What Makes Batman Batman – Part I

Is Zack Snyder’s vision of Batman really Batman?

Matt Belinkie:  So guys, this Snyderverse Batman seems to be extra dark, which is saying something. He runs people over with his car. He lights people on fire. He brands people with the expectation that they’ll be murdered in prison. He even picks up a gun and shoots people. Snyder has argued that all the previous film Batmen also kill people, if only indirectly. Besides, this Batman is supposed to be older and more grizzled than the Batmen we’re used to. So maybe this murdery Batman is a completely legit interpretation of the character… but I don’t think so. I think if you make Batman into the Punisher with more toys, than he’s not Batman anymore. So let’s hash this out: what makes Batman Batman?


I think it’s important that Batman works WITH the police. He’s almost a one man SWAT team, but ultimately he’s handing the guys over, not leaving them in pieces. Maybe a good way to put it is that Batman believes in institutions, or at least the potential of institutions. He doesn’t want to punish criminals himself. He wants the city to punish them, and he’s there to assist. The Affleck Batman doesn’t seem to believe in much beyond himself and his own judgement.

Richard Rosenbaum:  The problem I see with your version is that in most cases, Commissioner Gordon is either the only or almost the only honest cop in Gotham. The city is rampant with crime precisely because the system is broken. Batman sees himself as a response to this – he’d be happy to let the police do their job if they were doing their job, but they aren’t. That’s why he sees himself as necessary. He’s acting without authority BUT he is incorruptible, in contrast with the cops, who are as bad if not worse than the official criminals.

Belinkie:  So you think that (in most versions) he’s working with Gordon only because he needs Gordon’s resources, not because he feels like he has to defer to the police and the courts.

Richard:  It isn’t even that he needs Gordon’s resources, it’s that he respects Gordon because Gordon is honest and honourable. They have the same goals. He would, I think, be happy to defer to the police and courts if he trusted them. But he is inherently suspicious of authority. Gordon, to him, is a rare exception, an honest man in a broken machine.

Belinkie:  Then if Batman is fine acting unilaterally, is the problem with Batfleck the level of violence? Is a certain level of restraint key to the character? A code of conduct? He’s not called the Dark Knight for nothing.

To be fair, other movie Batmen HAVE killed, most notably the 1989 Michael Keaton Batman, who attaches a gargoyle to the Joker’s foot causing him to plunge to his death. Maybe that moment was un-Batman in retrospect, but we didn’t mind at the time?


Pete Fenzel: I’m willing to accept a Batman who is willing to kill nobody except the Joker, and that with a heavy heart. Also, you could possibly interpret that scene as Batman preventing the Joker from escaping, and it was the Joker’s insistence on escaping that kills him. The Joker could have just asked the helicopter to put him down.

Also it’s possible Batman didn’t know the gargoyle was going to collapse. Possibly.

Jordan Stokes:  I dunno, man, it’s a short leap from “I can accept a Batman who is only willing to kill the Joker” to “I can accept a Superman who is only willing to kill General Zod.” You want to start down this slippery slope?

Next thing, you’ll we willing to accept a Captain Planet who is willing to throw tuna fish cans in the regular trash, just because they always smell like fish no matter how much you wash them.

Fenzel: Point taken, but I don’t think those are similar acts to those two characters. Superman usually barely knows General Zod, and Superman isn’t supposed to have moments of moral weakness, as one of his powers is invulnerability. Of course in the Tim Burton Batman movie Batman has just met the Joker, but there’s also this implied idea that Batman and the Joker have been enemies for a long time and the Joker has gone to a lot of trouble to get inside Batman’s head and make him lose his cool.

But that lines up with something I’ve always felt informs superhero movies when they are good – the superheroes should display choices that meaningfully interact with and reflect their powers. It invests their powers more deeply in the story and grounds them.

So, Superman is invulnerable and is really strong and can fly, whereas Batman is really smart and knows the city and is a highly skilled martial artist and psychological warrior with a lot of technology. So in confronting a nemesis, we should see Superman make choices that reflect strength, resilience and elevation. Whereas with Batman we should see choices that reflect intelligence, agility, psychological warfare and technology.

Like I think it’s fine to have a dark Batman, because he dresses like a bat, which lives in the dark. Dark Superman doesn’t have that kind of consonance.

Stokes: But is it okay to have a light Batman, Adam West style? Or is that Not-Batman?


Belinkie:  Personally, I was fine with Superman killing Zod. I didn’t feel like that was some unforgivable betrayal of the character. It was at the end of a massive fight, with the lives of an innocent family in the balance, and he’s clearly devastated to have to make that choice. I have issues with Snyder’s Superman, but that one act of killing isn’t a deal breaker for me.

Your mileage may vary.

Fenzel: I think the original idea behind Adam West Batman was contempt for the subject matter and the type of story in general, and the belief that it could not or should not be told in a way that lends it credibility. So Adam West Batman is a confoundment of Batman, deliberately playing him against certain expectations of type.  So the idea of Batman being ridiculous camp is based on a critique of superhero stories as pulpy and useless, blind to their own homoeroticism and its purpose. And yet Adam West Batman does have this relation to Silver Age Batman, which is more about doing ridiculous flamboyant things? I guess?
But maybe that’s part of what makes Batman special – there are just _so many things going on_ with Batman. And yet the icon holds together, which most icons would not under that kind of strain.

Adam West Batman focuses more on Batman’s core character trait of wearing an outlandish costume and not having to have a real job.  And pre-Anderson Cooper American “eccentric” aristocracy.

Belinkie: So Pete, how would you answer the original question: what’s the matter with Batfleck?

Fenzel: Well, I think the issue with Batfleck killing people is more a Bruce Wayne problem than a Batman problem. Because, sure, Batman was always killing people, or at least doing them fatal injury, by punching them really hard or knocking them over railings and such. But he was credibly against murder and didn’t seek it out. The idea of his restraint is built on a certain trust in public figures of authority – that really you should do what Batman asks, because if you do you can trust him not to kill you. If everybody just stopped doing what they were doing in Gotham and relaxed, then it would be okay with Batman and everything would be fine. You can’t trust any of the other authority figures, but you can trust Batman.
The problem with Batfleck is that he is in open war on the streets with people, not even showing the pretense of restraint. There’s not a sense that if you came across Batman, and you just put your hands up and surrendered, he wouldn’t kill you anyway. He might be so determined to do what he is doing that he won’t slow down.


And that’s an issue for Bruce Wayne, because if trust in public authority has broken down so much that things have really escalated into an all-out war, and nobody ever has a reason not to kill people, and there’s no trust in public figures of authority or even hope for it, then what benefit is offered to Batman by being Bruce Wayne? Why would he ever take the suit off except to bathe or sleep?
That Batman persists in being Bruce Wayne in his daily life tells me that he wants the city to function in some manner of peace and submission to authority. That he hopes that Bruce Wayne at least can go to business meetings or downtown and not be surrounded by bodyguards in a compound.

It’s the difference between walk-around-New-York wealth and compound-in-the-developing-world wealth. It’s a different sort of aristocracy, to live in a world where, as a rich man, you can never really leave your house without an armed escort. And if that were the case for Batman, he wouldn’t be able to sustain a secret identity. Or at least it would serve no purpose.

There are versions of Batman that live in worlds like this, but they usually don’t get to be Bruce Wayne in the traditional sense.  And we want Batman in the movies to be able to be Bruce Wayne, because that’s fun and that’s the Batman the moviegoing audience wants to see, plus you get to put a movie star in a tuxedo.

Stokes: Yeah, I think that the core trait of Batman is just that he has a secret identity and dresses up as a bat to fight crime. Like, I can imagine a straight-up spree killer vigilante Batman: I’d think it was garbage and decline to watch it, but it would still BE Batman. But a batman where Bruce Wayne decides to join the police force, and just fights crime within the system, would NOT be Batman. It would be an alternate universe story: what would it be like if Bruce Wayne had never become the Batman?

Richard:  In The Dark Knight Returns, Batman treads this line very carefully: he breaks Joker’s neck, paralyzing him, but Joker gets the last laugh, moving just enough to let the broken neck kill him and leading to outrage from Gothamites, viz “OMG Batman murdererzz!”

More recently, and in current continuity, Batman made a one-time exception to his rule and used a special god-killing bullet to shoot and “kill” Darkseid to prevent Darkseid from destroying the universe or whatever. This led to Batman’s own “death.” But in context it seems like a perfectly rational and ethical decision. That said, if this is where the DC Cinematic Universe is heading, this movie will have retroactively shot itself several times in every available foot, since Superman’s actions in MoS and Batman’s here would rob that climactic moment if absolutely all its symbolic moral weight.


Belinkie: Might be relevant that in The Dark Knight Returns, seemingly the only Batman comic Snyder knows (and even that selectively), Bruce Wayne eventually “dies” and becomes Batman fulltime. Ditto in the recent Arkham Knight video game.

Fenzel: Yeah, Batman Beyond is like this too, I think. Right?

Belinkie:  Incidentally, Batman Beyond begins with a wonderful Batman scene. A middle aged but still active Bruce Wayne is trying to rescue a kidnapped girl. He’s clearly lost a step, and he’s getting beat by the final thug. In desperation, he picks a gun off the ground and points it at the guy. The thug runs away, and Batman takes the girl home. Then he goes back to the cave, takes off the suit, and says to himself, “Never again.” That’s the last time he goes out as Batman. That’s always stuck with me.

16 Comments on “What Makes Batman Batman – Part I”

  1. yellojkt Member #

    I can imagine a straight-up spree killer vigilante Batman:

    Isn’t that pretty much Rorschach from The Watchman who is one side of Batman while Nite Owl with all his gadgets is the other (more Adam Westy) side?


  2. robbbbbb #

    There’s a great line I picked up years ago about Batman that I think sums up the core of the character:

    “Batman is the hero anyone could be, given training, discipline, and intense psychological trauma.”

    Part of why we read/watch Batman is that we can imagine ourselves as that wounded, disciplined guy.* And all of those elements have to be there for the character to be Batman, instead of just some guy who dresses up in a suit to fight crime.

    Batman has to be messed up. He’s watched his parents get killed in front of him, but instead of revenge he focuses it on justice. He’s intensely driven in a way that isn’t really healthy. You have to know in your heart that Bruce Wayne is not all there, even while you’re cheering for him.

    Batman has to be well-trained. He has invested time and energy in learning amazing skills, but he doesn’t have any super-human abilities. He’s just really, really good at what he does. It’s the same reason we admire Delta Force commandoes and Navy SEALs. In a world with superhuman beings, Batman is just a guy who is really, really good at what he does.

    But most of all, Batman has to be disciplined. That’s why we care that he doesn’t kill people. Batman has his own internal rules/code of conduct. Sure, he’s set his personal morality at a point that most of us haven’t, but that’s another part of the appeal: He gets to go mess up bad guys and enjoy it. But Batman still believes in black-and-white morality, and he lives by that code. He makes interesting moral choices.

    This is why The Dark Knight is so interesting. Batman comes up with a novel, invasive way to hunt down the joker. His loyal, right-hand man tells him that what he’s doing can be justified, but it’s wrong. No one should have that kind of power. Bruce Wayne proceeds to agree with him, and then hand him the power to shut it off. Because Batman knows that there need to be moral limitations on his power, and that handing it off to someone who is uneasy with it is the best way to keep a cap on it.

    Batman can live in that dark space with moral gray all around him because he has that code and sticks to it. When the moral code goes, the character stops being Batman.

    *It reminds me of the “Baddest Motherfucker in the World” bit from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.


    • Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

      Reading some of Zach Snyder’s interviews, I’m kind of amazed that he keeps using the argument that “Batman kills a ton of people in The Dark Knight.” This strikes me as not just a willful misreading of the book, but proof that he’s barely read it at all. One of the pivotal moments is where Batman refuses to kill the Joker. Here’s something Batman thinks while he’s got the Mutant Leader in his crosshairs:
      “But there he IS, Dick– the Mutant leader…a kind of evil we never DREAMED of…there he is…square in my sights. And there’s only one thing to do about him that makes any sense to me — just press the trigger and blast him from the face of the Earth. Though that means crossing a line I drew for myself, thirty years ago…I just can’t think of a single reason to let him live.”

      Guess what? Batman doesn’t shoot. Of COURSE he doesn’t shoot.

      It would be one thing if Zach Snyder really wanted to have a murdering Batman just to see what that would be like. The fact that he misrepresents the comic books, as if he’s merely being authentic, shows that he either doesn’t have the courage of his convictions, or he’s super lazy and can’t be bothered to really read his so-called source material.

      I’m kind of confused why the powers at DC would allow this. Does nobody there have any say in how their most beloved character is depicted? (Maybe not – Marvel is a STUDIO, which gives them total creative control.)


      • Three Act Destructure #

        “I’m kind of confused why the powers at DC would allow this. ”

        I’ve heard a few people express this sentiment in regards to BvS and it makes me wonder how familiar people are with the product that DC has been publishing for the last decade.

        Dan Didio, Geoff Johns and Jim Lee are all old-school comic book guys who remember the moment that Batman first beat Superman and what that meant to them. They remember the 90s as an unusually high time in terms of sales and might not understand the market forces that drove that. They’re fine with bringing back other talent, like Rob Liefeld, who haven’t been producing high-selling content for years rather than doing the harder work of fostering new talent. They dig the heck out of the grim and they’re so gritty that a running joke about their comics is how many people get gorily murdered per reboot.

        And they reboot A LOT. Mainly because nobody likes this product enough to actually buy it and also because they panic and change horses mid-race so often that every big universe-resetting event is always half-baked and never “gets the job done”.

        Sorry, this probably sounds like venting but I grew up a fan and I’ve been done with them as a company since at least the 2000s. I was one of the lapsed readers that they were trying to coax back in with the New 52 and just like for all the rest of them that mission failed.

        So when I saw BvS (which I did not pay money for) my first thought was “yep, this is exactly what I haven’t been buying for several years now and this is exactly why”.

        If anyone wants an example of what DC as a company thinks of its own heroes there’s always the animated adaptation Justice League: War as well as a few others from around the same time that I can’t be bothered to look up right now. Watch as much as you can stand of that and you’ll find it fits pretty comfortably next to Zack Snyder’s “vision”.


        • Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

          I took your advice and watch Justice League: War, which is on Netflix. It’s okay! Nowhere near as good as the old Cartoon Network Justice League, though. I may be completely incapable of enjoying an animated Batman that’s not Kevin Conroy.

          I think Superman comes off the worst. He’s very quick to fight, nearly killing Batman on first sight based solely on the fact that Batman is carrying some alien technology he was bringing to show Supes. Over and over again, Superman comes off like a smug frat boy jerk, not some humble farm boy with a deep purpose. The characterization of Shazam and Superman is almost the same, which is deeply concerning.

          Also, there’s a strange scene early on where a Wonder Woman protester says she dresses like a whore, and she uses her lasso to make him confess to cross dressing. It’s dismissive of the legitimate reasons people mistrust the superheroes, which is critical to the supposed arc of the movie. And it’s also disingenuous, because Wonder Woman absolutely dresses that way to titillate the male comic book readers and viewers.

          And even at the end of the movie, the heroes are super reluctant to call themselves friends, much less a team. Do they all HAVE to be surly and mistrustful all the time?


          • Three Act Destructure #

            Aw Fuddruckers, I think I meant to say Flashpoint which is much, much more troubling.

            Whatever, War is also pretty indicative of DC at the present moment as it’s a largely unchanged adaptation of Geoff Johns’ first New 52 arc of Justice League. Which means that that characterization of Superman was literally the first introduction of him into their new universe and not much has changed since (as far as I’m aware; I quit reading DC Comics again not long after that).

            And it’s barely a hop, skip and a leap over a tall building from that to Man of Steel. Really the only missing ingredient is crippling doubt.

            There’s been a slow shift since the 80s towards Superman becoming less of a hero in his own right and more of an antagonist for Batman, who is the character that DC actually wants to be their flagship hero.

            As to why WB is okay with that portrayal scaling upwards into a $250 million movie, I wonder if it has something to do with the odd intersection of a movie production company which remembers the success of Richard Donner’s Superman and a subsidiary comic book giant that remembers the success of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. And somewhere in the middle of that is the looming shadow of Christopher Nolan.

            The only other explanation I could give is that there’s clearly an attempt in the DCEU to simply “do what Marvel don’t”, which is both a negative as well as a positive impulse.

            Yes, it means that we’re probably getting another bad Justice League movie because A.) Marvel wouldn’t have the cajones to make one of their biggest characters into a jerk and then kill him off and B.) Marvel (supposedly) isn’t “creator-driven” and Zack Snyder’s movies feel much more hands off by their producers… at least until they get to the cutting room.

            But I have to admit that a villain team-up movie and a female-led superhero flick are both things that Marvel isn’t offering in the immediate future. And especially the latter is sorely needed, even if the only reason it gets made is to snub another company over one of its major shortcomings in the eyes of its fans.

  3. Mecha-Shiva #

    So Bruce Wayne’s parents got killed and it traumatized him and he became obsessed with it.

    Did he do it for revenge? No. Otherwise, he just would have beaten up Joe Chill and that would be that.

    Did he do it to punish all criminals? No, or he would have ended up as the Punisher.

    He did it to save kids from suffering like he did. Sometimes, that means punching a criminal before he has a chance to hurt anyone. But punching criminals is not the point of it. And murdering criminals is never going to be part of his thing, because those criminals might have kids of their own.


  4. Edd #

    Can I add something? I couldn’t care less about comics. Much less OLD comics made with premises of 1950…

    My opinion is this: The ONLY thing that makes Batman, Batman, is that he puts in that suit and “do justice” with his own hands, risking his life. The “he doesn’t hurt” is so naive that I can’t even start how quite stupid is the argument: “he doesn’t hurt criminals because they have kids too” or something like that. Only because is made for KIDS that’s good. This movie, the “tone” is NOT for kids.

    And Batflec said in the movie that he’s been doing this (going against criminals) for 20 FREAKING years and others take their place. THAT’S HOW IT WORKS IN REAL LIFE. Deal with it, people…

    Or ask for a Kids movie, I guess

    PD: By the way, I’m guessing this movie was the one that’s dark but the one the Brings Bruce again to a least Dark side, with REAL Superheroes (not just a man) that makes him better as a person. Superman finally decides that he won’t stop helping people no matter how much crap he recieves from the military or the press or the people in “power”.. etc…

    I don’t know how you do such stupid Justice League without being campy as hell because its way too absurd. (and that’s probably saying a lot)


    • Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

      I get where you’re coming from, but I think there’s more to Batman than that he’s a masked vigilante. In The Dark Knight, Batman comes across a number of copycat Batmen. “What gives you the right?” one demands. “What’s the difference between you and me?” Batman responds with the now-classic, “I’m not wearing hockey pads.” This is part of it, but not all of it. What gives him the right? His backstory. His training. His money. His moral code. His generations-deep bond with the city. His sense of theatricality. His genius-level intelligence. His boundless capacity for self-sacrifice. And (most critically to this article) his “rules” that he won’t break no matter what. Without these things, he’s not the character that’s fascinated people for generations.


      • Edd #

        I get the value of having a super hero with certain rules that they just will never break… I get that…


        If the point is making these movies more realistic so they have real weight (At least it works for me, because I just can get into a comic hero battle to death were everybody is joking around), I don’t know how you do that without flawless gods.

        PD: Remember that when Batman interrogates the joker and gets to know that his PERSONAL love is in risk, he just losses his mind and start to punch the joker. I’m not saying that’s the same that these movie shows, but… Kinda. just think about THAT Batman plus more deaths of the people he loves, plus 15-20 years just fighting and endless battle against corruption and crime. You can go the unrealistic rute and made him still the “perfect always good” hero to make us feel sure of what to feel or think,… or you can go these rute and (like in my case) just root for him to do the best HE POSSIBLY CAN, and be really relief/happy when he does

        Sorry the extension I really enjoyed that mess of a movie


      • Edd #

        I CAN’T get into a battle to death with people making jokes about it… CAN’T…


        • Edd #

          If the point is making these movies more realistic so they have real weight (At least it works for me, because I just CAN’T get into a comic hero battle to death were everybody is joking around), I don’t know how you do that WITH a flawless god


  5. Three Act Destructure #

    I’ve spent as much as time as anyone knocking on this movie for all of its faults but I will say that there’s one aspect of Batman that it gets absolutely right to a degree that no other cinematic adaptation has: he’s paranoid.

    There’s some of it in the Adam West version, surprisingly, because who carries around shark repellant on their person at all times except for someone who expects the unexpected at all times?

    That “1% chance” speech that Affleck gives feels perfectly in line with stories like Tower of Babel, wherein Batman has amassed detailed plans on how to take down the other JL members just in case they do something or other he doesn’t approve of.

    That Snyder gets that right and so much else wrong says a lot about all of this.


  6. Mike O #

    Batman TAS is my Batman. Always has, always will be. No Batman re imagining will ever come close again. They can only go down.

    But I also recognize that the Batman property has been around for decades, and imagined in every possible way. So what ever Batman they throw on the screen, it’s probably faithful to SOME incarnation.

    I’m just happy I still have the TAS and Justice League TAS to get my Batman fill.


  7. Joe Cable #

    i think one of Batman’s most essential qualities is his innate nobility and sense of fair play. let’s face it–Batfleck is ACTUALLY Judge Dredd in a different costume. it’s the Denny O’Neal Adams Batman for me!!


    • Edd #

      eeeeee….Nope, not at all


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