Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Batman: between camp and nihilism

Batman: a hero with spine
I've an essay in the new Meanjin magazine, 'Get Your Kicks in Batman '66'. I'm discussing the transition from camp 'sixties Batman to the nihilistic Dark Knight of the recent DC films. A sample:
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 actually 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 trivialize this Batman as the work of innocence: childish fun for children and other naïfs. 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. 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.

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