Batman ranks among the most messed-up dudes in modern storytelling. He watched his philanthropist parents get murdered by the very type of man they sought to help. Then, he numbed that pain by blowing his gargantuan inheritance on ass-kicking accessories so he could concuss petty criminals on the wet, dark streets of Gotham.
This fails to soothe his woes. Yet, he’s addicted to plunging his fists into those superficially similar to his parents’ killer in a misguided attempt at closure. Sure, Batman holds a moral code of never killing anyone. But as CollegeHumor pointed out, people don’t just hop back up after getting their skull tomahawked by a bladed forearm.
Still, the American public reveres him because he’s rich, smart, strong, handsome, and capable of stopping evil—bypassing bumbling bureaucracy and doing what “must” be done. This deeply troubled character has grossed more at the box office than any superhero not named Spider-Man, who benefited from back-to-back trilogies.
There have been so many iterations of the Caped Crusader, but somehow, no one has ever really nailed the role. Adam West hammed it up in loose lycra, and the campiness of doo-dads like shark repellant made his turn a lighthearted romp. Michael Keaton brooded, fretted, and smashed vases, but remained an amorphous enigma as his realism clashed with Tim Burton’s cartoonish Gotham. Val Kilmer filled the suit with moody aloofness as a vanilla foil for the garish lunacy of Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face and peak Jim Carrey’s leotarded, flamboyantly gesticulating Riddler. Then, George Clooney steamed suavely, but chose wry exasperation over rollicking torment. His vehicle, Batman and Robin, nearly killed the series due to its Bat Nipples and relentless ice puns, delivered hamfistedly by a bald and glittery Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze.
The Christopher Nolan resurrection came the closest to a buyable portrayal. Christian Bale started out in a grimy prison covered with scruff, blood and filth. He could have done what Daniel Craig did to James Bond—imbuing a legendary character with gritty psychopathy—but he never got to his desired level of darkness, regardless of how scratchy Bale's voice got by The Dark Knight Rises. Not that he’s all to blame. Nolan tells stories better than he builds characters, and studios don’t want their profitable hero to be a sadist. So Bale’s Batman got shoehorned into this mismatched trifecta of a self-destructive headcase, a moral beacon and a burly, cash-flush playboy bullying a society into safety and prosperity—the last being an ideal Donald Trump is riding through the primaries.
Bruce Wayne is not a good guy. He’s infinitely selfish. He pours billions into this dress-up fantasy that can’t possibly reduce the crime rate significantly. He’s not contributing to the greater good. He’s just dealing with inexhaustible grief in a very unhealthy way. Really, his huge crime-fighting budget should go to helping citizens overcome the choiceless despair of Gotham. Alas, community organizing is a lot less sexy than weaponized judo. So Batman keeps the city “safe” by thrashing people with no job opportunities outside of crime. He is a hopelessly outnumbered band-aid on the city’s gaping, festering wounds.
He perpetuates the violence that makes him indispensable to his city. He gives villains like the Joker enough amusement to keep living. And beyond that, his nightly victims have brothers and sons, and wives and daughters, who will seek retribution and fuel the vicious cycle. Strip away the lore, and Batman just enables monsters and mollywhops poorly trained, desperate men. His shallowly motivated fists fix nothing.
On the other hand, his villains brandish seductive strategies that can totally ruin the world.
The Joker exposes the hypocrisy of atrocities accepted as part of a “plan” by taking them out of their proper context—he bombs a hospital, but the U.S. military did the same in Afghanistan. In The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger plunged to a spell-binding place of pitch-black moral clarity and reached out to Batman as a fellow face-painted freak pursuing pointless destruction to fill the infinite inner abyss where a family might have fit. He made Jack Nicholson’s rendition age like milk as he disappeared into the man that sets the world ablaze just for the heat.
Bane cleanses broken societies by purging the irredeemably rotten. Two-Face seeks equality through a callous investment in chance. Mr. Freeze bends the rules to save his cryogenically frozen wife. Scarecrow demonstrates the subjectivity of psychology. The Riddler approaches mass murder with glee. And Uma Thurman’s perma-smoldering Poison Ivy made for an effective, if cheesy eco-terrorist.
Batman may block their destruction, but he doesn’t offer a superior alternative. He cannot resolve the systematic problems in Gotham through brutality. The upcoming Batman v Superman could have been interesting for this reason. With proper intel and enough time, Superman might conceivably make way for peace through force.
Of course, fairly defining a “bad guy” is impossible. And though Ben Affleck’s “large Batman” channels Dick Cheney, apparently Zack Snyder valued rambling, crunchy action over a philosophical character study. His Batman wallows in rage over Superman’s destruction, not in sorrow over his parent’s death.
Ultimately, Batman presents a yet-unconquered acting challenge. He’s too messy. A true portrayal would be unprofitable. Children adore him, as studios need them to. A depraved bludgeoner of the marginalized isn’t exactly a merchandising bonanza, nor a fitting lead for a popcorn-blockbuster trilogy.
Deep down, Batman is an addict in denial. When he storms into the night, it’s a relapse into self-medication that doesn’t help him, his victims or his city. Alfred shouldn’t offer cheeky assistance, he should get dragged across marble floors as he grips Bruce’s leg and begs him not to go out again—begs him to consider how crushed his parents would be if they knew their son terrorizes the city they loved. And Bruce should crack, kick the old man and mock him for being a glorified laundry-folder. Then in a blind rage, he should snap an outmatched criminal’s neck just a bit too hard, look up and catch the eye of that man’s five-year-old daughter. He must realize he traumatizes the city’s underclass like Joe Chill traumatized him. And then, he should give up the cowl.
Nolan got it partially right by plucking Wayne permanently from Gotham, sending him to live abroad with Anne Hathaway’s reformed Catwoman and wrapping up with the moral: “A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy's shoulders to let him know that the world hadn't ended.” But then he mucks it up when Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s orphan cop inherits all the Bat-stuff. Batman’s legacy isn’t noble or healthy. It should be torched and buried. His grief-fueled rampages directly oppose the generosity of his passed parents. He blocks Gotham’s ultimate salvation. Anyone can be a hero, but nobody should want to be Batman.