Why Cinema Needs Batman: The World’s Greatest Detective

We’re used to seeing Batman, the tough vigilante in cinemas. But the movie world also needs Batman the detective, Ryan argues...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

We talk about the ending of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice in this piece, although don’t explicitly describe it.

“Sherlock Holmes once suggested a man needs to recognize at least 75 perfumes before he can begin to call himself a detective. I could double that on herbs alone.”

So said Batman in issue 619 of Detective Comics, published in August 1990. The first of a four-part story titled “Rite Of Passage,” the comic sees Batman sidekick (and future Robin) Tim Drake have his parents taken hostage by a shadowy group called the Caribbean Economic Front.

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In Commissioner Gordon’s office, a VHS tape is played to a quietly enraged Batman. The group have demanded a million dollar ransom, and to prove they mean business, one of the hostages is gruesomely executed on camera. The footage leaves no clue as to the location of the crime, yet Batman’s senses are keen enough to notice something unusual about the videotape – something the pipe-smoking Gordon had completely missed: the faint smell of Jimson weed.

“A Central American plant,” Batman says, “many medicinal uses. Prime among them, aromatic smoking mixture for asthma relief.”

This is but one example of Batman: the world’s greatest detective in action – a superhero adept at fighting crime with his brain as well as his brawn. While Batman finds also finds time to indulge in a brisk fight with a bunch of themes in that same 1990 issue, he spends the greater part of the story searching for clues. At one point, he heads to his personal library to read up on giant caterpillars. 

It’s a more cerebral side to the Caped Crusader only occasionally explored in the movies. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film saw the hero figure out how the Joker was managing to kill people with an almost untraceable substance called Smilex: the toxin was hidden in beauty products like lipstick and eyeliner, and was only triggered when used in certain combinations. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight sees Batman pull a fingerprint from the shattered pieces of a spent bullet. 

More commonly, however, Batman’s movie outings have focused on his physical prowess and wonderful toys. This reached what might be its logical conclusion in Batman v Superman, in which Ben Affleck’s older, embittered Caped Crusader strapped on a mech suit and traded punches with the Man of Steel. That film positively bulged with brutal confrontations and fiery Batmobile chases. We even got to see Batman’s private training regimen, which appears to involve hitting a truck tire with a sledgehammer for extended periods of time. 

To be clear, I thoroughly appreciated Affleck’s performance as Bruce Wayne and his shadowy alter-ego. Yet in Zack Snyder’s hyper-kinetic, bruising DC movie, this incarnation of Batman spent more time breaking bones than following clues. There are several scenes in Batman V Superman where Wayne is taunted by strange messages and newspaper clippings from an unknown tormentor; I can’t help thinking that the version of Batman I used to read about in Detective Comics would have figured out who those messages were from. Lest we forget, the title fight in Batman V Superman occurs in no small part because the Dark Knight’s innate rage is manipulated into the confrontation by Jesse Eisenberg’s maniacal Lex Luthor. 

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The conclusion of Batman V Superman sees the Caped Crusader pulled away from the more nihilistic, troubling excesses he displayed in that film – not least branding criminals with red-hot Batman symbol. Having sated audiences with another display of Batman’s physical might, isn’t it about time we saw a more measured, cerebral side to the hero again?

Lest we forget, Zack Snyder’s directing the Justice League team-up movie, out next year, which should also take care of the action side of things if the filmmaker’s previous form is anything to go by. If so, then the Affleck-starring Batman film planned as part of Warner-DC’s growing Extended Universe could be the perfect venue for a subtle change of pace for Gotham’s finest – a more low-key, contained threat than the explosion-filled mayhem of BvS and, we’re guessing, Justice League.

Imagine a Batman movie more in the mould of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s classic ’90s series The Long Halloween, in which the Dark Knight attempts to track down Holiday, a serial killer who specialises in murdering people on significant dates in the calendar. It’s an intense, grim thriller, full of the dynamism you’d expect of a Batman story but laced with a mystery plot which keeps the reader guessing right to the very end. While The Long Halloween provided some loose inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, those films were more concerned with halting plots to destroy Gotham than solving murder mysteries. 

At a time when we’ve become almost numbed to the sight of cities razed as godlike beings fight high above us, maybe the time’s right for Batman to come back down to Earth again and deal with the more more human denizens lurking in Gotham. If the stories are true that Affleck’s to direct as well as star in the next Batman solo outing, a detective thriller set in Gotham could be the perfect fit with actor-writer-director’s sensibilities – it isn’t difficult to imagine some of the events in Affleck’s 2010 crime drama The Town taking place in Batman’s stomping ground.

None of this is to say that a Batman detective movie would have to skimp on the action – both Rite Of Passage and The Long Halloween are full of shoot-outs and sundry moments of bloodletting. What would be refreshing, though, is to have the Dark Knight leave the Batmobile in the garage and rely on his wits again.

I’d love to see a screen version of that more closely resembles the Batman on the cover of Detective Comics issue 619: the Batman who searches for clues through the lens of a microscope. The Batman who’s capable of sniffing out the faint whiff of a Central American plant on a VHS tape. Not Batman the embittered, masked warrior, but Batman: the world’s greatest detective.

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