What comes to mind when you think ‘Batman?’ Is it the one from Bruce Timm in the 90s? Or is it Michael Keaton’s in Tim Burton’s movie? Chris Nolan’s gritty reconstruction of the mythos? The Arkham games’ sinister representation of the Joke and Batman conflict? Adam West’s campy take? Whatever it was Snyder was doing in Dawn of Justice? Or the brooding jerk voiced by Will Arnett in The LEGO Movie? Might it even be one from the comics?
I’ve never read a Batman comic (yes, yes, I know; there are a handful on my Read This Eventually list), but I’m plenty familiar enough with the mythos from growing up with the cartoon and original movies to playing the Arkham games and enjoying the Nolan movies. What’s curious is how downright different these Batmans (Batmen?) are. The tone of all those adaptations I listed in that first paragraph skewer wildly (can you imagine Batman in The Dark Knight offering to pay for something with a Bat Card?), but they’re all still recognizably Batman. How does he have so much latitude? Is it the cowl?
The LEGO Batman Movie just came out this weekend, which, aside from being absolutely delightful, offers a completely different take on Batman, which, oddly enough, incorporates every other version of Batman. We’ve off-the-cuff references to every cinematic Batman and a few deep cuts to the cartoons and comics. But this is a Batman who’ll also throw a temper-tantrum when told by Alfred to do something besides Batmanning (so, kinda like Nolan’s). But The LEGO Batman Movie doesn’t just coast by on laughs; it tells a full blown Batman story with a degree of resolution and pathos that Dawn of Justice wishes it had. Sure, this Batman likes to play epic guitar solos, but he’s still Batman.
There’s arguably no other modern character that has as many different interpretations as Batman. Who your favorite Batman is is a much more nuanced discussion that who your favorite Spider-Man is. Batman has been done so many different ways. The thing is, and I keep coming back to this, they’re all still Batman.
Not many other contemporary characters and properties lend themselves to this so well. Iron Man and Spider-Man don’t have nearly this latitude, at least not while keeping the alter egos of Tony Stark and Peter Parker (which, given that we’re discussing Batman as Bruce Wayne, we are). Even though Star Wars does lend itself to spoofs and parody quite well, but those riffs would remain in the territory of spoof and parody or keep the scale small (like the Star Wars Tales comics). No one does it like Batman.
Unless you go back further. Like, seriously further. How many versions of Sherlock Holmes have we seen? You’ve got Basil Rathbone’s version, but then more recently Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch have both offered up different versions of the same character are both very Sherlock-y. They’re smart British people who solve crimes smartly. Disparate as they may be, these takes on Holmes, created over a century after Doyle started writing about the detective, are are still Holmes (granted, in the intervening 100+ years you can call any detective Sherlock and be done with it, but bear with me here).
That may be why we can have so many Batmen (Batmans?) running around without any one being not Batman. I may think that Battfleck shooting and branding people in BvS is terribly off-brand, but he is a perfectly valid interpretation of Batman. Because Batman is an incredibly simple character. Heck, the platonic ideal of Batman is less a character and more a concept: Bruce Wayne, haunted by the death of his parents, fights crime (dressed as a bat). It’s incredibly succinct while still remarkably deep – you can interpret that effects of his parents’ death however you want. He can be a whiney loner, super pseudo-ninja, or a brooding vengeful vigilante.
Superman comes close, but doesn’t quite have that depth to him; a superpowered alien fights crime and stops wrong heroically is too broad. Iron Man is too specific, you need Tony Stark’s guilt and need for redemption alongside the spiffy suit; take away the former and he’s not really Tony Stark as Iron Man. Spider-Man has a lot of wiggle room – one look at the recent Spider-Verse comics show just how varied you can get with the idea of Spider-Man — but Peter Parker as Spider Man does what he does out of a sense of responsibility and guilt. You can’t really interpret his reaction to Uncle Ben any other way, and you can’t give him the same call to adventure without the death of a family member.
So again, Batman has a latitude unlike anyone else. Less of a true character than an archetype, the flexibility of Batman and mythos has given rise to a variety of Batmens(?) that though wildly different all still make sense. Which means that even though The LEGO Batman Movie’s Batman is decidedly better than the one in Batman V Superman, both are still Batman. One just has a lot more life and depth to him, and is also the one made of plastic.