Why Is Batman So Sexless?

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Maybe Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight would be less cranky if he just got laid.

Is Batman a virgin?

If you go by Christopher Nolan's films, you'd have to conclude that he is.

Dramatic and spectacular as they are, the films are bleak, verging on dreary, and it's not hard to isolate why. Nolan has created an intricate world full of danger, ambition, beautiful people — and absolutely no sex. It's hardly even in the air. In fact, aside from the short-lived Harvey Dent-Rachel Dawes partnership, it's difficult to even imagine the characters in Batman Begins or The Dark Knight having love lives. From Commissioner Gordon to Ra's al Ghul, they range from dutiful to dour. The only ones with any jocularity are either too insane (The Joker) or too avuncular (Alfred) for romance.

And our hero is the most humorless of the bunch. Granted, his parents were murdered, he works nights (and the hours are terrible), and if he loses focus, the entire city might collapse. We get it. These are Serious Times and our grim reaper is justifiably grim. But the Dark Knight saga is so drained of eros that the films can feel bloodless and more than a little lifeless. Our hero is the guardian of a joyless, denuded landscape where things get ever worse until you kill a couple of gangsters and misfits, buying you a bit of time until things are awful again.

Praise has been heaped on Nolan's stewardship of the Batman franchise, and for good reason. He rebuilt a series that had descended into self-parody (I speak, of course, of the calamitous Nipplesuit Years, and they shall not be mentioned again), imbuing it with gravity and intelligence. As embodied by the ever-serious Christian Bale, Batman has never been as dark and fearsome as he is now — a modern gargoyle casting a stony eye over all that he surveys. For sheer gothic grandeur and heft, the Nolan films are unmatched. But it's important to note that Batman wasn't always a sexless paladin. You only have to go back as far as the Tim Burton films to see that that's not the case.

Batman and Batman Returns may not have had the gravitas of the Dark Knight films, but they were a hell of a lot sexier. Burton tends to infuse his films with a manic energy and, tonally, the films couldn't be more different from the current incarnation. Yet here for the first — and perhaps last — time, you had a Batman, played by Michael Keaton, who was more or less human. Here Bruce Wayne was a man who knew how to have fun, and for whom a double life was as much a source of a gleeful freedom as a terrible burden. He cracked jokes. He had girls over. We understood that he couldn't be an avenging angel twenty-four hours a day. Off the clock, he was a rich bachelor with an awesome house. The bad guys saw him as a ghost, but to us he was a thing of flesh and blood. (For another billionaire, superhero bachelor who still finds time to enjoy life, see "Stark, Tony.")

The playfulness of the early films didn't emanate from Keaton alone. The supporting characters ranged from saucy to lecherous. Danny DeVito's Penguin was a power-hungry horndog, and Christopher Walken as Max Shreck and Jack Nicholson as the first film's Joker radiated similar lusts. The real showstopper, of course, was Catwoman — an interesting point of comparison, because she'll be brought back in Rises, in the form of Anne Hathaway.

In case it's not seared into your cinematic memory, Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman was a frazzled secretary-cum-dominatrix. Pfeiffer played her as a damaged bundle of exposed nerves one moment and as controlled and imperious the next. She was Wayne's enemy, but also his lover, and the sexual tension made her adversarial relationship with Batman a many-splendored thing, as they played cat and bat across rooftops in rubber and vinyl fetish gear and then kept up the game in eveningwear. She was as unhinged as she was erotic and was something we've yet to see in the Nolan films — an unpredictable woman.

What's more, her erotic power and physical languorousness made her the perfect foil to the upright avenger, teasing the human out of the bat, uncoiling what could otherwise be a very stiff role. Without a similar catalyst, the recent Batman films have calcified. If the preview images of a doe-eyed Hathaway with perfectly combed hair and a tiny mask are any indication, it's hard to imagine her channeling a similar amount of danger and lust. Those are big stilettos to fill.

Nolan has described The Dark Knight Rises as "a very, very elemental conflict between good and evil." But it's exactly that canvas of absolutes that saps the films of their exuberance and confuses nobility with sterility. Nolan's Batman is an ascetic, a warrior monk whose religious devotion to a moral code is also a form of self-denial. Nolan's decision to focus on Batman's "Knight" handle is telling, for indeed our hero is Sir Bruce, the Chaste. There's no place for passion in this morality play. Only a distant, romantic love is permissible in this world — holding up an object of affection from afar, as Bruce does with Rachel. The films have become about leaving your body — "You have to become an idea!" as Liam Neeson barks at ninja camp — and that's just it: even when Bruce has a paramour, she's just an idea, as he is. Becoming an abstraction doesn't make him more than a man. It makes him less.

It may be unfair, of course, to judge the first two acts of the Dark Knight trilogy in isolation. Perhaps Nolan has been cleverly blueballing us the entire time in advance of a glorious release. Will The Dark Knight Rises be different? The villain, Bane, certainly looks like a dedicated BDSM-enthusiast, which might be one sign that the films have hit puberty. Perhaps the arresting Marion Cotillard will infuse some warmth. Or perhaps Bale will be allowed to loosen his bat-tie. Interviews with the director and cast have suggested that the film will finally unearth more of the man behind the idea, which would be good news. We the audience are flesh and blood, after all, and bats are warm-blooded too.