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28 February 2022

Batman in the age of anxiety

The caped crusader has endured through many varied portrayals, the latest by Robert Pattinson, because he is one of the defining myths of modernity.

By Philip Ball

Batman is back, and more troubled than ever. In Matt Reeves’ much delayed The Batman, Robert Pattinson gives arguably the most flawed and disturbed portrayal of the caped crusader so far: a man struggling to contain his rage at the murder of his parents by hoodlums and confused about his dual identity as vigilante and reclusive rich boy. Off duty, his lank hair and dark eyes make him look like an addict, as lost as any of Gotham’s lonely outcasts.

Although overlong and sometimes turgid, Reeves’ movie understands the central element of the Batman myth. It’s not just that the crime fighter is, in his pointy-eared demonic mask and vaguely kinky body armour, an unnerving champion – we’re not sure that he is on our side at all. We’re a long way from goofy Adam West in ill-fitting grey tights.

Batman endures for the reason that all our modern myths endure: they are vehicles for exploring the anxieties of modernity through tales drawn schematically, even crudely, enough to permit continual reinvention. Every age has its Batman, just as it has its Frankenstein, Dracula and Sherlock Holmes. These archetypes come from genre fiction – from horror, crime, sci-fi, fantasy, mysteries and thrillers – precisely because their frameworks are unencumbered by expectations of characterisation, sophistication or even coherence. The cultural work these stories do would only be inhibited by literary or narrative finesse. Myths need murk and muddle.

Batman was created a decade after Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes solved his last case. The gulf between them speaks to changing perceptions of urban crime in the early 20th century, as well as the US’s increasing grip on popular culture in the golden age of comics. The sleuth of Baker Street would always outsmart the Edwardian gentleman-villain, but he would have been no match for the brutality of the thugs haunting the alleys of New York (for which Gotham was a long-standing nickname). The city was now a primal jungle, a dog-eat-dog world of mobsters and crazies – and, in The Batman, is riddled with corrupt officialdom. “Maybe it’s beyond saving”, Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne wonders.

In the title’s use of the definite article, the new film harks back to the character’s first appearance in May 1939 in issue 27 of Detective Comics – the flagship title of DC Comics, formed in 1937 by the publisher and entrepreneur Harry Donenfeld. Batman was created by the artist Bob Kane (born Robert Kahn) and the writer Bill Finger. Old school friends, Kane and Finger had previously collaborated at DC on pulp stories featuring an adventurer named Clip Carson, and they were looking for another superhero in the vein of Superman, who debuted in DC’s Action Comics the previous year. They gave Batman, however, no superpowers; similar to Walter B Gibson’s popular crime-fighter The Shadow (another playboy in disguise), he relied only on his skills, his wits and a hint of arcane knowledge. The Batman was partly inspired by the swashbuckling, caped heroes Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel, whose exploits depended on disguise. But Kane also drew on horror and mystery tropes, such as the 1930 thriller The Bat Whispers, and Dracula starring Bela Lugosi.

It wasn’t until issue 33 of Detective Comics in November 1939 that readers discovered how Bruce Wayne came by his alias. His quest to avenge crime after the murder of his wealthy parents in a street attack has become familiar to the point of cliché – The Batman decides wisely not to reprise the scene. Growing up in the Bronx, Kane knew all about the city’s mean streets, having been attacked by a gang of thugs when he was 15.

The comic handled the backstory in a single page. One frame after his parents lie dead on the sidewalk, the young Wayne kneels by his bed in candlelight swearing vengeance – but rather than join the police, he decides to fulfil his promise in secret, outside the law and accountable to no one. The adult Wayne trains his body “to physical perfection until he is able to perform amazing athletic feats”. Brooding one evening in his inherited mansion, he decides he needs a disguise. “Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot,” he muses. “So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible… a… a…” At that moment a bat flies in through the window. “And thus is born this weird figure of the dark… this avenger of evil, ‘The Batman’.”

Weird indeed. Kane knew there was something awry in Wayne’s psyche, later telling film-makers that the character should “be played as a psychologically disturbed eccentric”. This sets Batman apart from the blandly noble Superman, who is the all-American male: brawny and decent, yet under that steely skin, a conservative reactionary. Frank Miller, the writer who reinvigorated the flagging Batman brand at DC as the “Dark Knight” in the 1980s, plays on the contrast in The Dark Knight Returns (1986), where Superman, a Reagan-era government lackey, confronts Batman on the orders of the president. “You, with your wild obsession,” he scoffs. Superman is a law-keeper with a touch of the Ubermensch, but Batman is a lone avenger.

To DC, mindful of their young audience, Bruce Wayne looked too unstable: he needed friends. The police commissioner James Gordon was his first ally, and in 1940 Batman acquired his most significant companion: Dick Grayson, an orphaned teenager from a family of trapeze artists, whom Wayne adopts and transforms into Robin the Boy Wonder. Here was a safer figure for the adolescent male readers to identify with. At this time Batman also got his butler Alfred and his arsenal of gadgets in the Batcave. The caped crusaders became patriotic role models. “I think Robin and I make it pretty clear that WE HATE CRIME AND CRIMINALS!” Batman announced in 1940. “Why? Because we’re proud of being AMERICANS – and we know there’s no place in this great country of ours for lawbreakers!”

It’s not hard to spot the impending trouble. “Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realise a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature ‘Batman’ and his young friend ‘Robin’,” wrote the psychologist Fredric Wertham in his 1954 diatribe against the corrupting influence of comic books, Seduction of the Innocent. “They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred… It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”

Taking the then-conventional view that homosexuality was a phase many boys passed through before nuclear-family fatherhood, Wertham worried that the Batman comics, read at a vulnerable age, might lead boys into sexual deviance. The DC writer E Nelson Bridwell rejected this as an “irresponsible slur”, but there was a homoerotic charge around Batman that wouldn’t be banished. The beating Batman metes out to the Joker in The Dark Knight Rises has a disturbing intimacy, the dialogue full of double entendre. “You wanted me. Here I am,” Batman rasps. “You complete me,” the Joker says. “To them you’re just a freak – like me.”

“The homophobic nightmare is very much a part of the Batman/Joker mythos,” said Miller in a 1991 interview. “It’s always been there.” Wertham’s denunciation prompted the US comic industry to draw up a code of conduct that prohibited depictions of “sex perversion” and “sexual abnormalities”. DC’s response, however, was so over-compensatory as to raise suspicion that it was sardonic. The writers gave Batman and Robin love interests, Batwoman and Batgirl – but the caped crusaders’ flustered, ambivalent responses to these romantic overtures look like those of a gay couple desperately trying to sustain a heterosexual facade.

After this, the only way ahead was to embrace the character’s camp side. William Dozier’s iconic Batman TV series, starring West, did just that, capitalising on pop-art culture with its Roy Lichtenstein fight-sound frames (Whack! Kapow!). The series launched in 1966 at the trendy Harlow’s disco in New York with Andy Warhol in attendance; the final episode featured the gay icon Zsa Zsa Gabor as a wicked beautician. The dynamic duo’s camp mode continued on screen. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman featured a Prince soundtrack referencing the iconic theme tune of the Dozier series, and Joel Schumacher’s contribution to the franchise (Batman Forever, 1995) was a blast of primary colours and knowing star turns, Chris O’Donnell’s body armour as Robin accentuating the six-pack, groin bulge and erect nipples of an archetypal gay porn star. (That year O’Donnell was the cover pin-up for the gay magazine Attitude.)

But DC’s comics took a different turn. In their Batman stories of the 1980s, Frank Miller and Alan Moore returned him to his dark, rageful vigilante roots. In this version, Gotham is steeped in corruption – a scenario that would have seemed irredeemably unpatriotic in Kane’s era – and Batman’s response seems to flirt with anarcho-fascism. Riding to battle on horseback in Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, he utters a defiant, Nietzschean cry: “Tonight, I am the law!”

This Batman is post-heroic, an “extremely violent character” in Miller’s blunt description. “Batman works best in a society that’s gone to hell. That’s the only way he’s ever worked.” If he were actually in a position of authority, Miller added, “he would be a tyrant”. To see where that would lead, look no further than Judge Dredd, the brutal enforcer of Mega-City One in the British comic 2000 AD, for whom “I am the law!” is a trademark declaration, its arbitrary justice now state-endorsed. The kinship was affirmed when the two battle together in the 1991 comic collaboration Batman and Judge Dredd: Judgement on Gotham. Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises (2012) was interpreted by some as a reactionary critique of the Occupy movement that protested against corporate-driven social inequality, as the villain, Bane, leads a mob to attack the financiers of Wall Street and promises to return Gotham City to “the people”. Had Batman become a right-wing defender of capitalism? Well, he was hardly a champion of distributive justice, was he? Have you seen that mansion?

There’s no playfulness to be found in these recent retellings. The Batman’s Pattinson, like Bale, exudes textbook toxic masculinity and suppressed rage that erupts in violent beatings of criminals whose incel-like isolation and radicalisation are disturbingly close to Batman’s. The notion that he was ever a role model for the young is, in Miller’s view, absurd: that idea, he scoffed, “castrates every hero or villain who falls under the saw of the censors”. To the cultural historian Andreas Reichstein, Batman continues in the tradition of the Gothic protagonist, from Jekyll and Hyde to Dorian Gray and Doctor Moreau – he is “an American Mr Hyde”, Bruce Wayne’s bestial alter ego. Batman, Reichstein says, “is the American answer to the Victorian fear of losing control”.

An undercurrent barely explored yet in the Batman mythos is race. One can hardly now watch the scenes of mob fury at official indifference and corruption in The Batman or Todd Phillips’ 2019 spin-off Joker without thinking of the Black Lives Matter protests. The Batman ducks the issue with a politely multiracial cast: Gotham has many woes, yet enjoys implausible racial harmony. This should be the myth’s next direction. DC seems to sense as much, having made the latest incarnation of Batman Tim Fox, the son of Wayne’s black business manager Lucius Fox. A black vigilante in a hooded mask working in uneasy alliance with a militarised police force against a Joker rampaging in whiteface – now there’s an image to conjure with. For what are modern myths for, if not precisely this kind of provocation to our anxieties and prejudices? “Maybe every ten years Batman has to go through an evolution to keep up with the times,” Kane once said. These times are ripe for Batman to unsettle us anew.

Philip Ball’s “The Modern Myths: Adventures in the Machinery of the Popular Imagination” is published by Chicago University Press

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This article appears in the 02 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Hero of our Times