Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A caring, sharing Dark Knight

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.

9 comments:

Ed Sizemore said...

Bob,

I love the Batman Brave and the Bold cartoon too. It everything I love about the Silver Age DC. It's currently the only show on TV I must see and can't wait to see. I'm glad to see I'm not the only adult fan.

Steven said...

Amen!

Strannik said...

I think that it all really comes down to the writing. In a hands of a bad writer, a "dark" Batman can be just as banal as the "light" Batman - he is just banal in a different way. I tend to prefer the "dark" Batman lends himself to complex, thoughtful characterization, where as the "light" Batman is, at best, a little more then a non-powered Superman in a bat-cowl. I do agree that Batman needs to be more compassionate, because if he doesn't care about the people he saves, then much of the complexity is lost. Plus, readers don't have much of a reason to sympathize.

pancake said...

I see Batman: The Animated Series as an extension of the amazing 1989 film, which, like the brief Steve Englehart run upon which it was in part based, managed the rare balancing act of keeping a sense of "realism" to the world and the emotions involved without losing the more fantastic, "comic bookish" elements of the series. (It didn't hurt that Burton and co. also had the example of Richard Donner's Superman to work from.)

It is remarkable that, right after the misery of The Dark Knight, you can watch Batman and Plastic Man fighting Gorilla Grodd on Dinosaur Island. I don't think Warner are aware that this is their current Batman product.

John August wrote several drafts for a Captain Marvel movie, which would have been called Billy Batson and the Power of Shazam. Even in the title, you can see they were trying to sell it like a Harry Potter analogue. I think that had less to do with any script similarity to the Potter series than the fact that they were trying to get Warner (home of the Potter franchise) to understand what the project was supposed to be: a light adventure story that was appropriate for children. Following the success of last summer's Batman, they asked for a "darker" script, then finally killed the project. They've also indicated that the next Superman movie will be "darker" as well, and probably more villain-centric; I doubt anything will stop them from using Doomsday. Everyone who tries to "darken" these properties will inevitably look to the sea of inane, violent sludge that has become the superhero genre in the two decades since Watchmen and DKR.

Marvel Studios, meanwhile, have an Iron Man adapted from Stan Lee and Bob Layton and a Thor from Jack Kirby's Tales of Asgard. So long as there's a leader who understands why these characters became popular to begin with, there's a little hope for this genre in film.

Bob Temuka said...

Don’t worry, Ed. I’m sure there are loads of adults who dig the new cartoon. It’s certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

Strannik: It definitely comes back to the creative team at the helm, although there will never be total agreement on what makes a good writer as opposed to a bad. I know I have a huge amount of affection for the Morrison run on the character, but I also realise it hasn’t been the most popular with many readers. There are certainly interesting and thoughtful things you can do with the gritty Batman, I think I just got burned out on the idea after years of crying in front of memorial cases.

Pancake: I still think the great hidden strength of Tim Burton’s Batman films was the streak of humour the director brought to the table. This black humour balanced out the more outlandish parts of the movies, and even brought some unexpected depth to the films. It was certainly part of the overall darkness Batman was blindly pushing through at the time, but it had a few points of light to guide the way.

I think Warners are certainly aware of the current cartoon, but just don’t care too much. As long as they’ve got something for the kids, it’s all about keeping the character profile high. The fact that aging boy-men such as myself can get a cheap thrill from a fantastic five-minute mini epic starring Batman and Kamandi is a pure bonus.

A dead Captain Marvel script is better than a dark one. There are plenty of characters who are more suitable to those themes, there is no reason to mess with the good Captain. I do have some unrealistically high hopes for the Thor film, as long as there is still plenty of mead drinking and ogre slaying.

The Fortress Keeper said...

Batman became a wise-cracking daredevil early in his existence, and there's no reason why Denny O'Neil and Steve Englehart's more balanced Dark Knight of the '70s can't be the character's default mode.

Heck ... in many ways The B&B animated Batman is the default Batman that appeared in comics and cartoons unitl the '90s.

The Masked Drinker said...

I've always thought that Batman was, at heart, a builder of families. He lost his own and has spent his time since then constructing one, comprised mostly of others in his position. Vengeance is less a reason for his existence as protection and building.

Captain Marvel works in the same way. I think they're more interesting contrasts than the World's Finest team in that way.

Zom said...

Dark Batman certainly does not need to be less interesting than a more well adjusted character, and I find it extremely irritating that people always fall back on that argument.

As an aside, does anyone else find the use of the term "dark" to describe fiction embarassingly juvenile? It's so portentous, so po-faced - like a teenager who's just had a terribly important revelation. Maybe it's just me

Bob Temuka said...

It's not just you, Zom. In comics, using Dark as a description is an easy bit of shorthand to show that good people have turned bad, but there really isn't much excuse for slapping it all over a title.