Dark Knight Ever Darker

Batman has always been something of a party-kill.

Say you’re talking about the latest ball scores on the Gotham Goliaths or about how your Wayne Industries stock is skyrocketing, and then Batman comes in with the depression. My parents were killed before my very eyes this, Robin died at the hands of the Joker that, blah, blah, blah. Geez, have a drink or something, Bats. Lighten up, man.

But lightening up isn’t so easy for Batman; and it’s certainly gotten no easier in the past couple of decades. We might have thought that Tim Burton’s Batman in 1990 was pretty grim and humorless, but even if he was, the world around him was all vivid color. The Joker and his red smile; the Penguin and his big yellow duckie; in contrast to Batman, the rogues gallery is positively cheerful (if also deadly).

Compare that ´90s Batman to the current incarnation, born anew in 2005’s Batman Begins. This Batman has some serious issues. Director Christopher Nolan’s take on the Dark Knight was even darker than Burton’s, which at least had some levity. Now, the villains are as grim as the hero himself -- even Heath Ledger’s Joker (played so broadly by Jack Nicholson in the Burton flick) seems to have little of the insane joy to him. The laughter has a sharper edge, the clownish face a more world-weary smile.

Nothing wrong with all this, mind you; it’s said that Ledger, in particular, could earn an Oscar nomination for this, his last full work before his early passing. And it deserves mention that the rest of the cast is superb as well; Christian Bale’s Batman is impressive, and thank god for Michael Caine (not a sentence you read often) in his role as Alfred, who brings the only lightness to an otherwise very night-ridden world.

But if you go even farther back in time, you’d find that Batman wasn’t always the grim and gritty guy that he is today. Most notably, the 1960s TV series portrayed him (brilliantly, for its purposes) as little more than a goof. The series wasn’t so much about superheroes as parodying superheroes; it was Get Smart, comic book style.

And the comic books themselves reflected this, for a time. Even before the television series, Batman was hardly what you’d call dour. He was always joking with Robin, palling around with Superman, having adventures in outer space and pulling whatever convenient rabbit he needed out of the magic hat he called his utility belt. It was the silver age of comics, when stories were short, heroes were innocent, villains were little more than naughty, and all was right with the world.

It was the TV series that really turned Batman around; in the 1970s, creators including Neal Adams railed against the increasing silliness of the character and his mythos, and started down the serious road. Batman became a master detective, a Sherlock Holmes with muscle and money, and his stories became once more about the street-level crime in which his secret identity was forged. From there it was a short leap to 1986’s Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, the source from which most of the modern Bat-attitudes have been drawn. Dour, angry, and violent. Obsessed. And very, very dark.

And more than twenty years later, he still is. Still wearing black, probably a huge fan of the Cure, Goth before Goth was cool. That’s Batman. -- Teague Bohlen The Dark Knight opens this Friday.

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes

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