Happy 80th Birthday Batman – Why Do We Still Need You?

First, some context.

I got my PhD from the University of Technology Sydney in 2016. My thesis was 82,000-ish words about American popular culture during the United States government eras of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Batman was the main object of study: I talked about how many Batman stories – along with franchises like Star Trek and the Marvel Cinematic Universe – reflected political, social and cultural tensions that emerged following 9/11, and how these stories broke those tensions down to be digestible for audiences, to give them a space to reason with topics like international invasion, domestic terrorism, state security and civic responsibility.

My PhD, enabling my career as a teaching and research academic, was largely the result of the deep love I have for the Caped Crusader. As a kid, Batman: The Animated Series was almost always on the TV every Saturday morning (provided my younger brother hadn’t woken up early and hijacked it for Saturday Disney). Near the end of high school I blew my casual income on four cinema screenings of The Dark Knight, before using it as a case study for my HSC exams and, later, my Bachelor’s degree Honours thesis. I’ve read innumerable comics featuring Batman, including the main title, spin-offs and crossovers with others like Superman and the Justice League. Two years ago, I was even driven to my wedding in a Michael Keaton-era Batmobile; if you’ve never sped along the freeway in a rocket-boosted Batmobile as fellow drivers look on in shock while avoiding a ten-car pileup, you haven’t lived.

To sum the above, I love Batman as a character, as a symbol of empowerment, and as a lens for critiquing the real world. After Star Trek, he’s my favourite franchise of all time.

As the character turns 80, I’m wondering why we need him anymore.

Though it’s unlikely he will ever truly fade into obscurity, we’re still far removed from the days of Batman’s imperial phase as the dominant superhero, both in the zeitgeist and at the box office. Rather than largely relying on the Big Three of Batman, Superman and Spider-Man for the moviegoing public, superhero films are now replete with more diverse household names, like Black Panther, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel. In comparison to those latter three, Batman’s last two live-action big screen gigs brought underwhelming box office returns and tepid (at best) critical reception, to the point where we’re not even sure who’s playing him right now. The comics, though telling a great story and still selling reliably under the stewardship of ace writer Tom King, lack a bit of the mass appeal that made them a hit back when Batman’s son dying was big news outside the comic’s fandom. Add to that the conclusion of the Arkham video games in 2015, and there are fewer and fewer places where the once-mighty Dark Knight is still visible, let alone virally popular.

Personally, I’d argue that part of the problem is Batman got a bit overexposed. Compare this year to his 75th anniversary in 2014: two years after the end of Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy, with Ben Affleck’s turn in the cowl on the horizon; a year out from the thrilling Arkham Knight video game; halfway through Scott Snyder’s beloved, award-winning comic book run. That’s to say nothing of Batman’s myriad appearances in The LEGO Movie (earning him his own spin-off film in 2017), the Son of Batman animated film and Beware the Batman animated series, the Injustice: Gods Among Us beat-em-up video game released the previous year in 2013, and more ongoing and guest appearances in comic books than is probably healthy for a septuagenarian superhero. Avoiding Batman’s omnipresence in 2014 seemed almost impossible. Today, he’s still here, nice and grim and growly, but maybe not quite as in-your-face about it.

Perhaps we’re a bit tired of that grimness. Without wishing to invoke the 21st Century equivalent of Godwin’s law by namechecking a certain world leader, we know the world is wearying and dark, politically, ecologically, socially. Though we still love our grimdark pop culture in the likes of Game of Thrones, Westworld and The Walking Dead, maybe we’re not as keen on that anymore when it comes to our superhero saviours, meant to elevate us and bring us hope for a bright tomorrow. We don’t want Henry Cavill wearing a murky, de-saturated outfit and brooding over killing his enemies – we want Superman, hanging out with Lois Lane and his superpowered son, all bright colours and over-the-trousers underpants. We’re no longer thrilled by the tense anxiety of the Joker’s victims deliberating on killing each other in The Dark Knight – we’re after Tom Hiddleston’s Loki making sardonic wisecracks while plotting to melodramatically betray everyone in Thor: Ragnarok. Throughout almost every medium in which he’s currently present, Batman hasn’t quite caught up to the rest of us yet.

Of course, we know superheroes never fully go out of style. The most famous cinematic superheroes of the 2010s all endured phases in their decades-long histories that could charitably be described as “wonky”, popularity-wise. Batman himself languished in the years following Adam West’s goofy 1960s TV rendition, weathering an embarrassing reputation as a child-friendly comedic curio until the twin guns of Neal Adams’ 1970s comic book run and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel in the 1980s brought the Bat back to the grim violence and brooding hypermasculinity for which he’s known. The story of Batman the character is one of continuous renewal, changing to suit the evolving tastes of an enormous, global audience.

That highlights one of the things that is fascinating about Batman: his ability to be a palimpsest, a renewable symbol who can reflect each time and place that makes him. True, he’s not a critical lens the same way that literal cultural embodiments like Captain America are (an example whose recent comic books prove that some timely real world critiques really require a much higher degree of nuance to pull off than most), but he’s still representative of his era in almost everything he stars in. He was a dashing, Zorro-inspired detective, delivering justice in Gotham at the dawn of the Second World War; a fun, hip, comedic goof in the anxious age of 1960s America; a hulking, thuggish brute who became the violent protector of a frightened Gotham in the years before and after the towers fell. Each era of Batman’s fictional life has been a kind of metamorphosis, demarcating almost Doctor Who-like separate iterations of the same man across film, television, video game and comic page. Perhaps part of the reason Batman’s lost some favour in 2019 is because he is going through a stage of that metamorphosis, evolving from his Dark Knight self of nihilism and exceptional justice, and into something new. A form we don’t quite know yet.

So to answer my initial question: yes, I believe we still need Batman. Personal sentiment aside – and make no mistake, I love Batman now far more than when I was watching him on Saturday mornings – I think it’ll be fascinating to see who he becomes as we edge in the 2020s, and to see the kind of world the next era of his life will embody. His 80th may not have been the raucous party that the three-quarter century mark was in 2014, but I know my grandparents were partial to quieter, contemplative affairs as they got older, too.

Happy Birthday, Batman. Here’s to what – and who – comes next.

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