Batman Unmasked: Analyzing A Cultural Icon

Will Brooker reflects on our continuing fascination with Gotham City’s caped crusader
Will Brooker, Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon
Will Brooker, Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon

What inspired you to write Batman Unmasked?

Batman Unmasked was originally my PhD thesis, One Life, Many Faces, and I began it over 20 years ago, so you can understand it is a fairly distant memory. My PhD plans began around 1994 as a study of masculinity in the mainstream cinema of the 1990s, and Batman was a small aspect of one proposed chapter, about the Gothic Masculine (Tim Burton’s films). I realised gradually that the idea of writing about Batman was what I was really looking forward to – at the time, the very concept was audacious in academic work – and the project evolved until that small part of one chapter expanded into the entire PhD. Of course, Batman is an interesting topic per se, but I felt personally invested in the character, and wanted to write about something I was really enthusiastic about, as a fan. That enthusiasm was important, as by the end of the three years full time of my doctorate, I hated Batman, PhDs and academia in general. (Those feelings passed).

The closing image of Tim Burton's Batman (1989)
The closing image of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989)

Why do you think Batman continues to fascinate readers and audiences?

I think he is a complex figure, partly because of his lengthy and diverse history, across pretty much every medium you can think of, from the year before World War Two to the present day. His original creators are long gone, and he has been developed and shaped by the greatest artists and writers in the comics industry. He exists in 1943 films and 2016 virtual reality video games, on the packets of 1968-vintage sliced bread and 1989 action figures.

And yet as a character, he is very simple. He is a man whose parents were killed, who swore to fight a war on crime armed only with his intellect, his physical abilities and his financial resources. He is a superhero with no superpowers. His origin, his costume, his setting, his supporting cast, his gadgets, vehicle and villains were all perfectly established by the early 40s. He is a brilliant creation in that respect.

So, overall, he is a very straightforward, almost a pure character, easy to grasp, who has been used in very complex and diverse ways over many decades. It is that dynamic, perhaps, that makes him interesting.

“[H]e is a very straightforward, almost a pure character, easy to grasp, who has been used in very complex and diverse ways over many decades. It is that dynamic, perhaps, that makes him interesting.”

How does the figure of Batman unsettle or subvert our expectations of the Western superhero?

I don’t think he does. I think he is an archetypal Western hero – the tough, resourceful, independent man, who keeps powering through against the obstacles, who suffers and will not lie down and admit defeat, who denies himself love, peace and comfort because of his ‘mission’, who dedicates himself to a personal cause.

brucewayne-batman.jpg

The only way in which Batman is subversive within the genre is that, strictly speaking, he is not a superhero, but a man. And he has been used in subversive ways, or interpreted in subversive ways – for instance, in queer readings. But essentially I think he embodies an extremely traditional type of masculine heroism.

In what ways can we read the many shifts and adaptations of Bob Kane’s original invention across comics, television, and film?

Bob Kane's early conception of Batman
Bob Kane’s early conception of Batman

We should remember that Bob Kane co-created Batman with Bill Finger and that Jerry Robinson also played a role. He was very successful in imposing the idea that he was the sole author.

Batman’s shifts across media and across time are fairly standard for a cultural icon in my opinion, and comparable to those of Dracula, Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes or even Jesus – but they are, I think, distinguished by the fact that Batman never ceased publication, that there are simply so many Batman texts, appearing all the time, and that they so visibly and obviously change to suit their cultural context.

We can read other cultural icons in the same way, but there are not half a dozen Sherlock Holmes comic books every month, for instance, or prominent Dracula movie franchises, or Jesus video games. So Batman is a particularly rich example of the way cultural icons change and adapt, and a gift to this type of analysis because there is such a rich archive of material that is constantly added to. In fact, the problem with researching Batman is that there’s too much to keep track of, and that as soon as you submit anything for publication, it’s going to be immediately out of date. Any published study of Batman is inevitably a study of a particular cultural moment.

Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2005)
Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2005)

In the years since your book’s release, Batman has continued to take new forms—most prominently through Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. What do you think about the role and status of Batman in the 21st century?

Conveniently, I wrote a book called Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman, which explores this very issue! It was published in 2012, just before the third movie in Nolan’s trilogy, and I went on to write about Dark Knight Rises in a couple of articles at the time.  As you’d expect, there are many different findings in that book about the way Batman has developed since the publication of Batman Unmasked – in terms of brand diversity, authorship, the repression of the ‘camp’ incarnation and the discourse of ‘realism’ that replaced it – but perhaps the most interesting aspect is Batman’s role in exploring social concerns post-9/11. I think Nolan’s trilogy, particularly The Dark Knight, is on one level about how far it is moral to go when fighting a ‘war on terror’; and it was interpreted in that way by many journalists at the time.

Promotional poster for The Lego Batman Movie (forthcoming, 2017).
Promotional poster for The Lego Batman Movie (forthcoming, 2017).

There have of course been further developments since I published that book, and I think the most interesting might be The Lego Batman Movie, which (judging by the trailers) affectionately satirises the character and makes metatextual comments about his cinematic history.

Did you come across any shocks or surprises during your research?

Each chapter of Batman Unmasked tends to show how received ideas about Batman’s history are disproved or challenged by research into primary data: the idea that Batman stories became war propaganda in the early 1940s, for instance, or the idea that Fredric Wertham was a simple narrow-minded bigot. So throughout the book, I started off with expectations based on existing popular histories of the character, and I found by studying primary material that it either wasn’t that straightforward, or that the stories we tend to repeat about Batman weren’t true at all.

What’s next for you?

After my last book on Batman, I wrote a chapter on Batgirl, which appeared in the anthology Many More Lives of the Batman (co-edited by me, Uricchio and Pearson), and created a research-by-practice project, My So-Called Secret Identity, which critiques the representation of women in the superhero genre by showing how it could be done differently.

What’s next for me, in the immediate future, is the publication of my monograph Forever Stardust: David Bowie Across the Universe, which is available from January 2017, and is the result of intensive, immersive research.

I’ve sometimes thought I could write another book on Batman, twelve years after the last one – but while the character still interests me in a way, I have currently fallen out of love with him.

Batman Unmasked was originally published by Continuum, and is available from Bloomsbury.


About the Author

Will Brooker is Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Kingston University in London. His research into David Bowie for this book involved a year of immersion in Bowie’s styles, influences and experiences and attracted international media attention. He is editor of ‘Cinema Journal’ and the author or editor of many books on popular culture, including Hunting the Dark Knight (I.B. Tauris), Batman Unmasked, Using the Force, Alice’s Adventures, The Blade Runner Experience, and the BFI Film Classics volume on Star Wars.

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