When Warner Bros. chose to reboot Batman yet again, it was inevitable that the shadow of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy would loom over any adaptations. Nevertheless, The Batman was up for the challenge: One of the film’s producers, Dylan Clark, went so far as to tell Nolan that they were out to make the best Batman movie ever. (Shit talk the Time Lord at your own peril.) It’s way too early to have a definitive takeaway on whether The Batman is the best adaptation yet, but to give Matt Reeves’s film credit, it managed to make Batman (now played by Robert Pattinson) take himself even more seriously than the ultra-serious Nolan trilogy. As the Caped Crusader grumbles in an early voice-over before beating the crap out of some nameless goons: “They think I’m hiding in the shadows, but I am the shadows.”
It’s a testament to Pattinson’s performance that a grown man dressed up as a bat earnestly referring to himself as “the shadows” somehow works—his Batman was as moody and intimidating as advertised. But while The Batman excelled as a superhero-infused procedural, the film also feels like an inflection point for its title character. Live-action Batmen in the 21st century have followed a pattern of escalating grittiness—ie. Ben Affleck’s Batman literally branding criminals like they’re cattle—that’s simply unsustainable. The only way to get more bleak than The Batman is if Bruce Wayne was strapped down to a chair by the Joker and forced to rewatch his parents’ deaths on a loop with Nine Inch Nails blaring in the background. (Please, Matt Reeves, don’t get any ideas.)
That the last 30-plus years have yielded so many serious (and mostly celebrated) Batman movies has perhaps led to a misconception that the character works only when he’s grounded and miserable. It didn’t help that the last time a live-action Batman movie embraced a lighter tone, it was Batman & Robin, which is widely regarded as one of the worst superhero movies of all time. But reducing Batman to a humorless crime-fighter feels shortsighted and betrays an essential component of the character. Sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with letting the Bat be the butt of the joke.
The modern interpretation of Batman—a brooding figure channeling his grief and rage into cleaning up the streets of his crime-infested city—is so commonplace that it’s easy to forget the superhero has also been adored as a slapstick icon. While the character appeared in a couple of theatrical serials in the 1940s, it was ABC’s Batman series and companion film of the same name that made the first lasting impression on-screen in the 1960s. Led by Adam West, this version of Batman relied on campy theatrics and ridiculous sight gags—from the hero on down, everyone was in on the joke. For all the hate that Joel Schumacher’s movies received, you can draw a clear line between West’s Batman fighting off a shark with a can of shark repellent and George Clooney’s Batman whipping out a Batman-branded credit card.
The live-action Batman movies starting with Nolan’s Batman Begins in 2005 aren’t so comically inclined. But in fairness to The Batman, Reeves did inject an admirable amount of humor into his film, whether it was the Riddler (Paul Dano) addressing his fringe followers like he’s the host of a popular YouTube channel or practically every scene involving the Penguin (Colin Farrell). At the same time, the movie’s Emo Batman and his self-serious crusade of vengeance seemed like the product of a director who didn’t realize West’s Batman series was supposed to be camp. But this kind of genuine obliviousness in the face of obvious humor can also work for the Batman character, who doesn’t always have to be an absolute killjoy.
The world of animation, for instance, has proved to be fertile comedic ground for Batman by emphasizing the inherent absurdity of being the character, even if he’s hopelessly unaware of it. To that end, one of the best—and funniest—Batman character studies in recent history occurred in Lego form. At the beginning of 2017’s The Lego Batman Movie, Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) is adored by the citizens of Gotham and treated like a celebrity for always saving the day. “It must be great to be Batman,” a news anchor says. “I can only imagine he’s going home right now to party the night away, surrounded by scores of friends and lady tennis players.”
Of course, the reality is that Batman heats up lobster thermidor in the microwave and watches rom-coms by himself in his home theater. Try as he might to convince himself that he’s happy, all the money and cool gadgets in the world are no substitute for companionship. Though Arnett’s Batman is hilariously self-obsessed and dismissive toward Michael Cera’s Robin, whom he unwittingly adopted at a charity gala, The Lego Batman Movie painted a sympathetic portrait of an insecure superhero whose greatest fear is being part of a new family he could lose like his parents. Just because this version of Batman starred in an animated comedy made of Lego bricks doesn’t mean the film couldn’t effectively channel the most tragically human elements of the character—in fact, The Lego Batman Movie is all the more charming for it.
But while Arnett’s goofy Batman delivered plenty of punch lines and pathos, our hero can also thrive in a comedic setting where he’s playing the straight man—even if he’s not the main character. As the title implies, the HBO Max animated series Harley Quinn largely focuses on a rogues gallery of Batman villains, but the Caped Crusader (voiced by Diedrich Bader) does pop in frequently. This Batman reacts to Harley Quinn’s antics like an unamused older brother and repeatedly dismisses Jim Gordon’s insistence that they’re best friends. (A recurring gag on the show is Gordon lighting up the bat signal so that he can complain to Batman about his failing marriage.) Harley Quinn’s Batman trying to be curt and emotionless makes it even funnier when cracks begin to form in his tough-guy facade, such as his Bat Cave computer screen saver being photos taken from Gordon’s birthday party.
Harley Quinn has a real affection for the characters of the DC Comics universe, even as it skewers established tropes like the bromantic relationship between Batman and Gordon. (Or, as reported by Variety, Batman performing oral sex on Catwoman in the upcoming third season before DC shut the idea down.) It’s this type of approach—a playful send-up that relies on the audience’s familiarity with the characters for laughs—that feels like uncharted territory for Batman on the big screen.
Given the massive opening weekend for The Batman just six years after Affleck’s debut in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it’s clear that moviegoers still have an insatiable appetite for all things Batman. That Warner Bros. already has plans for multiple spinoff series on HBO Max should make the announcement of a sequel to The Batman a mere formality; this new Batman universe has plenty of legs. But the fact that The Batman was willing to—spoiler alert—introduce the Joker (Barry Keoghan) in a cameo within three years of Joaquin Phoenix’s stand-alone Joker film, and just one year removed from Jared Leto’s Joker appearing in the Snyder Cut, should also assuage any concerns that audiences wouldn’t be able to accept a more comedic spin on Batman appearing alongside Pattinson’s Caped Crusader in a separate universe.
The world of animation, YouTube sketches, and viral Twitter accounts dedicated to roasting the character attest to the unrealized potential in letting Batman be funny while also marking a major departure from the more slapstick elements of the Adam West era. If Warner Bros. wants to further capitalize on the current Batmania, embracing comedy is the best path forward. Even if Batman himself can’t always see the humor behind a billionaire orphan with an elderly butler for a best friend whose idea of socializing is putting on a cape and cowl in the middle of the night to track down villains who also believe that Halloween is the coolest holiday of the year, the rest of us certainly can.