June 2005

Let Batman Begin...To Be Batman!
Media Commentary By John Kenneth Muir

John K. Muir's Encyclopedia of Superheroes was picked by NY Public Libraries as a Top Ten Reference Work for 2004/5Way back in 1939, Batman first graced the pages of Detective Comics and like Hamlet, Dracula, and James Bond, he’s fascinated audiences through multiple incarnations ever since. Yet in over sixty-five years, a “definitive” Batman has never bat-grappled his way onto our TV or movie screens.

In the turbulent and anti-establishment 1960s, DC’s “old chum,” was portrayed by Adam West on ABC television as a campy do-gooder, a joke lampooning the very concept of super heroes. In full regalia, this Batman might enter a bar, comment that he didn’t wish to appear conspicuous, then order a glass of milk and bust a move—“the batusi”—on the dance floor. In case we didn’t get the joke, his bat cave was obsessively labeled with gadgets such as a Lighted Lucite Map of Gotham City and the Chemo Electric Secret Writing Detector.

After the success of Frank Miller’s graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns in the mid-1980s, director Tim Burton successfully re-invented Batman for a darker generation. His 1989 blockbuster starred Michael Keaton as a nighttime avenger in a bulging rubber muscle suit. Burton got the atmosphere right, but the film had precious little plot—and, worse, generated a string of increasingly disappointing sequels.

In Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and—sighBatman and Robin, the Caped Crusader (Val Kilmer, then George Clooney...) served as but a ringmaster in his own franchise. In this case, the ring was a hideous, Art-Deco Gotham City, and the main attraction was the colorful villain, whether it was Danny DeVito’s Penguin, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, Jim Carrey’s Riddler or even Arnold Schwarzenneger’s Mr. Freeze. Too many bat relatives—namely Batgirl and Robin—gummed up the works. Finally, a weird, S & M, fetishistic focus on rubber bat nipples and bat butt-cracks dominated the gaudy franchise under Joel Schumacher’s direction as the movie series sputtered and died.

It’s been a long eight years since the last Batman movie, and here’s my entreaty: it’s time to let Batman be Batman. With Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins opening in June, Bat-fans would appreciate a film that—for the first time—actually focuses on the man behind the mask, not the CG landscape around him, or over-the-top villains.

Batman has endured in comics for generations not because of his enemies, not because of special effects, but because he’s a complex personality, both dark and heroic. Also—and the movies always forget this—he’s one smart guy. Batman solves crimes. He figures things out. So how about Batman as a young, athletic Sherlock Holmes with an attitude...in black leather? Ruthlessly logical and brilliantly crafty.

Now that’s a Batman worth waiting for. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies have proven so successful recently because they focus squarely on their costumed protagonist and his personality, and that’s a trick the Batman franchise would be wise to emulate, lest the franchise falter, knocked out—BIFF-BAM-BOOM-style—by more canny Marvel competitors like this summer’s The Fantastic Four.

After all, if Batman is only a ringmaster—a game show host doing a cameo in his own franchise—forget about Christian Bale and just put American Idol’s Simon Cowell under the cowl.

Sure, that would be...dreadful, to coin a phrase. But really—if you think about it—no worse thanBatman and Robin...