Batman is more than a mere comic book protagonist – he is a pop culture icon. Part of his appeal is his fluidity – throughout the decades, he’s changed and adapted with society and its values. At times, he has even been at odds with those values.
Since his debut in Detective Comics #27, Batman has symbolized many different things to many different people. He’s been seen as a predatory homosexual, a symbol of rugged individualism in Reagan’s America and more recently, the embodiment of humanity’s integrity, our refusal to compromise, in the face of relentless fear-mongering.
Batman was originally influenced by other pulp heroes such as The Phantom, The Shadow and even Sherlock Holmes. The early stories often veered between detective yarns and Gothic tales. With the introduction of Robin, the tone of the comics softened somewhat. Post-WW2, Batman moved from dark vigilante to respectable father-figure. The majority interpreted his relationship with Robin as paternal. Some took a different view on it.
Fredric Wertham’s infamous book Seduction Of The Innocent claimed that Batman and Robin’s relationship was primarily homoerotic and could lead to sexual confusion in young male readers. This, and other criticisms in his book, led to a public panic and the introduction of the Comic Code by the comic book industry.
To counter claims of homoerotic undertones between Batman and Robin, Batwoman and Batgirl were introduced as potential love interests. The tone of the Batman stories also shifted in more frivolous direction, focusing more heavily on sci fi and camp elements than crime ones.
By the 1960s, the sales of Batman books had dropped to the point that DC was considering killing off the character. Julius Schwartz and Carmine Infantino attempted to return Batman to his dark, crime-fighter roots. However, they were foiled by the popularity of the 1966 Batman television show. The show was a bizarre and exhilarating mix of Saturday morning cartoon and camp aesthetics. Since it proved very popular at the time, the Bat titles were forced to mimic it.
Eventually Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams helped restore a darker tone to the comics. But it wasn’t until Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns that Batman once again gained popularity. This darker, grittier portrayal of the character continued in Batman:Year One and The Killing Joke.
Apart from the Joel Schumacher’s films, the Batman of the last few decades has been a dark detective. Many of us grew up with this version and can imagine no other. However, Batman cannot remain static. To do so means risking losing the very fluidity that has allowed him to endure for so long.
Moral ambiguity and vulnerability lay at the heart of the appeal of this modern iteration . Strong parallels were drawn between Batman and victims in seminal works such as The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum.
He was more than a violent man haunted by a tragic past – he was a survivor, a victim who recognized the pain of other victims and tried to elevate it. He walked a fine line between angry sadist and compassionate savior. Or at least he did until the latest cinematic interpretation removed this subtlety.
Zack Snyder is to comic book movies what Baz Luhrmann is to love stories. They both bring a love of spectacle to their respective genres. Like Luhrmann, Snyder portrays characters in broad strokes – they cease to be men and women, instead becoming symbols.
In Snyder’s hands, Batman’s vulnerability is replaced with a tortured psyche so removed from normal that he almost seems alien. There’s a certain bizarre splendor to the scenes in which we get to peek into Batman’s head. But he’s no longer relatable.
Instead, Snyder has firmly placed him in the pantheon of DC demi-gods, more Bat than man. In Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Batman is lord of the underworld brooding over his kingdom of ghosts. He is the damaged Hades to Superman’s golden Apollo.
There is much to admire in the film. The sense of scale, the Olympian fight scenes, the larger than life aspect of the protagonists, even the sheer ambition of the production. But what it lacks is a meaningful examination of Batman’s humanity, the wounded child inside the armor of the Dark Knight.
Snyder’s Batman is not my Batman but that doesn’t invalidate this interpretation of the character. The fact remains that this Batman will resonate with some people. If popular enough, it may even become the definitive version for the next decade or so.
Batman has survived because of the character’s malleability in the hands of various writers, artists and directors. This malleability has also resulted in some poor creative choices and occasional declines in popularity. Whether Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice signals another rebirth for the character or a death-knell remains to be seen.