Home >opinion >online-views >The dependable freak

Superman is the ultimate organization or establishment man, always ready to toe whatever line he has to. He is an alien, yet he is the embodiment of all desirable human virtues, the kind of man every girl would like to take home to her parents. He is always sure, never confused, and, even among superheroes, he is unique: Others mask their ordinariness in costumes of varying complexity to become superheroes; he covers his extraordinariness in an Everyman’s suit to become a man. Still, he is boring, and at least some of the evidence on offer would seem to suggest that he is not too smart, despite his obviously superior alien intelligence.

Spider-Man isn’t even playing in the same league. He is doomed to be, irrespective of his age, the perennial confused teen. All superheroes are usually defined by their antagonists and his are a prosaic and eminently forgettable bunch. If the radioactive spider hadn’t bitten him, Peter Parker would have probably lived his life out of the public eye in the suburbs, making a living as either a shy teacher or a shyer researcher. And it is highly unlikely he would have ended up with Mary Jane.

Bruce Wayne would have become Batman, no matter what.

He would have become Batman even had he, as a young boy, not fallen into a boarded-up well and been frightened/bitten by a bat. He would have become Batman even had his parents not been shot to death before his eyes by Joe Chill. The narrative may have been different, the motive might not have been revenge, but Bruce Wayne would have still become Batman.

Christian Bale plays Batman in The Dark Knight Rises.

Batman is neither invulnerable nor invincible. Yet he has the ability, through sheer dint of effort and power of will, to recover from a broken back. He may be old and bald, he may be weakening, he may face daunting odds, yet he will be there and he will do what needs doing.

Someone like that is bound to be disliked. Someone like that is certain to have considerable psychological issues. And—this harks back to the bit about superheroes being defined by their enemies—someone like that needs to have worthy opponents. Batman has several: the Joker, Two-Face, the Penguin, the Riddler, most recently, the owls in Scott Snyder’s telling of the story. In some ways, their minds are as warped as Batman’s. Indeed, a popular theory that often finds mention in the comic books is that Gotham attracts freaks because its guardian is himself a freak. Still, Batman is a freak in whom you can believe.

The Tim Burton-Michael Keaton duo promised much with their 1980s retelling of the Batman story on celluloid, but even their first production, featuring the redoubtable Jack Nicholson as the Joker, didn’t do justice to Batman’s core. Others who took over the franchise developed it more along the lines of the 1960s US television series featuring Adam West and Burt Ward, known more for its campiness than anything else. The plot, costumes and special effects became outlandish, even as the core of what drives Batman (and, consequently, what makes a good Batman movie) was forgotten.

It is this core that director Christopher Nolan and actor Christian Bale rediscovered, one reason why the two films in the franchise that have been released thus far have pleased both critics and audiences. The third, The Dark Knight Rises is out on 20 July. If the first two movies are any indication, Nolan and Bale will give us a Batman we can believe in.

R. Sukumar is editor, Mint. Write to him at cultfiction@livemint.com

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