The 90s were a hell of a time, weren’t they? Think about it. It was a halcyon era for animation and for comic books that people look back at with some shame. I, however, being a real life Disney villain look at this time with pride and joy. So let’s talk about the grim-dark comic book era, camp and why I secretly love Joel Schumaker’s Batman.
Here’s the thing: I love how absurd comics are. Orphans become gods. Super heroines are created out of a love of BDSM and feminism. Villains fall into acid and make excellent Kierkegaardian arguments about the nature of good, evil and the absurd. One of my favorite comic books characters is Booster Gold who is literally from the future and uses time travel to be a hero in the past because of his ego despite being a normal regular guy with no powers; just future information. What’s not to love?
So knowing that about me, it may be a shock that I do not like Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman movies. I get it, it’s a good movie. But when I grew up and my rooting in the lore of Batman is Batman the Animated Series. With that preface in mind, you may now see why I find those films to be a grim foretelling of movie trends to come. While many praised Nolan for “grounding” Batman and his world; I personally felt it was too much of a departure. I was horrified by a Joker that was an “agent of chaos” and a Bruce Wayne who looked bored in every scene he was in. I was horrified by a Raas a’Ghul who was in a dreary outfit and a Batmobile that looked like some reject Stark Industries project.
Needless to say; the grim dark method of superhero movies just doesn’t do it for me. When I say grim dark; think of a Zack Synder DC movie. Not that those aren’t valid but they’re certainly…an aspect of comic books. And the grim dark vs. camp debate is one that goes back decades in comics.
Comics are weird. I say that as a person who loves comics but the absurdity is one of the things I love the most about comics the most. And while many comics are dark and grim (look at literally anything Frank Miller has done) they usually manage a brightness and camp and color that is still fantastic and elements that are still usually hilarious or campy to offset the darkness of the piece.
It’s always been important to me that most superheroes have a rooting in either propaganda (like Superman and Captain America) or as nearly unrecognizable versions of themselves decades ago (like Batman and Green Lantern) and many of them were incredibly campy. Now, I’ve used camp and campy a few times and let’s back up and do a little defining. Campy is a word that does get thrown around a lot but at its core: camp is humor, expression and style that is extravagant, at times tasteless and tacky and at its pure foundation is pure self-decadence. When I say superheroes are campy it’s because…well, think of Batman in the 1960s. Surf boards, gadgets and strange cars. Think of The Avengers in the 70s and 80s fighting villains that are either powered by rock and roll or cocaine.
But the late 80s and 90s brought a desire for comic books to be serious and then everyone got different costumes. Color vanished from costumes. Everyone had guns. Jason Todd had to die. Superman had to die and thus any optimism or joy. Comics got serious.
I feel this most when it comes to comic book movies, especially the early ones. Think of the original X-Men slate of movies that was so offended by the color that they even had the nerve to make a jab at it via a sly comment made by a boring actor trying to play Cyclops. I was shocked. I grew up with the X-Men having iconic and colorful costumes and to think they wouldn’t “photograph” or “film” well just need to look at their local comic book convention to realize that if done correctly: color can still be fantastic. Really only a few major directors and franchises seem to have this issue mostly because for better or worse the MCU seems fine with embracing somewhat comic accurate costumes while shunning color in backgrounds aside from a few noted exceptions to the norm.
Where I feel the most annoyance with grim and dark is in the storytelling. Now, comics have some dark storylines but in the movies, there’s just no room for levity or joy. Honestly, the character I see this most in may shock you but it’s the Joker. The Clown Prince of Crime comes up a lot on this blog and every time I go out of my way to mention that for me, the true canon version of this character is in Batman The Animated Series. To me, the animated version is the perfect mix of humor, darkness and being absolutely terrifying to a young mind. Which is why its always a shock to me when they make him such a humorless character in live action adaptations as of late. Why take a character with such an iconic design and make him just simply a chaos agent or a mentally ill person. And in many of these instances, nothing is added to the character by taking away his humor or charm. Making him just menacing or just scary or just mentally ill takes away what makes him as a villain so damn fascinating. The Joker’s appeal, in my opinion, is that he has a warped view of the world and of how things should operate and if you need an example of how to balance menacing and funny just look at The Killing Joke.
I could go but there’s one more example I want to bring up before I wrap this up and that’s where I feel this trend has negatively impacted characterization and that’s Superman. Now, I’m not the biggest Superman fan mostly because he’s always been a blue boy scout to me and as an alumna of the Bruce Wayne School for Successful Orphans you can probably tell where my allegiance lies when it comes to the DC Trinity. But like Bruce Wayne, I’ve always admired Clark’s optimism and ability to find good in humanity. Which is why Man of Steel was such a damn disappointment. Now, this movie wasn’t the first to want to tarnish the reputation of the Blue Boy Scout like InJustice but Man of Steel just took a character with so much hope and so much joy and made him a sad, moping mess who at the end of the film ends up as a murderer. What is gained by doing this? Is he somehow more relatable? He’s a buff alien who is a Jesus allegory. He’s not supposed to be relatable. And why does making him moody and dark and brooding suddenly make him relatable? It’s just weak writing.
I miss camp. I miss optimism. I miss color. I miss superheros havings dumb adventures and villains with silly plans that affect only a city block and not the entire world. I fell into comic books to escape the realities of a world that is dark, random and full of violence.
There has to be a way to balance humor, action and tension and seriousness with color and jokes that make sense. There just has to be.
Wait, didn’t we start by talking about Batman Forever?
So, Schumaker as a director is a hot mess and I cannot and will not say this movie is good but it did something that now I find rare, beautiful and curious. It gave us a Batman that was strong, a Riddler that was hilarious and a Two-Face that was over the top. This was superhero drag and its best and dammit it was good. And I think what makes it so good now is looking at the movies we got after it featuring Batman. So many of them are dark, brooding and take themselves too seriously but it took someone willing to disrespect a narrative like Schumaker to ignore lore, canon and anything else and see the series for what it is: a campy, vaguely homoerotic romp.
I think we fear humor and camp in comics because many of us comic book fans are defensive. We’re used to having to rationalize our hobby as not for kids and that means running away from anything that could “de-legitimize” the thing we like. But camp is what got me to love comics and I have no issue explaining that at the same time as being serious and strong of a narrative there can also be humor and levity.