ekm’s BAT-MANUAL: CHAPTER 5 – BATMAN FOREVER (1995)
I don’t need a friend; I need a partner!
-- The Guy with the Gay Name to the Other Guy with the Gay Name
When notorious fogey Frederic Wertham imposed a Queer reading on the relationship between Bruce Wayne and his orphaned circus acrobat ward, Dick Grayson, he was mining the printed source material for elements that were never intended, but easy to identify. The uncomfortable pairing of a rich crime fighter with a pre-teen in panties is almost begging for scornful commentary. While it’s tempting to entertain prurient possibilities, and equally possible to brush them aside with the claim that molestation was never part of Bob Kane’s agenda, the scenario remains homoerotic at best, and irresponsible at worst. After all, recruiting a child to dodge bullets after he finishes homework sounds like the same solid parenting that Abraham demonstrated to Isaac.* We’re answering a quasi-religious call to arms, and if you die, it’s because Tough Shit, boy-o.
Robin’s age is an obvious component in the side-eye Batman has received from his harshest critics, both on and off the page. The notion of a Kid Sidekick was fashionable during WWII publications, and every heroic big brother had a tagalong for whom the comics’ key audience could identify. Captain America would acquire Bucky; the Human Torch had Toro; on and on, down the line. The difference with Robin had as much to do with his bare legs as scenes depicting Bruce and Dick lounging in bed together; it’s the same behavior that would land Michael Jackson in hot water a few decades later, and the overall scenario – involving a mansion filled with toys, make-believe costumes, and little to no parental supervision beyond a butler who was happy to look the other way – is virtually identical. Removing the element of physical penetration, it’s still a relationship predicated on the irresponsible notion of taking a child into a dangerous situation, which explains the decision to age Dick Grayson in all but his earliest screen appearance.** It’s a wise decision, albeit a far less interesting one.
But there are consequences of making Robin an older, less innocent kind of hero. Burt Ward’s portrayal in BATMAN ’66 was both asexual and ageless; he was simply an adult in miniature, both in terms of the writing and casting. There was the occasional lip service to high school, but it was little more than a mechanism by which to define the character’s supposed relationship with his older Chum. By the time Joel Schumacher had supplanted Tim Burton as guardian of the filmic franchise, there had been three on-page Robins in the canon proper, as well as a female iteration in Frank Miller’s future-based final adventure. Tim Drake, the latest in the series of identical wards,*** had been granted a newly-designed outfit specifically intended to 1) make Robin look more like the bird from which he derived his name, and 2) appeal to the skateboard set, by virtue of the overall consensus that Batman worked better alone. Even with the addition of a bo staff – which might have had more to do with the global popularity of the TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES – Robin was still hopelessly square.
These things, taken as a whole, were likely the impetus to redefine the character for BATMAN FOREVER, a film that likewise established what constitutes a “soft reboot” two decades before the term entered the popular lexicon. Taking over from Tim Burton allowed Joel Schumacher to retain what elements he liked, and redesign the rest. BATMAN FOREVER never contradicts the established cinematic saga: there’s a throwaway reference to Catwoman, and both Pat Hingle and Michael Gough are on hand to remind viewers that this is indeed the second sequel to that movie they’d seen six years prior. In all other respects, BATMAN FOREVER hits the reset button, from casting to overall aesthetic. If anything, it’s a slide toward the tone established by BATMAN ’66, but one that still allows for a U2 song on the soundtrack, and merchandising opportunities built on the niftier, commercialized aspects of what Tim Burton had first presented. It was, in short, the kind of mainstream BATMAN movie that Warner Brothers had wanted and accidentally gotten in 1989, and then failed to receive in 1992.
Part of this was ensuring that kids had that identifying character that Robin was always designed to be. A fifth grader might want to be Batman someday, but it was far easier to imagine a hero who had the money, who’d laid the groundwork, and who then literally swooped in to spirit a disenfranchised youth away to a world of action and Make Believe. Everyone had this fantasy at one point during their childhood – those suspicions of destiny made manifest when an Obi-Wan Kenobi or Gandalf appeared suddenly to confirm them. Batman is the ultimate big brother: he saves a youth who gets to live a subsequent life of adventure, and doesn’t have to suffer the responsibility of abandoning family to do so. There isn’t even the guilt associated with wishing one’s parents away, because they’re taken, and unfairly. The toys a kid wants to play with are replaced with better toys, and the vague implication attached is that Someday, all of this will be mine. It’s the notion of wish-fulfillment and grooming, uncomfortably rolled together.
But while Batman is cool, Robin is not. The comic book writers (eventually) realized this; the films’ producers understood it immediately. In order to lend the character a necessary edge, the decision was made to present him as an older, college-aged sidekick for teen audiences to emulate. He might be a few years removed from the age group that was initially targeted back in 1940, but not by so much as to shake relatability. Just as importantly, he’d speak to high schoolers who found Bruce Wayne’s endless moping off-putting, or beyond their ability to comprehend.**** It made perfect sense on a commercial and conceptual level.
It also introduced new wrinkles to a relationship that already required a trip to the dry cleaner, unless the idea was to intentionally present the relationship as a homoerotic one. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach provided it’s on purpose. This seems unlikely, given the fact that the Gay Batman thing was exactly the sort of guano that producers were trying desperately to avoid – particularly after BATMAN RETURNS underperformed (at least by their own estimation) – and because audiences of 2019 are better equipped for this sort of take than the People of Wal-Mart, circa 1995…and we aren’t equipped for it at all. #MakeAmericaStraightAgain
So what we end up with is a Bruce Wayne who is effectively trying to adopt an adult. The obvious narrative is that Bruce recognizes Dick’s pain, and senses a brother-in-arms. What plays out on-screen, however, feels predatory. Dick wants nothing to do with the mansion, the butler, or any of the rest: he wants to catch up with the travelling circus and resume the life of a trapeze artist that was fatally interrupted the night Two-Face murdered his family. Rather than letting him go – he’s presumably a legal adult, after all -- Bruce and Alfred begin dangling gifts in front of the eyes of a vulnerable victim of tragedy. Oh, you like motorcycles? I have lots of motorcycles. You can ride all the phallic symbols you want, “Dick” – and if you stick around, maybe I’ll even let you keep one. No? Okay, bye. Guess you didn’t want this thirty-dollar, restaurant-quality sandwich, either. After all, there’s nothing more delicious than tender meat between two slices of WhiteBread. Alfred and I will be over here; just let us know if you want to stay. The sandwich will be waiting for you.
Confusing matters is the incongruous casting of a role that’s clearly written for a younger actor. Dick Grayson may be as tall as Batman, and he’s flashing Secret Code by way of a not-so-subtle earring; but everything about him screams Pre-Teen. His behavior – particularly with Alfred – jibes with this notion. It’s obvious that Dick is exaggerated to present the Yin to Bruce’s Yang (or whatever), but the degree of cockiness and irresponsibility, to say nothing of sheer petulance, renders the character a bizarre Manchild who’s allowing himself to become a Kept Boy with the promise of gifts. Aside from a throwaway reference to college as some vague and temporally unspecified objective, there’s neither school nor sense of ongoing education. He has no interests or hobbies that are communicated apart from the one scene where he checks out Bruce’s cars and bikes; instead he just sits around the house with an old man, waiting for the Master of the House to return home. If Bruce has any interest in tutoring Dick on the finer points of crime fighting, he doesn’t show it, even once his ward discovers the Batcave and its secrets.
So why is Dick living at Wayne Manor? I mentioned the implication that Bruce senses a kindred spirit, or a potential heir to the mantle of the Bat; but Dick Grayson, University Student-To-Be, is reckless, undisciplined, and too old for such conditioning. His skills are limited to aerial dives and Laundry Karate. Programming him for heroics first means deprogramming him, and Alfred seems the only party interested in the kid’s daily life or emotional state. Bruce spends most of BATMAN FOREVER 1) musing over bad dreams; and 2) whether or not his sorta-girlfriend wants to schtupp him, The Dark Knight, or both. The early pressure applied to Dick peters out into casual indifference until the latter discovers the underground headquarters, and takes the Batmobile for a joyride. Even once Dick saves Bruce from one of Two-Face’s death schemes, there’s an adamant refusal to entertain the notion of a Robin. I don’t need a friend, Dick whines to the conspicuously shirtless older man. I need a partner. The word “sponsor” could be substituted here, particularly once Bruce agrees to the relationship – something that only occurs once he gets an eyeful of the youth dressed in a molded rubber body condom, with those nipples of his fully accentuated. We have no choice but to wonder what occurs during the time between the subsequent handshake, and Bruce dressing (after first undressing) as Dick stands by, watching.
The film may not invite a specifically Gay reading, but neither does it discourage one. Joel Schumacher is an openly homosexual director (among the few in Hollywood to prosper in spite of the potential stigma), and he’s on the record as feeling that if the female form can be sexualized onscreen, then why shouldn’t the boys fall victim to Ass Shots and Codpiece Power Zooms, as well? It’s a fair argument, but one that simply feeds a perception of the Dynamic Duo that DC (and parent company, Warner Brothers) long fought to shake. Anyone failing to miss the obvious implications of the hero being forced to choose between saving the Damsel in Distress and the equally effeminate Boy Wonder, is clearly missing the bright, neon subtext of a relationship best known for what it intentionally leaves unsaid in the loudest way possible. The fact that Bruce gets the girl, and Batman gets the boy, serves as no surprise, and further complicates the divided nature of the Caped Crusader. Suddenly, that Question Mark used as part of the Riddler-based marketing campaign took on a whole new meaning.
The only real question is whether this particular scenario is a healthy way of presenting homosexual tendencies that get locked away in an underground closet once the sun comes up, or if it’s more appropriate to ask audiences to idealize a hero who subjects children to mortal danger. In BATMAN FOREVER, it’s a little bit of both.
*It’s worth noting that various Robins have enjoyed a variety of negative parental relationships prior to their enlistment into Batman, Inc. While Jason Todd is the most obvious example – abandoned by his mother, with whom he would later reconnect, and who would subsequently stand by and allow her son to die through combination of a crowbar and a bomb – Dick Grayson hardly fared better, being the child of trapeze artists who made their bread and butter by putting the family in danger nightly for a paying crowd. If there’s a lesson to be learned in Batman comics, it’s that (living) Moms and Dads are totally cool with you dying.
**Christopher Nolan made it clear in interviews that he had no interest in featuring Robin in the third and final installment of his trilogy; I find this a missed opportunity. Given the director’s penchant for Real World-ing the Batman mythology, dropping Dick Grayson into the mix felt like a logical extension of the otherwise Go Nowhere plot point of copycat Batmen seen in THE DARK KNIGHT. No better example of why there shouldn’t be a sidekick could be demonstrated than by having Bruce Wayne take under his wing a newly-orphaned boy from whom the Bat-Secret would be kept; but upon discovering the secret headquarters under the house, Dick might endeavor to emulate an in-hiding, possibly retired Caped Crusader. All those weapons and wonderful toys, right there at a ten year-old’s disposal…all of which would get him killed, Jason Todd-style, one or two nights out on his own. As both a way of incorporating Robin, as well as commenting on the legitimate implications of a Boy Wonder who could fly a Batplane years before he could obtain a legal driver’s license, it might have opened the door to more compelling drama than what THE DARK KNIGHT RISES promised and then ultimately denied us.
***Whatever Bruce Wayne’s (admittedly variable) preference insofar as the ladies are concerned, Batman most definitely has a type.
**** George Clooney would later comment on this disconnect, and justify his approach to the character coming from an inability to rationalize the never-ending depression over an event that had occurred so long ago as to be little more than a footnote in one’s life. While he’s not right, he’s certainly not wrong, either.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)