F vs the Franchises: Superhero Fatigue (Part 4b - In the Shadow of a Man Dressed As a Bat)

Click here for Part A of my Batman discussion, covering Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy.

The Batman

With the partial exception of Tim Burton’s films, only Batman: The Animated Series and its successors/spin-offs in the DC Animated Universe really emphasized Batman’s intellect as much as his physical abilities. So of all the reasons to look forward to The Batman, it was Matt Reeves’ promise of leaning into Batman’s detective roots and delivering a neo-noir mystery, hinging on a plot by the uniquely cerebral Riddler, that excited me the most.

Unfortunately, Reeves and his co-writer Peter Craig utterly miss their mark by giving us a Batman whose detective work is always one step behind The Riddler’s manipulations. Their script knows it, too, first by having the Penguin mock Batman and Gordon for missing a clue (“Look at you two. World’s greatest detectives!”), then by having the Riddler express his disappointment that Batman didn’t figure out his master plan. By the time Batman, now suitably informed that there’s more detective work to be done, figures out The Riddler’s endgame, it’s too late. While he does prevent an assassination, the most he can do is help deal with the aftermath of massive city-wide destruction. The worst of it is that Batman never seems especially intelligent as a matter of character, never coming across as the intellectual genius that defines his usual portrayal. What’s unclear to me is the extent to which this characterization is intentional or accidental, especially since when we first see Gordon bringing Batman to a crime scene it very much recalls the way in which Scotland Yard Inspector Lestrade brings Sherlock Holmes into a case. The difference is that in Doyle’s stories, Holmes fully validates Lestrade’s need for assistance through assertive and superior demonstrations of observation and reasoning. In The Batman, the scenes are staged mostly for Batman to pick up an envelope left behind by the Riddler.

It’s a shame that the film botches its reason for existing so fundamentally, because in other respects it’s a terrific offering with a lot to commend it, including a more believable “realism” than Nolan’s trilogy. Apart from Paul Dano, whose stereotypical incel-serial-killer interpretation of the Riddler I didn’t like at all (give me the Animated Series’ Riddler, please), the cast and characterizations from Colin Ferrel’s Penguin to Zoë Kravitz’ Selina Kyle are compelling and distinct. Unlike Nolan’s bland metropolitan pastiche, Reeve’s Gotham is a suitably noir setting with a stylish character all its own. And the fact that Bruce Wayne’s personal journey leads him to conclude that Batman should be a symbol of hope to the people of Gotham, not just a symbol of fear and vengeance to its criminals, is a welcome take on a character that has otherwise been delivered so far with cynicism. Without establishing this early-career Batman as having the intellectual as well as physical talents – however yet to be honed to peak performance – to be the formidable hero he’s meant to be, the film’s strengths flounder and the film lays an unsatisfying foundation for future stories like the forthcoming sequel and the Penguin TV series spin-off.

Batman: The Animated Series

With its blend of murder mystery, tragic romance, origin story, and study of justice versus revenge, Mask of the Phantasm is arguably the best Batman feature film in any medium. And the series that made it possible, Batman: The Animated Series, remains a seminal achievement in both television and comic book storytelling. While its gorgeous retro-futuristic art deco style make it eye-catching, it’s the focus on detective work along with surprisingly sympathetic, or at least nuanced, villains that make it stand out from the usual beat-em-up storytelling. The obvious example: Mr. Freeze’s characterization as a tragic rather than a sociopathic figure. As the transitioned into the DC Animated Universe (DCAU), however, the returns begin to diminish for me. It’s not a question of quality or even entertainment value; the DCAU ranges from good to excellent and I wouldn’t argue that there’s anything “bad” about it per se in the sense that if someone loves superhero comics, there’s no reason not to enjoy watching its many series. For me, however, as the episode count rises the more I’m pushed against the limits of what I’ll enjoy in superhero stories, especially as the DCAU succumbs to the conventions and tropes I don’t like in comics. When it comes to Justice League, that limit is my preference to leave Batman out of stories involving superpowers, alien invasions, and that sort of thing: Batman just makes more sense, and is more enjoyable to me, in the context of Gotham and crime. That brings me to Batman Beyond, which I find both entertaining and dissatisfying. Entertaining, in that it works as an action-thriller. Dissatisfying, in that the series relies too much on fantastical technology and its characterizations are made to service plots that invariably focus on giving Batman an endless supply of new and recurring antagonists. Characters tend to be less interesting for their personalities than for their gadgets or superhuman abilities, and that includes Terry McGuinness, who is only interesting as Batman insofar as he has a suit, Bruce Wayne whispering in his ear, and eventual revelation that he is Bruce’s genetic clone.

The series isn’t helped by revisiting Bruce Wayne’s rogues gallery, transferring final (or simply continued) confrontations with classic villains onto Terry. Mr. Freeze is a prime example. I would have been perfectly happy with his fate left a mystery following Batman & Mr. Freeze: Sub-Zero, but he is inevitably brought back with a reductionist revenge-minded motivation. Another example is Harley Quinn, who’s not only made complicit in the torture of a teenaged Tim Drake, which makes her especially monstrous given that she started as a mental health professional, but only seeks reform after the Joker’s apparent death. Not only is her character escalated to an evil beyond what we’d seen from her previously, the series misses out the opportunity to present a strong woman character overcoming misogynistic abuse. It fell to the mainstream comics and DC movies to lean into a feminist stance and even dare to reform Harley into a heroic character.

Speaking of Harley, I’d point to Return of the Joker as a good demonstration of how I part ways with Batman Beyond and the overall DCAU. While I understand the feature-length film’s popularity – it’s a good thriller on its own terms – I still don’t particularly like it. In addition to its disappointing treatment of Harley Quinn, I’m not keen on the use of implausible, hence magical, technology to revive the original Joker (how could a microchip behind Tim Drake’s ear go undetected?) just so Terry can confront him. And the key premise – Joker, supported by Harley, tortures and brainwashes a teenaged Tim Drake, who ends up killing his tormentor only to be subjected, many years later, to technology that allows his mind and body to be digitally hijacked for a resurrection – is a horrifying escalation of the Joker’s evil that is treated far too casually. Still, there’s a story to be told out of that premise that would interest me much more if it were more charactered focused and less beholden to convention. Joker’s plan to kidnap and torture Tim Drake could have the been the step too far that finally leads Harley to make a break on her own. It could have also been the most severe test of Bruce Wayne’s no-killing principles, resolved (or, rather, evaded) only when Tim Drake shoots and kills the Joker himself. While the Joker’s plan backfiring is a fittingly ironic end, the moral impact of enlisting a kid as a sidekick would remain at the forefront of Bruce Wayne’s actions as Batman. Moving to Terry McGuinness, his Batman could face a moral challenge of his own as a new leader, patterned after the original Joker, takes over the Jokerz and engages in a series of extraordinarily lethal crimes, only to find him and his gang targeted by a murderous vigilante. That vigilante, of course, would be Tim Drake. In any case, the point isn’t my fan fiction but rather that if you’re going to tell a story involving psychological trauma – especially one so excessively brutal as to involve torture, brainwashing and murder – there should be a greater focus on character than action. (And yes, I’m aware that the film mentions Tim undergoing treatment after his ordeal, but I don’t think it’s enough.) If I have an overall critique of Batman in the DCAU, then, it’s that like comics there’s the unfortunate tendency of associating mental illness and physical disfigurements with evil and villainy. However unintentionally, this repeated association contributes to misunderstandings and stigmatizing stereotypes about mental health and physical appearance.

Ultimately, however strong the DCAU in terms of the superhero genre, I can’t help but feel that its creators missed opportunities to offer deeper and more varied characterizations than simply whatever is most expedient to set up a conflict. There are any number of approaches, predicated on the understanding that people can and do change as a result of their experiences, that could drive really meaningful characterizations for the many colorful villains. After all, criminals retire, reform, remain incarcerated, die of accidental or intentional causes, get sick, find love, have children … But the DCAU is what it is and my wish for something other than what it gives me simply points out, as I mentioned earlier, the limits of what interests me in stories. As it happens, though, Warner Bros. changed the animation style of the DCAU from Batman: The New Adventures onward, ostensibly to match Batman’s style to that of Superman: The Animated Series. This presents a continuity loophole I’m perfectly happy to exploit given that DC, by its own canon, positions its stories within a multiverse: since the characters looked different post-Batman: The Animated Series, then surely we can argue they exist in an alternate-history continuity? In which case, I’m perfectly content with seeing Batman: The Animated Series, from first episode “On Leather Wings” to the films Batman & Mr. Freeze: Sub-Zero and Mask of the Phantasm, as sharing the podium with Tim Burton’s films as the best of Batman on screen.

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