This week we’re kicking off a new column, Critical Combat, in which we analyze two separate critical arguments in the hopes of determining a clear winner or at least finding solid middle ground. Tom Speelman makes his Loser City debut with the premier of the column, pitting Bob “Moviebob” Chipman of ScrewAttack‘s “In Bob We Trust” series against Comics Alliance’s Chris Sims in order to determine who is right in the debate over whether Batman’s war on crime would function a bit better if he was more philanthropic than violent.
We may not have a new version of Batman on screen until next March with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (or this fall if you watch Gotham) but I’ve still been consuming and thinking a lot about the Caped Crusader recently. I’ve been replaying Batman: Arkham Asylum (which incidentally has kinda gotten overshadowed by its sequels at this point hasn’t it?) and I’m binging through Batman: The Animated Series on Amazon Instant as fast as I can.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about the concept of Batman. As recently, two Bats-related pieces hit the internet that both tackled essentially the same issue. An episode of Bob “Moviebob” Chipman’s In Bob We Trust series for ScrewAttack and the 250th installment of the venerated Ask Chris column by Comics Alliance’s Chris Sims both tackled the same issue—the idea that Batman, instead of being an inspiring figure, is a brutal monster because he spends his money fighting crime rather than crime/poverty prevention—within the same weekend.(Chipman’s video hit July 26th with Sims’ column going up a couple days earlier).
Both pieces are well worth your time but let me sum them up for you. Chipman— former movie critic for The Escapist recently profiled in The New Yorker after his rant against Pixels went viral (that clip is massively NSFW)—argued that Batman’s origin doesn’t fit his character in present day. “The span and scope of [Batman’s] adventures got increasingly bizarre and since a lack of powers is part of his gimmick, they had to keep giving him better and better gear,” he notes in the video. “And that meant pumping up to an absurd degree the one superpower he does have: being born rich.”
Chipman goes on to say that as Bruce Wayne is by now “Scrooge McDuck rich” and is constantly funding his own war on crime, the Justice League and the Outsiders, having him go back and patrol Gotham’s streets nightly seems ill-advised when he could just as easily save Gotham by promoting job creation or using his power and influence to get politicians elected in order to enact the policies he wants. By video’s end, he argues that Batman’s origin needs changing because “claiming to protect your city in honor of your deceased loved ones by blowing it apart with a tank no longer fits together.” In other words, Chipman appears to be saying, Bruce Wayne should be taking an example from Green Arrow, who went from being the universe’s single biggest Batman ripoff to becoming a passionately outspoken liberal in the ‘70s.
On the reverse side of the equation, we have Sims’ argument. Sims, in a column all about tackling misconceptions people have about the Dark Knight, says the biggest one he wants to correct as it “bugs me the most, because it’s simultaneously the most persistent, the most ridiculous from a storytelling standpoint, and the easiest to disprove: The idea that Bruce Wayne doesn’t actually do anything to help Gotham City, and that Batman is just a rich man selfishly and violently lashing out at the lower class.” In fact, Sims says, it’s just the opposite.
Using several examples from the new collection Batman: Second Chances (collecting the 1980s work of writers Max Allan Collins and Jim Starlin and artists Dave Cockrum, Jim Aparo and others), Sims points out how in that run, Bruce Wayne is explicitly stated as serving on the board of many charities and reminds that originally (long before he and Lex Luthor were remade as titans of industry in the late 1980s) Wayne was the head of just the Wayne Foundation.
Sims also explains that textually, Wayne’s company is also a major funder of Arkham Asylum aka “the mental hospital where he sends all his bad guys so they can at least try to get better.” More than that, Sims points out two very important things that Chipman doesn’t. First, Sims argues that Batman lives in a world where Batman is explicitly needed and is designed to be so; cutting checks is “not going to really help anything when there’s an evil clown poisoning the water supply right now, you know?”
Second, Sims points out that Batman has to swing around punching dudes because that’s what sells. In a similar vein, he notes that the eternal question of “Why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?” can be easily answered. “If you kill the Joker, you can’t do more Joker stories,“ he writes, “and that’s a whole pile of money that I don’t think any of us would leave just sitting there on the table [no matter what Grant Morrison says about The Killing Joke].” Finally, Sims argues that trying to apply any sort of realism to Batman just doesn’t work because he’s a character created for children and, as such, any sense of realism must be heavily avoided in order for it to work.
Both men make cogent points but at the end of the day, I come down on Sims’ side. To go back to Batman: The Animated Series, one thing I’ve noticed about that show is that every threat Batman faces is treated as real and dangerous. Whether it’s the Scarecrow sending powdered fear gas by telegram to mob bosses like Rupert Thorne and Carmine Falcone, they’re all treated as legitimate scary threats for the Dark Knight to deal with.
Another thing I’ve noticed is the entire show is pitched between hard seriousness (say the Nolan films at a surface level) and goofy camp (ala Batman ’66). While it veers towards one side or the other sometimes, it never fully embraces one end and shuns the other. It’s a synthesis of every incarnation of Batman that existed to that point, much like how the Arkham games are a synthesis of the DCAU Bats as well as modern Batman comics and the Nolan films.
Within that synthesis—as in every version of Batman—it’s always established that what Batman is doing is right because it’s necessary for him to do so. Even if you think that’s a bit extreme in some versions—and I do agree with Chipman and others that the Batmobile being a tank is antithetical overkill—saying Batman is just a rich man beating up the mentally ill glosses over a whole lot of what makes the character inspirational and heroic. And that’s a million times more annoying than Christian Bale’s goofy voice.
Tom Speelman has contributed to Sequart, the Mary Sue and Strange Horizons. He currently works in a library and can be found on Twitter at @tomtificate