Saturday, April 17, 2010

Reckoning With Robin

I mentioned on Twitter that I hoped Kick-Ass (which I have not seen) would be a success because it might convince Warner Brothers to bring Robin back to the Batman movies. In 140 characters or less, you're tempted to make outrageous statements that will tempt people to respond, but I actually did mean that; I like Robin, and think that precisely because he wasn't well handled in the Joel Schumacher films, it's time for the movies to take a fresh look at him. If anything he needs a movie reboot more than Batman did, since the Chris O'Donnell version is the only movie version apart from the TV spinoff and the black-and-white serials.

Now, I agree that Robin will never show up as long as Christopher Nolan is in charge. But that says more about Nolan than the character. (And given that he basically turned the Joker into Dennis Hopper's character from Speed, with even less of an inner life, I doubt he'd do particularly well with Robin anyway.) The idea of someone else muscling in on Batman's turf, both helping him and threatening his image as the sole vigilante "hero this city needs" (tm), actually could fit in pretty well with Nolan's themes, particularly the attention he pays to Batman's creation of his public image and reputation. But realistically it'll have to wait for yet another reboot of the franchise.

The thing about the concept of Kick-Ass is that it deals with an aspect of the Robin character that has been batted around in the comics from The Dark Knight Returns on, and even in the animated shows, but has never been dealt with in the movies: superheroes inspire kid copycats. In a weird way Robin is more "realistic" than a man who, based on no apparent model except a bat, decides to fight crime in his underwear. Robin is someone who sees a superhero and decides to dress up in a costume and be like him. This makes him someone the kids can identify with (that's why he was added), but it also makes him a sort of commentary on the whole idea of identifying with superheroes and wanting to be like them.

Add to that the fact that Robin is a child (though how old he is depends on which version they're using this week) risking his life and inflicting violence, and there are all kinds of moral questions that open up: is it okay to watch a child doing this, is it okay for Batman to let a child risk his life (or get killed, again, depending on which Robin this is) just because it's useful to have someone around to act as a decoy. This stuff has been dealt with, but not in the movies, and I'd rather see that than some of The Dark Knight's post-9/11 obsessions.

Finally, Robin just makes a better confidante for Batman than all the Robin substitutes they've tried over the years. Robin was added, in part, because Batman needed someone to talk to. He still does, but they keep using Lucius "Morgan Freeman On Autopilot" Fox or Commissioner Gordon or Alfred where Robin is more effective. (Robin also makes Alfred more interesting, since he can talk to Robin about Batman or to Batman about Robin, giving his insights without the breach of etiquette that would involve telling off the young master face-to-face, and allowing him to tell us, through this other guy, what he knows about the characters' histories.) He was introduced as a "Watson" character; it was a good idea then and I think it's still a good idea now.

Again, none of this matters if the character is mis-handled. One way the TV series managed to make the character work was, against expectations, making Robin smarter than Batman. (Remember, it's a running gag that Robin solves the Riddler's riddles before Batman does.) The dynamic that made the show work is that Batman is completely unaware of his own absurdity, while Robin has a touch of real-world grounding, and sometimes seems mildly aware that what he's saying is ridiculous. That approach wouldn't work in a non-satirical movie, but the point is that if Robin is played a little differently from Batman, he can represent us, as he often does in the actual comics.

So there are at least some of my reasons why I'd like to see a non-Chris-O'Donnell Robin.



12 comments:

Ricardo Cantoral said...

Well I would love to see Robin just for the sake of these comic book films getting a bit more of a light-hearted tone. Nolan treats Batman way too seriously and pretentiously and I dread to think what he doing with Supes now.

stavner said...

I liked Heath Ledger's Joker.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I liked Heath Ledger's Joker.


I did too -- as a performance. As a concept, though, I didn't find him very interesting, because Nolan re-configured him as a motiveless troublemaker who is less a character than a projection of the way we see real-life terrorists. So my problems with the character are to do with Nolan, not Ledger's execution of what Nolan wanted.

Anonymous said...

Of course, ABC insisted on adding "Aunt Harriet" to the TV show to defuse what people might think of two men living together all alone in a large mansion.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

I agree with Jamie. The Dark Knight's problem was that it consistently hammered in the theme to the point of exhaustion. Every five secounds, there a slow close up on someone's face and a long pretentious speech. This film would have improved by much if Nolan, and David Goyer, just let the characters speak for themselves. Also another un-related gripe was the visual style. I really hated the bleak "Micheal Mann" action film look.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

ABC's not to blame, actually; the comics had added Aunt Harriet a couple of years earlier, and killed off Alfred to make room for her. Luckily the TV show resurrected Alfred, and the comics followed suit.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

Oh my god. A super hero comic book killing off a permanent character then resurrecting him or her ?

stevef said...

I think you bring up a good point. There could be more exploration of the kid imitating a hero theme. In Frank Miller's "Dark Knight Returns" a girl is inspired to become Robin by being rescued by Batman, and sees him as the protective parental figure she doesn't have at home. We all find a role model in an adult at some point, and who that person is, and why we seek someone beyond our home, says a great deal about our society.

Oh, and Miller's casting a girl got that whole Ambiguously Gay Duo thing out of the way.

I also agree that the films need to take a lighter tone. These things should be fun. If I want angst and self pity I'll watch a Twilight movie.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

To be fair, there was a lot of angst and self-pitty even in the 70's Batman comics. However, it was a lot easier to take because the dialogue and plots still maintained that fun cheesy feel.

Today's Batman is suppose to be more "realistic" and "complex". However none of these comic book writers realize that if you don't maintain about that fantasy about Batman, or any superhero for that matter, you just make them whinny and boring. Take Jeph Loeb's stories for example; Bruce Wayne could be a taking a dump and of a sudden he HAS to link it to his parents' death. Loeb started a very annoying trend of Batman's constant first-person narration which is mostly bitching.

Ricardo Cantoral said...

Sorry, it was Frank Miller started the FPN.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

If Robin is brought back, then would we also see Bat Girl?

As an aside, my cousin (who is in his 50's) met Bruce Wayne aka Adam West at a Comic Book convention n Winnipeg and was thrilled. My cousin was happy too.

Scott said...

I haven't seen it yet but I'm told the new animated film, 'Under the Red Hood,' has a great take on Robins old and new, with Neil Patrick Harris' Nightwing character performing a lot of the functions you describe. I'm looking forward to seeing it since, yes sadly, I don't see Christopher Nolan doing anything interesting on that score.