Batman, Superman, and the Problem of Superheroes

(First in a series…)

Batman v. Superman was a hell of a movie.

Not the best way to start a Traditionalistic, but hey, I haven’t had one in awhile.

Usually, these things are about really big stuff. This is going to be about something small. This, I swear, is going to be about how DC will never be able to pull off the Justice League movie.

They won’t, because they’ve already done it.

Back in the day, in the early 90’s, Warner had just come off the success of two awesome Batman movies, specifically Batman and Batman Returns. Compared to the earlier televised adaption with everybody’s favorite silly Batman, Adam West, these were darker, more serious takes on the character. So when Warner decided to created an animated series with Batman, they took this tack.

I don’t think anyone could’ve possibly guessed what they were doing while they were working on this show. It remains, along with the animated movie in the universe, the best representation of Batman put to film.*

They were able to take so many risks, and the payoff was huge. In one episode, Batman saving three police officers is told from three different perspectives. Ra’s al Ghul was a recurring character, getting Batman into Indiana Jones-type pulp adventures. Mr. Freeze was even cool!

And that wasn’t a pun! Amazing!

Batman: The Animated Series blossomed into a really incredible animated Superman. Both were then combined into the Superman/Batman Adventures, which then flowed into a run of Justice League, then into Justice League Unlimited, which told tales about the wider universe of heroes.

This is what’s known as the Timmverse, the animated DC universe helmed by Bruce Timm and a stable of awesome writers. The were animating and writing for over a decade, and created awesome representations of the whole Justice League on TV.

This begs the question: why was the first ‘episode’ of the movie universe, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, such a terrible mess? After all, they already did it.

For this, you really need to go back to the history of the series.

Understanding Batman

Mark Hamill was cast as the Joker way back in the salad days of 1992. He was the character through the entire run of the series. In a more recent interview, he said, quote:

“I had never seen anything like this, not just in children’s television — in any television.”

On the Batman: Animated Series commentary tracks, you get the idea that people really didn’t know what they were making when they were doing this series.

They were able to make such an awesome series because, on a high level, they understood what makes Batman tick.

When you consider Batman, he’s many things. He’s a boy avenging the death of his parents. He’s a costumed crime fighter. He’s Bruce Wayne, a secret identity. But he’s also a detective. There’s a reason that Batman’s first comic book was called ‘Detective Comics.’ There’s also a reason Batman’s a popular character. Detective stories, consistently, are some of the most popular literature.

Batman does this as a character constantly in the comics. Some of the greatest Batman stories ‘The Long Halloween,’ ‘Hush,’ etc. are straight-up detective stories.

In movies, Batman is almost never a real detective; that is to say, a problem of detection is not the central point of the plot. In the cartoon, Batman is consistently the detective; even when Superman plays Batman in ‘Superman/Batman: World’s Finest’ (seriously, go watch it, it’s awesome) Superman has to sneak around and play the detective, just like Batman would.

That’s why the best superhero movie, in my mind, is a movie you probably never heard of: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. In my mind, it’s the only Batman movie that pulls off the Batman-as-Detective thing really well.

The story focuses on The Phantasm, a hooded figure going around Gotham killing criminals. Everyone thinks it’s Batman, and he goes on the run from the police. Framing this is Batman’s origin story, where he falls in love and starts to doubt his mission as the Caped Crusader.

On top of that, Mark Hamill’s Joker is incredible. He’s neither a total psychotic murderer, like in Dark Knight, or a silly Silver Age version. They tried, as Timm put it to strike “a good line between the clown and the killer,” and it works really well. There’s even some moments of levity where the two Jokers mix, like this:

At the end of the clip, it looks like Joker’s going to snap. He goes “DON’T TOUCH ME!” like he’s really angry, and then immediately flips and goes “I don’t know where you’ve been!” It’s funny, but in such a way that we’re off balance. We don’t know which Joker is the real one. We don’t know what to expect.

Further, everybody talks about Joker as Batman’s foil, and here it’s done in an awesome way: both the Joker and Batman are trying to solve the same mystery of who the Phantasm is, each in their own, uh, way. (You’ll have to watch to find out how the Joker goes about it.)

All these moments and plot points from a very deep understanding of the characters, characters they had been working with for years.

They took this knowledge to the next phase of the universe, one of the most iconic characters in American history…

(Continued in Part II)