I love all the Batman’s. The 1960s version of Adam West, the 80s/90s Michael Keaton, and even the less than stellar iterations of Clooney, Kilmer, and Affleck. These films all have flaws, from tone, to acting, and plot. But something runs under the mythos of Batman that is compelling. I finally put my finger on it, watching the latest Batman film starring Robert Pattison.
Batman is what we all want. The superhero in the shadows promising to keep our families and cities safe. A mysterious force that can save us when catastrophe strikes. We want to look into the sky and see the bat signal, knowing everything is in excellent hands… at least for today.
But last night watching The Batman, something punched my soul. I’m not sure when it started, but in my 40s I’ve become a crier. I had no trouble crying before, but these tears come at odd moments. Hearing people at church sing off key, watching cartoons with the kids, a walk around the block, and yes, Batman movies.
A line in the beginning and end of the film got me all choked up. While also helping connect the dots for why I love these films, and the Batman myth. I won’t give any spoilers and only mention a paraphrase of the lines.
Near the start of the film, Pattison is narrating over an opening scene and says:
“They think I am hiding in the shadows. But I am the shadows.”
Then near the end of the film, Pattison says something like:
“I will not sleep until the city is safe. I can’t save everyone but I will keep working harder until Gotham is safe. When we suffer, it only makes us stronger.”
I won’t tell you what happens at the end, but let’s say my eyes were full of the salty water. These lines helped me pin down the compelling nature of Batman. Why children and grown adults spend time, energy, and money to read the comic books, watch the films, and binge on the cartoons? And occasionally make grown men cry.
Batman is all of us. And Batman is who we are waiting for.
Regardless of the often silly plot lines in the films from the 90s, what propels Batman into service is a Savior-complex. He’s fighting for justice in a city falling apart. Batman fights for the legacy and memory of his parents murdered in the streets of Gotham. Batman refuses to see more violence and injustice happen on his watch. He has come to save, and will not rest until the job is done.
Pattison and the director bring this narrative thread home in the latest film. The Batman is set two years into Bruce Wayne’s newly formed identity as “the one in the shadows” fighting crime. His service to Gotham is so new he doesn’t use the moniker Batman, and goes with Vengeance. Bruce Wayne is wrestling with a shaky identity walking the line between recluse billionaire and shadow-justice-fighter. But underneath it all, Wayne is undoubtedly driven to do whatever it takes to save the people of Gotham.
The only problem with Batman’s saving-mission is he’s just like us. Bruce Wayne is dealing with the trauma of losing his parents and believes the legacy of his father is at stake predicated on the flourishing of Gotham. He has wounds. Batman isn’t just “hiding in the shadows… he is the shadows.” Bruce Wayne is you and me.
A metaphor for the shadowy, inconsistent, hypocritical, broken, dark, complex, wounded, and sinful parts of our existence we can’t seem to shake. We all deal with a Savior-Like-Complex from time to time. Believing we can fix ourselves and a fractured world with enough time, prayer, and effort. But it often fades before dinner.
Wayne also has noble intentions like us. He wants to make things right for his family, desires Gotham to thrive, but he can’t get out of his own way. Batman must acknowledge that no amount of will power and sleepless nights and luck will allow him to save everyone in Gotham. And the truth is, like all of us, Batman is the one who needs saving.
Some have said the reason Batman is more popular for adults than Superman is because Batman is human, and Superman is superhuman. Batman has a dark past and shows his limitations and flaws like we all do. Superman is too perfect and not as relatable. Regardless of where you land on the Superman versus Batman debate, there is something here to consider. Batman is compelling because he’s more like us than we want to admit.
Many of us are drawn to stories like Batman because like the prophet John Mayer sang: “We keep waiting… waiting on the world to change.” We all know in our bones things aren’t the way they're supposed to be. We see the fractures in the foundation of our souls and world and say: who will save us? Who can make us whole again?
With no overarching narrative to guide our lives, we look to superheroes, politics, local leaders, social media, education, family, friends, and even our kids to save us from doom. When that doesn’t work, we turn to hobbies, recreational shopping, drugs, TV, food, and anything to numb the pain. We all want the world to change, and we aren’t sure where to look.
Batman is compelling for me because I am the shadows, and I need saving. And like Batman, I know my limitations and no amount of hard work is going to clean up the stains of my soul. I’ve looked to all the usual suspects for salvation-projects: politics, sports, education, people, money, and even religion in its worst versions. Unfortunately, Batman isn’t coming anytime soon. He has his own shadows to deal with.
I’m compelled by Batman because in his saving-mission, ultimate redemption isn’t looking good. Batman illuminates our need for hope and a saving-project beyond naïve optimism.
We need a hero who enters our pain and comes out the other side unscathed. A hero that lived in the shadows and darkness of a broken world and yet was on a mission of light. A hero that took his own medicine and is relatable.
The Batman stories are compelling because they stir something in us for change. Things aren’t right. I’m not right. We need saving.
But the darkness and the shadows don’t have the last say because the Rescuer is coming and resurrection is on the horizon.