Batman vs. the Batman

Wow… the Batman! Or is it just “Batman?” Uh, your choice, of course! – Selina Kyle, Batman Returns The future Catwoman has a good question. Sure, the movie titles always refer to the guy as plain old “Batman.” But he … Continued

Wow… the Batman! Or is it just “Batman?” Uh, your choice, of course!

– Selina Kyle, Batman Returns

The future Catwoman has a good question. Sure, the movie titles always refer to the guy as plain old “Batman.” But he didn’t start out that way. Here’s a quote from Batman creator Bob Kane’s autobiography (via Wikipedia):

One day I called [collaborator Bill Finger] and said, “I have a new character called the Bat-Man and I’ve made some crude, elementary sketches I’d like you to look at.”

Italics mine. Sure enough, when the character was introduced to the world in Detective Comics 27, it was with the “the.”

So which is correct: “Batman” or “the Batman?” Are both acceptable? Which does he prefer? To figure it out, we have to consider superhero names in general, and decode the function of the “the.”

Superhero names without a “the” are basically nicknames. Wolverine. Daredevil. These are people who go by different names for a specific purpose. They are noms de crime-guerre.

But a superhero name with a “the” no longer refers to a person. It refers to a thing. A creature. A myth. The definite article implies there is something indefinite about the character. The specificity compensates for the strangeness.

The most prominent “the” heroes are the most monstrous. The Hulk. The Thing. But you can be inhuman in a non-physical way. A great example is The Joker. He may look a little strange, but no one doubts he’s a person. And yet, he’s so crazy, murderous, and devoid of all human qualities that it seems somehow appropriate to call him “the” Joker. He’s a thing, not a man.

But there’s another category of “the” heroes: the ones who choose the “the” for themselves. They want to shed their humanity. For example, the Punisher. He’s basically just a guy with some guns. But by calling himself the Punisher, he’s trying to embody retribution itself. He wants to be a symbol, and the “the” is part of that.

In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne spells this out pretty clearly:

As a man I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol… as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.

He needs to be larger than life. He needs to be the Batman. (For more on this, please see Fenzel’s epic Philosophy of Batman post.)

Of course, there’s a Batmobile-sized hole in my argument: when he introduces himself to the gangster Falcone, he says, “I’m Batman,” not “I’m the Batman.” But let’s look more closely at who calls him what.

I went through a transcript of Batman Begins, and found that he’s called “the Batman” on four occasions:


1. A woman at a restaurant
2. Dr. Crane (the bad guy)
3. Dr. Crane again
4. A police officer

He’s referred to as plain old “Batman” six times. But look who does it:


1. Batman himself
2. A police officer
3. A little kid
4. Alfred
5. Bruce Wayne
6. Rachel Dawes

His friends call him “Batman,” and his enemy calls him “the Batman.”

There’s no transcript of The Dark Knight online yet, so I can’t crunch the numbers. But I’m pretty sure it’s the same deal. Alfred:

They’ll hate you for it, but that’s the point of Batman, he can be the outcast.

The Joker:

I know why you’re afraid to go out at night. The Batman.

I’m sure you can think of exceptions. But basically, people who think of Batman as a person call him “Batman.” Whereas criminals, to whom Batman is practically a ghost, call him “the Batman.”

And what about you, dear reader? Do you prefer to think of him as “Batman,” a playboy with a cave full of cool toys? Or “the Batman,” a dark figure lurking in the shadows, eternally watching over Gotham?

10 Comments on “Batman vs. the Batman”

  1. mlawski OTI Staff #

    The hyphen in between Bat and Man in the Bob Kane quotation further justifies my theory that the name should be pronounced “The Bat. Man.” with a breath in between. That’s what Dr. Crane says, and I think the Joker pronounces it that way, too. That space distances us further from Batman, making him even more inhuman. It’s also more fun to say.


  2. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    Ug, it’s a pdf. I’m pretty obsessive, but I’m not tallying all those “Batman”s and “the Batman”s without control-f.

    Thanks for the link, though! It’s a tremendous script. I’d be curious to go through and see exactly what Heath Ledger improvised during shooting, if anything.

    One line that’s NOT in this script:
    “You’re crazy.” “I’m not. I’m… not.”
    Simple, but Heath makes it kind of chilling.


  3. Gab #

    I sat back and thought about it for a second and realized that I go back and forth, depending on the context and the type of point I’m trying to get across; and it depends on, basically, your two categories. If I’m debating with people about whether he should exist or not (and I’m a political nerd, so I usually do this with a political/sociological perspective), I tend to use the “the” because it is more objective and gives him more of a title. If I’m just fangirling it and talking about how hott and sexxy and bada$$ he is, I’ll leave out the “the” because it’s more about my admiration and less about justifying him and what he does in a (seemingly) objective fashion.

    Now, were I to write a fanfic about him (no, I’m so not alluding to other posts), I’d use no “the,” but I’d let my characters do the “the”-ing for me where necessary. EX: When the love interest writes an editorial to the _Gotham Times_ defending his methods and ways, “the” would be used in said editorial; but when talking about him with people at, say, a lunch or something, and admitting her little crush, she’d omit it in what she says.


    His other names have “the”: the Dark Knight and the Caped Crusader. I speculate that this is because they are secondary and, theoretically, given to him by others. Superman is also known as THE Man of Steel, THE Man of Tomorrow, THE Last Son of Krypton, and THE Metropolis Marvel. Admittedly, I don’t know when each of those first showed up and how, but my guess is they came from citizens of Metropilis that were in awe of him and felt distance in light of his powers. He’s practically a god to them, and they feel humbled by him and revere him. The “the” on those makes him more of a symbol for them, much like how the “the” on Batman makes him a symbol for his fans or not-so-fans. The distance this “the” creates is demonstrated by the Joker in TDK, as you said. He wants to separate himself from Batman, bottom line (although yeah, there are probably myriad other lines, too). And note how during his monologue at the end, Gordon doesn’t say, “Dark Knight,” but, “A Dark Knight.” Not “the,” but the “a” serves the same purpose, albeit for a different reason.


  4. lee OTI Staff #

    A note about “The Joker.” My recollection on the 60’s TV series is that The Joker was often referred to as simply “Joker” without the “the,” both when being spoken to and when spoke about. See this clip and fast forward to about 1:00:

    The crowd watching the surfing competition repeatedly refers to “Joker” while watching him from afar.

    Clearly, this is a product of The Joker being a far more human and less monstrous character than the Tim Burton or Chris Nolan depictions.


  5. Joel #

    I’ve always referred to him as Batman, to me that just sounds right.

    This is my theory …

    It makes sense that when he initially began to be spotted around Gotham, he was referred to as “The Bat-man.” It’s a way to describe the mythical crime fighter in a costume. He was a man dressed like a bat, the name just makes sense.

    Over time, it stands to reason that the nickname would stick and eventually people would drop the “the” and just refer to him as Batman.

    But I completely agree with you about your theory that people who see him as a person call him Batman, while villains who fear him call him “The Batman.”


  6. Gab #

    Foxdie: I seriously lold.


  7. Simon #

    I think “The Batman” is a nickname or a title for someone dressed like a bat. “Batman” is a creature who was born or created like a bat. A human-bat.


Add a Comment