With “The Lego Batman Movie” out this Friday, TheWrap spoke with Batman historian Glen Weldon about the many changes the Caped Crusader has gone through over the years. During the interview, Weldon discussed the different paths Batman has taken in recent movies, from the satirical edge of “Lego Batman” to the “ugliness and cynicism” of Zack Snyder’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,”
“His films seem like testaments to the idea that heroes don’t work,” he said. “There’s a sense of gloom and Ayn Rand objectivism at the core where the notion of altruism is something that must be explained and defended and ultimately doesn’t work.”
Weldon is a pop culture commentator for NPR and author of “The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture.” In his book, Weldon takes charts the evolution of Batman from a pastiche of early 20th century avengers to a pop culture juggernaut that has amassed arguably the most passionate — some would say obsessed — fan base in comics. In the upcoming paperback edition, he’s added a new afterword to tackle the negative response “Batman v Superman.”
On the other hand, “The Lego Batman Movie,” which comes out this Friday, gets Weldon’s seal of approval. Read on to find out why.
So, what did you think of “Lego Batman” and how it tackles Batman’s modern image?
Well, I kinda got the feeling that this movie was bioengineered in a lab for my pleasure centers. Basically, this movie sums up Batman’s whole deal: He starts out always as a lone, dark brooding character, and then he becomes a father figure. Then he becomes the head of a big, extended Bat-Family and the mood gets lighter. Then they break up the family by doing something like sending Robin off to college or just killing him off, and then Batman’s alone again and the cycle repeats.
The thing is that [“Lego Batman”] is only the second time Batman’s really come in front of the wider culture to be made fun of. The first was the Adam West 1966 TV show where the joke was that he was such a square. That show was made because they couldn’t get the rights to Superman and Dick Tracy, so they made this show at a time when comics was considered junk culture. They were for “children and idiots” as one producer of the show put it, so they made it from a perspective of contempt for the character.
But “Lego Batman” is fundamentally different because it is coming from a place of — if not love — a place of deep, abiding knowledge for the character. And what we’re making fun of him now is that he takes himself so seriously. That’s a reaction to generations of a Batman that we’ve been dogged with for a long time; an adolescent view of Batman as this eternal loner. This movie takes him from a brooder to someone who has to mature and form relationships. This is a counter to a very specific type of super fan who thinks that in order for him to be taken seriously Batman must have no sense of fun, and now I think we’re starting to see the cycle turn again. And it’s really amazing to see this movie really plumb the depths of Batman history. I never thought we would see Zebraman in a Batman movie.
In “Lego Batman,” the character who pushes Batman into starting a family is Alfred, who has become known as Bruce Wayne’s surrogate father figure. When working on the book, what did you find on how Batman’s butler has evolved over the years?
Back in the 70s when they abandoned the light-hearted Batman and made him into a brooding loner, they got rid of Robin but they did keep Alfred. Batman needs a sounding board, a Watson to his Holmes. In that period, Alfred was a sort of mentor, but not really a father figure. You can’t really pinpoint exactly when Alfred’s relationship with Bruce changed, but it is certainly a major part of the current Batman comic written by Tom King, with Alfred becoming more than a person who cooks Batman some Lobster Thermidor. You could say that it is something that has been popularized by the movies. You can go back to Tim Burton’s second movie, “Batman Returns,” in which Alfred dies and we get a sense for the first time that Michael Keaton’s Batman had a relationship with Alfred that was much deeper than just a butler and a superhero.
“Lego Batman” is also the first movie since the 90s to send Batman into action with Robin alongside him. Did Michael Cera’s portrayal of Robin in this movie remind you of any previous versions of the character?
Well, again, Batman isn’t truly Batman until there’s a Robin. To fulfill his destiny, he has to replace that which was taken from him. He can’t just fight crime by punching people in the face. He needs to create a future, and that starts on a personal level. As for the Robin in this movie, he certainly doesn’t come off like Tim Drake, who is certainly the most well-adjusted and skilled of the Robins that have been around. He’s more like the original Dick Grayson. The exuberance and cheerfulness is vintage Dick.
Since “The Caped Crusade” came out, there have been many different versions of Batman that have come out. Along with “BvS” and “Lego Batman, we have seen new TV series with Batman and video games like “Arkham Knight” and “The Telltale Series.” It feels like we now have more takes on Batman co-existing in pop culture, so which one do you think is currently considered by the masses as the standard form of Batman?
There have always been many different forms of Batman, and every fan can decide which one is “their” Batman. That is the beauty of his character. He’s not set in stone like Superman. There are many different versions that always serve as a reaction to the culture of the times.
As for the current Batmen we have now, the Batman in the comics definitely has the least impact because he has an audience of about 200,000 or so compared to the Batman movies and TV shows which reach an audience of millions. For good or for ill, it’s always the movies that color the public perception of the character. If I ask my aunt Fay who Batman is, she’s going to say Ben Affleck. There’s always an inescapability to a major studio’s take on Batman. Even if my aunt hasn’t seen “Batman v Superman,” she will have seen Ben Affleck as Batman in the marketing, so that’s what will exist in the heads of most people until the next film comes along.
And what about that next film? Ben Affleck is no longer directing the next Batman movie and the DC Extended Universe he is a part of hasn’t been received very well so far. What do you see in the future for Batman and the DCEU?
Well, while we’re talking about different versions of Batman, there’s also DC animated movies that are just as dark as the Nolan films. But there are also DC television series like “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” and most recently “Justice League Action” that allow these characters to have a little bit of light and fun.
With Zack Snyder as producer I don’t see the [DCEU] films ever having that same fun. He seems like a guy who doesn’t believe in heroes. His films seem like testaments to the idea that heroes don’t work. There’s a sense of gloom and Ayn Rand objectivism at the core where this notion of altruism is something that must be explained and ultimately doesn’t work. That’s the thing that I think people are finally getting to see. When you have somebody with a world view colored by this ugliness and cynicism, these characters don’t work in such a universe. They need to be in a world where they can be an ideal.
So much of what makes up the modern image of Batman comes from tales meant for more adult audiences, but what about the kids of today? Have you had a chance to talk with them about what “their” Batman is?
Oh, sure! Again, it’s the television stuff they can see, and I’ve had talks with kids about “Justice League Action” and even some older series like “Justice League Unlimited.” Those shows are a direct extension from “Batman: The Animated Series” back in the 90s and while the movies reach the most people, these shows are the key to making these characters last. They get kids when they’re young and they don’t cater to adolescent fanboys for whom their only metric is how “badass” he is and how much he can beat other people up. I’m really glad something like “JLA” is around, and not just because it’s going to have Space Cabby voiced by Patton Oswalt. It provides a version of Batman who is approachable to all ages, and DC always needs to have that.
“The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture” is currently available in hardcover from Simon & Schuster and will be released in paperback this March. This interview has been edited for clarity.