When I was very young, my parents asked me if I wanted to leave cookies out for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. I said, “No. I want to leave cookies out for Batman.” When they asked me why I wanted to do that, my response was that everyone else left cookies out for Santa. He was more than taken care of in the cookie department. But, Batman didn’t get to take Christmas Eve off. Crime doesn’t take a holiday and neither does the Caped Crusader. I felt sorry for Batman.
The next morning, the cookies had been eaten and I was left with a grateful note signed with a big Bat-symbol. I include this just to prove that I was raised by good parents, but what I’ve been mulling around in my head for many years now is, “Do I still feel sorry for Batman?”
Dark Knight of the Soul
Growing up in the ’90s pretty much guaranteed a generation of Batman fans with the popular reception to Tim Burton’s 1989 film and the landmark cartoon Batman: The Animated Series. This latter iteration of the character was and always will be the version I took to be my Batman. There’s a perfect balance between the silly and serious elements of the character and his world. For the most part, the writers and artists involved treat the character of Batman with respect but never to the point of stodginess. It’s okay for an episode to end with Batman getting a pie in the face and for another episode to end with a visit to his parents’ grave.
The real pinnacle of this take on the character came with Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. That film deeply explored the idea of Bruce Wayne as a tragic figure. There was plenty of great action and other staples of the character, but no other film had managed to take a truly piteous tone with this gallant hero. I don’t want to spoil the film if you haven’t seen it, but know that it ends with a Batman who feels an almost cursed obligation to the role he has chosen. It’s a somber and complex finale that no other Batman film has really successfully nailed.
That’s right, I’m calling out the ending of the widely accepted masterpiece, The Dark Knight.
Christopher Nolan and the Conservative Crusader
Everyone agrees that the Dark Knight trilogy from Christopher Nolan is the best live-action interpretation of the character. In all honestly, they are mostly right. Nolan treated the universe with the utmost respect and wanted to bring something more human and dramatic to the screen than we’d seen before. He succeeds in that regard, especially in the first act of Batman Begins. However, as his story continued, he began to interject elements of political commentary that shed some light on more of the troubling aspects of what Batman could be.
In The Dark Knight, Batman develops a sonar-based surveillance system that allows him to spy on the entirety of Gotham City. Lucius Fox scolds him but Batman believes it’s a necessary measure in order to locate and stop the Joker. Of course, Batman has the system self-destruct once the mission is over but that still raised an uneasy question. Is it okay for a supposed heroic entity to use whatever surveillance means necessary in order to track down a threat? Since it’s Batman, we trust him to be as noble as possible in the scenario, but this was in a pre-Snowden world. Looking back at it, even Batman shouldn’t be allowed that kind of power.
Then, The Dark Knight Rises took these right-leaning beliefs a step further with the liberation of Gotham. In that film, Bane exposes the lie Commissioner Gordon tried to perpetuate about Harvey Dent’s fictional sacrifice. Bane also directly attacks a financial pillar of the community and rebels against the idea that wealth is equal to power. Naturally, Bane’s methods are deplorable and taken to the extreme, but they were also eerily critical of the then current Occupy Wall Street movement. The desire to combat wealth inequality was portrayed as class warfare – a term right-wing pundits love to use when the disenfranchised start making noise about their situation – and Batman was seen as the only way to restore the status quo.
As a lifelong Batman fan, I began to question how I felt about the direction the character was being taken in the popular consciousness. Still, there was complexity and concepts of humanity in Nolan’s version. That hadn’t dissolved.
Arkham, The DCEU, and Batman the Brute
As the Nolan films began to wind down, another iteration of Batman began to capture the minds of the masses. Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequels were hailed as triumphs in the video game world, and fans everywhere lauded how the series allowed you to feel like you were actually playing as Batman. What did this mostly entail? Stylishly demolishing your enemies with a series of fluid combos. The violence of the character had now taken center stage. Being Batman meant kicking ass and feeling good about it.
To be fair, that isn’t a new take on Batman. Frank Miller’s attempt at deconstruction painted an aged Batman as someone who got off on how he dispatched with his foes. Miller’s Batman craves a fight and relishes every amount of pain he inflicts. It was appropriately disturbing for the time, but as that version of the character grew in popularity, it became less deconstruction and more a fundamental component of what people believed about Batman.
Fast forward to the newest cinematic incarnation of Batman. The DCEU Batman heavily draws upon Miller’s idea of the character while adding in the visceral excitement of the Arkham games. The tragedy of Batman has been reduced to window dressing. The death of his parents and his feelings of obligation are only necessary frameworks because of their importance to the character’s canon. What people seem to want out of Batman is for him to be a conduit for their own violent impulses. That’s not a hero or a character worth feeling sorry for. That’s an action figure.
World’s Greatest Dick (That Means Detective, I Swear)
Not only has Batman become a vessel for our need for violent catharsis, but his attitude has been portrayed as so abrasive that an entire parody of the character is based around him being a jerk. The Lego Movie gave us a Batman that is a conceited show-off incapable of self-awareness. Admittedly, this is humorous but it’s also telling about how we see Batman. He’s no longer a stoic and even woeful being. He’s a stuck-up rich kid who likes his toys and loves to beat up the people he doesn’t like.
That’s not a Batman I can feel sorry for. At his best, Batman is a hero because nothing else makes sense to him. He’s more apt to utilize his mind and other talents to win the day rather than just punching and kicking his way out. Though he certainly revels in the fear he instills, he doesn’t take a perverse pleasure in the violence he has to utilize. It’s simply the most effective way of overcoming that particular obstacle.
As Batman begins to become a more representative figure for American fiction, I worry that we are extolling the wrong virtues of the character. So many people think Batman is cool and he is obviously engineered for that kind of appeal on a surface level. But, that’s not what makes the character special or worth deeply examining. It’s his sacrifice, his burden, his loneliness, the overbearing specter of his parents, and his doomed sense of duty that make Batman interesting and yes, even pitiful.
I don’t want to leave cookies out for this new Batman. He’d just crush them up because it felt good.