The Batman Descent Into Darkness in Gothic Fiction

Antonio Sanna

Antonio Sanna

Since the creation of the character in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, Batman has produced an incredibly vast franchise spanning animated and live-action TV series, cinematic films (there have been eleven films released since 1943), video games and merchandise products. Comic books such as Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ and Grant Morrison’s ‘Batman: Arkham Asylum’ — which are some of the most celebrated graphic novels of the past decades — and the cinematic films by Timothy Walter Burton and Joel T. Schumacher have all contributed to the creation of an intense scholarly debate on what has been considered as “the most complex character ever to appear in comic books and graphic novels.” All of these disparate texts have often influenced each other, generating a series of borrowings, adaptations and a “web of cross-references” from which the “Caped Crusader” definitely emerges as an intertextual character.

Jim Collins describes such a process as “multiple narrativization of the same figure,” a figure which therefore exists in numerous variants and cannot be confined to a single authority. Specifically, the two main versions of the Dark Knight, that have been set against each other in the past four decades by both fans and critics, oppose the dark and violent vigilante pictured in comic books by Dennis O’Neill and Neal Adams (in the 1970s) and by Frank Miller, Alan Moore and Grant Morrison (during the 1980s and 1990s) to “the fun Batman, the playful Batman, the camp Batman” represented in the 1950s comics, in the Pop Art of the ABC TV series (1966-68) and in Joel T. Schumacher’s ‘Batman Forever’ (1994) and ‘Batman and Robin’ (1997).

According to Randall M. Jensen, the hallmarks of the Gothic in the comic books on Batman are: “the architecture of Gotham cityscape and […] the pervasive presence of fear, the unknown, and the uncanny” as well as the constant “movement of the past into the present.” The latter is a frequent thematic concern of many Gothic narratives, whose “retrospective direction” is voluntarily utilised by the genre’s authors to re-enact personal and socio-cultural trauma, as Andrea Juranovsky points out. Gothic tales often linger on the characters’ memories of a traumatic and shattering encounter, of an unwanted epiphany. In the case of Batman, the return of the past and the reenactment of trauma are primarily related to the psychological characterisation of the protagonist, who had witnessed the murder of his parents when he was a boy. Such an act of violence is explicitly portrayed in Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ (2002) and Alan Moore’s ‘The Killing Joke’ (2008) as well as in the two films by Timothy Walter Burton and the animated TV series ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ (1992-1995). All of these texts linger on the repetitiveness of the traumatic event in the protagonist’s mind by means of involuntary flashbacks, precisely as is the case of many persons who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Christopher Edward Nolan utilises Gothic conventions when he focuses on the representation of the protagonist’s fears and traumas. Indeed, in ‘Batman Begins’ (2005) fear becomes the basis of Bruce Wayne’s training in the monastery of the ‘League of Shadows:’ as his mentor Ra’s al Ghul (Liam John Neeson) explains, the young millionaire (interpreted by Christian Charles Philip Bale) must master his own fears in order to manipulate those of other individuals. Fear is specifically associated with the protagonist’s memories of his parents’ murder and his first traumatising encounter with the bats living in the cave under his mansion. Indeed, the sequences representing his training are alternated with those depicting the untimely death of his father and mother, and his fall into the well leading to the cave. The latter scene is repeated throughout the first instalment in the trilogy and again in the third film ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012), which suggests that the protagonist never ceases to be haunted by this memory, even when he has won over his phobia of the nocturnal creatures. Nolan repeatedly underlines that Bruce Wayne is a psychologically damaged character, that he is haunted by the ghosts of his parents. Precisely as is the case of many characters in Gothic fiction and horror films, the viewers’ attention is repeatedly directed towards the protagonist’s psychological conflicts, his past traumas and phobias.

A good analogy for the protagonist’s embrace of his own fears and his descent into darkness is then represented in the scene of the exploration of the cave in ‘Batman Begins.’ In this sequence, Bruce Wayne voluntarily climbs down the well into which he fell when he was only a child and enters the opening leading him to the centre of the barely-lit cavern. After an initial exploration of the subterranean meanders, he raises his glance and willingly disturbs with the light of his torch the bats sleeping on the cave’s roof. A medium shot then portrays him while standing in the middle of the subterranean environment, surrounded by thousands of bats that circle him in a cloud, whereas the following close-up shot of his serene face demonstrates that he is not frightened by them anymore. The camera then suddenly presents an establishing shot framing the protagonist in the middle of the flying bats and showing that he has become one with the surrounding dark environment and its nocturnal inhabitant — an animal that can be barely tamed by human beings and is often associated in the popular imaginary with witchcraft and the occult. Bruce Wayne becomes one with the dark and defeats his phobia of bats and his past trauma by blurring the difference between himself and what he previously perceived as a “hostile” other. It is at this moment that he begins to impersonate the image of a bat through his masked alter ego, which is thus intentionally constructed as the figure of the “Other.” Precisely as in Victorian Gothic, there is the “recognition that the Other is a part of ourselves and not a purely objective domain that can be simply contained, destroyed, or denied.” The association of the character with fear is therefore established through the recognition of the Other as a part of the individual, as it occurs in Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1886), in which the potion created by the eponymous Doctor allows for the evil part of the self to be brought on the surface and become exteriorized.

Another link between Batman and the Gothic genre is established by the characterisation of the metropolitan space of Gotham City, a unique urban setting among superheroes comic books and their cinematic adaptations. In many versions of the Caped Crusader’s adventures, the city is indeed represented as a dark and chaotic environment in which criminality flourishes. It is depicted as an over-populated metropolis, whose numerous skyscrapers are elaborately adorned with enormous statues and gargoyles recalling Gothic architecture. Such Gothic aspects are indisputably present in the popular films ‘Batman’ (1989) and ‘Batman Returns’ (1992) by Timothy Walter Burton, whose unique visual style transforms places such as streets, cathedrals, factories, zoos and sewers into uncanny environments haunted by the villains. Timothy Walter Burton’s Gotham City is, as Alan Jones suggests, a “tainted Metropolis of neon and steam” (2002, 49) whose streets are dirty and whose “greyness and deep shadows [represent] the darkness apparent in Batman’s psyche.” The darkness of the setting reflects also the tormented psyche of villains such as Catwoman (Michelle Marie Pfeiffer) and the Penguin (Danny Michael DeVito Jr.), as Ryan Weldon points out when arguing that “the dark Gothic shadows and mid-century styling of [Timothy Walter] Burton’s Gotham City provide a backdrop that resonates with the internal struggles of the characters.” Gothic impressionism is also conveyed through the many establishing shots of the exaggeratedly-high skyscrapers and the high-angle frames utilised to represent Batman on the top of them.

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