It’s difficult to define Batman’s character as merely a Superhero. Indeed, his unwavering set of morals and idealistic sense of justice is reminiscent to that of a heroic archetype, however, at close examination of his character, the lines that define heroism start to blur and something much more darker, and nuanced starts to surface.
Through the hundreds of stories in comics and films, Batman’s character keeps changing, evolving, to fit the times. Most of these stories are amazing in shaping Batman’s character without changing who and what the world has known him to be. But, what kind of hero is Batman? He can’t be defined in a traditional sense, and his many versions and interpretations, have transformed him to hero, then anti-hero, to a legend. But this doesn’t really answer our question now, does it? The next obvious answer here would be: “He’s a Tragic Hero”. Perhaps not exclusively, however, as that would ultimately defeat the purpose of the discussion, as it’s never that simple.
The Tragedy of Bruce Wayne
Ancient Greek Philosopher, Aristotle, defined a Tragic Hero as: “a person who must evoke a sense of pity and fear in the audience. He is considered a man of misfortune that comes to him through error of judgment.” Like many tragic heroes in literary history, Bruce Wayne is what can be considered a man of noble birth and high social standing. Throughout many stories, he is often referred to as the “Prince of Gotham”, signalling the power and weight which the Wayne name holds. His parents were the most powerful people in Gotham City, and would often use that power in service of the people of Gotham. It’s clear that Batman creators, Bob Kane and Bill Finger were inspired by the classical tragic heroes of Shakespeare, such as Hamlet in his titular story and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, in the early conceptions of Batman. Both characters of high noble birth who inevitably fail in their stories because of their own poor decisions.
Aristotle outlines the most common traits that a Tragic Hero experiences as: Hamartia, Hubris, Peripeteia, Anagnorisis, Nemesis and Catharsis. But, I’ll only be analysing those relevant to the character of Batman, in which case Hamartia, Hubris, Peripeteia, Nemesis, Catharsis.
A Harmatia is a fatal flaw that causes the downfall of a hero or protagonist. Batman’s flaw is his unwillingness to kill. However, depending on the context of the argument, this could be seen as an internal strength than a flaw. His refusal to be the monster that the world needs him to be stems from the fact that without the mask, Batman is Bruce Wayne, and Bruce Wayne is human – and that is his true flaw. In a world that sees Batman as an idea, and an incorruptible force of nature, when the chips are down, he is as vulnerable as the people he seeks to protect. He makes up for this weakness by being a mystery; he uses the fear and superstitious nature of people and criminals to combat that weakness. He remains an obscure and somewhat mythical figure in the eyes of Gotham, which in turn makes him transcend humanity.
Hubris in Tragic Heroism is defined as an excessive pride and disrespect for the natural order of things. However, this isn’t a statement reminiscent with the character of Batman. He’s altruistic and thematically philanthropic, which gives his entire mythos a nuanced and layered contrast between how the world sees him, and how he actually is. In fact, depending on the specific iteration, Batman may not even see himself as a good person, and can see himself just as the world sees him. But how does this element of tragic characterisation relate to Batman? Well, there’s an aspect of Batman that indirectly expresses this trait. Batman is… Batman. He rarely admits to being wrong, and he would do anything to find the answers he needs, and he’s been known to always think he is right. Which is a trait which resulted in the tragic events of Tower of Babel. A story which saw Batman’s actions play a vital role in the defeat and fall of the Justice League at the hands of Ra’s al Ghul. This is a trait of Batman that has strained his relationship with his colleagues over the years, particularly, the Bat family. It’s a little pride on his part, but he’s not overly conceited. He plays his cards close to the chest; he doesn’t disrespect the natural order of things, he questions it – and he chose the night to work in the shadows in spite of it.
Nemesis outlines a punishment that the protagonist cannot avoid, usually occurring as a result of his hubris. I guess in a way, this is a trait that every modern hero possesses to some degree. Every story following a literary structure would have a point in the story where our hero would face harsh punishment or physical or emotional turmoil, usually subservient to some big lesson as a way of depicting character growth. This is the punishment that a protagonist cannot avoid. However, this is an issue with narrative repetitiveness more than character arc, as the former has many flaws within the story with frustrating remifications, such as failure to maintain a viewer’s suspension of disbelief, or just being a plot device that is very easy to see coming. Batman’s error in judgement almost always leads to his failure. For instance, his refusal to kill the Joker results in the deaths of the second Robin, Jason Todd, at his hands in the comics. This aspect of his moral nature flows into the films in Christopher Nolan‘s trilogy, particularly in The Dark Knight. His unwillingness to kill the Joker results in the deaths of Rachael and a number of other people, as well as the disfigurement of Harvey Dent, and his fall from grace. We’ve already established that his refusal to take a life isn’t necessary a character flaw, rather than it is an error in judgement. This becomes a Catch 22, as if killing the Joker makes Batman an amoral character, then not killing him makes him just as responsible for his evil actions. If a hero has the means and the capabilities to solve a recurring conflict, at the expense of his own moral righteousness, the true test becomes not whether he can keep himself a symbol of morality and justice, but whether he has the fortitude to abandon his humanity for the sake of a greater good.
Catharsis highlights releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions. These emotions or feelings can be positive or negative; if we see an evil man fail, it provides moral satisfaction, if we see a good man fail, we will feel pity for them and fear for ourselves. According to Aristotle, “Pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves”. What this ultimately comes down to, is the idea that the tragic hero should be as human and as nuanced as can possibly – he should not be perfect. Batman is amazing in more ways than one, but he is not perfect. The tragic hero should be better than everyone else around him, and should be eminently good and just – yet whose misfortune is brought about by his own actions – either by his weakness or error in judgement. Although Batman is physically, and mentally better than the average man, he is not perfect and fails much more than he succeeds, because his Hamartia would always be his tragic downfall.
The Philosophy of Batman
In order to fully grasp the philosophy of The Batman, we have to analyse the elements that make up his entire world, namely his city and his villains. Gotham City is one of the most famous fictional cities in the world, with a cast of characters that have transcended popular culture and a great television show that does a lot of justice to the name it bares. The most defining characteristic of Gotham City is reflected in its people and its stories. Indeed, you cannot craft a good Batman story without having his city as the backdrop, and you cannot map out Gotham in a literary sense without the presence of its Protector, and the people who live in it. One perpetuates and completes the other.
The defining thematic narrative of Gotham City is that “Gotham is, too, a character”. Gotham is a character, because the city plays a vital role in connecting and developing a deeper identity to the Batman mythology. Batman himself is a physical manifestation of Gotham’s pain. The twisted and irrepensable disregard for the established order that the authorities powerless to stop, is coherently a counterpoint to the dark and brooding nature of Batman. To prove just how important Gotham is in setting the tone for any Batman iteration, I want to analyse different stories and films in depth and discuss just how the setting depicts the hero.
First, Tim Burton’s City in Batman(1989) depicts a dark and grotesque aesthetic, resembling a city with a darker and more mysterious Batman. He is mysterious in the sense that by the start of the film, Batman is already a fully formed vigilante. Besides some varied flashbacks, his character remains an obscure figure even to the audience as much as he is to his city. His obsessive goal of ridding the city of crime is already in play when we are introduced to him, putting the audience deep in the heart of the story. Gotham is depicted as a hell on earth, and the production art direction is dark, terrifying, and visually engaging, as if “hell burst through the pavement and grew”. The city was fashioned for the big screen by Production Designer, Anton Furst, whose vision draws from garishly kafkaesque aesthetics of 1980s paranoia, and turned it into one of the most iconic imaginings of the Dark Knight’s home.
In the Gotham television series, we are introduced to a Gotham in pain. Following the murder of young Bruce Wayne’s parents, the city is depicted as “genuinely fucked”. The Waynes were the hope for Gotham’s future, and their deaths started a cycle of scourge and madness that gave birth to a twisted way of being. Gotham’s Gotham depicts a changing world, and a growing Batman. As the city becomes much more unsettling, young Bruce Wayne grows much more darker, more curious, and in need of a much bigger purpose in the service of Gotham as a release to the trauma he endured. Gotham is an expression of the pain and the madness that plagues its streets, and through Batman, an elemental manifestation of the people’s wrath and frustration.
The Frank Miller graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, depicts a dystopian and nightmarish Gotham. The city is old and dying, reflecting an older and angrier Batman, who dwells in a city “he’s learning to hate”. The parallels are more profound in this alternative iteration. The angry and self-destructive nature of the older Batman who violently preys on the criminally inclined is reminiscent of Gotham’s own self-toxicity. Having given up the mantle of Batman a decade earlier after the death of Jason Todd, this version of Batman is decadent and amoral in juxtaposition to the declining and rotting civilisation that Gotham City has become. His blasé antithetical approach to fighting crime is emblematic to Gotham’s own hopelessness and destructive afflictions. The story from the extraordinary mind of Frank Miller tones Batman’s character and that of his city with a darker atmosphere, striking a balance between the gritty maturity of his world and its deeply rooted lore into popular culture, but also creating versatile and ever-evolving characterisation.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy embraced the Caped Crusader’s realistic interpretation, but never at the expense of a fantastic narrative lore of which the Batman is known for. It achieved this with sophisticated writing and a grounded philosophical exploration into Batman and his true mask, Bruce Wayne. They highlighted that beautiful dichotomy between Batman and Bruce Wayne, in a way that could only be achieved by Christopher Nolan. The Gotham City represented here depicts a level of dark and grit that is inspired by the Batman Animated Series serials of the early 90s. Particularly, in the mixture of Dark Art Deco architectural production with the elements of Modernism that signals a Batman of a new era. The concept design for the first movie was created by artist, Dermot Power who also worked on the Harry Potter movies, and his work would go on to inspire a Gotham City of a new age, as well as an animated series of short stories, Batman: Gotham Knight, which took place within the Nolanverse in between the first and two films.
The existential crisis of Batman is whether or not he is doing any good as Batman. Gotham is still no better than it was before he took on the mantle, almost as if the more he pushes for order, the more the city pushes back into the chaos of which it has been accustomed. The Batman’s rogues are Gotham’s personification of chaos and insanity. It could be said that each of his main foes are a reflection of elements of character. The Joker, being the polar opposite of the Dark Knight. Batman is dark, silent and vengeful creature of the night, and the Joker is wacky, unpredictable and a puzzle that Batman could never solve. They are two sides of the same coin, but they are the same coin. On some level, the Joker is Batman’s reminder of everything he could have become, or perhaps, in a weird sense, everything he truly is. What I find to be completely interesting is the fact that the Joker doesn’t care who Batman truly is under the mask, because he knows that Batman is the true face of the person underneath. This results in a perfect resonance between the Joker and Batman and villain and hero, in that he is on the same philosophical wavelength as the Batman.
Perfectly depicted and named as the Bane of Batman’s existence, Bane reflects Batman’s strength and the extent of his ability. Imprisoned at a young age, as a decree made by his father, his natural abilities allowed him to develop extraordinary skills within the prison’s walls. This is reminiscent of young Bruce Wayne’s development. Since the death of his parents, Bruce was trapped in a metaphorical prison of grief and trauma. What I found interesting is that Bane was driven by a desire to live, which is why he survived and became the pillar of strength and badassery that he is known as today. Bruce, on the other hand, was driven by a desire to die. Tom King, writer of the best Batman story not many people read, “I am Suicide”, encompassed Batman philosophy with a darker overtone than the writers who came before, as the title suggests. Batman is the choice of a boy to die and become something else, while Bane is the resolve of a boy to live and become whoever he wants to be.
The Riddler reflects Batman’s intellect and the dangers of obsession with a puzzle. In a famous story, Batman Zero Year, the Riddler goes up against a younger and inexperienced Batman, and it is in these panels that the real danger and cunning intelligence of the Riddler comes into full realisation – besting and outsmarting Batman at every turn. Their battle of wits and strategies is fascinating to watch, and so much so, is the insanity found in the danger of obsession. Mr. Freeze reflects Batman’s pain and obsession with the loss of his parents. Like Batman, Mr. Freeze is unable to let go of his wife and uses her death to wage his war on Gotham, just as Batman uses the death of his parents to wage his war on crime. Clayface reflects Batman’s humanity, in that Clayface has forgotten what it is to be a normal person, so he becomes something or someone else. Sound familiar?
There are many other villains in Batman’s catalog that seem to follow the same pattern, from Scarecrow using Fear as a weapon, Poison Ivy priorities a sense of superiority and hates not being in control of people or nature itself, just as Batman in most cases. Catwoman knows as much pain and loss as Batman does, as well as putting on a mask, because it becomes a necessity for the world to see you as a villain if it keeps you protected from it.
I have no idea how to end this discussion, I feel like Batman is a character that is forever evolving, so there would always be something new and interesting for nerds like me to analyse. After all, the Dark Knight would always be stalking our streets and keeping a vengeful yet protective eye from our gargoyles. Just as the sky will always be blue, and there would be crime in Gotham – there will always be a Batman.
The Geek Writer.