Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Do I look like I'm joking?

I wish I had written this last week. This is what the misunderstood blogathon was made for. I was thinking about it, reading this defense of Batman Forever - I was thinking, you're defending Batman Forever? - ho hum; I am going to defend Batman and Robin! Now that's some contrarianism, there! But I couldn't really think of a reasonable defense of the film - at least nothing misunderstood: all I've really got is, Uma Thurman is funny as hell! Is that enough?

But there's something in that Sophomore Critic post:
Furthermore, It's important for everyone to realize that since Batman's creation in what I believe was the 1920s, there have been two parallel versions of Batman going on. One is the "dark knight" Batman, the mysterious force of good who no one knows about, and then there's the "camp" batman, who's more family-friendly, and more colorful, put it that way, his costume has blues and purples in it, rather than just plain black.
(There's quite a bit more - some nice comments on the differences between types of Batman, and Robin's place in the scheme.) That's a nice statement of the opposition between the Dark Batman and the Camp Batman - a common theme to commentary on the films, in particular. And I remembered it when the shots of the Heath Ledger as the Joker started turning up - to great enthusiasm in the blogosphere. With a certain level of disdain for Jack's Joker being expressed - these days, the Dark Batman gets a lot more love than the Camp Batman.

But let me point out: Sophomore Critic refers to Batman Returns as one of the Dark Batman stories. He's not the first - the Burton films were originally pushed as heirs to The Dark Knight Returns, not to Adam West. That happened even as they were dominated by their campy villains and black-comedy scripts - the aspects that survived (and were extended) in the Schumacher films. The truth is, Burton's Batmans straddle the two sides of Batman, Dark/Camp. And so do I. Unlike a lot of the Batman fans I've known through the years, I like both: Miller's book is outstanding - some of the other stories in that vein, like Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, might be even better. But the TV show is better still - eye-popping colors and absurd dialogue and goofy plots and villains and West's dead pan - it's up there with the best TV has to offer, not far off the standard set by Get Smart or Police Squad (how did that only last 6 episodes? Lord).

This is what I think (and why this should have been for the misunderstood blogathon): posing the Dark Batman against the Camp Batman is itself a misunderstanding of the power and importance of both. The real opposition should be between the Dark and Camp Batman, on one side, and the straight, "heroic" Batman on the other. The real opposition should be between the ironic forms of Batman and the unironic forms.

Here I speak a bit from faulty memory, but I believe for much of its run, at least early, Batman was a fairly straightforward heroic comic. Batman the character was not a joke - nor was he a twisted weirdo or tormented vigilante. Both tendencies get some play, with the noirish tones making the most impression in the early works, and the silliness becoming excessive later - but mostly, it's pretty straightforward good guys and bad guys.

Both the Camp Batman and the Dark Batman ironize this. The Dark Batman tends to add a twist to the story - instead of a straightforward protector of the innocent, Batman becomes a bit sinister. Driven by vengeance, violent and cruel, solitary and haunted - he becomes fearful, himself, constantly in danger of lsipping over. Or, a variation of this - the world around him is made utterly corrupt, irredeemable - and his place is as one able to master the evil and corruption in himself, and turn it to fighting evil in the world. He becomes something of a necessary outlaw - only outlaws can fight crime effectively, this version goes. He has to be almost a crook himself to fight crime... These kinds of stories make plain their relationship with the "straight" Batman: sometimes by variations on the stories, though, interestingly, often by opposing Batman to Superman - that's Miller's take, for instance. Though he also twists Superman - but the basic idea is of Batman as a dark knight, vs. Superman as the fairly unambiguous conventional hero. Batman as flawed - Superman as superhuman.

Now - the Camp Batman has it easier: those stories get to make fun of the conventions of crime-fighting and superheroes directly. They also make fun of the aura of dread and fear in the Dark Knight stories, and all the supercriminals, the conspiracies, the terrible secrets of those stories. And - at some level, as comedy is wont to do - they undermine the desire for order that underlies the Dark Batman stories. Since - no matter how terrible things are, no matter how chaotic - they suggest there's a reason for the bad things, a unifying force to the pain and suffering in the world. Not just people being dicks, which, when you get down to it, is what comedy argues. This is, of course, one of the reasons comedy (including satire, irony, parody, and other meaner types of comedy) is superior to other art forms. Most of the evil in the world does come down to people being dicks. But even with this opposition to the Dark Knight type stories, there is kinship. The world of Heroic Batman is a world that can make sense - it is possible, through hard work and effort, to make things right. Dark Batman stories say no - the world is corrupt to the core - all you can do is hold the evil at bay for a while (usually at great sacrifice). There is a desire for order, and conspiracy theories and supervillains and the like project an imaginary order on the world - but it is not, really, there. And the Camp Batman stories deny the possibility of order, at least, some transcendent order, something that explains it all. Beyond, maybe, the fact that people are going to be dicks about it.

But getting back to cases: what makes the Tim Burton Batman films so wonderful - is that they do both: they have the horror, the dread, the ugliness, the angst and madness in hero and villain alike - and they are funny: and they make their villains campy, ironic, superior - The Joker and the Penguin both spend a lot of time outside the story - they manipulate the story - they are artists (as the Joker insists) - they are in on the joke. This tendency goes overboard in the Schumacher films - with some of the edge lost. It stays funny - at least Carrey and Thurman are funny, mostly because they are so good (the scripts aren't much) - but they're different. They're in on the joke, but the joke is all there is. Which, if the films were better made, would be more than enough - but it still missed the degree to which the different sides of Batman beling together. It is a dark character - but the darkness works even better when it is tied to the basic absurdity of the whole affair. Burton combined them, and his films remain the standards for the franchise, and I don't see that changing.


sophomorecritic said...

That was very neat to have my post referenced in your post. I would be ever so honored if you would add me to your links of other movie blogs as i don't have a very high readership and i will do the same with yours.

I think you make some good points, and I have learned more about Batman since the 2 years since I wrote that (I wrote that around the time of Batman Begins coming out). If you read my review of Batman Begins, I do agree that it takes away from the franchise as a whole to have such a stark transformation and I actually have since bought Batman Returns on DVD and have rediscovered that film. I would say that Batman doesn't focus on the Joker's darkside so much as it glamourizes Jack Nicholson's star-quality and it's pretty clear cut between hero and villain. Therefore, I'd say that Batman IS the straight Batman and Batman Returns is along the lines of the Dark Knight story. The second installment, (which I now much perfer among the 2 Burton movies for its uncompromising vision) paints a richer portrait of its very curious villain in the Penguin and adds Catwoman as somewhat of a double of a Joker-type hero who becomes evil through some means that aren't within her control. If you fall into a vat of toxic waste or get bit by cats is that really much of a statement about human nature and evil, like the Penguin's case (abandonment by parents) is?

I wanted to speak more about how retrospectively we downgrade Batman Forever because we didn't like Batman and Robin, which I agree took Batman Forever's conventions too far. I also actually really was attracted to Tommy Lee Jones' character, but then again, I was also 11 when the film came out too.

PIPER said...


You make great points about the dark/camp. I think it's a great reflection of the times. In the past, people were okay with this guy just being a superhero. As time went on, people began to question why he was like this. And if he isn't necessarily "super" then he should have some faults and we should see him get hurt. That's why Miller's Dark Knight was so successful. The thought that Batman had a bad ticker was scary/amazing and making him more of a real person is what has made me like Batman Returns so much more than I liked Burton's Batman and the sequel. For some reason, it's hard for me to take campy superheros which is the most idiotic statement I can imagine to say, but it's true. Or at least I haven't seen someone do it the way they should. The closest would have to be Darkman from Raimi. That was campy fun and I loved it.

And that leads to another problem. I don't think we will ever see a full camp superhero movie. And the reason being is that it's too much of a risk. Raimi made Darkman under the radar, but can you imagine a Spiderman or Fantastic 4 or even Batman being that campy? No way. Hollywood would never allow it.

Great thoughtful piece. Sorry I'm so late to it. Thanks for the link.

weepingsam said...

Thanks for the comments (and sorry it's taken me so long to overcome my sloth and procrastination to answer...) Batman is a pretty interesting character - his evolution offers a lot of things to talk about... I have to say - I like the campy Batman - the TV show is far and away the best Batman of any sort out there... and Batman and Robin, bad as it is, is surprisingly redeemable - though that's mostly Uma... I don't know for sure if I like the TV show best because it is campy, or because it just happens to do what it does better than any of the other ones do what they do. I do think the whole dark superhero thing is a little too silly to spend much time with - it's all a bit ridiculous, and works best when it's played for laughs (without giving up the nastiness). Thus Burton's Batman films; thus Takashi Miike's films, and the like. (And the Dark Knight Returns, to some extent - though what really makes that book great is the color yellow. It's a great looking comic book.) Most attempts at portraying a horrifying world like that end up looking simplistic and almost comforting compared to the real world - making evil seem like an outside force to be fought against, rather than the mixture of petty bullying and cowardice with bad actions with admirable intentions it usually turns out to be....

Ed Howard said...

I'd be interested to know what you think of the much-loathed Dark Knight Strikes Again, since in my opinion it perfectly combines the camp and the cynical Batman that you're talking about. Very few people seemed to appreciate that the book is one big sustained joke on the Batman/DC Comics mythos, and perhaps understandably since most of the people reading it were quite invested in that mythos. It's a totally ridiculous comic in so many ways, and yet it also contains some surprising moments of pathos and dark social commentary. By constantly stepping across the line of taste and decency, Miller seems to have created the ultimate camp/dark Batman comic.

Heather Murphy said...

It's important for everyone to realize that since Batman's creation in what I believe was the 1920s, there have been two parallel versions of Batman going on. One is the "dark knight" Batman, the mysterious force of good who no one knows about, and then there's the "camp" batman, who's more family-friendly, and more colorful, put it that way, his costume has blues and purples in it, rather than just plain black.

David@Authentic Batman Costumes said...

Batman forever was actually the last good Batman movie out of that series which rode the coattails of the Keaton/Burton Films... The best was the riddler I think having Carey do it was remarkable... wish he was in the newer ones too.