Batman: Pinnacle of human perfection with a splash of the crazy

Image by kevindooley via Flickr

This is the second in my series taking about superhero characters. In my kickoff post I explained how in some ways they are the modern Gods – created in our image to put into stories to help us understand ourselves better. This time I’m looking at Batman, the broody anti-hero without any powers.

The Hero

The only son of wealthy parents, young Bruce Wayne is scarred forever when he witnesses his parents gunned down in front of his eyes. He dedicates his life to perfecting himself physically and mentally, forging himself into a foe who will stand in the way of criminals and keep them from devouring society. Searching for something to help him inspire fear in the cowardly and the unjust, Bruce takes inspiration from the dark image of a bat. Now the World’s Greatest Detective, the Batman prowls the streets of Gotham City with his mind, his muscle, and his endless array of gadgets, defending the innocent from the evil forces of the night.

Why We Love Him

Batman is a normal human being who has mastered himself and walks with the Gods. A regular person who through discipline, focus, and patience became someone all the other heroes admire and respect.

Batman is the ultimate in physical human perfection. He never gets exhausted scaling the tallest of buildings, and has muscle definition that would send Spartans back to the gym feeling flabby. If a martial art ever comes up, he’s mastered it. Swimming? Fencing? Gymnastics? Olympic level skills across the board.

Not content to by the ultra-jock, Batman is also a genius level scientist and engineer. One of his original titles was “World’s Greatest Detective“, and one story has him studying from Sherlock Holmes himself. He is always three steps ahead of not just his foes but also his fellow heroes, and the devices in his magical bag of holding utility belt are rarely not up to correcting the task at hand.  In spite of all the training, time, and effort needed to be the Batman, he also manages to maintain himself as a multi-Billionare in his spare time. Both mentally and physically, Batman is everything we imagine we could be if we just started working hard rather than sitting around on the internet all day.

Yet it is the emotional aspect of Batman that cements him as an icon. His obsession over his parent’s death turned him dark, relentless, and more than a little crazy.  Yet he doesn’t kill. In most versions, he refuses to use a gun at all. He inflicts terror and fear on the cowardly underbelly of society, yet does it through some of the highest moral avenues. In some ways he has mastered the most dangerous of human emotions and turned them into a powerful tool.

As A Character

Whereas I think Superman is somewhat limited in his storytelling options, Batman’s humanity and challenges make him an incredible character. We’ve already seen him mentor several Robins, struggle with loneliness, and grapple with the deep paranoia that fuels his world. He’s been everything from campy to psychotic, and from Miller’s classic Dark Knight Returns about an aged and broken Batman, to Nolan’s brilliant The Dark Knight about Batman facing his own moral impact upon the world, there is no shortage of new ways to explore his facets.

Joker (comics)

Image via Wikipedia

I’d even argue that it is the richness of the Batman character that gave rise to one of the greatest comic book villains: the Joker. Comic villains are often defined in opposition to the heroes they face, like the intellectual Lex Luthor to the mighty Superman, and the Joker was born out of funhouse mirror reflection of Batman’s own psychosis and obsessions.  Like Batman, the Joker has been endlessly redefined. He’s grown from a goofy clown, to a drowning psychopath in The Killing Joke, to Heath Ledger’s raging anarchist. In the DC Universe it is said that when the other super-Villains want to scare each other they tell Joker stories. Only the greatest of characters could give birth to one of the greatest of villains.

Little kids reading comics can never hope to grow up to fly like Superman, or climb walls like Spider-Man, but there is a little voice in the back of their head that tells them that if they really worked hard enough they could be Batman.

Now if I only had a cave…

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Good Bad Guys

I saw Hellboy II:  The Golden Army in the theaters and loved it.  I just watched it again on DVD and I can tell I’m gonna like this one a little more each time I see it but a couple things struck me.  One is, of course, Guillermo del Toro’s incredible visual style.  The man does amazing stuff with fairy tales and I’m salivating at the thought of The Hobbit with him involved.

The other is how layered the story is.  It opened as a summer action movie and delivers on that score; it’s fast paced and action packed with lots of fights and spectacle.  It’s also one of those stories that’s sort of about what you want it to be about.  The first time I watched it the main message felt ecological: man’s progress leaving no room for the raw beauty of nature.  There’s also an anti-war message if you want it, or what it means to be in love, or what it means to be alone.  All of those are there but according to the director’s commentary none of them were his main aim.  The big theme was how people become so entrenched in and in love with the banal; they are numb and uncaring at the passing of the sublime.

All of that’s good stuff but what really hit me when I watched it this time was that I really felt like I was more on the side of the bad guy.  Nuada is a prince in exile.  His people had a terrible weapon that guaranteed them victory.  Rather than pursue a genocide his people chose to stop using the weapon and forge a truce with humans.  Flash forward a few thousand years; the humans have long since given up their end of the pact and Nuada’s people are all but extinct.  Under those circumstances it’s pretty easy to make a case for his declaration of war and his decision to use the weapons at his disposal.  That’s kind of how it’s done in the real world.

This makes for a much more interesting and affecting story.  Nuada is a noble and tragic figure fighting for what he believes instead of some stock madman.  He’s a graceful and elegant figure as well which contrasts with Hellboy.  Hellboy’s our hero but he’s a juvenile brute (likable enough but still) who handles all situations by beating up or destroying what’s in front of him.  Nuada makes him think about what he’s doing for the first time.  Hellboy still does his duty but it’s not just empty rah-rah fights where the good guy wins.

The axiom for all characters is ‘everyone is the hero of their own story’.  That’s easy to say but del Toro took that seriously here.  Contrast Nuada with somebody like Stryker from the X-Men movies.  Yeah, Stryker’s schemes follow his internal logic but it’s ‘villain’ logic.  The audience has no problem recognizing him as crazy and a bad guy and we’ll always cheer when Wolverine stabs him.  Nuada is much more real (despite being an immortal Celtic elf) and his actions, even if you don’t agree with them, are at least understandable and arguably defensible.  That’s some damn fine storytelling.