The Redundancy of Batman the Movie

by E. John Winner

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There have been now several efforts to realize a cinema narrative with living actors in performance, concerning the comic book hero Batman. The first, in the 1940’s, developed as a serial or series of interconnected narrative episodes released to theaters weekly. There was a highly respected, well-budgeted feature length film in the 1980’s, directed by the respected Tim Burton, establishing the production values expected of cinematic interpretations of Batman that remain in play today. But between the serial of the 1940’s and the Tim Burton film, there was a cheaply made one-off theatrical release developed out of a then-popular television version of the Batman narrative. It was an understandable effort by Twentieth Century Fox to capitalize on the success of the show. The film, appearing in 1966 and starring Adam West as the renowned “Caped Crusader,” was titled Batman the Movie (to distinguish it from the television series).[1] Leslie H. Martinson is credited with direction. But Batman the Movie, unlike the other attempts to bring the character to live action cinema, is a comedy; and as the humor of the film originates from a principally verbal wit, the primary author of the film is really its screenwriter, Lorenzo Semple, Jr.

Composed with a low-budget television sensibility, Batman the Movie won no Oscars and is destined for nobody’s Hall of Fame. The direction meets minimal standards of acceptable film-making, as do most of the film’s other technical endeavors. However, aesthetically, the minimum is not quite good enough. The film looks shoddy, not much better than the TV sitcoms of the day. As for the acting, well, the dialogue is enunciated clearly, but “ham” seems to have been included in every character description. Yet however unsatisfying as cinema, the film as a deployment of signs is a motherlode to be mined for cultural significations. The first sign that we are embarked on a comic adventure through the signification of its culture, is the movie’s opening title: BATMAN the Movie – a freak of grammar.

The word ‘Batman’ is presented almost ideogrammatically. The original comic book character has a costume with a yellow oval on the chest, and within the oval is the outline figure of a bat’s head and wings. In the title, the oval is presented, but where the wings should appear, we find the word ‘BATMAN’ presented in letters shaped to conform with the outline of bat wings. Above this word, as in the emblem on the comic book character’s chest, we should expect to find the silhouette of a bat’s head; instead, we find the cartoon head of the comic book character. Alongside this design we find the words “the Movie.”

“X: the Movie” is a verbal construction that is somewhat familiar to moviegoers today but was unusual in the 1960’s (Batman the Movie may be the first film to use such a title). But we’ll start with that oval: The word ‘Batman’ we recognize as the name of the character. If he were in the vicinity, we would call his name, and he would answer the call. The name as statement signs: ‘Batman is here’ if only as a sign. The oval was (according to the fiction) a personal choice of the character, his emblem, his self-presented non-verbal sign of himself. When it is seen on his chest, he no longer needs to be called, he has already answered any possible call, the emblem presents itself as immediate sign of identification, it could be said to say, “Batman is here,” without him having to utter it.

In the movie’s opening title, the head appearing above the word ‘Batman’ with letters shaped as wings is a true icon. It is pure duplication of the cartoon Batman and thus represents all that we might expect of his presence, were he here with us. It says to us, in effect, ‘Batman is here,’ without it being uttered. (In fact, since the comic book character is a cartoon and this is its exact likeness, the likeness might almost be said to be that character, immediately present. However, this appears in the title of a live-action film, not the comic book, so the figure cannot be the character, only its icon.) What we have here is a graphic presentation of the principle governing much of the presumably humorous significations of the film. Seen through the prism of a perspective especially designed for reading signs, the main title image of the word ‘BATMAN’ presented in Batman’s oval emblem and mounted with the icon of the cartoon character’s head, re-iterates through self-reference the fictionality of the character in a film intentionally reminding us that it is only a fiction.

The principle at work here, serving the rhetorical function of irony, I would like to call “immediate redundancy”: the immediate presentation of a sign appended to another sign, where both signs refer to each other and yet also refer to another object.

Of course, the question is, would the audience to the film translate the film’s title presentation in this fashion? They wouldn’t need to, their brains would do this rapidly and automatically (although there would need to be some prior training in cultural norms of significance to interpret). We are always wearing sign-reading glasses – they’re called eyes. What the audience would have been expected to recognize and articulate is the irony in a movie the title of which asserts the artificiality of its presentation. The fairly hip, culturally informed audience the film was targeted at would be expected to recognize the self-referentiality of the title and the artificiality signified, and the comic irony implied, to which it was expected to respond. They would know that they were not there to indulge the illusion that they were participating in the adventures of the title character; because the title character of the movie is the movie itself. Which is wholly consistent with the “Pop-Art” aesthetics that were in vogue in the culture of the time.

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Smoothness of interaction depends upon the continuous presentation of signs in specific situations, for the appropriateness of the response depends not only on the principal sign but also on the subordinate signs to be observed in that situation. (…) (S)ince remembering (appropriate responses) is unreliable, since it is the consequence of the brain’s capacity to produce random responses if left to itself, learned behavior can be maintained and made reliable only by constant reiteration of instructions for behavior.

To this principle I shall give the name ‘cultural redundancy’.

— Morse Peckham, Explanation and Power [2]

Cultural redundancy is the theory that stable relations within any cultural group depend largely on the repeated reinforcement of social norms by the visual and verbal signs deployable within that cultural group. Peckham discusses this theory in terms of our traffic signs and how we read these in terms of repeated behavior of other drivers and pedestrians. But it is much easier to see this in a closed cultural example: the Catholic church, and I mean here the church you may find in your local community. It towers above you, covered with medieval iconography, reminding you to be awed by its majesty and history. You walk through the doors – there’s the font, remember to splash yourself with “holy water.” Then into the main hall, filled with people on their knees with bended heads, facing the crucifix hung above the altar. Everything you experience indicates what is expected of your behavior.

All cultural experiences come with similar reinforcement by the signs therein deployed, because it is just in the nature of culture itself that it is composed of such signs: their production and deployment; their regularities and irregularities; their continued maintenance; or their transgressions, failures, and displacements.

Batman the Movie is a film about cultural redundancy, and as I’ve noted, its principle comic strategy if that of immediate redundancy, which underscores the film’s thematic interests. The film is about cultural redundancy, because its concern appears to be about why the cultural formations of the United States of the time might manifest a desire for the generation of a fictional character such as Batman.

Batman is something of a cultural parasite. Created by Bob Kane in the late 1930’s out of elements borrowed from pulp magazine heroes The Shadow and Doc Savage, he appeared shortly after the appearance of Superman (from the same publisher). Of course he is lacking Superman’s powers, perhaps so as to appeal to those with an inferiority complex: convinced they would never fly, but, gee, wouldn’t it be fun to be a “caped crusader?” In that respect he actually complements the Superman phenomenon, rather than compete with it for attention. He fits the niche of the “non-super super hero” in the comic universe of that time.

Batman continuously borrows and refers to popular collective eccentricities and fads of his day. Science and its technology having caught the imagination of the general public by the 1920’s, this became the source of innumerable fictional inventions, and Batman has been in on this trend since his inception: His laboratory produces marvels of science and technology. He is especially good at building faster means of transportation and convenient media of communication, beloved hopes for post-WWII affluent Americans.

In the 1950’s, at a time when EC Comics was the target of Congressional investigations for the portrayals in their magazines of violence and “indecently” dressed female figures, in order to allay the fears of the parents of his youthful readers, Batman made every effort to avoid physical contact with other human beings (men and women). Violence was reduced to the occasional punch, and Batman could usually fell a foe with a single blow.

Despite its nearly puritanical morality, the comic book was not without a sense of humor. Issues subtly spoofed popular singers, fashion design, and Madison Avenue sales campaigns. In one story, Batman’s archenemy the Joker has become a legitimate businessman. Unfortunately his business fails, and he has to resort to robbing banks to pay off his investors. But what never got spoofed were churches, un-elected governmental officials, medical doctors, and any married women over the age of thirty (Mom and her apple pie). In short, any person, position, or institution Americans thought to be unquestionably trustworthy was treated with utter respect.

That leaves Batman open to the criticism that he feeds off his culture but repays this by re-enforcing the status quo. Of course such criticism can be made of many fictional heroes, all of whom are generated from our fondest hopes or our least frightening fears (darker fears tending to breed monsters). But Batman was certainly among the most ripe for such critique, in the 1960’s, when such critiques became popular. Some such critical satire as Batman the Movie was inevitable (and in fact several appeared in other media, including more than one spoof in Mad Magazine). Not because Batman had changed any or had lost touch with the culture that had given him birth. Rather, the culture itself was changing, effectively losing touch with the cultural norms that Batman had been quite literally sworn to uphold.

There are a number of phenomena occurring in the 1960’s that we could discuss as revealing the schizophrenic nature of American culture at the time. Most obvious would be America’s military engagement in Vietnam – the colonial engagement that could not, in principle, secure a colony; the proxy war with communism that could only gain support from unquestioning, self-proclaimed “patriots”; the political embarrassment of both major parties that would lead to one president deciding not to run for re-election; and the election of another president who would be forced into resignation for corruption.

However, perhaps wisely, writer Lorenzo Semple keeps his Batman critique largely apolitical. Exercising our intellects in the presence of such a two-dimensional character as Batman would insult him, and Semple’s asking less of an audience in raising matters of real importance would insult us. Nonetheless, it is rather odd to find a film made in the 1960’s, in which the hottest political issue seems to be whether there should be a United Nations or a “United World Organization” as it is represented euphemistically in the film. But since the film largely sets politics aside, so shall we.

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The movie’s humor hinges on the principle of immediate redundancy: a sign is presented to refer to an object, but a second sign is presented with it. The second sign points directly to the first sign, but also directly to the first sign’s object. The second sign is presented so as to assure that the first sign will not be misread by any reasonable interpreter with the necessary contextual knowledge. However, one having a reasonably good education should find this reinforcement very obvious (indeed, perhaps a little denigrating of one’s education). Therein lies the humor of it: immediate redundancy is not only over-coding, it is overkill.

Think of a common traffic sign in the United States, the stop sign. Its shape and color form an ideogram of the legal requirement to “stop” by it. But it contains an immediate redundancy: the word “STOP” printed on it. We hardly notice this, because we recognize that the image of the stop sign is intended to be recognizable to those not literate enough to read the word ‘STOP’. But suppose stop signs were posted beneath another sign, reading: “The sign beneath this is a stop sign. You are legally required to stop here.” And on this sign, the picture of a car screeching to a halt. And beneath the stop sign, another sign, “The signs above mean that you are to stop here!” with the image of a policeman handing out a ticket to a car’s driver. Now this is all getting very silly. But this is the nature of immediate redundancy: it multiplies signs without increasing significance, which then raises the question as to the value of the original sign. One benefit of the immediate redundancy of the common stop sign is that it reminds us that traffic laws are social conventions and not divine commands. This knowledge tempts many to ignore stop signs, sometimes at most inopportune moments. But it also reassures us that we humans are in command of the laws we enact and agree to observe.

Batman the Movie is filled with signs pointing at signs pointing at signs. Even the Batman’s costume is immediately redundant. The mask is shaped like a bat’s head, the cape shaped like bat wings. Do we really need the silhouette of a bat in the yellow oval on his chest to remind us what the costume signifies?

Although it is frequently in the background of the film, one humorously repeated technique governed by the principle of immediate redundancy surfaces early in a manner we could expect from a film so self-consciously artificial. Our attention is forced to it by a camera shot that has no other purpose. Arriving at the scene of an attempted hijacking of a yacht (which turns out to be an optical illusion), Batman lowers a ladder from the Batcopter, in order to climb down to the endangered yacht. The editing cuts to a shot of the bottom of the ladder, to which we find appended a black sign with white letters reading: “BATLADDER.” Well, of course. What else would it be?

As we might expect, immediate redundancy is used in Batman the Movie verbally as well as visually. At a press conference, Batman tries to explain why he did not stop the yacht from being hijacked; or rather to explain how the yacht was actually an optical illusion; or rather to evade questions concerning the yacht, fearing that answers would cause a public panic. As the press conference ends, a woman claiming to be a reporter from the Soviet Union asks an interesting question. But first, it should be noted that this woman is actually the Catwoman, one of Batman’s fiercest enemies. She’s wearing a disguise, in that she doesn’t have her mask on. We learn later that this indeed is the correct interpretation when, shortly after the press conference, one of her henchmen calls her “Catwoman” in a restaurant while her mask is still off, and she chides him for referring to her “true identity” in public. However, loyal fans of the television show would recognize her as the Catwoman without her mask, because, in keeping with the principle of immediate redundancy, she is wearing apparel made from cheetah furs; that is, from the skin of a cat.

But let’s return to the press conference. The question Catwoman asks of the Batman is simply a request: would he please take off his mask so she could take a better photograph of him?

Of course, we know that Batman’s mask is his chief deception. Reviewers and critics find such moments of identity deception fascinating, psychologically, but we won’t go down that trail. What interests us here is the way Batman successfully explains his refusal of the request, in a manner that evades all the psychology that reviewers and critics might find fascinating about it. To be plain, Catwoman’s request amounts to this: “Would you please reveal your secret identity?” That’s implicit. But Batman makes it explicit. He refuses to reveal his secret identity, because to do so would reveal his secret identity.

Both the innocent Batman and the dumbfounded audience are relieved from the embarrassment of this tautological faux pas by Batman’s friend, Police Commissioner Gordon, who argues that such a revelation would ruin Batman’s ability to act as a crime fighter which on reflection actually makes no sense at all. (Why don’t all police officers wear masks? It isn’t like Batman is operating undercover.) But the damage is done. There isn’t any reason for not revealing his “secret identity,” because in a sense he doesn’t have one. He is always Batman. Bruce Wayne is a convenient fiction. Yet in the context of this blatantly fictional film, this “always Batman” is also a fiction.

As Morse Peckham argues in Explanation and Power, the principle of cultural redundancy is enforced in order to maintain ideological coherence in a conventional system of signs. Signs are encountered so frequently that their references are assumed true, as vouchsafed by familiarity. One sees the psychological advantage in such assumptions. A world of signs held constantly under suspicion, interpretation always delayed by doubt, would prove intolerable. Whatever the significant status of a stop sign, stopping for it is preferable to anxiously wondering if there’s some hidden agenda implicit in its presentation.

But there’s a cost. Immediate redundancy ironically destabilizes the very assurance the redundancy per se seems to offer us. If signs reinforce themselves too frequently, they risk discovery as essentially contentless conventions, or as having an object of reference of much less importance than the signs had seemed to promise. The Batman of Batman the Movie is not a master crime fighter. He’s a clown.

But to discover the bad faith of a sign is to discover the possibly adversarial and possibly duplicitous agenda of those attempting to signify with it. The cultural redundancy can no longer reassure us and thus loses its power to stabilize cultural responses. We no longer trust those deploying the signs, and we no longer trust the signs. And while one certainly learns to live with such a situation, negotiate it, and compromise with it, a condition of total trust can never be re-established.

Notes

[1] Wikipedia page (with excellent plot synopsis): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batman_%281966_film%29; Internet Movie Database page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0060153/.  Trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vvY5MgOgDUw

[2] Peckham, M.; Explanation and Power: The Control of Human Behavior; 1979, University of Minnesota Press.

10 Comments »

  1. I’ll admit I can barely follow your train of thought here but I was thoroughly intrigued reading from top to bottom. There’s so much to learn from this post and unpack.

    But in sum, am I to take the overall idea is that Batman is wholly out of touch with our zeitgeist? Has our society shifted its perspective(s) so much and so fast that not many people, besides yourself, didn’t even see it happen?

    Batman and the style of pop-culture he comes from is heavily full of tropes, then and now. I’m thinking DC Comics in general, Avengers, Warner Brothers cartoons, etc. I feel that pop-culture today, or at least the pop-culture I’m a fan of, has a better balance presenting redundancies. I can’t quite articulate now because the ideas you taught me here are new to me. Genres like cyberpunk, Star Trek, or say, the new direction of X-Men comics has a completely different dynamic where the possibilities feel limitless and at the same time relatable to the real world.

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    • CrushingOnKaneda,
      “But in sum, am I to take the overall idea is that Batman is wholly out of touch with our zeitgeist? Has our society shifted its perspective(s) so much and so fast that not many people, besides yourself, didn’t even see it happen?”

      Basically, yes. I’m using semiotics, extrapolating from Peckham’s theory of cultural redundancy a technique of irony (immediate redundancy) to raise the question: The Batman of the 1950s was designed specifically for prepubescent adolescents in an era of moral conservative cultural domination; yet only ten years later those same adolescents, entering their early adulthood, could only conceive of that hero as a joke. What had happened? And yet as I note in passing on the Pop Art values that underpin the movie and TV show, this was not an isolated instance, but part of a cultural sea-change.

      In 1969, with the passing of the TV show, and a rapid decline in sales of Batman magazines, DC comics brought in writer Dennis O’Neil specifically to dark and update the Batman narrative. This effort has been ongoing (now for 50 years!), and has structured and reconstructed the Batman narrative since – how to escape the long shadow of the Batman-clown of the 1960s? Because the irony the TV show surfaced and used to lacerate the character is somehow embedded in the character itself, and keeps coming back to haunt it. Often this is simply manifested in the character of Batman’s nemesis ‘Shadow Other,’ the Joker. But sometimes it is revealed in winks and nods, such as in The Brave and the Bold animated series or Batman Gotham Knight.

      Immediate redundancy is part of that irony – as noted, it was already part and parcel of the costume Batman wears And that costume also reminds us of another facet of that irony – no matter how thrilling, dramatic, or even occasionally tragic the Batman narrative has been, in the last analysis it is only the performance of a man wearing tights. On some level we all know this; which ought to raise a lot of questions concerning not only Batman, but the flowering of ‘comic book’ culture over the past few decades.

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      • Why do you think the promotion of Batman as a serious character persists? From what you are telling me, I find it strange that we continually prop a character like him up especially when there are so many more interesting comic book characters have been out there for decades. Just in the past 5 years i can name a dozen characters more realistic and captivating.

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          • Yes. Batman’s makeover was the original “darker and grittier” turn that subsequently became a trend and sort of took over comics in the 90s.

            It’s interesting that it’s Batman in particular who seems to be persistently haunted by the specter of camp. None of the other famous superheroes (Superman, Spiderman & etc.) seem to be afflicted in quite the same way, even though they’re no less ridiculous. Does it all just come down the TV show (whose reruns I remember enjoying as a kid)?

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        • CrushingOnKaneda,
          Vigilantes have long fascinated American audiences: the hope that someone will simply ignore the law in order to enforce justice. Batman also is haunted by a moral dilemma of which he is more keenly aware than other super-heroes – the easiest way to deal with his adversaries would be to kill them, but he is pledged not to do so. Interestingly, he did not have this problem when originally created, when he acted more like the pulp magazine vigilantes like the Shadow or the Spider, and carried around a pair of Colt automatics. Rather, it was foisted upon him during the ’50s, in an effort to placate the puritans behind the Comics Code Authority. This dilemma gives him an edge; and given his fascination with the night…. But I admit it is unclear to me why this aspect of his personality is more interesting in him than in all the other myriad comic book heroes pledged not to kill (until the past decade or so, when it seems to have become an obsession of the whole industry).

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    • Dan
      A couple years before Adam West died, Warner Bro. and DC did an amusing tribute to the TV show, the animated film “Return of the Caped Crusaders” with West and Ward, which I recommend. My favorite moment: after a lecture against jay-walking, Batman calls (as only he can) “To the cross-walk, Robin!”

      Some time later, they did a sequel, “Vs. Two-Face,” which I don’t recommend. West was already dying, and he sounds it; but the real problem with it is that they tried to bring West’s Batman into the darker DCEU, and it’s not a comfortable fit.

      “Return of the Caped Crusaders” is nicely off-the-wall. At one point B & R are threatened with death by a gigantic TV dinner.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Really interesting, John, and an excellent essay. I hadn’t thought of Batman semiotically before. It makes me wonder why the redundancy didn’t extend to the arch criminals. For example, Catwoman, did not wear an insignia on her chest. Neither did the Joker, Riddler or Penguin. In fact, the Penguin, whose three-piece suited attire only vaguely alluded to anything resembling a penguin, was probably the least redundant character,. The Riddler had question marks all over his suit, and the Joker wore clown makeup. On the other hand, Batgirl did wear an insignia on her chest, and Robin wore a big ‘R’ on his chest. It seems only the heroes needed extra signs and redundancy for some reason.

    Trivia: Batman the Movie was originally supposed to be made first, as a way to introduce and hype the TV show. However, 20th Century Fox Studios got cold feet at the last minute, and chose to go straight into television production instead, which was cheaper. Only after the pilot (January 12th, 1966) and show became a smash hit, did they go ahead with the movie (released July 1966), which helped reinforce interest for season 2. By this time, Julie Newmar (Catwoman) had other commitments and was unavailable for the movie. She was replaced by Lee Meriwether for the movie, but returned for season 2.

    It might be worth also noting that The Green Hornet (Batman producer William Dozier’s follow up comic book show) did not have near the campy redundancy that Batman did.

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