Holy Homosexuality Batman!: Camp and Corporate Capitalism In Batman Forever
Issue #23, December 1995
Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventure of the mature 'Batman' and his young friend 'Robin.'
— Frederic Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent
So psychiatrist Frederic Wertham warned parents and lawmakers in 1953, as he detailed the 'factually proven' method by which comic books turned innocent children into homosexually and pederastically inclined 'deviants and perverts.' In this hilariously paranoiac document of homophobic panic, he unwittingly anticipates queer theoretical practice as he ransacks the comics for 'clues' (nowadays we call them 'signifiers') revealing the homoeroticism leaking from the pages of the books into impressionable pre-pubescent brains. Sure enough, his spot-the-homo routine reveals Bruce Wayne and 'Dick' Grayson (Wertham supplies the snide quotation marks) enacting 'the wish dream of two homosexuals living together' as Wertham presents this condemning evidence:
Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life. They are Bruce Wayne and 'Dick' Grayson. Bruce is described as a 'socialite' and the official relationship is that Dick is Bruce's ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown...
Obviously, they must be fags: otherwise they'd have a butler named 'Butch,' live in cramped quarters littered with beer-cans, wouldn't show concern for one another's injuries or be caught dead in a dressing gown and cultivate only (what?) cactuses in small ugly metal pots?
More damning than the flowers and dressing gowns, however, is that the 'muscular male supertype whose primary sex characteristics are usually well emphasized, is in the setting of certain stories the object of homoerotic sexual curiosity and stimulation.' In that case, one can easily imagine a now-decrepit Wertham feverishly taking notes in the back of the theater when Dick dons his Robin costume in Batman Forever and the camera loving focuses on what looks like a glowing violet dildo showing through the codpiece of his uniform. 'We're not just friends,' says Dick, 'we're partners;' the next shot is the dynamic duo's clasped hands. Indeed, queer signification so saturates Batman Forever that it would be inaccurate to call it a subtext. With his earring, haircut and leather jacket Chris O'Donnell looks like he's just come straight from an ACT UP meeting, while Val Kilmer's body is exposed and eroticized only in the scenes with O'Donnell (as he wanders out of the shower bare-chested in towel, is treated for injuries, or puts on the new bat-suit while the image of his butt-cleavage fills the screen). During the sterile 'love-scenes' with Nicole Kidman he remains fully clothed as the camera coyly pans down only as far as the top of his chest at most: her body entirely escapes the emblematic 'male gaze' of cinema and her breasts or legs never once fill the screen.
How did director Joel Schumacher get away with turning loose so many queer signifiers to float freely about in Warner Brothers' biggest asset? By turning the queer subtext hidden beneath the surface of many Batman representations into an overtly queer supratext that goes right over the head of the mainstream viewing audience. Although Batman and Robin are shrieking 'queer,' Jim Carrey's Riddler (who even the willfully obtuse National Review managed to describe as 'campy') is much much queerer. Yet because he's a villain, his prancing around in a diamond tiara and skin-tight green unitard exclaiming 'Spank me!' doesn't offend the sensibilities of the homophobic mainstream McAudience: in fact, it draws their attention away from the homoerotic electricity between the heroes and invites the misreading 'if the bad guy's gay, the good guys must be straight,' while Two-Face's troops of thugs tricked out in now universally recognizable (thanks to Pulp Fiction) queer S&M gear help keep queerness and villainy aligned. And significantly, it's Ed Nygma's extreme reaction to his rejection by Bruce Wayne, a rejection that mimics a straight man's rejection of homosexual advances ('We're two of kind'; 'You were supposed to understand,' laments Ed), that drives him to criminality.
In fact the villains mirror and exaggerate the heroes in more than just homoerotics: their raison d'être also originates in some traumatic event that has irrevocably altered their lives — a correlation which is certainly no accident. Schumacher reports ignoring the previous Bat-films and looking instead to the original 1939-40's DC Batman comics to inspire Batman Forever, comics in which it's the villains' traumas that drive them to madness, crime and a quest for world domination. As Bill Botchel points out in The Many Lives of the Batman (1991), these villains, who share Bruce Wayne's status as respected members of society, enact the contemporaneous anxieties about fascism suffusing the culture during Batman's early years. They are similar to Bruce Wayne, perhaps, in the same way that American society is similar to a European fascist state (similar origins), yet the differences are oh-so-crucial as Wayne turns his trauma-forged obsessions toward upholding goodness and the democratic ideal while his opponents strive to become nightmarish versions of the Nazi Übermensch. This Democracy vs. Fascism conflict is retooled for Batman Forever and played out as Good Corporate Capitalism vs. Bad Corporate Capitalism.
We first hear of Bruce Wayne as the camera pans over the sunlit commercial district of Gotham City while a newscaster reports 'Billionaire Bruce Wayne has extended his trend-setting profit-sharing program to the employees of the highly successful electronics division of Wayne Enterprises.' Swooping inside Wayne's skyscraper (which is crowned with a massive statute of muscle-bound Atlas holding up the globe), we find him in the midst of a corporate walk-through, African-American woman exec by his side, benignly smiling on his employees who are working, we are told, on such projects as 'fire remediation' and 'alternative fuels.' After listening politely to E.Nygma's psychotically enthusiastic presentation of his 'brain-wave' device, he turns down the project on ethical grounds ('it just raises too many questions'), thanks the crew of employees, tells them the factory 'looks great,' and departs.
This benevolent democratic corporate capitalism (Wayne even extends 'full benefits' to the widow of Nygma's first victim, despite the official verdict of suicide as cause-of-death) where workers share in the profits from projects which benefit society and ethical concerns are placed above marketing potential, is in direct contrast to Nygma's version of unbridled capitalist exploitation. Literalizing predatory capitalism (with start-up capital obtained by robbery, no less) his product actually feeds off the consumer, invading their minds and channeling their brain waves to the Riddler. His blissed-out expression and shuddering body as he absorbs these waves leaves no doubt that the thrill is sexual as well as intellectual. That the Riddler's corporate headquarters is topped with a giant Nygma-Box (in contrast to Wayne's Atlas) underscores the masturbatory self-consumption of 'Bad Capitalism,' and lest we miss this elision of malignant consumption with sexual perversion the Riddler lasciviously gloats to Batman during the film's penultimate scene that his new improved mind-reading version of the device will soon spread throughout the world, feeding him 'credit card numbers, bank codes and sexual fantasies.' (Also echoing, perhaps, the homophobic panic surrounding queer discourse 'contaminating' mainstream culture and penetrating the sanctity of the home, which has many an irate PTA member screeching about the Internet's capacity to bring queer newsgroups and chatrooms into their child's bedroom).
Since the Riddler aligns 'Bad Capitalism' with 'Bad Sexuality,' it's hardly surprising to find that the film's pro-forma heteronormative narrative manifests when Wayne is performing his role of 'Good Capitalist.' His ethical rejection of Nygma's design is coded as sexual rejection, while his first meeting with Dr. Meridian for a 'consultation' (wherein he refers to the riddle as a 'love letter' and the sender as a 'he') results in her being his date to the Circus opening-night extravaganza for Gotham's wealthy elite — his public performance of the ultra-successful business tycoon bound up with his performance of heterosexuality.
She again performs the date-function for Wayne at the capitalist debutante ball where the mind-reading version of the Nygma-Box is unveiled and Nygma usurps Wayne's media-appellation of 'Gotham's most eligible bachelor,' while also coopting his public manifestation and sporting identical glasses, suit, and haircut — mimicking Wayne right down to the to the mole on his cheek and the token woman on his arm. On loan from Two-Face and overtly ogling Wayne, Nygma's date is clearly for appearances sake only as is his dance with Dr. Meridian during which he openly camps it up, saucily flirting with Wayne and making it abundantly clear that the women are entirely ancillary to the coded transactions between the men. Although Wayne's 'romance' with Dr. Meridian satisfies the plot-level demand for heteronormativity, its credibility is perpetually undermined by both its stock formulaicity and by the similarity of Wayne's supposed genuineness to Nygma's obvious self-conscious falsity.
But what is the pay-off of marketing this safely contained and topically sanitized Camp suitable for mass-consumption — 'Bat-Camp' if you will — to the mainstream audience? In fact, Bat-Camp appears to be central to Warner Bros.'s carefully designed campaign to woo back its wavering corporate sponsors who were disconcerted by the darkness and violence of Batman Returns. Following the film's release angry parents' groups lashed out at the studio, licensees and promotional partners, prompting McDonald's Corp.(the largest and most desirable promo-partner) to change its film promotional strategy; retailers howled as Batman products languished on store shelves; and the film took in a disappointing $90 million less domestically than its predecessor. Clearly the studio needed to lighten up the film in order to entice wary licensees back to the table for a third course, and began by replacing director Tim Burton with Joel Schumacher (who's come a long way since his days as a window display designer). When Warner Bros.'s marketing mavens unveiled the new Batman characters to about 200 potential corporate sponsors thereby 'setting the mood for Batman Forever,' Schumacher was charged with convincingly presenting the transformation of the old Dark Knight into the new Bat Lite. Remarked one attendee, 'It was lighthearted, particularly with Schumacher joking around. He said — and we could tell because he's very flamboyant — that is was going to be a more adventurous, entertaining Batman.' Apparently this 'flamboyance' paid off: Warner Bros. lined up a reported $45-$50 million worth of media money commitments from McDonald's, Kellogg's, Kenner Toys and others. Following in the tradition of the first comic books which debuted in 1933 not as commodities-in-themselves but as marketing devices — promotional giveaways and premiums for such companies as Proctor and Gamble, Milk-O-Malt, and Kinny Shoe Stores — Batman Forever was conceived as much as a promotional vehicle for its corporate sponsors as a product in its own right.
Given the importance of the sub-teen market to the film's heavy-weight promo-partners and Schumacher's determination 'not to have kids terrified' but instead to create a movie 'light enough to be a living comic book,' the deployment of Bat-Camp makes perfect marketing sense — theorists have long noted Camp's appeal to children's sense of play, their love of exaggeration, and their consciousness of the gap between who they are and who they would like to pretend to be. And according to some, its irreverence toward gender difference and mockery of the extremes of femininity and masculinity titillates kids because it implicitly undermines the authority of parents who are seen to embody these constructions.
But Bat-Camp even goes one step further in converting what Susan Sontag once termed 'a secret sensibility' into mass market symbolic currency. As well as being consciously about capitalism and consumption, Batman Forever self-consciously draws attention to its own status as a marketing vehicle and commodity, highlighting its own artificiality with playful irony and making reference to its position within the matrix of production and promotion surrounding the movie. With today's media-savvy audience who take the homoeconomic synergy among mega-corporations as a given, there is no need to disguise promotional relationships; instead, the film affectionately mocks these connections and flatters the audience by letting them in on the joke.
By the time the movie was released mid-June, everyone had seen the Batman McDonald's commercial (airing since May) in which Batman turns down his butler's offer of a sandwich with the line 'No thanks — I'll get drive-through' before zooshing away in the Batmobile. But this was not just the standard commercial-inspired-by-feature-film: it was the actual first scene of the film, a revelation that had the audience giggling immediately. Just as Camp highlights and mocks gender by exaggeration and reversal of gender-norms, 'Campy Capitalism' does the same thing to its own constructions. That the movie opens with a commercial rather than the commercial spinning off from the movie draws attention to usually veiled marketing mechanisms by this reversal of the standard form in which commercial relationships are publicly represented, thereby reminding us of the film's artificiality at the moment when the viewer is traditionally called upon to exercise a willing suspension of disbelief. After this postmodern version of the invocation of the muse, even the 'serious' moments in the film are given a possibly ironic valance. In other words, this nod to the viewer's knowledge of the film's status as a promotional vehicle invites the audience to participate in the movie's light-hearted irreverence toward itself.
When Nygma upbraids Two-Face for ostentatiously crashing his party without prior warning, his complaint that 'We could have pre-sold the movie rights!' is as much the film's campy reference to its own well documented marketing strategies as it is Nygma's campy awareness of his strategy for marketing himself. Both the Wayne Enterprises logo that looks like Warner Bros.'s minus the 'B,' and the 'GNN' news which replaces the generic newscasts of the previous movies, remind us of the fictional nature of the world inside the film by meta-commercial references to the world outside. Meanwhile, Dr.Meridian's sarcastic question to Batman 'or do you prefer black leather and a whip?' does double discursive duty as an extratextual reference to Batman Returns (and the heavily hyped Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman) as well as an internal reference to the fictive world of the three films for the sake of some nominal consistency.
But perhaps the most telling example of this Commercial Performativity is what has to be a corporate tie-in for The Club (because when a product fills the screen for several precious seconds in a big budget film it is never an accident — e.g. E.T.'s Reece's Pieces) in which Batman — who has just deployed some of his emblematic Batgadgets to penetrate concrete, scale a skyscraper, secure a plummeting multi-ton metal canister and harness a helicopter — is foiled when Two-Face snaps The Club onto the helicopter's steering wheel, thereby forcing him to evacuate. Whether this is a serious commercial suggestion that The Club is unassailable, or a parody of commercials suggesting The Club is unassailable, seems impossible to determine, and is ultimately unimportant. To the marketing-conscious consumer this spot may be taken as a refusal to patronize, a sharing of an in-joke, a kind of 'Outing' of itself; with the unaware viewer it does the same work as a traditional irony-free commercial.
The movie's climactic scene, then, where Batman triumphantly tells the Riddler he had to save both Dr. Meridian and Robin because he is both Bruce Wayne and Batman, while allowing for a wistfully optimistic bisexual reading, can be taken as a metaphor for the film's campy marketing and marketing of Camp — replacing polymorphous perversity with polycommodified performativity, one might say. Although Batman Forever highlights its own commercial artifice, it carefully maintains its promotional earnestness beneath the veneer of irreverence: without the metatext we still have product tie-ins, commercial spin-offs, and a film custom designed for its corporate sponsors. The irony about promotion is, after all, for promotional purposes. And the film may be replete with queer signification, but the heteronormative narrative and over-the-top Riddler provide the homophobic viewer with just enough plausible deniability for the rumors that the Caped Crusaders are queers. So provided the queen is put safely back in his box in the end, the McAudience can tolerate him as a viable means of producing an appealing yet suitable kid's film without resorting to nauseating Care Bears variety sweetness; meanwhile their offspring clamor for a Batman Super Value Meal and limited-time-only (Collect all six!) McDonald's commemorative Batman Forever mug.
Freya Johnson is a Ph.D student in the English Dept. at UC-Berkeley. She studies postmodernism, pop culture and T.S. Eliot. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.