On Batman’s 80th anniversary, a fan’s love letter to the Dark Knight
It feels odd to write a romantic piece about Batman, days after director Zack Snyder launched into a profane tirade about how the Dark Knight is hardly someone we should be looking up to.
Snyder was in extreme defensive mode at a recent screening event when he told fans - some of whom have worshipped Batman for decades - to ‘wake the f**k up’. He was ‘reacting’ to criticism that his take on the Dark Knight in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which depicted him as a mass-murdering psychopath launching scud missiles into consumer SUVs, was simply a reflection of the times we live in, where heroes can ‘embezzle money from corporations’ and ‘lie to America’.
Reaction to his comments was, as expected, quite harsh. He was directly insulting fans, after all, many of whom - including me, by the way - have been on his side for years, supporting his heavy metal interpretation of beloved characters and defending him when he was let go from running the DC Extended Universe of films.
Snyder in his rant falsely claimed that it was only a ‘vocal minority’ of fans who’d criticised BvS. This is simply not true. The theatrical version of the film was thoroughly compromised; it received a terrible 27% score on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes - the negative (293) far outweighing the positive (111) - and a crummy 63% audience score, based on more than 200,000 votes. Not only was it broken critically, almost as if a hulking Bane had come along and smashed its spine in two, it failed to deliver commercially as well. Expected to do Avengers business at the box office - which made $1.5 billion worldwide - BvS couldn’t even crack the $900 million mark.
Filmmaker Kevin Smith, who is perhaps as close to a voice of the fans as there can be - who hosts a podcast called Fatman on Batman, retitled Fatman Beyond - said in his takedown of the film, “I don’t feel like (BvS) had a heart, it was certainly f**king humourless, there was nothing funny going on in that world whatsoever.”
There can be no doubt that fans take Batman seriously, but as someone who has been on the receiving end of fan backlash, I can attest to the fact that no amount of controversy deserves the sort of annihilation that Snyder and co. received after the film. He has, however, put us in a weird spot.
As Batman turns 80, we find ourselves retreating into the past, once again lighting up the Bat-Signal in the hope that memories of a better time would come swooping in to save the day.
Every pop-culture property, broadly speaking, goes through the same evolution. An earnest take is followed by a grittier one, which in turn is followed by self-awareness, only to come full circle and tap into the inherent innocence and optimism of these characters.
We’ve seen this happen on multiple occasions, the most recent being the DCEU, which after experimenting with darkness found success in the vibrant joy of Aquaman. The need of the hour is not for our superheroes to reflect the reality of our world, but for them to be better than it.
A Batman who kills simply isn’t Batman. It is his only code. And as much as he likes to pretend that he operates within various shades of grey, he is as black and white as they come. We might not agree with his morality - he does, after all, use violence as a means to an end - but to him, he is like a samurai with a strict code of ethics that he is physically and psychologically incapable of breaking.
It is the only thing that separates him from the madmen he has dedicated his life to capturing (not killing) and putting them behind bars. It is the only reason why the cycle never stops, even when snapping their necks would put an end to everyone’s misery. Solving problems by pulling guns out and shooting them in the face is an accurate representation of our times, but is it an honourable one? How can we, as a culture, criticise the establishments that encourage this violence, if we ourselves revel in it?
These are the ideas that Paul Dini (who has done more for the character than perhaps even its creator Bob Kane) attempted to unpack in his recent, semi-autobiographical comic book, Dark Night: A True Batman Story. Dini was inspired to write the book following a near-death mugging, which left part of his head shattered. The parallels between Bruce Wayne’s story aside, the attack got Dini wondering: do superheroes even have a place in the real world? “What makes Batman and what makes other superheroes work is the myth that when life is at its lowest, and when you need a hero, a hero swings down and helps you,” Dini told the Hollywood Reporter, holding back tears. “And I didn’t have that.”
Snyder’s Batman didn’t offer that warmth. And as clinical as Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale’s version of the character was, you could at least rely on him to be there.
Funnily enough, the best depictions of the character besides Nolan’s trilogy have spanned the length and breadth of every medium that would have him. Dini himself is the writer of several excellent Batman stories, such as the phenomenal episode of his Batman: The Animated Series (Heart of Ice) - one of the earliest lessons in morality I received as a child - and the video games, Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequel, Arkham City, which is easily the best deconstruction of the Batman-Joker relationship ever written. It ends, as many of you might know, with a love song, sung by the Clown Prince of Crime for his nemesis/life partner.
These stories challenged the idea of what superheroes could be, and more importantly, what supervillains could be. They were hardly conventional, but they retained the soul of their subjects, and showed them without judgment.
The next decade will be crucial for Batman, as a new filmmaker (Matt Reeves) puts his own spin on the character. It is unlikely that the sour taste of BvS will drive fans away. We’ve bounced back from Batman & Robin, and the character we love has taken on worse.