Tuesday, January 08, 2013


"I'm a detective. If I worship anything - it's logic." 
-Batman: Absolution

One of the most enduring fictional characters created in the last 100 years is Batman.  For some reason the detective behind a bat mask was such an iconic and interesting character that he's reached the levels of global fame and interest as characters such as Sherlock Holmes and Dracula.  Almost everyone around the world recognizes that bat-symbol and knows about the character.
That's fascinating to me because the concept seems so ridiculous on paper but in execution is so effective.  A man puts on a costume that looks like a bat and goes hunting criminals, frightening them with his appearance.  Gotcha.
When the second Batman movie came out in 1989, it created an explosion of interest in the character and revitalized the comic book.  Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, and the rest of the cast created a fascinating version of the story under director Tim Burton.  Some consider Keaton the best screen Batman ever, better than Christian Bale.  The general consensus online seems to be that Bale's suave and clever Bruce Wayne is a better portrayal than Keaton's baffled, absent minded one.
According to a recent podcast, Keaton wanted the third Batman movie to be about the character's origin:
You look at where [Nolan] went, which is exactly what I wanted to do when I was having meetings about the third one. I said you want to see how this guy started. We've got a chance here to fix whatever we kind of maybe went off. This could be brilliant. [They] didn't want to do it, so I didn't want to do it.
Now whether that's hindsight and ego or actual fact, it certainly would have been a better film than Batman Forever with Val Kilmer.  I like Kilmer a lot as an actor but he brought nothing interesting to the role and the movie was slouching heavily off into the 1960's campy version of the concept, which is exactly what people hated.  The reason the Keaton Batman movie did so well is that it took the character and the setting seriously, that it treated the idea as if it was reasonable and mature instead of a goof or childish.  By the time we got Batman and Robin, the writers and director had turned it all into a farce again and people despised it.
The thing is, Batman has really lost his way over the years.  The writing has often been brilliant, the art amazing and some of these movies have truly been wonderful for all their flaws.  Batman Begins was a very good film on all levels, except one: Batman is a detective.
In the comic book series, Batman has gone through a lot of changes and events (but always ends up basically the same), but none more drastic than this one.  Even the crappy 60's series was more about Batman the detective than modern stories are.  During Mark Waid's brilliant run on Justice League, he came up with a way to fit Batman into the cast of immensely powerful characters.
Think about that a moment: The Justice League is a comic made up of the most powerful characters in the DC Universe, with Superman, the Green Lantern (who can do anything he has the willpower and ability to think of), The Flash (who can outrun light and travel through time), Martian Manhunter (about the same as superman, with telepathy and shapeshifting), Wonder Woman (almost as strong as Superman) and so on are all on the team.  Then there's Batman, a dude with a mask and some gadgets.  How do you craft a menace that threatens Superman and doesn't atomize Batman instantly?
Well Waid worked it out by having Batman be the planner, the tactician, the man who always has a plan.  And that's where the character went from then on in the comics.  He became a martial artist who always has a brilliant plan.   And that works, its fascinating and it fits in a certain way; he's so obsessed and nuts that he plans everything out decades in advance, and has a contingency to fit every situation.
The problem is, that's not what the character was about.  He is called "the world's greatest detective."  Batman's original comic book is Detective Comics.  His series for half a century was about being a detective, about solving crime and following clues.  The batcave was more a lab and a research center than an armory.  The Joker was a flamboyant criminal that Batman had to follow clues and examine evidence to catch and stop. One of the nicknames for Batman is "The Detective," which is how Ra's Al Ghul usually refers to him.
And while Batman was always very smart, he wasn't really portrayed as the most brilliant human being that ever walked the earth, he was just really good at being a detective and coming up with gadgets.  He's also become more insane as time has gone on, but that's not much of a stretch.
The problem is, writing detective stories is hard, at least writing a good, interesting one.  Its much easier to write a story about a really rich guy who can beat everyone up and has neat gadgets (the most recent Batman films) or the guy who has plans for every situation.  Being a detective requires a lot of intelligence on the part of the author and is more subtle to portray.
Its not that I dislike the tactician role, it works very well.  Its that I miss the detective, which was Batman's primary claim to fame.  He could figure out the cases the cops couldn't.  They'd put that spotlight up to bring him in for consultation, not to have him go beat the tar out of enemies.
Consider the latest three films: just how much actual detective work does Batman do?  Granted, none of these movies are actually about Batman the character (they're about ideas and examining concepts with the setting of Batman, really), but in none of them does Batman do any real detective work, he simply responds to situations and uses his gadgets to get bad guys the cops can't.
Even the Keaton era Batman films actually involved more detective work than the most recent movies, even if it was awful storytelling.  And to me, that's a bit of a loss.  Because today when people think about Batman, they don't think "brilliant detective" they think "badass with cool technology."  Batman was more Sherlock Holmes than Jason Bourne, but that's not where the writers go these days.  Maybe it wouldn't sell as well, but how can you tell without giving it a try?


Unknown said...

Good Stuff

Anonymous said...

BRILLIANT. Just a brilliant post. I have had the same misgivings about the current portrayal of Batman, but you put the finger on it.

Don't get me wrong--I really enjoyed Nolan's story ideas and his visualization of problems that plague all of us. I think Ledger's Joker personified all our subconscious fears about a madman with no purpose, and Bane as a sort of communist leader.

But I loved Tim Burton's Batman for the very reason you said: it hearkened a lot closer to what Batman really was. He wasn't just a rich playboy with toys. He was an incredibly intelligent man, maybe a genius, who was able to use his money for the greater good, yet he either toed the line or just barely stepped over it with dressing up like a bat to fight crime. And quite frankly, Nicholson's Joker was top notch. Seriously. I liked that particular Joker better just because he was closer to the comics rather than just an insane madman that's completely unpredictable.

Anyway, thanks for such an eloquent post!