NS Profile - Batman

Superheroes aren't heroes any more. They are cases. Their private miseries have eclipsed their acts

Don't tell Fathers 4 Justice, but something has happened to Batman. He's not the guy they thought he was. He is not a daring vigilante with an instinct for fair play and a predilection for grey nylon. According to Batman Begins, the new film of his formative years starring Christian Bale, he is a brutalised boy with a grudge against society: a violent loner with a passion for martial arts who prefers the company of pipistrelles to people. If he were fighting a custody battle for his ward, Dick Grayson - otherwise known as Robin - his attorney would be advising him to call it quits and relinquish the boy to Gotham City social services.

Superheroes aren't heroes any more. They are cases. Their private miseries have eclipsed their acts of derring-do. In the 1950s, Batman, Superman and their colleagues were simple, shadeless line drawings of men who liked to dress like Mexican wrestlers and save people from implausible road-traffic accidents involving school buses and suspension bridges. As time passed, however, new interpreters took these characters and slopped new layers of psychological depth on them like Cuprinol.

The comic-book artist Frank Miller can take much of the blame for this. He is the guy whose extravagantly horrid chiaroscuro work gave the world Sin City, a vicious, noirish place in which the men are all scarred hard cases and the women have never heard of the sports bra. In the 1980s, Miller reinvented Batman as a lonely nightwalker, a dark, twisted figure who was scarcely less mad than the colourful lunatics who were his enemies. Tim Burton's Batman films were sourced from Miller's work; in these, the Caped Crusader was a depressed fetishist with a taste for vengeance. And this trend has continued under Christopher Nolan, whose Batman Begins is a Freudian study that enumerates the disparate environmental factors that turned a moneyed young jailbird named Bruce Wayne into a cowled vigilante. (Witnessing the murder of his parents is the crucial event - nothing that would overtax his analyst.)

The result of all these psychological make-overs is that these bizarre figures now seem the closest that American pop culture has produced to Shakespeare's tragic heroes. The Hulk was a snarling green monster in ripped jeans until Ang Lee and James Schamus turned him into an overreacher whose scientific curiosity is punished by a burst of gamma radiation. The Spider-Man of Sam Raimi's recent films isn't a mild-mannered photojournalist with a sideline in crime-fighting - he is an alienated boy whose loved ones have been killed by a villainous goblin.

I once interviewed Nicholas Hammond, who, as well as starring opposite Julie Andrews as the von Trapp son with the Midwich Cuckoos eyes, played Spider-Man in a short-lived 1970s TV series. He saw the character as an environmental campaigner - "rather like your own Prince Charles". I doubt whether such cheerful little notions were ever discussed at any of Raimi's script conferences.

But there is only so much complexity that a figure as fundamentally absurd as the superhero can accommodate. A man who swings over tall buildings in a branded costume is still a man who swings over tall buildings in a branded costume, regardless of childhood traumas. Hamlet may also have worn tights, but he and Horatio didn't tear around the fjords in a Hamletmobile or hang out in the Hamletcave, scale the walls of Elsinore with a Hamletarang, or communicate with Fortinbras via a bright-red flashing Hamletphone. And I dare say if Claudius's wicked plan had involved turning the water supply of Denmark into strawberry jelly, or drowning his brother in a giant ice-cream cone, the play wouldn't have been revived quite so many times.

The Batman of my childhood was untrustworthy for other reasons. I rarely read his graphic adventures; in the 1970s, imports of American comics were haphazard, and it was impossible to find consecutive issues of anything. You'd buy Batman one week, then wait months for another and be forced to content yourself with Justice League of America, in which Batman teamed up with Wonder Woman and the Green Lantern to prosecute the kind of US foreign policy for which Jimmy Carter had no stomach.

The Batman I knew best was the television one: Adam West, a burly American leading man, straining inside a battleship-grey body stocking and leather bat mask. His body looked as corseted as William Shatner's. Indeed, he shared something of Shatner's peculiar acting style - quivery yet rhetorical, with a fast-slow-fast pace that made him sound like a man at a lectern attempting to prevent his big moment being ruined by an inconvenient orgasm.

I was frustrated by this Batman's inability to react convincingly to the dreadful situations in which he found himself. Whether he was trussed up inside a giant Ming vase enduring Chinese water torture or reeling from the mind-bending love darts of Marsha, Queen of Diamonds, he never seemed madly bothered by any threat he faced. And why would he, when he could simply fumble in his sunflower-yellow utility belt and produce a gadget that would save him in an instant? If Adam West's Batman was captured and tied to a buoy in shark-infested waters, he would just rummage about for a few moments and whip out a handy aerosol can of Shark-Repellent Bat Spray. If he was tied to the track of the Gotham City subway, he would wriggle about until his hand made contact with his compact Bat Laser Gun and, in one bound, he and Robin would be free.

I was too innocent to understand that these easy games of capture and escape could be explained by a slippery cultural concept called camp. Like most nine-year-olds, I preferred sturdy certainty to all that nudge-nudge, wink-wink stuff. I responded to the numerical hierarchies of Top Trumps cards, the muscular certitude of the Trigan Empire. I had never even heard of Susan Sontag. So it was impossible to take Adam West's whoop-de-do Batman seriously, and there seemed to be no way of knowing that was the last thing you were meant to do with him.

Now I'm in my thirties, I have the opposite problem. I am too old to find the new, dark, deep Batmen anything but ridiculous. Batman Begins does not change that. Boys at my school who fancied themselves as ninjas and got into trouble with the police generally ended up in the army or on heroin. They certainly did not fashion themselves elaborate outfits in impressively sheeny black fabric and scoot over the rooftops of Stockport, seeking out wrong-doers. They were more likely to be committing crimes themselves than stopping anyone else breaking the law. But who wants to see a blockbuster movie about a scally who nicks car radios?

And who, now Batman has been so comprehensively reinvented as the screwed-up product of a broken home, would want to dress up as him in order to project the idea of male heroism? Only nine-year-old boys who are half-blind to the murky complexity of what is on the screen before them - or their estranged fathers, perhaps, surveying the unfairness of the world from the top of a motorway bridge or a balcony at Buckingham Palace.

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