The Dark Knight Rises opened to a frenzied reception, as expected. In light of the proliferation of superhero movies in the last decade, I asked myself: where exactly does Batman fit in? Is Batman a hero, an antihero, or something completely different?
Whereas it is very clear that movies and heroes like Iron Man, Spider Man, and The Avengers (to name a few) have very well defined roles as superheroes—and are likeable as heroes—Batman seems to be a prominent outlier. He is the coolest guy at the superhero party; does his own thing, is universally admired but also universally feared and aloof.
I could well imagine meeting Spider Man and feeling perfectly comfortable. After all, Peter Parker is kind of a dweeb. But above all, there would be a sense of trust, because it is very clear that Parker/Spider Man is on the side of the good. The same can be said of the Avengers (except the Hulk, who clearly needs Anger Management like nobody’s business). I can imagine meeting Captain America and feeling inspired; whether for democracy, strength, individualism, or whatever. Still, it would be a positive encounter.
However, when I think of meeting Batman, I get uneasy. There is an equal measure of awe and fear. There are many reasons for this. Let’s explore a few.
To begin with, Batman is an ordinary man, with no real superhuman power, other than incredible fitness, and immeasurable resources. He does not have a spider sense, or an adamantium skeleton, or a giant hammer that no one else can wield. He is, however, incredibly wealthy, incredibly charming, and very mysterious. The paradox here is that we might easily trust a superhero, while not being so trusting of an ordinary man with some unknown agenda. Furthermore, we fear him because he is just like us! He is a mirror into our dark recesses, what Jung called ‘the Shadow.’ Which one of us would not want to be rich, powerful, and good looking like Bruce Wayne? In fact, many of us aspire to exactly that. In Batman we see just that, and it terrifies us.
Secondly, superheroes tend to be very well defined as being on the side of the good, while villains are very clearly on the side of evil. In The Dark Knight, with the fantastic performance of Heath Ledger’s Joker, the line between good and evil is hopelessly blurred. Is Batman good or evil? Is the Joker good or evil? Why does Harvey Dent, presumably a good man, turn into the evil Twoface? The traditional values and roles of good and evil are blurred, and we are left in the midst of a sublime whirlwind of destruction. The joker seems to be the only one to see this when he tells Batman, “Don’t talk like you’re one of them! You’re not… even if you’d like to be. To them you’re just a freak, like me. They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out. Like a leper. See, their morals, their “code”… it’s a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these uh, these “civilized people”, they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.” If Batman is destruction with some measure of control, then the Joker is unbridled destruction. They feed one another. In short, as the film says, can you avenge evil without becoming it? Nietzsche once wrote that “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster,” and I’m not convinced Batman does a good job of this.
Lastly, were it not for villains like the Joker, Twoface, or Bane, Batman would be completely alone. He has no one, only money. You could argue that he has Alfred, but let’s face it, that relationship alone is not enough to make him happy. His love life, if he has one, is one of disarray and debauchery. In short, Batman needs his enemies to keep him going, whereas someone like Spider Man does not. If there were no more villains, Spider Man would be content and live his life alongside Mary Jane and his Aunt. What would Batman do? My guess is that he retreats into further isolation, and hides within his empire, brooding.
It is because of these looming question marks, that I cannot place Batman in the superhero party. Is he a superhero, an antihero, or another thing altogether?