In 2008, when fans were eager for the final installment of Chris Nolan’s bat trilogy, there was an alleged quote from star Christian Bale, claiming that he would refuse to go to work if Robin showed up in the next film. Of course, he sort of did in the form of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but that hardly counts when he’s an adult and spends practically all of his time on screen not being Robin.
But why the shyness where the Boy Wonder is concerned? Outside of Gordon-Levitt, the best-known real life incarnations of the character are tied to the campiest versions on screen—the 60s television show, and two rough 90s films. He is relegated to questionable comic relief and a rushed origin. He’s a joke to plenty of fans, particularly those who prefer darker, grittier Batman, as Nolan and the 1980s comics offered. Why is it so difficult to write a true-to-form Robin that fans can take seriously?
Does it maybe require a certain amount of skill that no one is willing to bring to the table?
With how many hyper-serious versions of Batman we’ve gotten over the years, it’s easy to forget that Robin was a fixture in his mythos well before the first utterance of “Holy Inevitable Sidekick!”; he debuted just a year after the Caped Crusader in 1940. Intended as an audience avatar, it was hoped that Robin would humanize Bruce Wayne a little, make him less weird and scary. The term “Dynamic Duo” was coined specifically for the two, and they were rarely apart for decades.
If you don’t mind characters being reduced to catchphrases and fun gimmicks, then you probably enjoyed Burt Ward’s portrayal of Robin in the ’60s. Being a product of his time, he is something of an acquired taste, however. This is problematic, as he has the privilege of being the incarnation most people harken back to whenever Wayne’s ward is mentioned in polite conversation.
I call it the Nigel Bruce Effect: when one actor’s portrayal of a character forever eclipses other portrayals in the pop culture hive mind. This was true of Nigel Bruce’s cumulative film performances in the role of Dr. John H. Watson, best friend and confidante to Sherlock Holmes (a perfect parallel here, as Batman is a Great Detective analog in the superhero world). Nigel Bruce was known—especially later on in his career—for playing the good doctor as less than Holmes’ equal, and instead as the sort of man who was more likely to stumble (literally) across a clue than perceive it. Most versions of Watson on screen are rendered much closer to Arthur Conan Doyle’s original depiction, but as the current generation of Holmes reinventions sprung up this past decade, every crew was patting themselves on the back for making sure their Watson was an equal partner in the mystery-solving. “He won’t be getting his foot stuck in a bucket,” said collaborators from the Guy Ritchie films to BBC’s Sherlock to Elementary. Because that’s how well Nigel Bruce’s Watson is remembered in the public consciousness. That’s how important it was to shrug off the memory of Holmes’ dear friend as a bumbling tag-along.
The same can be said of Ward’s Robin: people who know next to nothing about Batman have probably uttered the phrase “Holy Fill-in-the-Blank, Batman!” because that’s how well it’s remembered. And that’s how so many people remember Robin. The current generations might know the Animated Series better, or even Chris O’Donnell’s brief stint, but 1966 Robin will always be there, flashing his tights and talking with Aunt Harriet.
What’s interesting about Robin is how few on-screen depictions are actually willing to portray him as a child; Ward read young mostly due to naiveté, but there was no doubt he was about twenty. O’Donnell seemed an angsty older teen if you squinted at him sideways. Tim Burton had plans to put Robin in his films if he had directed past Batman Returns, and that still would have been an older incarnation—he had planned to cast Marlon Wayans as the Boy Wonder, though with an altered background story. (And that’s a fascinating alternate reality all by itself, which deserves its own discussion.) The Animated Series had a single episode that showed Dick Grayson’s adoption by Bruce Wayne, but the majority of the show had Grayson as a college student. And later in the series, a teenaged Tim Drake took on the persona when Dick became Nightwing. Nolan bypassed it altogether with Gordon-Levitt’s take, already an adult and capable of taking up the cape and cowl without any personal training or relationship to Wayne whatsoever.
Now Affleck is set to take over Bats in the current Snyder-directed Goyer-penned Justice League series, and still Robin is nowhere in sight. It makes sense on this runaround—they’re going gritty again, dark and “realistic” for a definition of the word. The studio is in the process of introducing a lot of characters for the upcoming DC super team-up, and it doesn’t make sense to bring in Robin for that ride.
So… why am I belaboring the point, right? He’s not relevant, let’s move long. One half of the duo isn’t needed here, Bruce Wayne is happy on his little Island of One (Where Alfred Sometimes Visits).
Except we’ve seen this version of Bruce Wayne before. We’ve seen lonely party-of-one Batman, and even if he gains a few friends to fight crime with, screenwriters are missing a real chance by dismissing the Bat Family in its entirety. In fact, I’d argue that there’s a more obvious reason why Robin and his place in the Batman mythos keeps getting glossed over or paired down to a bunch of catchphrases: it’s because writing Robin into the Batman story—especially a grimmer version of it—is just plain hard.
After all, Gotham needs Batman, right? But most of all it needs Batman to give everything he can possibly give all by his lonesome: his health, his personal desires, his legacy, his money (mostly his money), and any thought he’s ever given toward the future. This is what it means to be Batman. You’d basically have to be crazy to want to do what Bruce Wayne does, and that’s what the narrative perpetuates of late. He is nearly crazy. Thank goodness he’s on our side, or he’d just be another whacko in Arkham Asylum.
It makes sense to have grouchy, hurting Bruce Wayne sitting in his big empty mansion all alone as Alfred Pennyworth tries to coax him out into the light. That’s easy to write. Grim antihero-hero is a trope, a state of fiction, it has been the default for most “good guys” for the past fifty years plus. There’s no trick to Batman this way, he’s clear-cut and simple. Tortured past, road he walks alone, a job only he can do, the faintest glimmer of hope that one day he can move beyond this state and back into the waking world.
How do you reconcile that with a man who also wants to be, in essence, a father? A single father? A man who takes in a frightened, tormented preteen because he can see a similarity between them and desperately wants to protect and provide for that little boy? A man who trains that boy to live his borderline psychotic life because they understand each other’s pain and agree on how to combat it? This is the harder story to tell. This does not compute. This is capable of changing the audience’s perception of Batman as an alter ego, a hero, a symbol. And that’s without considering how a large slice of the general populous only remembers Dick Grayson for his camp banter.
Which is exactly why someone needs to do it.
Because this is one of the most fascinating aspects of Bruce Wayne. Out of all the big-name heavyweight champs out there, he’s one of the few with a family. A family that he adopted. That he built because he needed one to replace what he had lost. This is what makes Batman one of the most singular superheroes out there. Ignoring that is paring him down to every other big grunt in a suit who can punch someone in the face. It’s boring, it’s been done, and it’s not the braver choice. Batman’s relationship to Robin—every Robin he’s ever trained—is about his commitment not only to his cause, but to life. It’s anything but nihilistic. In fact, it shows every sign of hope.
And despite the current dogma, hope can be associated with Batman. It should be. He’s gone a long time without it.
Each member of the Bat family—Grayson in particular—is there to be a potentially better version of what Batman strives for. Their collective existence prevents Bruce Wayne from disappearing into that cowl. Because he isn’t meant to drown under the weight of his double life, as so many anonymous superheroes do. When Batman falls (and he does, often and hard), some member of that family will be there to remind him why he is getting back up.
Perhaps the Justice League’s formation will give way to a lighter version of Batman on film, and that alone would be a welcome change. Not Schumacher light of course, just… a few shades brighter than Nolan. But it’s still not as impressive as addressing the paternal instincts of a man who spends his nights fighting crime hand-to-hand on the streets in costume. It would be nice to see someone try their luck on the tougher road, and give the Dynamic Duo another chance under cover of darkness. After all, a Batmobile can only do so much. Another pair of hands will always prove more valuable than the trust fund, if only for your sanity and some small scrap of happiness.