Bring Back Doofus Batman

Attention, Ben Affleck: The Dark Knight is better when he's an idiot.
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20th Century Fox

The fan conniption over the fact that Ben Affleck will be the next Hollywood Batman offers one more reminder of Batman's greatest superpower. He is, in the words of Richard Cook, "really, really popular." It's that popularity that allows him, with no other special abilities, to come out on top against magic wishing-rings, super-speed, and god-like aliens. And it's that popularity that causes fans to lose their minds when an actor with insufficient gravitas or grittiness or what have you is foisted upon them.

For my part, I can't say I really understand why Christian Bale's self-satisfied Batman is supposed to be so, so much better than Affleck's whiny, wooden Daredevil. But, to be fair, I've rather lost patience with super-popular Batman altogether. I'm still fond of Frank Miller's hyperbolic, crusty, hard-ass from the Dark Knight Returns comic book — but if I want to read that, I can go back and read that. I don't need the 600th retread.

Besides, the greatest Batman stories aren't the ones where he's the ultra-competent grim and charismatic avatar of grittiness. The best ones are the ones where he's a doofus. So many people gush about how mature the bleak, dark version of Batman is — how Heath Ledger's prisoner's dilemmas show us something dirty and true about the human soul, or how Alan Moore shows us what superheroes would be like in the real world when he makes his Batman-analog Rorschach into a demented right-wing obsessive who smells bad. I, too, quite like Heath Ledger's Joker and love Watchmen. But the truth is that the most sophisticated and knowing Batman we've had thus far isn't Frank Miller's or Alan Moore's or Christopher Nolan's. It's Adam West's.

Under the guise of gritty realism, Nolan and Miller give us a cheerful, libertarian, cowboy power fantasy — billionaire savior as Bernhard Goetz. The ‘60s television Batman, on the other hand, presented fantastically wealthy would-be do-gooders as helplessly square busybodies, fighting crime less out of sober obsession than as a kind of decadent game of dress-up. When those stately Wayne bookcases slid back to reveal the Batpoles, you got the sense that crimefighting and/or the entire society in which crime occurred was a kind of amusement park for the obscenely rich.

Batman's omnipotence in the television show isn't a function of his popularity. It's a multi-level gag. Wouldn't it be fun, the TV Batman asks, to live in a world where the fuddy-duddy scions won't run stop-lights, where they'd rather die than blow up a handful of baby ducks, and where they can always get the right answer out of the bat computer? And isn't it also more than a little ridiculous to hope for that world and its paunchy, bat-eared dad? Trust me, Adam West assures us, and I will pretend to save you. Thus we have the conclusion of Batman: The Movie from 1966, in which Adam West in the batsuit accidentally swaps all the brains of the members of the UN Security Council one with the other. Having completely screwed everything up, he quietly declares victory and leaves — which is a much more insightful take on American imperial adventures than anything you're likely to find in Iron Man.

Batman-as-doofus has showed up in some other venues as well. Perhaps the greatest is the comic book The Brave and The Bold #104, "Second Chance for a Deadman?" with script by Bob Haney and art by Jim Aparo.

Haney was always willing to tailor his Batman to fit whatever nutty story was coming out of his keyboard. One memorable effort had Batman turn into an obsessive mad scientist type sporadically possessed by the ghost of an evil pirate.  "Second Chance for a Deadman" is almost as fanciful: Batman is trying to disrupt an operation that gives criminals complete plastic surgery makeovers. To do this, he enlists the help of Boston Brand, a.k.a. Deadman, a ghost who can possess the bodies of others.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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