Best. Gay. Week. Ever. (August 15, 2008)

Another week, another box office record and more Oscar talk for The Dark Knight. As the summer of Batman Love continues, I feel it necessary to draw attention to one area where I found the movie totally lacking: Bat Fashion. More specifically, the latest incarnation of the Batsuit.

Over the course of Batman’s big-screen appearances, the Batsuit has evolved in obvious ways. And it’s pretty clear that these changes are driven by anxieties surrounding Batman’s sexuality, reflecting efforts to distance the character from anything perceived as campy a.k.a. too gay.

When Tim Burton took on the Batman franchise in 1989, the movie’s darker look and tone highlighted his effort to return to the character’s comic book roots and depart from the 1960s TV show, which, with all its “POWs” and “BAMs,” that had become synonymous with superhero camp.

Adam West and Michael Keaton as Batman

Obviously, the purple-briefs-over-tights look had to go, as did the leotard top that showed off Bruce Wayne’s flab. Burton’s new, all-black suit instead emphasized the strength and muscularity of the man inside. Since Michael Keaton was hardly a muscle man himself, the muscles had to be sculpted into the suit itself.

But in turning to black rubber as the material from which to sculpt those muscles, the new suit inadvertently sent the character into S&M terrain. As The New York Times review said, this was a Batman “done up in the drag of someone with a possibly dangerous leather fetish.” Burton, in turn, was only too happy to exaggerate that impression with Batman Returns, with Catwoman’s dominatrix-inspired catsuit and whip.

Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton in Batman Returns

It took openly gay director Joel Schumacher, a man not exactly known for subtlety in his work, to take what had been intriguing subtext regarding Batman’s sexual kinks and render them text … in the form of nipples and exaggerated codpieces. And suddenly, everybody perceived of Batman as gay. Even George Clooney, in a 2006 Barbara Walters interview, said, “I was in a rubber suit and I had rubber nipples. I could have played Batman straight, but I made him gay.”

Granted the costuming, as with everything else in the two Schumacher-helmed Batmans, was ridiculous, and it’s fairly obvious why the largely-unwatchable Batman & Robin killed the franchise. What’s disturbing, though, is how much fanboy outrage centered on the nippled Batsuit, and how that was directly connected to the character going gay. Case in point: an episode of Clerks: The Animated Series, in which a character demands Schumacher give him his money back because Batman & Robin was “so gay.” In the scene, Schumacher is wearing a cartoon version of the nippled Batsuit.

George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell in Batman Returns

So it’s not surprising that Christopher Nolan’s updated Batman films, which attempt to begin Batman yet again after a descent into camp, also reinvent the Batsuit. 2007’s Batman Begins makes it clear that the new Batsuit — essentially a piece of Kevlar-like body armor — doesn’t come from the back of some freaky millionaire’s fetish closet, but a top-secret research facility developing technology for the military. And what could be more ostensibly straight than the military?

In keeping with that conceit, The Dark Knight now finds Bruce Wayne demanding changes to the suit — which he finds a burden rather than a source of any kind of satisfaction, sexual or otherwise — rendering it a series of isolated plates that protect and obscure muscles rather than highlight them.

Christian Bale in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight

The result is an armored Batman who looks like a piece of luggage. And has about as much sex appeal. No wonder I’m now more eagerly anticipating Watchmen. Over this Kevlar-coated Batman, I’ll take a giant, blue, naked Billy Crudup any day.

Next page! The Gay Games or the Beijing Games?

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