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.