The Hero Gotham Needs: A Defense of Batman’s Nipples as Camp
Updated: Oct 7, 2021
“Camp is the heroism of people not called upon to be heroes.” Philip Core, 1984
Batman and Robin (1997) is known as the film that killed the original Warner Brothers franchise. Almost unanimously across interviews with both audiences and the cast and crew, the visual reference point used as the main point of evidence to encapsulate the widespread general disdain of the film— while it could have been full Twilight glitter Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Scary Spice hair buns Uma Thurman, or ‘roided out gimp mask Bane— are far and away the erect molded nipples included on Batman and Robin’s superhero costumes. Director Joel Schumacher (also responsible for ruining Phantom of the Opera) explains the creative choice as being the result of a hard flex by suit sculptor Jose Fernandez, who was interested in showcasing the level of detail now available in rubber molding technology. So the Batnips (and this blog will refer to them exclusively as Batnips henceforth) are essentially the 1997 Tesla Cybertruck of masculine nerd superiority complexes. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
Except I’ve watched Batman and Robin more than any other superhero movie. And I’m here to mount a defense of the film as a camp masterpiece.
So what is camp? Susan Sontag’s 1964 bulleted essay “Notes on Camp,” finds the defining elements to be a stylized aestheticism and a love of artifice and exaggeration. Camp exists in every artistic medium, and can be labeled as camp by either the consumer, or the creator. Here’s the key: the intention behind the object’s creation determines it to either be naive camp or deliberate camp. According to Sontag, naive camp is unconscious and unintentional. It is “a seriousness that fails,” made of “the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and naive.” Deliberate camp, is camp which knows itself to be camp.
To clarify these definitions: Batman and Robin was intended as a serious film that, as evidenced by its dismal 11% rating on movie critic review website Rotten Tomatoes, failed spectacularly, and is therefore being examined as naive camp.
This theoretical blog post about Batnips, is deliberate camp.
Camp is foundationally built on a language of semiotics (symbols) that requires, in the case of deliberate camp, the creator, or in the case of naive camp, the audience, to recognize this stylistic genre. This is not unlike the way superhero films hide “Easter egg” references that would only be recognizable as additional information for fans familiar with the comics. The attraction to camp places less emphasis on the product itself, but instead on the ways in which the consumer feels a sense of elitism over his recognition of a sign as exclusive, of a thing that is not bad as deemed by public opinion, but in actuality campy, only appreciated by a select few.
Jean Baudrillard’s The System of Objects argues that in the postmodern era, the concept of linear history is replaced with a general sense of nostalgia. According to Baudrillard, “There is no escape more radical than escape in time, and none so thoroughgoing as into our own childhood.” Camp fills this same escapist, childlike function, as Mark Booth proposes: “Camp keeps the faculty of wonder alive. It combines intellectual virtuosity with childlike freshness of vision.” Camp creates a public space to indulge in childhood nostalgia as a new intellectual language, rather than psychological or behavioral regression.
Evidence of Batman as a campy character is his own place in nostalgia— as a comic book or an action figure collected by pre-teen children. Chris O’Donnell who portrayed Robin in the films is even quoted saying, "On Batman Forever, I felt like I was making a movie. The second time, I felt like I was making a kid's toy.” O’Donnell reveals himself to feel literally objectified as a molded rubber suit, a nostalgic representation of Robin rather than a character.
Sontag specifically calls out both “old Flash Gordon comics” and “exaggerated He-man-ness” as expressions of camp. Last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute presented the exhibition Camp, in which Sontag’s quotes were juxtaposed alongside fashionable garments by contemporary designers. Her “He-man” quote is displayed with an ensemble by the Belgian designer Wild and Lethal Trash from Spring/ Summer 1996, featuring an inflatable yellow PVC jacket and purple spandex bodysuit. The inflatable portions of the jacket create the appearance of abdominal muscles, and are blown into via two tubes that, based on their anatomical placement, also resemble erect male nipples. The nipple becomes a visual representation of excessive masculinity.
The use of the nipple highlights that excessive masculinity is associated with displays of sexuality. 1997, the year of Batman and Robin’s release, was a year marked specifically by excessive, violent displays of sexuality. In Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jack Dawson, who after taking Rose DeWitt Bukater’s virginity, freezes to death in an act of chivalry in one of the deadliest civilian Maritime disasters aboard the most opulent ship ever built. Fashion designer Gianni Versace, known for his own excessive, sometimes camp design sensibility, is murdered by gay prostitute and serial killer Andrew Cunanan— a man he had never even met. Princess Diana’s celebrity fervor proved her tragic undoing when she was killed in a car crash that resulted from an attempt to evade paparazzi attempting to capture the royal alongside her lover Dodi Fayed. Dolly the sheep clone revealed that sexuality was no longer necessary for reproduction. And Mike Tyson felt compelled to bite off Evander Holyfield’s ear in a heavyweight championship fight. The Titanic, Versace, the spectacle of celebrity, cloning, and Mike Tyson’s cannibalism, are absolutely displays of, in Sontag’s words: “the exaggerated, the fantastic, and the passionate.”
Significantly, these masculine displays of excessive sexuality extend to both displays of hetero and homo erotic desire. In 1997, Batman actor George Clooney was named People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive.” In Batman and Robin, the Batnippled heroes face off against Poison Ivy, played by Uma Thurman, who seduces and kills men with a kiss. Batman and Robin both desire Poison Ivy, yet through montages in which Batman and Robin get dressed, the camera focuses on their Batnippled chestplates, pants with molded buttocks, and codpieces, seeming to fetishize each other’s male bodies. Like, please enjoy this ACTUAL CLIP FROM THE FILM:
In his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, Fredric Wertham condemns early Batman comics for homosexual subtext. In the 1960s, the Batman television series leaned into not only the ambiguous relationship between Batman and Robin, but also the serious tone with which absurd situational comedy was approached, deeming the television series to be popularly accepted as part of the camp genre.
Continuing to utilize the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute as a widely accepted authority on fashion, according to their 2008 exhibition catalog for Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy: “The superhero is most effective as metaphor, representing concepts of sexuality and corporeality, not surprising when superheroes exemplify idealized, objectified, and hyperbolic visualizations of the human body.” In classical superhero iconography, the superhero suit functioned as a second skin, emphasizing the muscular physicality of the super man.
For example, Superman’s likely inspiration was the Jewish strongman Sigmund Breitbart, whose 1923 national tour billed him as “The Superman of the Ages.” The archetypal strongman character in his singlet costume was often photographed surrounding images of Greek antiquity, recalling classical sculpture and the ancient traditions of nude athletic contests. Where the MET exhibition Superheroes catalog emphasizes the continued importance of the Grecian athlete in conceptions of the ideal body, it only makes sense that fashion also would attempt to perfect a garment that would perfectly emphasize the naked form.
Batman and Robin treated the comparison between naked form and superhero suit perhaps as seriously and as literally as possible, creating a naked armor complete with Batnips to emphasize his nakedness. Batman and Robin seems to have forgotten the idea of adaptation entirely, and instead attempted to copy directly. When seriously attempting to translate the literal diegetic comic book world into a live action world, the result is camp. Humans do not speak in puns. Our vision is not saturated with neons. Superhero costumes must resemble actual garments more than nakedness, and Batnipples emphasize that these garments are unnatural.
It is precisely the completely faithful adaptation of these elements that reveals them to be aesthetically stylized, artificial, excessive, and therefore camp. Further, it allows the film to lean into its own excessive logic, producing the Bat ice skates, the Bat credit card, and Arnold Schwarzenegger wearing armor ON TOP OF ARMOR. Batman and Robin manages to alienate even die-hard comic fans for a subculture that revels in the film for its formal qualities rather than its source material. Which is to say, that for a superhero film to truly be camp, the superhero costume must resemble nakedness, and therefore must have Batnipples.