The Batman flapped into theatres over the past weekend with Robert Pattinson donning the cape and cowl. He’s the ninth guy to play the Dark Knight in a live-action movie (counting two really weird 1940s serials). Given Batman’s perennial popularity, he won’t be the last.
But as beloved as Bats has been over the decades, he’s one of the most puzzling and, in some ways, problematic of superheroes. Why? Simple: He’s not technically super and, in some ways, he’s not that heroic.
Most superheroes are aspirational in nature — good people doing good things. But is Batman a “good” person? He’s a violent vigilante, a one-man wrecking crew — and not an altogether stable one at that. As Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) said in "Batman Begins," “Well, a guy who dresses up as a bat clearly has issues.”
Pattinson’s Batman brings all that antihero vibe to the party in "The Batman" and underlines it. His Dark Knight is dark indeed. When one terrified bad guy asks him who he is, Batman hisses, “I am vengeance.”
So is Batman really the hero we need? I’d say yes. In fact, here’s three reasons why Batman, for all his darkness and for all of his faults, is perhaps superherodom’s most inspirational hero.
1. He’s like us.
Batman isn’t a “super” superhero. He can’t fly. He wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider like Spider-Man. And while his suit is pretty nifty, it’s nowhere near the high-tech wonder in which Iron Man clanks around.
No, Batman’s a self-made superhero, honing his physical and mental skills over a lifetime. He’s not a product of Krypton; he’s a product of his own hard work. And when he’s injured, he bleeds.
But while his physical injuries heal, he still carries some big mental and emotional wounds that never have. Indeed, those wounds are a part of him.
When Batman was just the boy Bruce Wayne, his parents were murdered in front of him. That one tragedy shaped the trajectory of his life. When Bale’s Bruce Wayne says that Batman has issues, this is the biggest.
Most of us haven’t dealt with tragedy on quite that level. But all of us have suffered. Most of us have grieved. Many of us have wondered whether the loss we felt was just too much. We wondered whether we’d ever get over it.
And often, we don’t. Not really. When we lose someone close to us or suffer a terrible tragedy, that never fully goes away. We feel the loss, on some level, for the rest of our lives.
But what we can learn from Batman is that tragedy and pain need not destroy us. We can push through the pain. Sometimes, we can even use it to help those around us a little. Obviously not by dressing up as a bat and beating up bad guys, but by coming alongside others who are hurting or grieving, those who are scared or angry. Our own pain can become a catalyst to healing, even if our own hurt never goes away completely.
2. He follows a higher calling.
Given Batman’s humanness, you got to wonder why he goes out night after night to patrol Gotham’s streets. It’s not like he’s paid overtime. If we were in Bruce Wayne’s shoes, I think a lot of us would spend our evenings eating chips and watching reality TV.
Batman doesn’t do that. Sure, we know that he’s driven, and that comes from past tragedies. But it’s more than that: he embraces a moral ethos that compels him to do what he does — fight the righteous fight when no one else seems willing to.
And I think that ethos comes from God.
Now, I know that Batman aficionados might say that the Dark Knight’s an atheist — that a DC Comic said as much in 2018. But that’s not how he started out, and I’d argue that his 83-year career proves otherwise.
In Batman’s origin story, published in May of 1939, Bruce Wayne is shown with hands clasped in prayer, swearing to spend “the rest of my life warring on all criminals.” And when you look at everything that Batman does as he conducts that war, it’s all pinned on a sense of morality that goes well beyond Gotham’s legal code. He files a higher code. And even while he flouts some of Gotham’s written laws, he’s a stickler for a greater one.
Again, it’s not the law or fear of punishment that prevents him from killing. It’s something else — something that comes from within him and, I’d say, from without.
If Batman believed that the universe was a cold, empty, morally indifferent place, he’d believe that morality itself would be a construct of man. And Batman, if he was a pragmatic atheist, would say that morality could flex with the circumstances. Why not kill a bad guy and rid the world of a huge problem? It’s not as if life is sacred, right? Pragmatically, Gotham would be much better without a Joker constantly trying to blow it up.
But Batman never takes that step. Why? Based on human logic, he should. But it comes from an other-based sense of morality.
Admittedly, Batman’s seen some awful stuff. And that’s gotta take a toll on one’s faith in everything. But to do what Batman’s done for more than eight decades requires not just strength and determination, but a belief that you’re fighting for something higher than you, something higher than humankind itself.
3. He never stops trying.
In the beginning of The Batman, our titular superhero says that he is vengeance. But over the course of the movie, Batman wonders whether he could be better than that. Whether he should be better.
He and others see that Gotham’s a mess. It is a fallen place filled with fallen people. It’s broken. And, as we’ve shown, Batman is broken, too.
But as we’ve seen, that very brokenness pushed Batman to be something better. His higher calling reminds him that Gotham can be better, too. It doesn’t have to be a cesspool that demonstrates the worst of humanity. He sees that, underneath all the grime and dirt, something beautiful lurks — just as God looks beyond our own sins and still sees the beautiful creatures He intended us to be.
Someone tells Batman that the city will kill him eventually. But Batman refuses to abandon it. He never will. “I have to try,” he says. Night after night he tries to save Gotham — one moment, one street at a time. He sees something worth saving — something that few others do.
And when we watch Batman do his thing, perhaps we’re reminded that we can and should do the same.
Like Batman, we are deeply flawed. We carry our scars with us. We’re far from the beautiful beings we were designed to be. But there’s a beauty in waking up every morning, determined to be just a little bit better than we were the day before. We make mistakes every day, but every day we have a chance to do better. We have a chance to — slowly, haltingly, imperfectly — crawl closer to God. And as we crawl, make our own little worlds just a little better, too.
We do so like Batman does: One act at a time. Batman proves you don’t need superpowers to be a hero. You just have to try.
Paul Asay is a senior editor at Plugged In, Focus on the Family's media discernment website. He's the author of several books (including the recently published Beauty in the Browns) and lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, deaf dog and several unruly houseplants.