When I was a kid, there were two types of superheroes; the ones who were heroes because it was the right thing to be (Captain America, Superman) and the ones who were heroes because of a tragedy (Spider-Man, Batman). The guys with the tragic pasts were usually a little more “edgy” than the others, but still, they were heroes – they understood that what they were doing was good and, in turn, they felt good about doing it. The past would never be erased, and it would always push them to keep being heroes, but that didn’t stop them from taking some time to enjoy life.
For example, look at this panel from JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #152. The JLA, is hanging out on the Watchtower, their satellite that observes the Earth, playing poker. Batman is there, and he’s annoyed that Superman is not focused on the game. If you read what Elongated Man is saying, you’ll see two things I find rather interesting:
- They’ve been playing for at least two hours
- Batman hasn’t been winning, Hawkgirl has.
If you aren’t a super duper comic nerd, you may not get why these two things are odd in terms of today’s comics, but even if you only know Batman from the movies, I think you’ll see it. Batman is having fun, and he isn’t the greatest at something.
For the last 30 years or so in comics, Batman has steadily gone from World’s Greatest Detective to World’s Greatest Everything. There is not a problem Batman can’t find the answer for. As an example – when Flash, who had revealed his identity to the world in his younger days, asked Spectre to erase his true identity from the memories of everyone on Earth, Batman was the first to figure out who Flash was because he knew he had forgotten something. By the by, Spectre is a magical being who acts as the spirit of vengeance for God, so that means Batman is so amazing, the power of God is weaker than him.
Where did this all start? Where did the comic writers start this idea that Batman was all knowing and all powerful? How did Bats go from a detective with a gimmick who fought street level criminals to saving the world from a White Martian invasion after Superman and the rest of the JLA had been captured? And with all this amazingness that Batman had become, when did he lose his sense of humanity? When did Batman stop playing poker with his League buddies? When did he stop enjoying the work?
1986. That was when Batman became the guy we know today. The one-two punch of Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and BATMAN: YEAR ONE. The two stories worked at the bookends of Batman, one focusing on his beginnings, the other on his ending, both making it clear that Batman was gritty as all get out. In YEAR ONE, Bruce is learning to be Batman – making mistakes and figuring out how to better deal with crime. In DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, he is so deep into being Batman that he can’t break from the routine. He’s addicted to the danger, and has become more dangerous in return. The stories, when read back to back, paint a picture of the dangers of being an adrenaline junkie, always looking for that next big surge. It also highlights the idea that without friends and family, someone like Bruce Wayne will lose connection to his own humanity. In YEAR ONE, Batman is beaten nearly to unconsciousness because he will not let a burglar fall off a building and die – Bruce would sooner let himself die than give up at saving a life, even the life of a criminal. In DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Batman shoots a kidnapper in the head with a rifle. The story never full out says it, but it clearly hints that the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, has lead Batman straight into the abyss.
People who weren’t regular comic readers found out about THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, along with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s WATCHMEN, and both books were huge for DC. Their shared deconstruction of the four-colored medium was a critical and sales success, bringing superheroes out of the comic shops and spindle racks of bodegas, and landing them onto the coffee tables of “sophisticated” readers. DC saw the sales and the prestige, and they pushed it hard. Quickly, they transformed the Dark Knight Detective from something akin to an adventurer akin to James Bond and into a solemn, grim, gritty, and in my opinion dull, character.
As I mentioned, DARK KNIGHT RETURNS plays with the idea that Jason Todd had died, but Jason was still alive and well in the comics. Or, he was, until DC killed him in A DEATH IN THE FAMILY in 1989. In that comic, the Joker beat Jason Todd with a crowbar, then locked the kid in a building with a bomb. Batman arrives just in time to see the building explode.
Readers were given the choice to let Robin live or die, all they had to do was call a number to vote how they wanted the story to go. Readers called, and Jason died. DC Comics took this as a sign that the readers were all for a darker Batman, never mind the fact that the “Jason Dies” vote was won by a mere 70 callers (and I know for a fact that my brother called multiple times. THE VOTE WAS RIGGED!). All the same, with a vote that had less than a 1% difference, DC decided that what readers wanted was gritty Batman.
The release of Tim Burton’s BATMAN didn’t help this. It was a massive success. Released in 89, if you adjusted the box office totals, Burton’s BATMAN is the second highest grossing of the Batman movies. In today’s numbers, it would have passed a billion dollars worldwide no problem. Two things stand out in Burton’s BATMAN if you watch it today:
- It’s actually pretty goofy. Michael Keaton plays Bruce Wayne as a bit of a ditz, which I love.
- Batman kills people in the movie. He blows up a chemical plant filled with people for seemingly no reason
Even as a kid in 1989, this second bit really bummed me out. Batman doesn’t kill. Batman sure as shit doesn’t use guns (both the Batmobile and the Batplane have machine guns in the movie). He straight up hates guns and knows that if he takes a life, he is no better than the criminals he fights. The power of Batman is that he is on that line, but never crosses it, he will not go into the darkness.
Which is exactly why Miller had Batman kill someone in DARK KNIGHT RETURNS – he wanted readers to understand that this version of Batman, this older, harcore, super-grim verison, was not good. He wasn’t fighting crime because he wanted to help, he was doing it because he wanted to cause pain. The whole industry missed the point. At times, it seems like even Frank Miller has forgotten it. His work on Batman since then, in DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN and ALL-STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN suggests that he has either gone full on insane and writes Batman as insane, or he is still waiting for the rest of us to see the lesson in the stories. That if we take these characters too seriously, they lose what makes them so special in the first place.
We may be too deep into the abyss to ever pull Batman back out. Some writers have tried – Marv Wolfman introduced the third Robin, Tim Drake, in the story A LONELY PLACE OF DYING and his reason for it is clear as day – the comic straight up says it at one point – without a family around him, Batman becomes too grim, too one dimensional.
Grant Morrison, who himself has played with the darker versions of Batman and did more than his fair share of turning Batman into the man who knows everything, wrote BATMAN and other Batman-related comics for half a decade straight explored all aspects of Batman and, in the end, concluded that the Bat works best when he has some hope to him. DC ignored that and kept going dark and gritty with it. In recent years, readers have seen a retelling of Batman’s beginnings where we learn his uncle tried to have him killed. We saw Joker have his own face cut off because… I’m still not sure why. We watched Alfred get his hand cut off. We witnessed Batman and Joker seemingly die lying next to each other in the Batcave.
We’ve had eight movies with Batman in theaters since THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, and in all of them, Batman kills people and uses guns. In all of them, even in the more lighthearted BATMAN FOREVER we are given a Batman who straight up murders people.
I want to be clear – I don’t think Frank Miller intentionally ruined Batman. I think his initial goal was to show us what should not be done to Batman, but that lesson was lost on the readers and higher ups at DC. It sure as shit never made it to the Warner Brothers execs who handle the movies. Maybe the days of Batman sitting around with his superhero pals playing poker are gone forever. I sure hope not. I’d like to think that all of us, even Batman, can find happiness from time to time.
*All Images: DC Comics