Yeah, but you don’t have to be so mean about it…
Everybody loves The Batman. Children grow up on him, nerds worship him, casual film fans flock to see him, and there is seldom a vacuum where there isn’t any Batman-related show on the air and/or a film in the works. Batman is now everyone’s favorite superhero, having surpassed the Big Blue Boy Scout himself after works like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns inspired Tim Burton’s dark blockbuster films of the early 90’s and the brilliantly timeless Batman: The Animated Series, transforming his image from Adam West with an inflatable shark hanging off of his leg to a heroic-but-troubled avenger of the night. In the 90’s and beyond, we wanted grittiness and tortured souls, and Batman has been right there for us.
But would any of this have happened if the mainstream adaptations of Bruce Wayne’s crusade against crime and corruption in Gotham City had taken the approach that the comics have in recent years? In the comics, Batman is driven and obsessed to the point where he’s occasionally bordering on psychotic. He treats his friends like tools to be used and disposed of at will, he plots against his own allies, he makes questionable decisions that other people have to suffer for, his demeanor is typically abrasive and, well, he’s often just kind of a jerk.
Over the years, the comic medium has become a haven for bleak, adult storytelling that just would not appeal to your usual popcorn blockbuster audience. I’m going to explore that a little bit by discussing some instances from the past decade or so of pre-New 52 comics where Batman is not necessarily the guy you want to root for.
Batman to Superman: “cowl or gtfo”.
In the epic mega-arc, No Man’s Land, Gotham is sealed off from the rest of the DC universe after an earthquake levels it, leaving it unfit for human habitation. But many Gothamites refuse to leave their city and once the government abandons them, anarchy ensues as various supervillains move in and form gangs warring over territory, leaving the Bat-family to try and restore order for the few decent people still in Gotham. It’s awesome.
At one point Superman arrives to offer assistance and is met by his JLA compatriot, who promptly tells him to scat and belittles him for thinking he could make a difference. You see, Bats has serious control issues and he refuses to allow rogue elements to operate in “his city”. In other words, if you aren’t taking your orders directly from him, he wants you out.
Another good example of this came after former Batgirl Barbara Gordon, then the superhacker Oracle, formed her own superheroine squad, Birds of Prey, to be her agents. Batman allowed them to operate for some time while most of their operations were international and didn’t interfere, but once the Birds began battling with criminals locally and taking up Oracle’s time, Brucie let it be known that he would shut them down if they slipped up even once, as a good friend should.
Black Canary: not impressed.
Being a man who often threatens his friends and allies, Bats naturally has contingency plans to eliminate all of them, should the need arise. This bit of Bat-madness was actually co-opted by Ra’s al Ghul, who compromised the Batcave, found Batman’s computer files on the topic, and used the information within to bring down the members of the Justice League in the JLA story Tower of Babel. As a result, Bruce Wayne left the Justice League and was practically ostracized by the superhero community afterwards.
But hey, as much as a hardass as he is to his friends, Bats always wrecks the villains, right? Well, yeah, but in at least one case, he may have screwed up. In Chuck Dixon’s The Joker: Devil’s Advocate, the courts of the United States finally succeeded in sentencing the nastiest villain in the DCU to lawful death. Batman, however, was unconvinced of Joker’s guilt in this particular instance and set out to save his the life of his arch-nemesis, heedless to the immense amount of blood already on the villain’s hands prior to the current charge.
So yeah, Batman saved the Joker’s life on a technicality. His victory comes in informing the psychotic clown that he now has to live the rest of his life knowing that he owes it to his greatest enemy. Tell that to the families of the victims of his next dozen or so murder sprees, Mr. Wayne.
And yes, even his precious Bat-family feels the burn of Wayne’s sociopathic tendencies; possibly more than anyone else. Not being able to be everywhere at once, Bats keeps a network of allies instructed in his complex and exacting methods of crime fighting who he can call on when the need arises. They are the only vigilantes allowed to operate freely in Gotham City and include the likes of Robin (of course), Nightwing, Batgirl, Catwoman, and a few others at any given time.
Young Justice did it right.
Let’s focus on Batgirl for a minute. Not Barbara Gordon, but her underrated successor, Cassandra Cain. Cass isn’t just the coolest looking Batgirl; she was also capable of kicking the head Bat’s ass in hand-to-hand combat, which very few non-metahumans in the DCU can say. She was raised by her father, the assassin David Cain. Her mother? Lady Shiva, the invincible martial artist who keeps a list of the best of the best fighters on the planet for the sake of tracking them down and killing them in deathmatches. Cassandra was raised without speech so that she could be the ultimate assassin. In other words: less talking, more killing.
After Oracle took Cass under her wing, she allowed her to take the mantle of Batgirl, but often ended up at odds with Batman. Wayne sensed a kindred spirit who knew nothing except the art of war and pushed her to constant vigilance, while Babs wanted Cass to learn social skills and have a chance at a decent life outside of vigilantism. Bats even went so far as to threaten Superman again when his protégé Superboy took a romantic interest in his new Batgirl, distracting her away from her constant patrols. Am I implying that Batman treated Batgirl as a weapon the same way her supervillain father did? Yes. Yes I am.
Cassandra Cain eventually struck out on her own, leaving an opening for her close friend, fellow supervillain spawn, Stephanie Brown, aka Spoiler. She proved herself by “spoiling” the plans of her father, The Cluemaster, while developing a romantic relationship with Tim Drake, then Robin. When Tim abandoned his sidekick post after his parents’ discovered his secret life, Stephanie made herself a Robin costume and demanded that Batman take her as his replacement.
Batman quickly fired Steph after a few unimpressive performances and coldly abandoned her as any mentor would. In an effort to prove herself worthy, Spoiler put into effect another of Batman’s secret contingency plans he left lying around; one meant to bring all organized crime in Gotham under the control of his undercover alter-ego, Matches Malone. But due to the ensuing case of crap luck, the entire city is plunged into a bloody gang war instead. This is known as the War Games arc.
During the bedlam Black Mask ends up capturing Spoiler and torturing her to death when she won’t give up Batman. It’s been heavily implied that Batman only allowed Stephanie Brown to wear the Robin outfit as a ploy to provoke a jealous Tim Drake to return to his duties. Steph’s last words spoken to Batman as she lay dying in the hospital: “Was I ever really Robin?” Wayne told her she was, but didn’t bother taking up space in his Batcave with a memorial for her like fellow deceased former Robin Jason Todd got. Just saying.
Catwoman: not impressed.
So picture this happening: a summer blockbuster about a manipulative, unfeeling bastard who inspires and trains children to risk their lives on his behalf, alienates his friends at every opportunity while telling his fellow heroes to get lost or he’ll throw them out himself, and goes out of his way to save the lives of vicious murderers while his sidekicks die around him. I think Christopher Nolan may have just shit himself.
That’s not to say I’m not a fan. I genuinely love Batman. I think his extreme faults are what make him one of the most complicated and interesting characters in mainstream comics. And the fact remains that he ALWAYS has a reason and a bigger picture in mind when he does the things he does. But then again, so do guys like Dr. Doom and Ra’s al Ghul. Bruce Wayne’s willingness to teeter on the brink of true darkness while doing good is one of his defining characteristics, as is the immense arrogance that allows him to do so knowing he has the self-discipline to never go over the edge.
In my opinion, the definitive adaptation of Batman was the DC Animated Universe, which managed to take the darker, brooding, antisocial edge of the modern comics and tone it down to something that was still driven and formidable, but a little more relatable without having him act the goofy playboy for comedic value and constantly yearning for a love interest like what we’ve seen in the films. And the elder, mega-cynical Mr. Wayne from Batman Beyond? Beyond reproach is more like it.
This is EXACTLY what an old Bruce Wayne should be like; scarier and less personable than his attack dog.
For comparison, let me contrast the most popular/profitable modern take on Batman in Nolan’s beloved Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan’s Bruce Wayne was a pampered rich boy whose personal demons led him to train ninjitsu with a supervillain (no vetting process), relied almost entirely on Alfred Pennyworth and Lucius Fox to wipe his bum for him and provide him with billions in military grade sci-fi technology, respectively, killed more villains than not (or allowed them to be killed), spent damn near every non-action onscreen moment pining for his hottie of the moment, and failed as often (and usually more epically) as he succeeded while trying waaaaay too hard to sound intimidating with his ubiquitously-mocked tough guy voice. I also find it hard to describe him in the last film without using the word “bumbling”.
In the comics, Batman is the world’s greatest detective and fiercely independent. He pretty much knows everything about everyone he works with, and if he doesn’t, he will soon find out. Alfred offers the companionship he pretends not to need and plays a support role in his endeavors, as do the rest of the “family”, but at the end of the day Bruce Wayne by himself is the single most dangerous man in the DC Universe simply because he is smarter, better disciplined, and more driven to succeed than any other character.
No matter how powerful you are, he will find your weakness, he’s not afraid to exploit it, and everybody knows it. All of the technology and metagenes in the world can’t compare to the power of the man himself. No matter the odds, he finds a way to get it done, and he does it on his own terms. That’s something we can all look up to.
To compare, Nolan’s trilogy’s metaphor for individualism became less about personal empowerment and willpower than an almost Randian implication of the importance of the wealthy and privileged in society. That’s not to say that most of Nolan’s films weren’t great (to quote Meatloaf: two out of three ain’t bad). They were. But his prissy Batman wouldn’t last a week in DC’s Gotham. He’s a mainstream Hollywood creation designed to appeal to the widest possible audience and indulge the director’s personal fantasies, whereas the heart and soul of Batman in the comics is exactly the opposite.
In the comics,Bruce Wayne is a tortured loner who lost his parents and has spent most of his life pushing nearly everyone away from him unless he can use them to his own ends of battling crime in his city, sparing as many as possible from the torment of the loss that destroyed his life. He may have a romantic fling every now and then just to prove he’s human, but he is seldom under the impression that any relationship will last. He’s married to his self-imposed crusade. Not so much when he’s on film.
So will we ever see a Batman so badass that he strikes fear into the hearts of his own allies on the big screen? I’d love to see The Bat psychologically bullying The Man of Steel in a blockbuster cross-over, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Obviously, there is room for any number of interpretations of the character in different mediums, but there’s a reason comics are still the exclusive domain of nerds even as Hollywood smashes and grabs at the industry for ideas and franchises to exploit.
Characters like Batman are designed to appeal to those who feel ostracized from society. People who want to change the sickness in the world and don’t have the means; who want to see an individualistic social recluse kick ass all over the would-be bullies and put the fear of God into those who have otherwise unfettered power over the common people. Someone who relies more on brains than brawn and just doesn’t give a crap what society expects from them. But sorry, my friends; that concept doesn’t sell a lot of toys.
Terrorize the wealthy and corrupt with your very own Batman: Year One action figure!