Book review: Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-first Century Batman

Although the third instalment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, is not due in cinemas until 20 July, Will Brooker’s illuminating study of the iconic character’s 21st-century manifestations is not superfluous in advance.

Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-first Century Batman

By Will Brooker

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IB Tauris, 256pp, £19.95

In fact, I would recommend the book to anyone who winces whenever “literary theory” is mentioned. As well as being an insightful examination of the Caped Crusader, it is a primer in how the ideas of such thinkers as Roland 
Barthes, Mikhail Bakhtin, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida can be used.

The application of such theorists to popular culture has often drawn down the ire of traditional academics; although central to any understanding of literary theory is that it is gloriously ubiquitous: it can shed light onto the novels of Jane Austen and the packaging of Big Macs with equal aplomb. In the case of the Batman mythos, Brooker finds the various texts – films, comics, online viral marketing, computer games – particularly receptive to such critiques.

This is, in part, because the creators behind these cultural phenomenon are themselves already versed in various aspects of “theory”. Readers who can’t quite face nearly 300 pages of Batman and continental philosophy might try instead Tintin And The Secret Of Literature, a similar endeavour by one of the most theoretically literate young British novelists, the Booker-shortlisted Tom McCarthy.

Batman has been being written for over 70 years; it is embedded in our culture to the extent that even people who have never read a single comic featuring Batman will recognise the character. Brooker’s opening chapters deal with the reinvention of Batman in Christopher Nolan’s films, a reinvention that was widely credited with restoring the franchise to prominence and respectability after the two films directed by Joel Schumacher flopped so disastrously. But there is an irony inherent in the films’ successes. Critics, both in print and online, praised it for its “fidelity” to the character. But to what was the film being faithful? Although Batman Begins made reference to some comic stories – notably Frank Miller’s “Batman: Year One” and Dennis O’Neill’s “The Man Who Falls” and “Daughter of the Demon” – it was not a direct adaptation of any one story (in contrast to, for example, the film version of Mark Millar’s Kickass or Alan Moore’s Watchmen). And it was certainly not being faithful to the derided, camp Adam West TV version, or Detective Comics #300 which pitted Batman against the dastardly Polka-Dot Man. Brooker concludes that Nolan’s film was an adaptation of a non-existent original, which is a fairly good description of what postmodernist critics believe all literature is.

Although almost all the critics praised Nolan for the grittier, edgier, darker version of Batman, they had to do so by invoking the more flamboyant and sillier versions – the stories Brooker collectively called the “Rainbow Batman”, after the plot in Detective Comics #241. In 1954, Fredric Wertham’s notorious book about comics, Seduction Of The Innocent, claimed that the relationship between Batman and Robin was “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together”; since then the Batman mythology has been a contentious site of interpretation. Nolan’s Batman was the real Batman in so far as it actively suppressed the memory of Camp.

The final chapter is a critical tour-de-force on the post-9/11 overtone and subtexts of Nolan’s sequel The Dark Knight. Again, unpicking the story gradually reveals wider philosophical issues. The Joker might be a terrorist; but Batman, despite being “on the side” of law and order, operates outside the law. His modus operandi is precisely instilling fear into potential criminals. Rather than being diametric opposites, Brooker’s reading shows the uncomfortable similarities between hero and villain. This is done most ingeniously, through a reading of “Plato’s Pharmacy”, the poetic, beautiful section at the end of Jacques Derrida’s Dissemination. It is a little surprising that in the context of 9/11, Brooker does not mention Frank Miller’s proposal for a Batman vs al-Qaeda story (which was to be called, in a very knowing manner, Holy Terror, Batman!). It seems likely that the story never appeared because it would render as black and white what the films (and comics) so cleverly kept murky grey.

Although the focus is firmly on the cinematic versions, often the comics which Brooker does not mention provide the clearest examples of his proposals. He writes very well about the idea of the carnivalesque, and points out that many of Batman’s enemies are either heightened versions of Batman himself or display a freakish, circus theme.

In Scottish writer Grant Morrison’s Batman and Robin series, the initial foes were called The Circus of Strange, with the masked, sadistic Professor Pyg parodying Batman. Brooker pays due attention to Morrison’s rehabilitation of some of the “rainbow” elements in Batman, particularly in his “Batman RIP” storyline, but the most 
thorough-going homage to the diversity of the long legacy is Neil Gaiman’s “Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader?” (which features my favourite in-joke about the whole willing suspension of disbelief around the Batman idea: Alfred the butler asks Bruce Wayne what would have happened if a bat hadn’t flown through the window and inspired him, cutting to another panel where a masked “Curtain Man” descends on a gang of thugs).

The comics are more difficult to analyse critically, since the form itself is both more open-ended and rigid. The stakes must always be raised higher, but the internal dynamic can’t, at the end, change: the Joker can’t be killed off, but nor can he be allowed to win. The series can never believably age in real time, so must be constantly and radically reinvented.

Bizarrely, the world of comics borrowed from contemporary theology. Wolfhart Pannenberg, a German theologian, described a “retroactive continuity” whereby events in the future change events in the past. The future is always changing the past in Batman stories, creating the very instability and mutability that allows the works to be read through the prism of literary theory. And of course, the word which fans use to describe what is considered “true” is “canon”, another theologically loaded term. Holy Unlikelihood, Batman, as Robin once said.