Robin Hood versus Batman: Vigilantes and Villains

robin hood batmanRobin Hood and Batman have always had a lot in common; aside from their penchant for dressing up, their main point of commonality is that they share a particular brand of stylish vigilante justice. Both the caped and capped crusaders are driven by isolation and personal tragedy, each working outside the accepted laws of the land to achieve singular aims. They both skirt the grey area of right versus wrong, posing the audience questions like “is it ok to kill someone as long as they are super evil?” Or “is it ok to steal from someone as long as they are mega rich and their wealth is ill-gotten?” They staunchly stick to a self-devised moral code that is at times in conflict with perceived social norms. A recurring issue for Batman is his rule that he will NEVER kill, he can beat someone half to death with his bare hands but killing is a step too far. Robin Hood is similarly concerned about upholding his code of honour, but it is a code of his own design and when he crosses the line, is anyone able to stop him going too far?

Despite this shared common ground, when it comes to the silver screen they do not always receive equal treatment, either by the audience or by filmmakers. Batman is firmly cast into the role of vigilante in chief, and this is seen as a potentially negative thing. The word vigilante comes with violent connotations conjuring up images of Charles Bronson from the Deathwish movies and news feeds showing anarchists in balaclavas protesting against capitalism. Robin Hood on the other hand gets an altogether lighter treatment, portrayed as an outlaw – a term that seems to represent a more positive ideology to “vigilante”. But aren’t their objectives the same? Robin Hood, a wronged nobleman, puts misappropriated funds back into the pockets of ordinary people. Both disguise their real identities, but Robin Hood is viewed as a folk hero, while the other is a dark enigma. Maybe Batman is less relatable to the “common man” because Bruce Wayne is a seeming paragon of Republican values. After all, don’t all multi-billionaires fantasise about rounding up all the country’s poor (branded as scroungers and unpatriotic hooligans) because they ride roughshod over plain old American values? If Robin Hood operated in the same violent modern world as Batman, would it be easier to categorise him as a vigilante and would it be easier for us to question his motives?

I’ve taken a look back at the screen history of Robin Hood and Batman and chosen some of my favourite incarnations of these iconic characters to see how their differing portrayals have changed over time. I have picked out some highlights of where our two heroes overlap and show how the line between hero and anti-establishment vigilante has become blurrier than ever.

 

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Robin Hood and Batman both seemed to start off their lives on the screen in equally light modes and Errol Flynn’s take on Robin Hood is a classic that defined the role for many years. It is a big and brash affair, full of swashbuckling derring-do and it tells us the now familiar tale of Robin returning from the crusades to find his lands taken. He rounds up a band of merry men to take on the wicked and corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham. He robs the rich to feed the poor and has an eye for the ladies. This film helped to establish all the things we now expect from Robin Hood.

 

Batman – The Movie (1966)

Batman first appeared on screen as a serial released by Columbia Pictures in 1943, starring Lewis Wilson as the caped crusader and Douglas Croft as his trusted sidekick Robin. It is very low rent but very much in keeping with the kind of serials that were produced during this era. A little creaky but charming, it is significant as the first ever live action outing for Batman. My first encounter with Batman, along with many other people, was the TV series starring Adam West, with West taking on the title role and Burt Ward playing Robin.

Like its serialised predecessor it is camp and cartoon-ish, and we get to see Batman at his most light-hearted. There is no doom or gloom here, just a lot of scenes played for laughs and larger than life villains. A great amalgamation of the whole TV series comes in the form of Batman – The Movie. It is great fun, full of one-liners, gadgets galore and plenty of action. It is a mistake to dismiss the movie and the TV series as merely kitsch, because aside from being deliberately very funny and knowing, it established some very familiar character traits in the most definitive Batman villains. You only need to look at the Penguin and the Riddler; in the comics they were fairly minor characters with limited character development but in the hands of Burgess Meredith and Frank Gorshin they were brought to life in vivid colour, breathing brilliant personality into what on paper were little more than archetypes. Their role in developing these characters into the ones we know and recognise today should not be underestimated. Equally Cesar Romero is delightfully manic as the Joker, stealing every scene in the movie and regularly bringing his brand of mad chaos to the TV show. The genesis of Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s take on the role is there for all to see.

Of the many highlights in Batman – The Movie my favourite is undoubtedly the pleasure of seeing the Riddler, Joker, Penguin and Catwoman team up to take on their greatest nemesis. The TV show and film influenced everything that followed, providing some great building blocks for the legend to grow. And any Bat Fan who yearns for West’s Batman should seek out the TV special from 2003, Return to the Batcave, it is a camp and oddly poignant treat.

 

Robin and Marion (1976)

This is a curate’s egg of a movie as it shows what happens next for Robin Hood and Maid Marion. An older but not necessarily wiser Robin returns to Nottingham, and with the crusades long over he is a man in doubt, he asks questions of himself like, has he always travelled the path of righteousness? His long years of service to the crown put into doubt his status as man of the people and his return home puts into sharp focus the life he left behind. Robin discovers that his beloved Marion is now an abbess and he still has an old debt to pay with the wily Sheriff of Nottingham, played with gravitas by the late great Robert Shaw. This movie takes us to surprisingly dark places and shows us a sombre Robin, left looking at the consequences of war and the toll it takes on good people. Richard Lester (A Hard Days Night, The Three Musketeers) directs and expertly paints a moving portrait of mortality and ageing.

Robin, now a trusted Captain to Richard The Lion-Heart (a role Connery himself would take on in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves) evokes D’ Artagnan from the Dumas novel 20 Years Later, cutting a weary figure, firmly a part of the establishment that in his youth he once rallied so hard against. And as with Batman’s partnership with Commissioner Gordon, it is sometimes unclear what Robin represents and what he stands for.

Robin and Marion is a story about squandered opportunities and the pursuit of vain glory. Love is the greatest missed chance for Robin and Marion, as Sean Connery and the enchanting Audrey Hepburn give outstanding performances full of grace and warm humour in what is a funny and ultimately tragic story.

 

Batman (1989)

When the dark genius that is Tim Burton was handed the chance to reimagine Batman he created the first true reboot. Back then though reboots were called remakes and when Burton signed up to direct Batman, many were expecting an updating of the Adam West incarnation. However, Burton went straight to the source material, the comic books, and in doing so created a dark-hearted, dystopian fantasy, full of strange and distorted characters.

It was the kind of superhero movie that had never been seen before and for my money Batman has been extremely influential on later films in the same genre, particularly the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy. It is a fact that does not receive enough credit, because the blueprints for dark, gritty superheroes have Burton’s fingerprints all over them. Bruce Wayne, driven by the murder of his parents, killed at the hands of the Joker. As a result he is compelled to inhabit the dark night in search of his own redemption and to strive, with religious zeal, to create a city without corruption. Creative, full of great gadgets, and hugely influential (Bale and Ledger certainly seem to have picked up some pointers from Keaton and Nicholson) Batman holds up very well in comparison to recent versions.

 

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

Robin is cast into the now ubiquitous role of returning crusades veteran, in this big budget all-American version of the arrow slinger from Nottingham. The movie does some things to try and shift the legend towards a more realistic portrayal. It is by far the most brutal and visceral film portrayal of Robin Hood, the death of Robin’s father in particular has always struck me as quite a graphic image, particularly violent for a PG film. Stylistically Robin is in closer proximity to Bruce Wayne than ever before and the striking parallels between the two are obvious – Robin of Loxley is a member of the aristocracy, forced to take up an alter ego to avenge the death of his father (sound familiar Bat Fans?). And whilst these tropes appear in many Robin Hood and Batman media, these themes are more starkly realised in Prince of Thieves. Despite there being some great ideas throughout the movie, in the end Robin does not spend too long robbing the rich to feed the poor and all clever ideas are thrown out of the window in favour of epic medieval battle sequences and a Brian Adams’ soundtrack.

The whole film boils down to a clash between Kevin Costner’s straight as an arrow (pun intended) hero and the scene munching, Sheriff of Nottingham, played with psychotic glee by Severus Snape AKA Alan Rickman. One of the darker riffs of the movie is the sheriff’s mother, Mortiana; the witch making a great character that hints at a more Celtic/fantasy take on the Robin Hood myth. This is not the first time this kind of telling has been explored; “Celtic Robin” appeared on the small screen in the fantastic Robin of Sherwood TV series of the 1980s. As an aside I highly recommend checking out this series, it is dark, weird and full of strange mysticism. It starred Michael Praed as Robin and later Jason Connery (the Connerys, it would seem, have an affinity with Robin Hood).

 

Batman and Robin (1997)

What can be said about Batman and Robin that hasn’t already been said? This film is an awful lot lighter than Tim Burton’s take on the legend, but also just plain awful. Clearly an attempt to update the Adam West era Batman for a modern audience, the movie is full of cartoonish baddies, quips galore and introduces us to George Clooney’s bat nipples. After the dark Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), a new direction was sought with Batman Forever (1995) introducing a lighter feel, and Val Kilmer (remember him) into the mix. Batman and Robin is a continuation of this new tone, but compared to Batman Forever it is a confused mess of incomplete ideas. What the initial post-Burton era Batman proved is that good filmmaking is about more than just throwing a lot of well known baddies into the mix; we may have been given Mr Freeze, the Riddler, Poison Ivy, and Two-Face but very little in the way of story. Despite their failings Batman Forever and Batman and Robin were genuine attempts to freshen up the franchise.

 

Robin Hood (2010)

The modern trend for reboots or “the origins story” seems to have inflicted itself on every other film released and this sub-genre is now being applied to our folk heroes, as well as our super ones. Most notably, 2004’s King Arthur and its fun free attempt to re-tell the Arthurian legend in a more “realistic” way. In 2010, Robin Hood followed this trend with Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott’s sombre take on the legend. As we progress through the cinematic history of Robin Hood and Batman, a recurring theme is whether our heroes are compromising their morals or integrity, and as Robin Hood gets older he is always seen in the service of one political model or another. The crusades are a familiar narrative motif for Robin. In Crowe’s take it is presented to us as the key to what makes Robin the man he is. Unfortunately it tries to introduce some modern-day political commentary to the crusades and it feels extremely jarring to hear Robin question his superior as to the morals of the conflict – it seems forced and an unlikely action for a man who is a career soldier, and who has presumably never previously questioned his orders.

The other barrier is Crowe’s unfathomable ever-wavering accent. This take on Robin is probably the darkest yet and it shares the same earnestly gritty DNA as Christopher Nolan’s Batman. What it doesn’t share with those movies is any imagination, flair or complex plotting. The Batman films also challenge the audience, asking them whether what Batman does is right. Robin Hood seems to be trying to do a similar thing but it does not have the wit to carry it off. What we are left with is a lot of Crowellian speech making in a faux Yorkshire/Irish/Welsh/Mancunian?? (Just pick an accent Russell) accent and what Robin Hood really stands for is never made clear.

 

The Dark Knight Movies

Both the Robin Hood and Batman franchises have pulled increasingly towards the darker sides of humanity and this is epitomised by the Dark Knight trilogy. Russell Crowe portrayed Robin Hood as a blood soaked warrior and Christian Bale’s Batman keeps putting his body on the line with acts of narcissistic vigilantism, driven by the death of his parents and the murder of the woman he loved. The questions of why he keeps going and whether what he does is good are raised throughout all three films. His seeming ambivalence and potentially reckless actions appear to be setting him on a collision course with the goody two-shoes of the superhero universe, Superman. The merits and morality of what Batman stands for is brought into sharpest focus in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), the culmination of Christopher Nolan’s vision of Batman. In it we are shown that Bane is just a patsy and like all good patsies it is the agenda behind him that is the most appealing mystery. Nolan and the creators of the film ask us what Bane, and those behind Bane, represents and whether what Batman represents is really that different.

Having willingly taken the fall for the murder of Harvey Dent, Batman has disappeared and Bruce Wayne is holed up in Wayne Manor as crippled as his failing business empire. Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman suggests that Wayne represents all that is wrong with the world, a world of decaying capitalism with an “everyman for himself” attitude pervading all of society. Catwoman is a strong character but seems just as guilty of the “everyone for themselves” mentality. Although she has a change of heart; coming back to try and help Batman, it is unclear why she does this, adding to the layers of ambiguity set up in Nolan’s flawed dystopian masterpiece. The powers behind Bane are motivated by a religious zeal and a need for bloodthirsty revenge, and they show that replacing a free market economy with anarchy still leaves you with a system that needs a leader or a figure head, which inevitably leads to corruption.

So what does the Bat really mean in a crumbling society devoid of faith or belief in anything? All the characters in the Dark Knight trilogy, good or bad, are flawed. Commissioner Gordon sacrifices his integrity by building a legacy upon a lie, and Catwoman is a thief who claims to only take from those who have enough, and with perfect symmetry she quotes Robin Hood “I take what I need from those who have more than enough, I don’t stand on the shoulders of people with less.” This neatly authenticates the spiritual kinship the two iconic characters share. Even Bruce Wayne himself is partly motivated into bringing the Bat out of retirement for ulterior reasons.

The shining beacon of hope for the ideology of Batman comes in the shape of Detective Blake; he is a believer in Batman’s cause: “A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy’s shoulders to let him know that the world hadn’t ended.” If we ignore the messy ending, (note to writers, pick one ending, that’s right just ONE ending and stick with it) The Dark Knight Rises, for all the grey areas and ambiguities, is the version of Batman that moves ideologically closest to Robin Hood. By the end of the film Batman eventually represents the people, the lost voice of the masses. Wayne remembers his roots and the importance of his support for the disenfranchised and with the hinted possibility of Blake taking up the mantle we are left with a glimmer of hope that the dark knight has risen into light.

 

About the Author

I am a Freelance Writer currently working on my first novel, an illustrated story and an e-book of poetry. I have written for various publications including Star Trek Magazine, SFX and The Vegetarian Society.

3 thoughts on “Robin Hood versus Batman: Vigilantes and Villains

  1. Pingback: Robin Hood versus Batman: Vigilantes and Villains | theworldoutsidethewindow

  2. I never thought much about this, John. I am struck by the differences between the two franchises that immediately occur to me. Robin Hood has never surpassed its original version — never really come close as far as I can tell, while Batman has risen from modest beginnings to become a crucial text on modern vigilantism. Batman is clearly better suited for the darker treatment that both characters have received. It may be because he is an urban creation as opposed to the idyllic rural Robin. But to me, the crucial difference is that Robin is fundamentally a communal character. The most interesting supporting characters in his story are his merry men, and he cannot succeed without them. Batman, on the other hand, is solitary. His own Robin, Alfred, et al aside, the primary supporting characters in his story are the villains. In other words, Friar Tuck tops Nottingham, but Penguin trumps Alfred. The best Robins seem more lighthearted — the original is quite funny as is Mel Brooks’ tv creation When Things Were Rotten (far better than his film Men in Tights). Though he is clearly absurdist in conception, I don’t really relate to Batman as a comic character, though I must admit, even though I find the original film a trifle, the sequence in which he tries to dispose of the bomb is laugh out loud funny. Thanks for recalling many memories.

  3. An interesting and unusual comparison John, and one that I have never considered.
    I am no fan of any Batman film sadly. I will have to put that down to my age, and a fondness for the original DC comics.

    When it comes to Robin Hood, speaking as an Englishman, I have long considered this legend (let’s not forget that is what it is) to have achieved an unrealistic place in history, as portrayed on film and TV. For those of us old enough to remember, the ‘definitive’ Robin Hood was played by the actor Richard Greene on TV, in a long-running series, from 1955-1961. This was played lightly, with lots of humour, and had big parts for Friar Tuck, Maid Marian,and Little John, as well as a suitably wicked Sheriff, and a callous King John.
    As for cinema treatments, allowing for the problems with Crowe, and the lamentable political themes that you mention, I personally believe that the Ridley Scott film is the most satisfying in terms of period feel, and its balance of action with romance.

    Best wishes from Norfolk, Pete.

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