Batnipples. There are many other terrible things about the 1997 film Batman & Robin, but the nipple armour tends to, well, stick out the most. The failure of that film led to an eight-year gap between its début and that of Batman Begins in 2005. You could argue that it also led to what was initially an exciting new trend for cinema in general and Batman in particular.
To find a victim of this trend, look for a film, game, or TV show with drab colours, minimal dialogue, gruff acting, stubble, and gratuitous amounts of angst. For extra flavour, perhaps add a dash of fridging. Mix it all together, and you’ll have your very own batch of dark‘n’gritty special sauce. The result is often hypermasculine and about as needlessly dramatic as the time Darth Vader flew a TIE fighter with the force just so he could stand on top of it and get his cape to billow just so. The ultimate end result is films like Batman VS Superman, Zack Snyder’s excruciatingly masturbatory CGI-porn mangst crusade, which I could barely manage to sit through when I saw it last year.
The Lego Batman Movie is the polar opposite of dark ‘n’ gritty. It has a delightfully fun soundtrack (including Starship’s We Built this City, which is a baller as heck song at any time of day), a vibrant colour palette, dynamic animation and fresh, snappy dialogue. It’s packed with shout outs to bat-everything, from good old batnipples to the hilaribad 1960s show to some of the wilder comics canons. A unique-to-Batman trend, over recent years especially, has been to cherry pick the dark ‘n’ gritty parts from the Batman mythos, and shun the rest. Snyder, Nolan, Schumacher – they all did this, hastily shoving some of the best bits of the Batman canon under the carpet, often with a very perceptible air of embarrassment. Why? For the sake of being ‘taken seriously’. This desire to squash out the perceived ‘silliness’ of older Batman media led directly to the dark ‘n’ gritty trend, and while The Dark Knight Trilogy was obviously a success, I would argue that it was at the expense of decades of character development.
The Batman of these dark ‘n’ gritty ventures is solitary, violent, and gruff beyond belief. Bleak dark caverns and a voice that sounds like it’s in desperate need of some Strepsils are exciting gimmicks for a while, but I think that it invigorates the world and the idea of Batman more than it does the man himself. Batman Begins was allegedly conceived with the intent to make people care about Bruce as well as the Bat, but I don’t think stuffing dark ‘n’ gritty special sauce down the gullets of the audience is the right way to go about eliciting an emotional attachment. I think it’s actually indicative of lazy and unimaginative writing, up there with abominations like the classic ‘cerulean blue eyes’ and the contemporary ‘barrel-rolling breasts’.
It’s packed with shout outs to bat-everything
Watching The Lego Batman Movie kind of made me wonder whether Chris McKay had somehow set up a direct feed to my brain. The Batman of the film is a brilliantly executed parody of the dark ‘n gritty Batman of recent times – brooding, solitary, angsty – with the twist being that this portrayal of the Bat is clearly making fun of his all-too-serious cousins in the Nolan, Snyder, and Schumacher universes. This Batman hisses at light, rolls on the floor like a child throwing a tantrum, and rightly has his determinedly solitary and self-destructive behaviour ridiculed by the other characters in the film. McKay’s Batman’s journey is about recognising that he is his own worst enemy, and that his strengths both as an individual and as a hero lie in his attachments to other people.
The notion of the best Bat being the one surrounded by people isn’t new. It’s been around since the canon of Golden Age comics Batman (approximately 1939-1950s), and its popularity is best demonstrated by the widespread use of the term ‘Bat Family.’ The members of this family have varied from Golden to Silver to Bronze Ages, but the notable thing is that every era of comics has had its own Bat Family. The frank truth is that any character becomes more interesting when you get to see multiple facets of them, and the Bat is no different. Dark ‘n’ gritty Batman, who often only has Alfred for company, is expected to move us because of the tragedy of his childhood. We’re supposed to empathise with his desire for justice, and so excuse his more violent and melodramatic behaviour on the condition of it having due cause.
Well, I don’t excuse it. I find it bratty – and so does The Lego Batman Movie, which goes as far to have its Alfred inflict a parental lock on the Batcave’s computer when its Batman starts acting out. This feels very pointed on McKay’s part, and I absolutely loved it. The Lego Batman Movie is packed with things like this, which could have felt like cheap shots if they weren’t executed so brilliantly, or weren’t quite as right on the money. It’s stuff like this, and also the myriad of references to the every inch of the varying Batman canons, including and even celebrating the parts that the dark ‘n’ gritty films seem to have selective amnesia about, that make The Lego Batman Movie so excellent – and so fun for fans.
I honestly felt like I was being rewarded every time there was a reference to something I knew about from all the time I spent reading everything Batman-related that I could get my grubby little mitts on as a teenager. It felt like McKay was celebrating all of Batman, from the hilaribad to the heart-warming, rather than cherry-picking the darkest parts for us with context and character development hastily amputated.
In short: Holy miraculous movie Batman, what a film!
Featured image © Warner Bros.