Batman: Daemon with a Cape (Men in Tights, Part 1)
Let’s face it, superhero costumes aren’t the most practical attire ever invented. If you’re going to fight heavily armed criminals, why the hell would you choose to wear brightly coloured spandex and a movement-impeding cape? The bright colours would draw the eye of anyone with a machine gun or death ray, and the cape would forever be catching in doors, not to mention flapping in your face every time there was a gust of wind.
Even ostensibly practical costumes that ditch the garish colour schemes and pointless capes aren’t much use. There’s a hilarious extra feature on the X-Men DVD where the actors can’t even step over a foot high wall because their leather costumes are too restricting.
So why do superheroes keep wearing the damn things? Did they lose a bet? In the case of Mister Miracle, then probably yes.
But if we look closer it is possible to discern a deeper meaning, a more serious significance to these outfits, and a whole wealth of iconography. Plus, some of the costumes are really cool.
Take Batman for instance. He wanted a costume that would strike fear into the heart of superstitious and cowardly criminals. And, just as he was pondering possible designs, a bat flew in the window. Problem solved. Except for one thing: Batman’s costume isn’t remotely scary. Let’s face it, it’s blue and grey pyjamas with pointy ears and a cape. In the frightening the crap out of evil-doers stakes it’s only one step up from Andy Pandy.
Oh, the crooks might be slightly unnerved. There have been news reports of burglars being frightened off when they broke into houses only to be confronted by people dressed as Thor or Darth Vader. But that probably had more to do with the fact that the burglars didn’t want to hang around while the homeowners phoned the police. Even the primal fear of being approached by any person wearing a mask has been softened via the appropriation of superhero costumes by Fathers 4 Justice. Nowadays, if you saw someone dressed as Batman you would just think they were after better visiting rights to their children. It would have even less effect than the episode of Only Fools and Horses where the mere appearance of Del and Rodney dressed as Batman and Robin while on the way to a fancy dress party is enough to dissuade a group of muggers. In real life it would play out more like it did when The Big Bang Theory gang didn’t let the fact that they were dressed as the Justice League of America stop them from sneaking off in the opposite direction when they stumbled across a gang of car thieves.
“The bat is not merely a demonic presence but a daemonic one, providing a muse to guide the rudderless Wayne and give his life purpose.”
Even in the Chris Nolan Batman films, where the costume becomes black body armour that explodes out of the shadows as Batman pummels unsuspecting criminals, it can still look faintly ridiculous. In the comics lots of people wear costumes, so Batman blends in; even in the Burton and then the Schumacher films there were enough sartorial eccentricities on display to stop Batman from looking silly. But in the Nolan films you get the occasional scene where there’s no other costumes to blend with and no shadows to hide in, leaving Batman looking like he came straight from an S&M party.
Nolan tries to distract from the silliness of Batman’s outfit by making it bulletproof and having the cape function as a makeshift parachute/glider (or actually “makeshift” sells short the cape’s effectiveness, since Batman uses it to perform aerobatics that would put the Red Arrows to shame). But the key element is still fear, both conquering his own and inspiring it in others.
In the Nolan films Bruce Wayne becomes Batman as a cross between his ninja training from the League of Shadows and his childhood fear of bats, a fear that indirectly led to the death of his parents when he begged them to leave the opera early after he started to freak out over the bat-like costumes of some of the performers. Yeah, like he wouldn’t have asked to leave early anyway. He was an eight-year-old boy at an opera. There was no way he was going to sit through the whole thing. But for some reason his parents thought this would be a fun night for him: “Hmm, Glee: The Concert Movie is sold out, but there’s a three-hour opera about Faustian pacts. That’s pretty much the same thing, right?” (Yes, I know that Glee didn’t even exist at the time Batman Begins came out. But it still makes more sense that they would go to see that instead of an opera.)
In the comics, writers take a slightly different approach, with the Waynes going to see The Mark of Zorro and Bruce’s joy at the swashbuckling movie turning to fear and survivor’s guilt after the mugger’s murderous assault. In one version of the origin story, the cinema trip was a peace-offering after a heated argument in which Bruce wished his father dead, adding even more to his sense of guilt. On the face of it the Zorro film is a perfect fit for Batman: the tale of an aristocrat with an animal-themed alter ago. Unfortunately, there is the problem that Batman doesn’t really age in the comics; as years go by you get the idea that a modern eight-year-old would view a trip to see a 1940 film and a trip to the opera as sharing the same basic level of fun. But this still makes more sense than the Tim Burton film, where Batman dresses up as a bat because, well, it’s a Tim Burton film.
Another point where the Nolan films and the comics vary from Burton is in the sense of power the suit gives Batman. In Nolan’s films it’s about scaring criminals, executing bigger leaps between buildings, and indulging in a certain amount of thrill seeking. Alfred gives Batman a dressing-down whenever it appears Batman is playing adrenaline junkie rather than noble hero, and when the costume and crime-fighting role are taken from him, he becomes a recluse, which is how we find him at the start of The Dark Knight Rises. The costume fulfills a psychological need for him. Without it, he is not whole.
This has been illustrated in the comics in several stories. There’s Alan Brennert’s “To Kill a Legend,” in which Batman is transported to an alternate universe where his parents have not been murdered but where Bruce Wayne is a spoiled brat who needs a powerful transformative experience if he is ever to amount to anything. How can Batman provide that emotional catalyst without sacrificing his parents? And there’s Mark Waid’s Divided We Stand, in which hyper-dimensional beings divide the members of the Justice League in half, their superhero selves and their civilian alter egos becoming two separate entities. Without the Batman side of his persona to process his rage and guilt, Bruce Wayne becomes a borderline psychopath, lashing out violently with no control. In the Batman/Planetary crossover Night on Earth, Batman’s costume changes each time he enters a new alternate reality, each new outfit revealing a different aspect of his personality. The costumes also highlight which era of Bat-history each incarnation derives from, and this gives artist John Cassaday the chance to emulate various other Batman artists, such as Neal Adams and Frank Miller. Cassaday even gets to draw the Adam West ’60s Batman, whom one character mistakes for “a transvestite hooker.”
But there’s something even deeper than the psychological aspect of the costume. There is also the spiritual angle. In Shaman, Denny O’Neil shows a young Bruce Wayne getting stranded in an Alaskan wasteland while honing his skills in a manhunt. Almost dead, Bruce is taken in by the local Inuits, and the local shaman nurses him back to health while wearing a mask and telling him a story revolving around the archetype of The Bat. Upon healing, Bruce returns to Gotham, where his pre-Batman vigilante escapades nearly get him killed. As he sits bleeding to death, the famous bat flies in. Wayne looks at the bat, smiles, and asks Alfred to tell him a story.
Even more evocative is Dark Knight Returns, in which Batman has retired due to old age but finds that this leaves him hollow inside. He has dreams of when he first discovered the cave of bats beneath Wayne manor as a boy, and one of the bats, braver than the others, more demonic-looking, confronted him, “Glaring, hating … claiming me as his own.” He sees the bat as some kind of supernatural force. On occasion he engages in inner monologues directed to the creature. The bat even gains a voice of its own inside Wayne’s head: “The time has come. You know it in your soul. For I am your soul.” The bat is not merely a demonic presence but a daemonic one, providing a muse to guide the rudderless Wayne and give his life purpose. He snaps out of his depression and performs physical acts that would defeat a man half his age. But there is a darkness to his daemon: he may have regained his love of crime-fighting ,but not his love of life. He greets each new danger with the same nihilistic thought: “This would be a good death.” The question becomes whether he can survive his own muse, and, if he does, whether he will manage it because of his costume and all it entails or despite it.
It’s possible, of course, to view Wayne’s struggle with his controlling daemon-bat as a case of the unreliable narrator. I mean, he broods so much he makes Lord Byron look like Jim Carrey, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to discover that even his thought processes are overwrought and needlessly theatrical. There are several stories hinting at supernatural elements to Batman’s origins — Arkham Asylum and Dark Knight, Dark City spring to mind — but as far as I’m aware there has never been anything conclusive. Batman remains a rational hero, his abilities defined by his human skills. Personally, that’s how I like it. Batman’s appeal is his human frailty. He battles alongside aliens and gods using only his wits and his utility belt.
But that said, it’s interesting to note what Miller once said about a possible supernatural force that drives the Bruce Wayne-Batman psychic nexus. He once told an interviewer that when he was writing Dark Knight Returns, he saw Batman as “a quasi-mystical force … He’s like a monk who has received God in some way, but it isn’t necessarily God that he’s received.” He also commented, “I don’t try to write anything Batman’s actually thinking. I’m trying to write what his host body is thinking.”
Even more interesting is Christian Bale’s assertion that Batman “kind of morphs into this other personality which he creates in order to live any semblance of a reasonable life … He creates this other persona where he channels his rage … Batman’s the real him — Bruce Wayne’s the fake.” In the same interview, Bale went on to say that when he first put on the Batsuit, “I didn’t feel like a man. I felt like a creature, I felt like a beast.” Of course, in the same interview he also said that being trapped in the uncomfortable suit for hours would piss anyone off.
To be continued in Part 2 – “Spider-Man: Totem and Tragedy”