It started with the logo. They didn’t even put the movie’s name on the teaser poster, because everyone already recognized the universal symbol for a decades-old comic-book character. But this oval with a bat silhouette was . . . different. It didn’t look like an ad for a kid’s flick, despite the fact it was a superhero movie. It gave the impression of being ominous, somber, darker. This wasn’t your father’s Batman. And he wasn’t your Saturday-morning Super Friend, either.
Then, the trailer for Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman showed up, featuring an intimidating Michael Keaton in a black-on-black batsuit — Mr. Mom broke bad! — and everything changed. Gone was the guy in a gray unitard who went bam, pow, zap! This was a loner who brooded, pouted, and psychologically snapped. Down these mean Gotham City streets, rendered so fatalistically noirish by Anton Furst’s gamechanging production design, go a man who is not himself mean (kind of), who is neither tarnished (debatable) nor afraid (bingo). He is the hero; he is everything that Batman could not be onscreen before. Exit the Caped Crusader. Enter the Dark Knight.
Yes, ok, so some of it looks a tad cheesy now. (Forget it, Jake, it was the late 1980s.) But long before the MCU was a glimmer in Kevin Feige’s eye, Batman changed superhero movies — everything that’s come since has either been a variation on its tortured superhero wrestling with supervillains and personal demons, or a reaction to it. And with the release of Matt Reeves’ The Batman on March 5th, the latest screen incarnation of the DC character once again doubles down on the darkness. Looking like he’s taking a break from fronting a My Chemical Romance cover band, a smudge-eyed Robert Pattinson gives us another Bruce Wayne in another Gotham City gone to seed, fighting another batch of familiar but slightly revised bad guys. The song remains the same — it’s just more dirge-like than ever.
To paraphrase a certain well-known agent of chaos: Why still so serious? Because that’s the Batman that’s now embedded in the public imagination, a 180-degree turn from four-color scoutmaster of the 1950s comics and the idea of a Batusi-dancing, boob-tube do-gooder of the Sixties. The original Batman was more Chandleresque gumshoe than Adam West’s “Careful, old chum” father figure. But to many, he was still a funnybook character with pointy ears and endless Bat-gadgets, and that meant he was kid’s stuff. The producers of the TV show wanted something that resembled a series of pop-art panels come to life, which is how we got what writer Glen Weldon dubbed “the Camp Crusader.” For years, this was what people outside of regular comic readers thought of when they thought of Batman:
On TV screens, the masked man and his boy-wonder sidekick punched their way through a different, garishly costumed bad guy every week. Or, when he was granted a big-screen outing in 1966 via Batman: The Movie, an all-star quartet of them all at once. On the pages, D.C. embraced and rode the Bat-a-go-go wave of popularity until the show went off the air in 1968, at which point the editors of Batman-related titles began looking back to his roots as the World’s Greatest Detective. Robin went to college. Stories started getting a little more gothic and grittier, the longtime villains a little more unstable and psychotic. Prior to the Caped Crusader becoming a staple of Saturday morning cartoons in the late 1970s, you could see writers and artists taking advantage of a lone man playing both sleuth and vigilante, taking on criminal syndicates and cackling maniacs from dusk til dawn. (If you want to see the shape of things to come, go back and read the Denny O’Neill/Neal Adams run in the early ’70s. It’s still primo superhero pulp.)
Then, in 1986, writer-artist Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns dared to ask: What kind of person dresses up as a bat every night and pummels criminals? The answer: someone who’s undoubtedly psychologically cracked and probably psychotic. Suddenly, the idea that not all superheroes wear capes — but an antihero could — became an intriguing pop-culture ideology. Because Batman’s superpower isn’t the ability to fly, or run fast, or talk to fish. It’s that he has a pathology. He must put on the costume and fight. He’s damaged goods who is trying to use that damage to do good, or something close to it.
Burton’s Batman still positions the superhero a dashing millionaire by day and a crazy-sexy-cool warrior in a mask by night. But it also takes a page, or two, or a dozen from Miller’s idea and introduces the idea that even at the multiplex, he could be both a larger-than-life urban legend and the second coming of Travis Bickle, violent enough for thrill-seeking teens yet complex enough for chin-stroking adults. Throw in years of prefab brand recognition and you had yourself a marketable “edgy” hit. The whole template for neurotic, tortured screen superheroes and their popularity — we love you, Superman, but we’ve chosen darkness — starts here. And whenever Batman began to drift back into camp territory (two words: bat nipples), the franchise took a timeout before hitting a reset button and dragging the character back into the shadows where he belonged.
That, and to stop treating him like a bat-joke once and for all. It’s why Batman Begins, the first of Christopher Nolan’s game-changing trilogy, is closer to a bat-procedural than a superhero movie; Christian Bale doesn’t even put on the mask until an hour in. The Dark Knight (2008), still considered the gold standard for the genre, may be best remembered for Heath Ledger’s unhinged, unnerving take on the Joker, but it’s also a morality tale about the queasy gray area that exists in the phrase “the ends justify the means.” If nothing else, Nolan’s trilogy keeps poking at the notion of how what’s going on outside of the Batcave affects what’s going on inside Bruce Wayne’s head, and vice versa.
But the movies, especially The Dark Knight, also serve to remind you that when it comes to the movies, there’s a Batman for all seasons. Every decade gets the Dark Knight it needs: West’s millionaire-a-go-go and his teen sidekick run around bopping bad guys and keeping the ’66 status quo intact as the American empire engaged in a cold war with Russia, an increasingly hotter war in Asia, and with internal strife at home. (It’s all one big cartoonish adventure where the good guys win, kids! Trust us!) The 1980s Caped Crusader comes at the end of a decade when social inequity and urban paranoia had reached an all-time high, and Rambo and Bernhard Goetz were considered folk heroes. So it’s not a coincidence that the idea of a villain who just wants to see the world burn would resonate several years after the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, or that a superhero would view a surveillance state as a necessity during a prolonged War on Terror.
By the time Bale hangs up the cape in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), the movies have made good on Wayne’s assertion that, “As a man, I’m flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed; but as a symbol… I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.” As a symbol and an intellectual property: Nolan’s movies did more to enshrine Batman as a mythic figure and a perpetual moneymaker at the very moment that superhero movies became the last sure thing in Hollywood. The weariness, the raspy voice, the willingness to cross the line if it gets the job done — they’re characteristics of the obsessive vigilante that we now view as Batman touchstones, period. He is our eternal avatar of bleak-buster escapism, which can be both a feature and a bug. It’s why the “Batfleck” we see in Zack Snyder’s earlier DCEU films feels so stifling; it’s practically a parody of Dark Knight-hood. You can imagine Snyder sitting in a theater and watching Nolan’s movies and declaring, “The dark knight? Yeah, I could totally make him darker.”
No offense to Ben Affleck — leading-man chin or not, he’s far better as a character actor than a Caped Crusader. (And not to worry, Batfleck fans, you’ll supposedly get more of his Batman, as well as Michael Keaton’s version, in the upcoming multiverse-fueled Flash movie. Gotta love Bat-nostalgia.) And even though he’s still technically in circulation, of course we’re getting yet another Batman: The character is too much of a cash cow for producers and too much of a Hamlet-in-a-cowl for actors to let him go gently into the night. But that’s what makes Pattinson’s welcome-to-the-black-parade iteration so potentially interesting. His emo-volatile, beast-mode vibe, fighting a world that’s falling apart, feels like an all-too-apt fit for our on-the-brink moment. (“He’s got an inner kind of rage,” Reeves said when asked what inspired him to go after the Twilight star for the role. “I can feel this desperation.”) Read Pattinson’s pre-release interviews, and you’ll hear the words “weird” and “trauma” come up a lot. “It’s kind of about him trying to find some element of hope, in himself, and not just the city,” he notes. “Normally, Bruce never questions his own ability; he questions the city’s ability to change. But I mean, it’s kind of such an insane thing to do: The only way I can live is to dress up as a bat.”
It may be the newest flavor of grim, but you might have noticed we’re living in grim times — and it’s why we may need a new Batman so he can step into the same shaky, enraged psychological space we’ve all been in for the last half-dozen years. The Keaton and Bale versions are products of their times; if we’re lucky, Pattinson has given us a hero that makes perfect sense for our cracked moment. At his best, the Dark Knight rises to reflect the world happening outside the theaters and your screens. In 2022, this antihero has his work cut out for him.