COMMENTARY: The ‘F@#k Batman!’ promo points to an evolution of the telling of superhero stories
“F@#k Batman” is an odd sentiment to launch a DC TV series with, but a closer look at the history of the Teen Titans franchise and its impact on superhero storytelling reveals that “F@#k Batman” holds the potential to be a profound sentiment, one that is life-changing within a genre that traditionally avoids the very concept of life-changing.
Based on Reddit threads, YouTube comments and Tumblr posts, the internet has some strong opinions about the premiere of the Titans TV series that is helping to launch DC comics’ new video-on-demand streaming service.
The linchpin of the marketing surrounding the series, and the source of many of these social media debates, is a line that is featured prominently in the trailer, in which Robin says “F@#k Batman!”
The past and present unite
At its core, the “F@#k Batman!” sentiment represents a change to the status quo. In 2018, a Robin who is “so over” Batman is in keeping with elements of the 1980s run of the Teen Titans comics, in which characters were allowed to grow in a way that had previously been prohibited.
When asked about “F@#k Batman,” Titans writer and executive producer Geoff Johns connects the F-bomb line to the spirit of the 1980s Teen Titans comics. Because those comics changed the way we tell superhero stories in print, that could be a very good thing. If Johns is right about that connection to the ‘80s comics, then we might see the Titans TV series change the way we tell superhero stories on screen.
While superhero stories seem simple on the surface (bright costumes, big muscles, lots of punching), the truth is actually deceptively complicated. So how do superhero stories work?
Umberto Eco & the myth of Superman
In 1972, the famous author and scholar Umberto Eco sought to define the unique ways that character and time operate within superhero comics.
In his paper, “The Myth of Superman,” Eco notes that:
“…[the superhero] possesses the characteristics of timeless myth, but is accepted only because his activities take place in our human and everyday world of time. In order to have that mythic quality, the superhero can’t grow or change in significant ways, but in order to be relatable to their readers, the superhero has to grow and change, just as people do.”
Traditionally, comics lean toward the mythic. They also employ complex and unusual strategies to allow some life-altering events within the narrative. The most common approach is to reboot their universes every so often, thus restoring the status quo any time things have changed too much.
Ultimately, though, “the very structure of time falls apart” according to Eco, and thus Superman really hasn’t aged a day since 1938. Like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, time simply doesn’t move forward for superheroes. They go from reboot to reboot, and relive the same human experiences over and over.
This is how we tell superhero stories. As Eco notes, this is good for the mythic aspects of the tales, but severely limiting for things like character development.
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As a superhero team, the Teen Titans go back to the mid-1960s, but early versions failed to capture the hearts and minds of their readers. The series was cancelled twice before a 1980 relaunch found an audience.
The creative pairing of Marv Wolfman with George Perez created comics art for the ’80s version with the impact and appeal that earlier incarnations of the series lacked.
In fact, the series would quickly become the most popular comic at DC, regularly outselling long-established heroes such as Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman.
In order to get to this position of prominence, the Titans creative team borrowed heavily from the work of Chris Claremont on X-men comics. They integrated Claremont’s style in the form of character melodrama, long continuity, recursive storytelling structures and a mature sensibility that presumed a more adult audience for the book.
Characters got married, quit the team to go to college and even died, but the largest shift in status quo came from Robin. In the most famous story of the series, “The Judas Contract,” Robin, one of the single most iconic characters in the history of comics, if not popular media in general, abandons the name and costume of Robin in order to become Nightwing.
This largest change signified the series’ ultimate commitment to escape from the frozen timeline that Eco identifies. The success of this transition in the eyes of readers signalled that a model of growth and change in comics narratives could work; that the medium (like Robin himself) had evolved.
Changing Robin to Nightwing is a bold move within the context of the traditional superhero business model. In terms of generating revenue, comics are part of a delicately interwoven vertical transmedia operation, one that often generates far more money from film adaptations than it ever could from comics sales.
Factor in toys, apparel and any other piece of licensed merchandise and you begin to see why making significant alterations to a character can be bad for business. How do you sell your warehouse full of Robin lunch boxes, when Robin isn’t even Robin anymore?
A pressing need to reboot
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe starts to show its age, the question becomes whether it’s even possible to reboot it with so many intersecting franchises all sharing the same world. By imitating Marvel, the DC Cinematic Universe faces the same problem. On TV, DC’s Arrowverse is now six years old, and will also soon face these challenges.
What these universes need is a way to tell superhero stories outside of the paradox that Eco describes, a way to allow our characters to age without aging out of the superhero they represent.
Titans might not have the answer to this problem, but “F@#k Batman” could be the first piece of a good step, one that holds the potential to take our culture’s fascination with superheroes in a new direction once again.