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Batman Won’t Be Great Again Until Robin Isn’t Embarrassing

It's time to put Robin back into these movies already.

Last week, the first trailer surfaced for the animated film Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders—a goofy, colorful throwback to the '60s TV show about Batman and Robin, which starred Adam West and Burt Ward as the Dynamic Duo in a campy, over-the-top series that was more Scooby-Doo than Christian Bale.

Return of the Caped Crusaders is clearly a departure from the more serious Batman of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and the last animated Bat-film, which also happened to be the first R-rated one in the character's history. This adaptation, you'll notice, also includes one feature that most modern Batman stories don't: Robin. Although Batman's sidekick remains a comic book staple, he's been conspicuously absent from cinematic takes on Batman for nearly twenty years now.

DC's willingness to hire Adam West and Burt Ward for a '60s Batman-and-Robin revival seems to suggest that there's an appetite for some variety—that the grim-dark gravel-throated Batman might be wearing out his welcome. That doesn't mean we have to throw out the Affleck with the bathwater, though. The secret to making sure Batman stays great could actually just be adding Robin back into the mix.

The fact is, Batman needs a Robin. He's a device that effectively keeps Batman from slipping too deep into his own tormented soul.

That Robin ever became anathema to Batman movies in the first place is mildly absurd. No one's saying Chris O'Donnell's performance in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin was secretly great or anything, but it's not like his presence—or the presence of any Robin—is the one place those movies went terribly wrong. But as Glen Weldon illustrates in his fantastic book The Caped Crusade, Batman and his fans are cyclical, and Robin-bashing is a part of that cycle. Though Adam West and Burt Ward TV became immensely popular in the 1960s, some comics fans demanded something different, more akin to the 1939 dark pulp stories that saw Batman solving crimes in the darkness without a sidekick to be found. The comic book industry, ever eager to please its loyal letter-writing faithful, complied, and going into the '70s, Robin was gone. He'd be back, but the push and pull, having been established, would continue for years.

This is partially why filmmakers don't seem to want anything to do with Robin. The introduction of Batman's close relationship with Robin in the late 1940s led to some homophobic hand-wringing in the '50s, and the goofiness of the '60s shows and the late-'90s movies just don't make the character all that desirable to people who don't read comics. And the modern gritty blockbuster zeitgeist doesn't seem to even have room for Robin—Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a movie that goes out of its way to have Bruce Wayne spend two minutes watching video footage conceived solely for the purpose of promoting future DC films, does not even bother to mention a Robin by name. In fact, that movie only acknowledges Robin obliquely, with a single shot of his vandalized suit that wordlessly says a.) He's dead, and b.) Joker killed him.

BvS Robin.jpg

(Note that thee movie also insists its barely acknowledged Robin is still a badass one, by giving him a freaking spear instead of the character's traditional bo staff.)

But the fact is, Batman needs a Robin. Yes, it's difficult for some Batman fans to swallow, even though Batman comics have been emphasizing this for years. Batman needs Robin because Robin is proof that Batman's mission isn't futile. He's a device that effectively keeps Batman from slipping too deep into his own tormented soul.

In several modern Batman adaptations (Batman v Superman, for instance), Bruce Wayne is still tortured by the thought of his parents' murder. Being Batman seems to do little to absolve Bruce of his pain, and the general state of Gotham City (still gloomy and crime-addled) seems to suggest that while Batman is totally devoted to being a crimefighter, he isn't very good at it. But as comics critic and Batman historian Chris Sims wrote once over at Comics Alliance,, Robin is how Batman moves forward. He takes someone who could have been him—Dick Grayson, the first Robin to appear in comic books, also lost his parents to criminals—under his bat-wing and teaches him how to become something better than him.

And it works: Over the years, Dick Grayson has become Nightwing, a hero that's essentially a well-adjusted Batman. All of the skill, none of the mangst. Dick is what would happen if Bruce Wayne allowed himself to have fun, make actual friends, maybe even get a steady girlfriend.

(Christopher Nolan even semi-acknowledges this in The Dark Knight Rises—while Nolan's aesthetic was perhaps a bit too serious to offer an actual Robin, giving Joseph Gordon-Levitt's "John Blake" the birth name "Robin" and handing him the keys to the Batcave after Bruce Wayne retires is a way of suggesting that Batman is bigger than Bruce Wayne; a symbol that should stretch beyond one man's pain.)

The chief inspiration for the current onscreen Batman is the seminal graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, a book that sees an aging Bruce Wayne come out of retirement and wage a war far more brutal than normal on a new generation of gangs and criminals. Like in Batman v Superman, Robin has died long before the story starts. But the comic's riff on this is fascinating: It introduces a girl, Carrie Kelly, who takes it upon herself to become Robin, and doesn't really ask for permission, because she knows Batman needs a Robin. Batman relents, because on some level, he knows it too. And so do you: Isn't it funny how, even though he's been off movie screens for almost twenty years, you know exactly who Robin is?

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