Reviews of Batman (1940) and related work
- Adaptation: Batman (1966)
- Spin-off: The Dark Knight Returns (1986)
- Adaptation: Batman (1989)
- Sequel: Batman Returns (1992)
- Adaptation: Batman Forever (1995)
- Adaptation: Batman & Robin (1997)
- Adaptation: Batman Begins (2005)
- Spin-off: Lego Batman: The Movie – DC Super Heroes Unite (2013)
- Spin-off: The Lego Movie (2014)
- Parody: “Batmetal” (2014)
- Prequel: Joker (2019)
Read in 2020.
This review refers to the first issue of a 713-issue series (“volume”) that I will not finish.
In his cozy smoking jacket, wealthy dilettante-scientist-body-builder Bruce Wayne outwits the jewel thieves of Metropolis by turning up unexpectedly and punching them.
This is not the 1939 debut of the character, but a consolidated version. The first issue shows some promise as children’s entertainment typical of the time. Campy one-line jokes accompany the fisticuffs, where Batman’s non-lethal tactics are already silly. At one point, the Joker accidentally bumps into a wall, thereby fatally stabbing himself, which seems to fulfill the narrator’s incongruous promise of “swift death” as “the only compromise” in their battle. Of course, it’s all a lie on the narrator’s part. The Joker survives and remains evil, as he would forever. A 1941 retcon relocated the action from Metropolis—which has a Manhattan—to Gotham City. Other basic elements of the story and its style changed drastically over the years, as one generation of artists and child readers after another grew out of it.
From scene to scene, Batman himself is variously represented as a criminal and a champion of the law, like Superman in Action Comics (1938). He has an unseen girlfriend and is tempted by a life of crime with the Cat, later termed Catwoman, whom he allows to escape because he finds her sexy. The comic’s insincere moralism is well represented by the last panel in issue #1, where the name “Robin” is backronymed as “Readiness Obedience Brotherhood Industriousness Nationalism”. Those words would not be out of place on a Hitler Youth poster. They do indeed serve a similar function in an insincere proposal for a real-world community of “Robin’s Regulars” doing good deeds.
References here: Ex Machina (2014).
‣ Batman (1966)
A faithful adaptation as intentional Comic Code camp. To think the franchise recovered!
References here: Star Trek (1966).
‣ The Dark Knight Returns (1986)
Frank Miller (writer-artist).
Killing Soviets, Superman muses:
They’ll kill us if they can, Bruce. Every year they grow smaller. Every year they hate us more. We must not remind them that giants walk the Earth.
This is shortly before a nuclear ICBM detonates in his arms and he gratefully absorbs the stored sunlight of one of Earth’s forests to recover.
The many grids of TV screens give it some of the flavour of the opening to Stand on Zanzibar (1968), but Miller is a lot more opinionated: Very pro-vigilante and not much of a humanist. Some of the caricatures and moral dichotomies are even more cartoonish than Batman’s first appearance; almost every character is pathetic. At the same time, I appreciate Miller’s willingness to extrapolate beyond DC’s normal constraints. Robin’s good, and some of the visual solutions are pretty neat. The last couple of issues are very good, including Robin’s moment of genuine desperation and an off-screen Harlan Ellison cameo.
References here: The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
‣ Batman (1989)
In the 1970s’ urban decay, crime and corruption were perceived to permeate the social fabric of US cities. The resulting cynicism reached children’s culture in the Batman franchise, where competition from Marvel Comics simultaneously invited an ageing audience. The result is a different sort of camp than Adam West’s Batman. It’s less zany and more brooding, but the politics are unchanged.
‣‣ Batman Returns (1992)
References here: Birdman (2014).
‣ Batman Forever (1995)
‣ Batman & Robin (1997)
‣ Batman Begins (2005)
Christopher Nolan (director).
Ra’s al Ghul and Scarecrow.
An admirable attempt at believability but those repeated comments about the car cinch it. As China Miéville commented on Frank Miller’s original in a 2001 interview with Gabriel Chouinard, “the underlying idea is that people are sheep, who need Strong Shepherds.” Batman’s lack of supernatural power is not part of Nolan’s treatment: We see little of the ordinary people he is trying to save, or inspire. We see the man and his car. I like the excision of the camp aesthetic, but I do not like the purposeful naïveté.
References here: Interstellar (2014).
‣‣ The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan (director).
Joker and Two-Face.
Though clearly preferable to pure-fantasy superheroes, the rule-of-cool technology is disappointing, in this case mainly the sonar. It’s used pretty poorly and then thrown away. I like the self-contradictory backstories of the Joker, which is the same trick as “The Wire” (1994); it works well for a franchise built on sand.
‣‣ The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Christopher Nolan (director).
Seen in 2019.
Bane, Catwoman, and a little bit of Robin.
On its face, it’s just stupid. Nobody would ever implement a fusion reactor that can be so easily reconfigured as a portable multi-megaton bomb with a built-in five-month timer accurate to the second. Nobody would ever build the prototype for such a reactor in the densest part of the world’s most prosperous metropolitan area. Doing so, and handing the detonator to a random citizen, has no logical relationship with Bane’s ostensible program of anarchy.
Bane’s program is a ruse and his real motives are apolitical and nonsensical, but even so, the opportunity to explore something like anarchism in pseudo-New-York is wasted and this is an artistic mistake. There is almost no indication of how the city of 12 million gets food for 5 months. There is no sign of economic activity or legislation. There’s just partying with looted wine and a kangaroo court headed by Johnathan Crane, reappearing without reference to the trilogy starter. With the premiere set ten months after Occupy Wall Street began, and years into the contemporary financial crisis that sparked the movement, Nolan had a golden opportunity to do more: To end his trilogy with a democratic counterweight to Batman’s fascism. He blew it, though not completely. Alfred, at least, speaks against the wisdom of superheroes.
Where The Dark Knight Returns (1986) tried new things, The Dark Knight Rises does not. The logic of merchandising prevents Batman from ever “rising” or fixing society. Instead of democracy, we get more and weirder superheroics, including Commissioner Gordon himself executing multiple action set-pieces and the reveal that nice-girl WASP Miranda Tate is actually a supervillain in her own right. This comes with a change in wardrobe, aligning her with the unnamed, unrealistic, implicitly Muslim country where the prison system consists of a hole in the ground and nobody watches the hole. Perhaps that place was inspired by the name of the Black Hole of Calcutta, but they have nothing in common. Tate’s curious side story and the nuclear terrorist plot align the whole trilogy with post-9/11 anti-Arab sentiment, without even the common courtesy of naming countries, real or otherwise.
‣ Lego Batman: The Movie – DC Super Heroes Unite (2013)
Seen in 2017.
Advertisement. A direct-to-video movie version of a video game, preserving the original cutscenes and replacing the playable sequences with more scripted ones. It seems to aim for the low standard of fan-made machinima. The showdown has some mildly interesting design work with a mecha Joker reminiscent of Okawara Kunio’s work, but other than that I see nothing that would make me want to build.
‣‣ The Lego Movie (2014)
Seen in 2019.
Batman is a major character but this is primarily a Lego advertisement that subsumes various media franchises in toy form, including DC supers and Star Wars (1977), based on older commercial arrangements in copyright law. It is not representative of a child’s imagination and it doesn’t try to be.
The main strength of the film is its careful simulation of physical Lego and stop-motion animation: An expensive salute to the “brick film” genre of animation, with carefully polished writing at a punishing pace. I dislike the live-action sequence that breaks this pace. It chops the head right off the smartest part of the writing up to that point, replacing a passable parody of the chosen-one formula with a gratingly sincere story of adult hypocrisy, staleness and selfishness, as stereotypical and lifeless as the earlier object of parody.
‣ “Batmetal” (2014)
Seen in 2021.
Batman as a pouting heavy-metal front man on stage with various Robins and quick references to other media franchises.
‣‣ “Batmetal Returns” (2015)
Seen in 2021.
‣‣ “Batmetal Forever” (2018)
Seen in 2021.
‣ Joker (2019)
Seen in 2020.
A mentally ill clown-for-hire lives with his mother, who is trying to get help from industrialist Thomas Wayne.
Take the dangerous fantasies of the downtrodden worker and the urban decay of Taxi Driver (1976). Add on the fantasies of TV stardom and specifically comedy from The King of Comedy (1982). Cast Robert de Niro to clarify that imitation. Glaze with the epistemology, physicality and vaguely regressive sentiment of Fight Club (1999). Sprinkle with allusions to the political career of Donald Trump as a privileged false saviour. Now, just for the money, position your script as the 1981 back story of a somehow still-current 1940 supervillain, contradicting the original story, making your story one of a thousand retcons, reboots and standalone spin-offs, soon to be retconned in turn.
The craftsmanship of Joker is mostly good. Some of the angles on the DC universe are also good. I like that it doesn’t glorify gadgets or violence. I like that it portrays Thomas Wayne realistically. Though it is not representative, I like the little touch that a parade of black women—four of them—get to represent the real world, including poverty, uncaring tired strangers and caring government workers.
What I don’t like is the ideology. The politics of Batman are still unchanged, which is almost miraculous. For a little while, Arthur is portrayed as being Thomas Wayne’s son from an early affair. Upon seeing his mother’s files, Arthur evidently concludes that Wayne is not his father and that he was instead adopted from an unknown origin. This redeems Wayne. The unstated possibility that Wayne had the paperwork forged is not confirmed by the photo signed “T.W.”. The same possibility is not contradicted by the scene of Penny’s treatment, which includes the adult Arthur and may be 90% fantasy. However, consider that testing for biological parentage already existed. For Wayne to risk so much, hurt his son’s chances in life so profoundly and have a sane Penny lobotomized is less plausible than adoption by an already delusional Penny. Therefore the unresolved ambiguity is ill conceived. Clearly, Wayne is a flawed character and capable of violence, but he is not a supervillain. He merely adopts the Reaganomic slogan that he will “lift” people out of poverty by unspecified means and is the only who can save the city as its mayor. To that extent, his political career is cast in a dubious light, which as I said is realistic and makes the movie better, but he has no opposition. There is no sign of any other candidates for mayor.
The ghetto of Joker is that of Candyman (1992), an unimprovable site of mythology. The garbage collectors are on strike, but in a runtime of two and a half hours, they are never heard. Arthur’s social worker is laid off due to government cutbacks, but there is nobody protesting these cutbacks. There is nobody protesting at all. When Arthur kills some nasty yuppies working for Wayne, and Wayne remarks on this in a way that disparages the public, the result is riots and looting, not goal-oriented, articulate or peaceful protest. Both the newspaper headline and the poster-board slogan is “Kill the rich”, nothing constructive. It is as if a protest for greater economic equality would be so illegitimate that it cannot even be formulated. Wayne’s vision is the only vision in the movie that could possibly be called constructive. The Joker certainly offers no alternative: As he says, he believes in nothing. He also says people get what they deserve when they abandon the weak, but the voice of the author clearly does not agree. There is no sense that murdering the cynical Johnny Carson figure or Wayne himself could possibly solve any problem.
The film has a political message, and it is not nihilism, nor Tyler Durden’s primitivism and self-reliance. There is an ideological winner in this movie. It’s Wayne’s right-wing authoritarian capitalism, in three ways. He wins by walkover, because nothing else is championed. He wins by martyrdom, because he dies with the courage of his convictions. Finally, he wins by the fact that the mob which kills him actually behaves as he himself described it. Conservatism is driven by fear, and especially the fear of other people resorting to violence. Authoritarians imagine that normal people will riot in the absence of China Miéville’s strong shepherds, exactly as they do in Joker. It is similarly implied that, in the final scence, Arthur murders even his psychologist, which is why he’s trailing blood as he runs through the hospital corridor: Precisely the sort of senseless and evil violence on the part of downtrodden people that seems to occupy the right-wing authoritarian mind.
Todd Phillips does seem to feel that some of Arthur’s grievances are legitimate, and he does not overtly glamorize authoritarianism, but he made the movie as if Wayne was the least wrong. This leaves the same stupidly hopeless view of humanity as in Kane’s comics and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Its childish elitism is the chief avenue of continuity between the original and this prequel. That is such a poor decision that it leaves only one interpretation of Phillips’s flirtations with plausible drama. They reduce the stigma of working in the profitable superhero genre. This leaves the movie ultimately hollow, no more than a string of imitations.