Mon. August 20
Brightening the Dark Knight
Quite possibly the most popular and profitable superhero of all time, Batman casts a long shadow over popular culture. The word “shadow” is not chosen unwittingly; unlike the sun-powered and brightly-colored Superman, the subject of the first post in this series, Batman is a creature of the night, a man who uses the shadows to turn fear against the fearmongers.
At least, sometimes. While the first score or so of Batman’s appearances in Detective Comics (starting with #27 in 1939) featured the Caped Crusader as a grim and often lethal vigilante based on pulp heroes like the Shadow, by 1940 Batman mellowed out and adopted the orphan Dick Grayson as a ward and sidekick. As pointed out by self-declared foremost Batmanologist of the internet Chris Sims, One of Batman’s first injunctions to the newly-christened Robin is, “we never kill with weapons of any kind.”
Robin brightened the world of the Dark Knight, bringing it some of the colorful, circensic derring-do of Superman—appropriate, as Robin was a circus aerialist before he lost his parents and came under Batman’s wing. Fans and creators often associate Robin with the lightest incarnation of Batman, the 1966 comedic Batman TV series starring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. Perhaps recoiling from the “Biff! Pow!”-campiness of this series, later adaptations have downplayed Robin’s place in the Batman mythos—mistakenly, I argue, as Robin is a built-in anchor for Batman’s humanity and decency, helping distinguish him from the overabundance of tortured, brutal antiheroes who glut comic books.
The philosophical underpinnings of Batman’s code have been analyzed at length, but the importance of Robin has often been downplayed. Batman is keenly aware that he is a role model, and while his central mission is fighting crime, his motivation is not revenge but compassion: he seeks to ensure no one else loses their family to crime the way he did. So while critics have called Batman’s War on Crime a quixotic, destructive crusade against a nebulous concept (like a War on Drugs or a War on Terror) the best writers of Batman have realized that, if the Dark Knight has no virtue to contrast with his violence, he is no better than one of the varied villains of his voluminous rogues’ gallery.
Even Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, which has Batman working with police officers rather than costumed sidekicks, emphasizes Batman’s moral integrity (and note the sly reference to Robin in The Dark Knight Rises). In the words of Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson), Bruce’s mentor-turned-nemesis, “your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share.” Bruce’s response is a statement of mission, “That’s why it’s so important: it separates us from them.” Like the best writers of Batman, Christopher Nolan understands that Batman’s code against guns and killing, which the Joker in The Dark Knight calls Batman’s “one rule,” is but an aspect of his compassion.
The closing image from Paul Dini and Alex Ross’ lavishly illustrated anniversary coffee table book, Batman: War on Crime, captures this well. Ross depicts a very human Caped Crusader who, in the book’s final scene, convinces a pre-teen boy named Marcus who has been caught up in gang violence to put down the gun he has trained on Batman and seek a better way. Batman embraces the sobbing youth, who, like the Dark Knight himself, is an orphan.
So, is Robin necessary to the Batman legend? I think the question comes down to whether Batman ought to represent merely an escalation of the cycle of violence, or a way to get beyond it, to become a protector rather than a destroyer, an adoptive father rather than an orphaned son. In this way, it is indeed Batman’s compassion, of which Robin is a tangible incitement and reminder, that separates him from his enemies and makes him a figure of heroism.
Join me next time as we return to Gotham City to investigate the evil figure that is Batman’s perfect foil, yet still finds ways to fascinate and entice us: the Caped Crusader’s arch-foe, The Joker.
Alexi Sargeant is an aspiring playwright and director studying at Yale University. His lifelong obsessions include Shakespeare, mythology, and superheroes. His writing has been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Yale Daily News, Yale Herald, and Imagine magazine.