Why Bat-Fans Are So Rabid

Who can't relate to at least one version of the caped crusader?

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Earlier this week, Batman fans made history when they brought Rotten Tomatoes—the best-known movie review aggregator on the Internet—to its knees. Though the website now lists 17 negative reviews of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, which hits theaters tomorrow, the first pan (by critic Marshall Fine) was like a Bat-Signal for Bat-Fans, who responded to Fine's article with so many scathing comments that the website announced it would suspend user comments until the furor dies down.

As I sat down with my 9-year-old cousin to play 'Lego Batman' on the Nintendo Wii, I couldn't help but think about how perfect it was that his idea of Batman was so different from my own.

Much of the media coverage over Rotten Tomatoes' unprecedented decision has focused on the "death threats" against Fine, which include suggestions that he "die in a fire" or be beaten "by a thick rubber hose into a coma." But tough-guy hyperbole aside, the really interesting thing about the response to Fine's review is the much larger number of users who have leapt into the fray, using words like "masterpiece" or calling The Dark Knight Rises a "fantastic film"—despite the fact that few of them have seen it yet. We live in a golden age of superhero blockbusters, but Batman, perhaps more than any other superhero, has a particularly passionate group of fans. And I should know—I've been one of them all my life.

I grew up in a family in which Batman fandom was passed down like a treasured heirloom. My mom spent much of her own childhood running around with a towel-cape tied around her neck, and my dad once challenged—and defeated—Tim Pawlenty in a trivia contest about the actresses who played Catwoman in the 1960s Batman series (it's a long story). When I was in elementary school, I would sprint home each day to catch Batman: The Animated Series in time. I saved four allowances to buy the Batman Forever soundtrack, and spent back-to-back Halloweens as Batman and The Riddler (and insisted on staying in character for both).

The Batman of my childhood was the perfect childhood hero: witty but intimidating, courageous despite his lack of powers, dangerous to his enemies but loyal to his all-important code. But I still may have outgrown my Batman fandom if Batman hadn't grown along with me. As I lost interest in the cartoons and coloring books of my childhood, I discovered the comics of Frank Miller and Jeph Loeb. And when Batman Begins hit theaters in 2005, I was first in line to the midnight show, to see my favorite superhero as a child become my favorite superhero as an adult. In the years since Batman Begins' release, Christopher Nolan's films have focused heavily on the "dark" in the Dark Knight, but his take is only one of many—just check out the Batman serials of the 1930s and 1940s, or the futuristic series Batman Beyond.

But to truly understand the cultural footprint of Caped Crusader, one has to go exploring the staggering number of Batman fan tributes that exist. There are currently almost 10,000 custom Batman items for sales on Etsy, including wedding cake toppers, dog collars, and women's underwear. There are 7,148 stories based on Batman comics on FanFiction.net, and another 4,987 specifically based on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. And anyone who goes through a post-The Dark Knight Rises slump can find relief in one of the more than 5,000 "Batman fan films" currently on YouTube, which include a smattering of professional-quality shorts like Batman: The Last Laugh, Batman: City of Scars, or Batman: Dead End, the Citizen Kane of the Batman fan film community. It cost its director/writer/producer $30,000 of his own money and was dubbed on its 2003 release by filmmaker Kevin Smith as "possibly the truest, best Batman film ever made."

Tonight, I'll be attending a "Dark Knight Trilogy" screening, because I don't want to watch Batman end without seeing him Begin one last time. But as much as I love Nolan's take on my favorite superhero, my all-time favorite Batman memory came last year when I sat down with my nine-year-old cousin to play Lego Batman on the Nintendo Wii. As he showed me how to play, and taught me all about his favorite heroes and villains, I couldn't help but think about how perfect it was that his idea of Batman was so different from my own. As others have recently commented, Batman has loomed in the public consciousness for far too long to be constrained by a single definition—like any great character, he's rewritten with each new telling. The Dark Knight ends with Gary Oldman's Commissioner Gordon calling Batman "the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now." But it's my experience that every generation manages to find the Batman it needs.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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