A discussion of All-Star Superman got me to thinking about the character of Batman: why I like him, why he's so appealing and resonant, what I demand from his portrayal, where so many depictions of him go awry.
For me, the modern (read "dark", "grim", whatever reductive adjective you want to put in there to distinguish the character from the nebulous, semi-generic Golden Age version and the campy Superman-without-powers '60s version) interpretation is far and away my favorite superhero and one of the richest and most potentially rewarding in all of fiction. I say "potentially", because so few depictions get him right that you can legitimately make the argument that I'm not describing an actual fictional character, but a potential one that largely exists within my own head. That's fair enough, but I don't think it's really that different from any number of other meaningful depictions: the God that moves the souls of millions isn't necessarily the one who lives on the pages of testament, but the one who lives in their hearts. Just as a true patriot is less in love with what America is than what it represents, my love of Batman is a love for what he could be rather than what, in comics and films, he so often is.
Not that he's a limitless potentiality. One of the purest elements of Batman is how incredibly restrictive his character must be – which, paradoxically, is what makes him so infinite and variable. Within the character of Batman (and the sad human shell in which he lives, Bruce Wayne) is one of the deepest and most profound psychological studies this side of Dostoyevsky, just waiting for the right people, the exact writers who know what to bring to one of his stories and know what to leave out, to craft him into something profound.
Let's start with first principles: Bruce Wayne is dead. He died decades ago in a filthy alley in Gotham's East End, perishing alongside the head-blown and heart-shot corpses of his parents. Although the shadow of the character has darkened and lengthened over the years, all understanding of him must stem from this basic fact: there is no Bruce Wayne. As long ago as 1939, Bob Kane and Bill Finger were discussing the way their hero was made, that "there is nothing more traumatic than for a child to witness the death of his parents". It was a trauma that was too much for an innocent, privileged eight-year-old boy to bear, a trauma from which he never emerged. The boy who closed his eyes against the blood of his mother disappeared, and what opened its eyes did not yet have a name. It would someday be the Bat-Man, and the Bruce Wayne it pretended to be was nothing, a disguise, a tool no less than a flashlight or a zip-line.
It is fashionable to call superhero comics adolescent power fantasies, but the pathology of Batman is not even that far developed: he is a pre-adolescent, a mere boy in his psychosexual development, unconcerned with power except as a means to an end. He does not seek to rule the lives of men, or to gain the love of women: all he wants is revenge. All he wants is to hurt the people who hurt mommy and daddy. Although Batman acts heroically, in the sense of sacrificing himself for the lives of others, he is not a hero; we can call him a protagonist, but he can never be an identification figure, because for him there is no hope of redemption, of normalcy, of happiness. He is doomed to forever enact a struggle that was decided long ago, and a struggle, what's more, that he knows he's lost. If we can ascribe nobility to him, it is that his quest is to spare others the horror his life has become: the last thing he wants is for anyone to end up like him. But he knows he can never prevent every crime, stop every murder, forestall every trauma.
Though he is a tragic figure – in the sense of being a doomstruck character whose fate is as profound and instructive as it is inevitable – he is not one for whom development is impossible. He is drawn to people like himself, in both good and bad ways: his most memorable villains are men and women like himself, people whose development was arrested by some horrible tragedy. His foes work least well when they are amped-up powerhouses; and they may rob and steal, but it is secondary to finding ways to publicly exorcise their madness. They have been forced to a path of murder and chaos by pain, just as he has been forced to path of preventing murder and chaos. For Batman is the deranged, giggling madman known as the Joker, who laughs at everything because he has been made inhuman. He faces the ruined outcast fop known as the Penguin, the twisted, horribly warped creature Killer Croc, who pays back all his childhood beatings a thousandfold. He faces the rancid, embittered idealist R’as al-Ghul, the curdled environmentalist Poison Ivy, and most of all, Two-Face. Harvey Dent is so close to being the Batman that he’s often been proffered as a suspect in the search for the Dark Knight’s identity, but when Dent’s Crime Alley moment finally came, it landed one synapse to the left, and he became a schizophrenic madman rather than a tortured avenger. It is not only, as has often been observed, that Batman’s greatest villains are dark reflections of himself; it is that they are almost the only means for him to develop, learn and grow. It is in seeing where they went wrong than he can learn how to do right. He is, after all, a child, but a bright child, and a bright child learns from what he sees every day.
There are other means: Batman is drawn to people like himself in every way. In Robin he sees something that fascinates him. Here is a young man who lost his family, in much the same way as Batman himself; Dick Grayson was only a few years older than Bruce Wayne when he saw his parents felled by a criminal predator. And yet, somehow, Grayson did not die. He did not become a thing, a dark creature of the night, a being who lives only to visit violence on the forces that made him: he remains alive and human and real, filled with a desire for justice, but not filled to the rim, with room yet left for light and happiness and the world of the day. (Let’s banish for good the Batman-and-Robin-are-gay-for-each-other whimsies, which were getting stale when they first appeared in your grandfather's childhood. Batman, we have noted, is a presexual being, whose interest in women has constantly been shoved in our face by nervous editors since the Wertham days but has never been convincing. The only woman Batman has ever really been intrigued by is Catwoman, and that’s because he sees in her another aspect of himself. He is the ultimate narcissist.) Robin, for Batman, is a tiny shard of hope, a weak but ever-present spark of life, a sign that his own trauma may be something to be overcome. His sometimes-patronizing attitude towards Robin can be explained by an overprotectiveness born less of love than of wonder; letting Robin die would be letting his last hope for himself die.
As with everything else, Batman’s code against killing can only be understood against the trauma that created him. It is from no sophisticated humanism, no weighted-down moral code that he refuses to kill: it is a holdover from his childhood, a realization that is it they who kill, the bad people. That is what they do. He can wound, he can sneak and hurt and even torture, but he cannot do that one thing, that thing that made him. It is this same childish perspective, held over in the brilliant but emotionally undeveloped mind of a grown man, that governs his façade. The gadgets and trappings, the fortress and the gimmick car, the howling horror-movie costume, the using inherited billions to fund an impossible crusade: these are all the acts of a man who will, in many ways, always be a child. Batman attributes to criminals the fears, superstitions, motivations and behaviors of a child, because they are, in many ways, his own.
Superman is, and will always be, a man held strictly to the codes and conducts of a world not his own. He is a thing utterly alien to our world, a thing that can think and see and act in ways entirely beyond the comprehension of the most brilliant human beings; and yet, because of the unyielding moral force of the man and woman who raised him, he grew into a man utterly grounded in the old morality and perspective of the American heartland. This can work against him, but for the most part, it has ensured the development of a god who will forever, for better and for worse, a man. In Batman, we have a figure whose parents were erased before they could impart to him the lessons of a man. So, nurtured not on their presence, their values, their views, he grew up being fed by his own loss, his own hate, his own half-formed sense of duty. His mother was not there to tell him that there were women in the world other than her; his father was not there to tell him that he could not be brought back by a million bloodied faces. Superman sees the world as a thing of ultimate possibility, of hope and grace, of obstacles, to be sure, but obstacles that are there to be overcome; this makes him a hero always, and sometimes a fool. Batman sees the world as a place of death and ruin, of torment and horror, of an ever-dwindling number of decent men and women who he must protect against a darkness that never lifts; this makes him a fool never, but always less than a man. Superman was a titan who was shaped into a mortal by the hands of his parents; Batman is a boy who grew the brain of a god, but had no real way of learning how to use it. This is his ultimate appeal, and his ultimate tragedy.