Last week I wrote about Batman’s potential for variety. Variety thrives best when anchored to a strong core, and Batman has a strong core. You have the suit, the logo, the batcave, the batmobile, Alfred, and the rogue’s gallery. Add to that the various ephemera: sometimes there’s Robin, sometimes not, sometimes the gadgetry is emphasized, sometimes not, sometimes Batman is more of a conventional superhero and sometimes it’s something more like a detective story.
That’s the practical core of Batman, but there’s also a moral core. And it’s not the no-killing rule, if that’s the thing you just thought of. In case you haven’t already read it, Shamus wrote some good stuff on that. To me the moral core of Batman is the acknowledgment that Batman is a vigilante. Many or even most superheroes are vigilantes in practice, but their narratives rarely acknowledge that. In Batman, or at least Batman at its best, it’s written into the story somehow, even if it’s only in the background.
Every American probably has their own thing about this country that especially bugs them. In fact, I have several. But our collective infatuation with vigilante fantasies is at or near the top of my list. I can personally tell you that my heart sank a bit when I learned they were rebooting the Death Wish franchise. And yet I’m a big Batman fan. So what gives? Part of it is that Death Wish protagonist Paul Kersey doesn’t have a grappling hook, or even a cape. But the bigger part is that Batman at its best handles the vigilante subject in the right way.
To cite an example, I’ll tell you about my personal favorite Batman work, out of all the comics and movies and shows and games. My personal favorite Batman work is the 2008 Christian Bale/Christopher Nolan/Heath Ledger one: The Dark Knight.
Are you disappointed to read that? I’m a bit disappointed to write it. When I want back through all my various Batman stuff, I was hoping that I could claim that some obscure comic or episode of the animated series or something was my favorite. Instead, I had to pick the Batman thing that’s probably attained more mainstream success and critical acclaim than any other.
But it has that success because it’s earned it, in my opinion. The Dark Knight hit all the right notes when it comes to the vigilante issue. I’m going to list three of these notes as the first of my personal “Batman rules.” Much like the pirate code, the Batman rules are more guidelines than rules. But they’re still useful.
Batman Rule #1: Generally, the more Commissioner Gordon, the better.
To me, Commissioner Gordon is the second-most important character in the Batman mythos (after The Zodiac Master Batman), because he’s the one that makes Batman ok. He’s the good cop, the honest civil servant who wants to help. So if he’s on Batman’s side, then the audience can more easily be on Batman’s side.
Generally, Gary Oldman makes his roles look so easy that you don’t always realize how good he is. That’s just right for Jim Gordon, who’s a crucial character but also not the protagonist. He was also given a major (though supporting) role in the story, and plenty of screen time. Jonathan and Christopher Nolan’s screenplay smartly made hay out of the legal-extralegal interactions between Gordon, Harvey Dent, Rachel Dawes, and Batman.
Like most things in the Batman universe, Commissioner Gordon has great potential for variety. He can be the everyman type, a comic figure, or, in the case of The Killing Joke for example, a tragic figure. But he should always be fundamentally good, and the Batman story that wouldn’t benefit from more Jim Gordon is rare.
Batman Rule #2: Gotham is fallen.
The best Batman works get Gotham right. Gotham can’t just be dingy and dark, it has to be broken. In a place with healthy institutions, that provide justice to those they serve, vigilantism is not justified. But a place with broken, corrupted institutions? A place where the apparatus of state is part of the problem? Then vigilantism, while still dangerous, can make a better argument for its own activity.
The Tim Burton movies were some of my favorites, because Gotham may be the city Tim Burton was born to put on screen. The narrow streets, the towering Art Deco statues – everything hit all right notes of grandeur and despair. Christopher Nolan’s Gotham was less visually memorable, but no less skillfully portrayed in its own way. You get a sense of futility from those who live there, like the frustration of Harvey Dent when Gordon was so quick to assume that the gangsters had “people in his office.”
This is trickier to pull off in a more lighthearted Batman, but it can be done. In the Adam West show, Batman was often pitted against an authority figure of some kind. I can tell you that I personally will never turn down a Batman story where The Penguin runs for mayor. That one scratches me right where I itch.
Batman Rule #3: Batman is a reluctant hero.
Batman doesn’t want to be Batman. He does it because he feels he has to. In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne’s goal was to stop. He wanted Harvey Dent to put the gangsters in jail and fix Gotham, so he could hang up his cape and cowl and go back to toiling in the fields like a broody Cincinnatus.
He doesn’t always have to be explicitly trying to quit, but it helps to hit the occasional note of reluctance. This is an area where his parents are useful aspirational figures. Thomas and Martha Wayne helped Gotham within the bounds of the law, and the night they died is an object of nostalgia – it’s the night that Gotham broke, and Batman became necessary.
That’s why, even in the more lighthearted adaptations, Batman’s fundamental grumpiness is rarely absent. Every time he buckles up the utility belt, he’s doing something that he wishes he didn’t have to do.
I’m gonna have more Batman rules in the coming weeks, but for me, the above three are the most important. They should be the core Batman ruleset. Unfortunately, Batman has somehow developed an alternate ruleset, one I don’t much care for, and I’ll get into the what and why of that next week.
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