A Personal History of Batman (from someone who loves bats more than men)

Much like Jesus, or Santa Claus, I have always been aware of Batman—one of those guys who seems very real but actually isn’t, and while figuring that out is a crucial part of the human experience, that doesn’t stop anyone from buying his merchandise. Although I wouldn’t label myself as a Batfan, the character has followed me around my entire life, hiding in the shadows and throwing things, being traumatized and weird and afraid long before I knew it was safe to be any of those things.

1989—Tim Burton’s Batman is released. A very anxious toddler accidentally sees a clip with Jack Nicholson as the Joker and is terrified. A lifelong aversion to clowns ensues. At some point someone explains to this toddler (or maybe no one did, she learned via pop culture osmosis the same way she knows multiple TV theme songs she’s never actually heard) that Batman is a person with no superpowers, and he fights crime in the dark because his parents died. This anxious toddler is terrified of her parents dying and also of the dark. Something about this weird guy in a cape gives her a sense of comfort. Maybe the dark isn’t that scary. Or it definitely is, but you can survive it anyway.

1992Batman Returns comes out. An even more anxious grade schooler is intrigued by Catwoman and the Penguin and devours magazine articles dedicated to the world of Batman—and then flips to a picture of Jack Nicholson’s Joker and has a panic attack in her babysitter’s kitchen. She can’t let anyone know that she’s struggling to breathe because of this @#%& clown guy—BUT THEN some combination of brain cells fire with the possibility that maybe this horrible clown person is actually misunderstood, and perhaps even needs a friend.

A lifelong interest in befriending the misunderstood begins.

That same year, my fake aunt gives me a glow-in-the-dark T-shirt featuring a moonlit scene of nocturnal animals, including many of my favorites—wolves, owls, and yes, bats. I am super stoked to wear it but first my mom insists on draping it directly over a giant gaudy ’80s lamp to make it glow properly, and the shirt promptly catches on fire, destroying both the lamp and my shirt.

(To be fair, most consumer products from the ’80s were intended to eventually burst into flames).

1997Batman & Robin is released, aka the era of George Clooney and the Batsuit with nipples. Batman is a joke. “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells,” is the number one performed Christmas song on my elementary school playground.

I win my first ever writing award, for an essay about why bats are noble creatures who don’t deserve their loathsome reputation. As my main source, I used a book called Nature’s Outcasts: A New Look at Living Things We Love to Hate, which was gifted to me by my sixth grade teacher who called me “a pleasure to have in class.”

Is that a gay superhero origin story or what?

2008—Stella and I get tickets to see The Dark Knight at midnight. We assume no one else will be there.

(That was incorrect).

I have a summer gig tutoring a set of ten-year-old twins, a boy and a girl. The boy is very excitable and the girl is very quiet. The day of the midnight showing, she and I are sitting at the kitchen table working on math problems while the boy is in his room with the door closed. At some point, the girl says, in her sweet and shy voice, “Are you going to see Batman?”

I say, “I’m actually seeing it tonight,” and then I hear a door SLAM and the boy is running at full tilt from his room all the way down the hallway, breathlessly plowing right into the table: “YOU’RE SEEING THE DARK KNIGHT? DID YOU KNOW HEATH LEDGER IS IN IT? DID YOU KNOW HE DIED?!?!

I am barely equipped to teach these kids about fractions, but of course they’ve heard all the crazy rumors about what happened to Heath, because people needed it to be this sinister thing as opposed to a very, very common accidental death that happens even to young and beautiful people at the top of the world.

“I think he just really, really wanted to sleep,” I tell them. “There’s no Batman curse, playing the Joker didn’t make him crazy, he was just tired and sometimes taking too many pills to help you sleep can make you so sick that you don’t wake up.”

The twins nod with huge eyes and the boy returns to his room, calling over his shoulder, “Next time, tell me everything!”

Stella and I arrive at the theater with an hour to kill before showtime, thinking we’ll have the place to ourselves, only to see lines out the theater doors and multiple people—most people, in fact—dressed up in full Comic-Con level cosplay. I’ve never seen such a wondrous display of fandom, and I lived in the LARPer dorm my sophomore year of college.

There are multiple Jokers and Batmans, Catwomans and Harley Quinns, little kids in capes, and a guy in an old school Riddler costume with the bowler hat and the cane. He’s even doing the creepy walk—Stella and I watch in awe as he skulks to his seat, not even breaking character to step over piles of spilled popcorn.

We’ve never committed to anything in our entire lives as hard as this guy.

“The Riddler isn’t even in this movie,” whispers Stella. “Do you think he knows that? Should we tell him?”

The theater is packed. We’re sitting between a group of bros drinking beers and a family all wearing different Batman shirts, with a little girl clutching a Batman doll.

I remember this experience perfectly, and I barely remember watching most movies these days. I’ve already forgotten about most of the Marvel movies by the time I leave the theater. My friend Jessie had to remind me that we saw the last James Bond together just a few months ago.

And yet—I remember that before the movie starts, Stella and I split an M&M cookie from Starbucks as she tells me that she thinks I was brave for cutting my own hair an entire year earlier, and I am shocked because I had only cut my hair because I was too anxious to deal with the social minefield of going somewhere to get it cut. I assume I am a coward with short hair. I’m still scared of the dark and of my parents dying and pretty much everything else. But Stella thinks I’m brave, because “I’ve always been terrified of getting stabbed in the neck. I could never cut my own hair because what if I stabbed MYSELF in the neck?”

The beer drinking bros and the nice Batman family all look at us kind of funny, because Stella is loud, even in a theater packed with excited, chattering people, and then the lights went down. I remember exactly how quickly the hush washed over the theater, how the beer drinking bros clapped and cheered and then became deathly still the the moment the music kicked in, how the little girl hugged her Batman doll in front of her face whenever something scary happened. How Stella grabbed my arm when something happened that we were not expecting AT ALL to happen (but knowing how quickly Christopher Nolan tires of writing female characters, we shouldn’t have been that shocked). We stumbled out of the theater close to 3 AM, wide awake and exhilarated, not sure how to qualify what we’d just seen but aware that we’d been a part of something singular, something that hadn’t happened before and wouldn’t happen again.

2012—I see The Dark Knight Rises alone, in great part because my panic attacks have gotten to the point that when I see movies in theaters I can’t move for a good twenty or thirty minutes after everyone else has left. I go early in the day so there won’t be a lot of people, but still have a debilitating panic attack before the movie even starts. I am drained and exhausted by the time the trailers end, so I don’t enjoy the movie that much, but when the Batman finally returns to Gotham, I have to choke back actual sobs.

2016—”MAAAAAAAAARTHHHHHHHHAAAAAAAA!!”

2018—I watch The Lego Batman Movie on a plane and laugh so hard I scare the flight attendant. This, in my honest opinion, is the best Batman movie—the only one that truly and genuinely deals with his stunted emotional growth and unhealthy coping mechanisms, and then demonstrates that reaching out for help and forming trusting relationships are the solution to both. Has Batman’s psychology ever been distilled to a sharper line than “Wait, does Batman live in Bruce Wayne’s basement? No, Bruce Wayne lives in Batman’s attic?” Plus the subtext that Batman and the Joker are in love with each other becomes ACTUAL TEXT, the velociraptors from Jurassic Park show up along with The Wicked Witch of the West and Agent Smith AND MOTHEREFFING SAURON, and Mariah Carey is the mayor of Gotham City? UNCANCEL THE SEQUEL YOU COWARDS.

2021—A lot of the kids with special needs that I’ve worked with over the years have loved Batman. I meet one young boy who is mostly nonverbal, and our conversations consist of him pointing to his Bat-Signal socks and saying “Batman!” I reply, “I love Batman,” and he smiles at me and nods, “Batman.”

2022—Mere days ago, one of my favorite podcasts, Web Crawlers, incorrectly states that if a bat bit you while you were sleeping, it would hurt and you would know it, and since neither of those things are true, I leave them a voicemail despite my anxiety and aversion to leaving phone messages. The ensuing panic attack almost made me pass out, but I got on the podcast, so it was worth it. I even managed to note that bats are wonderful creatures that do a tremendous amount of good AND make a joke that name-checked Bruce Wayne. The hosts ask for more information about bats, so I might just send them a copy of my sixth grade essay.

Stella asks me if I want to see The Batman. I am tempted, but this movie is 176 minutes long and while there are some actors for whom I am willing to sit through a three-hour movie (somehow most of them were in Dune), Robert Pattinson is not one of them.

“I can’t do it, man,” I say. Stella understands. We reminisce about going to see The Dark Knight and how much fun we had and how staying up past midnight to do anything seems impossible now.

Stella’s review: “Oh my god. It was so boring. I fell asleep TWICE. At one point I looked at my watch and there was still an hour and a half left.” She and her hardcore comic fan friends left right at the end, despite knowing that there was a scene after the credits—”I just didn’t give a fuck.”

I am curious to see full emo Batman, but I’m going to wait until I can watch in my pajamas, with a remote.

Hopefully that guy who dressed up as the Riddler back in 2008 enjoyed it.

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