What’s up with all these comic book movies? They’re coming out constantly. I had to sit through Thor recently, because my wife has a thing for Chris Hemsworth. (I went along because Thor also stars Natalie Portman.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, this movie was pretty much unwatchable. We fast-forwarded through all the non-Earth scenes, which was like three quarters of the movie, and were still bored out of our skulls.
Curious about how this comic book movie thing got going, I decided to check out the original Batman from 1989. This film, more so than the Superman from 1978, seemed to spawn all these others. Superman was kind of nerdy and clearly targeted at kids, whereas Batman was evidently trying to be hip—and something adults could watch.
So: was the 1989 Batman any good? No. It looked pretty good but my wife and I found it really tedious. Clearly the movie industry is on to something, though, because these movies are undeniably popular. Batman was skillfully marketed and pulled in more than $40 million in its first weekend (vs. the mere $7.5 million that Superman made). Since Batman, there have been 20 movies based on DC comics and 47 movies based on Marvel comics. Maybe some of these are pretty good, but I think the bigger point is the crossover appeal: they draw in current teenagers for the obvious reasons, but also appeal to people my age who dug the comic books as kids and are prone to nostalgia.
As uninterested as I am in comic book movies, I was crazy about Batman as a kid. Watching the Batman movie awoke a dim memory I had of writing an essay about the Dynamic Duo some thirty years ago. And look, here it is now!
Robin Killed Off – October 29, 1988
When I was a little tyke, four or five years old, my life revolved around cowboys. Not real cowboys, who spend all day herding cows across the desert on a long drive, but the ones that spent all their time shooting at Indians or bad guys. The Lone Ranger was my favorite. I just thought it was so cool that he wore two belts, one to keep his pants up and the other for his gun holsters (or “holsterns” as I ignorantly called them). I had a Lone Ranger coloring book that showed him making his silver bullets, with the mold and everything. Too cool! Silver, the Lone Ranger’s white stallion (or “white-a-stallion,” in my benighted jargon) was just the most magnificent beast on the face of the earth.
I wore a cowboy hat for about two years straight. Nobody ever saw my hair during that period. I even wore that hat in the bathtub. When my kindergarten teacher told me to take it off, I refused. She went and got the school principal, and when he tried to take it away from me, I bit him. Everyone in my family remembers that hat and my cowboy fixation, but might not remember what replaced my “cowboy days.”
It was Batman who took over my imagination after cowboys inevitably got stale. Batman was so noble and good, yet so rock-‘em-sock-‘em tough, that he was a natural replacement. He didn’t have a horse, but he had a really cool car, a cool boat, and of course the Bat Cave.
Besides being strong and bold and good, the Lone Ranger and Batman had something else in common: a sidekick. The Lone Ranger had Tonto, and Batman had Robin. This seems like a wise arrangement. Sure, the hero is the greatest and all, but it’s also nice to have someone to relate to. Perhaps by seeing ourselves in the sidekick, we get to admire the hero in another way: he’s kind of like a cool big brother. For the humble among us, it’s hard to imagine ourselves being truly heroic, but we could relate to at least tagging along and helping out here and there. It’s hard not to love the underdog who’s always doing his best and sometimes even saves the hero’s bacon.
So imagine my shock and chagrin today when I read the following headline on the front page of the “Calendar” section of the L.A. Times: “Holy Finale! Comics Hero Bites The Dust.” Accompanying the article was a graphic illustration of Batman carrying a charred, shredded, blood-oozing corpse, who apparently had been Robin. The caption read, “Batman carries tattered body of Robin, as Dynamic Duo is halved.”
What the hell?! Nobody is supposed to die in the comics, at least nobody good! The Lone Ranger never killed or even badly wounded an outlaw—he just gave him a lecture and put him in jail. On the Batman TV show I used to watch [the original colorized series from 1966], Batman never hurt anybody, and neither did Robin; they just worked the bad guys over for a while and then surrendered them to the authorities. It was just enough action to be exciting without being crude or traumatic. Even the bad guys weren’t that bad. I remember an episode where the Joker tied Batman and Robin to a buoy with a bomb connected to it. Before leaving them to their fate, the Joker—strumming a guitar—sang them a little farewell song (and then gave them ample opportunity to get away unscathed).
But here, plain as day, Robin was flat-out dead. And he didn’t died of pneumonia, either. I quote from the article: “Robin is killed off in next week’s issue of Batman comics, blown to bits—BAM!—by a bomb planted by Iran’s new ambassador to the United Nations, who turns out to be another of Batman’s old foes, the Joker.”
That’s disgusting! The picture in the comic is even more revolting! A fella doesn’t even see such carnage in rated R movies! Since when is this appropriate fodder for kids’ imaginations?
I’m reacting to more than just the age-old gripe against exposing kids to violent images. Consider this: the Dynamic Duo, for almost fifty years, have been more than just characters—they’re real heroes to these kids. Every time the Dynamic Duo was in a bind in one of those wacky TV episodes, I’d be on the edge of my seat, pulling with all my heart for the two, just like a grownup watching his home football team in the grips of a key drive. Have 7-year-olds really changed, to where they can take a hero’s death in stride?
But the most hideous aspect of this tragedy is that the Joker didn’t really kill Robin: the kids themselves did it. The article says, “According to a spokesman for D.C. Comics, which publishes Batman, Robin was killed off by readers by a vote of 5,343 to 5,271 because he was considered a ‘twerp’ and a ‘little brat.’” To me this looks like another triumph of a big kid over his annoying little brother. These modern too-cool kids seem to have stopped caring about the underdog. Where kids once humbly related to the lesser character, now they have no use for him.
Look, I know comic books mainly exist to entertain, but was there really anything wrong with a small dose of didacticism? Is it just hopelessly nerdy now to try to steer kids in any positive direction, like supporting an underdog? Is it more important to give them what they want—i.e., to let them vote on the fate of a character—than to tell them the story the creators want to tell? What’s next? Do readers get to vote on everything?
It’s not that I consider myself some societal watchdog, some sociological scold. More to the point, I guess I was always heartened at the very existence of a weaker character. I always knew I’d never be Batman, but could see myself as a possible Robin. I loved that a powerful, cool man like Batman could respect Robin for what he was, despite what he wasn’t. In other words, I am acutely aware that I’ve been cursed with all the traits that got the Boy Wonder killed. It seems now that anyone lacking a huge chest, fistfighting prowess, and outsized bravado is nothing more than a twerp. The Robins of the world don’t seem to have a chance anymore. When the next generation is voting to have Robin killed, I fear for society and I fear for myself.
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