Published on 3rd August, 2014 in The Speaking Tree.
Seventy-five years ago, a hero was created in North America. His name was Batman. His real name was Bruce Wayne, a playboy millionaire, who as a child witnessed the murder of his parents by gangsters in a street alley and swore to cleanse his city of all crime. He prepared himself by becoming a martial arts expert and by creating numerous scientific gadgets especially the bat-mobile, a car that can turn into a bike, a submarine, and even a plane. He also created a costume for himself that enabled him to fly and most importantly hide his identity. Like a bat, he appeared only in the night and spent the day preparing in his laboratory and hideout, the bat cave. Born in the 1939, the hero continues to have a vast fan following, not because crime continues to infest his mythical Gotham city, but because he has been reinvented several times in comic books, in animation films, in television series and Hollywood films.
1939 marks the start of the Second World War. The years before that marked the Great Depression, a global economic slump, rise in bootlegging due to prohibition and the consequent rise in organised crime in the cities of North America. To bring hope to the Americans, Action Comics introduced the world’s first superhero called Superman in 1938, who was dressed in red and blue (the colours of the American flag), who was clean shaven, represented all that was good and great about America, and most important was an immigrant, taking shelter from another planet, Krypton. He was a man of steel, stronger than anyone, capable of flight and X-ray vision. And he fought evil scientists like Lex Luthor and Braniac, while pretending to be a simple lovable reporter called Clark Kent. The success of Superman led to the creation of Batman by Detective Comics of National Publications (later DC comics).
Batman was different. He was not from another planet. He did not have superpowers. He was a victim of gangster crime. He was not a farm boy; he was rich and brilliant. While Superman’s enemies were evil geniuses who used brainpower, Batman was a genius himself inventing various crime fighting tools like the batmobile, the batplane, the characteristic multi-purpose utility belt and the boomerang-like batarang. Then there was the bat-signal that could be flashed across the night sky by the Gotham Police Department to inform Batman that he was needed, just as tolling church bells informed angels in heaven they were needed to save the faithful from the forces of evil. He imitated bats, but unlike Count Dracula who could turn himself into a bat, he was a tortured saviour, not a minion of the Devil.
In the early years, Batman did not agonize over killing criminals. He did all his fighting alone like a lone ranger. In the post-war period, the dark decaying city of Gotham was replaced by bright cheerfulness to create positive reinforcement amongst children growing up in a new world order. Violence was toned down and when it appeared it was full of funny onscreen captions that said: “Sock!”, “Pow!” and “Wham!” There was no more use of gun or display of killing. The macho pulp style was softened by the introduction of a young sidekick called Robin dressed in red and green, who joined him in his adventures. He was created because just as Sherlock Holmes had a Watson, Batman needed someone to talk to.
In the 1970s, Batman and Robin were part of a popular television series that was high on ‘camp’ — a style that is over-the-top, gaudy and tongue-in-cheek. The costume and music evoked laughter. And it led to speculations that Batman was gay, and probably in a relationship with Robin. These speculations turned to accusations that young children were being corrupted by such underlying homoerotic themes. The publishers and the fans were not amused. Robin was killed, and all efforts were made to show Batman did love girls by introducing female sidekicks and Batgirl and Batwoman. But the subtext persists.
Hollywood films transformed Batman dramatically. He became a brooding vigilante. He was not just the World’s Greatest Detective; he was now Dark Knight and Caped Crusader. One cannot escape the use of medieval and biblical descriptions. His scowl was contrasted by the sneer of his greatest enemy, Joker, with a false smile. His monastic lonesome stance was contrasted by the very sexual Catwoman whose clothing evoked sado-masochistic sexual imagery, and Poison Ivy, the eco-terrorist whose kiss is poisonous. In contrast to very sexy female foes, the male foes were typically ugly as we see in case Penguin and Two-Face, leading to observations related to sexism and internalised homophobia. His body suit in the films was now sculpted so that he looked like the perfect macho Greek hero, a far cry from the campy tights of the 1970s shows. And yes, the films— except the 1997 Batman & Robin that tried unsuccessfully to go back to the old campy style — give a lot of importance to Batman’s tortured and tragic romantic relationships with women.
The transformation of Batman from pulp hero who fought gangsters, to campy hero with a sidekick called Robin, to the Dark Knight, reflects change in American society. That Gotham is always dark and grey, constantly on the brink of a terrible crisis, makes one wonder the American worldview with its obsession for vigilante form of justice belying its lack of faith in the justice system. Something Batman needs to think about on his seventy-fifth birthday.