You know Batman. You know his story: a dark alley; a pair of gunshots; a declaration of war made by an orphan. You get it. Nobody reading this is sitting there wondering, “Who is this fascinating Bat-fellow?” He is such a mainstay of pop culture, so ubiquitous a character, that you would be harder pressed to find someone who didn’t know Batman. [Read: Riddle Me This: The top 10 Batman movies]
So naturally, when the time came for Zack Snyder – a director known for his dark, gritty takes on comic book classics – to bring his own vision of the Caped Crusader to the big screen in DC Comics’ cinematic universe (DCEU), many people thought the same thing: “a perfect fit.” After seeing the “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” some (read: too many) have clung to this view. They maintain that while other aspects of the movie left plenty to be desired, Snyder nailed the Dark Knight’s brooding character with a faithful adaptation of the source material. I fervently disagree. Because here’s the thing: the current source material is incredible. Affecting. Deeply moving and fresh in ways a character this old has no right to be. And writer Tom King accomplishes it all without making Batman a murderous psychopath. [Read: ‘Batman and Harley Quinn’ review]
“Wait, hold up,” you might be saying. “Murderous? I don’t remember Batman murdering people in the movie!” He did. Like, a lot. Conservatively, at least 15 die by his hands, a fact which the director has glibly shrugged off. Now, I’m no puritan: I understand Batman has killed before. In fact, the climax of Martha’s rescue scene – where the villain threatens to kill his hostage and Batman replies “I believe you” before taking the shot – is lifted almost directly from the comics. But there’s a world of difference between acting out of situational necessity and the sort of flagrant disregard for safety on full display in Snyder’s version. When your Batman’s confirmed kill count is higher than Joker’s, that’s a problem. A big one. Because ultimately, it means there’s no difference between the two.
The line between Batman and his foes has always been startlingly thin, but there is a line. The simple fact of the matter is: the Knight can be too dark. And Frank Miller – the man largely responsible for returning Batman to his darker roots – proved it. After two wildly successful runs on “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Batman: Year One” that broke the cycle of campiness plaguing the 60’s and 70’s, Miller has left an indelible mark on the character. But many forget that the same writer also produced one of the most abysmal entries in the history of the franchise. “All-Star Batman & Robin” is so bad, I almost burned it – physically burned it because I couldn’t stand the thought that it existed.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a taste: the Caped Crusader starves “Dick Grayson, Age 12” (we are frequently reminded of his age, for some reason) until he is on the verge of eating live rats and Alfred is forced to step in; Batman asks Robin if he’s “retarded or something” after the boy expresses confusion over being drugged and kidnapped…by Batman; and our hero gleefully refers to himself as “the G*****n Batman” (those last two are actually within the same panel). That’s not even including Batgirl dropping a casual f-bomb or Wonder Woman referring to men at large as “sperm banks.” Anyone who believes Batman is best at his darkest has not read this book.
Despite citing “The Dark Knight Returns” as a primary influence, the DCEU Batman too often reminds me more of this late Miller faux pas than anything the writer produced in his golden years. The filmmakers would have us believe this is the same Batman we know and love, but I see no evidence to support that claim. I see a man who shows little to no interest in the rehabilitation of lost souls, a sadistic man who draws broad moral equivalencies and doesn’t think twice about adding another body to the heap – just one more casualty of war. This is a man who blindly condemns, making orphans and widows of his enemies’ kin. This is a boy who defaulted on his vow to war on all criminals by becoming one. This is not Batman.
By contrast, Tom King offers a more nuanced vision of the man under the cowl. His Batman still has that dark side and all the inner demons Snyder wants us to buy into, but King never loses sight of what this hero is, first and foremost: human. Batman does not fail missions; he fails emotionally. He fails himself. Behind the larger-than-life persona is just a guy trying to do right by his friends and loved ones. Trying, and not always succeeding, like us. Like a human. He is, simply, an exceptional man struggling with imperfection.
However, the drive for perfection never consumes this Dark Knight. It is integral to his character, but the true engine of his being is revealed at the end of King’s third arc. The scene is framed as an imaginary conversation between a grown Bruce Wayne and his mother, Martha. She discusses his life as Batman and recent decisions to risk life and limb (a few times) for the sake of saving one character. Martha muses that there must be a reason he would go to such lengths and suffer so much for a single person, concluding that Batman has deemed this super-powered girl the key to winning his war on crime. But Bruce rejects the notion. “No. I’m sorry, Mother, but no,” he replies. “That’s not it at all.” What he says next perfectly exemplifies everything the DCEU is currently missing:
“The girl needed help. So I helped her. That’s all it is. That’s all it’s ever been.”
This is Batman. This is his story: a cry for help; an answer. That is the essence of who he is, more central to his character than even the alley or the gunshots or the war. Remove the empathy factor, that deep and abiding need to help others, and what’s left? You may still have the pointy ears and the cape and the gadgets, but whatever remains is not Batman. The sooner the powers-that-be recognize the difference, the sooner we can look forward to a true return for the Dark Knight on the silver screen.