The Achievable Hero

Is the Caped Crusader just a looney with a charge-card? Martin ponders the nature of Batman's vengeful war on crime...

Is this just another man in retail-therapy?

In one of the extras on the excellent region 1 release of Superman (1978), Christopher Reeve looks back on the appeal of the character which he defined, noting that whilst Batman has a cool car, nothing compares to the great human dream of flight as exemplified by the Man Of Steel – taking a few initial running steps and soaring up into the air.

Trouble is, unless you’ve got one of those bum-burning back-packs from Thunderball, ain’t no which way it’s ever going to happen.

The appeal of Batman is that he’s rich. Loaded. Cake-o with cash. And mad enough to spend billions fighting crime with hi-tech weaponry made by his own company and affiliates worldwide.

People can’t fly unaided, but they can get rich, and so we have the hook – the achievable hero. Nearly all the cool tech the caped crusader uses is state-of-the-art, but very little of it trips over the border into science-fiction. There are no laser-guns or anti-grav platforms, and it all seems to be charged with conventional batteries, gas packs, petrol-driven motors and other available sources of energy, so we don’t have to engage the doublethink necessary to permit Tony Stark his absurdly pocketable energy source (which, by the way, could end world poverty in a year if he were to stop dicking around on mercy missions and put that technology on the market), or to ignore the fact that the rockets on Iron Man’s feet would blow his legs clean off.

Ad – content continues below

The importance of bridging the huge credibility gap presented by superheroes is something Stan Lee understood back in the golden age of Marvel Comics, when cinema was still obsessed with the power of atomic-age radiation to transform as well as destroy, as exemplified in The Incredible Shrinking Man, Them, Godzilla and countless other major and minor sci-fi works of the period.

Any sap could get caught up in an errant radiation-cloud and find themselves with extraordinary new powers (rather than hairless and unable to move in a hospital bed), and thus the locus of superhero stories transferred – in the Marvel universe – from the remote to the domestic, in the company of conflicted super-beings who were frequently as inconvenienced (The Hulk), confused (Spiderman) or crippled (X-Men) by their abilities as they were ‘empowered’.

Batman’s raison d’etre, back when Kane and Finger dreamed him up, arguably had more to do with cinematic versions of the classic ‘heroic revenge’ motif of fare such as The Count Of Monte Cristo than the tortured vigilante of Frank Miller’s ‘Dark Knight’ – orphaned by crime, Bruce Wayne nobly goes forth on a crime-fighting mission that the cops are unable to keep up with. His course set, Batman’s own fractured motivations reveal themselves only in his apparently hopeless love for the demi-evil Catwoman.

Anyone who has ever read The Count Of Monte Cristo will know how much more complicated, painful and ambiguous a tale of revenge Dumas’s book is than its numerous screen adaptations have the time or inclination to portray. Bruce Wayne is as enmeshed and isolated by his own compulsion – which serves his own trapped pain as much as it serves the public – as any of the super-flakes over at the Marvel factory.

So, as if he wasn’t already ‘achievable’ enough, he’s at least as nuts as the rest of us, and probably much more.

Here I speak from experience: if you run around in a Superman costume, there’s very little you can do to justify it. Run around in a Batman costume, however, and you’re pretty much doing everything that he can do – even if you have to make the ker-plowie noises yourself.

Ad – content continues below

(Give me a break – I was seven years old.)

So there are a number of key explanations to the bat-fever which is building up in the Den Of Geek offices week by week, and which is certainly growing worldwide as the caped crusader prepares to face The Joker – his greatest nemesis and closest psychological opponent – on July 18th.

Firstly, you need neither money, power nor technology to retain – as Bruce Wayne does – the opinion that the world we live in is seriously fucked up in many ways; you can bet your life most of us would like to break out of the Have Your Say forums at BBC news and actually enact our wishes to improve the world.

Secondly, we’re invested because we could do a lot of what Batman does ourselves, if we had the inclination to run up some alterations from the Skin 2 catalogue and follow it up with a trolley-dash round a mountaineering retailer. And if we were willing to do some serious time for taking the law into our own hands.

Some of us drive fast cars, others like solving puzzles, others martial arts. So, technically, there’s a bit of Batman in all of us.

But the truth is, Batman does have a defining super-power that sets him apart. It’s not as unique as Superman’s ability to fly, Bruce Banner’s ability to turn into a ropey CGI game-sprite or Cyclops’s criminally under-used (in the X-Men films) laser-vision. But it is nonetheless a super-power: he looks to the world beyond his own sphere and personal concerns and feels strongly enough to turn his own bitter experience into a better one for others; to abandon the safety and security that he can well afford for the uncertainty of caring about people who don’t know him, or necessarily care about him.

Ad – content continues below

Now that’s a hero. And that’s a superpower you can wield even on a budget.

Martin writes his (mostly) sci-fi column every Friday at Den Of Geek. Check out the complete list of his columns.