The release of an obscure photograph in May re-opened a bitter controversy. Experts broke down the visual data with Zapruder-film intensity. Some claimed they could identify fine details on a dimly lit figure shown next to a vehicle that appeared to be smoking. Others ridiculed such far-out claims while passing along equally far-out notions concerning a drone or robot they believed to be visible in an indecipherable region of the frame. This was not a newly leaked image of Pat Tillman or Michael Hastings. It was a production still of Ben Affleck in the new Batman costume. The caped crusader superjoint Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is currently shooting in the state of Michigan. And fans are going nuts.
Grantland’s Mark Lisanti gave long, informed consideration to the rebooted Batman costume’s shorter, blunter ears. Meredith Woerner of io9 briefly claimed that the new batsuit had visible veins, a theory that sparked furious debate among batologists. Other batfans scanned the suit for the presence of nipples (not visible) and even more minute clues to either awesomeness or suckitude. (Affleck, stooped in either shyness or pure, dark, smoldering angst, showed a Bigfoot-like aversion to the camera.)
The photo seemed to meet with general approval, meaning that fans expect this Batman to be dark, edgy, and brooding. Their hopes are fueled by scuttlebutt that Batman v Superman will follow the seminal story created by the even more seminal comic-book author Frank Miller in his most seminal four-issue miniseries The Dark Knight Returns. In other words, this is not going to be your father’s Batman (though confusingly, Miller’s milestone of edgy darkness was itself published a generation ago).
I’m pretty sure all the above is accurate, but I have to caution that I gave up on Batman years ago. Like many people who have had to make a major life change, I remember the exact moment: I was above the Atlantic Ocean, and the Batman movie that features Katie Holmes was playing on the seatback in front of me. It was dark. It was edgy. It was not my father’s Batman. Then I remembered that my father had not been interested in Batman. Because in those more spacious, less thought-tormented days, now as remote from us as the War of Jenkins’ Ear, it was considered acceptable for grown men to be uninterested in superheroes.
This was a whisper of mortality. I am, as Obi-Wan Kenobi says in some movie about a bridge, closer to the end than to the beginning. How long do I have left? Do I want, can I afford, to spend another two hours (probably more, as running times expand to accommodate more ponderous movies) in the company of Batman? What are those two hours going to tell me about Batman that I don’t already know? Sure, he’ll be edgier, darker. But dark edginess was the selling point of Tim Burton’s big-screen reinvention of Batman in 1989, and of Frank Miller’s print-and-ink reboot prior to that. A more tortured, complex, haunted Batman was also the pitch for the recent Christopher Nolan film cycle. What’s the value of all that darkness, anyway? Why is a franchise that maintained its ominous gloom through seventy-five years still so spooked by the specter of Adam West that it has to announce constantly how grownup and serious it is? And isn’t there a danger in this dark, edgy arms race, that all of Wayne Enterprises might melt down into some super-dense mass of edginess from which no light can escape? Think of the effect that would have on global warming.
Now when I say men in my late father’s generation were free to be uninterested in superheroes, it should be understood that men of my generation have to fight for that freedom. I’m pretty sure it would be considered less weird for me to convert to Islam or make a reality show about myself than it has been to tell people I have given up Batman for life. Some batfans make good arguments: that I missed out on the late Heath Ledger’s impressive-looking performance as the Joker, that the Nolan pictures offered insightful and surprisingly rock-ribbed ruminations on Occupy Wall Street or the Global War on Terrorism. I expect Affleck will play the role well, and my withdrawal from the bat-verse will make no difference one way or another to the billion- or trillion-dollar franchise.
But I’m coming out loud and proud: I don’t care what Batman’s take is on the important issues of our day. I don’t have time for the paradox of the hero who must probe the borders of evil within himself in order to fight the evil outside. I’m not interested in the bat-gadgets, in the tragic elements of Batman’s mythos, in whether the Joel Schumacher Batman films were franchise lows or subversive gay masterpieces.
The great comic book writer Alan Moore recently blasted adult superhero fans for “delighting in concepts and characters meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of the 1950s.” I don’t begrudge anyone what meager helpings of happiness he can get out of life, but putting away childish things has its small comforts too. If you’ve ever played peek-a-boo with a kid, you know the kid wants to keep playing long after you’ve had enough. In fact, the only good thing about being a grownup is that you’re allowed to get bored and move on to something else.
So here I stand. As Batman says, it’s what I do that defines me. One thing I choose to do is remain in bat-retirement. I have earned it over a lifetime dealing with the Dark Knight.