Thursday, December 7, 2017

Growing Into Batmanhood

The Batman I was first introduced to as a small child was the swashbuckling, dry-humored adventurer of Super Friends and the 1966 Adam West TV series. This Batman was based on the character as depicted in comic books from the 1940s through the 1960s, a cross between an overgrown child and a child's fantasy of a father figure. He was everything a young boy could hope for in a dad--a rich, powerful man who adopted the orphaned Robin, spent all his time having fantastic adventures with the boy, had a ready-made solution for every problem imaginable, and constantly spouted trite wisdom, often in the form of bad puns. For all his fatherliness, though, this Batman was a child emotionally, with his black-and-white morality (everyone in his world is either a hero or a villain), his disregard for any kind of real-world responsibilities outside of fighting crime (Bruce Wayne's profession is "playboy"), and his disinterest in romance (he constantly rejected the advances of supervillainesses, superheroines, and damsels in distress alike, claiming that women would be a distraction from his mission, but he may as well have said, "Girls have cooties").

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Even in the "imaginary" stories where Batman got married, he behaved like a bratty child.

In the comic books of the 1970s through 1990s, Batman "grew up," as more realistic stories and artwork depicted him as a dark avenger, constantly brooding over his parents' murder. I was introduced to this grim and gritty Batman first through Tim Burton's 1989 film, which debuted when I was nine, and then through the comic books I started reading when I was twelve. Going into my teenage years, I loved how "adult" this Batman was, as this allowed me to continue enjoying a childhood favorite while distancing myself from the elements of the character I now saw as childish. In retrospect, I see this Batman as a teenage fantasy of adulthood, in reality an emotional teenager himself. He obsessed over a childhood tragedy as only a teenager could, distanced himself from the people who loved him with claims that he works best alone, and constantly flirted with femme fatales like Talia al Ghul and Catwoman without ever daring to commit to anything resembling a healthy relationship.

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Batman got married once in the 1980s, but only because Talia slipped him a roofie. 

In the 2000s and 2010s, it has been refreshing to see Batman grow up emotionally along with me. It started in the comic books with the character embracing his family of Robins and Batgirls, like a young man realizing he really does love his family after spending his teenage years trying to avoid them for fear their lameness would rub off on him. Slowly, self-aware humor has crept into the stories, as when Ben Affleck's Batman says in Justice League that his superpower is being rich. This is a man who recognizes that dressing up as a bat to fight crime because you made a promise to your dead parents when you were eight is kind of silly, but embraces it because it's who he is. This is a man who enjoys what he does, knows himself, and acknowledges that he needs others. I've particularly enjoyed recent Batman comics, written by Tom King, where after 78 years of flirting Batman has finally proposed to Catwoman and they are exploring their relationship with surprising emotional maturity. They open up to each other, they make themselves vulnerable, and they go beyond melodramatic, angsty, adolescent sexual tension to actually making each other happy.

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What? Batman admitting he has emotions like fear and love? This is new. 

I don't know where Batman will go from here, but I hope the character continues to grow up with me. Here's hoping Batman comics of the 2060s explore the challenges of wearing adult diapers under spandex!

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