Let's get the Bat out of the belfry. He's the superhero (superpowers – cash, gym membership, scary focus) who it's okay to like because he's Dark. The Dark Knight, if you will, and £48 mill on the gross in 2008 says you probably did.
So, what sets him apart from the rest of the spandex crew? He's got realism. He's got issues. He's Grim and Gritty (TM). But how much realism do you want if you're a grown adult reading a comic, or watching a film, about a kid whose rational 20 year mission plan after his parents got killed was to dress up in a Halloween animal costume and punch muggers in the face? Until he stops all crime ever and anyone else ever dying?
Whatever happened to the heroic chap with the cool fireman's pole behind the bookcase and jet booster car I loved as a kid? Running around, grapple-climbing buildings, solving fiendish riddles. Hey, in Celtic, Duncan even means Dark Knight!* This was clearly the hero for me!
|Sixties Adam West Batman - with Robin|
|Frank Miller Dark Knight Returns Batman|
|Tim Burton nineties movie Batman|
|All Star Batman and Robin
George Clooney's late nineties Batman
Noughties Christian Bale Batman
|The Brave and the Bold Batman
Herald of the most recent movie, The Dark Knight Returns turned up in 1986 (around the same time as Alan Moore's deconstructionist Watchmen, also recently movieized), and suddenly "comics weren't just for kids anymore". Frank Miller, now also famous for the ultra-violent chic of Sin City, created a final ending scenario for Batman in which theescalating violence and punk vibe of the 80's brought back the Caped Crusader for one last time. And in true 80's style, he was back - and pissed off.
Miller's hulking brick wall of bat kicked his way through everyone up to and including Superman himself, a heart attack the only thing stopping him from carrying on in his Bat-Tank to stomp Ronnie Reagan for the decider. Then came the day-glo 1990's and onwards. And Batman stayed dark.
The fans were now in control of Arkham Asylum. They wanted their adolescent Emo hero. The slow rumbling backlash from the campy 60's Batman TV show, and the film noir 'back to basics' campaign in Detective Comics had started to push a more serious, grown up hero back into the world. The Dark Knight Returns success nailed the winning formula to the door, and the blockbuster Burton film in '89 nailed it shut in the public consciousness. The people liked this grown up take. Batman could no longer be campy fun. Batman was Serious Business.
Now nearing their 30's and 40's, the new 'collector's market' of comics-reading adults were hoarding all the joy in a nostalgia trip. Batman was caught in a deathtrap far crueler than anything the Riddler or Penguin could think up. Largely free from anything really resembling continuity due to comics' disposable nature, Batman was able to streamline itself through constant reinvention throughout the 50's and 60's. We'd had camp. We'd had moon trips and Zebra Batmen. Batsuits every colour of the rainbow and other dimensional tricksters. Now unable to evolve like any other product of pop-culture, Batman sat in his cave and brooded.
Fans voted Robin out by a phone-in poll, so in the comic, the Joker beat him near death with a tire iron then blew up the building he was lying broken in. Bruce got his spine snapped in two by Bane**, a meat-mountain strangely reminiscent of Miller's Batman himself. A new Batman, complete with robot suit, flamethrower, ponytail and 90's Xtreame to the Max hardcore sensibilities took over for a while, taking no prisoners. The tongue-in-cheek, campy Schumacker films bombed, killing the multimillion dollar film license for years. The recent end result? Miller's All-Star Batman and Robin. This series, along with the inevitable sequel to his Dark Knight Returns, DK2, was hailed as being a return to 'proper' dark Batman. And it split the internet forums in two with it's 'so grim and gritty, it's camp' styling. Batman was almost a parody of himself, swearing, calling Robin 'retarded', grinning as he broke bones and having sex on the job, as it were – in-costume, post fight. Had Miller lost it, unable to write anything except purple prose and overly-manly grimacing? Or was it a knee-jerk reaction to a po-faced stagnant medium?
The Goddamn Batman was a nutjob. Christian Bale's 'Shouty Patrick Batman' may be Edgy, but he's also nigh-unintelligible. Everyone's broken and splintered. All shades of grey. No more heroes anymore. Even when the bright sunny day to Bruce's Dark Knight, the perennial Big Blue Boy Scout Superman returned to the cinema screens, it was with major Christ issues and a super-son outside of marriage. So who are the kids to look up to? More importantly, how are we going to shift all these Dark Knight colouring books?
Luckily, the elastic band only stretches so far. Grant Morrison, taking over from Miller on Batman and Robin decided to ring in the changes with a return to the 1970's hairy chested love god Batman – rested, well-adjusted, jet-setting and looking to be a good dad to his recently rediscovered son, Damien Wayne. George Clooney's 'Happy ER Batman' has had a lot of flack from the fanbase and even Clooney himself has apologized for how he 'helped' sink the previous films. But, hey - it's been a long time, dude. Normal people deal with worse, so can you Bruce. Hey, buy some therapy, you can afford it. Take it out of the Wayne Industries' 'Dangerous Tech Shaped Like Little Bats' manufacturing fund. And if it gets us some better, funner stories – continuty be hanged.
Best of all, DC's new Batman show The Brave and The Bold harks right back to the simpler days of the 1950's with the light blue and grey back on display. All rendered lovingly in a style reminiscent of Dick Sprang, . Even DC's rival competition, 'Make Mine Movies' Marvel is getting back on the right track after it's decidedly stern-faced Civil War*** with the squeefully cute Super Hero Squad TV show and Mini-Marvels comic collections.
So, the handover back to The Kids is in sight, which means glorious Silver Age silliness returns to comics. Fun's back on the menu. So who do I really blame for nearly 25 years of Grumpy Bats? Well, Alfred. That's who.
If the Stately Wayne Manor's loyal butler had done a decent job of raising Lil' Brucie, then maybe Gotham would've had a well-funded, well-trained, focused police force with Commissioner Wayne in charge. Instead of allowing him to fritter his inheritance on ninja trips to the orient, fitting Kray supercomputers into his personal basement spelunking hole and Bat-Pimping his Ride (and pretty much everything else), Mr Pennyworth should have sat him down and given him the riot act. “Don't you come that bladdy Batman with me.” But hey, he chose to spare the Batrod and spoil the Batchild, and now Gotham's got more crazy costumes running around than a Lady Gaga gig. There, I said it. Alfred's an enabler.
“Hang on, Master Bruce. I got a great idea....”
Bat's all folks. Next time – Not Batman.
* Or Brown Warrior, but I don't think any capes'll be stealing that epithet anytime soon.
** He got better though.
*** Captain America and Iron Man squabble over whether superheroes should side with The Man or not. And not Stan the Man either. Who's Side Are You On? Collateral damage, nuked schools, state-sponsored super-murderers and grumpy-faced man-posturing ensues. Buy the Game.