The reconstruction of Batman in animated movies


This article contains mild spoilers for The LEGO Batman Movie and Batman: Return Of The Caped Crusaders.

Batman & Robin has a lot to answer for. Almost 20 years after its release, Joel Schumacher’s brightly-coloured art nouveau confection is widely acknowledge as the nadir of the cinematic Bat-canon, even though that canon has very recently incorporated the DC Extended Universe entries, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice and the Academy Award-winning* Suicide Squad.

But two decades on, it sometimes feels like the films have wound up going too far the other way. Warner Bros rightly ran in the opposite direction with the Dark Knight trilogy, which began eight years later with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. However, they haven’t replicated the success of those films by doubling down on the darkness and violence for Zack Snyder’s crossover follow-up to Man Of Steel.

Although there is demonstrably a hard core of support in fandom for the latest big screen take on the character, Batman V Superman is the logical (and often illogical) extreme of the darker approach. In many ways, it’s an equal but opposite film to Batman & Robin, complete with its own share of dodgy character motivations, implausible sub-plots and cringe-making moments. Where Schumacher attempts to inject humour and colour into the franchise, Snyder’s film flushes both, but doesn’t quite achieve the gravitas to which it strives either.

In a cinematic universe that has been highly reactionary so far, the future of this Batman seems both certain and uncertain. We’ll certainly see more of Ben Affleck as Batman, but all else about his solo movie seems uncertain, given repeated rumours of script problems and Affleck’s recent decision to quit as the director of the film. Given how neither Batman & Robin nor Batman V Superman have worked as films that go all the way in one direction, perhaps Warner Bros can look to reconnect with what audiences enjoy about the character in future films, without entirely abandoning the tone of their cinematic universe.

Between Christian Bale’s growling loner and Affleck’s bloodthirsty avenger, the super serious deconstructions of the character have provided fertile ground for parody by Bat-fans and critics alike, but the best parodies of this approach have been released under the same Warner banner. The LEGO Batman Movie and Batman: Return Of The Caped Crusaders came out of different animation divisions of the studio, and each provide valuable counterpoints to the more trumpeted Batman movies of the last 12 months. Though intended in good fun, the live action movies could stand to take a leaf from each of them.

The LEGO Batman Movie

“Black. All important movies start with a black screen.”

In between live-action films, Batman returned in LEGO mini-figure form in 2014’s The LEGO Movie, in which his Will Arnett-voiced narcissist was an unmistakable parody of the Nolan films’ perceived darkness and family un-friendliness, rapping about how sad and angry he is and frequently going off on his own, er… bat.

The spin-off, The LEGO Batman Movie, consolidates and confronts that by playing up an origin story for Robin and the Bat-family in the midst of an anti-romantic comedy between Batman and the Joker, who have been battling across a Gotham City made of LEGO for years. The introduction of Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon, as Bruce Wayne’s ward and Gotham’s progressive new police commissioner respectively, shakes things up for Batman and teaches him to welcome friends and family rather than wallowing in tragedy and carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Although this would be a quite basic and simple message for most family movies, it proves to be a necessary reaction to the currently prevalent version of Batman in pop culture. It’s significant that it’s the LEGO movie that marks the first big-screen appearance of Robin and Batgirl since 1997, with the Bat-family notable only by their absence in Batman V Superman. Despite the gulf in the tone of their movies, both Batmen go through a similar arc, ending the movie more open minded to letting people in again than when they started.

It’s funny that this is still a parody of the Nolan movies, and so looks like less of an exaggeration of Batman’s isolationism now than it might have before the DCEU version. That said, whether intentional or not, it manages to roast each of the three other, more serious Batman movies released last year. For instance, if you’ve seen the deeply misjudged sexualisation of Batgirl in the R-rated adaptation of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, you’ll appreciate LEGO Batman’s eventual appreciation of LEGO Barbara as a platonic friend rather than a love interest that much more.

Some reviews called this the best Batman movie ever, which is obviously hyperbolic, but it’s certainly the best-reviewed Batman movie since The Dark Knight. It’s colourful and hyperactive like those Schumacher films, but it’s simultaneously more faithful to various incarnations of the character at once, and more in control of its tone than either the super-camp or super-dark takes in live action. We can’t imagine any live-action film being quite so vibrant and joyful, but Warner Bros has already signed up director Chris McKay to develop Nightwing as part of the DCEU, which is an interesting development that may or may not result in a finished feature film, given their track record so far.

All of that said, it’s symptomatic of how far the movies have leant in one direction in the current cultural context, that it doesn’t seem possible to make a comedic Batman movie without also reacting to the darker stuff, when the character’s first popular screen incarnation, in the 1966 television series, was decidedly more innocent.

Batman: Return Of The Caped Crusaders

“He left without saying goodbye! That’s not like Batman!”

It’s often wilfully misunderstood by certain parts of Bat-fandom, but executive producer William Dozier called Batman “the only sitcom on television without a laugh track”. The show was meant to be funny, embracing the era in which it was made with its cartoonish capers and over-the-top moralising. Even if you want to dismiss this style as a long-forgotten phase, Adam West is the screen Batman to which we owe it all – the popularity of the TV series brought the character to a new generation of non-comics readers. As radically different as each subsequent screen take has been, none of them could have been as successful without the mark on pop culture that this version made.

WB Premiere’s animated spin-off Batman: Return Of The Caped Crusaders is something of a birthday party for the classic show. It arrived on DVD and for a limited time in cinemas last year, 50 years after the first season aired on ABC. Some fans and reviews have noted that West’s Batman and Julie Newmar’s Catwoman both sound much older in their performances than before (although the vocals of Burt Ward’s Robin have been curiously untouched by time), but the film itself is surprisingly topical – a funny and vital state of the Bat-union from the Batman who first conquered the screen.

The first act of the film is a faithful tribute to the classic format, with another team-up between old foes the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler and Catwoman, building up to an early death trap which has Batman and Robin on a conveyor belt into a helpfully labelled ‘GIANT OVEN’. In the course of this, Catwoman’s plan of infecting Batman with ‘Bat-nip’, which is supposed to do the red Kryptonite or symbiote suit special on his personality and morals, appears to have failed. However, the serum takes more of a toll on this lightest of Dark Knights as the film goes on, and that’s where it really gets nuts.

Both this and The LEGO Batman Movie have their respective Batmen quote Michael Keaton from the 1989 movie, but Return Of The Caped Crusaders gets both how funny and how disturbing it is to see West’s Batman don Bat-knuckle-dusters and hit villains with word balloons that say ‘FRACTURE’ instead of ‘BIFF’. Just about every evolution of the character in pop culture is more recent than this, and the corruption of this most innocent Batman hilariously parallels this progress, graduating through the Keaton and Bale takes (Robin’s reaction to Batman’s abrupt vanishing act is priceless) into something that no version of the character should be.

The deranged Batman’s plans to complete his mission against the city’s criminals with extreme prejudice and a plan that’s more typically silly. As in The LEGO Batman Movie, it makes a solo Batman his own worst enemy. We won’t spoil the specifics of how this develops for those who haven’t seen it yet, but director Rick Morales and writers Michael Jelenic and James Tucker really make the most of the animated format and it’s a fun Batman story.

Save for one cheap shot at The Dark Knight Rises that rings false, Return Of The Caped Crusaders is an enjoyable rejoinder to the darkest timeline versions of Batman while giving us a long overdue reunion of the most iconic take on the dynamic duo. Happily, West and Ward will continue to make up for lost time with Batman Vs Two-Face later this year, which will introduce William Shatner as the voice of Harvey Dent. Having reclaimed a familiar tone, it will be great to see them carry on crusading against dastardly criminals in future instalments.

What next for the DCEU Batman?

“If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change. Hooo.”

– Batman

At their most basic level, The LEGO Batman Movie and Batman: Return Of The Caped Crusaders are deconstructions of how we see Batman. Both animated films take shortcuts in building context before deconstructing – LEGO Batman incorporates the entire dissonant history of the character in one toybox, and Return Of The Caped Crusaders references almost every version that’s happened since the ’66 series originally aired.

Across several planned films, the DCEU will have more time to construct that context realistically than they had with Batman V Superman, which referenced the ultimate deconstruction of Batman in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns from a standing start. Whether the aim of a deconstruction is comedic or dramatic, their success is often dependent on feeling a pre-existing attachment to these characters and giving us a reason to get invested in their struggles and emotional meltdowns.

Aside from that unfortunate business back in 1997, characters like Robin and Batgirl have been crucial in that kind of development. Purists will argue that Batman started out alone in the comics and that there have been several great and influential comics that isolate him and focus on his darker urges, but it’s interesting that two of the better Batman movies, out of several released in the last 12 months, have kept the supporting characters around and had a lot more fun for it.

Let’s not forget that the Dark Knight movies managed to be audacious and entertaining blockbusters while still covering new ground for the character. They weren’t above the occasional moment of comic relief. But if Nolan’s mostly grounded and gritty approach didn’t already seem done by the third one, we’re now at the point where the same studio is producing and distributing a hugely well received animated parody of that take, while the right hand is making still darker movies, to lesser acclaim.

Batman is such a storied character that you can make him appeal to anyone if given enough context, but the history of the property on screen has shown us that if you lean too far on either the silliness or the tragedy, you end up with unappealing extremes. Most of us are probably desperate for something in between by this point. The delicate balance between the Brave and the Bold and the Mardy and the Murderous has been achieved on screen before, and hopefully, it will be again.

*Holy shit, Batman!



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