Every pop-culture property, broadly speaking, goes through the same evolution. An earnest take is followed by a grittier one, which in turn is followed by self-awareness, only to come full circle and tap into the inherent innocence and optimism of these characters.
We’ve seen this happen on multiple occasions, the most recent being the DCEU, which after experimenting with darkness found success in the vibrant joy of Aquaman. The need of the hour is not for our superheroes to reflect the reality of our world, but for them to be better than it.
A Batman who kills simply isn’t Batman. It is his only code. And as much as he likes to pretend that he operates within various shades of grey, he is as black and white as they come. We might not agree with his morality - he does, after all, use violence as a means to an end - but to him, he is like a samurai with a strict code of ethics that he is physically and psychologically incapable of breaking.
It is the only thing that separates him from the madmen he has dedicated his life to capturing (not killing) and putting behind bars. It is the only reason why the cycle never stops. Solving problems by pulling guns out and shooting them in the face is an accurate representation of our times, but is it honourable? How can we, as a culture, criticise the establishments that encourage this violence, if we ourselves revel in it?
These are the ideas that Paul Dini (who has done more for the character than perhaps even its creator Bob Kane) attempted to unpack in his recent, semi-autobiographical comic book, Dark Night: A True Batman Story. Dini was inspired to write the book following a near-death mugging, which left part of his head shattered.
The parallels between Bruce Wayne’s story aside, the attack got Dini wondering: do superheroes even have a place in the real world? “What makes Batman and what makes other superheroes work is the myth that when life is at its lowest, and when you need a hero, a hero swings down and helps you,” Dini told the Hollywood Reporter, holding back tears. “And I didn’t have that.”
Zack Snyder’s Batman didn’t offer that warmth. And as clinical as Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale’s version of the character was, you could at least rely on him to be there.
Funnily enough, the best depictions of the character besides Nolan’s trilogy have spanned the length and breadth of every medium that would have him. Dini himself is the writer of several excellent Batman stories, such as the phenomenal episode of his Batman:
The Animated Series (Heart of Ice) - one of the earliest lessons in morality I received as a child - and the video games, Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequel, Arkham City, which is easily the best deconstruction of the Batman-Joker relationship ever written. It ends, as many of you might know, with a love song, sung by the Clown Prince of Crime for his nemesis/life partner.
These stories challenged the idea of what superheroes could be, and more importantly, what supervillains could be. They were hardly conventional, but they retained the soul of their subjects, and showed them without judgment.
The next decade will be crucial for Batman, as a new filmmaker (Matt Reeves) puts his own spin on the character. It is unlikely that the sour taste of BvS will drive fans away. We’ve bounced back from Batman & Robin, and the character we love has taken on worse.