Well, here I go again, dipping my toe in the Bat-Fandom once more. Now, as befits the loyal following of one of the most popular characters in the world, said fandom is large, and has any number of splinter groups and sub-factions. As such, there is really no such thing as an undivided consensus within it – division of opinion runs rampant, and probably never will stop. And there are few Bat-Characters quite so divisive as Robin.
Now, Robin has been hugely influential in his day – he’s largely responsible for the explosion of sidekick figures throughout the Golden Age and subsequently – and alongside his mentor is one half of one of the most famous duos in modern fiction. And yet, be it Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, or Damian Wayne who wears the R-suit (or, for a too-brief period, Stephanie Brown as the lone in-continuity female to bear the title), some people just hate Robin. They say it’s child endangerment on Batman’s part, that the kid’s too corny, that the Dark Knight works best when he’s alone, and so on, and so forth.
None of these things, mind you, have kept him from remaining ol’ Batsy’s sidekick in just about every form of media. Like him or not, Robin is here to stay. However, with one notable exception (and we’ll get to that), the ‘lone avenger’ model has so far dominated in one area – the movies, where Robin has not been seen for years.
While I understand the reasoning behind this – mainly, I believe, the whole ‘child endangerment’ thing – I personally do like Robin, and believe that keeping him off the Silver Screen is a misguided effort that should be reconsidered. So here, without further ado, are five of my reasons why.
#1: He gives Batman someone to talk to.
The reason Robin was created in the first place was a simple one – Bill Finger, the series’ original writer, realized that Batman had no one to talk to. Sure, he could chat with Commissioner Gordon or have grim internal monologues, but the fact remained, the World’s Greatest Detective needed someone to explain his reasoning to. Holmes needed a Watson – so Robin was born.
That, of course, was a good many years ago, and things have changed since then. For one thing, we now have Alfred the butler, who has filled the ‘Batman’s sounding board’ role in a number of movies. Also, comics themselves have changed (there are any number of ways to put across a character’s thoughts now that older writers would never have dreamed of), and the movies based on them have grown more sophisticated. One could argue that Robin’s original role has been eclipsed, and he is no longer needed in such a capacity.
Well, perhaps he isn’t. But he could still be used, and I personally think there are some unused possibilities here.
‘But what about Alfred?’ you say? ‘Hasn’t he done a good job so far as precisely that?’ My answer? Yes and no.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love Alfred. I think almost every Bat-Fan does. He’s one of the best supporting characters in comics, and I am by no means saying he should be taken out of the picture. But Alfred works best in certain situations, ones not always covered by the demands of the plot. He is Batman’s support network; he takes care of the details of everyday life that the Dark Knight cannot focus on, and bandages him up when he is wounded. He is a father figure, a source of dry humor and sage wisdom, and, in his youth, a man of action – but he is not one now. Alfred is a man in mid-to-late middle age, sometimes (as in the Tim Burton movies) downright elderly. He can handle himself well enough in a crisis, and may pull his master’s fat from the fire in extreme circumstances, but he is not a fighting man; his role is largely confined to the cave and the mansion. You may be able to depend on him for a great many things, from home-cooked meals to first aid, but he is a supporting character, first and foremost – he supports, and does a superlative job of it, but not much beyond that.
The same cannot be said of Robin. Robin is not always needed in Batman’s life, but when he is, it’s generally for a field mission. It is his job to actively assist him; as such, most of the Duo’s interactions take place while confronting bad guys or tracking down clues. This is a good way of A: livening up what might otherwise be rather simplistic beat-‘em-up scenes, and B: further establishing the Bat’s brains.
Let’s delve into that last one for a moment. As mentioned above, Batman is the World’s Greatest Detective, a man with a superb deductive mind that he spent years honing to its finest point. Far too often, however, this gets ignored in favor of shiny gadgets that do the work for him – view, for example, the scene in Dark Knight where he tracks down the Joker through the use of a spying device and a bajillion cell phones.
This is understandable because of his unusual place in the detecting biz – for him it is not a job, but a means to an end. Whereas your average detective has a superior or a group of possible suspects to explain his deductive reasoning to, Batman is a vigilante crimefighter; he does not have the luxury of staying put long enough for such scenes to be viable. And yet, he needs something similar in order to establish his brainpower; we cannot, after all, be expected to see inside of his head. An explanation of deductive reasoning is part and parcel of any detective fiction, even if it’s paired with superheroics – if we don’t understand how the good guy catches the bad guy, it can seem like pure dumb luck.
Robin helps solve this problem. He is, A: someone whom Batman has every reason to discuss the current case with, and B: someone who is not expected to know the answer before his boss does. Remember, in most cases, Batman trained Robin; he is not just the Dark Knight’s assistant, but his pupil, and like any good example of the latter, he asks questions. Thus, Batman explaining his reasoning to him is a perfectly natural part of their relationship, something that also makes Robin seem smarter on occasions when he provides a fresh perspective or actually winds up figuring things out first.
All this might seem a more urgent matter in a comic book than a movie, as excess dialogue in the latter may slow the pace down. Not so. As noted above, comics have acquired any number of different tactics to ease the delivery of verbal information. There are thought balloons, speech balloons, captions, all kinds of things – all of which give the reader much more opportunity to discern what would not otherwise be immediately evident, such as an inner monologue. The detective, in essence, can speak directly to us if he needs to; a listener in-comic is still useful, but not needed. A film, on the other hand, has only two methods of communication – visual and verbal, as in real life. Unless one resorts to a Noir-esque voiceover, communicating directly to the watcher is a tricky bit of Fourth Wall-breaking that does not always work. Hence, Batman needs someone onscreen to talk to. Robin would be a nice solution to this problem for all the reasons above.
#2: He provides contrast.
Fans of a strictly solo Batman often have a problem with the Boy Wonder due to how different he is from the Dark Knight. Where Batman is dark and brooding and fades into the shadows, Robin is brightly colored and cheerful. This dilutes the character’s impact, they argue, his gothic darkness, his woe-is-me-ness. OK, I’m getting a little catty there, but the point remains – they simply see no point in pairing up such a dark character with such a light character.
For the record, I’m not saying these people are entirely wrong; there are any number of great solo Batman stories that wouldn’t have worked at all with Robin tagging along. However, there is a point, both in the character’s differences and the combination of them.
Why? Contrast. Contrast is a powerful thing. You like a dark Batman, eh? Well, try this out – Batman seems darker when Robin is around. Similarly, the dark edges of Robin’s character tend to come out much more forcefully when he’s going solo – he tends to be a lot lighter when the Duo is together.
I have said it before, and I will say it again – these things work better in mixtures. A little comedy can seem hilarious if delivered at the right moment in an otherwise dark story; a tragic moment can seem all the more so if it happens in an otherwise comedic one – for a good example of the latter, look at the titular funeral in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Similarly, while Batman may be a dark character who demands a properly dark film, there’s nothing saying that said darkness must be unrelenting. If used properly, Robin’s color and cheer can both provide a nice accent to his boss’ dark nature, and make him seem even more formidable.
Picture this scene – Batman and Robin are somewhere in Gotham fighting a gang of hoods. Robin is engaged in battle with the leader and one of his goons, and he’s got them spitting mad; he’s leaping around, a blur of bright color, teasing, wisecracking, remaining irritatingly outside of their reach while getting in lots of punches of his own. The leader finally thinks that he’s got this brat right where he wants him – until he realizes that his goon has fallen. Until he realizes that he’s fighting alone, and the reason for this is that while Robin was distracting him, Batman has downed the entire rest of his gang – and while the Boy Wonder hops away with a last cheerful quip, the Dark Knight is coming towards him, saying he wants answers…
#3: He gives Batman more depth
I probably don’t need to tell any of you that Batman is a great character. He is, unquestionably. However, there has been a tendency in recent years to use him as a sort of Tabula Rasa type to pit against sinister foes, the foes being the ‘real’ protagonists. All Bats needs to be in such stories is dark and powerful and heroic; he needs to be the hero and win, that’s pretty much it.
This is fine, as far as it goes – it’s not for nothing, after all, that the Bat-villains are considered one of the best sets of foes in comics; nothing wrong with giving them a turn in the spotlight. When viewed as part of a larger trend, though, it illuminates a tendency for recent writers to depict him as what have some termed “the Bat-God” – a flawless character who Never Does Anything Wrong and succeeds because he is Just That Cool.
I, for one, find this worrying. Batman has retained popularity for as long as he has not because he is The King Of Awesome Shut Up He’s Batman, but because of his character. Yes, he is dark and brooding and cool, and yes, he can do a variety of nifty things, but when written correctly, he is also a very human character. Not for nothing has the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents remained one of the all-time often-imitated-never-duplicated iconic hero origins – it defines him as someone who was once vulnerable and helpless at the worst possible time, and has strove ever since to become and remain a figure of strength so that he may keep others from suffering in the same way. It is only his intense training and personal discipline that keeps him alive, and if you don’t feel that, if you don’t get that Batman works hard to remain the way he is, then you lose what’s at the heart of the character. The way, therefore, to keep Bats interesting is to keep his Bat-Godness at bay by focusing on the things that retain and deepen his humanity.
Robin is one of those things – in fact, for many years he was the main thing. It is Bruce Wayne’s mentorship of Dick Grayson/Jason Todd/Tim Drake/Damien Wayne him that all but forces him to look beyond himself and his mission, and focus on his duties as a man.
Now, I mentioned the ‘child endangerment’ aspect of the character that many anti-Robinists (I just invented a term!) object to, and it’s for this reason that the one original movie Robin we did get (the Burt Ward version from Batman: The Movie notwithstanding) was played by Chris O’Donnell. Theoretically, this was a good idea, right? I mean, sure, it makes no sense; O’Donnell was quite clearly way too old to be anybody’s ‘ward’, but it’s for exactly that reason that the team could work onscreen without everyone hollering ‘he’s putting that little kid’s life in danger!’, right?
In that sense, yes. In every other one, no.
Here’s the thing – the Dynamic Duo have a very specific sort of chemistry. Robin being roughly in Batman’s age-group sounds all right on paper, but it completely wrecks the dynamic.
Why? Because it makes them partners only, and that is a great big honking waste of your Batman and Robin. Let us focus, for the moment, on the original Dick Grayson version – for many, the Robin. Where does his relationship with the Batman begin? Essentially, right where Bruce Wayne’s does – with the death of his parents, lost to crime.
Wayne has seen where this path can lead. His path has been a bitter and lonely one, and has turned him into a figure of darkness and fear – but this is largely because it was lonely, because he has walked it with only the faithful Alfred by his side. He sees young Dick starting along this road, and he wants to help him. Yes, Grayson must avenge his parents’ deaths; he is driven by the same engines that drive the Batman, but not in the same way. He will have a mentor, a father figure, a companion, a big brother, a teacher – and as such, the pain of loss will not be the constant presence that it is for Bruce Wayne. The man of dark midnights is joined by a boy who can smile.
Moreover, in changing the course of this young boy’s life, the Batman finds his own life changed right back. No longer is it one of unrelenting gloom; Robin’s cheerfulness and childish energy may not be enough to lift him out of his dark world, but it is at least enough to lighten the mood a little. Many have argued that it is the continuing presence of Robin in his life that keeps the Batman sane; without him, his crusade seems lonelier than ever before, perhaps enough to finally break him. On some level, Batman needs a Robin.
Of course, all this is perhaps a little deep to go into in a movie, where the characters are of necessity a bit shallower than in the source material – there is only so much time to go into these things, after all. This, however, is all the more reason for Robin’s inclusion, as his relationship with the Dark Knight can be easily demonstrated and requires little explanation. With a sidekick, Batman must not only be heroic, he must be responsible in a way audiences can understand and respond to. Responsibility to a city full of relative strangers is a fairly abstract concept to most; responsibility to a single person who needs, if not your help, at least you there as backup, is something just about everyone has had to deal with at one time or another. This makes him not only heroic, but relatable; he therefore remains cool while fending off Shut Up He’s Batman.
#4: It broadens storytelling possibilities.
A truism often uttered these days is that Batman is really the co-star of most stories he’s in – and no, the other one isn’t Robin here. No, it’s Gotham City itself, which is, in its own way, as much of a protagonist as the Dark Knight. (This was especially true in the Nolan movies, which made it all the more frustrating to me that the place’s visual identity kept shifting around so much.) It is, in a sense, the thing that killed Bruce Wayne’s parents, his greatest enemy, a spawning ground for monsters and madmen that he fights every night but can never conquer.
Why do I bring this up? Simple – in order to get a Batman movie right, one must get Gotham right, and that means seeing plenty of the place. Every movie in either of the franchises so far has understood this – they have spelunked into the city’s sewers, gawked at the penthouse parties of the rich and famous, explored the gritty alleyways and lingered on architectural details. In the first Batman we saw Gotham’s cathedral; in Batman Returns, its main square and department store. Batman Begins featured an elevated train, while the two Dark Knight movies placed a good deal of focus on its roads and access tunnels. (And if Joel Schumacher were to be believed, the place consists primarily of gigantic statues.) You can make a Superman movie without much emphasis on Metropolis, and when the Wonder Woman film finally gets made, who knows where her stomping grounds will be (although I’m guessing Boston; she had a pretty good run there), but you cannot make a Batman movie without getting a good old gawk around Gotham. It’s obligatory. (This is why Bats has the car – he spends so much time driving from one place to another.)
Now, of course Robin is not a necessary element in all this. But he could be a useful one.
The addition of an extra hero into the mix means that a two-pronged strategy can be put into play – while Robin goes on a mission for his boss and gets into trouble, Batman can be doing something more directly plot-related that keeps things going forward. Or, y’know, vice-versa – he could get Robin to hunt through the files or do some hacking (Tim Drake used to specialize in this) while he goes out to kick some bad guy rear. Either way, things are opened up for lots and lots of those lovely Gotham set-pieces – going up against the Joker in an abandoned amusement park, running from an attack helicopter over the rooftops – while keeping the plot going forward in the meantime, so that the pace doesn’t need to slacken much.
This, I think, is one of the areas where the Schumacher movies really slipped up – they always kept the Dynamic Duo together. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with having them together; there are times when they should be together – you can’t very well include both heroes in a movie and not include a few scenes of them fighting side by side – but Robin, when used correctly, is a competent hero in his own right. Sure, he’s the junior partner here, but that doesn’t mean he can’t kick a little rear on his own – even in the old days, he’d be sent out on solo missions and had stories where he tackled gangs of crooks all on his lonesome. In more recent years, the character has become still more independent, with his (and, counting Stephanie Brown, her) own rogue’s gallery and a long-running comic. Batman’s better, sure, but Robin’s no slouch – and when you put the two of ‘em together, they can lay out the hurt to bad guys like few others. (Another area where Schumacher erred – his Robin was useless.)
Moreover, this is only taking into account what happens when things go right. Robin can be captured, he can be brainwashed against the Bat, he can be wounded, he could even (if you wanted to take things into a particularly dark area) be killed. I’m not in favor of this latter tactic, mind you, as it’s been used a bit too much in the actual comics lately; nevertheless, it does have precedent (most notably the death of Jason Todd), and if a director wanted to go in that direction, he could. The point is, Robin can be a powerful storytelling tool, and that can only be good for a movie’s script.
#5: It opens possibilities for other movies
This last one is a bit more on the ‘company strategy’ end of things, but I think it’s worth pursuing nonetheless.
There have been a lot of superhero movies over the years, and while, of course, there have been many variations on the theme, they can overall be broken down into three basic categories – the solo hero, the hero team, and the hero-and-sidekick duo. This last category is of course the focus of this article; however, in the movies it has suffered woefully from under-representation, featuring mainly in comedies or darker takes on the material such as Kick-Ass and its upcoming sequel.
This is understandable, since not every hero needs a sidekick, and many of the more iconic ones tend to be loners (when they’re not in teams, of course). Superman definitely works alone, as does Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Punisher, etc.
However, superhero universes are bigger than that. There are aspects to them that have barely been touched on so far in mainstream film. Exceptions exist – I was delighted to see the inclusion (albeit in an altered form) of Bucky in the Captain America movie, for example – but there has yet to be a truly iconic sidekick featured.
Robin could change all that. You don’t get much more iconic than him when it comes to sidekicks, after all, and his successful inclusion in a cinematic universe could open the floodgates. Not that every sidekick is needed or wanted, of course, but there are some great ones out there that I would love to see get their moment in the cinematic limelight.
Picture an Aquaman movie, for instance, where we get to explore such characters as Tempest and Dolphin, or a Wonder Woman film which features a teenage Donna Troy as her kid sister. How ‘bout a Superman flick where he encounters Supergirl and/or Superboy, or a Green Arrow one which tackles Speedy’s drug addiction? Most of these would probably be sequels, of course, so we’re being optimistic here, but hey, why not? You think I’d write these things if I were a pessimist?
What’s more, there is a reason why DC might consider all this, if properly motivated. You know the Avengers movie, right? You know how they built up to that with the individual character flicks? Well, if DC played their cards right, they could effectively build up two big team movies at the same time – a Justice League movie (OK, that’s supposed to be coming up soon, so plans for it are likely already set in stone, but still) with the main heroes, and a Teen Titans movie with their sidekicks! Yes! Think about it! You would only need two or three characters to build the nucleus of the team (including Robin, of course), and such things already have precedent for being popular with the TT and Young Justice shows. You bet your sweet bippy people would see it, and it’d be piggybacking off the (oh, let’s hope) potentially massive theatrical success of the JL. It’d be like printing money, I tells ya!
Not only that, it would add in the possibility for future films. Age has not generally been a huge factor in superhero films so far, since most depicted characters are somewhere in their 20’s/30’s and it’s been largely one big peer group (although the X-Men movies have dabbled a bit with teacher-student relationships). If you add younger characters, however, that starts to involve the passage of time, since they are in the process of growing up and any subsequent films will have to address that. And if we do see them growing up, why not make films showing what happens when they have grown up, and either supplanted or become independent of their mentors? Going back to Robin, this could get us a Nightwing film, or, shifting things a bit further into a hypothetical future, maybe even a Batman Beyond one where he and the other former Titans are now the founders of the BB Justice League.
Possibilities! Endless possibilities! Look past the sticking points, find a way around them, and give us movie-Robin now, dammit!