The Batman that appears in the current Brave and the Bold cartoon is a fantastic character. It is a Batman who can smile and joke, while still maintaining his ultra-competence. He can admit his failings, is willing to mentor the next generation and is always up for a bit of friendly competition with a super rival. He is as smart and resourceful as ever, and still understands the importance of a good right hook while showing a fair amount of genuine compassion.
He’ll be lucky to survive two seasons.
Frank Miller has occasionally pointed out that many of the imitators of his Dark Knight Returns spectacularly failed to see the point, and the grim and gritty wave that followed his work were all looking at the wrong thing. Miller’s Dark Knight is an angry, bitter man, full of regrets at the start of the tale, but the entire point of the story is that he learns to change. He tries to recapture the past by going after a few muggers and street gangs, but he moves on past that. An old man can change his ways, and by the end he has faked his death, risen again and become re-energised and alive, with a whole new plan.
(It’s become a little depressing to see how many readers of All Star Batman and Robin have also failed to see this exact same thing. The character at the start is definitely Batman, but he is certainly flawed. He is a bit too angry, taking things a bit too far, and it is the slow introduction of Robin that changes that. The series is nearly a dozen issues old, and Robin has already made Batman better, on both personal and crimefighting levels.)
But readers of that 1986 work appeared to be too much in love with the part where Batman breaks the mutant gang leader’s back on his operating table made from sewage. For the next two decades, the grim nature of Batman was brought to the forefront of the regular comic. He was literally broken and put back together, and unfortunately turned into a bit of a dick along the way.
There is no denying there are some fine stories that have been told with a teeth-gritting Batman, but there is still plenty of scope for a lighter version. There is nothing wrong with a Batman who is a bit of a psychopath, if it is executed correctly. But there is also nothing wrong with having a Batman who cares.
While the comic version was careening from broken back to plague to earthquake to apocalyptic disaster, the cartoon series created by a few enterprising Warner animators in the early nineties took a lighter path. It was still ultra-noir, but there was tragedy and joy and excitement, and every now and then, Batman could risk cracking a smile.
The Batman who shows up in the movies seems doomed to play second fiddle to the villains, with some fine actors in the batsuit reduced to relying on grimacing, posing and dodgy voices. The rubber never let them free.
It’s unfortunate that Batman and Robin, the lightest of the Batman films was also the dumbest, a considerable achievement in the series, especially when the previous film had Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones trying their best to out shout each other.
It’s even more unfortunate that the relative failure of that film was blamed on this move away from a grim Dark Knight. But while George Clooney offering a cheeky grin might have put some people off, the oppressive neon light scheme and retarded script have to take much of the blame for the turnoff.
The movie franchise was almost killed stone dead until Christopher Nolan had a few bright ideas. His movies certainly have their flaws, but also connected with audiences on a massive scale, to the point where Warner execs are now keen to use their Dark Knight model on their other superhero properties. By this theory, the success wasn’t down to some extraordinary actors and a complex, engaging script, it was because Batman was a bit sad.
But he doesn’t have to be that way. A Batman who is more in touch with his feelings can still be an intriguing character, and after decades of scowling from rooftops, it comes as a true breath of fresh air.
At the climax of the Planetary/Batman crossover by Warren Ellis and John Cassady, something extraordinary happens. After a couple of loving pastiches of Batman’s interesting past, Ellis and Cassady take the Batman idea into the future, and give the reader something new.
Looking like a superhero from five minutes in the future, this Batman is still as hard as granite, but more in touch with his emotions. Justice is served as always, but this Batman is able to offer up truly sensitive solutions to the same old problems. His war on crime never ends, but that doesn’t mean he has to be a dick about it.
It’s a character that might never be seen again, but then again, there is always hope when the portrayal from Adam West and the writing of Bob Haney is back in fashion. The cartoon Brave and The Bold owes a lot to its namesake, and it is nice to see the old stories receiving a lot of love from readers in a new century. The Showcase collections of these bizarre, confusing and joyful stories are finding a new audience, who can handle a Batman who cracks jokes.
The Batman has always been a dark avenger of the night, but there is no need to be miserable about it. There have been many interpretations of the character in the past seven decades and they are all valid. Especially the happy one.