Character Feature: Batman

Riddle me this, riddle me that. Who’s afraid of the big. black. bat?

I began work on this about ten days ago and until a few hours ago, I almost didn’t post this for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, here is my summary for why Batman is my favourite masked avenger in the month that Nolan’s trilogy ending The Dark Knight Rises hits cinema screens.

People think it’s an obsession. A compulsion. As if there were an irresistible impulse to act. It’s never been like that. I chose this life. I know what I’m doing. And on any given day, I could stop doing it. Today, however, isn’t that day. And tomorrow won’t be either.

Identity Crisis

Appeared in: Began life in graphic novels but went on to live TV adaptations, animated TV series, a large number of video games (most recently the highly regarded Arkham series).

Portrayed by: Adam West (live TV series), Kevin Conroy (voice – animated series), Michael Keaton (Burton movies), Val Kilmer (Batman Forever), George Clooney (Batman and Robin), Christian Bale (Nolan’s movies)

General Character: Origin stories for graphic novel superhero characters generally vary to a certain degree but for young Bruce Wayne the theme is always the same. As a young boy, he and his super-rich parents get lost in the dark streets of Gotham City and are murdered in a robbery gone wrong. The Burton films changed this so that a young Jack Napier (The Joker) kills the boy’s parents. Growing up as a ward of butler Alfred, Bruce Wayne – with the memory of his parents – vows to clean up Gotham City and emerges many years later as the greatest crime fighter of them all: Batman.

Criminals, by nature, are a cowardly and superstitious lot. To instill fear into their hearts, I became a bat. A monster in the night. And in doing so, have I become the very thing that all monsters become – alone?

Identity Crisis

This theme of “the monster in the night”, the ancient and irrational fear of the bat and its association with the vampire is one of the most primal fears we have. It is a nocturnal creature with a rat-like face, sharp teeth and its uniqueness as a flying rodent has given it the mythical status. That and of course, there is a vampire bat:

A vampire bat
image: National Geographic

Loneliness is a recurring theme of Batman. Keaton’s potrayal was of a man haunted by his past, not just a crime fighter but one who feels a certain vulnerability and a shell of iron around his body. He is unable to express his love for Kim Basinger’s Vicky Vale and in so doing pushes her away leaving the reporter exasperated. Bale’s portrayal, though not as haunted as Keaton’s yet arguably carrying a greater weight on his shoulders, acts the buffoon to divert attention away from his as the Caped Crusader and always keeps his love interest Rachel just out of reach… until she accepts the marriage proposal from another man, but is killed before the wedding. Having just seen The Dark Knight Rises, the weight of the world has fallen onto his shoulders so much that Bruce Wayne is a broken man – physically and emotionally. Batman has not been seen in a long time and Wayne is not in a fit state to be donning the suit again. So he lives as a recluse in Wayne Manor, allowing the martyred Harvey Dent to take the credit for the clean streets of Gotham and the name of Batman tarnished… until a prominent member of the League of Shadows (Bane) turns up to destroy the city – first spiritually and then literally.

This haunted man complex is less of a theme in the recent video games Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. We see the death of his parents in a Scarecrow-induced hallucination in the first game but there is far less of his back story in the series (so far anyway). The games are so rich and detailed and most of the villains have already appeared. If you haven’t played them, I strongly recommend them.

As much loved as the camp 1960s TV series is with its quirky dialogue and written sound effects on screen (KAPOW! SPLAT!) it went far to undermind the true haunted nature of the character. The Burton film Batman: The Movie took him back to his roots. As interest rose, the 1990s saw the creation of an animated series. It wasn’t until Nolan rebooted the films after the disastrous Schumacher production Batman and Robin that the character finally became as originally intended as The Dark Knight. A world populated by psychopaths, sadists and the criminally insane added a menace to the world of Gotham.

Most interestingly, we see a developing theme of Batman being responsible for the increase in psychopaths in The Dark Knight. The fact that he has removed the crime bosses from Gotham, the psychopaths who might otherwise be working alone and end up getting killed when they pick a fight with the wrong person, are now free to escalate from street-psychopaths into city-worrying terrorists. I am not well conversed with the graphic novels, but this seems to be a theme with a lot of the plot threads there too.

Batman, unlike Superman, does not always have the respect of those he is trying to save. He is, after all, a vigilante in a suit who dishes out rough justice to anybody who deserves it. He is always in danger of (even if he never does) harm the wrong person. This position he has above the law leads to resentment. Joker understands this:

Don’t talk like you’re one of them! You’re not… even if you’d like to be. To them you’re just a freak, like me. They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out. Like a leper. See, their morals, their “code”… it’s a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these uh, these “civilized people”, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.

Batman may not be the Detective that Gotham wants but he is the one they need, to turn the tables of fear on villains, to protect them by any means necessary (though he will not kill intentionally, his methods are not exactly pacifist in nature).

Why I love the character: Batman is the part of us that wants to see those who create fear live in fear themselves. He turns the tables on the criminal element who would kill us for a few coins, rampage through our streets causing criminal damage, rob banks and threaten to blow up buildings for huge ransoms. He is the part of us that wants the dregs of society to simply think again because there are worse things than being locked in a prison cell. The terror of a black-clad figure swooping down on you in the middle of the night and the fear of what it might do to you. Sure, he has never intentionally killed anybody but tonight he might be in an off mood…

7 thoughts on “Character Feature: Batman

  1. tmso

    Great character study. I, too, admire the themes and the basic moral justice that the character Batman strives for. It is too bad that recent events have marred the opening of the latest film. I haven’t seen it, but will soon.

    1. mgm75

      Thank you :)

      I’ve always been drawn to the haunted nature of Batman. I think it gives him an edge that a lot of other superheroes/masked avengers lack.

      1. tmso

        Which is surprising, when you think of it. If they are masked, surely they are hiding something more than just their identity, right? Maybe something dark and sinister?

        I do like Batman, though, and am glad that he is kind of out there on his own, unloved (sniff), except for all of us lonely-hearts. ;)

        Granted, there are probably more superheroes out there that are like that, but that are just not as popular. I wrote my own superhero once that kind of has these traits. Maybe I should resurrect his character and start writing some short flashes with him in mind…hhhmmmm…

      2. mgm75

        Yes, for most the mask is not merely an attempt to hide their true identity but – for want of a better word – acting out a persona. Whether that be to create fear (Batman), to be seen as something of a unifying force or a symbol (X-Men, Fantastic Four), or to create a gimmick of something larger than life (Spiderman).

        Superman I think also stands alone. He is Superman; Clark Kent is the disguise and that disguise helps him to fit in, not stand out.

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