A Brief Treatise on the Nature of Batman

Andrew Stephens, Monday the 8th of August, 2016

I sort-of hate Batman.

It didn't used to be this way.

Batman used to be admirable. Batman used to be cool. Batman used to be someone to look up to. Batman is now none of those things and that makes me sad.

Batman as a character has gotten gradually but consistently worse over the years. By no means a Batman expert, I am basing this opinion on the big Batman live-action films and a few of the graphic novels I have readI have not yet seen the recent Batman vs Superman:Dawn of Justice or the film adaption of the (overrated) The Killing Joke book. I am in no hurry to, either. Also, don't expect any actual research..

The trouble with Batman is the same as the trouble with most of the modern superhero sagas - defining the character from his origin story. As everyone knows, the young Bruce Wane saw his parents gunned down in front of him in a mugging gone wrong. Haunted by that memory, Bruce trained his mind and body in secret and now as an adult he maintains the appearance of a normal playboy millionaire but also dresses as a bat and punches a lot of people.

Thats a fine backstory, but it should remain in the background. A footnote to Batman's story. After all, the mugging happened years before Batman even existed.

In plots emphasizing this grim tale, Batman does not solve crimes out of a sense of civic duty or even as to prevent what happened to him happening to others. He is a creature of rage and hurt, driven to the edge of madness, the very definition of a psychopath. If his parents were killed by a policeman he would be a crazed cop-killer. If his mother choked on a chicken bone, Colonel Sanders would be his main enemy. He is quite simply a bad guy who targets other bad guys.

In this respect, I enjoy the 60's TV take on Batman the best. It is the only one where Batman has an unwavering loyalty to justice and the public good. It is also the only time where Batman's aversion to killing is actually respected - most of the other versions treat his lack of bloodlust as a plot problem to write around - having the villan accidently-on-purpose fall off something, thus neatly dispatching themselves.

The 90s cartoon version of Batman also wasn't too bad in this regard. Both it and the 60s Batman show were made in environments where violence was forbiddenalthough the cartoon got away with a surprising amount. which plays into Batman's nature and forces the writers to actually come up with plots where punching people isn't the first and only choice. It is only in these shows that The Worlds Greatest Detective actually does much detecting.

Personally I blame The Dark Night Returns for a lot of the problems with modern Batman. The Dark Night Returns is a grim tale of an old, bitter, out-of-shape Bruce Wane coming out of retirement and it is absolutely brillent. But instead treating it as an alternate-reality one-shot what-if, everyone suddenly decided that this screwed-up mess of a Batman was what they wanted going forward.

The Tim Burton early 90s (technically Batman came out in 1989) films are not too bad. Batman is a damaged weirdo but he doesn't seem too vengeful. It helps that the rest of Gotham is as strange and twisted as Bruce is - you can see how dressing as a bat might actually make sense in that world. The non-Burton sequels (Batman and Robin, ...) are fairly terrible (incredibly terrible in the later case) but at least are an extension of where Burton was going with the character.

The Christopher Nolen films (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) seem to be held in high regard84%, 94%, 87% on Rotton Tomatoes, respectively but I find them increasingly tedious and morally troubling.

Batman Begins at least flirts with the idea Bruce Wane is interested in fighting injustice but draws a long bow when it tries to explicitly make the bad guys literal terrorists (planning to drive Gotham city mad with a drug that causes uncontrolled panic). I am not sure the subtext that only an extremest mad man can take on a small terrorist organisation is in good taste.

The Dark Knight is a better film, but only because of Heath Ledger's incredibly watchable Joker. It suffers from the implication (planted at the end of the first film) that the existence of Batman actually inspires the new breed of themed criminals. Also, once the Joker dies (sort-of-but-not-really) at the hands of Batman, the film just ... keeps going instead of ending - a terrible mistake. At the conclusion, Batman is hated by the general population, partly due to the actions of Two Face, but also because he has been a bit of a dick the whole film.

The Dark Knight Rises is just terrible, making no sense whatsoever and the cardinal sin of making Batman look stupid by staging a big fight in broad daylight. Batman's dickishness attains new heights

So a lot of Batman cookies have been stamped from The Dark Night Returns cookie-cutter and most of them forget that the comic was set in a nightmarish dystopian future where being a violent reactionary arsehole was possibly a reasonable choice.A further issue I have with the Nolan films is that none of the bad guys actually want anything, they are completely defined by their quirks. The League of Shadows wants to destroy Gotham without warning, The Joker apparently wants to run some psychology experiments, Bane's ridiculously complicated plan boils down to doing both over a couple of months. Nobody seems to want to just rob a bank and live well.

Batman's real problem as a character is that he just cannot live in our world. A real life Bruce Wane would be seen as a violent thug with a dangerous arsenal of weaponry and the recent trend to placing Batman stories in something close to reality emphasizes this.

Batman used to be a character aimed at kids, I don't know who modern Batman is aimed at. To enjoy today's Batman as a adult requires closing your moral compass. It doesn't need to be this way, Batman works best in a more fantastic setting, either over-the-top dark, or over-the-top comic-y seem to work well. Nobody seems to want to do that though, treating Batman as the hero they think we need need, not the Batman we deserve.