eventually, there’s a lot of fascism/fascist-adjacent shit that goes on in the Nolan flicks). The original iteration of the character (adorably called Bat-Man) took much more inspiration from the expressly violent pulp heroes that patrolled Depression-wracked America throughout the comics of the 30s, and he had zero qualms about just snuffing mooks’ lives out with guns (this was obviously before his origin story and, correspondingly, his famous hatred for using guns was introduced). But the idea of someone whose wealth goes beyond conventional capitalism (Bruce is heir-apparent to such a massive fortune that he is essentially an aristocrat, and he has little to no regard for commodifying anything into profit in most versions) using that wealth to dole out violent justice on his own terms, outside of any system, absolutely is, uh, pretty fash— even if he doesn’t kill, he certainly breaks a lot of bones and fucks people up on a mental level.
The standard argument that Bruce should pump much of his wealth back into the systemic issues that plague Gotham has actually been addressed in a wide variety of comics (most confusedly in the Batman, Inc. series, which offers both critique and justification for, uh, gentrification) but the nature of comic books and their storytelling dictates that the sickness of Gotham City goes beyond what money can and cannot fix. There is also the fact that Wayne Enterprises and Bruce himself are often portrayed as the least bad of the corporations that rule Gotham, which smacks pretty hard of lesser-evilism. The most charitable interpretation of Bruce’s politics is probably that he tries really hard to improve material conditions for the beleaguered population of Gotham City but that he is too addicted to the nighttime violence of Batman to truly give up all his wealth in the process of putting the means of production in the hands of Wayne Enterprises employees, and his friendship with Commissioner Gordon makes him far too forgiving of the militarization of the police (despite the fact that it’s pointed out, over and over, how corrupt the Gotham City Police Department is).
THE FRANK MILLER PROBLEM
I’m not one of those cognitively-dissonant losers who demands that fiction conform to my ideas of what a perfect world or superhero should look like. In my opinion, it’s totally okay to enjoy Batman for who and what he is without wanting his stories to become some sort of reflection of what a justice system would look like in a Marxist society. Superhero stories just… aren’t for that purpose. However, there are some mitigating factors to keep in mind if the whole Batman concept offends you on a moral level like some sort of baby— for instance, the fact that Batman seems to truly believe in the capacity for rehabilitation. People who parrot the hoary old “Why doesn’t he just kill the Joker?” line are missing a huge part of the character.
For instance, even in the belly of one of the most violent stories during the Dark Age of Comics, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, even after knowing the lengths that Joker has gone to in order to torture and humiliate Barbara and Jim Gordon, the comic ends with Batman genuinely pleading for the Joker to try and get help. Even most leftists would probably be fine with Batman just fucking murdering Joker here— especially considering that he not only paralyzed Barbara but sexually humiliated her for the purposes of driving her father insane— but Batman has never thought of even the fucking Joker as beyond redemption.
But Alan Moore was not the only person who sculpted an image of Batman during the Dark Age of Comics. If you’re interested in comics at all, you’re probably aware of Frank Miller, the guy behind Sin City (garbage), Daredevil: Born Again (a masterpiece), and, most crucially for what we’re discussing here, The Dark Knight Returns. The Dark Knight Returns came out in 1986 and is generally agreed to be the beginning of the Dark Age of Comics, which completely rejected the black-and-white morality of the Comics Code-ruled Silver Age and pushed even past the psychological complexities of the Bronze Age (the era which heralded the death of Gwen Stacy) to present a vision of comics as a medium through which to convey truly fucked-up stories about fucked-up people in the context of, yknow, superheroes. It also popularized the idea of Batman as a violent obsessive who visits impossibly gory punishments upon criminals because he likes it. I mean, the story itself is much deeper than that and I encourage you to read it yourself because making Ronald Reagan the mastermind villain of a Batman story fucking rules, and the conclusion of the comic is basically that a better future is possible and that Batman-as-fascist is a bad thing, but the aesthetic was immensely influential on an entire generation of comic book writers and artists who missed much of the actual underlying irony of the original story and lacked the emotional intelligence to expand upon it (see also: Watchmen). It certainly doesn’t help that Frank Miller has spent the last several decades essentially losing his mind and post-9/11 becoming a bigoted quasi-fascist himself and losing the plot of his own previous work (see works of his like Holy Terror, which is deeply racist), culminating in All-Star Batman & Robin, which features the immortal line “What are you, dense? Are you retarded or something? Who the hell do you think I am? I’m the goddamn Batman!” (Contrast this with Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s concurrent run on All-Star Superman, issue #10 of which shows Superman talking down someone attempting suicide in what is perhaps the best writing of a Superman story ever.)
I mean, the late 80s and early 90s saw plenty of extremely influential Batman stories with an unremittingly dark tone, such as Grant Morrison’s symbolism-as-means-to-a-mindfucky-end Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On A Serious Earth, the Knightfall storyline, Death In the Family, and so on, but seemingly none have influenced the way that Batman is thought of in pop culture as much as The Dark Knight Returns. Even when Morrison took over writing duties for Batman and decided that all the goofy pre-Crisis On Infinite Earths stuff like Bat-Mite and Ace the Bat-Hound was canon, people (read: Zack Snyder) can’t seem to get enough of the grimdark, hyperviolent Batman. It’s just not fun. And superhero comics should be fun.
But I know not all my readers are, yknow, comic book people. I could go on and on listing my favorite Batman stories (The Long Halloween, Death of the Family, Hush— all of which are dark as fuck and still avoid the Milleresque interpretation of the character and, in The Long Halloween’s case, truly lean into the “World’s Greatest Detective” angle of the character) but let’s dig into some of the Batman media that I have spent the last week or so completely immersing myself in.
In my opinion, the reason that the darker interpretations of Batman can be so cool is because the lighter interpretations of the character are so markedly ridiculous that the contrast is both comical and provides desperately-needed fleshing out and duality of who Batman is and what he represents. We’re sorely lacking in Silver Age absurdity these days (Batman: The Brave & the Bold has been off the air for… quite a while) which is why this movie felt so compelling and fun. I mean, it’s kinda bad, obviously, but very self-consciously so in that mid-60s way. Everyone harps on the Bat-Shark-Repellent but the funniest shit in the world to me is Adam West, almost deadpan, deducing the answers to clues from the Riddler in an almost Monty Python-esque surreal stream-of-consciousness sort of way. In the show, his riddles were more like puns that were funny specifically because of how complex the set-ups were, but like, look at this:
Robin : [pointing toward the sky] That crazy missile! It wrote two more riddles before it blew up!
Batman : [reading a skywritten message] "What goes up white and comes down yellow and white?"
Robin : An egg!
Batman : [reading another skywritten message] "How do you divide seventeen apples among sixteen people?"
Robin : Make applesauce!
Batman : [thinking out loud] Apples into applesauce - A unification into one smooth mixture. An egg - nature's perfect container. The container of all our hopes for the future.
Robin : A unification and a container of hope? United World Organization!
Batman : Precisely, Robin! And there's a special meeting of the Security Council today. If what I fear is true...
Robin : Wow! Let's commandeer a taxi!
Batman : No, Robin. Not at this time of day. Luckily, we're in tip-top condition. It'll be faster if we run. Let's go!
And compare it to the word-association-game scene in Wet Hot American Summer (“Human League… League of Nations”). It’s comedy-as-art, in my opinion.
THE BURTON MOVIES
Tim Burton’s adaptations of Batman are notable for several reasons, not least because Michael Keaton is near-peerlessly the best live-action Batman and Bruce Wayne there’s ever been (casting Keaton was famously a controversial decision at the time, but reading the script and seeing how much of Bruce’s dry humor Keaton had to deliver, I think it was an exceedingly natural fit). Of the two movies, I think Batman Returns is superior to the 1989 flick, even if it’s even less faithful to the source material— it’s one of Burton’s least-compromised artistic visions in a time before he crawled all the way up his own ass, Danny DeVito’s Penguin, Christopher Walken’s Max Schreck, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman are all operating at the absolute peak of their capabilites, and it was written by Daniel Waters, who also wrote movies like Heathers and Hudson Hawk, and saw both the opportunities for absurd satire and black comedy in the Batman mythos, allowing the movie to function as self-commentary and ruthless critique. I think Batman, Penguin, and Schreck all function as different types of masculinity for Catwoman to bounce against, and the result is much richer and more incisive than it’s often given credit for. Plus, in the 1989 movie, they made some pretty stupid decisions regarding the Joker— giving him a pre-existing identity and then making him the murderer of Batman’s parents as opposed to Joe Chill, for example— and although Jack Nicholson gives a bravura performance, I can’t shake the feeling that he’s not the Joker, he’s just, yknow, Jack Nicholson. Also they make Batman use guns, which is always a huge no-no in my book. Still, they’re great movies, much better than they had any right to be, considering their place within the history of superhero movies (smack in between the decline of the Superman movies and the era in which Captain America and Fantastic Four would receive some of the worst adaptations of all time).
THE ANIMATED SERIES AND MASK OF THE PHANTASM
It is pretty useless for me to say anything about these, right? Everyone knows they fucking rule and that Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are the best actors to every portray Batman and the Joker? We all know how many excellent, long-lasting contributions this show made to the Batman mythos, including Mr. Freeze’s backstory and Harley Quinn? And everyone is familiar with their startling maturity and the seamless way they bounce between tragedy, action, and a muted-yet-droll comedic sensibility, all of which add up to one of the most complex and impressive portrayals of the Dark Knight ever? Okay, cool, good. If you’ve (somehow) never dived in here, Mask of the Phantasm is the best theatrically-released Batman movie ever, so obviously start with that, and some good episodes to check out of the show include “Heart of Ice,” “Baby Doll,” “Trial,” “Mad Love,” “Over the Edge,” and “Almost Got ‘Im” (although all of these benefit from a familiarity with the characters so really you should just go watch the whole damn thing. Honestly, the Batman content alone is enough to justify an HBOMAX subscription, in my opinion).
THE SCHUMACHER FILMS
These movies get an extremely unfair rap, in my personal opinion. I genuinely loved them as a kid and going back to them after decades of horrible “gritty” Batman takes I’ve gotta say, I’d rather watch them than a lot of the homogenous Marvel movies, let alone the bullshit DCEU flicks. Jim Carrey fucking rules as the Riddler in Batman Forever— he understands the explicit comic book vibe Schumacher was going for implicitly— and while both movies are gay to the gills, I think Poison Ivy’s drag-derived aesthetic adds a lot to the camp entertainment value of Batman & Robin (although I also love Arnold Schwarzenegger conducting his freezing-cold goons’ sing-alongs). Honestly, where these movies really stumble into mixed-bag territory are the moments where they take themselves seriously— Val Kilmer’s dead-fish performance renders his psychological-background story in Batman Forever completely toothless, and there are approximately zero people who wanted to see Alfred dying of a terminal illness. These movies are not great, but they’re fun, and just as much distinct artistic visions as Burton’s and Nolan’s takes.
Again, this is on HBOMAX, so if you have that service, go watch it immediately. This show has something of a cult following but deserves a lot more— the pilot episodes are remarkably moody and psychologically complex (the opening scene where an aging Bruce Wayne is forced to threaten a goon with a gun and as a result is so disgusted with himself that he hangs up the cape forever is incredible) but part of why I love this show so much is that it combines the Batman aesthetic with the idea behind Spider-Man, vis-a-vis a witty, angry teenager struggling to balance crimefighting with school and a home life. But the real ace in Batman Beyond’s hole is the direct-to-video movie, Return of the Joker. It was originally released under a PG edit, but thankfully the uncut, PG-13 version is the more widely available release now, and it’s absolutely incredible. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the flashback sequence that shows Batman’s final confrontation with the Joker is truly, honest to goodness, one of the best things that the Animated Series team ever did, and if it had been fleshed out into a full movie, would probably overtake Mask of the Phantasm as the best Batman flick, but it also gets points for younger Batman Terry McGinnis turning the Joker’s taunts right back at him in the climax in an absolutely fantastic scene— again, in a very Spider-Man way, without sacrificing the Batman-ness of the whole endeavor, if that makes sense.
THE NOLAN MOVIES
On a purely aesthetic level, Batman Begins and especially The Dark Knight are very good, tense, compelling movies, but the ideological underpinnings and the fundamental ways they interpret Batman as a character really come to a head in The Dark Knight Rises, an overlong, muddled mess of a movie that is honestly one of the worst ones I watched during this journey. Although TDKR very vaguely insinuates that it was a bad move, you can’t escape the fact that at the end of The Dark Knight— in one of its most glaring writing missteps— Jim Gordon rewrites history in order to preserve Harvey Dent’s iconography, and using what he represents to justify the increased militarization and power of a police force that, again, has been shown to already be stacked to the gills with corruption. That is actual fascism. That is doing a fascism. Add to this these films’ bizarre streak of neocon hawkishness— everything from arguably justifying the Patriot Act to the popular interpretation of TDKR as an anti-Occupy statement— and you have a pretty ugly picture, especially since Gotham in these movies is seemingly specifically meant to evoke Chicago. Still, you know, I really love the first two on a purely cinematic level. TDKR suffers from a truly horrible depiction of Bane in addition to its reactionary messaging, but the ending is particularly confused and silly. No spoilers if you haven’t seen it, but— it’s just really not who Batman is.
THE ARKHAM GAMES
Full disclosure— I have only played Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, so I feel like I’m missing part of the story. That being said, these are two of the best games I have ever played in my life. I mean, yeah, you really do feel like Batman, especially during the stealth-predator sections and in the glide-and-grapple traversal that City revels in, not to mention the absolutely wonderful free-flowing and rhythmic combat system, but also because these games seem to really understand who the characters are and make time to explore them as much as possible. Asylum’s glitchy fuckery whenever the Scarecrow shows up and the extremely long, unbearably intense escape from Killer Croc’s lair are maybe the best depictions of those characters anywhere, while City does the impossible and crafts an arc for the Joker that feels human and, in a weird way, almost touching. The two games have their differences— the Detective Mode in Asylum is so useful that it forces you to miss a lot of the game design, but looks a lot uglier and unpleasant in City; Asylum is much more tightly-plotted than the sandboxy City but in the process doesn’t allow for as much depth and exploration— but they are both towering achievements especially in the world of licensed games. Also, fuck the bros— playing as Catwoman is insanely fun and in my opinion her combat is even smoother and more effective than Batman’s (and certainly more fast and fluid than the awkward approach that Robin’s combat takes).
THE DCEU FILMS
Much like The Animated Series, I’m sure you don’t need me to talk much about these. They are bad. Like, laughably bad. Suicide Squad is famously a two-hour trailer, Batman v. Superman gains nothing in the three-hour Snyder cut besides becoming an even more sluggish and painful slog, and Justice League is just… horrible. My buddy Josh made me watch it with him in theaters and I was high out of my mind on painkillers and it was still so bad that he felt the need to apologize to me after. On the positive side, though, I actually liked Joker. I mean, yes, as everyone has pointed out it’s almost embarrassing how much it cribs from The King of Comedy, and at the end of the day, I think it could have been about a character completely unrelated to the Batman mythos, but as a desperate cry for class-consciousness and compassion (it is basically Healthcare Pls: The Movie) I think everyone involved could have done a lot worse, especially Joaquin Phoenix who, yes, rivals Heath Ledger as far as live-action Jokers go, especially in the film’s final act when he just full-on loses his mind. (His knock-knock joke is genuinely really fucking funny.) I also was surprised at how much I genuinely liked Birds of Prey— Margot Robbie taking full control of Harley Quinn allowed for an effortlessly fun and subtly inventive approach to an antihero movie that reminds me of how brutally the Deadpool movies subverted and satirized superhero flicks while still maintaining their own identity. Plus Ewan McGregor is clearly having an absolute blast, which is a joy to see. Two out of five ain’t terrible.
THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE
I can’t think of a more perfect way to cap off this Batman journey than with The LEGO Batman Movie, which is almost as good as the first LEGO Movie (which is high praise coming from a Clone High fan as dedicated as I am). It’s a postmodern jab and earnest celebration of everything Batman all at once, packed with near-psychedelic animated creativity and rapid-fire jokes of every possible variety. Does it have substance? Surprisingly, amid all the self-aware goofs, yes— this movie does have a compelling emotional arc and a big heart in the center of it. I genuinely forgot that I was basically watching an ad the whole time, which is the highest possible compliment I could pay to a movie as blatantly commercial as this. It’s a labor of love and the genuine appreciation and respect for Batman runs deep no matter how much clowning it does. Plus Michael Cera as Robin is just absolutely inspired casting.
What else can I say? I really, really love Batman.
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