Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What's Wrong with Batman: Part 1 of 3

I love Batman and I'm not alone. Batman is more beloved by the internet than a Jesus made of bacon. The concept of Batman has changed a lot over the last 75 years, but its core quality is that it adapts to the culture of which it is a part.

Batman does have some problems though. While some of these are products of their time, many are the result of concepts executed without considering of the implications. I'm no Batmanologist, but I'd like to take a few days to look at these problems.

Early Batman was built in the mold of pulp heroes; an extraordinary man who has set out to fight crime with his extraordinary abilities. Compared to later superheroes, and even many of his contemporaries, Batman has no powers. He eschews most technologies, relying wholly on the physical and mental capacities of humanity, even decades later when he's matching wits with immortal aliens boasting entire war worlds. That's not the best approach; someone who wears circus tights and a tool belt is worthless in a world where villains can punch through metal, control minds, or have guns. After all, what can a guy do that even a second-rate hero like Hawkman--who is literally a guy plus wings--can't?

It is ridiculous, right? Eventually, shit would go down, or he'd just get unlucky and BAM no more Batman. That's even if the lifestyle of being Batman wouldn't just push a person to mental and physical exhaustion and the secret identity of the well-equipped, omnipresent crimefighter wasn't immediately apparent (spoilers: It's the rich guy whose parents were killed by CRIME.).

Even his mission is bizarrely defined. Fighting the idea of crime? If you've been paying attention, The United States has had a war on just one type of crime for the past thirty years or so and hasn't done a very good job of stopping the demand, supply, or distribution of drugs. One guy with an impressive budget using the same peace-through-superior-firepower approach can't be much more successful.

While studies which examine the social causes of crime are not incontrovertible, the answer to stopping crime is at least as many parts social and economic as it is brute force. Yet Batman uses unparalleled training and an array of cutting-edge, branded tools to arrest criminals so that others can inevitably take their place.

Until those very same criminals escape and resume business as usual. The universe of Batman features a Gotham criminal justice system which is both fascistic enough to convict criminals apprehended by a vigilante who does not give depositions and toothless enough to treat the insanity defense the same way a dungeon master treats grappling rules; claim it if you want, so long as they don't have learn how it actually works.

Certainly, if Gotham City's government were to prosecute and incarcerate these characters, as the public might expect of them, things would be different. If even a random cop would pull a gun on The Joker, you could claim Batman was working with a government that's trying to make its citizens safer. Within this environment, Batman's actions can not permanently reduce crime.

Then you get to the part where he starts recruiting kids. Ostensibly picks up Robin because he wants to help the kid cope with the loss of his parents. More modern interpretations where he intentionally targets Dick Grayson for recruitment as a form of extreme adolescent character-building, which should be disregarded as anything but well-illustrated parody, is still build on a troubling scaffold.

Batman opting to eschew, y'know, seeing a psychologist in favor of adoption and rigorous homeschooling to protect an orphan from the worthless, inferior external world—a series of actions indistinguishable from  those of a very small cult—hints that Batman isn't concerned enough with Robin's welfare.

When you're on a lifelong mission to fight murderous, gun-toting gangsters by utilizing superior intellect, extensive ninja training, and punches, there's very little a post-pubescent, brightly colored, emotionally troubled sidekick really adds other than to reduce the average density of bullets in your vicinity (by incrementing theirs, of course).

That's even assuming Robin is recruited for something as well meaning, if flawed as fighting an impossible, never-ending war on crime:


Jordan Shipp said...

Actually, Batman uses a hell of a lot of technology. Constantly, in fact.

More than that...he does combat the social issues that create crime, as Bruce Wayne. His crimefighting isn't just delegated to wearing a costume. He donates large sums of money to charities. He creates his own charity organizations. He has given jobs to the homeless, funded public work programs that rebuild damaged areas of the city, assisted the city of Gotham in building a state-of-the-art crime lab, and countless other philanthropist projects. Wayne Enterprises is always donating to a cause, or assisting in building homes, or developing technologies to make the world better. There's a reason he's a "billionaire" philanthropist and not just a billionaire.

Jordan Shipp said...

Also, you're not entirely correct about Robin. I'll use Dick Grayson since that is who you've mentioned. On the onset, you are correct in that him adopting some child and training them in his image is pretty sick. However, he wasn't planning on recruiting Robin from the get-go. (Unless you believe All-Star Batman, which you shoudn't, because it is terrible.) Dick was a victim of circumstances very close to what Bruce suffered. Witnessing this, he chose to take the kid under his wing and help him cope the only way he knew how. The bright colors aren't just there for the sake of being there. They reflect who Robin is. Robin isn't a dark and brooding guy, mostly because Bruce was there to help him transition. He doesn't have Batman's need to intimidate or hurt people, and the colors he wears symbolize that. What Robin does, the function he serves, is that of the person who takes care of Batman, who anchors him to the world, while he is taking care of every one else. As I stated before, the case with Dick was mostly Batman's way of being compassionate and helping someone deal with a trauma that mirrored his own. And if you follow Nightwing at all, you'll see that the approach was mostly successful. Dick Grayson isn't an angry, tortured, growly-voiced guy. In fact, he's quite the opposite. It was Bruce's influence, and his ability to create a new family for himself that allowed him to turn out better than Bruce did. What Robin adds from a literary standpoint is a metaphor for how Bruce Wayne could have turned out. He's also a crucial link for Bruce to his own humanity. You've seen plenty of stories where a solo Batman ignores sleep, food, and basic needs just to chase some bad guy. Robin acts as a device that pulls him away from his obsession to some extent. He's a very, very important character to the Batman mythos and not easily dismissed. Also, it should be noted that Dick Grayson and Jason Todd are the only examples of Batman actively recruiting. Tim Drake came to Bruce after having figure out his identity and explained to him why Batman needs Robin. Damian only came into the picture after his father died, and as an active choice for him not to follow in the footsteps of his mother. His being Robin is him choosing a life that isn't being a career murderer. That's pretty powerful stuff.

VanVelding said...

The "should be disregarded as well-illustrated parody" bit was a reference to ASBR. As far as Dick Grayson goes, you can't argue that what Batman did was right just because it turned out okay.

Part 1 focuses on early Batman. Everything you're saying is very true, but applies more to modern versions of the character, whose foibles I'll be covering over the next two weeks. ;)

Jordan Shipp said...

I didn't mean to imply that it is okay. More explaining why it makes sense and how it works. That...and I'm a pretty big fan of Robin history. I feel like the role has never been given proper respect due in part to Batman 66(Which is awesome), and because some people dislike his costume.