Saturday, May 13, 2017

What happened to 'My Batman'?

Guess I better face reality: My definitive version of Batman -- the compassionate, intelligent and complex Caped Crusader/Dark Knight who kicks butt and is concerned about victims and the innocent -- isn't coming back anytime soon. But that doesn't mean I have to like it or I enjoy that incarnation any less.

We are three decades into Frank Miller's Dark Knight being the accepted version of Batman. And there's no looking back.

Contrary to what countless Batman and DC Comics fans might think, Miller's Batman is not the only take on the Dark Knight. Anybody who says that has their opinion/outlook much too sharply focused to the point of having blinders on.

Diehard fans of the Miller-esque Dark Knight have lost perspective on the character. They overlook decades of equally viable version of Batman, one who is caring yet calculating enough to have a plan to take his teammates in the Justice League should the need arise. He's basically a lone wolf, but is aided by other heroes in Gotham City (the various Robins, Batgirl, Nightwing and of course, Alfred Pennyworth) -- yet isn't afraid to call someone out when they work outside the way he wants the situation handled.

For me, any fan who believes anything before Miller and Klaus Janson's BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is irrelevant or even ridiculous hasn't read enough older comics to appreciate what other writers have done. Such opinions minimize and downplay what decades of great stories have done to make Batman the fascinating hero he is today -- in comics, film and animation.

RETURNS took pop culture by storm and made critics take notice because it was en extreme version of Batman. But let's keep it in perspective, twenty years earlier, Adam West's Batman was an equally extreme version.

It's hip for fans and especially comic book writers and artists to site RETURNS as an influence. I get that, as it's an important part of comic book history. The four-issue graphic novel delivered a Batman none of us had seen before and started gearing comics toward young adults and adults and farther away from children, preteens and teenagers. The innocence of comics was gone.

It's equally uncool to say you enjoy the campy 1960s TV series or even the Batman of the Bronze Age of Comics (1970-1985). I get that too; I don't like it, but I understand.

Let me be clear: I appreciate the way Miller's story made Batman culturally relevant (again) and reintroduced an edge to the Dark Knight. And while I love Batman when he's focused and all business, I simply don't enjoy when my favorite superhero intentionally maims or kills someone; that's simply not "my Batman."

Art by Neal Adams
Do I enjoy when the Dark Knight kicks butt? Of course. But there's no way I'm into a Batman who is so violent the only way he knows how to stop his opponents is by breaking bones and giving them critical injuries.

Batman by his very nature is a vigilante who operates outside of the law, but he respects it and the concept of justice. But the Dark Knight I most enjoy isn't lawless or cruel, much less ruthless.

A complicated Caped Crusader/Dark Knight is intriguing; a neurotic Bruce Wayne who is a borderline psychopath makes him no less deranged than the villains he faces.

Batman indeed is Gotham's grim guardian, but going too far transforms him into something grotesque, joyless, ugly and ultimately, unlikable. Again, let me be clear: I'm not saying West's uber-uptight and straight-laced Batman is the way to go either, but I appreciate a thoughtful Batman who has a heart and wrestles with the ramifications of his actions much more than a punch-now, think-later interpretation.

My Batman is a take-charge, grim warrior against crime and injustice. He's brilliant enough to discover his foes' weaknesses on his own yet smart enough to realize he can't fight crime by himself.

And while the Dark Knight isn't afraid to dish out some hurt -- OK, a lot of it! -- he's not ruthless and certainly not a killer. (Allowing someone to die when you have the chance to save him or her is the same as killing them, in my book. To say anything else is semantics.)

My Batman is a superhero of virtue and standards; he operates by his own gray, ethical line outside of law enforcement, but he despises guns, murder and injustice. Addressing the plight of victims and innocents is as important to him as it is stopping crime and the criminals behind it.

(Find out what various incarnations I consider the definitive versions of Batman in this August 2015 post. And more recently, I shared what makes Batman such a badass.)

Fans are so jazzed about actor Ben Affleck's Batman they consider him the best movie version of the character. But keep in mind that it's easy to love what is the most recent. I've supported casting Affleck playing Batman ever since that announcement was made, but he's not my favorite; I have to see more for Batfleck to topple Christian Bale.

Affleck is a superb Batman; there's no doubt. My favorite onscreen incarnation is the slightly more balanced one in director Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight Trilogy."

The warehouse fight scene in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" is spectacular. Who doesn't dig when the guy takes down a room full of thugs by himself? But it bothers me that Batfleck breaks bones and leaves behind dead bodies after the explosion. All done to save Martha Kent, but still the body count is disturbing.

Batman (Ben Affleck) brings an unconscious Harley Quinn to the Batmobile
in this scene from "Suicide Squad."
What I saw from this Batman during his cameo in "Suicide Squad" is much closer to my preferred Batman. He doesn't want to fight Deadshot in front of his daughter and he dives into the water to save Harley Quinn from a watery grave. This is the compassionate Caped Crusader I adore.

And judging from the San Diego Comic-Con footage and first trailer for "Justice League," we might be on the way to seeing a more refined Batman. It's refreshing to see him "play well with others" (as Commissioner Jim Gordon tells him when he shows up in Gotham with Aquaman and Wonder Woman) and even willing to make a brief joke. *GASP!*

It's obvious Batman's no less intense; he simply has softened his rock-hard edges. That's what I'm talking about!

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