Sam Stall

Novelist. Journalist. Repository of Odd Information.

Bat Ramble

To mark the release of The Dark Knight Rises, I've decided to reprint an essay I wrote a few years ago for the debut of Batman Begins. The sentiments are -- in my opinion -- still right on the money. Enjoy.

 

 

Why Batman Matters

He Can’t Fly, See Through Walls Or Bend Steel Bars. But In Spite (Or Maybe Because) Of That, The Caped Crusader Still Packs A Ka-Blam.

 

 When I was a kid, my friends and I would play at being superheroes. Inevitably, at least three of us would tie towels around our necks and claim to be Superman. If we didn’t like one of the kids or wanted to piss him off, we’d say he was Bizarro Superman. Any token female became Wonder Woman. The fastest runner would be Flash. Occasionally, we’d even get some douche bag who wanted to be Aquaman.

 

But no one wanted to be Batman.

 

 There were two reasons. First, it was 1970, and our only cultural reference was that cornball TV show starring Adam West. Who wanted to pretend to be a middle-age, out-of-shape loser who wore black jockey shorts over satin tights?

 

Secondly, Batman couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t fly. He wasn’t super strong. Heat rays didn’t shoot out of his eyes. Okay, he had a hot car. But my sister’s boyfriend, Dwayne, had a hot car too, and we kids didn’t feel the need to zoom around the yard pretending to be Camaro Man. As far as we were concerned, Batman was just a guy in a suit -- a guy who could get taken out by a blow to the head, a lucky bullet or a slippery window ledge, for that matter. What was so super about that?

 

 Absolutely nothing, of course. Which is why Batman, the only costumed hero I wouldn’t deign to impersonate as a child, is now the only one who interests me as an adult. Batman seems to interest a lot of adults -- and not just the giant nerds who haunt comic book stores. I’m not one of them, by the way. I am a giant nerd, just not the comic-book-store-haunting kind. But over the years, a lot of people with the money and the talent to do other things have decided to focus their skills on a character who’s been hanging around since 1939, when he debuted in Detective Comics #27. (Which is currently worth about $350,000 in mint condition.) Director Tim Burton turned him into a movie franchise. Graphic novelist Frank Miller built his own reputation by creating Batman stories so gritty and bloody that they drew praise from both Stephen King and Mickey Spillane.

 

 And of course, starting in 1966, he was the subject of the campy TV series Batman.

 

 Burton and Miller and many others turned their attention to the Caped Crusader in part because they wanted to undo the damage that show did to his reputation. This month’s new theatrical release, Batman Begins, is yet another multimillion-dollar step in that process.

 

 But why would they bother?

 

 Probably because they, too, think he’s the only costumed character “realistic” enough for grown-ups. Fact is, any story featuring a protagonist with super powers, be it Spider-man or Peter Pan or Harry Potter, is just rank escapism. The “hero” can get out of pretty much any scrape by calling on some bizarre ability that his opponents lack. It’s somewhat interesting, but it’s also cheating. Batman, on the other hand, is a character for the average Joe. And by “average Joe,” I mean “people who can’t use heat vision/invisibility/mind control to triumph in tough situations.” He must handle his adversaries the old-fashioned way. The American way. By beating the crap out of them.

 

 Granted, the Caped Crusader’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, is a billionaire. Nothing very proletarian about that. But everything else about him is perfectly human -- and perfectly understandable. Take, for instance, his reason for becoming a crime fighter. Ask Superman why he got into the biz, and it’s hard to imagine him giving an answer that makes any sense. He can bend steel with his bare hands. He can fly. He can see through walls. And he uses all those fantastic skills to foil bank robbers. It’s totally unbelievable. Just consult the 19th-century philosopher Frederic Nietzsche, who actually invented the word superman (ubermensch in his native German). He states, rightly, that anyone possessing truly superhuman power probably wouldn’t give a damn about things like truth, justice and the American way. In a very real sense, he wouldn’t even be human.

 

 On the other hand, Batman’s motivation is easy for the average Joe to grasp: He’s nuts.

 

 

 Which is plausible, given the circumstances. Not too bright, but plausible.

 

 There was even a well-thought-out, very human rationale for his costume. When Bruce Wayne first started fighting crime, he wore street clothes and a mask to hide his identity. And he got his butt kicked. Repeatedly. Then, while sitting around stately Wayne Manner one night nursing a scotch and a couple of broken ribs, he saw a bat fly by. Inspired, he decided to work up a scary “bat man” outfit that would strike fear into his enemies. The only bit of color in his black-and-grey ensemble is the yellow bat logo on his chest, and even that serves a purpose: It’s a target. In theory, bad guys would instinctively shoot at the yellow bat (which is backed by a piece of body armor) rather than aim at the Dark Knight’s decidedly non-bulletproof cranium.

 

 And so he became Batman. It wasn’t because Bruce Wayne was bitten by a radioactive bat that gave him the ability to find his enemies in the dark by making high-pitched squeaking sounds. He just wanted bad guys to wet themselves when they saw him.

 

 It’s hard to think of another costumed character who goes out of his way to freak people out. Usually they don’t need to. Superman can afford to smile all the time, pluck kittens out of trees and tell 14-year-olds to eat their vegetables. Because even though he looks and acts like the biggest dork who ever lived (his costume, sewn by his mother, certainly doesn’t help), no one’s going to call him on it. Batman, on the other hand, wouldn’t last a week if he went around dressed like a rodeo clown.

 Batman cossplay.JPG

Batman, just trying to blend in.

 

 

So he has to be the mean superhero. If there’s one superpower he can claim to possess, it’s the ability to instill fear. And again, it’s understandable. Only someone like Superman or Wonder Woman, both of whom enjoy every advantage under the sun, could talk seriously about fair play and fighting by the rules. Not Batman. Always outnumbered and outgunned, he evens the odds by packing the knuckles of his gloves with lead shot, and by going for the crotch kick and the head butt whenever the opportunity arises.

 

 There’s just one problem. While the Caped Crusader’s motivations are easy to understand, it’s harder to believe that a mere mortal could make a good crime fighter. First and foremost, he lacks support personnel. If he comes home one night with six broken ribs and internal injuries, who patches him up? Last time I checked, neither Alfred nor Robin had a medical degree. Even more telling, how can he get anywhere fast enough to accomplish anything? It’s fun to imagine the Batmobile stuck in traffic somewhere, going whubbadawhubbadawhubbada while Batman, sweating under his cowl, tries to avoid making eye contact with the guy in the UPS truck beside him.

 

 Finally, how many times is Batman going to hand the Joker over to the cops, watch him escape, then round him up again? One gets the impression that a real vigilante would get fed up and “accidentally” drop him off a bridge.

 

 But hey, everyone’s got failings. Even with his long list of believability issues, Batman still seems more plausible than any other superhero--or any Vin Diesel movie, for that matter. The sad fact is, the typical superhero is what we wish we were: indestructible, fair, and moral. But Batman -- painfully mortal, sometimes mean, and consumed by personal demons -- is what we really are.

 

 It doesn’t make him a very nice guy, but it does make him interesting. So I guess you could say my opinion of Batman has changed since I was a kid. But one thing hasn’t: I still wouldn’t want to be him.

 

 Originally published in Indy Men’s Magazine.

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