Released: 23 April 2002 Originally Released: 31 October 2000 Director: Curt Geda Distributor: Warner Home Video Budget: Unknown Stars: Will Friedle, Mark Hamill, Kevin Conroy, Angie Harmon, and Dean Stockwell
The Plot: When the Joker (Hamill) suddenly returns from his apparent death and begins terrorising Neo-Gotham, Terry McGinnis/Batman (Friedle) is forced to go against the advice of his mentor, Bruce Wayne (Conroy), and begin an investigation into the darkest chapter of the former Batman’s career.
The Background: Although a Batman animated series had been in the works during 1990, the release, and relative success, of Batman (Burton, 1989) and Batman Returns (ibid, 1992) caused a wave of “Batmania” and renewed interest in the character. Consequently, quite by chance, the idea of a new animated series influenced by both films and the 1940s Superman cartoons by Fleisher Studios, was thought up Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and Eric Radomski, who spearheaded one of the most beloved and influential animated shows ever. Batman: The Animated Series aired eighty-five episodes between September 1992 and 1995 before being succeeded by twenty-four episodes of The New Batman Adventures (also known as The Adventures of Batman & Robin here in the United Kingdom) between 1997 and 1999.
Once the show wrapped up, Warner Bros. brought many of the show’s creators back to continue the story in the then-futuristic world of 2019 with Batman Beyond (known as Batman of the Future in the U.K.) Batman Beyond introduced a younger Batman under the tutelage of an aged and long-retired Bruce Wayne and taking on all-new villains in a cyberpunk-style future. Though not quite as well-received and lauded as its predecessors or sister series, Batman Beyond was popular enough to warrant a direct-to-video feature film over other potential Batman concepts. Because the film’s production occurred in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, numerous cuts and edits were made to the film upon its release, with an “uncut” version being released once the controversy had died down. Regardless, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker released to critical acclaim, winning (or being nominated for) a number of awards, and is frequently regarded as one of the finest pieces of Batman media to ever be produced.
The Review: My exposure to Batman Beyond is, admittedly, very limited; I watched Batman: The Animated Series on and off back in the day, never seeming to be able to get into a proper routine with it, but saw very little of its futuristic follow-up. When I did catch the odd episode, I can’t say that it really bowled me over; it was too different, too far removed from what I expected from Batman, with virtually none of the recognisable cast or characters. Hell, even Gotham City looked and felt different, and the show had very bleak and depressing connotations for fans of Batman: The Animated Series in its portrayal of Bruce as a grouchy, lonely, recluse. Still, the idea of an older, infirm Bruce mentoring a young successor had a lot of appeal to me and is definitely something I would have liked to see the comics do (particularly during the character’s “death” between 2008 and 2010). Despite that, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker is well deserving of all the praise it gets; while I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s better than, or even on par with, the excellent Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (Radomski and Timm, 1993), very few of Batman’s animated features are able to reach that pinnacle and I’d say Return of the Joker does a decent job of coming pretty damn close.
While I’m lacking a lot of context for many of the film’s newer rogues, it’s not much of an issue since the “Jokerz” are generally just minions and cannon fodder to do the Joker’s bidding and to oppose Batman, though I did appreciate how their designs harkened back to Batman foes of old (with Stewart Carter Winthrop III/Ghoul (Michael Rosenbaum) resembling Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow and Delia and Deidre Dennis/Dee Dee (Melissa Joan Hart) aping Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn). The feature opens with an exciting action sequence featuring lots of laser blasts, explosions, mid-air chases, and action as Batman tries, and fails, to stop the Jokerz from stealing some high-tech computer parts. Despite all the advantages of Terry’s advanced Batsuit (including rocket boots, invisibility, and augmentations to his speed and strength), and the fact that he’s been Batman for a while now, Terry is still in training in many ways; he’s more experienced and capable but he’s still fallible and capable of messing up or being hurt. At times, though, I find him to be very reliant on the suit and the strength and other benefits it provides; it often feels like he was playing into the cliché of the role rather than being his own man at times but he manages to stand out by being a far more agile and witty Batman and approaching situations slightly differently than Bruce would/advises.
Despite Bruce commending his work and commitment to the role, Terry is insulted when his mentor requests that he return the Batsuit in the wake of the Joker’s return. Terry initially refuses to acquiesce, seeing the role as a chance to make up for his past sins and troubled youth and confirming his commitment to helping others as Batman, and pushes both Bruce and Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Angie Harmon) for the truth about the Joker. This becomes a recurring element in the film, with Terry disliking the comparisons to Bruce’s old partners and striving to prove his worth as Batman rather than a pale imitation or a failed apprentice. This comes to a head in his inevitable confrontation with the Joker, in which Terry fights dirty with a crotch shot and constantly taunts the Joker, laughing at him, criticising his methods, and mocking him to drive the Joker into an angered frenzy.
Bruce, of course, is now a grouchy, crotchety, tough mentor figure who has an interesting relationship with Terry, one that he clearly prefers to keep professional and mutual but you can tell that he values Terry as a replacement/apprentice. Though he’s clearly carrying a lot of ghosts and pain from his past, Bruce is as committed to both Batman and reclaiming his business and has absorbed a lot of wisdom from the long-dead Alfred Pennyworth, showing concern for Terry’s health and well-being and advising against going out on the town after a rough night as Batman, but lacks Alfred’s tact or bedside manner. Bruce’s stoic resolve is shaken upon the Joker’s return; he is visibly horrified by the Clown Prince of Crime’s reappearance and lapses first into moody silence and then into overprotectiveness after verifying the Joker’s identity. Bruce is disgusted at Terry’s sentiment, believing he is as misguided as his other teen partners who never knew what they were getting into, and a rift briefly forms between them because of Bruce’s refusal to explain his troubled past with the Joker. They make amends, however, when Terry saves Bruce from a dose of the Joker’s laughing gas, which is a horrifying sight since Bruce is accosted in his most private abode and the Joker explicitly reveals that he knows Bruce was Batman. Disturbed by being attacked in his civilian identity, Terry races to Wayne Manor and discovers the ‘cave in disarray and Bruce a cackling, grinning corpse-like figure. Succumbing to the Joker’s deadly toxin, Bruce just about manages to direct Terry to the anti-venom, and he is saved from certain death.
The Joker is, perhaps obviously, the star of the show here; as always, Mark Hamill delivers a sinister, maniacal performance that perfectly encapsulates Batman’s most persistent of foes. The Joker immediately establishes himself as a menacing and cold-hearted villain by callously shooting Benjamin Knox/Bonk (Henry Rollins) through the heart with the old “fake gun” trick and brazenly attacks the gala welcoming Bruce back to Wayne Enterprises. Though the Joker is critical, but admiring, of the new Batman, he dismisses him at every turn (referring to him as “Bat-Fake”) in favour of Bruce and wastes little time in setting in motion his plot to take control of an orbiting satellite and use its laser-firing capabilities to deliver massive damage to Gotham and commemorate his return.
Due to the unexpected and impossible nature of the Joker’s return, much of the film revolves around Terry trying to uncover the details of his last appearance and how and why the Joker has resurfaced, apparently from the grave. With Bruce and Barbara being tight-lipped on the matter, Terry pays a visit to the aged Tim Drake (Stockwell), formally Robin, believing him to be involved somehow. Though now happy, healthy, married, and long retied from the role, Drake is still able to detect Batman even with his fancy cloaking technology, but denies any involvement in the matter, expressing only regret and bitterness at the entire debacle and his gratitude at having left the life behind. When Terry’s next suspect, Jordan Pryce (Hamill), also turns out to be little more than a middle man, he briefly despairs at his inability to duplicate Bruce’s deductive skills and reasoning only to finally solve the mystery by observing the deliberate nature of the Joker’s attack on the Batcave and the common thread that links all the materials he’s stolen, proving again that Terry might not be quite on the same level as his predecessor but is still capable of solving mysteries in his own, unique way.
The Nitty-Gritty: Of course, the true extent of the Joker’s villainy and viciousness isn’t exposed until Barbara reveals the tragic details of their last encounter with the Joker through a flashback to some thirty years ago when Batman, Barbara-as-Batgirl (Tara Strong), and Robin were acting as a crimefighting trio; one night, while out solo, Robin was kidnapped by Harley Quinn and held captive by the Joker for three weeks. After aggressively hounding the underworld, the duo was finally lured to the rundown, partially demolished Arkham Asylum by the Joker. There, they are horrified to find that Joker and Harley (Arleen Sorkin) have brainwashed and tortured Robin into being their surrogate son, Joker Jr/J.J. and that, despite Tim’s willpower and strength, he eventually cracked and told them everything about Batman and his operation, revealing his true identity (much to the Joker’s disappointment) and transforming Tim into a disfigured, cackling little Joker-boy
During the highly emotionally-charged fight that consequently breaks out, Harley appears to fall to her death (despite Batgirl’s attempt to save her) and Batman, overwhelmed by his anger, is baited by the Joker, who gleeful shows video footage of Tim’s torture, taunting Batman and his crusade/motivation and receiving a vicious beating as a result (Batman even threatens to “break [him] in two!” in a chilling moment). However, after being incapacitated by the Joker, Batman can only watch helplessly as Tim shockingly chooses to shoot the Joker through the heart rather than kill his mentor, breaking down into a cackling flood of tears afterwards. It’s a truly horrific and terrifying fate for poor little Tim Drake and which, clearly, has fundamentally soured Batman’s character ever since and led to him alienating all of his closest allies in his twilight years. Though Drake recovered from this horrendous experience, it turns out that the Joker has been “possessing” Tim’s body using a special chip he implanted during Robin’s capture and torture; Tim is completely unaware of the Joker’s influence and the Joker has been able to take over more and more often to the point where he can make the change at will and is on the verge of possessing Tim forever. When Batman confronts Drake about his involvement with the Joker, the former Robin grows confused and disorientated before becoming more and more agitated and crazed, incapacitating Batman’s suit and descending into maniacal laughter, literally transforming into the Joker before our eyes in a spine-chilling moment.
With the Joker’s destructive laser damaged and now heading directly towards their location, Batman and Joker engage in a surprisingly evenly-matched fist fight; it seems possessing Drake’s body as afforded Joker the means to go toe-to-toe with the much younger and more formidable Terry but, just as the Joker is about to throttle the life out of him, Batman uses the Joker’s own electrified joy buzzer to short out and destroy the chip on Tim’s neck, defeating the Joker once and for all and returning Tim to his body, sanity, and consciousness. In the end, Batman gets Tim to safety, allowing the former Robin to finally reconcile with Bruce, Harley is revealed to be alive (though a grouchy old woman), Tim (and, more importantly, Bruce) commends Terry’s abilities as Batman, and Terry flies off into the night to continue the never-ending fight as the Batman of the future.
The Summary: Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker is an action-packed adventure, to be sure, but also easily the darkest of Batman’s animated features; Batman Beyond was already quite a bitter and cynical end for Batman and his allies, with Bruce ending up a grouchy old man with none of his friends or family left, but Return of the Joker really hammers home how bleak Batman’s later years became. Using elements of the “Death in the Family” storyline (Starlin, et al, 1988), Return of the Joker really sticks it to any fans of Robin by having Tim relentlessly tortured and abused and even hinting that Dick Grayson is just as bitter and full of regret as Tim and Bruce. Thankfully, amidst all this bleakness, there is new hope in the form of Terry, a young and very capable but also very different Batman who helps to bring some of the fire and meaning back to an otherwise jaded Bruce. Return of the Joker is framed as Terry’s ultimate test, one that no one else believes he is ready for thanks to the danger and near-mythical threat of the Joker. Throughout it all, though, Terry remains resolute and confident and is able to defeat the Joker in a way that Bruce never could.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
What did you think of Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker and where would you rank it against other animated Batman films? Which version of the film do you prefer? Were you a fan of Batman Beyond? Whatever your thoughts, leave a comment down below and check back in next Tuesday for Batman Day!
In April of 1940, about a year after the debut of arguably their most popular character, Bruce Wayne/Batman, DC Comics debuted “the sensational find of [that year]”, Dick Grayson/Robin. Since then, Batman’s pixie-boots-wearing partner has changed outfits and a number of different characters have assumed the mantle as the Dynamic Duo of Batman and Robin have become an iconic staple of DC Comics. Considering my fondness for the character and those who assumed the mantle over the years, what better way to celebrate this dynamic debut than to dedicate an entire month to celebrating the character?
Released: 12 June 1997 Director: Joel Schumacher Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures Budget: $160 million Stars: George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Uma Thurman, Alicia Silverstone, Jeep Swenson, and Michael Gough
The Plot: Gotham City is under siege from Doctor Victor Fries/Mister Freeze (Schwarzenegger), who is intent on freezing the city in order to save his critically-ill wife, Nora (Vendela Kirsebom). At the same time, Pamela Isley/Poison Ivy (Thurman) finds herself endowed with a poison kiss and irresistible pheromones, which she uses to turn Bruce Wayne/Batman (Clooney) and Dick Grayson/Robin (O’Donnell) against each other and distract them from her plot to turn nature against humanity.
The Review: Although it’s easy to pretend that Schumacher’s films are in their own bubble, that they’re not related to Tim Burton’s early, far darker efforts, Batman & Robin is clearly a sequel to Batman Forever and still in the same (loose) continuity as the Burton films. Think of these older Batman films like the James Bond franchise; some actors change, some stay the same, but there are enough references and allusions to the previous films to keep them in the same wonky timeline. For example, because Edward Nygma/The Riddler (Jim Carrey) destroyed the Batcave and the Batmobile in Batman Forever, it makes sense for there to be new toys suits and vehicles and such. The Riddler and Harvey Dent/Two-Face’s (Tommy Lee Jones) costumes can even be seen in Arkham Asylum, further tying the films together, though there’s strangely no mention of Doctor Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman); Bruce is, instead, dating Julie Madison (Elle Macpherson) and has been for a long time. It’s a minor inclusion in the film that really serves no narrative purpose and it would have been much simpler to not have a woman on Bruce’s arm at all, to be honest.
Val Kilmer might not be everyone’s cup of tea in Hollywood but he was a far more fitting choice for the dual role of Batman and Bruce Wayne than Doctor Doug Ross. Clooney’s Batman can be seen as an evolution of Kilmer’s since, in Batman Forever, Bruce came to terms with his pain and grief but he’s at the extreme other end of the spectrum, basically having transformed into the Adam West Batman; he’s chatty, polite, makes numerous public appearances, and is a revered superhero through and through. Despite being the only Batman to truly have a “no kill” policy in place (and even that is debatable when you factor in the big chase sequence between Batman, Robin, and Mr. Freeze), Clooney is pretty much the worst Batman ever in a lot of ways; he lacks the physical stature of Kilmer and the raw intensity of Keaton. He’s also pretty short and uninspiring in the role, despite the work of his stunt man, and there’s no real distinction between his Bruce Wayne voice and his Batman one except that, as Batman, he’s a little more…I don’t know, professional, maybe? Either way, the lines between the two are marginal, at best, and the only thing he brings to the role is an impressive emulation of Adam West’s iconic portrayal of the character. You can really see this in all the little nuances and inflections he utilises as Batman but, what makes his portrayal stand out is the unique narrative he gets in his building tension with Dick and his emotional arc with his father-figure, Alfred Pennyworth (Gough).
Dialogue between Bruce and Alfred reveals that Bruce doesn’t trust Dick to not get hurt and the crux of Bruce’s arc in this film; he’s afraid to trust, afraid to love, and afraid of the concept of them being a true family and partnership. He initially balks at this since he trusts Alfred but Alfred gently advise that he “shan’t be [there] forever”. He desperately tries to talk sense into Dick, whose resentment is fuelled by Poison Ivy’s influence, and his arc is about recognising the family dynamic they all have and trusting Dick to be responsible in his own way. Similar to Kilmer’s arc in Forever, though, the resolution to this is somewhat anti-climatic as Bruce is eventually able to get Dick back on side by repeating his own words about trust and family back to him in an exchange that includes a standout line (“She wants to kill you, Dick”) that never fails to get a snort of laughter out of me. Ultimately, though, there are a lot of Clooney apologists out there who will swear blind that he is capable of putting in a good performance as the character with a better script or direction; well, I would counter argue that these beliefs are based on Clooney’s abilities today; back in 1997, he was a goofy, bland choice (even he admitted that he was miscast in the role) clearly motivated by the actor’s popularity on ER (1994 to 2009) and, while his inclusion isn’t the worst part of the film, it’s certainly a significantly disruptive cog that left the franchise dead in the water and no amount of accolades or improvements in his ability can ever shake my dislike for Clooney as an actor.
Luckily, though, Stephen Amell Chris O’Donnell returned as Dick Grayson, now portraying Nightwing in everything but name and sporting a fantastic red-themed replica of his suit and all his own gadgets and such. Far from the angst-filled biker boy of the previous film, Dick has matured into a respectable young man and hero in his own right and much of his conflict with Bruce stems from the fact that he is on the cusp of breaking away from Batman’s shadow and becoming his own man. While they work well together as partners, Batman is shown to be overly critical and condescending towards Robin, admonishing him for nearly breaking a priceless vase, leaving him to tackle Mr. Freeze’s thugs, and even reprimanding him when he comes to save him from Freeze’s ridiculous rocket ship. Ultimately, the first real signs of tension between the two come after Robin is frozen by Mr. Freeze after acting on his reckless impulses. Bruce punishes him by ordering him to spend “ten hours in the simulation training” (though it’s unclear if this is a virtual reality simulation or a real-life simulator of sorts), which frustrates Dick since he believes that he’s being unfairly punished for making a simple mistake and that Bruce doesn’t trust him. In Bruce’s defence, Bruce would mostly likely take a small mistake just as seriously and train himself to do better both to improve and as a form of punishment. Still, Poison Ivy’s subsequent influence over both of them (but especially Robin) exacerbates Robin’s feelings of resentment towards Bruce into aggression; in these heated exchanges, we see that Dick feels that Bruce is holding him back and keeping him from being all he can be and being overly protective. All he wants is Bruce trust and respect and for them to work together on equal ground but his hot-headedness, intensified by Ivy’s manipulations, brings all these deep-rooted feelings to the surface and results in a series of arguments and even the two coming to blows.
All of this serves as additional drama amidst the unrelenting crime spree of Mr. Freeze, a character largely more concerned with making every ice-pun in the book and revelling in destruction rather than exuding the intelligence and pathos audiences came to expect from the character after the excellent “Heart of Ice” (Timm, 1992) episode of Batman: The Animated Series (1992 to 1999). Instead, Freeze is a bombastic cartoon villain for kids and Arnold is clearly having a good time in the role but it’s difficult to believe that this man was ever a Noble Prize-winner scientist or a doting, loving husband. It’s similar to Two-Face, who was so maniacal and over the top and introduced already as a crazed supervillain so we never got a chance to see or truly appreciate the true tragedy of the character. Instead, we’re left with a Saturday morning cartoon villain garbed in fantastical intricate and well-crafted suit of armour. Still, Mr. Freeze is such a weird dichotomy of extremes; he’s this cringey supervillain, forces his minions to sing in his frozen lair, is a relatively eloquent and sophisticated man at times (especially when puffing on a big fat cigar and relating his plans to steal diamonds and hold the city to ransom with his giant freezing cannon), and also a tragic figure haunted by his past and his wife’s condition. One minute he’ll be yelling and acting like a petulant child but the next he’s weeping icy tears and pining for his cryogenically frozen wife. It’s a chaotic mess of conflicting emotions and makes any sympathy we might feel completely redundant because he’s so over the top! The film even tries to pull at the same heartstrings as “Heart of Ice” but it fails miserably even as an imitation of that ground-breaking episode, which really should have been the template for Freeze’s characterisation and motivation. Again, like in Batman Forever, the film would have worked much better if everything had been played completely straight (but especially Freeze), with only Ivy as the zany, madcap villain to allow the comedic elements to come naturally out of the straight-faced camp.
Getting on to Poison Ivy, like the Riddler in the last film she is actually afforded an origin story and first introduced as Pamela Isley, a kooky and awkward scientist obsessed with genetically crossbreeding plants with animals so that they can fight back against the “thoughtless ravages of man”. She seals her fate when she happens upon her boss, Doctor Jason Woodrue (John Glover), using a bastardised version of her research to transform the deranged serial killer Antonio Diego (Michael Reid MacKay) into a mindless super-soldier Woodrue christens as “Bane” (Swenson). The idea that Woodrue had this whole evil lair right beneath Isley’s laboratory is ridiculous and it’s insane that she never stumbled across it until Woodrue was in the middle of showcasing his formula and auctioning Bane off to a group of terrorists and other unscrupulous individuals. Still, Woodrue’s subsequent attempt to kill Isley results in the poisons and toxins genetically altering her into Poison Ivy, a pheromone-induced supervillainess with a deadly kiss who begins a crusade against Bruce Wayne since he once funded their work. Whereas Nygma was already a bit of a nutjob before being spurned by Bruce Wayne and exposed to his “Box”, this transformation instantly alters Isley into an alluring, confident, half-crazed femme fatale who is obsessed with using her newfound abilities to manipulate men into aiding her cause to allow plants to overtake the world. Ivy’s “pheromone dust” is an effective way of stoking the tension between Batman and Robin and she’s not quite as maniacal as Freeze, Two-Face, or the Riddler but she’s still a massively over-dramatic, cartoony villain who monologues at every opportunity, cackles with glee, and even throws in an elaborate cry of “Curses!” when she’s defeated. Ivy is willing to kill millions of people to allow the planet, and plants, to thrive once more; like with Nygma, Bruce is patient and sympathetic to her cause but cannot sanction any action that causes such a death toll and, although Pamela’s presence appears to have an alluring effect on him, it’s at the auction where she, as Poison Ivy, truly begins to influence both him (as Batman) and Robin with her pheromones.
So smitten by her allure are they that they begin a very public, very childish bidding war for her services, resulting in one of the most cringe-worthy moments in not just a Batman movie but all of cinema…yet, in a bubble that sees this as an extension of the bright, campy sixties Batman, you can see this as a fun (as in “daft”) scene. When Mr. Freeze crashes the party, Ivy is immediately in awe of his strength, conviction, and direct approach; when her pheromones have no influence on him, she becomes even more interested in him as a potential partner and, just as Robin is infatuated by her, she comes to be enamoured with Freeze. To that end, she and Bane break Freeze out of the ridiculously elaborate Arkham Asylum (literally a gothic castle on a storm-swept island!) and, when he continually shoots down her advances, she kills off his wife out of jealousy and to sway him into an alliance to freeze first Gotham, and then the world, and have her animal/plant hybrids rule what’s left alongside them. Far from the intellectual mastermind of the comics, Bane is a hulking, mindless brute who follows Ivy’s commands simply…because (she’s never shown using her pheromones on him so it’s unclear exactly why he submits to her). As in many interpretations, Venom is both his strength and weakness, making him simultaneously superhuman but also reducing him to a quivering, helpless wreck when his tubes are severed. He exists simply because Bane was popular at the time thanks to the influential Knightfall storyline (Dixon, et al, 1993 to 1994) but could easily have been any other Bat-brute; I’m thinking Waylon Jones/Killer Croc would have been a far better fit.
To help even the odds a bit, Batman & Robin brings a version of Batgirl into the fold; traditionally, it is Commissioner Jim Gordon’s daughter, Barbara Gordon, under the cape and cowl of Batgirl but, here, it’s Barbara Wilson (Alicia Silverstone), Alfred’s hitherto-unknown niece. A minor change, to be sure, but one that I’m actually onboard with since Gordon (Pat Hingle) is so inconsequential in this film and it helps to both make her slightly more relevant to the story and reveal hidden layers to Alfred’s character and backstory since he’s never mentioned her or his extended family before because of his stringent commitment to decorum. While the experience was quite harrowing, to say the least, for Silverstone, it can’t be denied that she doesn’t exactly impress with her acting chops and is easily the weakest link in the film, but she’s fantastic as eye-candy and plays the part of both flighty, innocent schoolgirl and bad girl racer well enough, Barbara’s intentions are also quite interesting in that she arrives at Wayne Manor to liberate Alfred from what she sees as a life of servitude; she initially doesn’t understand or appreciate the family dynamic Alfred has with Bruce and Dick and takes part in dangerous, illegal street races to win the money she needs to take him away from his life. Naturally, Dick is immediately attracted to her; she mostly deflects his advances and obvious flirting, preferring to focus first on racing for money and her love for Alfred and then her commitment to helping Batman and Robin as Batgirl. Essentially, Batgirl exists to sell more toys and to allow for a fight scene with Poison Ivy; Batman and Robin are never seen even throwing a punch Ivy’s way so this allows for a more “even” fight to occur between the two females.
Finally, there is the whole sub-plot regarding Alfred’s advancing age, illness, and mortality; although we see Alfred flinching in obvious pain and discomfort during the film’s bombastic opening, it’s only after Barbara arrives that the true extent of his illness is brought to light. This sub-plot is the true heart of the film as Bruce, Dick, and Alfred himself must come to terms with Alfred’s mortality; seriously ill, he makes preparations to have his brother takeover his duties but is unable to reach him and (similar to his actions with Dick in Batman Forever) surreptitiously puts Barbara on the path to becoming Batgirl. The film’s standout moments come in the heart-warming (and heart-breaking) exchanges between Alfred and Bruce about the merits of family and trust, with the two sharing a truly emotional scene where they profess their love and admiration for each other. It’s a fantastic side plot that really belongs in a better movie and there’s a twist, and nuance, to this side story as Bruce is haunted by flashbacks of his childhood with Alfred rather than the traumatic deaths of his parents, which is a refreshing change.
The Nitty-Gritty: Essentially, Batman & Robin is almost beat-for-beat the same movie as Batman Forever: the score is largely unchanged; there’s a suit-up scene at the start with a cringey one-liner; a big, explosive fight with the new supervillain; a cliché villain team-up, a falling out between Bruce and Dick; and a new Bat-character is introduced, learns of their identities, before joining them for a big, climatic showdown featuring new suits and vehicles. Honestly, I actually dig the film’s costume design; the Batsuit isn’t that great but I actually like that it’s lacking any yellow colouring, Robin’s Nightwing suit is picture perfect, and Batgirl’s tight outfit is great for showing off her curves. Yes, the suits have nipples and clearly resemble rubber more than armour but I kind of get what Schumacher was going for with the design and it’s honestly not as distracting as some people make out. Frankly, if you’re spending your time fixated solely on Batman and Robin’s nipples then I think you might have a bit of a problem since there’s a lot of worse stuff in the film (the zany, madcap presentation, for example, is far worse since it’s just a hyperactive kids’ movie and little more than an expensive advertisement for a new line of Batman toys).
Each of the film’s action sequences is like some kind of chaotic acid trip! Take the opening sequence, for example: Batman and Robin intercept Mr. Freeze at the Gotham Museum, contending with “the hockey team from hell”, performing all manner of physics-defying stunts and tricks, and conveniently sporting ice skates in their boots! Mr. Freeze freezes a dinosaur statue to cover his escape in a rocket that fires from his absolutely ridiculous Freezemobile! Batman follows and is left to freeze to death in space before Robin rescues him and they surf through the night sky on doors of the rockets to pursue Freeze, who sprouts wings from his armour! Having said that, though, the Batmobile/Redbird chase against the Freezemobile and Mr. Freeze’s goons is pretty good but would be even better if they weren’t racing across the building, iron biceps of a gigantic statue!
However, as bombastic and over the top as Batman Forever’s finale was, Batman & Robin’s really takes the cake with Mr. Freeze using his diamond-powered gizmo to transform Bruce’s massive new telescope into a giant freezing cannon and cover the city in ice. Batman, Robin, and Batgirl race across the frozen city streets in their fancy new toys vehicles, scale the mountainous telescope, and then battle both Bane and Mr. Freeze over control of the telescope, maddeningly using satellites to…somehow…reflect sunlight from across the globe (why was satellite control even programmed into the telescope’s controls? Mr. Freeze wouldn’t have needed it for his plan and I don’t see how moving satellites would help with observing stars and planets…) to thaw out the city and put an end to Mr. Freeze’s mad designs. In the end, though, Batman takes pity on Mr. Freeze and appeals to his better nature, securing both a cure for Alfred and arranging for Freeze to continue his research at Arkham Asylum. I find it very interesting that the filmmakers utilised Mr. Freeze, of all of Batman’s rogue’s gallery, and can’t help but think that the Scarecrow would have made for a far better villain (why is he even called “Mr. Freeze” anyway? The guy’s got a PhD! He’s underselling himself! He should be “Dr. Freeze!”). They could have consolidated Freeze and Ivy’s storylines into one villain, since both of their goals are easily adapted to suit Scarecrow, and told a far more grounded, intricate story about fear and overcoming it but that probably wouldn’t sell anywhere near as many toys now would it? While Batman doesn’t partake in any direct instances of murder in this film, Mr. Freeze is quite dark at times, declaring at one point his intention to “pull Batman’s heart from his body and watch it freeze in [his] hands” and there’s a lot of double entendre sand innuendo involving Poison Ivy that I find amusing was deemed acceptable by all those soccer moms who complained about how dark and inappropriate Burton’s films were.
Gotham City is more neon-drenched and outrageous than ever, filled with even more giant statues, cramped streets, ornate skyscrapers, and other impractical architecture (even Bruce Wayne’s observatory is a garish, steampunk-like construction built into a mountain!) Fight scenes, though comical, are fast and frenetic and full of unfeasible physical stunts and actions but, again, at least we’re seeing a physically capable Batman and Robin. Sadly, fights are often spoiled by their cartoony nature, which includes accompanying zany sound effects wherever possible. Gotham is populated by a garish variety of street thugs; the neon-clad gang for Batman Forever return and a variety of undesirables are present at the underground race, from Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971) lookalikes to punks and biker gangs. While the public, and police, are massively dependant upon Batman and Robin, more so than ever before, and revere the two as protectors and heroes (they are called in at the first sign of trouble and even make highly publicised appearances at things like auctions and police crime scenes), these types of gangs and criminals don’t get much focus in this film. Like in Batman Forever, street criminals are no longer Batman’s focus since he’s too busy fighting supervillains as a “superhero” rather than being the scourge of criminals across the city. The implication is that criminals are afraid of Batman enough that they no longer cause violent crimes but the gang was clearly planning to rape that girl in Batman Forever and the bike race is extremely dangerous in this film so you’d think Batman would put some effort into curtailing these criminal elements but…apparently not. This is kind of why I dislike the idea of Batman as a “superhero”; his focus should always be street level and against corruption and organised crime first. Sure, supervillains exist in Gotham but I feel like they’ve overshadowed Bruce’s original mission, which was to protect others from random acts of violence like the one he witnessed as a kid; Batman & Robin is a glaring example of the extreme other end of the spectrum and I wish I could say modern Batman stories aren’t routinely obsessed with large-scale, supervillain threats to Gotham but the sad truth is that they often are. Give me a dark, gritty tale focusing on corruption, street crime, and maybe the machinations of a colourful/maniacal rogue over city/world-dominated plots any day.
Annoyingly, the Bat-Cave still opens up and activates when there’s an intruder only now it’s even worse since a Max Headroom (Matt Frewer) version of Alfred politely greets any intruders. Though only a brief inclusion, the very idea that Alfred was somehow able to “program his brain algorithms into the Batcomputer” is both ludicrous and startling in its implications. I also love that Robin renders Ivy’s poison kiss mute with rubber lips when, arguably, it’s the saliva from her kiss that is venomous rather than just skin-on-skin contact but, to be fair, the film does present it as this latter way rather than the former so I guess it’s okay…? Finally, Batman is far more accepting of Barbara as Batgirl than he was of Dick as Robin, potentially because they are heading into the cartoony finale of the film so there’s no real time to focus on his reaction to her dynamite debut, instead accepting it right away and with a couple of one-liners. If I’m Robin, I’d be a bit annoyed at this since Barbara has far less training and experience and is something of a liability for all her enthusiasm (she clearly flounders in her fight with Ivy before winning with ridiculous ease because the script says she must). Still, she takes to her new role amazingly well and is easily able to use all of her suit’s gadgets, and to hold her own in fights against Poison Ivy and Bane. She then shows the unique talent she brings to the role in her computer skills, though I find it hard to believe that Batman, of all people, wouldn’t be able to handle such a task. The scene, however, is framed in a way to show Batman accepting of the help of others and the two of them as his partners and family.
The Summary: As a kid, I remember seeing this film at the cinema and absolutely loving it; I was firmly of the belief that the Batman movies just got better and better with each new film, adding more and more characters, villains, and recognisable elements from the comics I so enjoyed. I watched all the live-action films, the sixties movie, and was reading Batman stories from the sixties to nineties at the time and never had any trouble distinguishing between them. It was just Batman in different forms, and I was excited to see more of him, especially with Robin by his side. As an adult, it’s much harder to excuse the film since it’s a far cry from the dark, brooding Batman that is generally favoured but, when you view it as a love letter to the sixties Batman television series and bright, campy comics of that same era, you can kind of excuse a lot of its more glaring faults. It’s supposed to be a fun, mindless kids’ film; a live-action cartoon intended to sell toys and reap the rewards of its many and varied merchandise opportunities. It’s far from the guilty pleasure that Batman Forever is and it’s not the Batman I would prefer to see and I don’t like to hate on it because, for all its faults, at least it had the balls to use Robin and to tell an interesting story with both him trying to become his own man and hero and the side plot involving Bruce and Alfred.
Rating: 1 out of 5.
Whew, well, that’s Batman & Robin, a divisive film, to say the least. What is your opinion on the film, its cast, and Schumacher’s unique direction for the character and franchise? Do you think George Clooney was a poor choice for Batman or do you also believe he could do the role justice with a different script? What did you think of the film’s portrayal of Mr. Freeze, interpretation of Batgirl, and Robin’s character arc? Would you have liked to see another Batman film under Schumacher’s direction? Whatever your thoughts, good, bad, or indifferent, please feel free to leave a comment below and come back next Tuesday for the last entry in Robin Month.
In April of 1940, about a year after the debut of arguably their most popular character, Bruce Wayne/Batman, DC Comics debuted “the sensational find of [that year]”, Dick Grayson/Robin. Since then, Batman’s pixie-boots-wearing partner has changed outfits and a number of different characters have assumed the mantle as the Dynamic Duo of Batman and Robin have become an iconic staple of DC Comics. Considering my fondness for the character and those who assumed the mantle over the years, what better way to celebrate this dynamic debut than to dedicate an entire month to celebrating the character?
Released: 9 June 1995 Director: Joel Schumacher Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures Budget: $100 million Stars: Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, Nicole Kidman, Chris O’Donnell, Michael Gough, and Pat Hingle
The Plot: Gotham City is being terrorised by former distract attorney turned acid-scarred supervillain Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Lee Jones), whose madness is only exacerbated when he teams up with Edward Nygma/The Riddler (Carrey), who has concocted a mad plan to absorb the intelligence and memories of Gothamites. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Kilmer) finds himself struggling with both the futility and loneliness of his life’s mission and his desperate need to discourage Dick Grayson (O’Donnell) from following the same dark path.
Although Schumacher initially wanted to produce an adaptation of Batman: Year One (Miller, et al, 1987), Warner Bros’ weren’t too keen on this idea and pushed, instead, for a more light-hearted affair that would sell toys and be more akin to the popular Batman television show of the sixties. This approach held little appeal for Michael Keaton, the star of the previous two Batman movies, and the role was recast with the notoriously-difficult, but far more physically-imposing, Val Kilmer assuming the mantle. Despite the wildly different tone of the film, Batman Forever contained a number of allusions, call-backs, and references to the previous films to set it in roughly the same continuity (save for recasting Harvey Dent from smooth-talking Billy Dee Williams to the maniacal Tommy Lee Jones). Warner Bros’ new approach appeared to be successful, with the film making over $330 million at the box office and pleasing parents and corporate sponsors, though the film garnered a somewhat divided critical reception. Much has been made of Schumacher’s aesthetic choices and direction, though the film but has earned a cult following compared to its grandiose sequel, with many calling for the release of an extended version to restore many of the excised scenes that added a darker subtext and scenes to the film.
The Review: Right from the moment Batman Forever begins, you can tell it’s a very different film to its predecessors; gone is Danny Elfman’s iconic theme, the Gothic, enclosed sets, and the vast majority of the cast, replaced by an admittedly heroic and boisterous (if a bit over-played) score, a vast, near-incomprehensible Gotham City filled with neon, towering skyscrapers, and impractical architecture, a host of new faces, and, of course, a whole load of new toys. First, there’s the new Batsuit; though no longer as armour-plated as the Burton-era suits, this suit seems much more form-fitting and famously included nipples to give it a more anatomically-correct look. Unlike in the previous films, where Keaton was forced to be very stiff and was heavily restricted by this suit, Kilmer (and his stunt and fight double) move much more freely. He’s still not able to move his head, sure, but he’s far more agile and capable in his fight scenes, delivering easily the best live-action Batman fights at that point in time. With a new suit comes new gadgets, a new Batcave, and a new Batmobile, all of which are far more stylised and elaborate than in Burton’s movies and are introduced in a pretty cool “suiting up” scene during the opening credits. However, as much as I defend this movie, I do feel this scene is tarnished a bit by that cringey “I’ll get drive thru” line which, while amusing and I’m sure made McDonald’s happy, is a bit out of place. A simple “Don’t wait up” would have sufficed.
I haven’t had much exposure to Val Kilmer in my life but, as much as I love Keaton’s intensity and the dark edge he brought to the role, Kilmer is actually pretty good as Batman. In Batman Returns, we saw that Gotham City was starting to become acclimatised to Batman but, in Forever, he’s very much in the public spotlight as a widely celebrated “superhero”. To clarify, I feel there’s a difference between a superpowered superhero like Clark Kent/Superman and a street level vigilante like Batman or Oliver Queen/Green Arrow. They are, technically, superheroes but I feel they shouldn’t be publically celebrated or acknowledged in-world like a Superman; in these Batman movies, though, Batman is pretty much the only masked crimefighter out there and, here, we see that he openly works with Commissioner Jim Gordon (Hingle) and appears in public, when necessary. Like Keaton, Kilmer assumes a deeper, gravelly “Bat Voice” for the role that is somewhere between a growl and a whisper. He tries to emulate Keaton’s intense glare but, where he fails in that regard, he succeeds in his imposing physical stature, appearing far more physically fit for the role than the slighter, shorter Keaton. Kilmer’s Batman is also much chattier than his predecessor, sporting a dry wit and a pragmatic drollness that would be amusing if not for the film’s excessive, over-the-top and cartoonish humour elsewhere. Kilmer is also pretty decent as Bruce Wayne; he doesn’t betray much emotion but he’s both awkward and charming when interacting with Doctor Chase Meridian (Kidman), arranges for full benefits for Fred Stickley (Ed Begley Jr) and his family after his apparent suicide, and is very patient with the fanatical Nygma when they first meet.
Speaking of Nygma, if you’re not a fan of Jim Carrey than a) What’s wrong with you? and b) This really isn’t the film for you. This was peak Carrey, with the actor riding a wave of well-received comedies, and he really gives it his all here, stealing every scene he’s in with a madcap, zany performance that is part Frank Gorshin and part classic Carrey. As Nygma, Carrey is a hyperactive and overly-enthusiastic employee who is completely obsessed with Bruce Wayne. Carrey brings a natural manic energy to the role, hogging the spotlight and stealing every scene he’s in with his rubber-faced antics and you really get that this guy is a fanatical individual who is infatuated with Bruce Wayne and desperate to showcase his mind-manipulating invention. This proves to be his downfall, however, as Bruce cannot in good conscience approve Nygma’s brain-altering invention, which crushes Nygma’s spirit and turns his heroic worship of Bruce into a sadistic mania. Nygma takes to sending Bruce threatening riddles (though Bruce is able to solve each one almost immediately, he spends the majority of the film completely stumped as to who sent them and what they really mean) but doesn’t descend into full-blown supervillain territory until seeing Two-Face in action. As the Riddler, Nygma is a completely unhinged maniac, teaming up with Two-Face to put his 3D “Box” in every house in the city to increase his intelligence and wealth. Amusingly, as Nygma transforms into a successful businessman and bachelor, he begins to borrow Bruce’s look and mannerisms but becomes increasingly unhinged as the Riddler, eventually setting himself up on a ridiculously elaborate island and freely partaking of the knowledge of all those connect to his Box.
While the Riddler gets much of the film’s focus, Two-Face’s tragic origins and complex relationship with Bruce and Batman is almost completely glossed over; we’re introduced to Two-Face (annoyingly and constantly referred to as “Harvey Two-Face” for no discernable reason) after he’s already suffered his horrific scarring (here rendered in a far less disturbing manner, with a ridiculous straight line literally splitting Harvey’s face in two) and there’s only ever the briefest hint towards the character’s nuance and fall from grace. Instead, we’re left with a frenzied clown, a character far removed from the dark, tragic supervillain of the source material and more akin to the Joker, for lack of a better comparison. Ruled by his obsession with duality, his double-headed coin (which he is perfectly happy to flip over and over again until he gets the result he wants), and killing Batman (since he blames Batman for his condition), Two-Face is a ludicrous, flamboyant carton of a villain who would make Cesar Romero blush. I can only assume that it was Schumacher’s decision to make Two-Face this overexcited buffoon since Tommy Lee Jones, apparently, detested Carrey’s ostentatious antics and yet seems to be going out of his way to try and match Carrey’s far more amusing and far less grating physical humour.
Two-Face’s inclusion, though, allows Batman Forever to do something I will forever hold it in high regard for and that is introducing Dick Grayson/Robin. As a kid, I grew up watching the sixties Batman TV show and reading a number of different Batman comics, many of which included Robin in various forms and I remember being super excited about Robin’s inclusion here. In a fantastic example of adaptation, Robin is a combination of Dick (name/origin), Jason Todd (bad boy attitude), and Tim Drake (costume); garbed in motorcycle gear, with a piercing in his ear, he’s clearly an angst-ridden rogue who has no time for the luxury of Bruce’s lifestyle and wishes only to avenge the death of his family. Even better, the film does a great job of retelling Batman’s origin through the parallel of the deaths of Grayson’s family, which triggers Bruce’s flashbacks of his own parents’ deaths and delivers a haunting scene where, in relating the parallels between the two events to Alfred Pennyworth (Gough), Bruce slips on his wording and mutters “I killed them”, providing a glimpse into the survivor’s guilt and responsibility he feels. Bruce sympathises with Dick and takes him in; though he is angry and hungry for revenge, Dick is convinced to stay through a combination of Bruce appealing to Dick’s love for motorcycles and Alfred guilt-tripping the troubled acrobat with hospitality. Alfred plays quite the sly role this time around, offering Dick understanding and comfort but also subtly influencing his discovery of the Batcave and transformation into his own masked persona. Dick’s first instinct, though, is obviously to steal the Batmobile and take it on a joy ride; after taking his anger and pain out on some colourful street thugs, Dick directs these same emotions towards Batman when he arrives to confront him, blaming him for his family’s murder but, having vented his emotions, becomes insistent on Bruce training him to be his partner to give him the means to bring Two-Face to justice. Bruce is angered at the very idea and discourages him at every turn, not wishing Dick to go down the same path as he, much less commit murder.
Finally, there’s Chase Meridian; Kidman is absolutely gorgeous, of course, but man is her character one horny bitch! Chase is immediately fascinated, sexually and psychological, by Batman; she, like pretty much all of the public, isn’t deterred by Batman’s appearance and is, instead, in awe of his presence and attracted to his mystery and physique and even goes so far as to use the Bat-Signal as a “beeper” to tell him things about Two-Face that he already knows and are painfully obvious and to explicitly voice her interest in Batman in her attempt to seduce him right there on the rooftop! She is overwhelmed by the sexual magnetism and allure of Batman as the “wrong kind of man” and the mystery about what drives him to do what he does but is just a enamoured by Bruce, seeing him as something of an enigma who is haunted and hiding more than he lets on. It’s not the same as her attraction to Batman, which is very primal and sexual, but it eventually grows into the more “grown up” choice on her part and she is clearly elated to find that the two are one and the same.
The Nitty-Gritty: Batman Forever is a loud, bombastic action film; essentially, it’s a live-action cartoon, with every set and action sequence having a garish, over-the-top presentation. The film starts off, as Two-Face says, with a bang; the sequence of Batman hanging from Two-Face’s helicopter looks pretty shit but I can appreciate the blending of practical stunts, early-CGI, miniature sets, and the age of the film, to let it go and the entire set piece of Batman’s chase after him is explosive and frantic and really helps open the film with a huge amount of energy, albeit energy that screams “live-action cartoon featuring a lauded superhero” rather than a dark, broody piece about an urban vigilante. Also, people think that Schumacher’s Batman films were all light-hearted and campy and, yes, they are but while Batman isn’t as vicious or brutal as before and is much more of a “superhero” than a brooding vigilante, he still directly and indirectly causes a lot of death and destruction, including the death of Two-Face (something he specifically ordered Dick not to pursue).
Easily the star of the show, for me, is Jim Carrey as the Riddler. While I think Batman Forever would have benefitted all the more if Nygma had been the only elaborate comedic element in a film full of straight men, I am a massive fan of Carrey and his work in the nineties and the way he hogs every scene is just fabulous to me. I just love his many garish costumes, his elaborate movements, the way he emulates Bruce Wayne, and how he switches between manic energy and a sinister glee on a dime. Ultimately, neither Riddler or Two-Face are much of a physical threat to Batman and, far from the master of puzzles and conundrums of his comic counterpart, Riddler opts to force batman into making the now-cliché “choice” between the love of Bruce’s life and his crimefighting partner. Having faced his demons throughout the film and been reminded of why he became Batman, Bruce chooses to save both, reducing Nygma to a gibbering, crazed wreck in the process and finally putting to rest the demons that have haunted him all his life. Of course, it’s naïve to pretend like Batman Forever is perfect; it’s mindless entertainment for kids, to be sure, but is maybe a little too loud, bombastic, and slapstick for parents or hardcore Batman fans. There are a few narrative inconsistencies as well, such as Bruce inexplicably deciding to retire Batman and settle down with Chase. I never quite got the logic here; Bruce seems to think Batman is no longer needed but it also seems like he’s willing to give up his crusade to be with Chase since he can’t justify being Batman anymore (despite the fact that, as Dick says, “there’s monsters out there” like Two-Face and the Riddler). Then there’s the ridiculously cartoony security guard from the start of the film, the garish new Batmobile, the way in which the Batcave opens up and comes alive every time there’s an intruder, the ludicrous moment where the Batmobile drives up a wall to safety (how the hell did it get down from there?), the sheer ineffectiveness of Gotham’s police department (seriously, the cops are completely useless and call for Batman at the first sign of any trouble), and the overly cartoony sound effects that punctuate a lot of Carrey’s scenes and the fight sequences.
For me, though, the weakest part of Batman Forever is clearly Two-Face; he’s just a grating, annoying villain who goes way, way over the top at every moment. He’s also an absolute idiot; he holds the circus hostage under the belief that Batman is present or that someone there knows who Batman is, which is a bit of a reach, constantly goes against his modus operandi, and ends up being tricked to his death in the simplest way possible. The only positive to his inclusion is that it fuels Dick’s need for vengeance; Bruce lectures Dick about how killing Two-Face won’t take away his pain, how he’ll end up becoming an obsessed vigilante taking his anger and pain out on countless others if he kills Two-Face, but Dick’s only wish is to kill Two-Face for what he did and it’s only in sparing Two-Face’s life that he (Dick) comes to evolve into the same selfless hero we saw him to be when he risked his life to save the circus from Two-Face’s bomb.
Make no mistake about it, this is a great film if you’re a fan of Robin and Stephen Amell O’Donnell perfectly encapsulates the “mad, broody youth” vibe they were going for. After Dick forces himself into Batman’s business, Bruce is livid at Dick’s recklessness and continually attempts to talk him out of pursing the same life as him. In the end, though, with Chase in need of rescue and his motivations resolved (Bruce remembered that he promised his parents that no one would ever have to suffer like he would, that he would take his revenge upon all criminals to safeguard others no matter the cost), Batman throws on his “sonar” suit and is in the middle of choosing between his Batwing and Batboat (all new toys for kids to buy/pine for) when Dick, now Robin, arrives and the two reconcile. Personally, I love this moment; the two basically acknowledge that each other were right, that each of them has their own path, and that they have converged into one destiny. Robin even admits that he can’t promise he won’t kill Harvey but Batman accepts this, and that Dick must walk his own path, and they solidify their partnership with a firm handshake…only to immediately be separated upon reaching Nygma’s island. Regardless, I’m continually entertaining by film’s smart use of Robin as a thematic parallel to Bruce. I’d love to see this concept revisited in a new Batman movie one day; skip retelling Batman’s origin again and, instead, have a darker, more jaded Batman begin to stray from his path but be brought back from the brink by adopting Dick, whose origin can be used as a direct analogy for Batman’s. Sadly, it doesn’t look like we’ll be seeing that in a film any time soon but Titans(2018 to present) has done a really good job, in my opinion, of exploring similar ground with an even better version of Dick/Robin and taking that to its logical conclusion (the debut of Nightwing).
The Summary: Batman Forever is a hugely entertaining kids’ movie which has a lot of potential that is sadly squandered by its execution. A lot of time is spent exploring Bruce’s psyche and motivations; not as much as was originally intended but far more than we had seen in live-action up until that point. The film suggests that Bruce has become so lost, so blinded by his pain, anger, and guilt, that he’s forgotten why he became Batman in the first place (to protect the innocent) and is, instead, lashing out at criminals out of habit. Dick is expertly used as a parallel to Bruce’s life and background; his anger is raw and in need of guidance. Bruce was guided by the bat he encountered as a child but Dick simply wants to kill Two-Face and has no clear focus beyond that. Bruce knows first-hand that killing the man responsible won’t bring Dick the peace or closure he so desperately seeks and that he’ll end up exactly like him, “Running out into the night to find another face. And another. And another!” It’s not massively dwelled upon but the film suggests that Bruce can use his experience to guide Dick in such a way to focus his rage and pain in a more productive way, one that sees him walk the same path but not so tainted by darkness and heartache. This turns out to be the case as Dick refuses to kill Two-Face, turning away from becoming a mindless killer and towards being an agent of true justice, which is something Bruce also learns to do through his relationship with Dick and Chase, which finally sets him towards a more productive path. Sadly, though, the film’s themes and explorations are hampered somewhat by the madcap nature of Schumacher’s world; thanks to several subtle references, this is clearly the same world as Burton’s Batman movies but much bigger, grander, and more…operatic. Gotham City is awash in garish neon and giant, impractical statues and skyscrapers and the film has a manic energy thanks not only to Carrey’s scene-stealing antics but the infantile characterisation of Two-Face and his goons. Cartoonish sound effects permeate many of the film’s action sequences and I can’t help but think the film would have been more appealing if everyone played it entirely straight except for Carrey. Clearly, Schumacher is leaning heavily towards the sixties television show, which is fine since that is a classic in every way and a guilty pleasure, but what made that show work was that everyone played it straight, which only served to make the ridiculousness more entertaining. Here, it’s ridiculous for the sake of being ridiculous so when there are moments or genuine humour (mainly from Batman and Alfred and Carrey’s less zany moments) they get drowned out by the overabundance of cartoonyness and Tommy Lee Jones’ grating performance as Two-Face.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
What are your thoughts on Batman Forever? Where does it rank against the other Batman movies of its era, or even now? What did you think of the cast, particularly Kilmer, Carrey, and Jones? Were you excited to see Robin brought into the franchise or do you prefer Batman to “work alone”? What did you think of Schumacher’s version of Batman, his world, and his rogues? Would you like to see an extended cut of the film or do you think it’s best left as it is? Whatever your thoughts, go ahead and drop a comment below and be sure to come back next Tuesday for my review of the much-maligned sequel!
In April of 1940, about a year after the debut of arguably their most popular character, Bruce Wayne/Batman, DC Comics debuted “the sensational find of [that year]”, Dick Grayson/Robin. Since then, Batman’s pixie-boots-wearing partner has changed outfits and a number of different characters have assumed the mantle as the Dynamic Duo of Batman and Robin have become an iconic staple of DC Comics. Considering my fondness for the character and those who assumed the mantle over the years, what better way to celebrate this dynamic debut than to dedicate an entire month to celebrating the character?
Story Title: Technically untitled but presented as: “The Batman Presents The Sensational Character Find of 1940…. Robin – The Boy Wonder” Published: April 1940 Writer: Bill Finger Artists: Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson
The Background: Since his debut in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, Batman had become a popular staple of DC Comics; the masked crimefighter began as a mysterious individual and, over time, acquired many of the supporting characters and gadgets that would become synonymous with the character thanks, largely, to the understated influence of writer Bill Finger, who greatly expanded upon many of the ideas of artist Bob Kane. However, to make Batman more accessible to younger readers and to give him someone to talk to rather than simply relying on monologues or thought balloons, Kane, Finger, and fellow creator Jerry Robinson came up with the concept of introducing a kid sidekick for Batman. With the character’s look inspired by illustrations of Robin Hood, the appropriately-named Robin not only significantly altered Batman’s dynamic and portrayal, casting him as a less darker and violent vigilante and more as a Sherlock Holmes-type father figure, but also dramatically increased sales and interest in the character upon his debut.
The Review: The issue kicks off right away by introducing us to the Flying Graysons, John, Mary, and their young son Richard (or “Dick” as he prefers…feel free to make jokes in the comments), a family of trapeze artists for Haly’s Circus who regularly wow the crowd with their high-flying antics, particularly their “death-defying […] triple spin”. One night, whilst backstage, Dick overhears a couple of criminals threatening the owner of the circus, Mr. Haly, who balks at their attempts to force him to pay them protection money, though they promise him that “accidents will happen”. The next night, right as John and Mary are performing their headline act, their trapeze ropes snap in mid-air and they plummet to their deaths off panel but right before Dick’s very eyes!
After being briefly comforted by Bruce Wayne, who was in attendance that same night, Dick overhears the gangsters confess to causing the accident, which is enough to both scare Haly into paying them protection money and to convince Dick to go to the police. However, he is stopped by the timely arrival of the Batman, Gotham’s legendary vigilante, who takes Robin with him in order to spare him from reprisals since the entire town is run by mob boss Tony Zucco and ratting out Zucco’s men would surely mean death for Dick. Batman shares with Dick a truncated version of his own childhood trauma and Dick immediately volunteers to join his cause. Though Batman warns him of the dangers of his vigilante life, Dick is unafraid and, with what now appears to be very little convincing, Batman swears Dick to an undying oath to dedicate himself to the fight against crime and corruption.
Having revealed his true identity to Dick (off panel, of course), Bruce begins training the boy for his new life; thanks to his circus background, Dick excels at rope swinging and takes to his training in the likes of boxing and “jiu jitsu” with an eagerness and talent over a period of many months. Finally, Dick is ready to play a part in Bruce’s crusade and, for his first assignment, Bruce has Dick impersonate a grubby-faced newsboy in order to attract the attention of Zucco’s thugs and track them back to their lair. With the information provided to him by Dick, Batman is able to intercept and disrupt Zucco’s operation, taking out his thugs across town and smashing up the mob boss’s gambling house. Each time, he tells his prey to give Zucco one simple message (“The Batman”) and dispatches Zucco’s cohorts with both ease and a snappy wit.
Batman then delivers a threatening note to Zucco, who is so wound up by Batman’s antics that he falls completely for Batman’s bait and heads to the Canin Building (along with a number of his goons) to personally put an end to the Batman’s interference. However, instead of the Batman, Zucco and his minions are targeted by Dick in his new costumed guise of Robin. Striking fast and hard, Robin tackles one of Zucco’s men, causes another to (apparently) fall to his death by throwing a stone at his head, and handily takes out the rest using his speed, acrobatics, and the element of both surprise and misdirection.
However, perhaps because of his youthful exuberance (Dick is clearly relishing the chance to beat up some thugs), Robin slips on a girder and is left dangling hundreds of feet in the air at the mercy of one of Zucco’s men. Fortunately, Dick’s circus training pays off and he is able to twist himself around to send the gunman falling to his death and Batman arrives to take out Zucco before he can get a shot at the Boy Wonder. Batman than threatens Zucco’s remaining henchman, Blade, into signing a confession (…he just happened to have this on him, presumably in his utility belt) about their involvement the deaths of the Graysons and willingly allows Zucco to send Blade falling to his death in order to capture evidence of Zucco killing a man. Batman then assures Zucco that both the confession and the picture will be enough to see him tried and sentenced to summary execution and, having orchestrated events so that Dick could avenge the deaths of his parents, returns to Wayne Manor with Dick to await their next “corker” of an adventure.
The Summary: Okay, so, maybe Batman didn’t immediately turn into a child-friendly character all at once. Indeed, if you judge this story by most modern metrics of the character and his much-lauded “no kill rule”, you might be surprised to see Batman being so complicit and stoic about things such as mobsters being tossed off a building by a young boy. Of course, you can make the argument that Batman technically doesn’t murder anyone in this story; instead, he orchestrates events so that others do the dirty work for him but it’s quite astounding to see Dick go from a fun-loving, carefree young circus acrobat to a masked killer in just a few months.
Of course, the entire point of this story is to introduce and sell us on the idea of Batman adopting (in the literal sense rather than the legal one) a young sidekick; Robin’s origin is a thematic parallel to Batman’s, having witnessed his parents’ deaths at the hands of criminals, but he’s a much different character to Bruce. He’s younger, obviously, faster and far more agile and, thanks to his circus background, takes to his new vocation with vigour and enthusiasm. Though he takes a vow to commit himself to justice, for Dick, being a crimefighter is a thrill and a privilege and, clearly, the entire point of the character is to exist as a form of wish fulfilment for all youngsters out there who wish they could swing through the city and fight thugs alongside the Caped Crusader.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
What did you think about Robin’s sensational debut? What do you think about the idea of Batman having a kid sidekick? Do you prefer Batman to work alone or do you like the dynamic he has with his colourful partners? What are your thoughts on comics characters brazenly killing or willingly allowing children to be involved in such a violent life? Which of the Robins is your favourite, or least favourite, and why? How are you celebrating the debut of Robin this year? Whatever you think, feel free to leave a comment about Robin below and pop back next week for the next instalment of Robin Month.
Call me crazy, but I have a real fondness for the character of Robin. It really irks me when people (especially movie directors) rag on Batman’s colourful sidekick; debuting in 1940, about a year after Batman’s momentous first appearance, Robin has been an essential staple of Batman’s world for over eighty years so to suggest that he’s somehow “unsuitable” is, in my opinion, laughable. Over the years, numerous individuals have taken up the red tunic and green tights, some with more success than others. Yet, the iconic imagery evoked by the term “Batman and Robin” cannot be denied and, when talking about Robin, one of the first questions anyone will ask is: Who was the best Robin? So, with that in mind, I figured I’d do my own ranking and shine a bit of spotlight on this under-rated and criminally under-represented (in movies, at least) character.
Over the years, there have been many different interpretations of Batman’s kid sidekick in DC’s Elseworlds titles and in out of continuity stories that have since been rendered non-canon. Perhaps two of the most famous are the Dick Grayson of Earth-Two, who never grew out of the role and instead continued to fight crime in a garish Robin outfit into adulthood, and the “Toy Wonder”, a little robotic Robin who assisted the mysterious Batman of the DC One Million (Morrison, et al, 1998) crossover. Yet, we’ve also seen Batman’s faithful butler, Alfred Pennyworth, take on the Robin codename in Batman: Dark Allegiances (Chaykin, et al, 1996), Bruce Wayne’s son assume the role in the Superman & Batman: Generations (Byrne, et al, 1989 to 2004) series, an ape equivalent in Batman: Dark Knight Dynasty (Barr, et al, 1997), and even a story in 1955 that had a young Bruce Wayne take on the mantle during his early days of trying to learn the skills that he would eventually hone as Batman. I’m obviously lumping all of these kinds of interpretations together as, while DC may revisit and bungle the Multiverse concept more often than they have hot dinners, none of these versions of Robin have ever managed to get a footing in true DC canon and are generally regarded as being outside of mainstream continuity.
While you could make an argument that Carrie doesn’t deserve her own entry considering her introduction and most famous appearances have been in Frank Miller’s (thankfully) out of continuity Dark Knight (1986 to 2017) stories, I’d say she deserves to get her own entry on any Robin ranking simply for being the first, full-time female iteration of the character. Yet, I can’t rank Carrie much higher than this because of a few reasons: one is my obvious dislike for Miller’s Dark Knight works but, that aside, Carrie’s tenure as Robin is extremely brief. After being saved by Batman, Carrie is inspired to buy a Robin costume and fight petty thugs with a slingshot and firecrackers. Yet, despite earning Batman’s seal of approval and joining him in the resurrection of his never-ending war on crime, Carrie progressed to Catgirl and, eventually, Batwoman. She might have been a trend-setter by being the first true female Robin but it didn’t take her long to switch to a different identity and was easily one of the least prepared to assume the long-standing mantle of Batman’s partner.
After Batman was believed to be dead at the conclusion of the “Endgame” (Snyder, et al, 2014 to 2015) storyline, a whole bunch of Gotham City’s youthful decided to take on the mantle of Robin to keep the streets safe in the Dark Knight’s absence. I actually really like the concept of teenagers of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, and abilities taking to the streets as a vigilante force and feel this concept could have real legs in a live-action interpretation of Robin. Yet, this group is most notable for introducing Duke Thomas to the DC Universe, a character who would go on to break away from the Robin moniker and become the Signal. Unfortunately, neither Duke nor his gang of Robins can rank much higher as DC seems to have forgotten about them all in recent years; Duke eventually developed metahuman abilities and seems to have fallen out of prominence as Batman’s partner and his fellow Robins have fallen by the wayside as DC prefers to focus on the Bat Family of characters rather than this sub-team.
Daughter of a Z-list villain and Riddler knock-off, the Cluemaster, Stephanie Brown originally fought crime as the Spoiler to foil her father’s plots. Eventually, she became associated with the Bat Family when she started dating Tim Drake, though Batman (famous for opposing vigilantes not approved by him) openly disproved of her vigilante career. Yet, Batman turned to Steph and offered her the mantle of Robin after Tim was forced to retire from the role by his father. Lacking the experience and ability of previous Robins, Steph struggled in the role and, eventually, unwittingly initiated a gang war in an attempt to earn Batman’s respect, an action that led to her being tortured by Black Mask and eventually dying from her wounds.
It later transpired that her death was faked and Steph returned to active duty as Batgirl, for a time, a role that reflected her growth and maturity as a character…until DC made the inexplicable decision to reset continuity, force Barbara Gordon back into the Bat tights, and relegate Steph back to being Spoiler. Steph’s time as Robin may have been brief but, man, did she look good in the suit and her exuberance and enthusiasm could have made for a return to the 1960’s depiction of Robin as this hyperactive, fast-talking bundle of energy. Unfortunately, Steph became Robin during one of the darkest, grittiest, and grimmest times in DC Comics and, for the longest time, her death tainted many a Bat character.
Initially portrayed as a near-identical copy of Dick Grayson, Jason Todd was eventually retconned as being a wise-talking kid from the streets who stole the tyres off the Batmobile and was a disobedient, arrogant, angry little kid who was constantly at odds with Batman during his tenure as Robin. This isn’t necessarily the case but it is the story DC likes to tell these days; flashbacks will generally always show Jason being disobedient, violent, and moody rather than being as accomplished a Robin as Dick was. Nevertheless, Jason can’t take a top three spot as he’s most famous for being beaten with a crowbar and then blown up by the Joker.
Indeed, Jason was far more popular in death, a memorial in the Batcave, and a reminder of Bruce’s greatest failure in his career as Batman, and after his return to life under the guise of the gun-toting vigilante, Red Hood. Red Hood has been everything from a sadistic antagonist to a begrudging anti-hero but is, generally, now regarded as the black sheep of the Bat Family but one who is nevertheless an essential ally of Batman’s; he even wears the Bat logo on his chest these days though, if you ask me, he should have been Hush all along.
For many, Dick is the quintessential Robin; he was the first to take on the mantle, after all, and whenever you talk about Robin or see him in other media (cartoon, television shows, movies, and the like), Robin is pretty much always shown as being the alias of Dick Grayson. Yet, while Dick pioneered the role and excelled in it in every way, unlike other characters who have taken on the Robin identity, Dick successfully managed to grow out of the role and assume the identity of Nightwing. As Nightwing, Dick led the Teen Titans and defended the nearby city of Blüdhaven and, while he’s dabbled with other roles since then (including Agent 37 of Spyral and becoming Batman for an all-too-brief period), he’s far more associated with the role of Nightwing than Robin these days.
Even Dick himself has gone on to praise subsequent Robins for being more suitable to the role than he is and, having been Nightwing pretty consistently for over thirty years now, Dick has largely separated himself from being Batman’s “sidekick”. The fantastic Titans (2018 to present) show went in-depth into Dick Grayson’s (Brenton Thwaites) journey from Robin to Nightwing and even the diabolical Batman & Robin(Schumacher, 1997), has Dick Grayson/Robin (Chris O’Donnell) don an outfit that is visually very similar to Nightwing’s as part of his desire to establish his crimefighting career out of Batman’s (George Clooney) shadow.
The illegitimate son of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul, daughter of the functionally immortal Ra’s al Ghul, Damian Wayne was initially considered to be a character that existed outside of mainstream DC continuity until he was officially made a part of DC canon in Batman and Son (Morrison, et al, 2006).
Trained from birth by the League of Assassins, Damian was initially portrayed as a bratty, violent young boy who was arrogant, rude, disrespectful, and had no compunction about killing his opponents. He believed that, as Batman’s true son, the role of Robin was rightfully his and nearly killed Tim Drake just to prove it. Eventually, though, Damian softened and earned his place in the Bat Family; after Bruce Wayne appeared to die in the awful Batman R.I.P. (ibid, 2008), Dick Grayson briefly operated as Batman and took Damian as his Robin. While this initially created an interesting reversal of the Batman and Robin dynamic (with Dick being a more light-hearted Batman and Damian as a grim and stoic Robin), Damian has since excelled in the role, having joined the Teen Titans, returned from the dead, and forged friendships with both John Kent/Superboy and others in the Bat Family.
Damian may very well be on the path to being the most accomplished of all the Robins but he’s still relatively new to the role. His fighting proficiency and augmented knowledge and intelligence make him a formidable opponent but it seems as though Damian’s destiny is to one day break away from Batman’s shadow and either become Batman himself or forge a new identity. Therefore, while he has since gone on to assume the role of Red Robin and…Drake…Tim Drake is still the definitive Robin for me. Introduced some time after Jason’s death, when Batman was in a violent downward spiral, Tim wanted nothing more than to reunite Dick and Bruce as Batman and Robin and wound up assuming the mantle for himself. A keen detective and computer whiz, Tim brought something new to the role; for one thing, he was the first to ditch the short-shorts and pixie boots and wear a functional, respectable Robin costume and, for another, he was far more grounded and relatable than other Robins.
Although he never aspired to be anything other than Robin, Tim did briefly assume the mantle of Batman after Batman R.I.P. and has been shown, on multiple occasions, to eventually become a violent Batman in the future. However, Tim is probably most well-known for having taken up the identity of Red Robin; while I find the “Red” portion of this identity redundant and wish he had, like Dick, forged an entirely separate code-name, it showed that Tim still very much considered himself Robin first and foremost (except for that weird period when he inexplicably took the identity of “Drake”). Tim was also the first Robin to get his own ongoing comic book series and that he is, for all intents and purposes, probably the most successful of the full-time Robins at really making the identity his own as Batman’s sidekick, a solo hero, or as part of the Teen Titans and Young Justice.
What are your thoughts on Robin? Do you feel he’s too bright and cheerful for the normally grim and gritty Batman or is he an essential part of the Batman mythos? Who was your favourite Robin? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Before I earned my PhD writing about adaptations of videogames, I studied towards a Master’s degree in the same subject only, for my Master’s dissertation, I wrote about adaptations of comic books and superheroes. As many of you are probably aware, movies based on the likes of DC Comics and Marvel Comics costume-clad crimefighters are a prevalent subgenre in cinema these days but, back then, the boom was still reaching its apex; Marvel’s The Avengers/Avengers Assemble(Whedon, 2012) was still a year or two away from changing the genre, and cinema, and The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008) had just been released. It was an exciting time not just for move lovers but also for comic book fans; superheroes and comics have long been the basis of movies, cartoons, videogames, toys, and other media and have always been ripe for adaptation but, in the last ten years especially, they have really emerged as a successfully subgenre of cinema to dominate box offices and, thanks to the interconnected movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), change the way movie studios approach not just comic book movies but movies in general.
However, as with all adaptations, we’ve seen some changes to the source material during the act of taking these beloved characters from the restrictive panels and plash pages of comic books and transferring them to the big screen. The first thing you learn when studying adaptations is the inevitability of this change yet even when knowing this, those who critique adaptations do so to test their faithfulness and equivalence to a source material that is, by comparison, awarded primacy and authority simply because it “came first” (Hutcheon, 2006: 16). Similarly, Dicecco (2015: 164) observed that adaptation theorists are generally exhausted with the concept of “fidelity” and the subsequent rejection of fidelity as constructive analytical discourse has been described as essential to adaptation theory as it “does not make sense as a critical framework because literal reproduction, which may or may not even be a formal possibility, is actually a relatively uncommon motive for adapters” (ibid, referencing Hutcheon and Leitch). Indeed, the very act of discussing fidelity is to express personal disappointment when an adaptation “fails to capture what we see as the fundamental narrative, thematic, and aesthetic features of its literary source” (ibid, quoting Stam), none of which is generally viewed as constructive to adaptation theory.
And yet, for those of us who are particularly close to the source material and heavily invested in it, it can be difficult to accept when a movie changes something fundamental about our beloved characters; from having Jack Napier/The Joker (Jack Nicholson) be responsible for killing Bruce Wayne/Batman’s (Michael Keaton) parents, to the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) being little more than a drunken actor playing us all for fools, to Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) being the idealistic protégé of Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jnr), comic book fans often lament startling changes and, with the internet and social media giving them the perfect platform to vent their frustrations, are never shy about letting others know exactly how they feel when movies alter their favourite comic book characters.
But perhaps the biggest and most enduring debate amongst the superhero fan community is the question of whether or not their favourite heroes should be depicted as killers. It seems like every other day my Twitter feed comes alive with people raging endlessly about whether Batman should kill, protesting that Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) snapped General Zod’s (Michael Shannon) neck in Man of Steel (Snyder, 2013), and generally raging endlessly whenever someone dares to suggest otherwise. Honestly, it gets very old and aggravating; it’s almost as annoying and insulting as when these same fans decry superhero costumes in movies and television shows (no matter how faithful the design is to the source material, they still find something to complain about). So I figured that I’d go back to my Master’s dissertation and throw my two pennies into the well; however, as this debate could honestly go on forever and contain numerous example, I’m going to try and limit it to a couple of choice franchises: Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, the Avengers, and Star Wars.
When I wrote my Master’s dissertation, the first chapter was all about Batman; his origins, his code, his various intricacies and how these had been summarised, distilled, and changed by the adaptation process when the character was brought to life in movies. At the time, the Christopher Nolan films were at their peak and it was generally understood that Batman (Christian Bale) had one simple rule: he would not kill, no matter the circumstances. Fast-forward to sometime later, after the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice(ibid, 2016) and I revisited this piece in an attempt to get it published in a journal. However, when I came back to it, my entire argument had changed; having seen the way Batman (Ben Affleck) was portrayed in Batman v Superman, and actually being perfectly fine with a Batman who killed, my original piece was suddenly completely contradicted and it is this contradiction that I want to tackle first and foremost. Personally, I feel Nolan’s movies hammered home Batman’s no-killing rule in a way that is massively exaggerated for the source material. Whenever the subject is raised, people inevitably point to examples from Batman’s earliest days of publication, back when he was little more than another gun-toting pulp vigilante in the spirit of the Shadow or the Phantom. The “Bat-Man” as originally depicted by Bob Kane and Bill Finger was very nonchalant about killing criminals; he would kick them into vats of chemicals, snap their necks, or hang them from the Batplane, all while spouting a cutting quip or dry comment.
However, examples of Batman killing in comics are few and far between and he is seen far more often opposing the killing of others than he is executing criminals. This was a driving force in the Under the Hood (Winick, et al, 2004 to 2006) in which Jason Todd, freshly returned to life, laments the fact that Batman would prefer to let criminal, murdering scum like the Joker live rather than end their threat once and for all. this idea of Batman resisting the urge to kill because it would be “too easy” and would start him on a downward path of death and destruction has been explored numerous times in Batman comics and is of particular relevance in Nolan’s films. In Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005) Bruce Wayne is fully prepared to avenge the death of his parents by shooting the man who killed them, Joe Chill (Richard Brake) right in front of entire host of witnesses. When the opportunity is taken from him, he becomes disgusted at himself for taking up the same weapon that brought such pain and loss to his life and, in that moment, literally and figuratively rejects such instruments of death. Later, when told that he must execute a murder to graduate from the League of Shadows, Bruce’s resolve remains steadfast (emphasis mine):
BRUCE (refusing the sword offered to him) No. I’m no executioner.
DUCARD: Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share.
BRUCE: That’s why it’s so important. It separates us from them.
DUCARD: You want to fight criminals? This manis a murderer!
BRUCE: This man should be tried.
DUCARD: By whom? Corrupt bureaucrats? Criminals mock society’s laws! You know this better than most!
It’s a great scene, and a great moment, in which Bruce outright refuses to follow the League’s gospel to the letter and, instead, chooses to take their teachings and bring criminals to justice rather than end their lives. However, when faced with the choice of killing the man, Bruce takes drastic action and causes a fire to start in the League’s temple and ends up fighting with “Ra’s al Ghul” (Ken Watanabe); the fire causes the temple to become structurally unstable and, as a result, “Ra’s” is crushed to death by falling timber and, shortly after, the temple is rocked by a series of explosions. While Bruce risks his life to save his friend and mentor, Ducard (Liam Neeson, later revealed to be the true Ra’s), how many members of the League perished because of Bruce’s actions?
This scene is, structurally, reminiscent of a sequence in Batman: Year One(Miller, et al, 1987) in which a young, inexperience and exuberant Batman is so frightening that he causes a robber to almost tumble over a balcony and to his death. Despite the fact that Batman takes a great amount of punishment from the other criminals (he gets a television bashed over his head, and not one of our light-weight flatscreens!), Batman makes a concentrated, deliberate effort to save the man from falling. “Lucky,” he remarks afterwards, “lucky amateur”. However, despite all of this, Batman is faced with a choice at the conclusion of the movie: the Gotham monorail is out of control and heading right to Wayne Tower and cannot be stopped. It’s breaking apart around him and his only option is to escape and let the train crash, destroying Ra’s’ microwave emitter in the process and saving Gotham City. Yet, he’s not along: Ra’s is with him in this moment:
RA’S: Have you finally learned to do what is necessary?
BATMAN: I won’t kill you…but I don’t have to save you!
And, with that, Batman unfurls his cape and is flown clear of the train, and of danger, and Ra’s is left to accept his fate. So, explain to me how killing a man and letting a man die are two different things? Remember, Batman has an entire utility belt full of gadgets and gizmos, the most prominent of which is his gas-powered magnetic grapnel gun. Rather than gliding away, he could have swung them both to safety or, better yet, took Ra’s with him as he escaped but, instead, he let Ra’s die through his inaction. Had Ra’s made a move or a fatal error that Batman was powerless to stop, this debate wouldn’t exist; we saw something similar in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker(Geda, 2000) where Batman (Kevin Conroy) was too injured to stop Tim Drake (Mathew Valencia) from killing the Joker (Mark Hamill) but he most like would have tried to interject had he been physically capable.
In The Dark Knight, Batman’s code against killing is so widely known that not only does he rasp it at criminals at any given opportunity, but Gotham’s criminal underworld is “wise to [his] act”. Spurred on by Batman’s “morals” and his “mode”, the Joker (Heath ledger) wages a reign of terror across Gotham in an attempt to have Batman unmask and expose himself as a fraud. Interestingly, it is Bruce’s loyal butler and father-figure, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), who tries to talk Bruce out of complying with the Joker’s demands:
BRUCE: People are dying, Alfred. What would you have me do?
ALFRED: Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They’ll hate you for it but that’s the point of Batman. He can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no-one else can make. The right choice.
This isn’t the first time Alfred has encouraged Bruce to accept that casualties are inevitable in his war on crime; in Batman Forever(Schumacher, 1995), Alfred (Michael Gough) actively encourages Bruce (Val Kilmer) to offer guidance to Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell) just as he encourages Grayson to follow his own path towards vigilantism: “One day, Robin will fly again” he tells the troubled youth and he not only not only is conveniently lax about keeping the secret entrance to the Batcave hidden from Grayson he also “[takes] the liberty” of creating an armoured Robin costume for his young master.
Batman Forever is an interesting example as, whether fans want to admit it or not, this movie is tangentially connected to the two prior Batman movies, both of which depicted Batman as fully capable of killing. By Forever, though, Bruce has become so lost in his crusade that’s actually forgotten a pivotal motivation behind becoming Batman in the first place: the vow to keep anyone from experienced what he had to as a child. When it becomes apparent that Grayson is fixated on tracking down and killing the man responsible for the death of his family, Harvey Dent/Two-Face/“Harvey Two-Face” (Tommy Lee Jones), it is Bruce, not Alfred, who tries to talk him out of it:
BRUCE: So you’re willing to take a life.
DICK: As long as it’s Two-Face.
BRUCE: Then…it will happen this way. You make the kill. But your pain doesn’t die with Harvey, it grows and so you run out into the night to find another face. And another. And another. Until one terrible morning you wake up and realise that revenge has become your whole life…and you won’t know why.
Grayson, however, is unconvinced at the time and Bruce’s words don’t truly start to sink into him until much later in the film, when he’s suited up as Robin: “I can’t promise I won’t kill Harvey,” he says…and Batman accepts this, having completed his own character arc and learned that he can’t deter Grayson from his path, all he can do is help guide him. However, when he finally gets his hands on Two-Face, Robin stops short of killing him and, ironically, it is Batman who causes the villains demise, in that moment, the shot clearly lingers on Robin’s face as he gets the catharsis he so desperately desired from Two-Face’s death but is spared having to commit the act himself thanks to Batman.
Batman’s willingness to get his hands dirty, to “plunge [his] hands into the filth” so that others can keep theirs clean, is a pivotal plot point of The Dark Knight Rises (Nolan, 2012). This film is a culmination of the idea that Batman, as a concept, is not a hero; he’s a legend, an icon, an inspiration to others. We saw this in The Dark Knight when Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) believed so strongly in the Batman that he lied to the press and said that he was Batman right as Bruce was about to out himself to stop the Joker’s killings. We saw Bruce do a similar thing in Batman Forever where he didn’t hesitate to stand up and shout his secret identity to the world when Two-Face threatened the circus but, whereas his cries were drowned out by screaming Gothamites in that film, Dent is arrested and publically believed to be Batman until he dies. And how did Dent die? Batman tackled him off a high ledge! Harvey fell and broke his neck on impact and, with their “White Knight” dead, Batman chose to take the fall for his crimes: “I killed those people. That’s what I can be […] Because I’m not a hero. Not like Dent”. Only Batman and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) know the truth and this truth, and guilt, is what drives Gordon to become a shell of his former self in The Dark Knight Rises. The Dark Knight ends with the prospect of Batman being hounded by the Gotham police, who believe him a murderer, as well as the galvanised criminals of the city but, instead, Bruce simply retires from the role due to the physical and mental impact it has on his body.
When he finally returns to the cape and cowl, Batman picks up right where he left off, to his detriment. When he crosses paths with Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), he immediately discourages her from using guns or killing people; this is consistent with Batman’s methods in the comics where, despite referring to his crusade as a “war” and his protégés as “soldiers”, Batman constantly forbids members of his “family” from taking lethal action. This despite the fact that Batwoman, Kate Kane, is former military and has killed before, that Jason Todd/Red Hood regularly engages in gunplay and murder, that Batman’s own son, Damian Wayne/Robin, has killed before, and the fact that Alfred regularly patrols and defends the Batcave with either a shotgun or a musket! Furthermore, when Catwoman uses the cannons on his Bat-Pod to kill Bane (Tom Hardy), Wayne is still perfectly happy to retire from crimefighting with Selina by his side.
So you’ll forgive me if seeing Ben Affleck mowing down criminals with machine gun fire and breaking them in two doesn’t offend my opinion of Batman. Of course, Batman films are often regarded as being especially important to comic book fans because they depict “a supposedly definitive representation” of Batman, belonging to a “multi-national conglomeration and the global audience” who buy tickets and merchandise, “rather than to the dedicated comic book readers” (Brooker, 2001: 293). Honestly, I think one of the issues hampering Batman v Superman and the film’s portrayal of Batman is the fact that Snyder’s directing style tends to be very loud and bombastic and on the nose but, when it comes to Batman, he is uncharacteristically subtle. I’ve mentioned this before but Batman’s entire motivation in this film can be explained in that one lingering shot of him first looking at the Batsuit with a mixture of disgust and conviction and then gazing in anguish at the Robin suit left on display. I fully believe that the visuals tell us more than words ever could in this scene, which clearly shows that this is a broken, desolate Bruce who, after twenty years (twenty years!) of being Batman, has become so jaded by his crusade that he has given up all hope: he now freely kills criminals or brands them with his symbol, ensuring they will die in prison:
ALFRED (handing Bruce a newspaper): New rules?
BRUCE (barely glancing at the headline: “Bat Brand of Justice!”): We’re criminals, Alfred. We’ve always been criminals. Nothing’s changed.
Sadly, Alfred (Jeremy Irons) then elaborates that things have changed…because of the arrival of Superman and alien beings on their world, rather than because of recent events in Bruce’s life. Yet, nevertheless, this is a Bruce so jaded and lost in his crusade for justice, that’s willing to pre-emptively kill Superman in order to actually affect real change in the world. Perhaps if the film had included a more explicit line of dialogue or explanation regarding Bruce’s state of mind rather than relying on the audience filling in the gaps through subtext, audiences would have reacted a little better to Affleck’s portrayal (or, at least, understood it better). While the eventual change in his perspective is quite jarring, Bruce spends the remainder of the film and the entirety of Justice League(Snyder/Whedon, 2017) trying to make amends for his actions. Indeed, in Justice League, Batman is so devoted to forming a superhero team and bringing Superman back to life that he’s willing to die to see this through. Superman’s sacrifice galvanises Bruce and he sees how far he has fallen and believes he has to atone for his sins; however, the team worked too well and saved him from not only death but himself as well.
Speaking of Superman, every other day I see the debate raging on Twitter that killing should, under no circumstances, ever be a part of Superman’s nature. No matter what the situation is, Superman, as the pinnacle of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” should always find another way to resolve the issue and never resort to killing.
Which, quite frankly, is utter rubbish.
If Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Meyer, 1982) taught us anything it’s that, sometimes, you’re in a no-win situation and there is no other way. To deny Superman, or any superhero, that kind of desperate situation is to deny us the chance to read interesting stories dealing with the fallout from that situation. If Superman always prevails and never has to address the fact that his actions may have fatal consequences, than surely that limits him as a character? In the comics, Superman has killed a few times, the same as Batman and other superheroes (even Spider-Man once accidentally killed a woman), but examples are far less prominent for the Man of Steel. One particular story that often gets brought up time and time again as an example of Superman killing is “The Price” (Byrne, et al, 1988), in which Superman is forced to execute some Kryptonian criminals with a chunk of deadly Kryptonite. This decision weighed heavily on Superman’s conscience for some time as he had taken an oath to never use his powers to kill and, as a result, tied into John Byrne’s over-arching goal of humanising Superman and making him more relatable to readers rather than him being some all-powerful, infallible demigod.
Typically, though, Superman (like Batman and other superheroes) is generally depicted as killing one of the many parallel worlds that crop up in comics, with Superman generally becoming a merciless dictator once he starts down that path. In this story, though, one of the Kryptonians Superman killed in this story was none other than General Zod; of all the villains Superman has faced, Zod has perhaps met his ends at the hands of the Man of Steel more than any other. People forget that Superman (Christopher Reeve) threw Zod (Terrance Stamp) to his death after removing his Kryptonian powers, crushing his hand, and throwing him down a bottomless pit in Superman II (Lester, 1980). Sure, the Richard Donner Cut (Donner, 2006) showed that Superman was originally going to reverse time to restore Zod to life but, even if you consider this canon, he still killed Zod so how is this any better than what we see in Man of Steel?
In this revised origin story, Clark has finally discovered his true heritage and only just put on his Super-Suit for the first time when, all of a sudden, General Zod arrives and demands that he surrender to him. He’s not had a chance to properly reveal himself as Superman, much less use his powers in a fight, and he’s suddenly forced to battle against a group of dangerous, highly-trained Kryptonians who threaten his mother. How would you react in that situation? Would you calmly assess the situation and try to think of a way around the issue or would you attack head-first in an emotional attempt to save the woman who raised you? Obviously, the ensuing battles are quite devastating in their impact; Superman trashes most of downtown Smallville and never once during his subsequent fight with Zod does he try to direct the fight away from Metropolis. While this is mainly due to Zod blocking his path or forcing the fight to stay on ground level, there is that one sequence where the fight ends up in outer space and the two come crashing down right on top of Metropolis like an Earth-splitting meteor. This was easily Superman’s best opportunity to direct the fight away from the city but, again, this is a Superman who hasn’t been in action longer than a day and is overwhelmed by his emotions so of course his solution is to try and end the fight through brute force.
Whether talking about Batman, Superman, or any other costumed hero, you have to factor in a degree of plausible realism; how likely is it that entire skyscrapers or cities would be evacuated when Doomsday comes crashing down into Metropolis? In the “Death of Superman” (Jurgens, et al, 1992 to 1993) story, Metropolis gets a great deal of advance warning before Doomsday rocks up, despite Superman’s best efforts to keep the creature from the city, and there are still countless civilians watching the fight and caught in the resulting destruction. We’ve also seen in comics before how, when dodging automatic gunfire, Batman has allowed others to be gunned down; is this not killing? By the logic of the internet, Batman should have taken those bullets and died right then and there rather than let someone die through his actions. As I briefly mentioned before, even Spider-Man has been guilty of this in the past; despite Peter Parker doing everything in his power to save lives, sometimes he fails to do so and, sometimes, his actions (or inactions) lead to yet more death and he is forced to deal with the consequences of that. Yet, apparently, according to some people, Superman doesn’t have to. In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (2002 to 2004), Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) is guilty of causing at least two deaths that we know of, intending to kill two others, and directly responsible for at least one death.
In Spider-Man, enraged at the death of his beloved Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), Parker chases down the culprit, Dennis Carradine (Michael Papajohn), breaking his wrist and confronting him in a fit of anger. Peter demands answers from the murderer who, spooked by Peter’s enhanced strength and abilities, conveniently trips and falls to his death. Could Peter have saved him? Well…yes, of course he could have. He could have shot out his webbing and saved Carradine but, in the heat of the moment, he was powerless to stop the carjacker from falling to his death and, in the aftermath, vows to take his uncle’s words to heart and use his great powers responsible. And it works, for the most part, until he ends up locked in combat with Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe); beaten to a pulp by the chemically-enhanced madman, Peter is shaken when he discovers that the Green Goblin is the father of his best friend, Harry (James Franco) and, taking advantage of that distraction, the Goblin summons his rocket-powered glider to impale Spidey in the back, luckily, however, Peter’s spider-sense warns him of the danger and, acting purely on instinct, Peter flips out of the way and Norman is impaled by his own glider and dies. Should Peter have taken that fatal blow rather than saving himself? Could he have used his webs in mid-flip to knock the glider off course? Who can say, but the guilt of being directly responsible for Norman’s death haunts Peter throughout the next two movies.
I’ll cut Spidey some slack for the conclusion of Spider-Man 2 (ibid, 2004) as I don’t think anyone can really pin the death of Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) on Spidey but, still, you could make the argument that Spidey could have swung in and saved the misguided scientist from his death, no matter how willingly Otto went to meet his fate. In Spider-Man 3, however, Peter again lets his rage consume him when he discovers that Flint Marko/The Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) is actually the man responsible for the death of Uncle Ben. Fuelled by the symbiotic black suit, Peter obsessively monitors police radio frequencies and, as soon as he gets a lead on Sandman, tracks him down and washes him away with a jet of water. The liquid dissolves Sandman into a mushy mess as Spidey remarks: “Good riddance!” Clearly, in this moment, Spider-Man believes Sandman is dead and is glad to have killed him; he later admits to his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) that Spider-Man killed Marko and she is shocked:
AUNT MAY (confused, shocked): Spider-Man? I don’t understand…Spider-Man doesn’t kill people. What happened?
AUNT MAY: I don’t think it’s for us to say whether a person deserves to live or die.
The revelation that Aunt May no longer wishes harm upon the man responsible for her husband’s death clearly knocks Peter for a loop and he questions his actions…but not enough to keep from tossing a pumpkin bomb right in Harry’s face when they fight later in the movie. Up until that point, the only person to survive such a blast was Spidey himself so, even if you want to make argument that Peter knew Harry’s enhanced strength would keep him from dying, he clearly set out to kill, or at least permanently maim, his childhood friend with that explosive.
Later still, having finally freed himself from the black suit’s corrupting influence, Peter prepares to kill once again; this time, his target is the alien symbiote itself, which he has contained within a bunch of vibrating bars. This is a common theme in superhero movies and comics where heroes like the Justice League and the Avengers are perfectly happy with killing sentient alien creatures; whether they’re part of an insect-like hive mind or mindless brutes, they’re still living creatures and the likes of Batman and Superman are more than happy to off them without a second’s hesitation. In this particular instance, though, Parker actually ends up killing Eddie Brock, Jnr (Topher Grace), who was so obsessed with the power and freedom offered by the symbiote that he leaps right into the blast and was summarily incinerated. Peter’s reaction? A look of shock, a scream of “EDDIE!!”, and he shrugs it off as just one of those things. The symbiote was a drug, after all, and Eddie couldn’t kick the habit and he paid for it. plus, to be fair, there was very little Peter could do to save Eddie in those final moments, certainly far less than he could have done to save Norman and Otto, and it’s obvious that he never intended for the bomb to kill Eddie but, still, a young man died as a direct result of Peter throwing that bomb.
I mentioned the Avengers earlier so let’s go back to them real quick; while everyone cries and gets all stressed and upset when Batman launches a crate right in a goon’s face and smashes his skull open, no one bats an eyelid when the Avengers make killing a routine habit of their day-to-day lives. Obviously, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) gets a pass though, right? He was a soldier in the war and we clearly see him gunning down Nazis and Hydra agents in Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011) like any good soldier would be expected to do. Steve even says: “I don’twant to kill anybody” (emphasis mine) in his debut movie but it’s war: of course he’s going to and he does and nobody questions it.
Yet Batman has the nerve to lecture Kate Kane about not using lethal force in DC Comics and Kate (Ruby Rose) even has a crisis of conscious when she kills in her self-titled television show (2020 to present)…which is doubly ridiculous when you consider that Oliver Queen/The Hood/The Arrow/Green Arrow (Stephen Amell) and his allies routinely went around killing criminals and goons in Arrow(2012 to 2020) and it was perfectly acceptable! Hell, it was even part of Ollie’s character arc as he swore off killing for a time but, when he returned to murdering bad guys, nobody questioned it so why is there this double standard when it comes to superheroes killing? Similarly, in Avengers Assemble, we clearly see Cap gunning down those under the influence of Loki (Tom Hiddleston); these men aren’t actually evil or deserving of death, they’re just under a magic spell, but Cap offs them anyway and never gets a lecture for it. similar, billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, who is so horrified and traumatised by his time as a prisoner of war and seeing his technology and weapons being used to kill American soldiers that he builds highly advanced suits of armour and flies halfway across the world to murder terrorists! The criminally under-rated and unfairly lambasted Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010) tries to explore the consequences of this but Tony simply laughs in the face of the American government…and is literally cheered for it!
For that matter, all of the Avengers are publically lauded as heroes despite that fact that each and every one of them is a cold-blooded killer; Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is a former Russian spy with “red in her ledger” that she may never be able to erase no matter how much good she does, Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) was sent to assassinate Romanoff and, while he made a “different call”, he’s clearly trusted enough to perform such an action, and even Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) was guilty of causing untold amounts of mayhem, destruction, and deaths when he was Edward Norton in his also-under-appreciated solo movie. Later in the MCU, Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) reacts with horror when he kills a man even though it was a clear case of self-defence. Strange’s position is unique within the MCU; as a Doctor, he’s more accustomed to saving lives than taking them so his perspective on the matter, and approach to superheroics, is naturally very different to that of his fellow costumed peers. The consequences of collateral damage and the Avengers’ actions are explored in Captain America: Civil War (The Russo Brothers, 2016); here, the Avengers are placed under scrutiny when their largely unilateral actions result in a lot of innocent deaths. Up until this point, they have operated with “unlimited power and no supervision” and the decision is passed that, going forward, they should answer to the United Nations before jetting off to fight super criminals and terrorists, a decision which divides the team. Captain America’s outlook is very black-and-white and fitting for a soldier; he understands and sympathises with the guilt and shame Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) feels following her actions but doesn’t believe that it should spell the end of the Avengers’ effectiveness as an independent team:
STEVE: People died. That’s on me. This job…we try to save as many people as we can. Sometimes that doesn’t mean everybody but, if we can’t find a way to live with that, next time…maybe nobody gets saved.
For Tony, the resultant Sokovia Accords are a means to alleviate some of his guilt and to show to his estranged girlfriend, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), that he’s willing to step away from his role as Iron Man and hold himself accountable for his actions. Up until this movie, though, Tony’s view and methods reflected Cap’s more pragmatic view on the matter, as did the rest of the Avengers; they generally identify who the enemy is, engage them, and subdue them by any means necessary. In the course of their battles, which natural escalate, collateral damage is not just expected but all-but-inevitable; Cap understands this and, yet, even in the midst of city-wide destruction, will direct his team (and emergency and public services) to take the time to minimise civilian casualties wherever possible.
As a result, Cap and the Avengers are never seen killing criminals indiscriminately and make every attempt possible to contain and reduce damage and casualties, but are not only willing to kill when necessary but accept that causalities are bound to happen. We see this when Cap goes to talk sense into James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) and they end up having to fight off a riot squad; though he says he’s not going to kill anybody, Bucky, his head twisted by years of Hydra programming, is desperate to escape by any means necessary, is extremely aggressive towards his would-be-captors and Cap has to go out of his way to save them from serious harm and death. Cap recognises that these are the local authorities, not some Hydra goons, and therefore shouldn’t be killed or harmed at all, if possible, but has already showcased in the first Avengers movie that he’s used to seeing team-mates and innocents get caught in the crossfire during battle and has learned to compartmentalise that in such a way that allows him to continue function to save countless other lives whenever possible.
Let’s apply this to Ben Affleck’s Batman; despite popular believe, he isn’t some unhinged, murdering psychopath. He exists in a world where he’s perfectly happy to arrest the likes of Floyd Lawton/Deadshot (Will Smith) and where Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the Joker (Jared Leto) remain alive and well; Batman v Superman implies that it’s only very, very recently that Batman has taken to taking more violent and extreme actions against criminals and he’s understandable a bit distracted by the oncoming battle against the forces of Apokolips but you have to believe that, if he wanted the Joker dead, he would be dead…but he’s not. Batman also doesn’t kill every criminal he crosses paths with; some are clearly only as maimed or injured as the countless goons Batman disables in the comics, while others are left completely unmolested. His methods are quite inconsistent but, for this Batman, the end goal is far bigger than just his city; in these movies, he’s concerned with the safety of the entire world and actually having a lasting impact outside of Gotham City. As a result, is approach seems to be one of sacrificing a few to save many, which isn’t a million miles away from Cap’s philosophy but, obviously, far more explicitly violent.
Finally, lets take a look at the characters of the Star Wars (1977 to present) movies. In Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope(Lucas, 1977), we’re introduced to two characters who would become staples of the franchise: the innocent, wide-eyed farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who dreams of fighting space battles against the Galactic Empire and the rough-and-ready lovable rogue Han Solo (Harrison Ford), who wants little more than to be paid for his services. Famously, Lucas has butchered his original movie time and time again to alter the scene in which Han has a tense confrontation with Greedo (Paul Blake). Originally, Han blasted Greedo and killed him in a bad-ass moment that showed Han had no fucks to give but, feeling this made Han seem too cold-blooded, Lucas altered the scene again and again to have Han awkwardly “dodge” Greedo’s laser bolt and the two of them to shoot simultaneously. My question, as I’m sure many Star Wars fans also have, is…why? It seems completely redundant as, not long after this scene, both Han and Luke are blasting away at Stromtroopers without a care in the world. Is it somehow “better” because they’re being shot at? To me, it’s the same thing; killing is killing, the only question is how you can justify that killing and, in the case of Han murdering Greedo, he’s totally justified: Greedo confront Han with the specific intent on killing the smuggler so Han is simply defending himself by pre-emptively eliminating the immediate threat to his life.
Plus, like, Han is a galaxy-weary smuggler who has been around a while; he carries a blaster and is expecting trouble everywhere he goes so of course he would have had to have killed before so why Lucas chose to meddle with this scene but thought it was perfectly okay for bright-eyed and eternally optimistic Luke Skywalker to start murdering Stromtroopers (most of whom are simply following orders) with reckless abandon is beyond me. Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that Luke destroyed the Death Star! We know the Rebellion has spies within the Empire; how many of those were onboard those space stations when they blew? How many innocent lives were snuffed out? How sure are we that everyone on those battle stations was pure evil? Half of the Rebellion is made up of defected Imperial soldiers, for God’s sake! Even Han was an Imperial once and he ended up becoming a pivotal member of the Rebellion so who’s to say that a significant number of those hundreds of thousands of people actually “deserved” to die?
Again, though, it’s war so I guess that makes it “okay”, right? The fact that Batman often refers to his cruse as a “war on crime” never seems to factor in since it’s assumed that, obviously, there are different “types” of war. War is war; if you declare war, you’re at war and, in any war, there are casualties. Batman, of all people, should understand that. But don’t misunderstand me: I’m clearly not saying that Batman and every superhero should go out there and kill every criminal indiscriminately. That’s obviously not the point I’m making. What I am saying, though, is that if we’re to believe that a man dresses like a bat or an archer or wields incredible powers and regularly engages in city-wide battles or highly dangerous fights against armed foes, death is an inevitability. It should be avoided at all costs, sure, but it’s going to happen even if it’s just because our spandex-clad hero jumps out of the way of incoming gunfire. Hell, this was even a theme in the universally-maligned Batman & Robin (Schumacher, 1997) for God’s sake:
ALFRED: For what is “Batman” if not an effort to master the chaos that sweeps our world? An attempt to control death itself?
BRUCE (contemplating, clearly affected by this): But I can’t. Can I?
ALFRED (resolutely): None of us can.
So what is it that makes killing acceptable for some characters but not others? Is it literally because these characters haven’t been so closely associated with not killing as Batman has (thanks, again, to the Nolan movies) or because Superman, with all his powers, should be capable of more? Okay, well, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is an actual God and he kills people all the time during battle and when his back is against the wall so why shouldn’t Superman? Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is obviously the better analogy as, like Thor, she’s this superpowered, God-like character from the pages of mythology and she kills so why is that okay but it’s not okay for Superman to snap a madman’s neck when he’s not only threatening to roast an innocent family alive but literally screaming about how he is genetically engineered to continue killing and causing as much destruction as it takes to resurrect Krypton? Of course, a lot of these examples are circumstantial; you could read an entire year’s worth of Batman comics and never see him kill, or through action or inaction allow someone to die, so it’s true that it’s hardly a normal, everyday occurrence for superheroes to kill (unless you’re talking about the likes of Spawn, Wolverine, or the Punisher, where it’s a given). Yet, it does still happen and, when adapting any character with as rich a history as the likes of Batman to the screen, writers and directors often tend to draw from the entirety of the character’s history, distilling their essence and reinterpreting the character in a way that hits all the familiar beats (and even introduces some new ones).
Now, don’t get it twisted: I’m clearly not calling for these heroes to start killing their enemies indiscriminately but I’ve been a fan of all the superheroes and franchises I’ve talked about in this article for pretty much my entire life; I’ve seen Batman kill, abstain from killing, kill by coincidence, and lecture his fellow heroes on taking a strictly non-lethal approach and, yet, I am perfectly happy with either approach. Not minding (or even caring) when the likes of Batman kill doesn’t make me any “less” of a Batman fan; instead, it opens the door for deeper explorations of the character if you choose to look at the subtext of this approach and see what it does for the character. Personally, I am always open to the endless possibilities offered by comic books and their many adaptations and feel it is extremely short-sighted and limited to limit oneself to the types of stories they can tell. Use the pages to explore how killing this affects Superman and his faith in himself and his abilities; people always complain that Superman is too powerful to be relatable so any chance to humanise him and make us understand him better is an opportunity for a poignant tale without having him become some crazed dictator. It’s the same for Batman; he’s always preaching and lecturing his protégés and extended family of vigilantes on the virtues of saving lives rather than taking them so what would it do to batman, to Bruce Wayne, if he were responsible for innocent lives being lost and caused a criminal to die? Would he quit, go on another voyage of self-discovery, change his tactics, go on a killing spree? Most stories tend to lean towards that latter and even the comics have basically said that, once Batman starts killing, he wouldn’t stop but…wouldn’t he? He didn’t kill every criminal in the Tim Burton or Snyder movies so is it really fated that he’d become a pseudo-Punisher once he took a life or could he, perhaps, have the strength of will to work through the knowledge that his crusade had led to someone losing their life and be a better, stronger character for it?
I hesitate to ask you to leave your opinions on this matter as it’s a massively divisive can of worms, to say the least, but please do feel free to comment below on your opinions regarding this subject. Do you feel death is an inevitable part of a superheroes chosen career or do you think superheroes should be above that sort of thing? If so, why? Who is your favourite superhero? How would you feel if they took a life or, if your favourite superhero is already a killer, why do you feel it’s acceptable fort hem to kill but not others. Literally no opinion is “wrong” regarding this matter; it’s all a matter of interpretation so, whatever you think, leave a comment and, the next time you think about ranting about a superhero killing on twitter, stop and think about why it upsets you so much and maybe do a little research or dig a little deeper into the lore and the subtext before lynching those who disagree with your opinon.
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