September 3rd, 2012 / 8:01 am
Craft Notes & Film

We Need to Talk About Batman

I want to argue that the conceit of Batman having a secret identity no longer works.

It once did, back in the 1930s and ’40s, when Batman was essentially a badass moonlighting in tights, socking hoodlums and thugs in their jaws. At that time, the extent of the audience’s suspension of disbelief was that the fellow wouldn’t get shot.

How simple, compared to today. The Batman of 2012 is a one-man paramilitary force capable of investing hundreds of millions of dollars into being the Caped Crusader—a one-man Blackwater USA! Frank Miller was right: there’s no way that the U.S. government would permit this guy to exist:

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, page 84 (detail)

One of fantasy’s enticements is that it can be different from our reality. Superman can just take off and fly; his power doesn’t have to be explained by out physical laws. (Indeed, it can’t be!) And the more folks try to realistically account for how Bruce Wayne does his Batman thing—and pulls it off without anyone figuring it out—the sillier it gets.

After we finished watching The Dark Knight Rises (which I reviewed last week), my companions and I went home and watched Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. And people can heap all the shit they want on that film, but one way it totally works is that, at the end of the day, it doesn’t strain plausibility the way Nolan’s Dark Knight movies do. (Of course, it manages this by having no plausibility, being camp through and through.)

One of my favorite Batman adaptations is the late 1960s television series (and pursuant movie), mainly because it’s consistent, terrific fun. You don’t have to spend any time whatsoever wondering how Bruce Wayne gets away with being Batman. Indeed, in my reading, the show had nothing at all to do with the comics’ “I must become a symbol to strike fear in the hearts of criminals” orthodoxy. Rather, Adam West’s Bruce Wayne was just a bored millionaire who dressed up as Batman for kicks. And the supervillains he squared off against—Bam!, Pow!—the Riddler, the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, King Tut, Mr. Freeze—were Gotham City’s other millionaires. Once a week, they’d knock one another around, then meet up somewhere for drinks. It was their fetish-dress version of a social club. (Better put, it was their version of the Hellfire Club.)

But today, we don’t seem to love fun as much as they did in the 1960s. Instead, we love our current, paramilitary Batman.

The love of that Batman is at least partially a love of gadgets and weaponry. We attend these new movies to gape at the Dark Knight’s awesome toys. Appropriately, each installment features some bitchin’ new vehicle:

Batman Begins—The Tumbler!

The Dark Knight—The Batpod!

And now! The Dark Knight Rises brings you—The Bat!

Overlooked in Nolan’s trilogy is the fact that Bruce Wayne has, out of plausible necessity—become an arms dealer. We’re told offhandedly throughout these movies that Wayne Enterprises does contract work for the military (hence Lucius Fox’s Division of Ingenious Delights). Nolan tries to soften this somewhat—going out of his way, for instance, in Batman Begins, to establish that Bruce Wayne’s dad built hospitals and monorails. Later, in The Dark Knight Rises, Fox states that it was only after Thomas Wayne’s death that “Wayne Enterprises set up fourteen different defense subsidiaries”:

Fox: “For years I’ve been shuttering and consolidating all the different prototypes under one roof. My roof.”
Bruce Wayne: “Why?”
Fox: “To keep them from falling into the wrong hands.”

Bruce Wayne continues this line of thought, after his fortune gets wiped out:

Fox [handing Bruce a newspaper]: “Page three. Seems you made a series of large put options on the futures exchange, verified by thumbprint. Those options expired at midnight last night. Long term, we may be able to prove fraud, but for now, you’re completely broke. And Wayne Enterprises is about to fall into the hands of John Daggett.”
Bruce Wayne: “The weapons. We can’t let Daggett get his hands on Applied Sciences.”
Fox: “No. Applied Sciences is all locked up and off the books.”

Both of these exchanges clearly foreshadow a plot turn later in the film, when the weapons fall (quite literally!) into the hands of the supervillain Bane. But notice that Fox tells Bruce Wayne that the Bat was a “Defense Department project” intended for “tight-geometry urban pacification.”

I know that this Bat is supposed to wow me, but, truthfully, it horrifies me. Because what the hell is that—”tight-geometry urban pacification”? And what third world country is that intended for? Or might the thing have domestic applications? … Might I suggest that the Defense Department is already wrong enough hands? And might I also suggest that street criminals, terrorists, and deranged everyday citizens can get their hands on terrible weapons largely because the United States loves to flood the world with cheap arms? (Or am I overstepping my bounds?)

It’s a fucked-up guy who, in response to his parents having been gunned down by a crook, then uses their fortune to build bigger guns. (He may not personally use them, but he does build them, along with many other weapons for the DOD.)

Mr. Nolan, despite his supposed interest in realism, has nothing to say about this contradiction; note, too that, in his films, the US military stands as nothing but a force for good. (The worst crime in Rises is to not trust Joseph Gordon-Levitt when he wants to ferry orphans across a bridge.) These Bat-movies are as patriotic as Michael Bay films.

Nolan’s not alone here: the entire current Bat-franchise is, as far as I can see, regarding this topic, mum.

What matters instead is that Bruce Wayne’s wonderful toys can fall into your hands.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Christopher Lirette

      I want to say that your analysis of the recent Batman franchise is STELLAR. I hope you keep writing about superheroes.

  2. A D Jameson

      Thanks! I intend to…

  3. Mike Meginnis

      I enjoyed The Dark Knight for Heath Ledger’s monologues and weirdness, and the new one is decent fun for the bits with Bane, but I fundamentally never wanted or liked the idea of a realistic Batman. It’s a ridiculous concept.

  4. iain

      i love nolan’s batman films precisely because he brings out these problems, and takes batman’s richboy vigilantism to its contradictory extremes. i don’t personally read them as pro-batman, and while i’m not prepared to give a defense of nolan’s intentions, i do think there are certain elements that resist a reading that explicitly endorses the idea that batman should be, in dick cheney’s words, “welcomed as a liberator”.

      love your thoughts here though.

  5. vjb77

      I have enjoyed reading your recent posts about Nolan’s Batman. You have made some great points. I find myself saying, “Wow, yes, he’s absolutely right.”. Yet, I can’t help still feeling entertained by the film. I was fortunate enough to experience the film in IMAX. I love the immersion of sound and sight. I think unless a film labels itself a documentary, I am willing to allow a movie to take an amount of rope to work with. As long as I feel at the end I wasn’t tied up with that rope and forced to watch something absurd, I am usually satisfied. Your very thoughtful and thorough analysis, is accurate but through all of the fantastic, expensive production I feel themes of sacrifice, class warfare and at the risk of sounding corny, love (of family and butler and between Bane and his protectee) were well done. After reading your last submissions I do feel like I should watch something Italian and old just to make sure I’m not getting soft. Cheers and again well done.

  6. Justin Chandler

      I think what we wanted was a Batman we didn’t feel silly liking. We wanted to be grownups and go see a film we could call exciting and action-packed but also ruminative and even touching (and, also, that featured Batman prominently, who was our hero growing up, who we honestly hoped we might somehow someday be).

      Can’t we?

      This is why I like Avengers more than Batman. Though it doesn’t try to be “deep” (And really, how is Batman deep [character/theme/huh?] in any way at all?), Avengers does manage to walk the tightrope between “gratifying the 8 year old’s need for dumb, dumb titilation” and “not offending the 26 year old’s slightly more mature artistic sensibilities.” It’s still unrealistic, and maybe that’s what saves it, because we know it’s still a fantasy, we know that ultimately it’s…dumb.

      Also, based solely on that one page of awesomeness, I’m going to go reread Miller’s TDKR right now. Also also, going to buy that entire set and go play outside.

  7. A$AP $alvatore

      I was also letdown by the overwhelming darkness and seriousness of these films. Batman is a joyously ridiculous concept, and Nolan sucks all the joy out of it. When it comes to comics, I’ve always gravitated toward the effervescent weirdness of Grant Morrison over the grim and gritty work of Frank Miller or Alan Moore. Given a choice, I would have preferred to have seen this film:

  8. A D Jameson

      Looks like Disqus ate my earlier comments. Thanks for the feedback! And I think it’s important to maintain a distinction between the things we live/love and the criticisms we make of them. It’s totally possible to love a movie you feel is aesthetically compromised; the two reactions don’t necessarily have anything to do with one another…

      Cheers! Adam

  9. A D Jameson

      Thank you!

  10. A D Jameson

      I think you will find Miller’s TDKR well worth your while!

  11. A D Jameson

      I’m curious, though, as to why we think big summer action films “dumb.” I agree that The Avengers works better than The Dark Knight Rises (and is also much more fun to watch), but I’m not sure if it’s due to the film being “stupid” or anything like that. Rather, it is less insistent on finding some real-life explanation for everything that happens in it. Fantasy can make up its own rules: Thor can exist, and have his hammer which flies to him when he wants it. Which can lead to interesting intersections between reality and fantasy: “what happens if Thor tries to summon his hammer while on an aircraft carrier?” But is the lack of realist explanatory logic something unintelligent? Or the fact that the characters are mostly characters of type? I’m not sure…

      Terminator 2 and Die Hard are both movies that epitomize the “dumb summer blockbuster” genre, but both are very sophisticated and complex films.

      …I’m just thinking aloud, trying to unpack that phrase, “dumb summer blockbuster.” I welcome your thoughts, anyone’s thoughts on the subject…

  12. Wallace Barker

      The problem I have with summer blockbusters (and Hollywood in general) is that they just endlessly repeat the Great Fascist Fairytale– A lone hero (always physically powerful) rises above the pathetic sheeple and saves the world through the sheer power of his extreme ultraviolence skills.

      How boring is that?

  13. A D Jameson

      That is a good point.

  14. Taylor Napolsky

      I read your review and you derided the Man of Steel trailer with your
      Tree of Life comment. You say you want these summer movies to be high
      art but then you praise camp like Batman and Robin or even the old
      sixties version. It’s contradictory. Anyway, that MOS trailer blew me
      away. These movies should be character and drama focused with high
      amounts of action and I think that’s exactly what Man of Steel will give
      us. Nolan’s Batman series was pretty good but MOS could be way

      Also, if you don’t enjoy these classic archetype/hero character stories, I don’t think you’re fit to decry them. You’re just not into these type of story-line.

      You prefer Drive to Nolan’s batman movies? Seriously—that is an okay movie but not on the level dramatically as Nolan’s trilogy. That is a cult classic that small factions of people are into, but movies like this batman trilogy are huge epics that people will be watching and referring to a decade from now.

  15. A D Jameson

      Hi Taylor,

      Whether a film sells a lot of tickets, or is popular with a lot of people, is not a good indicator of its artistry. Drive is a successful artwork because it innovates within its own genre while at the same time being aesthetically unified. And that success doesn’t change depending on the number of people who see or watch it.

      The Dark Knight Rises, on the other hands, fails to do similar. It introduces some innovations, mainly at the level of concept/production design (all of which I’ve applauded), but then fails to unify them with its other aesthetic elements: the writing, the cinematography, the editing. As I’ve stated repeatedly here and in my Inception review, my problem with Christopher Nolan is that he comes up with some good ideas, then basically phones in the rest. (Many other critics have noticed the same. Hence all the criticisms about there being no rhyme or reason as to how the man shoots or edits his films.)

      I am fond of the campy Batman because those adaptations are often fun and often artistically successful on their own terms. But I hardly think that’s the only way the character can be done. But I also don’t think, as I think you do, that “serious” treatments are somehow superior to campy ones. They’re just different genres, different modes. (And the original Batman comics were pure melodrama, so in many ways the campier versions are actually more faithful.)

      I look forward to seeing Man of Steel, as I look forward to seeing all movies, and I hope that it’s great, and I certainly hope that it’s better than its trailer. But trailers are usually very poor these days.

      Beyond that, I didn’t understand your comment about archetypes etc. Perhaps it will suffice to say that I love comics and I love the idea that great movies can be inspired by them? I hope the terms by which I evaluate them are now clearer.

      Thanks for weighing in,

  16. A D Jameson

      You might also consider this, from Jim Emerson’s recent article on the Sight & Sound Best Films Poll:

      Now consider this: In the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, not a single critic voted for Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (IMDb #7; Oscar’s best picture of 1993 — although other Spielberg movies were cited, including “Jaws,” “CE3K,” “E.T.,” “A.I.” and “Minority Report”), John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy” (Oscar’s best picture of 1969), Robert Zemeckis’s “Forrest Gump” (Oscar’s best picture of 1994), Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” (Oscar’s best picture of 2000), Paul Haggis’s “Crash” (Oscar’s best picture of 2005 — though one voter did select the Cronenberg film), Steven Soderbergh’s “sex, lies, and videotape” (Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, 1989), David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart” (Palme d’Or winner, 1990), Hector Babenco’s “Pixote” (winner of LA, NY and National Society of Film Critics’ best foreign language film award, 1981), Shane Carruth’s “Primer” (Sundance Film Festival winner, 2004), Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men” (2006)… And no votes for other pop phenomena such as Sam Mendes’ aforementioned “American Beauty,” Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” or “Inception,” M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense,” Spielberg’s “The Color Purple,” Brian De Palma’s “Casualties of War.” All of these movies were the subject of passionate popular and critical discussion (and, in some cases, controversy) when they came out. But while they may have had an impact on pop culture, they apparently aren’t regarded so highly by critics today as they once were.

  17. Taylor Napolsky

      Yeah that was helpful. I can see your point. I still don’t think Drive is as good as you say, but I see what you mean about movies getting praised by critics when they’re released and then the approval wanes over time. Surprised to see some of those movies on that list—like Forest Gump and The Color Purple, but in general I get the point.

      For example, I watched Gladiator the other day and it was so much worse than I remember it being as a kid.

      Oh and my last comment was regarding this comment:

      “The problem I have with summer blockbusters (and Hollywood in general)
      is that they just endlessly repeat the Great Fascist Fairytale– A lone
      hero (always physically powerful) rises”

      And you agreed with that—so that’s what I was referring to at the end.

      Anyway, maybe it’s true I have less tolerance for campy movies than perhaps you do. I’m still not sure what my opinion is on campy stuff.

  18. A D Jameson

      I do think it’s important to have some aesthetic criteria that’s independent of popularity, or the market. That said, popularity and success surely count for something! (I doubt Nolan’s all that sad if critics dislike his films.)

      I thought David Bordwell’s recent “defense” of Nolan pretty interesting (though it pertained more to Memento/Insomnia/The Prestige/Inception than the Bat-flicks).

      Campiness is a whole nother ball of wax. It was Jack Smith who taught me to like it.


  19. deadgod

      Big action films – or any films – can be “dumb” when they make up their own rules, especially when those introduced parameters feel merely expedient: Batman needs a personal helicopter, and hey presto! he pulls one out of his belt–where it’s never seemed to have been before, even when it would’ve been at least a little useful. (Okay: that’s maybe the occasion for camp, for knowing mockery of itself. And if the characters in the story stay Serious, fine, they don’t get it–that’s ‘campy’, too.)

      But the thing that leaps out egregiously as “dumb” to me is when a blockbuster – or any text – contradicts not so much science or everyday objectivity (debatable as that is), but rather, itself.

      That seems to me a big part of your argument against Nolan: that, in breaking his own ‘rules’, he’s cutting corners–cheating.

      The example of cheating that presses on you most – at least as I read your criticisms – is over-exposition in dialogue–where characters leap out of their stories – constantly, it might feel – to tell the audience what’s up with what the audience should either plainly see or experience as only partly known.

      And the over-exposition is glove-around-hand with technical carelessness (disguised, maybe intentionally–another order of cheating–, by narratively ineffective (to the point of diffusion) rapid-cutting).

      These are strong arguments; to the extent that it’s the case in some particular case, nobody likes cheating. For how can short-cuts be sustained as an actual value?

  20. Mike James

      How is the fact Wayne is an arms dealer overlooked if it is in fact mentioned? Okay, maybe you mean it isn’t explored. Yet it is, but the movie isn’t about that, even if you would like it to be. It never states that these contracted jobs = those arms in the hands of the people who contracted the work. A contract can mean many things: It can mean a group (maybe a government) contacted them to build something for them. “Build me a plane that is able to do A, B, C (ie “tight-geometry urban pacification”, or in the words of a govt official maybe, “Make it able to fly in cities”). The genesis of the idea’s execution is owned by WayneCorp, the patents, blueprints. It doesn’t mean WayneCorp has to hand it over. Depending upon the contract terms (this is a movie, of course), delivering product may not be a part of the deal. And to push the agenda of Batman further, this can be a ploy to simply gather gadgets and tools that would otherwise be causing major harm. Now, that would, in a business sense, put WayneCorp in a bad position. So, very much so, they could be delivering on some aspects of their government contracts. This is an interesting aspect. But to focus deeper on it would remove us from how Nolan is critical of the government. Because you do remember, sir, that the government was going to bomb the entire city and kill all civilians. They were going to shoot Blake and the kids on the bridge, but the soldiers did not (indicating not the power/good of government, but the good inherent within people).

      And, if you think about it further, if The Bat was a government contract for “tight geometry urban pacification” and it horrifies you, (as it likely was supposed to), it should be re-directed back to the government who contracted such a thing, which, once again, portrays the government is a bad light.

      Nolan is critical of socio-economic structures and those who govern such things. That is why he uses Bane as the antithesis of this and uses him to bring it down. He is actually an optimistic individual when it comes to the goodness within human beings, emphasis on the human beings and not the societal frameworks we construct.

      In regards to the American government not allowing such a guy to exist. Yeah, you’re right. But Batman is a motherfucking NINJA bro. With a billion dollars behind him. The American government is gonna do what? I repeat: he’s a motherfucking billion dollar ninja.

  21. Taylor Napolsky

      One thing I was thinking about—just as some movies get lauded critically and then the sentiment changes over time, others can get decried critically, but over time the opinion shifts to positive.

      I feel it’s hard to determine which direction the critical or general opinions will head. Not impossible—but quite difficult. So there really is no telling what the future holds for this batman trilogy.

      I’m surprised you felt there was so much exposition in DKR. I didn’t find that, and I was highly flustered by the use of narrative in Inception to explain all the rules. I was shocked by the long explicative blocks where characters would go on and on explaining the rules but—as usual when I have a strong negative opinion about something popular—nobody seemed bothered by this. Nobody even seemed to notice it.

      I didn’t think this tactic was nearly so bad in Dark Knight Rises. Not even comparable.

      In truth, I loved DKR until the final act when they do the plot twist, reduce Bane’s character and present Talia as the villain. Talk about an anticlimax but, again, very few people were bothered by this. I find plenty of lists online of all the failures of this movie but what I mentioned is generally ignored.

      Seriously it drives me crazy.

  22. Reading Frank Miller’s influences on Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy | HTMLGIANT

      […] it numerous ways: Batman as vigilante, Batman as super-cop, Batman as a friend to school children, Batman as a collectible toy. At the end of the day, Nolan’s Batman is the one who has to appeal to every […]

  23. A D Jameson

      These are all good points. (Forgive me for taking so long to catch up with these comments. School!) I hadn’t thought about the convenience of Batman having a flying thing in this one, given the eventual nuclear bomb threat…

  24. A D Jameson

      Mainly I find that when Christopher Nolan wants to deliver information to the audience, he primarily does so by having one character relate it in dialogue to another. That’s not all he does, but it’s his primary means.

      One can define cinema—one can define all temporal art—as the delivery of information to an audience. The artist chooses what information, and how it’s delivered. (This is, of course, only one way of looking at art, but it is an interesting and productive way.) The writer chooses which words to include in a text, and what order they should go in. The filmmaker chooses what images and sounds, and in what combination, and in what order.

      The history of film, then, in this view, becomes the study of all the different ways in which information can be conveyed to audiences. Different strategies for different selections, combinations, and orders.

      And so I find it disappointing that, given the richness that is cinema, Nolan so routinely chooses such simple strategies for delivering information.

      That’s one half of my primary criticism of him. My other is that his work is not formally unified. But, as you can see, this is really the same critique. (Because he relies so heavily and so repeatedly on character dialogue to communicate information, it doesn’t aesthetically continue the artistic interventions he makes elsewhere. Character dialogue becomes a crutch he relies on, regardless of whatever else he is pursuing in the film’s artistic design.)

      I think that’s the must succinct I can make my criticisms of him.

      …Sorry it’s taken me a while to reply to your comments! I’ve been bogged down with school…

  25. Taylor Napolsky

      Yeah. We’ll see what direction he goes in the future…

  26. A D Jameson

      I know I’m looking forward to that!

  27. Seventeen Ways of Criticizing Inception « BIG OTHER

      […] “We Need to Talk About Batman” (HTMLGIANT) […]

  28. My Favorite New Movies of 2012 | HTMLGIANT

      […] you’re interested, I wrote yet more about The Dark Knight Rises here & here. I’ve also written a fair amount about Inception, here & here & here & […]

  29. An inventory of all my writing on cinema | A D Jameson's Blahg

      […] We Need to Talk About Batman […]