There are all other superheroes, and then there is Batman. Oh sure, Superman was the first iconic caped hero, and remains the most common name thrown around when discussing the pop gods of the 20th century. However, only Batman has taken over pop culture so dramatically so many times. Batmania first kicked off in the 60s when the Adam West TV series was the most popular thing around. Then there was another round of mass Batty obsession in the late 80s and early 90s after Tim Burton’s film and the animated series that followed. Then in the 2000s, Christopher Nolan’s grounded version of the character caused another mass infatuation with the character. That’s ignoring the almost 80 years of monthly comic book stories as well. There’s just something about the wounded orphan boy hiding in a masked vigilante that seems to capture the popular imagination like no other. Every era has their Batman.
When it comes to contemporary big screen Batman-ery, we now have two massive Batman hits in the last year. There’s the Ben Affleck/Zack Snyder’s tortured bore and the far sillier Lego Batman that just made $53 million at the box office over the weekend in a solo picture after stealing The Lego Movie away from a near countless array of pop culture icons. Here’s the thing though, while Warner Brothers is desperately trying to sell us Batfleck as the Batman we want, Lego Batman might be the version that we all need right now. In times so dark that the current US president flies around in helicopters with his name on the side and spits out dismissive one-liners to any authority figure who dares challenge the bizarre brain that lives below a mound of even more bizarre hair, the villains from the 60s Adam West Batman era don’t seem so strange anymore. With the news cycle spitting out one contemporary horror story after another every day, maybe we don’t need our most beloved superhero to be so tortured and brooding. Maybe it’s time that we all embraced a goofy Batman once more.
Now to be clear, this isn’t a decision that I came to lightly. There was a time when I liked my Batman to be as dark as possible. It was in the cynical Bush era when superheroes were just starting to regain popularity, but the world was all twisted n’ topsy-turvy. That’s when I couldn’t have been happier with Chris Nolan’s realist(ish) take on the caped crusader and was digging through as many old graphic novels either written or inspired by Frank Miller as possible. In that time, it was nice to have a Batman who was all brutal and brooding and angry at the world. For a while, it even felt like that was the only acceptable Batman. After all, I was one of those kids trying to figure out how to grow up in a world with unjust wars, a collapsing economy, and no one would date me and wah-wah-wah, I liked my superheroes dark because that meant I was an adult, dammit (well, technically at least).
Then, of course, those Nolan movies peaked right as the Marvel movie revolution kicked off, and political stability stepped in for a wee while. Suddenly, there were grandiose superhero movies everywhere that took their universes seriously while also having fun. Nolan’s Bat-franchise remained the most consistently intellectually satisfying (as well as the series most littered with nerd-friendly references to Bat-lore), but suddenly there were other options that treated superheroes with respect while also offering, you know, fun. Batman had to be deathly serious in an era when the general public needed help taking stories about costumed crime-fighters more seriously. That’s not the case anymore, even though that’s the brand of grim entertainment that Zack Snyder and co. continue to favour.
The thing is that even with the dark core, the Batman world is still damn fun. After all, those Tim Burton adaptations may have been filled with dark shadows and angry loners frustrated with the world, but they were still goofy. Stories about grown men who wear Halloween costumes reflecting their inner selves are inherently a bit silly, and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that. While there was certainly an element of parody to the classic 60s Batman TV series, it was also an accurate reflection of the goofball Batman comics of their era that showcased Bat-mite, and even Batman’s similarly costumed doggie. Contrary to popular belief, that is an accurate reflection of a certain side of Batman’s history. The Adam West series has also become its own popular chapter in the never ending Bat-mythos, earning some big shout-outs in The Lego Batman Movie as well as a delightful animated spin-off featuring the original cast that also hit shelves in the last year (The Return Of The Caped Crusaders).
In an era where superheroes dominate the blockbuster movie landscape so intensely, those characters have become pop art once more. They couldn’t be more mainstream and widely accepted. Can, and should they be used to reflect society? Of course, but that doesn’t mean that writers and filmmakers are required to take them deathly seriously to do so. In fact, by delivering such a pitch-perfect parody of superhero movie pretentions The Lego Batman Movie is weirdly an ideal comic book blockbuster for our era of superhero exhaustion. So once again, there’s Batman at the head of the superhero culture. It’s just in a different form this time. The one we need. Right now we need the silly. We need the escapism. And we need to be reminded that this stuff is all good fun.
So, it’s nice to see Batman being a little more fun again. In fact, The Lego Batman Movie and The Return of The Caped Crusaders came as something as a relief. Batman V. Superman should have been a momentous nerd event, not the divisive blockbuster that it was, and there are many ways to lay blame on that movie’s controversies and failures. The big one just might be that this isn’t the time for Batman to be grim n’ brooding right now. That time will come again. It always does. But at this time, the flagship superhero needs to lighten up and entertain audiences who need the escape before the character can become a symbol of pain and political anguish again. We need a lighter Batman, and so we all got a lighter Batman. That’s how the character works. Ever present and constantly evolving to suit the times that turned on the Bat-Signal.
If Warner Brothers is committed to continuing their live action Bat-franchise, they should take stock in the popularity of their two goofball Bat-hits this year and lighten up the Batfleck flicks. They don’t need to be camp, but they certainly could learn a lesson or two from the 90s Batman Animated Series the nimbly mix n’ matched the psychological torment of the character with the broader cartoony fun of his villains and adventures. No one has ever found that balance on the big screen before (well, aside from the brilliant animated feature Batman: Mask of The Phantasm, which bombed in 1993) and the time feels right. We’ve seen the darkest Batman can get and the lightest he can be over the last twelve months. Now it’s time to find that sweet spot in the middle.