It’s funny, but I thought my days of dissing Batman (and most comic superheroes for that matter) ended when I left IJBM. But at least twice now my feelings on the character have come up in a Skype chat, and, well… I don’t use this blog enough anyway. So why the hell not?
Now, I want to say going in that I’m most familiar with the Animated Series version, though I have seen the movies, read the comics, watched the old TV series and serials and so on. I’m trying to talk about the character in general, but if it seems like I keep referring back to the Animated Series, you know why.
Anyway, Batman sucks.
The Biggest Reason, and the thing everything keeps coming back to, is… he’s a rich ninja. Seriously I almost think I could end the article there. He’s a rich ninja. This would be fine if all his enemies were also rich ninjas, or space aliens or Chuck Norris or something. But instead they’re usually lower-class people with disabilities. Where I come from, that makes Batman a bully. Specifically he’s that athletic privileged asshole who always gave you wedgies in school. The Mad Hatter, the Ventriloquist, the Joker? Those guys are YOU.
The second reason is He’s for Kids, Seriously. Before you head off to the comments section to rip me a new one, keep in mind that enjoying stuff for kids isn’t bad per se. I mean I love He-Man and Friendship is Magic. But I NEVER claim that those are anything more than above-average children’s cartoons. Your average Batman fan, on the other hand, seriously stipulates that the Batman mythos is for adults, and many of the more recent adaptations have tried to run with that. For that reason, I feel its fair to hold Batman to a higher standard.
So what makes a story “mature?” I stipulate four standards:
One – NO BLACK AND WHITE MORALITY. Good versus evil and the idea that people can clearly be divided into one or the other is a childish idea, one that adults normally hold onto simply to justify a personal choice or bias. In real life, everyone thinks of themselves as the hero, and sees only the corrupt or suspicious parts of their enemies. So a truly mature story will reflect that, that there is no de facto wrong or right–only relative ones.
You won’t find this in Batman. Batman himself, the people who help him, and the law-abiding citizens are always de facto good while anyone who commits a crime or supports criminals is de facto evil, regardless of motivations. In fact many of the criminals have no motivations outside of just “for the sake of being evil.” This actually annoys me because there are so many characters who could’ve been interesting, like Mr. Freeze or the Mad Hatter, but as the stories go on they always get turned into one-dimensional crimaholics.
Two – UNDERSTANDING THE WORLD. A truly mature work acknowledges that our world is a complex and mystifying place. It can’t always be explained in simple terms, or at times even explained at all. Why things happen or why they don’t, how people think or act, what factors can lead to any number of situations, these are all very subtle things that don’t always add up the way we expect. Sometimes, factors at play are simply beyond our control.
Again, you won’t find this in Batman. Batman’s view of the world is set firmly in the teenage “everything is against me” mentality. Politicians are never simply incompetent, over budget or having their hands tied by political controversy, they’re always intentionally making things worse because they’re the puppets of criminals. And since Batman is a corporate character, there are some things his mythos can never touch at all, or can only touch in “acceptable” terms. What is Religion like in Gotham City? If you ever see it at all, it’s the “corrupt church seeking to stifle englightenment” archetype, even though there are religions besides Judeo-Christianity in the world and not all of them are antagonistic towards Science. Batman as a mythology has decided to go for a self-serving teenager’s outlook as opposed to a fully mature one.
Three – LACK OF JUVENILIA. I am pleased to say Batman does not have fart jokes, but that’s only one kind of juvenilia. The other kind is the one teenagers indulge in. The kind where the fantasy is fueled by hormones, the men are always big, manly and gritty and the women are always curvateous all-too-willing beauties who seem to always be shown in angles that perfectly highlight their, umm, “highlights.” It’s a little-known fact that this, too, is a phase. You eventually lose interest in women and sex, and this causes you to see such fantasies as what they are: the hormone-driven dreams of youth.
… Yeah, do I need to elaborate on why Batman doesn’t meet this criteria? Seriously? Let’s move on.
Four – COMPLEX AND NUANCED HUMAN BEINGS. People who can truly be called “people” can not simply be reduced to types. A real person is a collection of little things that add up. Think about your best friend. You might describe him as a “type” if you’re thinking short sightedly, but you would probably feel like something is wrong if he changed his toothpaste, switched from laces to velcro (or vice-versa), or started beating his dog (assuming he’s never done that before). Yes, a person can have more immediate, predictable behaviors like outlooks on philosophy, religion, behavioral motifs and many more, but its the big and little both that make a person.
I’ve already said that in the case of Batman, there’s a strict “good and evil” duology in play and those on the “evil” side are usually just one-note criminals with a gimmick. At best, they’re given a backstory or motif which is pretty much the extent of their character. I mean look at Two-Face. He’s so bound up in the “two-face” motif that he decorates his room that way. He literally has no personality outside of this. And Clayface is just “I used to be an actor, so I sometimes do acting-related things.” And Mad Hatter is just “I’m a walking Alice in Wonderland reference.” Imagine if in Metal Gear Solid Revolver Ocelot was so obsessed with revolvers that his room was decorated with pictures or engravings of them and his bed was an enclosed space meant to resemble the barrel of a revolver. That’s a Batman villain in a nutshell.
The good guys don’t fare much better. Commissioner Gordon is defined only as “the one cop who isn’t corrupt.” His daughter is such a blank slate that she could be any teenage girl you know–in fact that’s kind of the point. Dick Grayson and Tim Drake, also, could be any straight-edged young men you know. They really have no definition or personality outside of the personas they take up. I think most of the handles on X-Box Live have more personality than this. And Batman himself? Umm… he hates guns, has a gruff voice and likes to brood. Okay, but does he have a favorite toothpaste, any hobbies or anything? No, in fact the various stories make a point of showing that he basically has no life outside of being Batman. So, the entire universe is populated with one-note characters.
I’ve been holding back one thing this whole time. If I really wanted to be a dick, I could point out that Batman is a franchise, which makes it not-for-adults by default. You see, when you’re an adult you tend to have responsibilities, and these demand most of your time and attention. You don’t have the money to spend on comic books, or the time to enjoy them. Maybe you can squeeze one in every once in awhile, but for the most part your days of obsessively buying every Space Quest game on release day are over. You just don’t have the resources anymore. That torch has been passed on to the younger generation. I’ve actually got to give Warner Bros. credit and continuing to market Batman as what he is–a children’s character. Some people thought it was weird that Burger King offered toys based on The Dark Knight, but to me it made perfect sense. Batman’s whole attempt to be “mature” is, itself, a marketing scheme, because what kids think of as “cool” is often bound up in their idea of what they think teens and adults like. It’s actually genius, if you think about it.
So, bottom line, Batman is really no different than My Little Pony, He-Man or Ninja Turtles. It’s for kids, it just happens to have an adult fanbase.
Lower Standards. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. “So you’re saying Batman doesn’t really suck, he’s just got an overzealous fanbase.” Well, now that we’ve lowered our standards and brought Batman down to the level of a children’s story where it belongs… even then, I feel like Batman just doesn’t measure up.
Okay, first of all, earlier I talked about two-dimensional characters. Some might say that’s common for children’s media, but then you look at G1 Transformers and the weird relationships between the Decepticons. Megatron appears to simultaneously be annoyed but also encouraging Starscream’s ego-driven antics, but at the same time he treats Soundwave in a subtle way that gives you the feeling Soundwave is the one Decepticon ol’ Megs is truly on the level with. Keep in mind, these are the bad guys. Considering that Transformers is meant to sell toys, the writers could’ve gone with just “hahaha we’re evil.” But they didn’t.
Batman’s writers did, and continue to do so even in the graphic novels that are obstensibly aimed at adults.
And what about heroes? There’s no end of examples of “those who did it better” there. The cast of Final Fantasy VI, Dante from Devil May Cry, the cast of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe… these guys have lives outside of being heroes. You could do personality profiles on them. Again, Batman comes up short.
A part of the problem is that Batman’s writers like to use artistic shorthands and copouts. I discussed that with villains, they think motifs replace personalities–a holdover from the campy days, no doubt. With the heroes, they often just turn up the angst dial, which fools a younger audience into thinking its deep because kids are used to heroes who are positive and idealistic and they’re wowwed by something different. But angst is easy to write. Anyone can do it. It requires no thought. Look, I’ll show you:
A cold wind blew, and I barely felt it as it chilled my already-shattered spine. Blood, red as roses, was creeping from the newly-opened gash in my arm. See the pool, it took the shape of the star. I stared into that star, and thought about all the misery and pain I had felt. Curses and damnation were my domain, the betrayals of humanity threatening to sink my heart to hell. In the distance, I heard a Pink Floyd song. How appropriate. My vision blackened, and I smiled at the thought that I would soon leave this rotten world…
I did that entirely in one shot, without even having to stop to think about it, and none of the emotion is genuine. Maybe I should go to DC Comics and apply as a writer.
And so far this is just characterization, but good stories are more than just having a fascinating cast of characters. Is the setting interesting, what about the actual situation, does it play out in a compelling way that doesn’t rely on cop-outs or heavy uses of Deus ex Machina. Even here, your average Batman story falls short.
Just off the top of my head, I remember an Animated Series episode where a guy founds a Joker-themed casino, knowing Joker is gonna wreck it. The whole thing is an insurance scam. Already the premise is faulty–it probably took the owner as much money to make that casino as he’ll get from the insurance settlement, and what happens if Joker likes the casino? Said casino seems to be popular anyway, why not just run it as a legitimate business? Already, the premise of the story is braindead stupid. But I’m not even done.
So right off the Batman has suspicions, investigates, at one point confronts casino owner dude in his office. There, the dude just happens to have the very tile Batman is standing on wired up to an electricity trap. Batman blacks out and awakens as the Joker’s prisoner. He explains to the Joker what is going on, which causes the Joker to get mad and go after owner-guy, leaving Batman to get loose. Every step of the way here, we’ve depended on things happening a very specific way that no earthly power could’ve predicted that allowed the plot to play out. It comes off as exactly what it is–a scripted drama–when a good story should make the events more plausible so we could believe something like this could really happen.
There’s other stories I could pick on as well. “Zatanna” features a magician being antagonized by a guy who “made a fortune debunking magic acts” apparently just for the sake of being a dick. Again, implausible concept–no stage magician ever pretends they’re doing real magic and many will gladly reveal their tricks (in fact, revealing the trick is part of Penn and Teller’s routine!) and how can you get filthy rich by being a debunker? You’d think people would instead toss the asshole out because he’s spoiling their fun, and hey I don’t see the Mythbusters being able to afford the kind of Hayao Miyazaki aircraft this guy is later seen in! Oh, the plot of the episode is that debunker-dude frames Zatanna for a robbery that he actually committed. If he’s already rich, why would he steal money? Just for the lulz?
That’s just the cartoon. Here’s one from the comics. Bane is (supposed to be) characterized as being really smart. In the Knightfall arc, he deduces that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Sounds great, except… the way this scene actually plays out, all he does is see a picture and says “that’s Batman.” No explanation, no fact-gathering, no deductive process. The way it plays out, he could just as easily have gotten psychic intuition, or spun a bottle that happened to land on Bruce’s pic, or just made an extremely lucky guess. But we’re supposed to take this as proof that Bane is a genius.
I could go on forever, but really, I think the point has been made.
Summary and Conclusion. Batman is characterized by:
-Childish outlooks and philosophies
-stories that at the same time ask to be taken seriously but then actually can’t be because they use so many cop-outs.
-and an extremely questionable core premise of a rich ninja beating up poor disabled people.
But you know what, its not even Batman itself that bothers me. It’s more that Batman is a go-to example for everything that is wrong with comic books, long-running franchises and western media. The standards for all three are just so low, and they tend to develop a lot of the same problems once they get worn down enough. I’m not saying Batman causes this, just that he’s a good representative. It’s not that I dislike Batman, it’s that I dislike the way the western world is now, and if I ever need to explain why I can point at Batman and say “pretty much that.”