As a superhero-obsessed eleven-year-old, I had a head start on the Batmania that swept the country when director Tim Burton’s Batman hit theaters in June of 1989, almost 30 years ago. I already read the junior novelization, I bought the Toy Biz action figures, and I wore way too much tie-in clothing (including a pair of boxer shorts my dad dubbed “Buttmans”).
To me, Batmania was a naturally occurring phenomenon. After all, Batman was the best: of course everyone wants to see him in a movie! And although I had read enough fan letters and newspaper editorials to know that some people were dubious about Michael Keaton in the title role, Beetlejuice was the greatest movie ten-year-old me had ever seen, so why shouldn’t he be the star?
Because first-run movies were too expensive for my family, I didn’t see Batman until it was released on VHS in November. Clad in Batman footie pajamas and swinging my toy crusader by his plastic retractable utility belt, I shrieked with glee when my hero dangled a crook off a ledge and growled, “I’m Batman.” It was exactly what I imagined when I read the comics, exactly what I saw when I animated the panels in my mind, and now everyone else could see it, too.
But after that opening bit, Batman mostly disappears… and instead, the movie focuses on reporters and gangsters and their girlfriends?And it’s kinda more about the Joker? And when Batman does show up, he kills a bunch of people in an explosion? And his muscles aren’t even real?
By the time we get that awesome final shot of the Bat-Signal glowing against a dark and stormy sky, eleven-year-old me had to face the facts: this was not my Batman.
Batman made over $251 million at the box office that year, breaking records at the time, so obviously a lot of people disagreed with me. For them, Keaton was Batman and he always killed people and had plastic muscles, while Jack Nicholson was always the Joker and was always more interesting than Batman.
Other people did agree with me that Keaton wasn’t Batman—but they said Adam West was the real Batman, and I hated him! They wanted a Batman who wasn’t serious, the guy who danced the Batusi and made giant “pow” effects when he punched people. The Batman of 1989 wasn’t their Batman because they loved the Batman of 1968, but neither of those were my Batman because that wasn’t the Batman I loved from the comics.
Throughout my life, I’ve seen people complain about various incarnations of Batman in a similar way. The Michael Keaton Batman is the real Batman, because Val Kilmer and George Clooney were too silly. Kevin Conroy of Batman: The Animated Series is the real Batman, because Christian Bale’s angry voice doesn’t scare anybody. The version in the animated series is too cartoony to be the real Batman; Ben Affleck is too old and bored to be the real Batman; Tom King is too pretentious to write a good Batman; and on and on it goes.
These types of complaints aren’t unique to portrayals of Batman alone, of course. When Christopher Nolan cast Heath Ledger, the pretty boy from Cassanova and 10 Things I Hate About You, message boards across the web exploded. “Mark Hamill is the only Joker,” they declared, or asked with anger, “Why does this teen idol think he can compete with Nicholson?”
As strange as it seems in hindsight to question a casting choice that’s pretty universally praised now, these complaints do make sense. As argued in Roland Barthes’s landmark essay “The Death of the Author,” any written work requires a certain amount of co-creation on the part of the reader, who performs an act of writing while reading to fill in the gaps inherent in every work. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud applied that idea to the literal gaps in a comic book: the gutters between panels. Readers pull from revisions of their own experiences and beliefs and expectations to finish the work started by authors.
We readers invent for ourselves what happens between any explicit information provided by authors, so its no surprise that we feel a certain degree of ownership in these characters. Authors may give characters words and actions, but readers give them a voice and emotions.
But here’s the rub: because each reader fills those gaps with material from their own experiences, beliefs, and desires, then each individual reader will necessarily have a different take than any other reader. Keaton wasn’t my Batman, but my Batman wasn’t anyone else’s Batman, either. It wasn’t really even director Tim Burton’s Batman, as he had to make compromises with producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber and didn’t truly get to realize his vision of the character until the sequel, Batman Returns.
So if everyone has their own personal version of characters, how can we talk about them together? More directly, how can we celebrate them when they jump to new media?
Before I answer that, I need to point out the obvious: we know that we can celebrate them together, even when translated through different lenses of popular culture, because we do it all the time. Nerd culture, especially comic book culture, currently rules the popular landscape in a way that surpasses even the Batmania of 1989. My parents, who once patiently and lovingly endured me reciting for them the plots of ’90s comic crossovers, now ask with genuine concern if Drax and Ant-Man make it through Infinity War and Endgame unharmed. As my wife and children sit down to dinner, we watch the CW superhero shows together and discuss the adventures of heretofore unknowns like XS and Wild Dog.
But none of that would be possible if I insisted that XS was the granddaughter of Barry Allen or that Drax was a Hulk knockoff with a tiny purple cape, like they are in the comics I grew up reading. To share these characters with people who haven’t been reading about them since the ’80s, I can’t insist that they’re mine. I need to remember another lesson I learned as a child: it’s good to share.
Granted, sometimes sharing isn’t so fun, especially if I don’t like what other people do with characters I love. To me, Batman’s refusal to kill is just as central to the character as his pointy ears, but neither Tim Burton nor Zack Snyder shared that conviction when they made blockbuster movies about him. I strongly prefer the haunted, noble Mon-El from the Legion of Super-Heroes comics to the self-centered bro who showed up in the CW Supergirl show. And I find Thanos’s comic book infatuation with the personification of death a far more plausible motivation for wiping out half the universe than I do the movie version’s concern for sustainable resources.
But when I read Infinity Gauntlet #1 in 1991 and watched Thanos snap away half of all the galaxy’s life, I sat alone in my room and despaired. I tried to tell my sports-loving brother and my long-suffering parents about what I had just read, but they didn’t care. I was a homeschooled kid in the days before the internet, and so I experienced this amazing, soul-shattering moment all by myself. Sure, no one contradicted my favorite version of the story—but nobody enjoyed it with me, either.
Now, everyone knows about the Thanos snap. They all have their own experiences of horror when Hulk smashes into Doctor Strange’s sanctum to warn of Thanos’s arrival or profound sadness when Spider-man disintegrates. Who cares if those reactions differ from the ones I had when I saw Silver Surfer crash through Strange’s ceiling, or of Spider-man discovering that his wife Mary Jane had died, as it was in the comics of my youth? Now, I can share that experience with everyone.
That’s especially true of revisions to characters that makes them real for different audiences. As a straight white American male, I see myself in a plethora of heroes, from Superman to D-Man. But by making Ms. Marvel Pakistani-American, Spider-man Afro-Latinx, and Dreamer a trans woman, writers have opened the tent of nerdom to people who have finally been properly included, inviting more and more people to celebrate and to create and to imagine together, further enriching the genre.
For this to happen, the characters and the stories have to change. I can’t clutch my favorite versions of Guy Gardner or Multiple Man because those versions don’t belong to anyone else, not even to the people who wrote the comics that made me love the characters in the first place. And worse, I can’t share them with anyone else because my version can only ever be mine. That’s a lonely place, believe me.
I write this the weekend after Warner Bros. announced that Robert Pattinson may play Batman in the upcoming Matt Reeves-directed film. Unsurprisingly but sadly, people are complaining, launching a petition to get the “sparkly vampire movies” guy removed from the film. “That’s not my Batman,” they insist.
And, again, I get it. He probably won’t be my Batman either, just like Michael Keaton wasn’t my Batman way back in 1989. But no Batman is my Batman, nor will it either be their Batman. But…if we can get over that, if we can accept that any act of collective storytelling involves a bit of disappointment balanced out by a lot of communal world-building, then we can see how much fun it is to enjoy these characters together.
In 1989, eleven-year-old me didn’t want a Batman who kills and has plastic muscles. And I still don’t. But eleven-year-old me learned that it’s way better for lots of people to see that Batman is cool, a character we can all be excited about in different ways—and far less lonely than insisting that my version is the right one.
Joe George‘s writing has appeared at Think Christian, FilmInquiry, and is collected at joewriteswords.com. He hosts the web series Renewed Mind Movie Talk and tweets nonsense from @jageorgeii.