One of the concepts which has been intriguing me over the last few weeks has been the concept of multiple layers of canon existing over many works in an overarching canon.
The Batman mythos comprises more than 70 years of collective canon built on a foundation of comics, films, television series, and other works of fiction; as it spans multiple mediums and auteurs, it seems an ideal system to examine for the phenomenon of nested canon.
In fiction, canon is the material accepted as officially part of the story in an individual universe of that story. It is often contrasted with, or used as the basis for, works of fan fiction. The alternative terms mythology,timeline, and continuity are often used, with the former being especially to refer to a richly detailed fictional canon requiring a large degree of suspension of disbelief (e.g. an entire imaginary world and history), while the latter two typically refer to a single arc where all events are directly connected chronologically.
From this definition, we can separate works which exist within the same basic epistemological system as being either canon or apocrypha, based on whether or not the works conform to certain rules and assumptions which we have about the nature of that system.
When dealing with a very old, very complex canon like the mythos of The Batman, we begin to see another pattern emerge: that of a layered or nested canon. For the sake of brevity, I will be focusing mostly on the film and television canonical works associated with The Batman, and intentionally omitting the majority of the myriad comic / graphic novel works involved.
Layer 1 : The Mythos of The Batman
The outermost layer of canon would be the overarching mythos of The Batman. There are several generalizations which we can make about the central character which associate him with this canon:
- Privileged. Bruce Wayne comes from wealth, which is necessary for his crime fighting accoutrement.
- Vigilante crime fighter. The Batman fights injustice and crime, with or without the explicit support of sanctioned law enforcement. Some sub-canons have omitted the vigilantism (the 1960s television show insisted on explicitly indicating that Batman was a sanctioned law enforcement officer to avoid morality codes), but still keeps the majority of the trope.
- Dead parents. The raison d’être for Wayne’s transformation into The Batman is the tragic loss of his parents, leaving him an orphan.
- Secret identity. Bruce Wayne is The Batman, and the duality existing between the ostentatious playboy and the elusive crimefighter is an essential part of his mythology.
- Caretaker. Alfred (or a similar suitable caretaker) has to help Wayne manage his double life.
Layer 2 : Series
In film and TV, the major series divisions of Batman can be summarized by the following:
- 1960s Batman (Written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr). Featured a very campy Batman, played by Adam West, and introduced the Batman angle.
- 1980s-1990s Tim Burton “reboot” (4 film series, Directed by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher). These films, particularly the 1989 Burton film, were responsible for the dark, gothic, post-modern Batman lens through which all subsequent adaptations have been viewed – and also for the utter nadir of any Batman film franchise to date in the offal offering of Batman & Robin.
- 1990s Batman : The Animated Series (Warner Brothers Animation). Featured a darker version of The Batman than the Adam West adaptation, led by the voice talents of Kevin Conroy as The Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker.
- 2000s Nolan “reboot” / Dark Knight Trilogy (3 film series). This series has the interesting distinction of being the only one to have remained under the control of a single auteur (Christopher Nolan) for its entire run. (It’s also home to the greatest origin film of all time.)
Each of these epistemological sets contain one or more directors/writers, and span a number of works, but have a certain level of in-universe canon and trope which they share. The tone and camp of the 1960s Batman series, for example, is shared amongst all the works within that domain – as well as a certain amount of in-universe continuity.
Layer 3 : Auteur
Each director has their own series of rules and tropes for The Batman, independent of the miniature arc which comprises the series. (The aforementioned exception is, of course, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, as the series is comprised of only a single auteur’s work.)
Schumacher, for example, seemed to be all about Lorenzo Semple-ing every moment of every film – which was true to the canon established by the 1960s Batman adaptation, but not the canon established by Batman and Batman Returns. To further complicate matters, several actors reprised their roles, making it even more difficult to differentiate between the first and second half of the four film series.
Each auteur’s vision for the characters and canon of the individual series can be taken as a miniature canon, replete with all of the epistemological baggage which that entails. Michael Keaton’s Batman can be seen as a single character undergoing multiple storylines over the course of Batman and Batman Begins. He’s surrounded by some of the same supporting cast (Gough and Hinkle), even though the majority of the characters are particular to each storyline. In-universe jokes and references are made, and those two films (in particular) can be seen as forming a strong canonical universe.
Layer 4 : Individual Work
The most atomic level of canon could be said to be a set of rules which only governs the epistemological system represented by the film and any inner subsets of that system – including flashbacks, layered film, and any in-film references which don’t necessarily have any canonical connection to the larger canon of the film’s auteur’s work.
This layer is the most difficult to define separately from simple continuity, but I feel that it can be best represented as the series of rules which a film creates for its outermost epistemological system. If The Batman can jump from building to building in the film in question, he shouldn’t be not able to do so without some sort of explanation. This consistency allows us to maintain our suspension of disbelief when consuming a film work.
Understanding the different types of canon which can coexist in an epistemological canon as complicated and old as that of The Batman should allow a greater level of enjoyment and understanding of those works by allowing us to see each of these individual canonical layers and separately consume in-universe elements without having to worry about the inevitable paradoxes and inconsistencies which will eventually arise in a system as complicated as the history of The Batman.