Batman and other cultural stories (1 of 2)

The horrible, horrible shooting at the recent Batman movie made me decide to delay sending this out, since times of tragedy aren’t appropriate for semi-flippant ruminations. In light of our southern cousins’ gun culture (and US Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia’s suggestion that Americans’ right to bear arms might extend all the way up to shoulder-mounted weapons like anti-aircraft missiles) one wonders whether the satirists at The Colbert Report will announce a PR blitz built around the phrase “nuclear weapons don’t kill people, people kill people”…

But back to our subject line.

With the acclaimed completion of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie trilogy, we’ve gone through three live-action incarnations of the franchise in the past forty or so years. As a contemporary mythology deeply imprinted in the modern North American psyche, Batman is an excellent springboard for us post-religious secularists to understand the cultural stories of our spiritual siblings.

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So let’s start by cycling through the incarnations of the caped crusader, whose basic character biography can be summarized as:

1) boy from rich family watches his parents get shot dead,

2) by a low-level gangster

3) and grows up wanting to avenge their deaths

4) so he dresses up like a bat and fights crime, using weapons and gadgets his money gives him access to,

5)  sometimes accompanied by a teenaged sidekick named Robin.

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More after the jump!

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mid-1960’s Batman – for kids

This Batman TV show was a silly, camp serial aimed at kids. Burt Ward Adam West played the lead role, beating out Lyle Waggoner, who would resurface in the superhero TV genre a decade later in the Wonder Woman show (though he obviously didn’t play the title character, there!!).

Art is often influenced by its cultural milieu, as was the Batman show, though that doesn’t mean it qualifies as “Art”!  The mid-1960’s were a time of terrific optimism in the US: the space race was being won, the civil rights movement was making great gains, hippie counter-culture hadn’t yet gone mainstream, and the Vietnam War still looked winnable. A jocular, cartoonish show suited the times.

A few major points of interest include:

1), 2), 3)  no origin story, nor any psychological exploration of what effects this kind of traumatic experience would do to Bruce Wayne’s character.  This was a kid’s show, after all.

4)  Bruce Wayne’s wealth and weapons are left unexplored (kid’s show) but we note that…

5)  Robin the teenaged sidekick, is present. One presumes Robin’s main function was to be a teenaged character that boys could relate to (all the better to sell bat-merchandise, Batman!). Heck, even Captain America had a sidekick, back in the day…

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One distinctive feature of the 1960’s TV show was that it included Robin’s aunt, Harriet. She’d been introduced to the comics to mitigate the snickering about Batman and Robin’s real relationship. (“Holy Freudian-slips, Batman! How could any conservative commentators infer a gay subtext in a duo who (fight crime but also have to) wear masks in public to protect their true identities, because they share a terrible secret that has to be kept from the world?”)

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Late 1980’s Batman – for adults in an optimistic age

Apparently, one fan found the kids’ Batman so sacrilegious that he worked a decade to secure the Batman movie rights, and another decade to bring about Michael Keaton’s Batman of the 1980’s. (For our purposes we’ll just deal with the 1989 movie, here.) This was a darker Batman, aimed at grown-ups — Warner Brothers got a lot of flack from parents who’d brought young kids, expecting a family-friendly motion picture. While not cartoonish, the movie was highly stylized, as you’d expect from director Tim Burton. The social mood was still pretty good in America — Communism was in obvious decline, Reaganomics hadn’t yet hollowed out the middle class, and “Grunge” hadn’t yet arrived: Nirvana’s epoch-changing Smells Like Teen Spirit was a couple years away.

Points of comparison:

1)  yes, Bruce Wayne sees his parents shot dead, but…

2)  their killer is the criminal who, while fighting Batman many years later, will fall into a vat of chemicals and become the Joker.  There’s wonderful symmetry there, and this makes for a great storyline, as hero and villain create each other — but this is non-canonical!  I’m sure many “purists” were irritated that Batman’s origin story had been tinkered with, for dramatic purpose.

3)  yes, Bruce Wayne grew up determined to fight crime…

4)  by dressing as a bat.  Bruce Wayne’s wealth is left largely unexplored, but weapons-wise, we discover he likes collecting armour.

5) Robin the teenaged sidekick, is absent. Apart from the fact that this would necessitate a third origin story, one big problem with Robin is that traditionally, he was the orphaned son of circus trapeze performers who died when their equipment was sabotaged. That might have been plausible in 1940, but by the 1980’s the world had largely moved on from circuses!

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One feature of this incarnation of Batman, is that he acquires a lust interest (action movie heroes rarely have “love” interests, after all). Bruce Wayne is portrayed as a loner and oddball, halfway between the suburban 1960’s version and the recent retelling’s driven, disturbed hero on the fraying edge of mental soundness.

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Early 2000’s Batman – for adults of an embattled era

When Christopher Nolan rebooted the Batman franchise with Batman Begins, a coming-of-age type story of how Bruce Wayne became Batman, he chose a grittier depiction — a welcome change from the shiny computer graphics that dominate most superhero movies these days. He also made longer movies (his Batman trilogy movies come in at about 2-1/2 hours each) which allowed for more complex plots. The social context was a lot bleaker in America when his trilogy was made: stolen elections in 2000 (Florida) and 2004 (Ohio), the dot-com recession, 9/11, and the Iraq War added to the ongoing decline of the middle class. Before the latest Batman trilogy was complete, the US would suffer through Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, a housing bubble, a stock-market collapse precipitated by still-unprosecuted financial crimes, and a savage economic downturn commonly referred to as the Great Recession.

I’ll quickly acknowledge that we should be conscious that it’s possible to overreach, when describing how social context influences art. If Christopher Nolan hadn’t been given the nod, we might have wound up with a happier, campier Batman again — but I doubt it, as it wouldn’t have fit the prevailing public mood. Given the overhang of climate change in our daily lives, it’s also worth noting that pollution-free, clean energy got incidental mentions in both of this year’s big superhero movies, The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers.

Points of comparison:

1)  Christopher Nolan largely adheres to the “correct” Batman origin story, where Bruce Wayne’s parents are gunned down.  However, since his movie was a brooding meditation on fear, the shooting doesn’t come after the movie watches a Zorro movie, but when the family leaves an opera performance early, as the performers’ bat-inspired costumes scared young Bruce.  Wikipedia has a good run-down of the various versions of their deaths, here.

2)  The shooter is a low-level thug, Joe Chill…

3)  but Bruce Wayne’s first plan was to shoot him, when he came up for parole.  (Non-canonical.)

4)  The idea of dressing up as a bat comes later, after he gets martial-arts training from a shadowy group of warriors, but breaks from the group and returns to Gotham City.  Business-wise, we see Bruce strategizing to gain control of Wayne Industries; and reflecting the growing prominence of Halliburton and other contractors in the American military, we learn that Batman’s weapons and gadgets come from defence contracts.

5)  No Robin. Any movie wanting to explore Batman’s psyche (presumably, most movies going forward; he’s an extraordinarily compelling character) would do best to drop the sidekick.

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One notable feature of Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins is that he has an actual love interest in this movie — a childhood friend who ultimately rejects him on account of his Batman persona.  This is again non-canonical, but makes for a more compelling story.

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So, we’ve had three motion-picture retellings of the Batman mythos in the past half-century. Each time, the writers started with roughly the same base material (e.g. the five bullet points near the top, though lists may vary) to build their respective stories for their audience. Because a story’s narrative has primacy over all its component details, they sometimes strayed from the official Batman canon (“took liberties”, as purists might say) to convey their version and vision, for their audience and their era.

Thus endeth part one; part two arriveth soon. :)

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Comments

  • Aaron Fyke  On August 12, 2012 at 10:19 pm

    Adam WEST!! Burt Ward was Robin. Holy huge glaring omission!

    • EclecticLip  On August 12, 2012 at 10:39 pm

      Now corrected. And technically, that was a (shocking) error, not an omission. :)

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