Thursday, June 26, 2014

Why I Hate Batman (And What Writers Can Learn From His Character Mistakes)

One of my earliest memories is going to see Tim Burton's Batman in the theater with my parents. Not long after one of my uncles gave me a leather bound copy of Frank Miller's run on the Dark Knight, and I was a loyal follower of the animated series from the time it came out. I even wrote an article right here that shows players how to convert the caped crusader into a character for the Pathfinder roleplaying game. No I can't quote the comics chapter and verse, but it's no stretch of the truth to say I've been a fan most of my life.

That's why it was so awkward for me when I realized Batman is actually really bad at what he does.

What Are You Talking About?

Make it good, punk.
Let's begin at the beginning, shall we? Bruce Wayne goes to see the Mark of Zorro with his parents, and on their way back from the theater a mugger shoots and kills Bruce's parents. Broken, Bruce dedicates himself to making sure that no one else goes through this kind of pain. He trains with martial arts masters in the east, studies under criminal investigation experts in Europe, and devotes his mind, body, and soul to understanding every method at his disposal for stopping crime. When he returns to Gotham he builds an arsenal of highly advanced weapons and tools, and declares himself the protector of all the citizens within the city limits.

With me so far? Good.

Comedian Reginald D. Hunter put it best, so I'm going to paraphrase what he said. The argument goes a little something like this. As I understand it Batman is a rich white man in a hopelessly corrupt city, and in order to avenge the death of his parents he decides to put on a costume and beat up on street level crime. He doesn't go after crooked bankers or white collar crime, just drug dealers and gang bangers. Batman is a conservative's wet dream. Fuck Batman.

From that point onward I could never see the character in the same light.

No Punching Required

To be fair Batman is a character written for comic books. This means he needs to have serial adventures, often with a repeat cast in the form of the Rogue's Gallery, and that he needs to be actively participating in his adventures. With that said his actions make no goddamn sense given his experience, education, and knowledge of human psychology.

Ummm... what?
All right, I'll put it this way. Bruce Wayne has studied crime all over the world. It's intimated that he is a genius capable of building the most advanced machines, maintaining a technological arsenal, following the most obscure trail left by the neatest of villains, and that he understands the human mind so well that he often knows what criminals are going to do before they take any action at all.

So why the hell hasn't he completely eliminated common street crime in Gotham City by using the two greatest weapons in his arsenal: prodigious wealth, and the social standing of the 1%?

The Massive Plot Hole

While there are some villains (The Joker, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, etc.) who are threats beyond reason or sense, most of the crime that Batman goes after is pretty garden variety stuff. He patrols the city from the rooftops looking for muggers, drug dealers, pimps, hired killers, and others. While there's no argument that these are legitimate problems, criminal justice research generally agrees that patrolling the streets is one of the worst ways to stop crime from happening. This is true even for huge, metropolitan police forces... Batman's one man. So not only is the most brilliant detective and dangerous martial artist in the world wasting his time on a technique he must know is inferior, but he isn't fighting the root cause of most crime.

What is the root cause of crime you ask? And why can't Batman punch it in the face?

Because crime isn't perpetrated by evil; it's perpetrated by people. Crime is a symptom of crumbling infrastructure, poor education, lack of good-paying jobs, and other, more ephemeral things. For every lunatic with a painted face there are a hundred thugs and goons who might never have decided to beat people up for a living if they had a comfortable home to live in, a good education, a chance to get good jobs, and social services they could depend on. Things that a billionaire who runs a massive corporation could easily provide, and even better turn a profit off of so he could help even more people.

Failing that (because who wants to read about a superhero who does good by providing jobs and social welfare?), why not focus on people who commit the biggest crimes? Bankers that launder money for organized crime keep these organizations going, white collar criminals who bankrupt hundreds of thousands of people lead to suffering and desperation on a massive scale, and corrupt politicians pave the way for policies like the school-to-prison pipeline. These are characters mentioned in passing, sometimes, but generally speaking they're passed over in favor of tooth-splintering brawls and madmen with time bombs.

Batman's avowed goal is to fight crime, but all he's doing is fighting criminals. He's punching the tide, and while a few droplets are stopped, the waves just keep crashing onto the beach.

He's Only One Man

Then again, so is he.
It's a romantic idea, the lone knight standing against a sea of wickedness. The problem is that as a character Batman has been shown to be a pragmatist. He's recruited numerous cohorts and allies, from Robin and Batgirl to James Gordon and others. Time and time again we see him not sleeping for days trying to do it all himself... why not just recruit more help?

It's pretty simple, really. Bruce took Dick Grayson and turned him from an acrobat into a skilled crime fighter... why couldn't he do that with others? There is a plot from Frank Miller with this very proposal, but more often than not Bruce hogs all the action to himself. Why not start up a security company and personally train those in it to act as his agents? Why not provide some of his technology to the police force to give them the tools they need to keep order? Why not campaign as Bruce Wayne to put driven, honorable men in public office?

The short answer is because that would solve too many problems. The more convoluted answer is that what drives Batman as a character, and us as his readers, might just be the need to indulge in the Old Testament style retribution against those we perceive as being in the wrong. It's a clear hero/villain line... but are those really the only stories Batman has to tell?

The Lessons Writers Should Take Away From This

There are a few things that I think my fellow writers can take away from this discussion.

Number one is that it's always a good idea to explore your character as deeply and fully as you can. If you give a character certain skills or knowledge, then it's important that they use those abilities in the most logical ways. Never be afraid to plumb the depths of your characters; you need to know everything about them even if your audience doesn't.

Number two is that you should always examine character goals from a big-picture perspective. One man eliminating crime is a Quixotic kind of goal, while killing a particular crime family (*coughs* Punisher *coughs*) is a great deal more feasible. Neither is necessarily better or more right than the other, but it's important for you to know whether or not your characters can achieve their goals in a believable way by the time you finish telling your story.

Number three is that there's always room for improvement. Even classic heroes and villains have rough spots that can be sanded out, and there will always be holes in the plot road. The best we can hope to do as authors is to make the bumps as shallow as possible, and to make sure our readers are driving so fast they don't notice the flaws we do have in our narrative highways.

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  1. He doesn't fight corporate crime? A lot of the higher ups use the lower criminals and make partnerships and Batman stops them all. What about Lex Luthor? He teamed up with Joker and Bruce went to Metropolis to help take them both down, in the Batman Superman movie, even though he could've had a pretty good deal with Lex's company as Bruce Wayne. I don't know if you've watched it or not, but in the Batman Beyond series, Bruce and Terry are constantly working to keep Mr. Powers of the Wayne-Powers company from doing corporate evils, such as destroying historical areas and other crimes that are all in the self-interest of Mr. Powers. In another book, Bruce took on the big issue of child sex trade. He went out of Gotham, to another part of the world, to do this and while he didn't completely end it, he did make a dent in the particular ring and it made readers pause to think about these issues that too often fly under the radar. If one character can do that, even if he's severely flawed, I'd say he is still pretty great. Not the most amazing or logical, but he's a pretty cool guy overall and one that more people should watch and read about.

  2. Samantha,

    I assume that you're referring to the novel where he travels to totally-not-Thailand and frees the "Children of the Secret"? If so I've read that, and it was good. Yes I've watched the animated series as well. Yes, Batman HAS fought corporate crime, and the real evils of the world.

    The point I was hoping readers would take away is that the war he's trying to fight is being fought with the wrong weapons.

    It's the same reason we don't have a show about Corporate Cops; people love a good punch up. Batman gives them that, without fail. There's metaphor, and meaning, and insanity, and all of that. But one of the lessons is that when all the detective work is done you always settle the matter with your fists. The issue is that if violence actually stopped crime then America would be one of the most crime-free places in the world.

    Bruce said it himself, in the novel you mentioned. "I've spent my life fighting criminals," but he them remarks that he isn't fighting the root causes of what makes those criminals. It was a poignant, self-aware moment, that was seen by very few readers in my experience, and which has largely been ignored by the canon at large.

    Some people have argued that Bruce is a madman, no more fit to be called a hero than the Joker or Two Face. Maybe that's true. But if you are genuinely trying to make his story about the one-man war on crime, trying to make a better city, he is most definitely using the wrong tactics to solve Gotham's problems.