Most of the recent movies based on DC Comics are no fun at all. This is by design. Over at Marvel, they’ve grown out of their aspirational high-mindedness of Bryan Singer’s glum X-Men movies and into the confident popcorn swagger of Iron Man, Captain America and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy—but DC remains desperate to be taken seriously. Filmmakers and fans alike seek to cement the cultural legitimacy of superheroes by stressing Big Themes—the cost of heroism, the ethics of vigilante justice, the psychological implications of a dual identity—over Big Thrills.
Read more of the best graphic novels about Batman.
But the poker-faced approach has been wildly successful for the Batman film series, the capstone of which, The Dark Knight Rises, is currently on wide release and raking in All the Moneys. A lot of ink has been spilled over Christopher Nolan’s reimagining of the Caped Crusader—some of it by Yours Truly—assigning it all manner of metaphorical intent. Most of those allegorical readings are nonsense, of course. The notion that the film’s villain Bane is some sort of swipe at Mitt Romney, for instance, is so deranged as to be inadvertently hilarious. But there’s no denying that while the summer’s other tent-pole superhero movie, Marvel’s The Avengers, only wanted to be Big, Nolan actually wanted TDKR to be Important.
Be careful what you wish for; The Dark Knight Rises is, without a doubt, the summer’s most talked-about movie, but it is surely for no reason that Nolan could have ever wanted. But the Batman (or the idea of the Batman) had attained the benchmark of true cultural significance before he ever fell into Nolan’s well-manicured hands—even if it is an old-style benchmark, one that has fallen out of fashion. As evidenced by Chad Parmenter’s odd and about two-thirds wonderful little chapbook Bat & Man (Finishing Line Press), Bruce Wayne and his night-crawling alter ego have been deemed worthy to be celebrated in verse—in sonnets, no less, that most rigorous and rarefied of forms.
By this point, the Batman is simultaneously more and less than cultural construct. On the one hand he is simply a brand, a multimedia franchise, a logo to emblazon on bed sheets and backpacks and cans of pasta. And Parmenter gently tweaks that perception in his opening poem, the standalone “Holy Sonnet for His New Movie,” where he describes the Batman as “...glittering / beyond these sponsors.” But while acknowledging the character’s status as a commercial icon, Parmenter emphasizes the primal mythic status of the Batman in his closing lines, presenting his appeal in spiritual terms:
…. Batfans, think how long
we tried to pray away the preshow night,
how low our spirits flew while he was gone.
Now fill your mouths with Batman candy. Bite
your tongue and swallow that amen. It’s dawn
onscreen—here comes your christ in vinyl tights.
In a cheeky way, those twinned images—of religious longing and the craving for sweets—point up a truth about the inborn human hunger for story, and the way that pop culture can feed it.
In the body of Bat & Man, Parmenter surrenders to and celebrates that hunger with a narrative sonnet sequence framed as a late-night dialogue between Bruce Wayne and his lover, Selina (Catwoman) Kyle, after Wayne awakes from a nightmare. The great poetic irony, of course, is that the nightmare is the story of his own tragic life, from which he can never truly awaken—not as Bruce Wayne, anyway.
It’s a strange and unique take on the Batman’s formative years, with darkness and the threat of violence haunting him literally from conception. In a startling break from the comics canon, Parmenter imagines Wayne’s father as sexually predatory, lying and bullying his way into his future wife’s pants; the mother, in Parmenter’s telling, was a hysterical phobic, convinced that she carried not a child, but a monster within her womb:
...[M]other knew there was no boy inside
her body. Not so much as human cells
evolved there. Doctors—jokers. Tried to tell
her what was kicking in there was a child.
She felt me—bat. With feather ears, with eyes
like night lights, I would spy. With spindle nails
for fingers, I would scratch for freedom...
This is unsettling stuff, and even without the (rather heavy-handed) bat imagery, it adds complexity to Bruce Wayne’s eventual career as a vigilante. In the traditional telling, it is the wrenching loss of the parents he adores that sets Bruce upon his vengeful path. In Parmenter's version, the parents are neurotic, and the boy’s relationship with them is ambivalent at best—and in a neat metafictional twist, Bruce himself finds idealized parental substitutes in pulp and movie heroes, characters who seem to him more real than the actual people in his life: the Shadow, the Phantom, Zorro. Watching Tyrone Power on the cinema screen, Bruce
...felt the world contract to him and me.
My mother’s screams, my father’s tortured roar
were shams, or dreams, as blurry as their scars
It is in this early section, where Parmenter is retreading well-known ground, that Bat & Man is most successful, and its insights on the sustaining power of childhood hero-worship are both clever and wise. (Selina objects to Bruce’s deification of the movie image: “He’s only light, though.” To which he replies: “So is day.”)
The experiment falters, though, in the second half, when Wayne tells the story of his lowest point—a drunken party at which a girl is accidentally killed, spurring him to reevaluate his life as hard-partying playboy. At this point Bat & Man becomes less a poetic exploration of the Batman myth than fan fiction in rhyme. The verse, tasked with carrying greater narrative weight, becomes less sure-footed: “No resurrection came. Just cops. My name / got rid of them. I hid. I shut the blinds / in every room then...” These are purely functional lines, even clunky.
More problematic is the setup of the party itself, a bacchanal wherein “a thousand guests in Trojan armor stormed / the decoupage Olympus on the lawn,” culminating in an orgy led by Bruce Wayne himself, “disguised as Zeus, disguised as swan.” The thematic intention is clear—Bruce finds his salvation in turning away from the bright gods of Olympus, saving his soul by descending to the literal underworld of the Batcave—but it falls down badly in the execution. Parmenter’s symbolism, his placing of Bruce Wayne in a mythic context, is never subtle—but here it is a bridge too far. Quite simply, it is fatally out of character.
The Batman is a mutable figure, but not infinitely so. In the second half of Bat & Man, Parmenter—like many an author of fan fiction—forgets this essential truth and tries to weight him with thematic resonances that he is not built to bear. The story it tells is fascinating in itself, but it’s not particularly a Batman story; its violations of assumptions about the character do not particularly add to our understanding of him, nor does his presence deepen those themes. Instead, they work at cross-purposes. As with any archetype, the Batman’s value as a vehicle for personal expression is always going to be limited. There’s only so much you can do with him before he ceases to be the Batman.
Jack Feerick, critic-at-large for Popdose, was himself a prize-winning poet in his youth, before devoting himself to his true calling of being the badger at the teddy bears’ picnic.