Saturday, February 11, 2017

On Batman

I'm no Batman expert, but I've read enough of the canonical comics from the 1940s on to know he's as multi-faceted if not as centered as Spider-Man. Spider-Man has a core around which his various motivations work with and against each other. He starts as the put-upon nice Jewish boy from Queens, far more arrogant than he can ever admit to be being, and from there we see a narcissist, a freak, a guilt-ridden teenager, an infant, an adult, a performer, a humanitarian, a lover, an intellectual, an entrepreneur, and a wannabee comic genius. Throughout his career, Batman doesn't maintain a constant core. Frank Miller's fascist can't be found in Adam West's comedian. But The LEGO Batman Movie (Chris McKay, 2017) tries to correct that problem. Here the self-seriousness of Batman, a constant yearning for some version of the masculine ideal, whose relationships are by turns homoerotic, homosocial, heteroerotic, cut-off, and rarely romantic, becomes a story of a silly person, who despite all his attempts can never be god's loneliest man of Dostoevsky. There may be an element of Dostoevsky-ean humor to Batman, but there's always too much camp. He's always funny, whether he realizes it or not. The depiction of him as the goth teenager who makes himself look "dark" for the chicks in the The LEGO Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014) is damning.

To me Batman, at his best, was a straight man to his villains. My favorite version of him is not Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), but Batman Beyond (1999-2001), in which an old Bruce Wayne of a science-fictional Gotham City mentors a teenage hero, mature well beyond his years. Terry, the new Batman, is handsome. He never had any insecurities regarding his looks, his grace, and very few about his athletic prowess, but he's angry angry angry angry at crime and all the miserable, insecure people who commit it. The geeky teenager who develops powers of electricity and attacks the bully who humiliates him and the dad who calls him a wimp. The prison guard with a bizarre fetish for a gooey-female villainess, who undergoes a process that will give him a body that will make intercourse with her possible. The rat-teenager who lives in the sewer with his pets who tries to kidnap Terry's girlfriend. The old Bruce Wayne is always suppressing a cackle as he watches his student destroy lonely men, all of whom have a far greater claim to Dostoevsky-ean pretensions than Wayne.  

Batman's villains are artists. They have more wit in their self-creation than Wayne has in his. They would. They suffer more. I only remember one episode of Batman: The Animated Series that made me sorta like Batman. The Mad Hatter places Batman in a coma where he gets to live a fantasy alternative life in which his parents never died and he is freed from having to be Batman. Even then, the Mad Hatter's tearful response, once he's lost the game, leaves me with more sympathy with the villain than the hero. If he could give Batman everything he wanted, he says, maybe Batman would leave him alone, and he could have everything he wanted too. 

The LEGO Batman Movie isn't great. As has been noted in the reviews, after a spectacular opening 20 minutes, filled with in-jokes and better action than most superhero films, the whole thing dissolves into easy jokes set on repeat. Still, it was the first time I ever related to Bruce Wayne. There he sits, in a giant mansion, with a wonderful world outside, watching Jerry Maguire (Cameron Crowe, 1996), laughing at a so-bad-it's-good scene, munching on lobster. Nothing is sadder. All of the sudden, the various strands of Batman come together and he finally makes sense. Nothing is more me...I mean, us.

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