If you’ve clicked on this post or follow The Shelf Is Half Full, chances are you are a pretty big comic book fan. And if comic book sales, t-shirt sales and movie ticket sales are any indication, it probably means you are a pretty big fan of Batman. After all, Batman and his mythos have jumped from the pages of comic books and become ingrained in pulp culture for the better part of his seventy-five years of publication. He’s been the subject of live-action and cartoon TV series as well as animated and live-action movies. His image and his symbol have become a marketing juggernaut, and even casual fans would find it easy to relate his secret identity, the city he works in, and the name of everyone from his villains to his butler.
Which begs the question: is Batman really all that great of a character?
Okay, before you come at me with torches and pitchforks; yes, Batman is an awesome character. I am a fan of Batman, I think he’s awesome. But just because I like something doesn’t mean I can turn a blind eye when a character has some flaws. And sadly, Batman’s long history has shown us that the character has some major flaws. These aren’t the types of flaws that make him endearing either, but I’ll explain that in a minute. This of course, isn’t Batman’s fault; he’s simply a fictional character after all, and as at the mercy of whoever is in charge of writing for him at the time. And while there have been many, many good writers who have done right by the character, there’s also quite a few poor or at the very least misguided writers who have done some damage to the character as well.
This is not an article meant to be a character assassination of Batman. The purpose of this is to talk about some of the problems I have with the way the character is written and show examples of how it can be done better. After all, comic books will continue and there will be new writers for Batman, and I hope that anyone who takes on that challenge thinks a little more carefully about how to approach the character.
1) Batman Is Often Too Angry and Brooding
The Problem – We all know that Batman was born out of tragedy; Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered in front of him when he was a young child and he vowed vengeance on all criminals. That’s all well and good, and it does help define who Batman is. However, I feel that certain writers dwell too much on these aspects of the character; they characterize Batman as a rage-fueled sociopath without compassion or mercy. Writer/artist (and I use this term loosely) Frank Miller gets a lot of credit for redefining Batman in the 1980’s with Year One and The Dark Knight Returns but that isn’t always a good thing. Much like Miller himself, that Batman is fueled by hatred, self-righteous rage, and is generally an all around unpleasant person to be around. And don’t even get me started on Miller’s atrocious All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder comics where Batman is a sexist, homophobic S.O.B. who calls Robin “retarded”.
Sadly, crappy writing like Miller’s has become a large part of Batman’s identity, and some people have latched onto it. That’s why we’re getting a movie in 2016 where Batman wants to make Superman bleed. Ugh…
The Solution – To me, Batman’s story isn’t about someone who is consumed by grief and rage. That’s a sad and honestly pathetic take on the character and I’d like to think that Batman is a better hero than that. I believe that most humans prefer heroes who overcome tragedy and move on, becoming stronger, not people who dwell endlessly on the problems of the past. It’s okay for Batman to feel sad or angry just as it’s okay for anyone else, but he should also be allowed to feel happy or content once in a while. Batman: The Animated Series portrayed a Batman who was just as quick to throw humorous one-liners as he was to throw punches, and I don’t think anyone would say that show ruined Batman by allowing Bruce to smile and make jokes. Even Chris Nolan’s super serious Dark Knight trilogy shows that Batman has a keen sense of humor and is capable of making friends.
Balance is the key; I’m not suggesting that Batman be the 1966 Adam West version (though there’s certainly room for that), but he doesn’t need to be the brooding monster that Miller wrote his as. Somewhere between the two extremes should be the goal. Most of my favorite Batman stories tend to show a lighter side of Batman.
2) Batman is Often Too Arrogant and Self-Righteous
The Problem – Bruce Wayne is a very smart person with a mostly black and white view on morality. These aren’t necessarily bad traits; they give him the edge he needs to be a determined and successful crime fighter and detective. But you know, even geniuses screw up from time to time, and they often screw up in epic ways. Unfortunately, many writers believe that because Batman is the smartest person on the planet that he should have a contingency plan for everything. You know who else has contingency plans for everything? Lex Luthor. Doctor Doom. Just because Batman is brilliant doesn’t mean he should behave a like a mad scientist. Some writers also have an annoying tendency to show that Batman is more clever, better prepared and smarter than anyone he’s working with, including the Justice League. Sorry, I’m just not buying that, and any time I read a comic where Batman calls one of his heroes an idiot I want to find the writer and tell them to stop making Bruce such a pompous jerk.
And let’s get into another thing that comes out of this line of thought that Batman is the best there is at everything. One of the key aspects of Batman’s character is that he doesn’t kill. I am entirely in support of this: Bruce’s entire life was changed because of murder and he should be opposed to killing. Bruce also believes that it isn’t his place to be the judge of criminals and he shouldn’t execute them. That’s fine, that’s noble, it gives him a code to live by. But let’s just set aside the fact that Bruce should probably have killed Joker by now because the scales really don’t add up. If Bruce really believes that killing will be the step that drives him over the edge, fine. I’ll allow that. But man, it really annoys me when he tries to enforce his beliefs on other people; other than Superman and Flash, most of the Justice League is willing to make a judgment call of when it’s okay to kill someone. Batman has an annoying tendency to say that they shouldn’t under any circumstances. That’s just self-righteous and short-sighted, and Bruce should trust his friends to make their own calls.
The Solution – This is one of my biggest problems with Batman and sadly, one of the easiest to fix. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to not make Batman a self-righteous and arrogant jerk. I think that from time to time, Batman’s should make decisions that don’t necessarily live up to his standards, as we all do. And that includes his killing rule. In Hush, Batman nearly killed the Joker after his friend Thomas Elliot was killed, deciding it was finally time to put an end to Joker’s killing. In the movie Under the Red Hood Batman admits to Jason Todd that he thinks about killing Joker every day. In Born to Kill, he straight up tells a criminal named Nobody that he is going to kill him for attempting to murder his son Damien. In all of these instances something happened to keep Bruce from actually going through with the kill, but showing that the intent was there humanizes Bruce and shows that he isn’t always bound by his code; this actually serves to make his no-killing rule more meaningful because of genuine temptation.
3) Batman Never Fails
The Problem – One of the things that annoys me most about devoted Batman fans is their insistence that he is the smartest, most resourceful hero there is and thus is impossible to beat. These are the people that claim that Batman would beat Superman in a fight because he’s so much smarter than Clark, so much better prepared and so much more ruthless. And despite the insane impossibility of this situation, some writers like to go that route, including Frank Miller. You know what a character who is so smart and so brutal that he can beat Superman with ease is? Every bit as invulnerable and therefore every bit as boring as Superman. This is what I like to call “God Mode Batman”, and yeah, every once in a while it is fun to see Batman go into this mode, just like its fun to see any hero at their best.
But take a look at the picture above and tell me that honestly that you aren’t more invested in a Batman who is pushed to the brink of death, with seemingly no escape. A Batman who has all the odds against him, and has to use his wits and his heart and his will to fight back and survive? Yeah, you can’t. Vulnerability creates tension and drama, and that is the essence of good storytelling.
The Solution – Fortunately, this one is more a problem with fans than writers. Most good writers know the basics of storytelling call for the hero to be in peril or at the very least in danger of failing to save others. The best Batman stories are always the ones where he is pushed to his mental and physical limits, the ones where he almost dies because, well, he’s human. Those are the ones that make us connect with the character and root for him to succeed. Heroes should always be more human than godlike. Even if they almost always win in the end.