The Side of Batman We’ll Probably Never See on the Big Screen


Yeah, but you don’t have to be so mean about it…

Everybody loves The Batman. Children grow up on him, nerds worship him, casual film fans flock to see him, and there is seldom a vacuum where there isn’t any Batman-related show on the air and/or a film in the works.  Batman is now everyone’s favorite superhero, having surpassed the Big Blue Boy Scout himself after works like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns inspired Tim Burton’s dark blockbuster films of the early 90’s and the brilliantly timeless Batman: The Animated Series, transforming his image from Adam West with an inflatable shark hanging off of his leg to a heroic-but-troubled avenger of the night. In the 90’s and beyond, we wanted grittiness and tortured souls, and Batman has been right there for us.

But would any of this have happened if the mainstream adaptations of Bruce Wayne’s crusade against crime and corruption in Gotham City had taken the approach that the comics have in recent years? In the comics, Batman is driven and obsessed to the point where he’s occasionally bordering on psychotic. He treats his friends like tools to be used and disposed of at will, he plots against his own allies, he makes questionable decisions that other people have to suffer for, his demeanor is typically abrasive and, well, he’s often just kind of a jerk.

Over the years, the comic medium has become a haven for bleak, adult storytelling that just would not appeal to your usual popcorn blockbuster audience. I’m going to explore that a little bit by discussing some instances from the past decade or so of pre-New 52 comics where Batman is not necessarily the guy you want to root for.


Batman to Superman: “cowl or gtfo”.

In the epic mega-arc, No Man’s Land, Gotham is sealed off from the rest of the DC universe after an earthquake levels it, leaving it unfit for human habitation. But many Gothamites refuse to leave their city and once the government abandons them, anarchy ensues as various supervillains move in and form gangs warring over territory, leaving the Bat-family to try and restore order for the few decent people still in Gotham. It’s awesome.

At one point Superman arrives to offer assistance and is met by his JLA compatriot, who promptly tells him to scat and belittles him for thinking he could make a difference. You see, Bats has serious control issues and he refuses to allow rogue elements to operate in “his city”. In other words, if you aren’t taking your orders directly from him, he wants you out.

Another good example of this came after former Batgirl Barbara Gordon, then the superhacker Oracle, formed her own superheroine squad, Birds of Prey, to be her agents. Batman allowed them to operate for some time while most of their operations were international and didn’t interfere, but once the Birds began battling with criminals locally and taking up Oracle’s time, Brucie let it be known that he would shut them down if they slipped up even once, as a good friend should.


Black Canary: not impressed.

Being a man who often threatens his friends and allies, Bats naturally has contingency plans to eliminate all of them, should the need arise. This bit of Bat-madness was actually co-opted by Ra’s al Ghul, who compromised the Batcave, found Batman’s computer files on the topic, and used the information within to bring down the members of the Justice League in the JLA story Tower of Babel.  As a result, Bruce Wayne left the Justice League and was practically ostracized by the superhero community afterwards.

But hey, as much as a hardass as he is to his friends, Bats always wrecks the villains, right? Well, yeah, but in at least one case, he may have screwed up. In Chuck Dixon’s The Joker: Devil’s Advocate, the courts of the United States finally succeeded in sentencing the nastiest villain in the DCU to lawful death. Batman, however, was unconvinced of Joker’s guilt in this particular instance and set out to save his the life of his arch-nemesis, heedless to the immense amount of blood already on the villain’s hands prior to the current charge.

So yeah, Batman saved the Joker’s life on a technicality. His victory comes in informing the psychotic clown that he now has to live the rest of his life knowing that he owes it to his greatest enemy. Tell that to the families of the victims of his next dozen or so murder sprees, Mr. Wayne.

And yes, even his precious Bat-family feels the burn of Wayne’s sociopathic tendencies; possibly more than anyone else. Not being able to be everywhere at once, Bats keeps a network of allies instructed in his complex and exacting methods of crime fighting who he can call on when the need arises.  They are the only vigilantes allowed to operate freely in Gotham City and include the likes of Robin (of course), Nightwing, Batgirl, Catwoman, and a few others at any given time.


Young Justice did it right.

Let’s focus on Batgirl for a minute. Not Barbara Gordon, but her underrated successor, Cassandra Cain. Cass isn’t just the coolest looking Batgirl; she was also capable of kicking the head Bat’s ass in hand-to-hand combat, which very few non-metahumans in the DCU can say. She was raised by her father, the assassin David Cain. Her mother? Lady Shiva, the invincible martial artist who keeps a list of the best of the best fighters on the planet for the sake of tracking them down and killing them in deathmatches. Cassandra was raised without speech so that she could be the ultimate assassin. In other words: less talking, more killing.

After Oracle took Cass under her wing, she allowed her to take the mantle of Batgirl, but often ended up at odds with Batman. Wayne sensed a kindred spirit who knew nothing except the art of war and pushed her to constant vigilance, while Babs wanted Cass to learn social skills and have a chance at a decent life outside of vigilantism. Bats even went so far as to threaten Superman again when his protégé Superboy took a romantic interest in his new Batgirl, distracting her away from her constant patrols. Am I implying that Batman treated Batgirl as a weapon the same way her supervillain father did? Yes. Yes I am.

Cassandra Cain eventually struck out on her own, leaving an opening for her close friend, fellow supervillain spawn, Stephanie Brown, aka Spoiler. She proved herself by “spoiling” the plans of her father, The Cluemaster, while developing a romantic relationship with Tim Drake, then Robin. When Tim abandoned his sidekick post after his parents’ discovered his secret life, Stephanie made herself a Robin costume and demanded that Batman take her as his replacement.

Batman quickly fired Steph after a few unimpressive performances and coldly abandoned her as any mentor would. In an effort to prove herself worthy, Spoiler put into effect another of Batman’s secret contingency plans he left lying around; one meant to bring all organized crime in Gotham under the control of his undercover alter-ego, Matches Malone. But due to the ensuing case of crap luck, the entire city is plunged into a bloody gang war instead. This is known as the War Games arc.

During the bedlam Black Mask ends up capturing Spoiler and torturing her to death when she won’t give up Batman. It’s been heavily implied that Batman only allowed Stephanie Brown to wear the Robin outfit as a ploy to provoke a jealous Tim Drake to return to his duties.  Steph’s last words spoken to Batman as she lay dying in the hospital: “Was I ever really Robin?”  Wayne told her she was, but didn’t bother taking up space in his Batcave with a memorial for her like fellow deceased former Robin Jason Todd got. Just saying.


Catwoman: not impressed.

So picture this happening: a summer blockbuster about a manipulative, unfeeling bastard who inspires and trains children to risk their lives on his behalf, alienates his friends at every opportunity while telling his fellow heroes to get lost or he’ll throw them out himself, and goes out of his way to save the lives of vicious murderers while his sidekicks die around him. I think Christopher Nolan may have just shit himself.

That’s not to say I’m not a fan. I genuinely love Batman. I think his extreme faults are what make him one of the most complicated and interesting characters in mainstream comics. And the fact remains that he ALWAYS has a reason and a bigger picture in mind when he does the things he does. But then again, so do guys like Dr. Doom and Ra’s al Ghul. Bruce Wayne’s willingness to teeter on the brink of true darkness while doing good is one of his defining characteristics, as is the immense arrogance that allows him to do so knowing he has the self-discipline to never go over the edge.

In my opinion, the definitive adaptation of Batman was the DC Animated Universe, which managed to take the darker, brooding, antisocial edge of the modern comics and tone it down to something that was still driven and formidable, but a little more relatable without having him act the goofy playboy for comedic value and constantly yearning for a love interest like what we’ve seen in the films. And the elder, mega-cynical Mr. Wayne from Batman Beyond?  Beyond reproach is more like it.


This is EXACTLY what an old Bruce Wayne should be like; scarier and less personable than his attack dog.

For comparison, let me contrast the most popular/profitable modern take on Batman in Nolan’s beloved Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan’s Bruce Wayne was a pampered rich boy whose personal demons led him to train ninjitsu with a supervillain (no vetting process), relied almost entirely on Alfred Pennyworth and Lucius Fox to wipe his bum for him and provide him with billions in military grade sci-fi technology, respectively, killed more villains than not (or allowed them to be killed), spent damn near every non-action onscreen moment pining for his hottie of the moment, and failed as often (and usually more epically) as he succeeded while trying waaaaay too hard to sound intimidating with his ubiquitously-mocked tough guy voice. I also find it hard to describe him in the last film without using the word “bumbling”.

In the comics, Batman is the world’s greatest detective and fiercely independent. He pretty much knows everything about everyone he works with, and if he doesn’t, he will soon find out. Alfred offers the companionship he pretends not to need and plays a support role in his endeavors, as do the rest of the “family”, but at the end of the day Bruce Wayne by himself is the single most dangerous man in the DC Universe simply because he is smarter, better disciplined, and more driven to succeed than any other character.

No matter how powerful you are, he will find your weakness, he’s not afraid to exploit it, and everybody knows it. All of the technology and metagenes in the world can’t compare to the power of the man himself. No matter the odds, he finds a way to get it done, and he does it on his own terms. That’s something we can all look up to.

Truer words.

To compare, Nolan’s trilogy’s metaphor for individualism became less about personal empowerment and willpower than an almost Randian implication of the importance of the wealthy and privileged in society. That’s not to say that most of Nolan’s films weren’t great (to quote Meatloaf: two out of three ain’t bad). They were. But his prissy Batman wouldn’t last a week in DC’s Gotham. He’s a mainstream Hollywood creation designed to appeal to the widest possible audience and indulge the director’s personal fantasies, whereas the heart and soul of Batman in the comics is exactly the opposite.

In the comics,Bruce Wayne is a tortured loner who lost his parents and has spent most of his life pushing nearly everyone away from him unless he can use them to his own ends of battling crime in his city, sparing as many as possible from the torment of the loss that destroyed his life. He may have a romantic fling every now and then just to prove he’s human, but he is seldom under the impression that any relationship will last. He’s married to his self-imposed crusade. Not so much when he’s on film.

So will we ever see a Batman so badass that he strikes fear into the hearts of his own allies on the big screen? I’d love to see The Bat psychologically bullying The Man of Steel in a blockbuster cross-over, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Obviously, there is room for any number of interpretations of the character in different mediums, but there’s a reason comics are still the exclusive domain of nerds even as Hollywood smashes and grabs at the industry for ideas and franchises to exploit.

Characters like Batman are designed to appeal to those who feel ostracized from society. People who want to change the sickness in the world and don’t have the means; who want to see an individualistic social recluse kick ass all over the would-be bullies and put the fear of God into those who have otherwise unfettered power over the common people. Someone who relies more on brains than brawn and just doesn’t give a crap what society expects from them. But sorry, my friends; that concept doesn’t sell a lot of toys.


Terrorize the wealthy and corrupt with your very own Batman: Year One action figure! 


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  1. Solid read. (A bit long, might’ve been better served as a two-parter)

    Methinks we could all debate Batman’s greatness, but, at the end of the day, he’s just great so why bother? There are sparks of legitimate Bats psychology and mythology in every Bat-film that’s been made — I’ve long given up trying to deconstruct the Nolan films b/c I grew tired of getting flamed — but, agreed, the only incarnation that’s ever been as effectively faithful to him as a character was the Animated Series (which understandably HAD to water down his various psychoses as kids were watching).

  2. Well said. The only thing you glossed over was how in No-man’s Land he actually called up everybody in his “family”, Nightwing, Robin, Batgirl, Azrael and Huntress to help him. He thought he could do it on his own and then admitted he couldn’t. I even think they showed how all of them were fairly surprised by that revelation, but then that could have just been me reading too much into it because I was.

  3. @thomas: The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One are absolute musts, but be careful around the likes of All-Star Batman and Robin. There is such a thing as being TOO edgy.

    @Zimmerman: I do try to keep the length down, but doing that is sometimes difficult for me given the nature of the stuff I like to tackle and my approach to it. I appreciate the input, though, and will see what I can do in the future.

    @ mptribe007: Thanks!

    @Mutant Turd: You’re right, but I did mention that he keeps the fam around for when he needs them and that they provide the support he pretends not to need. If I remember right, he had to pretty much manipulate Catwoman into helping him during NML by suggesting she wasn’t capable of the task, leaving her no choice but to prove him wrong. Classic Batman psych-trip.

  4. Over the years, Batman’s been a shockingly flexible character, at different times occupying space at the zaniest and grittiest ends of the comic spectrum. Lately (I suppose ever since Frank Miller’s work?) it seems that Batman has tended towards being an indulgent fantasy. Not always, and not only, but often to some degree. What I read of the New 52 relaunch title was pretty firmly in this camp, and it wound up boring me after a while.

    I’m all for taking the stories into the dirt, but I can’t help but feel that many Batfans (and many of the writers) are enjoying it a bit too much. Edginess is just a thing; it’s not inherently good or bad IMO.

    I have liked some of it. It’s just something that keeps him from being at the top of the heap for me like he is for a lot of people. I’ve been a Superman guy for a couple of years now, ever since reading All-Star Superman.

    Actually, I like Morrison’s Batman work the best, too. I’m working my way through his “Black Glove” saga at the moment and I really dig the angle he’s found for the character. The idea of Batman as a more fleshed-out, less psychotic superhero is one I can dig.

    Nolan’s movies weren’t interested in giving us the extreme end of Batman’s dark side, but they were very interested in delving into what makes him, his villains, and his city tick. And then springboard off that to get into some other, more broadly applicable ideas. I’m good with it.

    Finally, count me among those who think that the most satisfying iteration of the character onscreen has been the Animated Series. It captures the broadest view of the character by a lot.

  5. @David: Morrison actually put me off of Batman comics for a long time. Some of his stuff is just ridiculous! Batman of Zur-en-arrh? Are you kidding me with that nonsense? And the whole idea of resurrecting Thomas Wayne as a supervillain is just utterly cynical and representative of everything wrong with comics these days. Plus, a villain named The Sombrero whose defining characteristic is….he wears a sombrero. Kill me.

    Then there’s Batman Inc., which exists because a bunch of Batmen are way cooler than just the one! Right? RIGHT? I loved Arkham Asylum, of course, but I’m feeling like Morrison and Miller both represent writers who have been devoured by the industry and changed into something I just don’t recognize anymore.

    People were really buzzing about Snyder’s work in the New 52 and when I finally checked it out it was just kind of alright. It’s definitely a return to form for the character without all of the insanity, but the actual quality isn’t anything mind-blowing like I was hearing it was.

  6. No one needs the Goddamn Batman in a movie. That run was terrible. It was good for a few laughs but I don’t need to ever see a movie with Batman as that psychotic abuisive asshat.

  7. That’s deep, bro.

    “The man who refuses to judge, who neither agrees nor disagrees, who declares that there are no absolutes and believes that he escapes responsibility, is the man responsible for all the blood that is now spilled in the world…
    There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil. The man who is wrong still retains some respect for truth, if only by accepting the responsibility of choice. But the man in the middle is the knave who blanks out the truth in order to pretend that no choice or values exist, who is willing to sit out the course of any battle, willing to cash in on the blood of the innocent or to crawl on his belly to the guilty, who dispenses justice by condemning both the robber and the robbed to jail, who solves conflicts by ordering the thinker and the fool to meet each other halfway. In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit. In that transfusion of blood which drains the good to feed the evil, the compromise is the transmitting rubber tube.” -Ayn Rand

    Follow this logic to its conclusion and see how that ends up. There’s only one manner of conflict resolution in her philosophy, and it amounts to genocide.Wipe out everyone who disagrees with you because if it does not serve you personally, it must be evil. These are the thoughts of a child. Rand was right about many things, but the fact of the matter is if you can’t see both sides of an issue, you don’t understand the issue. No amount of intelligence can make up for a blatantly sociopathic point of view an a closed mind.

    “Since nature does not provide man with an automatic form of survival, since he has to support his life by his own effort, the doctrine that concern with one’s own interests is evil means that man’s desire to live is evil—that man’s life, as such, is evil. No doctrine could be more evil than that.
    Yet that is the meaning of altruism.” -Ayn Rand

    “Altruism: Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.”- Mirriam-Webster

    Hyperbole from a “rational Objectivist” comes across as a lot more desperate than usual, don’t you think? I think it’s safe to say that most of us doing all right survivalwise. It’s a matter of taking what you need and allowing others to have what they need when there is enough for everyone (and there is enough) rather than taking more for yourself exclusively for the sake of denying another. I’m pretty sure I can think of some doctrines more evil than that. How about you?

  8. This is a great article, I’ve never read the comics but now I have a much better idea of what a true portrayal of batman would be. It’s like you said though, appealing to the masses with a much more likable batman equals more cash. It’s a shame a character has to lose all the things that originally made them great just to appeal to the masses. It’s a compromise that shouldn’t be made.

    1. There’s a long list of different interpretations of the character and they’ve all got something to offer, but the 80’s-present version from the comics is the one that seems to have stuck in spite of (or because of) his anti-social tendencies. It’ll definitely be interesting to see where future film/television adaptations are willing to go once they feel the need to reinvent Batman again.

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