Disclaimer: I like Batman. I think he’s a fun character. This post is just a very, very silly rant about the perception that Batman is the most grounded or believable superhero possible.
Everyone likes Batman, right? He’s kind of the go-to guy when it comes to defining what’s cool in modern culture. One reason we like Batman is because he’s kind of a regular guy, and we want to find out how he solves the next mystery. It’s good pulp fun. However, we run into problems when we start to believe that he is the most “realistic” or “believable” of superheroes. At first glance it seems clear: no powers, normal world, but in fact Batman represents what is possibly the most absurd premise in all superherodom.
Believable = Extreme Circumstances + Realistic Person
Batman = Mundane Circumstances + Unrealistic Person
We as an audience can suspend our disbelief when it comes to flying people or laser vision if the characters feel like real people. In Star Wars the Force is never explained (in the movies that count), but we accept that it works because the characters behave in a clear, believable manner. Their reactions to extraordinary situations allow us to suspend our disbelief, because we can picture ourselves acting in similar ways. There are some classic superheroes that portray this fairly well.
- Born with amazing powers and finds out that he is unique in the world (extraordinary)
- Raised by ethical, nurturing people to use his abilities responsibly (relatable)
- Superman’s powers are ridiculous, but we understand his motivations and why he behaves the way he does
- Bitten by a radioactive spider and gains extraordinary powers
- Uses these abilities to make money and become famous
- Through this selfishness, he loses a loved one and realizes he must use his abilities more responsibly
- Spiderman is even more believable than Superman, as his personal flaws are much clearer. We see him fail, identify with him, and want him to succeed because we see part of our own insecurities and dreams within this character.
- Bruce Banner is irradiated by an experimental weapon and becomes a reckless monster when angered
- The military hunts him wherever he goes, as he is a perceived menace
- Most of his time is spent looking for a cure to his infliction
- Here again we have an arguably even more “realistic” world, as from the start the authorities view this superhuman creature as a threat. While probably not as lovable as Spiderman, the Hulk is a sympathetic character, and conjures parallels with Frankenstein, as well as Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.
But then there’s Batman
- Is a millionaire child
- Parents murdered
- Spends millions if not billions of dollars to fight street-level crime with expensive gadgets and karate
Unlike the other examples, it is not the circumstances which are extraordinary, but the behavior of the character that shatters our suspension of disbelief. People’s parents get killed in real life in more dramatic circumstances than Batman’s, and yet no one’s behavior comes close to his. We can’t identify with his motivations and we can’t relate to any decisions he makes. Even the basic logic regarding his career choice is ludicrous. The thing about the suspension of disbelief is that we can accept one or two extraordinary things at a time, but if you pack them all together, or if they become too numerous, the illusion is shattered. Batman is very guilty of this.
- King of Martial Arts - Batman is described as the greatest martial artist in the world, mastering virtually all styles. Mastering a single martial art takes a lifetime, but Batman mastered all of them in the span of a few years. This isn’t the biggest deal, but combined with all the other amazing things he’s accomplished in that small time and it becomes absurd. If he was just “Karate Man” and his main skill was martial arts, this would be more acceptable.
- World’s Greatest Detective - Batman is often compared to Sherlock Holmes, but while Holmes was a somewhat quirky character with many unusual affectations (the side-effect of his attention to detail), Batman is simply smarter than everyone else and can get out of any jam. Writing “master detectives” is tricky stuff, because you’re writing a character who is more intelligent than you are, and more intelligent than the reader. It’s hard to relate to an immense intelligence. One way to balance this is to give them believable affectations. Characters like Poirot become more interesting because they’re a little off. They are extraordinary in a certain way, but like someone who is OCD or autistic, that unique strength comes at a price. Batman exhibits no such downside to his infallible detective skills. Also, when did he have time to go to detective school when he was mastering all the martial arts?
- He Created His Own Villains - Virtually all of Batman’s more extraordinary enemies are people he instigates. The Joker, Riddler, etc. behave the way they do because they are psychotically obsessed with Batman’s own crazy behavior. This is actually a common plot point in Batman, but they always seem to dance around the most obvious conclusion: find a less theatrical way to stop crimes and the Joker will stop gassing the city. I’m not saying Batman is responsible for these people’s actions, but rather he is incapable of realizing very obvious and easy solutions to uncomplicated problems.
- Employs Minors to Draw Gunfire - Arguably the craziest behavior of Batman is his need to employ children. Even if we accept that a billionaire becomes a master of karate and detecting to fight crime, how can he possibly believe a little kid is qualified to dodge bullets and punch adults in the head? I don’t care how great the kid is, if he needs a helping hand that bad, surely with his infinite resources he could find a grown man or woman for the job. The costume’s just icing on the crazy cake. Batman has to rely on a lot of tricks not to die, like dressing in all black, relying on fear and (as mentioned) being the best at hand-to-hand combat after years of training. What possessed him to dress up a child in bright clothing and send him out to go be shot at by mobsters after less than a year of Bat-training?
- Unlimited, Untraceable Resources - Very few people know who Batman is, and yet he spends billions of dollars on the construction of things like supersonic jets and space stations (the former of which he keeps under his house) without anyone noticing. I realize there have been plot points in both the comics and films about this problem, but they’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. One man couldn’t possibly handle all the financial judo necessary to essentially mask billions upon billions of dollars to fight muggers, which brings me to my biggest complaint:
- Billions Spent to Fight Robbers - Despite his apparent genius, Batman invests billions of dollars into a campaign to fight the lowest level crimes in the least efficient way. On a good night, he may stop one, maybe two crimes, but the cost of operation per night is easily thousands of dollars, if not more. Flying around in an experimental jet or car, looking for muggers stealing $20 from a purse is a laughable application of resources. Crime is a symptom of socioeconomic factors like poverty; if he actually cared about the net reduction of crime, he would spend all that space station money on public works programs and education. Heck, if he still wanted to directly fight crime, he could spend those millions on quintupling the police force so he wouldn’t have to run around looking for muggers. If he’s worried about corruption and organized crime, he could simply buy out the entire system. If he has the resources to single-handedly build Superman a space station, he could easily financially overpower crooked lobbyists and mobsters.
So we like Batman, and that’s fine, but he’s absurd, more absurd than any other character in modern fiction. Except Dagny Taggart.