I’m going to admit something.
Back when I was a kid, a truly little kid, I would sit in front of the TV and watch the old 60’s Batman show … and didn’t know that it was camp.
Come on. What did I know from camp? I vaguely knew how the whole “superhero” thing was supposed to go (I’m not sure how the structure seeped into my brain), and the Adam West “Batman” seemed to hit all the right notes to a still fairly naïve 7-year-old, even if many of the particulars struck me as odd around the edges.
But … and this is the point … even that fairly naïve 7-year-old would have laughed at someone who said that “Batman fights for family,” and “lives for love.”
It’s one thing to have “Pow!” and “Wham!” appear on the screen in the middle of a fight scene – but “Batman fights for family”? Just how was I supposed to believe that?
Those lines, however, were said in all seriousness some 50 years later, as the ABC Family Channel decided to air an edited version of “Batman Begins” – and then had to promote it to their viewing audience. So we get a 30 second spot with a narrator saying Batman “Lives for love” in a way that suggests the Dark Knight is really, really, going to ask Katie Holmes out to the prom this time.
It’s become a minor internet laughingstock for exactly that reason, but it’s also kind of baffling. How could ABC Family actually break a character who … in some 90 years of writing … has gone through more incarnations than the Dalai Lama?
We’ve had 30’s detective Batman, innocuous Batman, campy Batman, “Dark Knight” Batman, psychotic Batman … we’ve had Dick Grayson and Jean-Paul Valley don the cape-and-cowl , and you don’t even know who Jean-Paul Valley is. Some of these approaches have been better than others, some are revered while others groaned at, but out of all those different approaches it’s a 30 second promo for a Batman movie on the ABC Family Channel that makes us shake our heads and say “Bullshit! You don’t understand Batman at all!”
How does that work?
It has been argued that comic book characters are the 21st century’s additions to Jungian Archetypes: that Superman and Spider-Man stand alongside the “wise old man” and the “crone” as mythic representations of the modern psyche. There’s probably something to that.
But comic book characters are also intellectual property, like Mickey Mouse and Ronald Reagan, and subject to the whims of the latest marketing campaign. How many Spider-Man movies have we had in the last 20 years? How many Batman? 6? 9? 15? Each with different – sometimes wildly so – versions of the character, which have little to nothing to do with anything that came before. George Clooney’s bat-armor had nipples on it, for Christ sake.
How many Spider-Mans do we need?
The comic books are no safe haven. Two years ago DC comics decided to scrap their entire line, ditch some of their comics, and start all the remaining books from scratch. The “New 52” are all deliberately modernized takes on the various characters, begging the question: how, pray tell, do you come up with an Aquaman that the 21st century deserves?
The intent was to break away from literally decades of piled-on storylines that were impossible for anyone to untangle; the second Robin, for example, was killed by the Joker until the crisis of infinite earths, at which point the second Robin from another world joined our continuity and donned the identity of one of Batman’s greatest foes, who … wait … that can’t possibly be right. It’s crazy talk.
But while the artistic intent might have been to discard much of this admittedly inane material about these characters that had piled up since the 70s and reach into the archetypal essence to reveal a streamlined, believable, vital hero for our time … the process was driven by the sales department, with an “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality. Animal Man will never be the same.
Actually, that’s supposed to be a really good series now. But you get the idea …
Marvel’s following suit, with “Marvel NOW!” (I kid you not) mixing teams and changing characters in ways that are overtly calculated to lead to more movies: “The Uncanny Avengers” is a hybrid between the Avengers and the X-Men that has “Three picture deal with a to-be-named-director” where its heart ought to be.
Comics aren’t the only archetypal characters getting makeovers. JJ Abrams’ “reboot” of the Star Trek movies literally destroyed the old continuity – it was as though a million voices screamed “Take THAT William Shatner!” George Lucas actually destroyed his own continuity before selling it to Disney, which is the creative equivalent of Sherman’s March to the Sea.
In this environment where every universe is an etch-a-sketch and every character is a palimpsest, is it even possible to talk about the “essence” of a character? Does Batman have enough of an essence not to … what the hell? … “fight for family and live for love?”
If so, what is it? What is it about a fictional character that can possibly be true? I’d argue there is something: the very existence of King Arthur and Merlin, across a thousand years and easily as many versions as Batman, suggests to me that there is something at the heart of a cultural archetype that carries on across the generations.
But those characters belong to the collective unconscious, not Disney. Marvel (owned by Disney) has the right to make a “definitive” version of the X-Men, no matter what the collective unconscious says, and Batman is a wholly owned subsidiary of Halliburton. (Don’t act so surprised).
Because surely an archetype has to stand for SOMETHING if it’s to mean anything – and “The New 52” and their peers can’t possibly pass that test.
Or perhaps each culture gets the archetypes it deserves. Carl Jung and Rollo May both believed you can predict the future of a culture by looking at the therapy patients of the present: neurotics are the psychological equivalent of a canary in a coal mine, more sensitive to emerging socio-cultural issues, and so today’s neurotics are tomorrow’s everyman.
Taken from that perspective, it’s inevitable that a culture in which identity is so much a matter of fluid presentation … what you decide to show on your social network, what identities you take on and off … would inspire archetypes who are, themselves, completely amenable to makeovers and market forces. The only problem with the Anima and the Wise Old Man is that they wouldn’t do comedy for a pilot set in a Los Angeles hospital.
Yeah, that sounds like us.