More on Batman

A month ago, in discussing The Dark Knight Rises, I wrote that

Batman has become a different character for each generation of readers. In his first incarnation in the ’40s, he was a grim pulp detective. In the ’50s and ’60s he was campy and gadget-happy, culminating in the Adam West TV show and movie. In the ’70s and early ’80s, like most superheroes, he became more boring and socially conscious. And in 1986, he was reinvented by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns…

Today a friend sent me a link to an interesting post about continuity in fictional characters, which addresses the same subject from another angle:

…some of these characters, like King Arthur and Batman, while perhaps loosely defined at the start, have some kernel that either coheres or fails to cohere with additional elements … in part, what determines which elements become canonical is the extent to which they cohere with the central concept of the character, and with the other elements that, perhaps because they cohered so well with the central concept, had become canonical…
In Batman’s case, you begin with the origin story: a young boy sees his parent murdered by a criminal, then moves into a cave and begins dressing as a bat and fighting crime. In short, you have a fairly dark story, beginning as it does with a child witnessing the murder of his mother and father.
I think that’s (in part) why the “light-hearted” Batman didn’t stick very well. It wasn’t cohesive with the character (I also think that comic book fans as a group probably weren’t the sort of readers who appreciated goofball comedy). And I think that that’s why the 1980s reimagining of Batman as even darker, grimmer, etc, stuck so well. If a central element of the character is that he watched his parents die when he was little and he blames this on criminals, and then he spends the next ten years doing nothing but training to fight crime, it’s going to make the most sense for him to be an obsessive, overly focused, somewhat grim individual.
Ultimately, there’s a narrative for these characters, and narratives are ways of editing from the infinite possibilities inherent in what happened. Narrative writers look for stories that hang together. The Batman narrative hangs together better if we edit out the campy version.

I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it’s definitely part of what’s going on here. Frank Miller’s “dark” version of Batman rang true in a way that an equally dark version of Superman (or, say, Yogi Bear) would not. But it’s only part of the story. Miller was re-purposing the character to comment on crime, urban decay and Reagan-era society (and to some degree, indulge his own interest in old noir-style storytelling) in a way that had nothing in particular to do with Batman, and could have been done with any number of other moody superheroes (as in Watchmen, for example).

Also, the campy Batman only “didn’t stick” if you look at it from the perspective of a young contemporary comic book fan. This version of the character arguably achieved a greater cultural significance in its time than any of the other incarnations since. From Wikipedia:

The live action television show was extraordinarily popular, called “the biggest TV phenomenon of the mid-1960s”. At the height of its popularity, it was the only prime-time television show other than Peyton Place to be broadcast twice in one week as part of its regular schedule…

I’d guess that for a narrow majority of the population, the name “Batman” still evokes Adam West before Michael Keaton or Christian Bale, “Catwoman” Julie Newmar or Eartha Kitt, and so on. I was only eight or nine when the first Tim Burton movie came out, but I’m pretty sure that I had already seen the show in syndication, and maybe the Adam West movie too. Would the average nine-year-old today even recognize Michael Keaton after the same twenty-year remove? (Sorry, Michael Keaton. I liked Desperate Measures.) Will the average nine-year-old in twenty years know anything about the Christopher Nolan Batman?

Anyway, I still like the idea of a coherent kernel to fictional characters, even if I might not apply it to Batman in quite the same way. It’s why I haven’t seen the new Sherlock Holmes movies, for example: the trailers’ portrayal of a young, smug, wisecracking action hero just feels so out of sync with the character I know through the books (and Jeremy Brett) that I can’t imagine being convinced by it. Maybe the new “Sherlock” TV series (which I haven’t seen) represents the character being pulled back towards his “essential” qualities. I hope so.