Celebrating the Death of the Dark Knight – and His Rebirth

With the recent passing of Bruce Wayne, can the Batman character escape the tragedy of Bruce Wayne's life that originally birthed it?

Batman holds a place in the popular mind so strongly, it might seem that the character emerged out of the mythological ether of the Olympians without beginning or end; never born and never to die. Like Baudrillard’s simulacra, it is easy when considering icons such as Batman to forget that they are the products of human imagination and therefore not mere copies of, in this case, the archetypal that have no existence apart from their presence in the pages as the millions images sold in comics. With so strong a resonance to the popular culture, for all intents and purposes, Batman is not merely a simulacrum: Batman lives.

While the character has evolved since he first appeared in the pages of Detective Comics #27 in May 1939, created by Bob Kane and the uncredited Bill Finger, to filmic and televised incarnations such as Adam West’s campy 1960s version of the Bat, to Tim Burton’s brooding auteur vision of Gotham and Christopher Nolan’s 21st century re-iteration of filmic Batmania, the character has always served a central psychological purpose to the culture; that of filtering our darkest impulses for revenge into a framework for justice.

Indeed, it is vital never to forget Batman’s ever-present darkness while he triumphs over evil. He’s not friendly and not meant to be your friendly neighborhood crimefighter. Like darkside rocker Jim Morrison, who often invoked the rock star as shaman-who-harnesses-the-dark-powers motif, Batman has always had a shamanic or even demonic streak that sees him presented at times like an incarnation of the supernatural, like some version of Fate come to exact vengeance. Batman is darkness and justice that has, since the character’s inception, flowed through the blood stream of the popular culture from the pages of comics to the big screen while maintaining the integrity of his initial creation as a pulp superhero.

Evolving over time, Batman first emerges as a Golden Age superhero that captured the popular mind. Like many others, in 1954 the character came under criticism in the book Seduction of the Innocent by Fredric Wertham for the alleged homosexual subtext of the storyline. While the book helped lead to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, Batman survived along with his youthful sidekick Robin and the additions of new characters such as Batgirl in 1961. Despite the popularity of the Adam West television series in the psychedelic 1960s, the early part of that decade presented perhaps the nadir of Batman’s popularity in the world of comics. By decades end, writers such as Denny O’Neill hoped to bring the character back to his vigilante roots and, from 1969 on, the world of comics saw a stark distinction between the televised man-in-tights and the caped crusader appearing in the pages of DC Comics.

For most current readers, the Batman strand picks up again with the rebirth of the character in two powerful storylines; that of The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller (1986) and The Killing Joke by Alan Moore (1988). Both storylines presented a darker, grittier and far more disturbing version of Batman than ever before and paved the way for Tim Burton’s creepy cinematic version released in 1989 (creating Batmania for a new generation of moviegoers and comics readers). 1988 also saw DC Comics give readers the chance to vote on whether or not the, then, current Robin embodied by the character Jason Todd should die. Their answer? Yes. The same year’s Batman: A Death in the Family saw the caped-crusader lose the second Robin and emerge violent and volatile into the 1990s.

The world of Batman remained strong throughout the '90s most notably with storylines such as 1998’s “Cataclysm” which finds Gotham City the victim of an earthquake and cut off from Federal Aid. The presaging of the botched Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is almost uncanny. While spin-offs of Time Burton’s two Batman films continued throughout the decade they, once again, began to devolve into the realm of parody, most notably in Batman and Robin (1997) which, effectively, ended the Batman film franchise for almost a decade until the release of Christopher Nolan’s Batman re-boot Batman Begins in 2005. While both the characters of Batman and Superman, for instance, have seen ebbs and flows in their popularity and depictions over the decades both in print and on screen, each character has maintained a place in the pantheon of modern mythology.

Batman has always represented Superman’s Jungian Shadow -- a dark, vigilante counter-force to the shining light of truth, justice and the American way. The Dark Knight has also always represented our own shadows, our desire for vengeance and justice at times in our lives when the normative codes of society would not suffice. While his non-superhero alter-ego Bruce Wayne would always face the day as a symbol of conventional success-overcoming-tragedy, Batman would be Wayne’s true face; the tortured soul with whom we could identify and sympathize, the orphaned child made superhero seeking justice beyond the bounds of the social order. For generations, readers have reveled in Batman’s mythological archetype of the dark hero, indeed, one who nurtured others such as Dick Grayson (the world’s original Robin) while remaining a loner with total devotion to his self-imposed mission. A world without a Batman is unbalanced and out of control. It’s a world without a shadow, a world without an archetypal symbol for us to indentify and through whom to feed our darker impulses for a moral retribution. Yes, the world needs a Batman. And now, after decades in print and in the popular mind Bruce Wayne -- the world’s Batman -- is dead.

Yet, after a brief period of private mourning and jockeying for position among an array of contenders the world has a new Batman in the form of Dick Grayson, the original boy wonder turned Nightwing joined by Damian Wayne, Bruce’s son, as the Dark Knight’s latest sidekick in the reboot series Batman and Robin, written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Frank Quitely; a series that seems poised to finally evoke a new and vital aspect of the Batman mythos.

Dick Grayson assuming the Batman mantle represents a strong mythological theme replete throughout history; that of the son killing the father to assume his rightful place in the cosmos or, in this case, the more benign motif of the son taking over for the father in Grayson’s assuming the cowl. Add to that Bruce Wayne’s biological son as the new Robin and there’s an undeniable mythological progression occurring here along with an unstated question: What happens when the sons replace the father?

And it is this concept of the generational shift that has broader cultural implications for all of us. If the world needs a Batman and ‘Batman’ is dead, there must be someone to carry on his vigilante tradition. Each of us has faced or will face this same dark, frightening and potentially liberating theme: how do we take the tragedy of loss and ascend to our rightful place in the world? How do we honor the past and our loved ones while making this new world our own?

Morrison depicts Grayson as tentative and uncomfortable with his newfound epic responsibility. He cannot be Bruce Wayne’s Batman, he can only somehow try to become his own. Meanwhile, Damian Wayne is an impetuous, undisciplined, nearly malign, sidekick who is adolescent and out-of-control -- putting missions and life at risk. In his own mind, in the arrogance of youth, he himself is ready to become Batman. Meanwhile, Grayson cannot take the place of, or be, a father-figure to him. This is not a Batman Redux. This is the story of two sons learning to live within the legacy of their father while also transcending it and live with each other. For readers, it is also the story of learning how to live with loss, step into themselves and live their destinies.

It would be easy to simply dismiss the Death/Rebirth of Batman story arc as a mere marketing ploy meant to boost sales, but that would diminish the profound importance of this shift in the mythos of the Dark Knight. The tortured inner world of Bruce Wayne has always been the central motivating factor behind the character of Batman. While Dick Grayson was also orphaned, he has undergone transformations from Robin to Nightwing and now to Batman, completing a seemingly pre-destined arc. However, the psychology of Bruce Wayne is not the psychology of Dick Grayson. Nor is Grayson’s that of Damian Wayne. While each character faces, or has faced, pain in their origin story Grayson is a slightly less Dark Knight than Wayne. He is seemingly less shadow and more light. He serves a different mythological function than Bruce Wayne. He may, in fact, be Batman as redeemer both of Bruce Wayne’s legacy -- threatened by the many false heirs to the throne -- and of the petulant Damian. Will Bruce Wayne return? Perhaps. But, the new mythology of Batman will remain.

In the hands of Morrison and Quitely this rebirth of Batman and Robin (and, yes, the title itself is significant because the two characters are joined together both in their shared mission for justice and shared loss of their father) there is a strong chance that the mythology of Batman will emerge permanently changed. And this is as it should be. No longer will Batman only be the Jungian shadow to society, he will now be us as we search for our path and for ourselves in a world that, all too often, seems wrong.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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