Batman and the Meta Narrative
by Dan Haggard
Remember the old Batman? It looks so dated now. Remember the strange, campy costumes and the droll one liners – all those has been actors? Were you to watch it now you would find it painful to watch – the slow pacing, the bad special effects, the goofy gadgets. At best you can look back upon your younger self and appreciate the enjoyment you used to receive – even if the story no longer excites you like it once did.
Oh – but hang on a moment… which Batman were you thinking of:- the 1960′s version starring Adam West? Well I wasn’t. I was thinking of the 1989 version played by Michael Keaton and directed by Tim Burton.
Those who were around when that Batman film was released in 1989 might be surprised that I would say such things. Burton’s vision of Batman was praised for its edgy, noire aesthetic. Writers such as Frank Miller, Alan Moore and Steve Englehart had already taken the comic books in a dark direction years before Burton’s “re-interpretation” was released. Burton had felt compelled to follow their lead – to the great consternation of the fans of the 60s version – and to even take it to the next level. So where do I get off calling Burton’s Batman dated and campy?
I’ll make the case in a moment. But once you’re convinced you might be interested in exploring some further questions:
Why do these films seem to date as they do? Is it the subject matter? Is super-hero fantasy doomed to age poorly? What about the more recent films by Christopher Nolan? Will we look back at them and cringe in twenty years as well? Why couldn’t those films have appeared twenty years before their time?
What is really fascinating is that it is the modern phenomenon of corporate driven “iterative fiction” that has thrown new light on just what these questions mean. You most likely are familiar with the phenomenon of iterative fiction through the Hollywood reboot – where some franchise or another is rebooted over and over again – just like the Batman character. These iterations of the same characters and worlds make salient a kind of meta-narrative which spans the breadth of the different incarnations. In the meta-narrative the old significations and iconographies are put to the death and new ones are brought into being. The characters, heroes and villains – now freed of their tired clichés can electrify our imaginations just like they had a generation before. In the meta-narrative we find a lingua franca that spans across time – a way to understand who we were when in the 1960s we found the campy Batman so entertaining who we became when Tim Burton reinvented Batman thirty years later and who we are now as Christopher Nolan blows our minds once again.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Batman – I can’t recommend Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon (sponsored link) highly enough. I relied upon it a great deal when doing the research for this post.
In Search of Camp
Okay – so first of all, has the 1989 Batman really dated like I claim? Well – in the end it’s going to be a matter of subjective judgement and not all of you will agree. But when you watch this scene remember that this movie was praised and criticised for being so edgy and dark. Nicholson’s rendition of the Joker was not something you took your kids to see. He blew everyone’s mind for being so intense and frightening.
How was this thought of as being so dark and edgy? Now that we’ve been exposed to Heath Ledger’s Joker, this feels silly and tame.
The difference between the two renditions is so stark to modern eyes that it’s difficult to see at first glance just in what respect analysis of any kind is needed. Ledger’s version seems genuinely disturbing – Nicholson’s is just silly. Certainly, it’s not as silly as the old 1960′s version. As you’ll see in the clip below (watch as much or as little as you like) the Joker back then was hardly threatening at all. He was cowardly and hides behind his henchmen – whereas Nicholson’s version was certainly more menacing than this.
Certainly I’m not doing justice to Burton’s version by playing what is probably the worst scene in the movie. But even when the Joker is doing something really evil it remains more comical to our sensibilities than shocking:
Compared to the scaredy cat in the 1960′s version – this is certainly gruesome. But the style of the murder is still largely cartoonish. It takes the gag of the electric shock handshake – and amplifies it. These days it’s hard to feel shocked (pun intended) by the scene given that cheesy hum sound in the back ground – or the cheap looking burnt corpse that is the result. Yet I imagine this scene was pretty shocking back in the day to most people. Although the corpse looks tame to us now – consider the way Burton adds so much emphasis in the revealing of it. The camera pulls back dramatically – as though in revulsion – while the light pours in from behind at the exact same moment. We were supposed to be shocked by it. I don’t think that the choice of death by electric shock was accidental either. It mirrors what was supposed to be a revelation to an audience that was used to a much tamer experience. It’s like Burton is directly saying to the audience – you think you know what the Batman story is all about? Well how’s about this to blow your mind!
Nevertheless – the museum scene – and plenty others throughout the movie reveal that Burton hadn’t gotten so far from the camp ancestry of the story. If he wanted it to be dark and edgy – why did he leave so much camp stuff in? Part of the answer is that he made the film as dark and edgy as was needed to for audiences at the time. It was enough to shock and exhilarate them.
Another part of the answer is that it is likely that most people back then wouldn’t have been capable of enjoying something more like Christoper Nolan’s version. We needed to be gradually introduced to the story that has taken shape under Nolan’s direction. Evidence for this is that Tim Burton’s sequel to his Batman movie was considerably darker and edgier than the first – yet it performed so badly at the Box Office that the studio was moved to return the Batman back to the campy aesthetic. Bruce Wayne is portrayed as an incredibly messed up individual – his love interest Cat Woman is a psychopath. For the most part they really relate to one another. This just didn’t go down very well for audiences. They were ready for the increased violence and nastier bad guys – but they didn’t like to be confused. They still wanted a straight up hero that gets the bombshell girl at the end of the film.
But also – and I think this forms the largest part of the answer to the question of why Burton’s version is still pretty campy – I don’t think it was possible for Burton to even conceive of something like Nolan’s vision – not through any individual lack on his part as a creative director – but because there were still too many compents of the older story which had yet to be unmade or overcome. What do I mean by this? To understand – we’re going to have to look in detail at the concept of narrative iteration. For it is through process of iteration that various concepts, meanings and symbols are unmade and it is through this process that new ones are brought into being.
Fit the Product to the Market
Iterative fiction is a process where a given story or set of stories is repeated in order to refine the content to satisfy a market. Regular readers of this blog will know that I take a strong interest in artistic modes that incorporate hacker sensibilities. A love of iteration is one of the core hacker virtues. It is born of two key starting points: the first being a desire to produce something of value to people, the second is a belief that you won’t know what people value until you try something. Through iteration, the product is refined – new elements are introduced, some are discarded – until the intended audience is willing to shell out their hard earned for the product.
This is exactly what Detective Comics did with its product in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Although it is not the sort of company we commonly associate with hacker sensibility – its culture and methodology adopted much of what we consider to be true of hacker sensibility today. It was a young start-up company that continually experimented with different characters and ideas in order to establish its audience and define its market. They were, first and foremost, seeking to create something that people valued.
But while the hacker seeks to build a product that people want, they also have a penchant for risk that established companies can’t abide. To this extent – hackers are willing to experiment with new ideas and test them against the market. Here there is room for artistic vision – which always runs ahead of common sensibility. This is true of the early “Detective Comics’. The original Batman created by Bob Kane was much closer to the dark vision we see today in Christopher Nolan’s films than the campy mass market version of the 60s. He was a somewhat amoral anti-hero that took pleasure in killing criminals because of the death of his parents. He did good not out of a desire to be good – but out of a twisted sense of revenge. This was the image of the tragically alone vigilante – brought into being by a cruel and evil world – like a cellular anti-body that has but one, grim purpose. In many ways the original remains the darkest vision of the Batman character that has yet been produced. Such a vision was possible because Kane and his co-writers were left relatively free to explore an artistic purpose. The young company was looking for something new and Batman fit the bill. It wasn’t long, however, before market reality tore away at a large part of the artistic vision that Kane and the other early writers bequeathed.
They realised, for instance, that most of their audience consisted of young boys. So Batman was paired with his “boy wonder” side kick Robin – a way for young boys to imagine themselves as part of the story and more effectively live out their ego/id satisfaction. Thus Batman was transformed from the amoral, loner vigilante to the closet family man and father figure. Another problem with having young boys as your primary audience is that young boys – unlike Batman and Robin – are governed by their mothers. And many – in their day – were unhappy with their children being influenced by such amoral filth. After a wave of moral hysteria, DC comics introduced a code of conduct for its characters. Batman became an honorary member of the police force as opposed to an outlaw, and he swore off killing his enemies as was his previous want. The Joker, who was originally a psychopathic murderer, became the campy trickster that survived up until the 70s.
Hence, through the process of iteration – the product was rapidly made to fit its market. This is a process that happens relatively quickly. Over the course of a couple of years he became a relatively straightforward super hero – with a little bit of darkness and pathos thrown in – but not a lot. This was what people could understand, relate to and enjoy. The bad guys were bad/scary enough. The Batman was as evil as could be tolerated (this wasn’t much). But eventually this changed. The hordes would flock to see Christopher Nolan’s dark, realist vision of the hero. But how is this possible? It’s not enough to say simply that times change – that audiences change. That’s just restating what is obvious. Why did they change?
Fit the Market to the Product
Iteration allows you to quickly fit your product to your market. But interestingly, it also allows you – over time – to mould your audience to your product. In the case of narrative iteration – there are various concrete methods by which the meanings and ideas of previous iterations are unmade and left without their dramatic power to move, entertain and instruct us. From the ashes of this conceptual destruction arise a new set of symbols, concepts and iconography that refresh anew our passions for the subject matter.
Thus over time the audience’s ability to engage with these symbols and narrative structures is gradually altered over time. Audiences can be made to fit to the product. Of course – it’s not just one cultural product causing these cultural shifts. The destruction of one type of narrative style in one product can affect the audience’s ability to appreciate it in another. But it’s still instructive to see how this destruction occurs in the microcosm of a single meta-narrative such as the Batman stories.
So how does this evolution occur? There are a number of different components.
Backward and Creeping Realism
Perhaps the most important – an aspect which acts as a kind of umbrella to a number of different sub-aspects – is a Creeping Realism which you find in just about all forms of iterative, fantasy fiction. If you look at the trends in the fantasy genre you’ll often see that a drift toward realism over time. Fantastical elements are made less salient, and the remaining ones are given more sophisticated explanations in terms of more modern concepts. (It doesn’t just happen iteratively within a single franchise – it happens across texts as well. Make a comparison, for example, between Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Martin’s Game of Thrones. The latter is currently enjoying enormous success because of the increased realism it brings to the genre.)
It is this creeping realism which in part makes previous iterations unwatchable. The realism in later iterations forces us to retract the suspension of disbelief that we granted to the previous versions.
In the Batman franchise one of the aspects that has received the most development has been with respect to the psychology explaining the characters. Tim Burton was most interested in the psychology behind a dude that would dress up in bat costume. He writes in his book Burton on Burton:
Part of what interested me was that it’s a human character who dresses up in the most extremely vulgar costumes. The first treatment of Batman, the Mankiewicz script, was basically Superman, only the names had been changed. It had the same jokey tone, as the story followed Bruce Wayne from childhood through to his beginnings as a crime fighter. They didn’t acknowledge any of the freakish nature of it, and I found it the most frightening thing I’d ever read. They didn’t acknowledge that he was a man who puts on a costume. They just treated it as if he’s doing it for good and that was it. You can’t do that.
In this quote Burton applies a specific technique of creeping realism that I like to call – Backward Realism. It works like this. Start with some narrative element with which you have been bequeathed – some element that is at once fantastic in nature yet also impossible to remove. In this case we’re talking about the fact that Bruce Wayne dresses up in a bat costume in order to fight crime. This element is at once strange and yet, in the context of Batman, can’t be removed. You can’t have a Batman story without the man who dresses like a bat.
Next ask the question – what if this element was real? Begin a thought experiment where you imagine the possible world that is closest to our own – yet still includes Batman. What else would HAVE to be different? What could you keep the same? What would the causal history of the world have to have been in order to bring such a person into existence? How can we explain such a person assuming that we keep constant as much about the world as we already understand – i.e. various laws of nature and psychology?
This is why I call it backwards realism. You work backward from the narrative element that you are trying to include in order to create a reality as similar to our own as possible. In this way you move the story to a possible world much closer to the real one. The key to the success of an attempt at backwards realism is that whatever elements you end up introducing by means of it should both bring the story closer to the real world and also serve some kind of significant role in the development of the story. Something of consequence has to hang off it.
(As an aside – if you want an example of a really poor attempt at backwards realism then consider the use of the concept of Midi-chlorians in the Star Wars prequel as a way to explain the concept of the Force. The reason why it doesn’t work is because it doesn’t actually move the Star Wars universe very much closer to our own possible world (because while it changes the force into something that is not entirely magical – it’s still pretty damn magical) and nothing particularly significant in the plot line ever hangs on it. The only thing that matters to the story is that Anakin Skywalker is strong with the force – not that he’s got lots of midi-chlorians in his cells.)
In Burton’s case, he focussed on the psychological profile of a person that dresses as a bat. He came to the conclusion that such a person would have to be suffering from a borderline pathology – a loner with a split personality with which Bruce Wayne seems to struggle mightily. Burton explains many of the choices in the movie follow logically from this choice of backwards realism. For instance – it made working in the Robin character impossible because in the possible world that they had singled out, it just didn’t make sense for this disturbed loner to be hanging out with a kid while fighting crime. The movie is so much better for this choice.
But whether or not you would draw up the backwards realism in the same way with respect to Batman’s psychology – it’s pretty hard to deny that overall Burton’s attempt is less than successful. The reasons for this are legion. First of all – while he includes the classic Batman origin story (with some changes) – where Batman’s parents are killed. He took out the rest of the origin story about how Batman came to be. Since we are denied the details of the causal story that leads to him having the psychological profile that he does, his character remains somewhat shallow and impenetrable – a complaint that many raised about the movie at the time of its release.
But what is worse is that while Burton at least tried to explore a backwards realism of the Batman psychology – he failed in his exposition of any of the other traditional elements of the Batman story. We do get an origin story of the Joker – but it doesn’t explain anything. Why does falling into a vat of chemicals turn a seemingly ordinary gangster into a super criminal that likes to turn his criminal activities into jokes? And this is despite the fact that Burton had read Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. In this version, the Joker is given an origin story where he is an out of work comedian trying to support his wife and unborn child and turns to crime to do so. But before he can carry out his first robbery, his wife dies in an accident. Yet the gangsters with which he has involved himself force him to go through with the crime anyway – even though his only reason for so doing it is gone. Things go wrong during the robbery, he falls into the chemical goop and is horribly disfigured in the way that we all know. The experience drives him mad and so he becomes the Joker. (Moore’s version, on the other hand, struggles to explain how a cowardly comedian could become so criminally adept, whereas Burton’s version doesn’t have this problem since he starts out as a gangster – this is a tension that I explore below in greater detail).
The idea that Moore was exploring was whether or not anyone would go similarly insane after having such a bad day. The origin story of the Joker is important in Moore’s treatment because it explains why the Joker does what he does. It gives us that kind of causal link between events. In the rest of the story he kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and his daughter and proceeds to torture Gordon while showing him photos of his daughter being violated. Why is he doing this? Because he wants to see the best and most noble man in Gotham go insane on account of having one bad day. The Joker wants to justify his actions and show the world that there is nothing exceptional about his evil nature – that anyone could be similarly affected by such horrible circumstances.
Burton’s vision had none of this. It does increase the realism in the respect that the Joker is a gangster prior to becoming the Joker – so he penchant for violence at least has some kind of explanation, and this is something that Moore’s version lacks. But beyond this – Burton’s origin story adds nothing to the Raison d’être of the character.
The other problem is that besides the two main characters Burton’s version doesn’t treat most of the remaining elements with any sort of backward realism. The gadgets are given no explanation. The Joker’s talents are not explained. His henchmen are just kind of there and don’t make any sense at all. They are simply filler. He also deliberately introduces a noir, cartoony treatment of Gotham city because he thought this was what you had to do to stay true to the comic. Mind you – it needs to be pointed out that Moore’s Joker is still very comic-like in many respects. While he nails the psychology really well – the joker still has his joker venom for instance. This is evidence of how realism creeps forward at different rates through different elements of the meta-narrative.
Nolan’s Batman improves on Burton’s because of the way backwards realism is applied to so many of the traditional elements of the Batman story. And if they can’t be explained, they are often removed (like the Joker poison that turns everyone into a dead clown). He uses real locations as his sets. Batman’s gadgets often have some kind of military back story to them and we see a great deal behind the process of their creation. The Joker’s henchmen are described as being mentally insane – the kind of people that are attracted to the Joker because of his own seeming insanity (as opposed to them just hanging around for no reason). Batman gets a proper origin story that explains his amazing skills and abilities – as well as his decision to use the Batman costume. In Nolan’s version he is trained by a secret order of ninja assassins and he has a mentor that explains to him how the ninja uses theatrics to frighten, threaten and confuse his enemies.
So that’s backward and creeping realism. Each version tries to fill the gaps the other versions failed to fill – and with each iteration they are able to do it a little better than the earlier ones. Now that we’ve seen Nolan’s Batman – we can’t go back to Burton’s and enjoy it like we once did. Previously we were able to suspend our disbelief when confronted with the various explanatory gaps we came across. But these gaps begin to feel like vast chasms once we are exposed to an iteration that does more work to bridge the chasm for us. When compared to Burton’s version, Nolan’s Batman asks us to take much smaller jumps. It requires far less effort for us to suspend our disbelief and lose ourself in his world. We now refuse to do the work that Burton’s lazier version requires of us. As a result, we can’t lose ourselves in the story any more. We can only look at it now from the outside – as a kind of historical artefact.
One of the interesting aspects of creeping realism is the fact that in order to work – it has to be… well… creeping. In general audiences don’t like a fast pace of change. Certain expectations about what they are going to receive have to be met. You can only blow minds gradually. If people go to the cinema looking for a popcorn Sunday super-hero feature and you give them a 70s style, slow moving psychological portrait; with a central character – played by Gene Hackman – who wears a batman costume to symbolise how his richness has led to his existential estrangement from Gotham’s citizens – or some crap like that:- then you’re going to annoy your audience. Maybe someday audiences will be ready for a such a product – but it clearly won’t be for a while.
If you gradually fill in the gaps of the previous versions of the story – then you can, over time, mould your audience and change their sensibility. If you do it right, the audience doesn’t have a choice in the matter. The gradual filling of the explanatory gaps with the various realist elements is like the movement of a slowly closing vice. As I said earlier – this forms part of the answer to the question I raised earlier about why Burton couldn’t go further in his treatment of the Batman story. Audiences simply weren’t ready for it. Realism hadn’t crept far enough. But we still haven’t seen yet in what way he was conceptually blocked from taking the story further. The old symbols and meanings had to be swept away first. So we next have to look at the concrete ways in which this happens.
Killing Concepts with Repetition
Even though it is the case that iteration must introduce change slowly – it is also true that no change at all will result in boredom. A somewhat obvious aspect of iteration is the fact that various narrative and conceptual features are repeated from one iteration to the next. Music is another example where repetition leads to boredom. When we first hear a piece of music that we love – our brain is ecstatic in the pleasure that it feels. But this decreases over time until the music has no power to move us as it once did. Certainly this is a fact caused by various neurological processes in our brain. It would be interesting to discover whether the same processes causing this increasing boredom from repetition in music does so for our experience of narrative.
In essence this is a feature of human psychology that forces change in the creators of the Batman story, rather than the consumers. Iteration is driven by corporate need – a desire to continue producing product that studios and publishers are confident will lead to sales. But in order to successfully continue doing this – they have to innovate to some degree or our boredom with repetitive material will eventually make the product worthless.
Yet – if used correctly, repetition itself can be a tool that authors can use to shape and mould audiences. If audiences have some idea of a concept or symbol that you think is holding them back from appreciating the awesomeness of your vision, then you can use repetition to deliberately destroy the hold this idea has over them. The technique is simply to introduce repetition of this element within your story – often with people in the story chastising or mocking this element. From the perspective of the meta-narrative, what we are witnessing in such cases is the death of a piece of symbolism. It’s analogous to seeing a character being killed off – but instead it’s a bit of ‘meaning’ that is dying.
There is a fantastic example of this in Tim Burton’s Batman movie. Watch this scene starring Jack Palance and Jack Nicholson.
In it we see two bad guys manoeuvring against each other. Jack Palance is the head of a Mafia type organisation and he wants to kill Jack Nicholson because he has discovered that Nicholson is sleeping with his girl. Later, once Nicholson has changed into the Joker, he comes back and kills Jack Palance in a showdown-at-noon style confrontation. But what we are witnessing is not just the death of Palance’s character – but the death of a style of “bad guy” that had been around for years in the Western genre. Batman, of course, borrows many elements from Westerns. Such tales would often involve a solitary hero that would do battle against a lawless and amoral bad guy. Jack Palance – in fact – often played that bad guy. Here’s an example (again – watch as much or as little as you like):
The Western Bad Guy was often presented as tribal pack leader that would presumably arise in contexts where institutionalised law hadn’t yet taken root. Their motivations were often selfish – they committed crime in order to satisfy their greed or lust. One of the key aspects of the Western Bad Guy is a lack of honour – they often display a lack of willingness to face off against their foes in a fair fight. You’ll see an example of this if you keep watching the Palance movie above for long enough – one of the bad guys murders another man by knifing him in the back. These features often serve to underpin our sympathies for the hero who – as a lone and noble figure – manages to triumph over the bad guy even though he is out-numbered and his enemy won’t fight fair.
The Grissom character that Palance plays in Burton’s Batman is a throwback to this Western style bad guy. As the head of a group of bad guys, he has that same pack leader mentality. He resorts to killing his enemies using devious and underhanded methods – such as he tries to employ on Nicholson. His aims are traditional – he wants revenge, money and power. But he is not the true villain of the story – he’s a stepping stone for the Joker. He’s a way for Burton to show that the Joker is something new that they won’t be able to understand unless they get this old bad guy image out of their heads first.
In order to help audiences adapt to the new kind of bad guy represented by the Joker, Burton uses repetition and parody of the Grissom character. He does it so overtly he completely smashes the audience over the head with it:
And thus we laugh along at the silly exaggerated manner that Palance brought to his bad guy act. In this way we overcome that concept that dominated our sensibilities for so long. This paves the way for us to be able to appreciate the new style of villain that the Joker represents. In many iterations the Joker really is something different from the traditional Western villain. In Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke – for instance – the Joker’s aim is not greed or lust – nor power – but a perverted desire to have people empathise with his madness. His henchmen aren’t your standard thugs, but insane circus freaks; a strange perversion of the standard tribal allusion. Nolan presents a similar aim for the Joker in The Dark Knight. He tries to convince Batman that people will murder each other ‘when the chips are down’ – and devises an elaborate game theoretic experiment where two boats full of people have to blow up the other boat or be blown up themselves by the Joker. As in Moore’s version – the Joker fails and Batman suggests that in fact that the Joker is alone in his madness.
Nolan actually presents another vision of the Joker in the same movie that also deviates from the Western tradition. For the first half of the movie the Joker is presented as having aimlessness itself as his aim. The character distinguishes himself from being crazy on account of the fact that it’s not that he is without aims – he is deliberately without aims. It’s in this choice to be aimless that he distinguishes himself from the standard crazy person. As a result, he proves himself to be a villain that Batman struggles to understand. Insofar as Batman is a standard western hero – he continues to be outfoxed by the Joker. Batman only manages to beat the Joker in the end by allowing himself to take the blame for Harvey Dent’s crimes – a kind of inversion of the sort of Western heroism you would have seen in films like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – where the hero (in this case John Wayne) allows someone else to take the credit for shooting the bad guy. As such – Batman has to be a new kind of hero – a non-hero so to speak – in order to defeat this new kind of villain. (That Nolan can’t decide exactly on what his vision of the Joker is supposed to be is a glaring problem with the film that few people actually picked up upon.)
Returning to Burton’s Joker, it’s somewhat ironic that although Burton does the work of de-constructing the old notions of villainy – the joker himself doesn’t manage to transcend it all that successfully. While Jack Nicholon parodies Jack Palance, his own portrayal of villainy is itself ripe for parody. It is full of silly and exaggerated affectations – just as Palance’s performance was. What’s more, he seems to be motivated by fame and a desire for notoriety more than anything else. This is not a great deviation from the old Western bad guy. He even has his henchmen – which haven’t been ironically inverted into crazy circus people as we saw in Moore’s version. They are just normal henchmen.
These observations make the question about why it is that Burton wasn’t able to go further all the more compelling. As I intimated earlier, Burton and the studio execs perhaps thought that in the end the Joker had to remain close in substance to the old Western bad guy so that audiences wouldn’t feel too challenged. I think that actually this was the right decision from a commercial point of view. Everyone loved Jack Nicholson as the Joker at the time. His performance was commended. The movie did very well. But just a few years later, Burton tried again with his sequel and this time tried to take the concept of the villain further away from the traditional western concept. Both the Penguin and Catwoman were villains that moved considerably further away from the traditional bad guy (notice the circus freaks make an appearance in this film). The movie, as a result, is considerably better than Burton’s first. It has aged much better as well. I could personally watch this movie without cringing nearly as much as I did watching Burton’s first film. Yet at the time – it did extremely poorly at the box office. Audiences weren’t ready for it.
The studio folks misread this as thinking that audiences would prefer the old campy style – and the next two films (directed by Joel Schumacher) removed every single one of the innovations that had evolved in the Batman franchise since the 70s. Audiences briefly believed that this was what they wanted as well. Schumacher’s first film did really well at the box office. His follow up – which in substance was in no way different to his first – did so poorly it was credited with killing the franchise. Ultimately, the studio got it wrong. It wasn’t that audiences wanted to see the campy Batman again. It’s just that the speed of innovation was too fast for them.
It’s arguable that Burton’s version of Batman made it possible for Nolan’s vision to be commercially viable. Burton performed the necessary creative destruction of old ideas. It just took a little bit of time for this destruction to work its way through the consciousness of the audience.
Comfortable Repetition and Compositional Narrative
Of course there is a flip side to repetition that reveals a somewhat contradictory aspect of our psychology – and I just alluded to this at the end of the previous section. While continued repetition will lead to boredom in your audience, nevertheless repetition is needed in order for audiences to be comfortable with what they are watching. If every aspect of a given story was completely new – then it would be almost impossible for anyone to understand anything at all. You see this problem in artistic works that attempt to be too novel in their presentation. The avante garde fetishises novelty and mistakes it for greatness – the tragedy for those entranced by such a movement being that their output is never commercially viable and very seldom infused with any greatness. They end up missing out on any of art’s rewards.
Certainly anything which hopes to be commercially viable has to use a great number of ideas and symbols that have occurred a zillion times before in previous iterations. This I call Comfortable Repetition. Any commercially viable product has to be comfortably repetitive. However – anyone who relies upon it too much soon faces a dilemma, since – as we saw above – too much repetition leads to boredom. The great dilemma for those seeking to attain commercial success is to find that sweet spot between comfort and novelty. They must be repetitive – but not too much. Yet sometimes audiences aren’t ready for the new concepts you want to introduce. So authors often find themselves between a rock and a hard place. How to fix this?
There is another structural feature of narrative construction which, when combined with comfortable repetition, allows skilled authors to push their audiences toward new ideas and solve the above mentioned dilemma. The structural feature of narrative construction has to do with the fact that Narrative is Compositional. What this means is that you can dissemble different narratives into their component parts and put them back together again in different ways to make brand new narratives – like pieces of Lego. And while not every combination results in a work of genius – nevertheless there are very few hard constraints in what you can do with the pieces. You can just about slap them together in any old way you like. This freedom is why you get works like ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space‘ – a film where the combination of narrative elements is so disparate and bizarre it has gone down in history as a famous example.
So – you like the campy Batman but the serious Joker? There is nothing at all preventing you from writing a story that includes these two. However, not every possible combination of elements will be necessarily satisfying, or even commercially viable – but nevertheless the fact remains that narratives consist of various disparate pieces that can be detached and connected with one another in ways that are relatively unconstrained.
Skilled authors can use these two features – comfortable repetition and compositional narrative – in order to solve the dilemma posed by audiences who are bored with what they know yet are still not ready for something new. The trick is to keep most elements of your story the same to what has come immediately before – yet swap in just a couple of new elements that the audience hasn’t yet seen before. It’s the fact that narrative is compositional that makes this possible.
But one can still wonder about how many new elements can you introduce at one time? The general rule of thumb is – as few as possible. The easiest way to think about it is again in terms of possible worlds. If the meta-narrative had previously come to rest on one particular possible world – then you want to choose a possible world which is right next to the previous one – where closeness represents the degree of similarity between possible worlds. When the movement from one world to the next indicates a creeping realism – then the movement is generally headed toward the real world, one hop at a time. This adds further light on what was preventing Burton from evolving the Batman story at a faster pace. Audiences don’t permit large hops. Small hops are not only permissible - but necessary if the product is to stay vital and fresh.
In this way the use of comfortable repetition becomes a kind of a trap that skilled authors will use to guide their audiences toward new ideas. The repetition of old material will be the honey that convinces audiences that they are getting exactly what they paid for – the insertion of the new material is the toy surprise at the centre of the candy.
A great example of this is the plot line in Steve Englehart’s famous Detective Comics series #469-476. He starts the narrative using all the well worn clichés of the superhero genre. A new super-villain appears on the scene – and Batman mobilises to defeat him. In this case – the villain is called Dr Phosphorus – a man that was involved in some sort of tragic nuclear accident and has the matter of his body transformed into radioactive phosphorus. Because he is a new villain – Batman is initially unable to defeat him. The challenge is the standard one for the super-hero: – figure out some way to neutralize the previously un-encountered super-powers of the new villain. So far this is standard super-villain/hero stuff – and we’ve seen it ten thousand times before. Thus any reader of Englehart’s story – at the time it was written – would have been settling in for a bit of standard superhero fare.
But at the start of the next issue 470# something interesting happens. Batman gets served with a subpoena. We learn that rather than confronting Batman directly, Dr Phosphorous has gone after various corrupt city officials and businessmen led by a man name Rupert Thorne – a crime boss and corrupt city council member. Dr Phosphorous had invested money in a nuclear power plant that they were building. He went to inspect his investment when the accident occurred that transformed him into a super villain. Rather than killing the people he blamed for transforming him – he instructs them to get rid of Batman. And since Rupert Thorne controls the local law enforcement institutions – he goes after Batman by serving him with a legal notice.
What Englehart is doing is pushing Batman back toward the vigilante figure that operated on the wrong side of the law – as the character was originally conceived. Englehart’s treatment is incredibly skilled. In order to introduce this new twist – he changes as little as possible in the surrounding narrative. He still has a traditionally over the top bad guy to kill. And it’s not as though Batman has just woken up and decided to become the enemy of the police in his single minded quest for justice. Rather he is positioned into a fugitive role by corrupt politicians. Thus we don’t have to confront a Batman that is a full anti-hero – he’s still the same good guy Batman. He is still on the same side as traditional law and order. It’s just that the institutions that generally protect law and order have been co-opted by bad people. Thus Englehart is not introducing a story element that would challenge audiences of the day too much.
It would have been a different story if it were a case where the institutions of law and order were working as per normal – yet Batman nevertheless felt driven to work against them in order to pursue justice. Such a narrative would imply a tension between the notions of justice on the one hand, and law and order on the other. This would be a considerably more seditious and challenging thesis – and it’s arguable that Englehart’s audience wasn’t ready for it.
Over time, however, the Batman story has been pushed further and further in this sort of direction. Most readers would be familiar with Nolan’s approach in The Dark Knight – where Batman finds himself on the wrong side of law; not because the corrupt elements of society have manoeuvred him there, but because he does it to protect the reputation of Harvey Dent. This is another stage in the evolution of the character toward the anti-hero role. In this case Batman hasn’t done anything fundamentally oppositional to the institutions of law and order (although he skirts along the edge at times) – he chooses to allow people to believe he has.
Frank’s Miller’s work “The Dark Knight Returns” – though pre-dating Nolan’s film by 30 years (market realities allows print media to iterate at a much faster pace) takes the Batman character fully over the edge of the divide – and presents us with a Batman that stands in opposition to the institutions of law and order. It’s not that those institutions are corrupt as such – it’s that Miller has recognised that they can be without corruption per se – yet nevertheless serve the interests of a regime that marginalises various people and groups – and thus not be on the side of justice. In this world, all superheroes, including Superman have been asked to retire or directly serve the interests (often imperialist) of the state. Batman declines – and so becomes the enemy. At the end of the series, he even does battle with Superman – who is almost the bad guy because of his willingness to serve as the tool of imperialist technocrats. (Interested boffins will see an obvious comparison with Alan Moore’s – The Watchmen)
Returning to Englehart’s treatment – he likely wouldn’t have been able to get away with what Frank Miller was able to do. In many ways he paved the way – made the conception of this anti-hero Batman possible. He did this using the technique I have just described. He changed a few elements – but left the rest as close to what had come before as possible.
Englehart was constrained by his audience in what he could do with the Batman story. The market realities that force a relatively slow pace on the sort of innovation that can come through iteration would have made it difficult for him to push the boundaries further. But we have to wonder if it was even possible for someone like him to conceive of the sorts of ideas that Miller and others would come up with ten years later. I asked this question earlier with respect to why Burton was still so constrained by the campy image of the Joker. My claim is that it is genuinely difficult to conceive of these innovations before the meta-narrative has evolved to a point that makes their conception possible. Many writers (like Allyn Gibson for instance) have wondered why it is that Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Moore’s The Watchmen – both extremely similar in theme – would arrived on the scene in the exact same year. Well my claim about the meta-narrative is meant as an explanation for this sort of phenomena as well. Both Miller and Moore were hooked into the meta-narrative that had evolved to a point where the themes they came to explore had become salient.
But how does the current state of the meta-narrative actually block the genesis of new ideas? How does its evolution suddenly make these innovations possible? How does this concretely happen? It has to do the process of narrative combination we just looked at. As I just mentioned – the introduction of new elements often produces failures: stories that for one reason or another just don’t work. This can happen even when the evolution is gradual. It can even happen because the evolution is TOO gradual. What happens is that while one element is changed – the author will sometimes fall into the trap of keeping everything else in the narrative too similar to what has come before. The intentions behind such a mistake are usually sound – and the results can still be commercially successful. As I said above – the general rule of thumb of such innovation is to change as little as possible – so as to not upset your audiences too much. But if you are too rigid in your application of this rule, you can introduce internal inconsistencies in the narrative that in a way ruin its structure. Audiences of the day may likely not care at the time because you have kept things similar enough to their established tastes – but over time the inconsistencies will become more and more glaring and the work will date quickly.
The idea I’m elucidating here is difficult – so an example will be instructive. The easiest one to understand concerns the evolution of the Joker character. Tim Burton wanted to introduce to movie audiences a Joker that was more like the crazed psychopathic criminal of the comics in the 70s and 80s. But as per the general rule of thumb – he tried to keep as many of the other elements of the Joker the same as the campy version. He still wears the perfectly manicured dandy suits. His face is chemically bleached and he still looks like a clown. He still uses the perverted gag devices like the shock button and the flower that squirts acid. As we saw in those videos above – he demeanour remains clownish.
But this introduces a contradiction in the character that most people didn’t realise when they first saw Burton’s movie – even though it is completely obvious to a modern sensibility. The contradiction to which I refer can be conveniently labelled The Scary Clown Contradiction. It goes like this: – you want to have a bad guy that is scary and menacing; a true threat to the hero that makes the audience genuinely concerned. But you’ve chosen as your bad guy a character type which in essence is the opposite of those things – a clown. To resolve the contradiction you have to find way to make it so that the clown satisfies the requirement of providing a genuine threat to the hero. Somehow you have to make them represent a concept that is dark, evil and disturbing. Certainly – someone would only make such a choice in the first place because it is meant as a kind of ironic inversion of traditional “clown” iconography. But just because it’s intended to be ironic doesn’t grant you use of the evil clown for free. You still have to make it work in a satisifying way.
One of the biggest problems with Burton’s Batman movie is that he doesn’t solve this contradiction in any way that is satisfactory. Previous iterations didn’t have this problem because it was acceptable for the campy Joker to be more of a clown than a threat. Since Burton was going for an edgier aesthetic he ramped up the psychotic profile of the joker – but left in all the various campy elements which constantly undermine him as a credible enemy.
My key point, however, is that until someone like Burton (and also Englehart as you’ll see below) had introduced us to this version of the character, until he had made the tweak and put it up on the big screen – the contradiction didn’t exist in most people’s mind as a problem that needed to be solved. The meta-narrative just hadn’t evolved that far. Audiences at the time lapped up Nicholson’s Joker because it obeyed the golden rule of changing things as little as possible. But after a little reflection we see that Burton’s Joker just doesn’t make a lot of sense. The reason why no one came up with an evil joker that doesn’t suffer from this problem was because before this, when the Joker was campy and intended to present little genuine threat to Batman (as per the tame sensitivities of audiences at the time) – there just wasn’t a salient contradiction that needed to be resolved.
Sometimes it can take a long time for the contradiction to be noticed. Steve Englehart’s rendition of the Joker in Detective Comics #475 (The Laughing Fish) suffers from the same problem as Burton’s – indicating that the contradiction had been around for a long time. Since he was the first, I think, to return the Joker as a psychopathic killer – it’s possible that he was the one to introduce the contradiction. (Arguably it wasn’t solved until Moore published The Killing Joke in 1988.) In Englehart’s story, the Joker is much like the later Burton version. The Joker is psychopathic, murderous – but still silly, with all the same gag weapons like the acid flower (although it’s a cop badge in this version). His scheme is to poison all the fish with Joker venom so that they have his face. And because the fish all now have his face he demands that he should receive a copyright royalty from every fish sold. When his demand isn’t met – he starts killing copyright bureaucrats until they change their minds.
While this plot line is impressively prescient of the copyright absurdities that plague us in modern times – still, it doesn’t solve the Scary Clown Contradiction. It’s just too silly. More importantly – the nature of his scheme doesn’t involve any kind of threat above and beyond the more traditional threat that he employs against his enemies – straightforward murder. The clownishness does not constitute the threat at all. It’s not the essence of his character as a clown that is threatening. He could have just threatened to kill some people if they didn’t give him money – the copyright scheme is ancillary.
Alan Moore solved the scary clown contradiction in an interesting way. As we saw above, the violence of Moore’s Joker follows a perverted logic that issues from his very genesis and origin story. He kidnaps Commissioner Gordon and his daughter as a part of his plan to prove that is own insanity is something that anyone else could relate to if they suffered as much as he had previously suffered. This works much better because the nature and purpose of his violence stems directly from his identity as the Joker – i.e. what it is that made him into the Joker.
To get it to work – Moore cleverly employs a variant meaning of the word “joke”. The traditionally campy version of the Joker relied on our understanding of a joke as something that is harmless and makes us laugh. The concept generally has no negative connotations. Englehart’s version does as well. By demanding copyright royalties from fish sales – he is playing what is on the face of it a relatively harmless joke – which without the threat of attendant violence would in itself be laughable. For this reason – the Joker’s nature in Englehart’s version is ancillary to his violent nature.
But there are other uses of the term ‘joke’ which have far more negative connotations. Consider when we say something like: ”That man is a joke.” In this context we actually mean something that is quite derogatory. Sure – such a man is still thought to be harmless like an ordinary joke – but we take no pleasure in the fact. When we say such things we are pointing out that they are an ineffectual failure – and that their failure has come about in a way that elicits little sympathy – through their own inability to take responsibility for their own mistakes. Moore’s Joker starts out as a person we would be quick to label as such. He is an unsuccessful comedian that gave up his job for the dream and now can’t support his family. We might feel some sympathy for a person that tried to live the dream and failed – if it weren’t for the fact that he is blind to the fact that his wife still loves him even though he is a failure. This failure to appreciate his wife’s love for him is what leads him to make a deal with the crime gang that directly results in him falling into the vat of chemicals that turn him into the Joker.
As a super villain these same traits are just amplified in their intensity. By trying to turn Gordon insane – he is trying to prove that he is a product of external forces that turned him into what he is. But all he succeeds in proving is that he remains blind to the real source of his problems – himself. What he is trying to prove is that it is life that is the joke – not him. This is a mirror concept to the one employed when saying a person is a joke. When a person is a joke it’s because of their own failings as a person and their inability to take any sort of responsibility for them. When life is a joke, the person fails because of the random injustice that one finds in life. In such a case they are genuinely not responsible for what has happened to them.
What’s quite moving about the story is that Batman tries to reach out to the Joker to convince him of his mistake. If the Joker could just accept responsibility for what happened to him – then he could begin the process of rehabilitating himself. Batman can partly relate to him because he also suffered great trauma in his life. The fact that he dresses up as a bat means that he also treads the fine line between reason and insanity – and he’s aware of this. His hope is that he can use that bridge of empathy to help the Joker cross to the world of the sane. The Joker responds with a joke which demonstrates neatly why Batman’s offer could never work:
See, there were these two guys in a lunatic asylum… and one night, one night they decide they don’t like living in an asylum any more. They decide they’re going to escape! So, like, they get up onto the roof, and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moon light… stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend, his friend didn’t dare make the leap. Y’see… Y’see, he’s afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea… He says ‘Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!’ B-but the second guy just shakes his head. He suh-says… He says ‘Wh-what do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was half way across!
The flash light beam is Batman’s offer to help cure the Joker of his insanity. Batman can only make this offer on the basis that he does to some extent empathise with the Joker. But if this is true – if you do empathise with a mad man – your help can only be further offers of madness: a beam of light across the rooftops. If the Joker accepted the offer – he’d surely fail and destroy himself in the process. Yet this is not the reason why the Joker refuses the offer. It’s because he can’t bring himself to trust the sincerity of Batman’s offer. Either way the Joker is doomed – the irony is that if he took Batman up on his offer he would at least prove his contention that it is the world that is the cruel joke. Because then it would be his trust in others that had let him down (remember that he couldn’t even trust his own wife when she told him she still loved him even though he was a failure).
By including this joke at the end of the narrative – Moore shows that we’ve come full circle. He successfully connects the dots between humour and madness – and shows how the logic of one, when taken far enough, takes us to the heart of the other. The fact that Batman begins to laugh at the joke while strangling the Joker out of pure frustration shows how something could be genuinely humorous, yet completely dark, broken and insane in its essence. Thus the contradiction at the heart of the character is resolved.
Nolan’s Joker in the Dark Knight film also solves the contradiction – but by a different method. (He does borrow a lot from Moore’s joker – but as I said above, he doesn’t do this in a consistent way.) Nolan avoids the scary clown contradiction by removing the humorous aspects almost entirely. He turns the joker into something that is barely recognisable as a clown. All the gag toys are removed and he relies on traditional weapons like guns and grenade launchers. Perhaps the only extent to which he remains clown-like (besides the make up and dandy suit) is the way that he is always laughing at events as they unfold around him. It’s as though he finds life to be a joke – much like Moore’s version, but unlike the latter is not concerned to let us in on it. Because of this, there is no onus on Nolan to demonstrate how it is that something humorous and amusing can be dark and threatening. He’s just telling a story about someone that is dark and scary that happens to find humour in the world around him. I don’t find the story as sophisticated or as satisfying as Moore’s – but in terms of solving the contradiction it gets the job done.
In any case, the key point is that without the work of Englehart and Burton – it’s unlikely that these versions of the Joker character would have ever have been conceived. The contradiction needed to reveal itself first before it could be overcome. Of course it might have happened that some artist – by iterating many versions of the Batman/Joker story by himself would have eventually gotten there. But if the meta-narrative had not kept pace it’s unlikely that he would have been able to find a publisher. It’s unlikely that audiences would have ever been exposed to it – and even if they had, it’s unlikely many of them would have been able to appreciate it without first having been exposed to that contradiction first.