On Outraging Batman’s Dignity

There is a multiplicity of Batmans from the grim and gritty Dark Knight currently on film, Adam West’s swinging Batman from the 1960s Batman television show, Frank Miller’s Goddamn Batman, the Batmans of the DC Animated Universe tilted more towards adults and the ones geared for all ages, and there is LEGO Batman in games, on film and in animated series of his own.  Teasing Batman is just a bit like teasing a cat. It’s amusing, and probably dangerous. And some Batmans are just more tempting and outrageable than others.

Poking at Edmond Hamilton, Sheldon Moldoff and Stan Kaye’s Batman with a Bat-closet full of uniforms in all the colors of the rainbow—including a rainbow-colored one—is much less satisfying than poking more recent incarnations. And Adam West’s Batman is not embarrassed by his emotions at all. His Batman is earnestly of his world, defending the citizens of Gotham; acting as a role model for his young ward, Dick Grayson; and dancing the Batusi when the occasion calls for it. Similarly, the Batman of Batman: The Brave And The Bold also takes the threats of his world seriously, his dignity untouched by fighting giant mutant Easter Bunnies or teaming up with Detective Chimp. Though he’s still a bit of a control freak and is tasked by Bat-Mite, his biggest fan, who also addresses members of the audience who find this Batman not as cool as they’d like.

Dectective Comics rainbow batman

The Batman of Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League and Justice League Unlimited is somewhere in-between. He has elements of gloomy Batman, but the stories poke his presentation just a bit because underlying this Batman is not a psychopath using pathology for good, but a hurt person covering himself up to avoid being hurt againand striving to prevent anyone else from losing what he has lost. The LEGO Batman games take most after this Batman, and they are well-aware of the fun of impinging on Batman’s dignity and self-image.

Both Screen Editor alex and I have written about Batman and the LEGO Batman games. (Here, here, here, here, and here). Where the first LEGO Batman made me think about the Eternal Return and the lessons of never dying, LEGO Batman 3: Beyond Gotham (Travellers Tales, 2014) made me think about the way Batman hides himself and the villainous temptation to unmask him. One of LEGO Batman 3‘s pleasures for me is poking at Batman and Batman’s grumpy responses. Batman tries hard to take his world of toy villains and smashing stuff to solve problems seriously and is in his element in the opening level, where he chases down Killer Croc in the sewers of Gotham City. But meanwhile, in outer space, Brainiac has harnessed the power of the leaders of the various Lantern Corps, all of whom get their powers from emotions (and willpower). Batman is so down with willpower, but not so much with emotion.

Lego Batman poster

As he tells Robin during a fight on the planet Qward, a fight in which the villainous Yellow Lantern Sinestro has tapped into the fears of the gathered heroes, “I’ve buried my emotions for so long that [he] can’t find anything I’m scared of.”

Of course, this is true in the sense that Sinestro can’t find something to scare Batman, but Batman does have feelings. Everyone sorta knows that Batman has more going on than “I am the night,” but his friends largely pretend they don’t. Alfred is certainly very discreet about Batman’s front. Batman is the only loner living in a cave I know who keeps recreating a family for himself. One of the essential truths about Batman, as true as his decision to fight the cowardly and superstitious criminal lot by dressing up as a bat or that he is motivated by the death of his parents, is that wherever he goes, he makes a Bat-family.

All Star Batman And Robin 1 Goddamn Batman

Even the Goddamn Batman kidnaps himself a protege. The game generally turns away from directly confronting Batman with this truth about himself, but when there’s unlockable characters ranging from Alfred and Batgirl, to Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, Red Hood, Batmite, Ace the Bat-hound and Bat-cow*, well, it’s clear that Batman pretty much just lies to himself that he doesn’t need anyone.

Like many supervillains, LEGO Batman 3 targets Batman in his most vulnerable spot: emotions. And not just just dark, angry, vengeful ones. Not his white cold wrath and his Goddamn Batmanness. No, they target his mushy emotions, like in the Justice League Unlimited episode, “This Little Piggie,” when Batman makes a deal with Circe, after she’s transformed Wonder Woman into a pig. Circe assails Batman’s dignity by demanding that he sing.

Or in the Batman: The Animated Series episode, “Christmas with the Joker,” the Joker tries to get Batman into the spirit of the season, planning a city-wide heist/Christmas special just so {SPOILER} Batman will take a cream pie in the puss {Spoiler Ends}.

Christmas with the Joker

That Christmas special cardigan.

The Joker is always, with greater and lesser degrees of mendacity, trying to get Batman to lighten up and display a sense of humor.

While one can play LEGO Batman 3 without paying much attention to the over-arching story, there is one. Brainiac is using the power of the various Lanterns for an evil scheme. If you don’t know who or what the Lanterns are or you haven’t paid attention to the DC universe in a while, the Lanterns are an extension of the Green Lantern concept. The first Green Lantern of the game, Hal Jordan, uses a ring powered by a lantern filled with green energy and controlled and focused by his will. (Green Lantern John Stewart is an unlockable character later in the game). Jordan’s rival, Sinestro, leader of the Yellow Lantern Corps, seeks to control and improve the universe through the power of fear (and the creepy spiders his power ring automatically creates when you play as him). I’m not even going to get into Jordan’s relationship with Star Sapphire, but she is the leader of the Zamarons, who get their powers from love. Recently, DC decided to go whole hog and have all the colors of the visible light spectrum associated with a particular emotion used by different Lantern Corps. And then these colors/emotions/powers were united by the White Lantern to face the Black Hand, leader of the Black Lanterns. Because optics and color theory. These kind of events leave me cold, so I was a bit disappointed when I saw that the Lanterns were a focal point of the game’s storyline. But I shouldn’t have worried because LEGO Batman 3 is much more like the Justice League in space and the Lanterns become a way of looking at Batman and his emotions.

Lego Batman 3 Robin Hurt

“Robin…is going to get hurt.”

 

When Batman’s mind is taken over by Brainiac, and he begins to destroy the Batcave early in the game, Robin gives a heartfelt speech asking Batman to fight the mind control and to remember who he is. Robin believes this speech is what made Batman come back to his senses. Batman believes that it was an electrical shock that freed him. Because science and emotion cooties. Whenever Robin winds up to give another speech to try and save another hero from Brainaic, Batman tells him with increasing annoyance, “It wasn’t the speech.”

Travellers Tales doesn’t overdo it, so I didn’t really pay attention to Batman’s emotional arc in the story till the end of the game. I was too busy smashing stuff, flying around in space and collecting characters to play with. (Three versions of Catwoman including Julie Newmar!) The emotional arc isn’t heavy-handed, but it’s there. Batman believes he’s only good at being Batman because he has repressed his emotions so thoroughly. And Batman is right to a point. Sinestro has no effect on Batman because Batman is so disassociated from his emotions. But when Batman can’t feel his own fear, he can’t access the Yellow Lantern’s power battery to complete his mission. And every second Batman doesn’t feel his fear, he puts Robin in danger. Hal Jordan tells him, “You need to be scared.”

And Robin adds, “You need your emotions, Batman.”

In that moment, Batman sees Robin dangled over hot lava (a lovely touch) and thinks, “Robin is going to get hurt.”

“Killed” isn’t appropriate because it’s an all ages game and because no one ever dies in this world. But I kind of like this because comics rely too much on death as a motivating force.** Not being able to use that, means the writers have to figure something else out. And really, your friend possibly getting hurt should be motivation enough.

In the end, Batman realizes his friends are right that he needs his emotions and that it’s okay to have all of them, even when they are uncomfortable or embarrassing. He’s grumbly about it, but he doesn’t have to like it. That’s okay, too, because he’s still the Dark Knight and because it’s entertaining to watch. It’s not a bad message for Batman, kids, or anyone, really.

Now let’s all dance the Batusi.

 

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 3.31.10 PM

Everybody dance!

*Travellers Tales is somewhat constrained by the current characters and costumes in the DCU, but they do add some swell extras, like Adam West and a whole level dedicated to the Sixties Batman tv show. The Joker for that level even has a little painted over mustache, as Cesar Romero did in his Joker heyday.  But including this other Batman is not just a reminder of Batman’s multiple forms and essential unity, but just underscores again how even Batman has feelings and how maybe we should all do the Batusi once in a while.

**some day I will write about how I think that Felicia Day getting a broken leg in “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog” is a more appropriate consequence to something so low stakes.

 

~~~

She is the night. She is vengeance. She is the Goddamn Carol Borden.

This piece was originally published by The Cultural Gutter on Dec. 3, 2015.

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