Wednesday 12 April 2017

The Enduring Cinematic Legacy of Batman

Since swooping onto the scene in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, Batman (or the Bat-Man as he was originally known) has appeared in countless graphic novels, radio and television serials, animated series and blockbuster movies. 

Aside from possibly Sherlock Holmes, Batman eclipses pretty much any other literary character under the sun for sheer flexibility; across nearly eight decades in our collective cultural zeitgeist, the Caped Crusader has shown himself to display immense aesthetic, tonal, narrative and thematic malleability, from the original black-and-white TV serials starring Robert Lowery right up to the present day iterations such as Christian Bale and Ben Affleck.

Ben Affleck as Batman in
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
More so that other superheroes like Superman, I would argue that it’s Batman who displays the greatest variance with regards to appearance, form and overall approach, all whilst staying true to the core iconography and values that define and underscore the character; even on the most extreme ends of the spectrum, like Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin or the more recent animated Lego Batman voiced by Will Arnett, Batman is still instantly recognisable as Batman. 

Unlike Spider-man (teen high school drama) or Captain America (spirited wartime patriotism), you never really know what you’re going to get with Batman. Compare, for example, Batman is Christopher Nolan’s grounded Dark Knight trilogy to Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s kid-friendly blockhead in The Lego Movie. On one end of the scale you have a punchy, brooding Batman who prowls the streets of a drab, sprawling urban jungle that is not unlike the real-life cities that served as shooting locations (Chicago, New York). On the other hand is a colourful, zippy Batman who is quick-witted, immature and maybe just a little bit sassy when the mood takes him. 

Filmmakers the likes of Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher and Zach Snyder have also had the chance to imprint their own idea of what the Dark Knight should look and sound like. With Burton, Batman became an imposing exaggeration of comic book peculiarity and Expressionist inspired tech; in the hands of Schumacher, Batman was a commercialised action figure garnished in garish neon; presently with Snyder, Batman is a hyper-masculine gym junkie crossed with a mass murderer who hungers for torture and destruction. Arguably, the success at which each of these iterations enjoys in capturing the core values of the character is questionable, but the irrefutable truth is that 

Rocksteady's acclaimed Batman: Arkham Knight
The differences don’t begin and end in the realm of cinema; in just the past few years we’ve seen a multitude of different iterations of Batman in video games (Telltale’s Batman series, Rocksteady’s Arkham series, Traveller’s Tales’ Lego Batman games), kid’s animation (Batman: The Brave and the Bold), more adult-centric animation (Batman: The Killing Joke, Batman: Bad Blood) and even network TV (Gotham). 

Even when Batman is thrust is a totally different era in comic books like Gotham by Gaslight or Batman Beyond, the hallmarks are all there. It’s a never-ending deluge of Batman that covers pretty much every age bracket and taste, all whilst remaining instantly recognisable and understandable.

Even though these various movies, games, TV shows present vastly different interpretations of the same character, they all retain the same core ideas. While Superman is literally an alien and Captain America is enhanced by power super soldier serum, Batman is more than just a man because of the fear he instils in some and the hope he inspires in others; he represents a wide range of emotions, ideas and viewpoints, sometimes seen as a hero, a vigilante, a psychopath and a deranged criminal all in the same moment. 

From left to right: Christian Bale in The Dark Knight, Michael Keaton in Batman, Val Kilmer in Batman ForeverWill Arnett in The Lego Batman Movie

Once he dons the mask, Bruce Wayne transforms from a rich playboy into the literal walking embodiment of myth and mystery. Batman isn't a nickname like Wolverine or Captain America - he is The Batman (or merely 'The Bat'), a larger-than-life creature that stalks the night somewhere between ethereal and reality. He’s the creature that lurks under the bed when we’re young come to life, except he directly all that by combating those who also lurk in the dark and protecting the innocent. 

Unlike Superman who comes from outer space or Spider-man who is lucky enough for a magic spider to nibble his neck, Bruce Wayne doesn't have superpowers. Other than being crazy rich, Batman has endured with readers of all ages across the last 75 years because it's easy to see ourselves in his selfless quest. Through training, discipline and bravery, we too could be like Batman - if only we also had a spare fortune lying around that is. 

No need for a magic ring or lasso; just grim determination and the will to succeed and survive at all costs. Bruce Wayne takes tragedy (the death of his parents) and turns it into his motivation to be something better, stronger and greater. It’s a desire that transcends borders or race; to embrace fear and transform it into your greatest asset, overcoming your own inaction and standing up for something larger than yourself. 

This appeal also stems from the potent iconography woven into the fabric of the character; the cape, cowl and chest logo are just as memorable and recognisable as Sherlock Holmes’ deerstalker or even the McDonalds golden arches, even when the logo itself has also shifted shape and moulded to match its maker with each iteration, from sharp and angular with Nolan to grandiose and gothic with Burton.

If we’ve learnt one thing across the first eight decades of Batman stories, it’s that the more he changes, the more he stays the same. The character that first leapt out of the page in the 30s is scarcely the same as Alan Moore’s depiction in The Dark Knight Returns or any contemporary graphic novel. 

Yet his origin, mission and ultimate end goal remain timeless; even though it’s a fight he may never win, Batman continues to persevere and remain steadfast in his pursuit of justice, even if he wears his underpants on the outside like Adam West or if he underpants are made of plastic like Will Arnett. At odds with his own past and present mental demons, Batman rises above and conquers fear to combat injustice, disseminating universal appeal to audiences by being something (or someone) identifiable and aspirational. 

Despite the ups and downs of storytelling quality or unconnected continuities, Batman remains popular because he remains a hero we can imagine ourselves as, irrespective of that fact that he might be made of Lego or have ridiculous nipples on the outside of his suit. A symbol in both fiction and real-life, his enduring cinematic legacy is one ironclad iconography and of hope and persistence, and those identifiers remain universal, even everything else about the character is subject to change and trends.

The Lego Batman Movie is in cinemas across Australia now. Justice League opens in November.

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