We all know that the character of Batman is the 21st-century version of Hamlet. It’s a given. Every great Hollywood actor must at some point attempt to put their own spin on the enigmatic crime-fighter. If Laurence Olivier were alive today he would have dressed in the cowl, given a hammy monologue about the duality of man, all while beating up Killer Croc (played by John Gielgud).
With each rendition, Batman’s humanity gains another dimension: Christian Baledemonstrates Man’s tortured soul, Michael Keaton reflects Man’s extravagant showiness, and George Clooney represents Man’s desire to get a lucrative sideline selling Nespresso.
In this cavalcade of Batmaniacal acting talent, one is always dismissed out of hand. Adam West, the original screen Batman, who died last week, is remembered not as the grandfather of all Batmen, but rather as a doddery, camp uncle. With his over-the-top punches and ridiculous plotlines – a surprising number of which involve surfing competitions against the Joker, West is seen by some as the man who undermined Batman’s credibility, who defiled this great character for years before it was finally claimed from the clutches of kitsch by Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan. To those people, I say “FLRBBBBB!” (the sound of West punching someone). I put it to you that not only is West’s Batman the most fun, it is also the most subversive and truthful Batman we can hope to ever witness.
People looking back at the old Batman show, which ran from 1966 to 1968, say that it has aged horribly. “It’s so camp and ridiculous! Batman is supposed to be SERIOUS,” they rage, before going to Comic-Con and getting into arguments over whether Joseph Gordon Levitt was Robin or Nightwing while dressed up in a full-length DKR costume. In reality though, a comparison between the two will never work because one is an action film and the other is an out-and-out comedy. From watching old episodes of 1960s Batman, it’s clear the show is genuinely hilarious: take a scene where Batman is holding a massive novelty explosive – he looks around twice before sighing: “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.” Or the time he presses pause on catching up bad guys to correct Robin’s grammar.
The whole thing makes the current incarnation of Batman baffling – how did we go from this likeable punning idiot to Ben Affleck killing 21 people, all while wearing a face like a slapped Batbutt? It’s the equivalent of doing a dark and edgy reboot of Fawlty Towers, where Basil is played by Michael Fassbender and his years of poor customer service have led to him becoming a brooding drug addict, whose only joy in life comes from beating up his small Spanish sidekick (played broodingly by Javier Bardem).
The problem is that Batman is an inherently dumb character. He’s a billionaire socialite who goes around dressed up as his least favourite animal, and beats up poor people in his spare time with a bunch of homemade gadgets. Put that in the real world – it would be as if Paris Hilton started dressing up like a sloth and attacking people with a toaster superglued to a blender. Now I’m not saying I don’t want to see a film about that – in fact, oh god, how can we turn that into a film? – but it just might be best to play it as a comedy.
In fairness to a lot of superhero movies, their fundamental silliness is being played for laughs more often these days – Marvel movies in particular, with 25 releases per year, now have an obligatory number of jokes in each film. Iron Man will joke around about shawarma for a good 15 minutes before discovering the evil villain’s plot, while even Thor, the Philip Hammond of superheroes (ostensibly powerful, really dull, but has a huge six pack), looks like he gets to make a few jokes in the new trailer. But there’s still the issue of all of these films having to interconnect and “matter” – comedy director Edgar Wright was down to do Ant-Man before he quit, supposedly because the studio’s demands that he fit in with the cinematic universe didn’t allow him enough free rein.