At Least Zack Snyder Knows Batman Is Deranged
Batman is a violent psychopath. He’s shot villains in their sleep and starved someone to death. The idea that he doesn’t kill his opponents is a fairy tale cooked up by Cold War-era pitchfork wielders. In 1954, the Comics Code Authority was formed to censor depictions of sex, gore, and violence in comic books. While horror titles like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror bore the brunt of censorship, Gotham City also fell under the chilly hand of the CCA as well.
March 1955’s Batman #90 marked the first issue to be affixed with an “Approved by the Comics Code Authority” stamp. Prior to that, Batman was a murderous son of a bitch. He was a gun-toting maniac auditioning for the lead role in Death Wish. He even lynched a mental patient in his 1940 debut issue. So, sure, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is one of the most critically reviled films to come out in a while. But it’s unwarranted. The characterization of Batman in this film might have been the best once since Batman Returns. Ben Affleck beautifully plays Bruce Wayne as equal parts cocky playboy and a man haunted. A man who refuses to give up his obsession with justice. This isn’t the Christopher Nolan Batman who implausibly retired between films because he lost a lover. This is a man who can never stop putting on that mask, because he has yet to extinguish his demons. Zack Snyder can be an aggrandizing director who has produced multiple films deserved of detestation, but if there’s one thing Snyder understands it’s that Batman is a fucking nutjob.
There’s a reason the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne are ingrained in the memories of anyone who’s ever experienced a drop of pop culture, right alongside Darth Vader being Luke Skywalker’s father and Spider-Man learning that with great power comes great responsibility. It’s because we can’t ever get a Batman movie without a flashback to their goddamn murders, but it’s also because Bruce Wayne himself can’t stop thinking about it. It’s an event in Wayne’s life that is so traumatic, so haunting that it turns him into the kind of man who dresses up as a bat and prowls the streets. You know who else has this kind of origin story? Supervillains. All villains in every comic book since the dawn of time experience a significant and traumatic moment in their lives that eventually manifests itself in a murderous rampage.
The last director to truly understand Batman was Tim Burton. In his masterpiece Batman Returns, Burton depicts damaged—and deranged—characters who unravel from personal trauma and target their tormenters. The Penguin targets the rich people who turned away a monstrous, deformed child and left him to die in a sewer. Catwoman’s modus operandi is besting misogynists at their own game. And Batman sits in his high castle, sealed off from most of the world, except when it comes to picking off criminals one by one. Just like the villains he fights, it was a triggering event that led to his masked exploits. He’s not an alien sent to protect Earth like Superman. He’s not an Amazonian warrior like Wonder Woman. He wasn’t already wearing a mask and using his powers irresponsibly until taught the error of his ways like Spider-Man. Batman suffered a breakdown after his parents’ death, got cozy with a bunch of winged rodents, and decided to get like them in order to avenge his parents.
The opening sequence of Batman v Superman is Snyder’s thesis on Batman. The brutality of depicting Martha Wayne being shot in the throat by a criminal and young Bruce fleeing his parents’ funeral only to be lifted to the sky by a horde of bats is fantastic, twisted, and right out of Burton’s playbook. There were complaints about Batman’s carelessness for human life in Snyder’s film, but why would we expect otherwise? He’s a vigilante. He wears a mask to conceal his identity and answers to no one. For all of Batman’s beef with Superman for having the ability to wipe out the planet on a whim, Batman brutalizes his own victims and brands them. The brand itself is a brutal act, but we’re also told that the mark is considered a “death sentence” in prison.
Imagine for a moment that superheroes are real. Imagine they dole out their own brand of street justice and protect us from psychotic and sociopathic criminals. Now remember that whenever a superhero accidentally kills someone or isn’t able to save a life, we see scenes of them shedding tears over their mistakes like when Spider-Man can’t save Gwen Stacy or the Hulk levels an entire African village. But in reality, this is a man wearing an insane mask and costume operating outside of the law and allowing someone to die. In his bookI Wear the Black Hat, Chuck Klosterman contrasts Batman to Bernhard Goetz, the man who shot four muggers on a New York subway in 1984. Taking that a step further, we live in an age where police are routinely in the news for murdering unarmed black men. If men who are charged to serve and protect can become overzealous and lose control, why can’t a playboy with a savior complex dress in a cape?
The notion that he can’t plays into the fantasy of the superhero who has to save the day and somehow manages to do so without any effort. In the campier versions of the Batman films, Joel Schumacher shows Batman knocking out villains with one punch while saying awful puns like “I’m putting you on ice” to Mr. Freeze. That works for Spider-Man, because he has super strength. But Batman is just a man. We see that even more in Batman v Superman when he pushes himself to the brink while training for his Superman fight. Bruce Wayne the man knows he can be broken. In fact, one of his opponents, Bane, did exactly that in The Dark Knight Rises. The Nolan films, however, had Batman in humongous, bulky gear that made it seem like he was indestructible. Snyder returns him to a sleeker costume (save for the Superman fight), because no one can run around the city with all the extra weight and not collapse from exhaustion. And when you’re in hand-to-hand combat with criminals who possess the same strength as you, you’re not going to knock them out with a single punch. You’re going to have to keep going until you stop them, even if that means taking a life—and several city blocks—with you.
Take, for instance, James Bond: A man licensed to kill by his government. He stops murderers, terrorists, and assassins with a bullet if necessary. But we demand that our American hero be above that, even if he’s as self-possessed as the monsters he fights. It’s a fantasy that works for Superman. With his massive abilities, there’s no reason for him to have leveled a city the way he did in Man of Steeland kill innocent bystanders. But for Batman, sometimes, we need to let him be a monster in a world where “zap” and “pow” won’t appear over a criminal’s head when he punches them.