OK, coming on strong with the title, but if you’ve seen me on here, you know I’m a huge Batman nerd. But for me, part of liking a character is seeing a certain injustice in the mishandling of that character, so I’m hoping to present some theories about common failures in writing Batman and how to avoid them. Ultimately, I’m doing this because I want to see my favorite character used well.
Point 1: What is Batman About, Philosophically Speaking?
Batman stories are about the ethics of justice. Which people need to be brought to justice? What means are acceptable to do it? Violence? Lethal violence? Do someone’s circumstances and background affect how justifiable their actions are?
I’d slightly contrast with, say, Superman stories, which tend to be less about the ethics of justice and more about the ethics of power. Superman vs. Lex Luthor is a conflict between someone who has great power and uses it responsibly and someone who has a different kind of power and uses it extremely irresponsibly. Superman is a better Spider-Man than Spider-Man is what I’m saying.
But that’s not really the issue with Batman. The bad guys aren’t so much philosophical exemplars in themselves as they are forces for violence and chaos so we can look at how the heroes deal with those forces. I’m raising this first because while it’s the hardest to specifically identify in action, it’s also a very fundamental component of how Batman stories work, and the best ones derive their themes from these philosophical building blocks.
Point 2: Batman is the Good Guy
OK, this sounds like a Captain Obvious moment, but hear me out.
How many times do you see Batman be needlessly arrogant or standoffish just to create drama?
Yeah, that stuff? Stop it.
The reason is really very simple. Batman is a franchise that runs for decades at a time with a single protagonist. And it’s in the nature of this kind of story that the protagonist is going to change very slowly, if at all. If that protagonist is an unpleasant person, it’s just frustrating and tiresome. No matter how much complexity you think it adds, you have to consider the long-term ramifications of having this massive jerk be the focal point of your franchise and the person your readers come back to read month after month, or watch week after week, or whatever.
That’s not to say he can never be flawed or wrong about something, but an average Batman story should portray him as basically a good person.
It’s also really annoying in teamup stories where Batman is written as the harsh, violent, pragmatic one as a cheap contrast with Superman (or whoever). Their underlying philosophies are not that different. Sure, Batman uses fear as a weapon and Superman doesn’t. But that’s because Superman, being really powerful, doesn’t need to. Except when he does, like in What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way? (or Superman vs. The Elite if you’re more of a movie kind of person). Ultimately, they’re both just using all the tools at their disposal to prevent needless death.
Point 3: Batman Needs to Lighten Up
Like, dude. Seriously. Chill.
In all seriousness (ironically), Batman is a serious person motivated by some deep-seeded anger and outrage. I get that.
But he’s also supposed to be human, and humans have a full, wonderful range of emotions that includes things other than “angry” and “sad” and “both angry and sad.”
In particular, Batman is supposed to be very intelligent. Well, intelligent people often have a strong sense of humor because their brains tend to quickly make connections between disparate ideas. Now, smart people don’t always like making jokes, but an appreciation for irony and wit can go a long way to reinforcing a character’s intelligence. So basically, Batman needs to make more one-liners. I’m not saying he should become a comic relief character, but if he just drops a quick, witty comment every story or two, I think it would be healthy.
And also, the dude’s got everything going for him. He’s got a job he’s passionate about, a very large adoptive family that loves him dearly, and he’s loaded. Even if he’s kind of moody, if he can’t find anything to smile about, he comes across kind of spoiled.
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