It’s still Octoberween. I apologize for leaving you with nothing to distract from work last week, but I’m back! I’m still working on the ghastly secret project for Halloween itself. I accidentally made it harder for myself, but only realized that so far in it would be worse to start over now. So, yeah. But, for now, let’s talk about Batman. Yes, again. What, you have a problem with Batman? Why talk about Batman during Octoberween? Well, maybe I don’t have to justify that decision much. But I am taking the month into account. I want to talk about costumes.
Not costumes of Batman. Batman’s costumes. And not just his crimefighting outfit, either. Let’s start at the beginning. When Thomas and Martha Wayne leave the theater, just having seen The Mask of Zorro (or whatever various versions of Batman’s origin change it to), their son Bruce is running around, laughing, swordfighting imaginary foes. Then they die, and Bruce is left to seek revenge and finally justice. You know this story. It’s the playing pretend I’m interested in. Bruce is taking on roles, miming the actions of his heroes, before he becomes Batman. That’s actually one of the cores to his character. I suppose I’m sick of people who think the costume is stupid, that Batman wouldn’t really wear a bat costume, because it’s impractical, it wouldn’t actually “strike fear into the hearts of superstitious villains” like he says it would. That doesn’t matter. There is no Batman without the costumes, he’d just be some asshole with a bunch of army surplus gear and a penchant for punching other assholes. So, any typical douche you could meet at a club who buys “tactical” gear with his paycheck and watches way too many movies about ninjas.
Batman is an identity Bruce Wayne assumes. Yes, I’m also familiar with the iteration that says he thinks he’s Batman, and Bruce Wayne is the costume. For what I’m saying that’s actually an immaterial distinction. Batman/Bruce Wayne is a person who costumes, who plays at identities through outfits and personas. There’s a moment in one of last year’s issues of Batman, the run written by Scott Snyder, when Bruce has to go in and yell at the Wayne Corp executives. He grabs an old shirt he worked out in, draped on a set of weights and rubs it all over his chest. Alfred is mystified – Bruce says he needs the scent of work, to channel the image of the alpha male, to help him out. In Morrison’s run, back even before Final Crisis, there’s a moment when Bruce is skydiving from a hot air balloon (something a ridiculous playboy would do with his latest date). He gets a notification from the Batcave and his watch flips open. Underneath the plate, like a picture or an engraving etched on the inner shell of a pocketwatch or necklace charm, is a bat-symbol. It’s simultaneously incriminating and useless. Why have anything the Bruce Wayne persona wears have anything at all to do with the Batman persona? Also, provided nothing goes wrong, no one but him would ever see it. It’s not branding, like making his cycles black and winged, or putting a bat on his chest. Why is that there?
Batman is a game of symbol identification – for Bruce. Bruce Wayne identifies with playacting, with creating figures through acting and imagery, costumes and lines. In Batman Incorporated, right now, Matches Malone has come to the fore again.
There’s Matches. It’s actually Bruce. He has another persona, a gritty, washed-up, goofy private eye who’s strictly a pacifist but rolls with a motley collection of karate masters and muscle men who watch his back. He wears aviators in dark bars, swaggers ineffectively at throaty singers, and complains about everyone thinking he’s dead all the time. He blunders, nearly walking into fights, trying to get girls’ numbers – and is the most important addition to Batman’s collection of tools in the past ten years.
It’s another persona, and this time, one that looks like something Bruce actually wants out of life. He’s gleefully playing Matches. I think he enjoys it, goofing around “on the job,” still getting something done so he doesn’t have to feel guilty. Matches wears bad suits and wears them badly. He flicks matches for cigarettes he never lights. He’s ostentatious, which of course works to make people forget any real details about him – the glasses keep people from identifying his eye color. But they’re theatrical. I think in The Dark Knight Rises Bane accuses Batman of using cheap magician’s tricks. Ra’s al Ghul turns such an accusation back at Bruce, who accuses him of using tricks to keep up his persona – Ra’s points out Bruce’s own nighttime activities.
Here’s a little literary theory for you: Judith Butler adapted some ideas about performative utterances and called them performative acts. She claimed that our identities, as related to our cultures, are constructed from a series of actions that are coded as something. She was interested in gender – a person is not a man or a woman, but one who performs mannish or womanish actions. Batman is the same. He is Batman only because he performs the actions coded as Batman. But he had to construct the idea of what that would be. He made his own character, and made it recognizable, made it make sense to others. So now his actions are Batman actions. That’s sort of where Batman Incorporated is going right now, as well. Other people can be Batman, provided they do the right actions, wear the right clothes. Bruce takes on the aspect of the Bat-God he’s invented in order to fight crime, and he does so by wearing certain clothes, saying certain things.
Nolan might have tried to make Batman realistic, but the shamanstic performativity is still there. Bruce looks for bats, and grows stronger when he sees them. Bale’s voice (actually requested by Nolan, who kept asking Bale to make it stronger and raspier) is a performance, obvious, but still Batman’s. Batman talks that way. It doesn’t matter it’s obviously fake. It’s obviously Batman speaking. The final thrust of The Dark Knight Rises is that Bruce doesn’t have any other performance to fall back on. The movie is his redemption in that it is him learning to perform a new role: a happy person. Note that he’s given the idea by Alfred. He doesn’t come up with that one on his own, but he uses it to get what he finally wants out of life. And he bequeaths the costume and all the performative hints to Robin. Batman has always been a performance, a crazed part by a man choosing to be crazed in order to do it properly.