Lest anyone doubt the real-world superheroic capabilities of a fictional character, let me state for the record that Batman taught me how to read.
For in watching the syndicated reruns of the Adam West series in the late seventies—the kitschy opening credits, specifically—my not-yet-literate mind eventually recognized a correlation between the splashy title-card logo and repetitive choral chant that accompanied it, and “Batman” became the first word I could read and write. Absolutely true story.
I loved the old Batman show—the pop-art color scheme and Dutch angles (not that I took conscious note of such stylistics at the time) were like a cartoon come to life. The camp humor? Entirely lost on me: When Batman and Robin slid down the Batpoles and zoomed off in the Batmobile—staged in that glorious life-sized playset of a Batcave—the sense of adventure was kinetic. And when the villain-of-the-week left our heroes for dead in some Rube Goldbergian contraption—their fate to be determined in twenty-four agonizing hours!—the tension was excruciating.
Unlike most of my heroes at that time—Michael Knight, the Duke boys—the Dynamic Duo weren’t confined to the limited jurisdiction of their own fictional worlds, but rather popped up elsewhere, too, in animated form on The New Scooby-Doo Movies and Super Friends, and I never quite understood why no one had thought to put Adam West, Christopher Reeve, and Lynda Carter in a movie together; with no concept of copyright issues or irreconcilable aesthetics or what later came to be called “shared cinematic universes,” it seemed like a no-brainer to assemble an all-star superhero team from the preexisting talent pool.
Thirty-five years after I—along with an entire generation raised on the same pop-cultural diet, it turns out—first dreamed it, the team formerly known as the Super Friends are getting the tent-pole treatment next month with the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Warner Bros.’ opening-salvo attempt at the kind of license to print cash shared cinematic universe Marvel has so deftly pioneered (to the envy of every studio in Hollywood). Fanboy anticipation is at a full boil, if enthusiasm on social media is any barometer; many are counting down the days with a breadth of fanaticism ordinarily reserved for the Second Coming, others forecasting the would-be mega-franchise’s stillbirth, but all are anxiously awaiting Dawn.
Not me, though. I can say with absolute and irrevocable certainty that I’ll be sitting out Batman v Superman—in theaters, on home video, on cable. In perpetuity.
But, more on that shortly.
“Just as generations of aboriginal artists have taken it upon themselves to repaint the totems, so too does the enchanted environment of the comic-book dreamtime replicate itself through time. A superhero universe will change in order to remain viable and stay alive. As long as the signs stay constant—the trademark S shields and spiderweb patterns, and the copyrighted hero names—everything else can bend and adapt to the tune of the times” (Grant Morrison, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human, [New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011], 118).
The coming year, like the one before it—and the one before that—will usher the big-screen debut or return of a host of comic-book heroes: Deadpool. Captain America: Civil War. X-Men: Apocalypse. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows. Suicide Squad. Gambit. Doctor Strange. (To say nothing of the plenitude of superhero-themed shows on television—over forty on the air or in development!)
Count me out for all of those, too, since we’re on the subject, though for reasons less emotionally complex than my abstinence from Batman v Superman. I’ve simply reached my tipping point with these movies. Enough is enough.
It’s not to say some—or even all—of them won’t be worthy efforts. I’ve written in depth about how folkloric characters are versatile enough to accommodate perennial reinvention, as celebrated superhero scribe Morrison (Arkham Asylum, All-Star Superman) suggests in the citation above, and comic books have certainly been hailed as contemporary mythology, starting with the primogenial model:
“Superman was the rebirth of our oldest idea: He was a god. His throne topped the peaks of an emergent dime-store Olympus, and, like Zeus, he would disguise himself as a mortal to walk among the common people and stay in touch with their dramas and passions” (ibid., 15–16).
Indeed. And in my lifetime, which has seen the marginalized idols of geek subculture promoted to billion-dollar corporate agents, superheroes have been literally deified: Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, those erstwhile, kid-friendly “Super Friends,” are these days venerated as DC’s “Trinity.” But then, kids are no longer the target audience for their adventures—adults are. The violent, profane, R-rated Deadpool, for instance, broke “countless records,” per Deadline, over its opening weekend, which only underscores the dramatic demographic shift: We’re the ones buying tickets to see these movies, posting and blogging about them, cosplaying at Comic-Con, and lining our shelves with collectables—toys rendered totems. Why? Why are we so taken with these Saturday-morning cartoons writ large? Is it purely nostalgic—the once-disparaged four-color fantasies of our youth brought both to life and mainstream credibility by A-list actors and spare-no-expense production values—or is some other subconscious impulse at work here? What does our cultural obsession with superheroes say about us?
Most mornings, my mind can’t reconcile the incongruity of headlines about displaced refugees of sectarian violence and impending environmental catastrophe with the puerile posts on social media celebrating some who-cares-less televisional crossover between Supergirl and The Flash. In the face of the former, I wonder, how can we possibly give an unironic shit about the latter? I can certainly appreciate how one’s sanity and spirit require the occasional escape from the daunting realities of our present era, but how is it—‘cause I really want to know—we can care so obsessively about the minutia of our fictive worlds when our real world is in such dire need of the same meticulous attention? Morrison suggests that “[s]cary times and superhero movies go together like dirt and soap” (ibid., 375), but he also proffers a less fear-based correlation:
“Could it be that a culture starved of optimistic images of its own future has turned to the primary source in search of utopian role models? Could the superhero in his cape and skintight suit be the best current representation of something we all might become, if we allow ourselves to feel worthy of a tomorrow where our best qualities are strong enough to overcome the destructive impulses that seek to undo the human project?” (ibid., xvii)
Here’s the thing, though: My father grew up in New York City during the Depression, and later served in Korea. My mother was born in the midst of World War II, and was a college student during the civil-rights unrest and political assassinations of the sixties—that was the world she was preparing to step out into. The Cold War—and the nuclear annihilation it threatened—loomed over a fair portion of their lives. AIDS took the life of their friend—my godfather—in the eighties, one of the first men to be diagnosed with that out-of-nowhere scourge. Theirs was a world, I think it’s fair to say, bereft of idealism, too (my father was a liberal intellectual who didn’t subscribe to Reagan’s sunny platitudes; he nursed a distrust of Wall Street—probably owed to his upbringing in the thirties—long before the stock-market crash of ’87 exposed the Gordon Gekkos of the era), yet, despite this, they didn’t fetishize their childhood heroes and fantasies as either a nostalgic diversion or aspirational paradigm. Nor did any of my friends’ parents, for that matter. No, that’s an idiopathic characteristic of Generation X (one that has now by all evidence been transmitted to the Millennials, placing it among the few commonalities our two discordant generations share). Expressing eternal fascination—hell, pledging lifelong devotion—to the bedtime stories of our youth? That’s all us, baby.
“’I think it’s a rather alarming sign if we’ve got audiences of adults going to see the Avengers movie and delighting in concepts and characters meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of the 1950s’” (Stuart Kelly, “Alan Moore: ‘Why shouldn’t you have a bit of fun while dealing with the deepest issues of the mind?’,” The Guardian, November 22, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/22/alan-moore-comic-books-interview).
Some of our incessant juvenile preoccupations, of course, may very well have to do with marketing: We’re simply being sold superheroes by a well-oiled corporate machine that’s figured out there are big bucks in nostalgia, certainly for a generation feeling displaced by the Digital Age and prematurely put out to pasture by its Millennial cohorts without Gen X’s memory of—or crippling yearning for—the bygone analog world. But, that said, we’re still buying what the corporations are selling; we’re submitting to infantilization—and paying for the ignominy of it, at that. Which leads me once again to the one-word question I posed above: Why?
Esteemed comic-book writer Alan Moore (Watchmen, Batman: The Killing Joke) offers a starkly dissenting view on the matter:
“To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence. It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics” (Pádraig Ó Méalóid AKA Slovobooks; “Last Alan Moore Interview?,” blog entry by Pádraig Ó Méalóid, January 9, 2014, https://slovobooks.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/last-alan-moore-interview/).
So, there you have it: two different takes from two different masters of the medium—Grant Morrison and Alan Moore. Is the superhero role model or false idol? Do his stories offer escape or retreat? Is our insatiable infatuation with fantasy—with the postnarrative pleasures of Game of Thrones and Star Wars and Warcraft (also getting a film adaptation this year) and now the Marvel and DC movie franchises—a harmless diversion, or is it somehow reflective of a collective Weltanschauung, in ways either optimistic (Morrison) or troubling (Moore)? Is, as Morrison asks, “the superhero truly a Man of Tomorrow—a progressive image of futurity—or a nostalgic fantasy with nothing to offer beyond a sad, tired muscle show?” (Morrison, Supergods, 294).
“It should give us hope that superhero stories are flourishing everywhere because they are a bright flickering sign of our need to move on, to imagine the better, more just, and more proactive people we can be” (ibid., 414).
Full disclosure: I have a professional ax to grind with the prevalence of the superhero movie. I can assure you from firsthand experience as a screenwriter who’s spent the last decade churning out specs and taking pitch/development meetings with producers all over Hollywood that the interminable slate of franchise-film reboots/sequels has crowded the marketplace to the exclusion of original, mid-budgeted genre projects—and at the expense of the careers of the beleaguered scribes who trade in new materials. There are a lot of great, unknown screenwriters out there producing what could be, if given a chance, the next culturally defining movies… but you’ll never see them. Here’s what will fill your local multiplex for the foreseeable future:
Superheroes, superheroes, superheroes. The same origins, the same conflicts, the same tired hagiographies you’ve sat through a thousand times before. (Seriously—another Spider-Man reboot? This’ll be the sixth film—and third “unique” incarnation—in only fifteen years!) As Mozart in Amadeus so cogently bemoaned, “Why must we go on forever writing only about gods and legends?”
However, as I contended in “Attack of the Clones,” mine is more than a mere vocational lament. How will a new set of stories and heroes, I submit, take root in the imagination of a new generation when all we do is recycle yesteryear’s fantasies rather than foster ones that reflect the folkways of the here and now? Flash Gordon served merely as the inspiration for Star Wars, as the ghost comedies of the forties did for Ghostbusters and Zorro did for Batman—old ideas were made new and pertinent again through sweeping reinvention by artists with influences and interests and idiosyncrasies that mixed with and mutated those germinal stimuli to deliver them to their next evolutionary phase.
But when a work of art—something that speaks to the ethos of a particular time and place—becomes a brand—something timeless and hallowed, like, say, Coca-Cola—popular culture ceases to express who and where we are, and instead becomes a hall of museum dioramas: dusty, immutable, and bulwarked from exposure to harsh light and fresh air, those ubiquitous agents of decomposition and rebirth. Our “gods,” such as they are, are thusly reduced in stature to monumentalized icons—to toys on a shelf. Far from being aspirational exemplars, they operate only as wistful reminders—as mint-in-box relics—of an era that has long since sunk into the abyss of history.
“I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times” (Pádraig Ó Méalóid AKA Slovobooks; “Last Alan Moore Interview?,” blog entry by Pádraig Ó Méalóid, January 9, 2014, https://slovobooks.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/last-alan-moore-interview/).
I’ll give Morrison this: Superhero stories are unquestionably a sign of our need to move on—from superheroes themselves. They aren’t the guardians of the galaxy; they’re the petulant gatekeepers standing in the way of exploring new creative and intellectual frontiers—ones that will light the path through the seemingly intractable minefield of existential crises that lay ahead. All we need do is surrender our sentimental attachment to them.
So, why’s it so hard, then?
Long after teaching me how to read, Batman remained my favorite hero for decades. The comics, I would discover, provided a more addictive, more fulfilling soap-operatic high from issue to issue, from one epic storyline to the next, than the gimmicky cliffhanger format of the old live-action TV series, but nothing came close to the yearlong mania surrounding the first Tim Burton feature in 1989—the “Summer of the Bat” as it’s known by those who remember it. Man, that was a capital-E Event—the kind no longer possible when each month welcomes the release of yet another superhero movie. As a blogger noted years ago (I’ve long since forgotten who, else I would include a link to his post): “There would be better Batman movies later, but none would ever be bigger.” Amen.
About ten years ago, my interest in the Dark Knight was waning—maybe I’d gotten too old for comics at that point, or perhaps I’d simply cycled through every possible iteration of the character in the quarter century I’d been a fan—but it was Christopher Nolan’s brilliant cinematic reinvention that brought me back into the fold: Here was a Batman story told with a level of sophistication I’d never seen or even fathomed possible; just as Adam West had captured my inchoate imagination and Michael Keaton reflected my teenage loneliness, this bold new vision spoke to the geopolitical preoccupations I’d developed as an adult (“In Nolan’s films,” observed Morrison in Rolling Stone #1162, “Batman is a soldier, and it echoes the whole War on Terror”). Just when I thought Batman held no more surprises for me, three of his most compelling adventures were delivered in the forms of Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). The stories were more grounded and ethically complex than those of the West era, undoubtedly, but the sense of excitement they provoked in me was no less potent than it had been each afternoon in the early eighties when I’d tuned in to hear the urgent rallying cry, “To the Batpoles!”
Somehow, over three decades and counting, Batman had grown alongside me, becoming more mature and complex as I grew more mature and complex; he remained personally relevant throughout the different seasons of my life. And just when it seemed I’d finally outgrown him, he evolved further still—into his most fascinating permutation to date. With Nolan at the helm, I found myself once again along for the ride—and thrilled to be there.
Batman proved a hard habit to break.
DAYS OF FUTURE PAST
“[I]n place of time, comic-book universes offer something called ‘continuity’” (Morrison, Supergods, 114).
Last year, I wrote about what media theorist Douglas Rushkoff identified as “postnarrative” storytelling, a relatively nascent mode that deviates from the linear, three-act “hero’s journey” structure articulated by Joseph Campbell—in which stories become more closed as they reach their conclusion—in favor of interminably open-ended tales that are “not about creating satisfying resolutions, but rather about keeping the adventure alive and as many threads going as possible” (Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, [New York: Penguin Group, 2013], 34). These would include The X-Files, Lost, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Orphan Black, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to name a handful. What these sprawling, often ensemble-driven series with their rabbit-hole mythologies reflect is our cultural shift away from a world in which events unfold sequentially, over time, toward a “hyperlinked reality” in which all things occur simultaneously, in the present: The text messages that distract you during your dinner date, just like the “Easter eggs” in the Marvel stories that point to other adventures unfolding concurrently (in one of the countless other movies or television shows), are constant reminders that we exist now in a continuous state of “presentism,” where what’s happening later is irrelevant—it’s all about what’s happening elsewhere. Nothing gets resolved, you see, when there’s always another subplot to cut away to.
I have a learned colleague who doesn’t subscribe to postnarrativity as an emergent storytelling form; in his view, soap operas and comic books were telling these types of serialized stories—ones that got their juice from outlandish or gimmicky plot twists that were always subject to whimsical reversal (the death of a major character, for example, need never be made permanent, even in the absence of a plausible explanation for resurrection) over nuanced emotional authenticity—long before there was a trendy buzzword for it.
That is true—the Marvel Cinematic Universe, after all, is only emulating what the comics upon which it is based have been doing for decades. But, throughout the twentieth century, comic books (and soap operas, too) were considered shoddy storytelling—a lesser form of literature for an undemanding audience; now they’re the stuff of billion-dollar corporate franchises. They’re Emmy darlings, as well: Postnarrative shows like The Sopranos and Arrested Development and House of Cards seem so much cooler, so much more sophisticated, so much more plugged into the zeitgeist than the self-contained network series of yore, in which the contrivances of one week’s installment were tied into a perfect bow by the closing credits, and seldom if ever had any consequential bearing on the subsequent week’s carefully act-structured, low-stakes quagmire.
So, while “postnarrativity” as a form may not, in fact, be a “new” thing, it “is no longer considered bad writing” (ibid., 34). It has become an acceptable, mainstream style of storytelling because narratives with no conclusion, with no takeaway lesson, are now an equally legitimate—and possibly more resonant—way of viewing the world as Campbell’s closed-looped hero’s journey. We no longer look to stories for moral guidance, for catharsis, for closure, but instead prefer to “live inside” the world of the fiction, indefinitely, not unlike a role-playing game, and derive our pleasure from speculating as to how all the pieces connect: What do the numbers mean on Lost? Who do you suspect are Jon Snow’s biological parents? Therefore, comic-book movies, the ultimate pop-cultural expression of postnarrativity, are less about providing a model for “the better, more just, and more proactive people we can be,” as Morrison asserts, than they are, per Moore, an exercise in attempting “to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’” they present.
“‘I particularly don’t like the modern way of comic book-film adaptations, where, essentially, the central characters are just franchises that can be worked endlessly to no apparent point’” (Stuart Kelly, “Alan Moore: ‘Why shouldn’t you have a bit of fun while dealing with the deepest issues of the mind?’,” The Guardian, November 22, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/22/alan-moore-comic-books-interview).
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MAN OF TOMORROW?
The irony, of course, is that as totemic reminders of the simpler, linear world we lost—the one never coming back—we have preserved our superheroes in the very nonlinear, postnarrative framework to which we now find ourselves eternally consigned: They exist, like us, in a hyperlinked continuity with no discernable narrative trajectory, no endgame. Comic books, and the movies they’ve spawned, no longer operate as the elementary morality tales that grew out of the Depression and Second World War that followed it, but have instead become increasingly darker—if not always deeper—to appeal to the aging fan base that still cares enough to consume them on a regular basis. “In one of the uglier paradoxes of the superhero-comics industry,” wrote Asher Elbein in a recent article for The Atlantic, “characters who were devised to entertain children soon became completely unsuitable for them.”
“‘[Superheroes] don’t mean what they used to mean. They were originally in the hands of writers who would actively expand the imagination of their nine- to 13-year-old audience. That was completely what they were meant to do and they were doing it excellently. These days, superhero comics think the audience is certainly not nine to 13, it’s nothing to do with them. It’s an audience largely of 30-, 40-, 50-, 60-year old men, usually men’” (Stuart Kelly, “Alan Moore: ‘Why shouldn’t you have a bit of fun while dealing with the deepest issues of the mind?’,” The Guardian, November 22, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/22/alan-moore-comic-books-interview).
Moore’s observation points to the real culprits in this impasse, and it isn’t superheroes themselves. (My apologies for earlier accusing them of petulance.) It’s our unhealthy cultural fixation with them that’s troubling, and for that there’s blame aplenty to go around, from the fans who’ve clung for far too long to their childhood heroes, to the publishers and artists who’ve enabled such obstinacy by evolving superheroes only to stay relevant to their middle-aged demographic and not necessarily the changing times themselves (DC is about to initiate yet another lineup-wide relaunch—a mere five years after the last one—in a desperate bid to combat flagging sales), to the corporations that have perverted the cinema into a teeming, bottomless toy box from which there is no escape. As a screenwriter, I deplore Hollywood’s addiction to comic-book movies at the expense of everything else, and as a storyteller in general, I echo Moore’s concerns over what our insatiable appetite for them means for us culturally. And yet…
And yet, as a fan—or, perhaps, “recovering fan”—for whom comics in general, and Batman in particular, have been until relatively recently such an integral part of my life, I’m compelled to acknowledge that Ben Affleck’s tenure as the Caped Crusader, however long it lasts, may very well have the kind of meaning to a new generation of children that Adam West’s had, that Michael Keaton’s had, that Kevin Conroy’s had, that Christian Bale’s had. God knows, the Dark Knight was forty years old by the time I became aware of him, so my ilk can hardly claim exclusive cultural ownership. Batman is American folklore, and the kids of today have every right to decide for themselves if he resonates with their imagination—with the world as they see it. But—and this is critical—he needs to be for them; my Batman, like the linear, analog world into which I was born, is now a thing of the past.
Not that you’d know it, though: Children plainly aren’t the audience Dawn of Justice is being marketed to or made for, any more than Deadpool or Suicide Squad or X-Men: Apocalypse or Jessica Jones are. And over on The CW, that bastion of arrested development, Arrow and The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow aren’t courting adolescent viewers; no, they’re getting their juice from adult fans who take their pleasure in watching that arbitrary “multiverse” wormhole its way into programming on other networks, like NBC (Constantine) and CBS (Supergirl). And that’s problematic, because today’s youth aren’t going to discover—aren’t going to emotionally invest in—that which isn’t produced to specifically appeal to them, to stoke their receptive imaginations. As such, content creators will be required to reconsider their approach to these kinds of stories; doing so will not only allow for superheroes to reach their originally intended readership/viewership, but may even ensure they continue to thrive as meaningful pop-cultural figures and not the niche-audience nostalgia acts they’ve become. Provided they are tailored for the proper spectators, we can make room for superheroes as an active part of a diverse cultural canon, but what we cannot do is continue to allow them to monopolize the stage as they have. There’s simply too much at stake for us culturally for that to go unaddressed and unchanged.
“As a medium, stories have proven themselves great as a way of storing information and values, and then passing them on to future generations…. That’s one reason civilizations and their values can persist over centuries” (Rushkoff, Present Shock, 16).
There is profound nobility in being a writer of fiction—a servant of the zeitgeist—but, to be clear, it means serving the zeitgeist, and not endlessly exploiting “the ephemera of a previous century.” Star Wars: The Force Awakens has broken box-office records (as though that metric should mean something to anyone besides studio accountants), as will, I’m sure, the forthcoming Ghostbusters remake, but will either of those warmed-over Gen X artifacts affect the culture—inspire the imagination of generation—the way the originals, so of their time, did? I doubt it. And when the history books are written, which of our telltale values will these recycled stories inadvertently enshrine for posterity and retroactive judgment, besides creative bankruptcy, corporate hegemony, and the willing infantilization of a generation that’s been selected, whether we’re happy about it or not, to summon the courage, innovative thinking, and self-sacrifice required to make certain this civilization finds a way, in the face of unprecedented challenges, to persist for centuries still to come? Those will be the superhero stories of the 2000s, provided we can find it in ourselves to put away the childish comforts of yesteryear and, to borrow Morrison’s exquisite phrasing, finally “feel worthy of a tomorrow where our best qualities are strong enough to overcome the destructive impulses that seek to undo the human project.”
It’s time, Xers—to yield the playground to the next generation. Let them have our old toys—to take whatever entertainment and inspiration they can from them—and let’s instead turn our attention to forging a new set of heroes, out of paper and ink or, hell, even flesh and blood. There’s never been a greater need for them.
And letting go isn’t as hard as you might think. Here’s how I did it.
LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT
The Batman comics that had grown to bore me by the mid-aughts seemed, in light of the Christopher Nolan films, only more inane, more convoluted, more delphic and inaccessible to all but the most devoted readers with an interest in Easter-egg hunting over the old-fashioned pleasures of a finite story. For a fan who thought he’d experienced every iteration of Batman that could possibly be conjured (including that aforementioned team-up with Scooby-Doo), The Dark Knight Rises had a final surprise in store for me: It would tell the Last Batman Story—the theretofore untold account of what happened to the Caped Crusader at the end of his career.
And it was remarkable—the perfect end to a series that aimed so much higher than the average comic-book adaptation, endowing the franchise with the rich characterization that had been absent from Burton and Schumacher’s interpretations, exploring overlooked aspects of the mythos (Batman’s training; his friendship with Jim Gordon), and eschewing over-the-top pyrotechnics for their own sake in favor of presenting a nonetheless thrilling narrative that dared to be, to invoke Alan Moore’s criterion (whether or not he would agree), relevant and sufficient to its times.
With the release of The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan was finished with Batman, content with what he’d accomplished. In retrospect, his timing was impeccable: In the current atmosphere of interconnected universe-building, which he missed by a hair, his Dark Knight trilogy would’ve never emerged as the boldly imagined, self-contained experience it is; it would have been subject to creativity by committee—part of a broader studio agenda masquerading as a “unified creative vision.” The series would have been stripped of its idiosyncrasies in order to make it synergistically compatible with Green Lantern and The Flash and umpteen other toyetic assets, all in service to some all-stars assemblage that would probably be fun to watch, sure, but wouldn’t likely have the real estate for the philosophical and introspective and emotionally charged moments Nolan devised that still give me chills each time I revisit them. He produced something never before attempted or achieved in superhero cinema: a structurally cyclical American myth—an epic poem, even—that dramatizes the origin, the reign, and the fall of our culture’s most recognizable “supergod.”
“It is the most perfectly logical way to do this kind of fiction. And each part has a beginning, middle, and end; each movie stands perfectly well on its own. Look at the three of them, and you have an over-story that is better than each of the three movies, as good as they are”—longtime Batman writer/editor Dennis O’Neil commenting in the documentary The Fire Rises: The Creation and Impact of the Dark Knight Trilogy (2013).
When Alfred nodded his poignant goodbye to Bruce in the closing shots of Rises, so did I. I hadn’t expected or planned for that, but after a lifetime of caring for Batman just as Alfred had—of following his adventures wherever they’d led—I’d reached the end with him, and I was wholly satisfied with the catharsis that awaited me there. In the most fulfilling sort of way, I didn’t need Batman anymore. His final gift to me would be permission to move on to other interests, other heroes, other stories yet to be told—many of which I’m looking forward to producing myself.
So, this year, I’m going to do something I’ve never done: pass up the chance to see Batman on the big screen. The almighty team-up I waited over three decades for arrived at last… but it was simply too much, too late. I’d already moved on.
Part of the world-building appeal of these movies, aside from the diversion they offer from the vast complexities of the real world, is the chance to experience the uncommon, the unlikely, the sensational—that is why we all lined up around the block during the “Summer of the Bat” to see what all the hype was about. And in this postnarrative era in which superhero movies must work ever harder, given the overcrowded marketplace, to wow audiences with grander spectacles, bigger and better feats of derring-do, I can’t help but appreciate that Nolan’s Batman took my breath away like none other with the kind of old-fashioned, once-commonplace Great Escape that has in our new millennium become the stuff of long-forgotten legend: a conclusive resolution to his own story.