In praise of campy Batman

My son is deeply obsessed with Batman, like any four year old should be. His favorite articles of clothing include a Batman sweatshirt, Batman pajamas, and Batmobile-shaped slippers. When he plays Batman, he imagines his powers to include shooting bats out of his hands. And he loves the Batman theme song.

In fact, the boy loves this theme song so much that he insists I sing theme songs for all his other favorite superheroes. This is easy for Spider-man, who also has a great 60s vintage theme song. But I had to make up songs for Superman and Iron Man (which has meant improvising goofy lyrics to John Williams’ theme music and the riff from the Black Sabbath song, respectively.)

The only version of Batman that’s really age-appropriate for a four-year-old is the sixties one. This is just as well, because the late Adam West’s Batman is the best version all the way around.

Making Batman “gritty” and “realistic” was a fresh and daring idea back in the 80s when Frank Miller did it, but the more that Hollywood pursues it, the dumber it gets. Making gestures toward realism just underlines how fundamentally silly the whole superhero thing is. No one in a Batman movie speaks or behaves like actual people speak or behave. It’s like how third graders imagine adults acting. Except that these movies are written by adults, so really it’s adults imagining how third graders imagine adults acting. If we’re that many levels removed from reality, then we might as well have fun and go campy.

Here’s what Susan Sontag has to say in Notes on “Camp”:

[T]he essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.

Gritty superhero movies require you to suspend your disbelief while also getting emotionally involved in the “realistic” elements. I find this impossible to do.

To name a sensibility, to draw its contours and to recount its history, requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.

That certainly describes my relationship to Batman and his fandom. I used to think that this kind of thing was the definition of trivial. But Sontag wants us to take fandom seriously.

[T]aste governs every free — as opposed to rote — human response. Nothing is more decisive. There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion – and there is taste in acts, taste in morality.

She quotes Oscar Wilde from Lady Windemere’s Fan:

“It’s absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.”

The same is true of movies, TV, and comics. Adam West is charming. Gritty Batman is tedious.

Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of “style” over “content,” “aesthetics” over “morality,” of irony over tragedy.

Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.)

Adam West was maybe the campiest actor of all time. In his obituary, Matt Zoller Seitz says:

Adam West was in on the joke, but he played Batman as if he didn’t know there was a joke. That was West’s genius.

He describes the music in the fight scenes as “atonal horn blasts that suggested the noise Duke Ellington’s brass section might make if the ceiling collapsed on it.” Awesome. I learned from Seitz that Adam West was offered the role of James Bond, and that he turned it down. This makes me sad. If ever there was a franchise that needed a campier treatment, it’s that one. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the interval before my kid discovers “serious” superheroes.



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