This perpetual cycling through archetypal phases of yin and yang, light slapstick and dour melodrama, is what lends Batman his unique mutability. His fellow heroes are a more stolid lot. They tend to pick a lane and stick with it.
Not Batman. Dude's ephemeral. A veritable will o' the wisp, that guy.
For 78 years we nerds, devout students of his endless adventures, have witnessed him phasing through this dark/light cycle on the comics page. But when it comes to shaping the idea of Batman — how he exists in the public consciousness — it's TV and movies that matter.
And it's possible to see that same cycle at work there, too, if you know where and how to look for it. Every turn of the cycle occurs for a reason, as a reaction to the phase that came before.
1966: Camp Crusader
The '60s Batman television series starring Adam West brought the Caped Crusader before the eyes of the wider world in a huge way. A huge, goofy way.
The network and studio executives behind the series didn't create the show out of any particular love for the character. In fact, they considered Batman — and superheroes, and comics themselves — to be disposable junk culture. They approached the creation of the series from the outside: producer Bill Dozier read a few Batman comics, and decided to reproduce them exactly — but with a tone that treated them like serious drama, like Ibsen's A Doll's House in tights.
They made him a square, a cop in a cape, a bat-eared representation of the Establishment. He drank milk, lectured Robin about pedestrian safety, and would never think of double-parking the Batmobile. That tone, and the campy silliness it engendered, made the show a sensation, albeit a short-lived one.
Everything about the show's approach angered Batman's hardcore fans, however, and their resentment would live on long after the series went off the air. It was so strong, in fact, that it threw a long shadow from which Batman is only now beginning to emerge.
Throughout the '70s and '80s the Batman of the comics existed as a spirited refutation of everything the '60 TV series had stood for. This new Batman was a brooding loner (Robin had shipped off to college) who haunted the urban night.
It was this Batman that director Tim Burton picked up on, in creating the 1989 Batman film starring Michael Keaton. His Dark Knight was truly dark, and somber, and goth — and also, with respect to to Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman — kinda kinky.
1990s: Camp Strikes Back
When director Joel Schumacher took over the series, he attempted to pull Batman back into the light, although the light in question was neon pink. In homage to the 1960s series, he upped the campy archness, restored Robin to the mix and — in a move that has enshrined him in nerd infamy — slapped some nipples on the sculpted musculature of the Bat-suit.
The reaction of the hardcore Bat-nerds was swift and savage. They took to the nascent internet to demand that future films treat the character as seriously (read: as grimly and grittily) as the comics had been doing for years.
After a brief fallow period, they got their wish.
2000s: Batman, Bedimmed
Director Christopher Nolan's Bat-trilogy, beginning with Batman Begins, seemed like a mission statement for the complete refutation of Schumacher's Batman — and by extension, of the '60s series as well. By leaning into a rugged, gunmetal-gray vision that prized somber practicality over anything that smacked of stylization or — God forbid — flair, Nolan gave the hardcore fans the Batman they loved in the grim-and-gritty comics. This was a Batman who would be taken seriously (read: who was very, very serious). The fans proved fiercely protective: Several critics who dared to suggest that the somberness of Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, in particular, smacked of bloated pretension were greeted with death threats.
2017: LEGO My Ego
And so we come to The LEGO Batman Movie, which is just the latest attempt to bring the broody Batman out of his cave, into the light and sun of the upper world.
But this attempt is fundamentally different.
The creators of the 1966 TV series brought condescension to Batman. Tim Burton brought a determination to remake the character in his own, emo- outsider image. Schumacher brought camp and areolae. Nolan brought a grayscale dourness.
Every one of them came at the character from the outside, and imposed their vision on top of him.
The screenwriters and director of The LEGO Batman Movie, on the other hand, come at him with 1. a very specific comedic sensibility and 2. a deep, deep, deep knowledge of the character's history that, it turns out, is indistinguishable from love.
Their Batman is something else, as well — something important: a complete tool.
He's a jerk who takes himself far too seriously, a brooding loner who insists, at every opportunity, upon his own consummate awesomeness.
This is not merely a characterization — a "way in" to the character they'd teach in screenwriting classes.
It is a pointed critique of the dour, sulky, militantly humorless Batman that has existed in the public consciousness for nearly 40 years. It is also, more to the point, a slap in the face of the hardcore fanboy culture around him, a culture that insists only one "true" version of the character exists, and stubbornly clings to the conviction that they "own" Batman.
Which is to say: It's a reminder — a not particularly gentle one — that this stuff was always supposed to be fun.
Consider this, as well: The plot of this movie involves Batman learning that being a dark, disaffected, brooding loner isn't enough. He needs to make human connections, needs to let other people in.
In a very real sense, it's about Batman transitioning from an arrested adolescence as a sulky goth, brooding alone in his room, into an adulthood that requires him to join society.
Which is probably why, despite the movie's deep, abiding and aggressive silliness, The LEGO Batman Movie stands as the most emotionally mature Batman film yet made.
It's also one that might — that just might — manage to end the eternal cycle of light/dark Batman, once and for all.
Because no matter how savagely it lampoons the Dark Knight as an egotistical jerk, it so clearly comes from a place of deep knowledge that even the hardest-core fanboy will have no choice but to respect it.
Nolan, Burton, Schumacher, even the creators of the 1960s Batman TV series were outsiders looking in; the team behind LEGO Batman are not. And that matters, because of a very simple, abiding truth first recorded, I believe, by Pliny the Elder, namely:
Game recognize game.
In other words: I strongly doubt that any self-respecting Bat-fan will be able to gin up much in the way of frothing nerdrage over a film that includes a frickin' Zebra-Man cameo.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The Dark Knight is about to lighten up in "The Lego Batman Movie," which opens on Friday. Will Arnett voices the animated caped crusader with Michael Cera as Robin the Boy Wonder.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE")
MICHAEL CERA: (As Robin) Hey, I was thinking if I'm going to be a superhero and go on awesome superhero missions like this one, can we use code names? Mine could be Robin.
WILL ARNETT: (As Batman) I'm sorry. Say that again.
CERA: (As Robin) Robin.
ARNETT: (As Batman) As in the small Midwestern, frail bird?
CERA: (As Robin) Yeah. And I already have a catch phrase - tweet tweet on the street.
ARNETT: (As Batman) Hard pass.
CERA: (As Robin) And a song - (singing) Fly, Robin, fly.
ARNETT: (As Batman) Harder pass. Now slide.
MCEVERS: It is a stark departure from the brooding Batman you might be used to seeing on the big screen. But NPR pop-culture critic Glen Weldon, who wrote a cultural history of Batman, says that throughout his 78-year history, the character has always cycled through phases of darkness and light. And now we are due for some light. Right, Glen?
GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Absolutely. Hey, Kelly.
MCEVERS: (Laughter) Hi. In your book, "The Caped Crusade," you say Batman changes over the years in ways that other superheroes don't. I do not follow this stuff as closely as you do, so can you give us an example of what you mean?
WELDON: Sure. Sure. I mean, he has cycled through these phases on the comic book page for 78 years. It's just that normals like you - unlike nerds like me - you don't see it because when it happens in movies and television, that's when his public perception changes. So in 1966, you get the Adam West Batman, who is the camp crusader, right? He drinks milk. He never double parks the Batmobile.
WELDON: Later, in 1989, you get the Tim Burton, very dark brooding kind of Goth Batman. Then Joel Schumacher comes along. He adds Robin, who lightens the tone a bit. And then, finally, you get Christopher Nolan who gets rid of the kid, and then returns him to the shadows.
MCEVERS: So let's start with the old Batman. The Adam West "Batman" show, which is like you said, pretty campy. Let's hear a clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BATMAN")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) I think all we have to do now is Blast off.
BURT WARD: (As Robin) You can't get away from Batman that easy.
ADAM WEST: (As Batman) Easily.
WARD: (As Robin) Easily?
WEST: (As Batman) Good grammar is essential, Robin.
WARD: (As Robin) Thank you, Batman.
WEST: (As Batman) You're welcome. Now let's get them.
MCEVERS: But to a lot of listeners, you know, the Batman they know and love is this darker one you were talking about - the Michael Keaton, Ben Affleck, Christian Bale Batman.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BATMAN BEGINS")
CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Batman) Where were the other drugs going?
MARK BOONE JUNIOR: (As Flass) I never knew. I don't know. I swear to God.
BALE: (As Batman) Swear to me.
MCEVERS: And, Glen, you say this waffling back and forth is not a coincidence?
WELDON: No. It's not. It's all connected. One Batman leads to the other. One Batman is a reaction to the one that came before. The 1966 "Batman" came along because they couldn't get the rights to "Superman" or Dick Tracy. They're just making a show. And since they looked down on comics so thoroughly, they made a Batman who was very silly, who was ridiculous.
That approach angered a lot of fans for many, many years. And for the last 40 years, we've been living in the shadow of that. That's the Tim Burton Batman, the Christopher Nolan Batman and the Batman that has existed in the comics is a reaction to that. It's a refutation of the Adam West Batman. And it's that culture of fanboys embracing the dark, broody Batman that "The Lego Batman" movie has come along to refute.
MCEVERS: So I take it you liked Lego Batman?
WELDON: Very much. The plot of this movie is Batman learning that being a dark disaffected loner isn't enough. He needs to make connections - human connections. He needs to open himself to other people. It's - if you think about it - follow me here, Kelly - it's a transition from adolescence to adulthood, from being the sulky, brooding Goth alone in your room to entering adult society. So in a weird way - very weird way, this is actually the most emotionally mature Batman film we've ever seen. I predict that this is going to be the end of the cycle because they're integrating the nerds and the popular stuff, and it's finally nerds being able to make fun of themselves.
MCEVERS: Glen Weldon is an NPR contributor and panelist on Pop Culture Happy Hour. His book is "The Caped Crusade: Batman And The Rise Of Nerd Culture." Thank you so much.
WELDON: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF GIDEON FREUDMANN SONG, "CARTOON MUSIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.