I watch a dull grey sea. Below, a submarine commanded by thugs. Above, two officers of the law, stranded on a buoy. Without weapons, without armour, they are helpless. Torpedoes rush at them, detonating safely only at the last second. A third is launched, and the victims try to save themselves. But, no. Teeth clenched, the elder tells his partner that they are out of time. The consequences are obvious: this deputy and his ward will die. An explosion rocks the waves, and the criminals gloat over the ‘watery remains’. Sure enough, the two men are gone.
Am I emptied out by grief? Or flushed with righteous anger? Or at least pausing at this loss? No. This is 1966’s Batman: The Movie. Everything is safe—except plausibility.
Cut to the Batboat speeding away, Batman and Robin safe after all. ‘Gosh, Batman,’ the Boy Wonder says. ‘The nobility of the almost-human porpoise.’ A brief pause, and then: ‘True, Robin. It was noble of that animal to hurl himself into the path of that final torpedo. He gave his life for ours.’
Fifty years since Batman: The Movie was released, it has lost none of its absurdity. To begin, its world is populated with overtly silly things. Batman fights off a (rubber) shark with his fists, then with shark repellant. This spray is stocked with whale repellant in the ‘Oceanic Repellant Bat Sprays’ shelf. The Batcave is full of these labels, including ‘drinking water dispenser’, a sign that seems superfluous, but is an occupational health and safety failure: the tap also pours atomic heavy water. To enter this hideout, Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson jump down poles (Bruce’s is thicker) from the drawing room, pulling a lever that changes them into their costumes automatically. Batman’s outfit has white eyebrows drawn onto the cowl. The production is also dodgy. During a climactic fight scene, featuring choreography so bad it looks like the actors are cut and pasted from various films, we can see folds in the sky’s painted fabric. The film’s dialogue moves from pantomime melodrama to pure nonsense. Rhapsodising the hopefulness of eggs; criticising the sale of a surplus war submarine to a supervillain; defending the dignity of dockside alcoholics (‘They may be drinkers, Robin, but they’re also human beings’)—all spoken in a breathy deadpan.
It is easy to trivialise this Batman as the work of innocence: childish fun for children and other naifs. The words ‘simpler time’ are used regularly to suggest these earlier decades enjoyed a less fraught existence. This is false in general: there was no age without anxiety, cruelty—or irony. And it is false in particular. Not long before Batman: The Movie was playing Soviet détente gags in cinemas, Mao Zedong began the Cultural Revolution in communist China, and the United States was prosecuting Viet Cong sympathisers. The year 1966 saw massacres, mass shootings, coups, murder, torture, starvation—and so on. The point is straightforward enough: however surreal these stories seem, they arise from conflicted and compromised reality. We cannot infer arcadia from a satyr play.
The same is true of film. Yes, 1966 was the year of Godzilla vs the Sea Monster and Daleks—Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D., but it also saw the release of A Man for All Seasons and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? While some audiences were watching the Dynamic Duo saved by an aquatic martyr, others saw Sir Thomas More sacrificing himself for the purity of faith, or George assassinating Martha’s idea of their son. Schlock and pathos are neighbours.
Even in the often bizarre universe of silver age comics (c. 1950–70), there was social commentary or noble fantasy alongside the high kitsch. Marvel’s The X-Men highlighted bigotry by portraying superhuman mutants vilified by the very humans they safeguarded. It was formulaic and didactic, but its warnings against manic prejudice were bold. In one issue the X-Men were attacked by sentinels, giant robots designed to hunt and kill mutants. ‘He was too blind, too fanatical to realize that there are both good and bad mutants,’ Professor X thinks of the scientist who invented the robots, ‘to realize that his sentinels are the real threat.’ Simplistic, but certainly nothing from a simpler age. DC’s Batman franchise itself, pulling back from earlier science fiction pulp and love stories, reflected more of the era’s ethical and political debates. In January 1967, Detective Comics 359 introduced Batgirl, Barbara Gordon: a judo brown belt with a PhD in library science. Batgirl is a curious, brave and independent protagonist, neither a girlfriend nor a damsel—a faint reflection of the era’s liberal feminism.
So Batman: The Movie is not the work of some naive age. The showrunner and his writers chose to mock the genre. While it often makes no sense, it has its own logic: the ludicrous, the satirical, the carnivalesque. It pushes the genre to its most extreme: all the luchador drama of superheroes, amplified until the cacophony is its own new spectacle. It is camp, what Susan Sontag defined as ‘the consistently aesthetic experience of the world’. It is not trying to be plausible, to make us believe in its dangers and conquests. It is purely a semblance, an ironic performance that winks at us: I am nothing other than this performance. This is why Adam West’s Batman, like his fellow players’, is utterly serious—without complete commitment, there is nothing to stand back from, sniggering or sneering.
Importantly, this is not a rejection of some real Batman: Frank Miller’s brooding, middle-aged fascist in The Dark Knight Returns, the predecessor of Ben Affleck’s Dark Knight in the recent Batman v Superman. This is to mistake the pessimistic or cynical for the authentic. As I note in The Art of Reading, there is no real Batman, no essence against which all copies might be legitimised or declared fake. There are what philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called ‘family resemblances’ between these Batmans; competing or colluding traits, which offer no single definition. Most Batmans are Bruce Wayne, but in the Flashpoint universe his father Thomas puts on the cowl. Most Batmans are modern, secular men, but Alan Brennert’s hero in Batman: Holy Terror is a seminary student in a theocratic United States; Elliot Maggin’s Batman: The Blue, The Grey, and the Bat features a cowboy Dark Knight in Civil War America, with revolvers and bat-branded horses. Most Batmans do not kill in cold blood, but the very first, written in 1939, was a murderer—Detective Comics 27 features Bat-Man punching an evil capitalist into an acid tank (‘A fitting end for his kind’). And Batman himself was one version of earlier pulp tropes: the private detective, the good guy with gadgets, the masked man in black. (Even Marvel has its own contemporary Wayne hero: The Rider, from Jonathan Hickman’s epic New Avengers.)
Batman: The Movie can be criticised for its thin plotting and portrayal of Batman; for its lack of trust in the character’s dramatic conflicts or even pathos. But it does not reflect some childish epoch, nor is it a counterfeit of some bona fide superhero coin. It is one version of the Batman story among many, in a genre of countless iterations and alternatives.
More interesting is how close the 1966 film and series are to director Zach Snyder’s recent blockbuster, Batman v Superman. Of course, one is vibrant and tongue-in-cheek, the other gloomy and grave. Batman: The Movie toys with crime without danger, whereas Snyder’s film is thick with hate, rage, brutality and pain—the two titular super-heroes try to kill or cripple one another. But what they have in common is a weightlessness: not of tone, but of significance. In the Adam West franchise, it genuinely does not matter how Catwoman, Riddler, Joker and Penguin threaten Batman or his fellow Gotham citizens. With camp comes safety, but also a liberation from the story: we commit to the spectacle, not the depicted world and its perils. Likewise for Snyder’s expressionist experiment: the violence is realistically portrayed, but it concerns ciphers. Despite good performances, the characters have little compelling presence. Batman’s fury and malice seem artificial, his doings and undergoings alien to him and his intimates. It is a succession of tableaux, with striking colours, lines, textures, but barely any psyches or story. In this light, Batman v Superman is not only dull but also superficial: a surface of light and shade, not a tale that invites care. What these two Batman tales have in common is the sense that, regardless of the suffering or joy depicted, nothing of any lasting consequence happens. There is no gravity, just Milan Kundera’s ‘lightness of being’.
For Batman: The Movie this is a success. The showrunner wanted a piss-take, and he got one: a bizarre version of the comics, which refuses to take them or itself seriously. With commitment ruled out, we enjoy carefree spectacle instead. This is not my Batman—this dubious honour goes to authors such as Scott Snyder, Mark Millar, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Jim Starlin—but it is a Batman nonetheless. For Batman v Superman, the weightlessness is a failure. It gropes at gravitas, existential reflection, political debate, historical homage, but its fists are mostly empty. The point is not that superhero films cannot be moving, intellectually stimulating, hilarious or just thrilling—from The Crow to The Dark Knight, Deadpool to Captain America: The Winter Soldier—but that this movie fails to offer much worthy of sincerity or irony. Its Batman is more brand than mythos.
This is partly a symptom of the usual capitalist illnesses. Superhero films are profitable right now. They ask little psychologically, translate well into international markets such as China, and can draw on a century of cheap pulp novelty. They also solve complex political and ethical problems by punching things, working well in an age of simple individualism. There are no ‘wicked problems’ in Gotham City, to say nothing of Marxian or Bourdieusian class analysis. Batman himself is a billionaire who often uses the Wayne fortune to work out his own psychodrama with violence against the poor and mentally ill. While I stand by the philosophical worth of this genre, its market value is obvious. This, in turn, means its products are always in danger of corruption by the economic motives of the field. Part of Batman v Superman’s failure, like that of Marvel’s Age of Ultron, is commercial: having to introduce the franchise to a mass audience. It paid for itself by doing just enough to set up another six films, while covering its own costs. At least Batman: The Movie offered some escape from dreary, selfish, thoughtless swagger.
So what, if anything, is the appeal of Batman v Superman? Leaving aside Affleck’s forcefulness, the occasional fine choreography, or introduction of Wonder Woman, Snyder’s film seems to offer a very particular mood. A mood, or what philosopher Martin Heidegger called a Stimmung, is not simply an emotion or idea. These are too fleeting, rising and falling within experience. Mood guides our experience. To be in this, what Heidegger calls a ‘state of mind’, is not simply to throw a subjective feeling over objective stuff. It is the way we always and everywhere meet anything at all, including ourselves. ‘The fact that moods can deteriorate and change over,’ Heidegger wrote in Being and Time, ‘means simply that in every case [the human being] always has some mood.’ The Stimmung is fundamental.
Artworks can promote moods; can suggest, intimate, provoke, goad. They cannot make one mood or another in the audience—but they can invite it. So well before analysing Batman: The Movie’s pop art palette or examining Bruce Wayne’s paranoia in Batman v Superman, I am encouraged to encounter the world in one way or another.
The mood of Batman: The Movie is joie de vivre. It is ironic, mocking, aloof—but suggests a celebration of sorts. Here we are, humans: silly, small animals, struggling and fighting while the universe laughs. This is not cruel: it is a fond humour, which sees itself in the characters. This absurd Batman is all of us, taking it all so seriously—and knowing full well that much of it is exhausting, ugly and futile. If, as Sontag suggests, camp is the antithesis of tragedy, this must be an intimate antagonism. For it is in reply to the tragic universe—vulnerable, changeable, in which good character is undone by luck, and all things end in death—that camp giggles and snorts. It cannot last, this smile. The universe of stuff must be taken seriously again, if life is not to be wasted. But for a little while, I meet the world and myself with a casual ‘yes’.
The mood of Batman v Superman, like Man of Steel before it, is equally remote but has no joy. It neither laughs at itself nor commits to its tragic cosmos. Perhaps the word for this is ‘nihilism’: commitment to nothing much at all, without even irony to give it a buzz. But whatever word is used, the chief state of mind here is weariness: of the film itself, but also of heroism, loyalty, physicality, love—the standard superhero tropes. It evokes in me a kind of ennui, without the romanticism this suggests. To riff on Heidegger, Snyder’s Batman leaves me seeing existence as a burden—but one to shrug off, not to carry. What kinds of audience want to be fed up with life, moving from one thin distraction to the next? The kinds that need the next film, I guess—and then the next one, and then …