Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Ill-Made Knight: Batman as Hero

Article by Kari Maaren

Not long after The Dark Knight hit theatres this summer, people began speculating as to its Oscar chances. Here was an intelligent, thematically rich film that appealed to audiences and critics alike. Heath Ledger’s performance was both creepy and heartbreaking; the other major actors were nearly as strong in their roles. The editing was sometimes a bit frenetic, but otherwise, there was very little that could be said against the film…

…except, of course, that it was about Batman.

The Dark Knight does not have much of a chance at a Best Picture Oscar. There is a high probability that the simple fact of its protagonist’s identity made up the minds of the Academy before the film ever hit theatres. The name “Batman” evokes the superhero genre, which in turn calls up visions of bright costumes, men in tights, villains with silly names, ridiculous plots, bad writing, heavy-handed symbolism, and completely unnecessary alliteration. This “popular” genre, couched in the “popular” form of comics, strikes many as not weighty or serious enough to produce anything worthy of an award. The mere fact of the hero’s identity immediately dooms a film that would be a major Oscar contender if it were just not about Batman.

This odd little quirk of popular reception extends beyond this film to envelop all comics and movies involving superheroes. It may be a serious graphic novel dealing with themes of sexual abuse and familial identity, but it has “Spider-Man” in the title. It may be a more eloquent exploration of personal responsibility in a world gone mad than any number of mainstream novels, but its heroine dresses in a purple body-suit and shoots lightning bolts from her fingertips. Our preconceptions about superhero comics and films tell us that a man with batarangs clipped to his utility belt is good for a bit of light entertainment but certainly doesn’t mean as much as, say, a Jean Valjean or a Victor Frankenstein.

Yet Batman, perceived by many as a stupid piece of fluff, is one version of a character who has shown up in literature since its beginnings. This character has appeared in works that are considered great by any measure. He has fought a dragon and stood alone, unarmed, against a murderous troll that attacks a mead hall in the night; he has worn a lion skin as a trophy and killed his family in a fit of madness; he has been engendered by gods and monsters, beasts and showers of rain. Deep in the past, he roamed the world with a wild man for a companion; just over a decade ago, he was born again as a boy with unruly hair, a lightning-bolt scar, and a talent for magic. We write about him again and again, and even when we think our edginess and our irony have caused us to leave him behind forever, he creeps back into our stories.

In other words, Batman is a hero. By tacking the “super-“ onto the beginning of his title, we trivialise him, shunting him into a new (and apparently inherently silly) category when he actually belongs to an extremely old one. Exploring Batman in the light of the story of the hero puts him in a context rather different from the one in which we are used to seeing him and perhaps argues that we should stop dismissing “superhero” works simply because they are tainted by “superhero” names.

Batman’s history has gone through many different permutations throughout its comic-book, television, and filmic history, but the general facts are these: orphaned as a young boy when a robber shoots his parents, Bruce Wayne grows up rich but damaged, haunted by the memory of his mother and father lying dead on the pavement. He swears that he will avenge their deaths by cleaning up Gotham City, rooting out the criminal element that has taken it over. In the interests of the project, he dresses as a giant bat—identified in some of the Batman comics as the creature of which Bruce was most terrified as a child—and takes down criminals swiftly and violently but without fatalities. The corrupt police force at first regards him as an enemy, but as the good cops become more prominent, they begin to treat him as an ally: someone outside the law who can go where they can’t go and do what they don’t dare. The rise of Batman is often, especially in stories that follow Frank Miller’s version of the Batman universe, echoed by the rise of a new criminal class characterised by monstrous appearances and actions. Members of this new class are, along with Batman himself, labelled “freaks” by the more mundane criminals of Gotham.

This basic outline could, in its broadest details, be applied to many older heroes as well. We tend to have an idea of the hero as a “good guy” who stops the “bad guys” by dint of being, well, good; he fights for what is right with a might powered by virtue, and of course he wins the day. This Disney-fed perception is relatively new. Much older is the concept of the hero as necessarily caught between light and darkness. He has more in common with the monsters he fights than the people he protects and, in fact, often springs from those monsters; one of his parents is frequently a monster, a god, or a beast. If he doesn’t have this ancestral connection, he derives his affinity for darkness from some other element of his life: he may be raised in the wilderness, he may have access to wilderness powers, or he may simply wander into the forest and find a magic sword made by giants. The hero can’t overcome monsters simply by virtue of being “good”; in fact, “goodness” as we think of it cripples him, as it puts him at a moral disadvantage against an opponent that scorns human rules. One of my favourite medieval examples of this character, a fictionalised version of Richard the Lionheart, demonstrates his heroism through axe-wielding brutality, callousness, a seeming resemblance to the devil, and cannibalism (all gleefully celebrated by the poet). In order to defeat monsters, the hero needs to be nearly a monster himself.

While this motif fits some superheroes perfectly—Spider-Man, for instance, derives his heroic/monstrous powers from the bite of a radioactive spider—it applies to Batman too, though with a psychological twist. Batman uses the emotional power of the bat (his childhood fear), as well as the money he gains through the death of his parents (another childhood fear, this one entirely justified), to fight criminals, here often painted as physically and morally monstrous. The criminals play on their society’s fears and bypass their society’s rules; so does Batman. The moral ambiguity of the Dark Knight, who breaks the law relatively freely to get what he wants, is not a strange mutation of the hero story but a return to its roots, an acknowledgement that the hero has darkness inside.

The connection of Batman to his “monsters” is also relevant here. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Harvey Dent, a scarred former District Attorney driven to madness and transformed into one of the monsters he used to fight, challenges Batman to look at his newly reconstructed face and tell him what he sees. Batman says, “I see…a reflection, Harvey.” As the graphics show Harvey’s true face—a decaying death-mask—they juxtapose it with Batman’s own true face—that of a monstrous bat. The hero is often more than a little bit of a monster himself; he has to be able to understand and overcome that which he is fighting. Only a “freak” can defeat another freak, though it is also arguable that the hero’s presence actually attracts the monsters.

In the end, the hero’s real struggle is against himself: against the darkness inside, which often threatens to overwhelm him entirely. The campier Batman texts ignore this element, but many others don’t, portraying him as a man who struggles with his own freedom from rules and often comes dangerously close to breaking the one rule he does impose on himself: no killing allowed. The story of the hero has a tendency to end tragically because of this element. If the hero is in danger of becoming a monster and turning his powers on his society, he must be contained. Many stories bring about this containment through treachery, allowing the hero to avoid defeat by a monster while at the same time shunting the responsibility for his fall to a traitor, an insider who stabs the hero in the back. In Batman’s universe are many potential traitors, though they generally remain relatively untapped, as their final deployment would mean the end of a very long, very complex hero story. Instead, Batman continues to wrestle with himself internally while the possibility of his own monstrosity lurks in the wings.

The Batman story has, admittedly, led to the creation of some rather silly stuff. However, Hercules has appeared in bad cartoons; Beowulf was rendered idiotically grandiose in a recent ill-conceived film; there are reams of forgotten works celebrating well-known heroes badly, earnestly, and at length. As not every story about Odysseus is as brilliant as The Odyssey, so not every superhero tale is worth reading. However, to dismiss a work because it is about Batman is as unfair as to embrace a work because it is about Theseus. When we dress our heroes up in tights and capes and give them mysterious powers, we are doing little more than the British did when they handed King Arthur Excalibur and pointed his knights towards the nearest magical damsel.

We should give Batman a chance. He sees his reflection in the tortured features of Harvey Dent; we can perhaps see ours in his, as we do with any hero we have ever created to protect us, monstrously, against our monsters.

Kari Maaren’s article is one of a short Batman series here on Vulpes. To read last week’s article by Kirsty about the Joker, click here. Next week, Lesley Gallacher writes about DC comic books.

The moody Batman at the top of this article belongs to Nur Hussein. Check out his rant about Robin here!

8 comments on “The Ill-Made Knight: Batman as Hero

  1. Hussein
    October 7, 2008

    Nice picture 😉

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Batman’s willingness to kill dependent on which incarnation we’re talking about? If I recall correctly, in the early days he even resorted to shooting bad guys with a gun. Also, in Burton’s movies he’s pretty cavalier about killing the Joker’s henchmen.

  2. wobtalk
    October 7, 2008

    Hussein: Yes, yes. The problem is that if I were to take into account every single incarnation of Batman ever to be created, we would be here for about a year. I’m afraid I simplified at points (as I said I was going to do). I probably should have clarified that in MANY of the texts (especially the more recent ones, not including the film, which I’ve only seen once; I couldn’t remember whether or not Batman knocked off bad guys in it), Batman refuses to kill. It’s an especially big point in the Miller-inspired universe (which actually makes it kind of odd that the film leaves it out).

    Note to readers: Hussein has read and watched just about every Batman work in existence. He also does a lot of cool stuff with action figures and Photoshop. I’m fond of his little Ninja Turtles scenes.

  3. Kari
    October 7, 2008

    Sorry…that was me at #2. I was logged in as someone else for some other reason. I just wanted to clarify that I misread Hussein’s comment and thought he was talking about TDK, in which, I have been assured, Batman DOESN’T kill henchmen (I THOUGHT I remembered him being kind of cautious there). Burton’s movies are a whole other essay. You are mischievous, Hussein, to bring them up. Batman purists tend to going into paroxysms of rage when confronted with Burton’s alterations to the Batman universe (the killing, the saddling the Joker with an actual name, the odd interpretation of the Penguin, and so on). Making a Batman argument with reference to Burton is just a little bit evil.

    For the record, I like the Burton movies and was disappointed when _Batman Begins_ didn’t replicate the beautifully Gothic version of Gotham in Burton’s films. _BB_’s Gotham is actually a little bland.

  4. Lisa
    October 7, 2008

    This was excellent, Kari. Thank you so much.

    “Batman, perceived by many as a stupid piece of fluff.” This made me laugh out loud, especially after the intense discussion Kirsty and I have been engaged in over Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in TDK.

    I like the point you make about emotional power, and those childhood fears. I am ready to give Batman a chance! (in rallying tones).

    Oh and I’m with you on the Hercules cartoons and the recent Beowulf film.

  5. Moira
    October 7, 2008

    Passionately argued, Kari. I’m at a bit of a disadvantage, not only have I not seen the latest film (a bit of a pencil phobia …) I also haven’t seen any of the others, either. Nor have I ever read (or even handled, to my knowledge) a DC comic – but you’re halfway to convincing me that I ought to try one of them.

  6. Hussein
    October 8, 2008

    I am a cheeky fellow, Kari. What can I say?

    I agree with you about Tim Burton’s Gotham being nicely done. However, I think Nolan’s Gotham being bland was a conscious choice on the part of the filmmakers. They wanted to disassociate themselves with the previous films. Thus they went with “gritty and realistic”, since (I guess) they didn’t want to run the risk of the movie being over-stylised.

  7. Elizabeth chadwick
    October 8, 2008

    I thoroughly enjoyed the article – thank you.
    I’m not much of a Batman fan re the earlier films, but actually I did enjoy Batman begins and so did the dh, and in the past he has been a Batman hater. I am certainly going to give Dark Knight a go.
    As a sometime reader of fantasy fiction and an enjoyer of fantasy films in their various formats (loved Spiderman, absolutely adore X Men), I definitely think to put these films in the ‘stupid fluff’ category completely misses the point. I’m with you all the way on that one!

  8. Jackie
    October 8, 2008

    I really like how you trace the idea of heroes throughout history and place the modern super powered ones in the pantheon. If more people were aware of this cultural tradition, perhaps they wouldn’t be so dismissive of the genre? It’s sheer ignorance.
    In the US, Superman seems to be the ultimate superhero, perhaps because he’s considered squeaky clean & seems to lack a dark side. I prefer heroes that struggle with things and whose egos are tempered with regret and sorrow.
    This was a good piece, well done!

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This entry was posted on October 7, 2008 by in Special Features and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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