No matter who you are or what stage of life you’re at, odds are good that at some point you’ve asked yourself one of the deepest philosophical questions facing humanity today:
What if I were Batman?
This question means different things to diferent people. For me, it used to be shorthand for: What if I had the financial resources, technology, style, intelligence, strength, and detective skills necessary to catapult an ordinary human into peer status with beings of myth and legend, and how far into the realm of power fantasy would I be able to progress using only abilities and resources that are theoretically possible, however unlikely, for a non-fictional person to acquire?
Most typical superhero stories provide some variation of an ordinary person stumbling onto a quick and effortless path to power. The character receives a dose of radiation, is given an artifact of power, manifests a mutation, or discovers the capsule that brought them to Earth from a dying planet, and bang! In an instant, or in a single training montage at most, they become empowered beings with godlike abilities.
The Batman legend, as typically depicted, offers something different: an ordinary person whose real battle is with a tragic backstory they must struggle to overcome by cobbling together whatever hard-won powers are necessary to endure wave after wave after wave of crime in a Sisyphean cycle that will never end.
In the DC universe, Batman is a top-tier hero who, given sufficient time to strategize, can defeat any hero or villain. Period. And yet, at the end of the day, he’s just an ordinary dude in a bat suit.
You could argue that Batman’s real superpower is capitalism. But Bruce Wayne is a billionaire because or an inheritance he received after watching his parents’ brutal murder in an alley behind the theater. The tradeoff of money for trauma is far from a positive exchange.
Wayne possesses physical and intellectual gifts, but his training regimen and crime-fighting passion are coping mechanisms for the pain that threatens to engulf his soul in an ever-present and always-encroaching darkness. In a world of superhumans, he is only able to compete by cloaking himself in mystery and burnishing a reputation that earns him the fear and/or respect of more powerful beings.
Wayne is also motivated by a desire to make the world a better place, so that no other child faces the trauma that he had to. But even under his protection, Gotham City never seems to become any safer or less corrupt. Batman’s presence attracts, and often creates, a rogues’ gallery of villains who cycle through the revolving doors of Arkham Asylum in a justice system that aims for rehabilitation but instead serves only as temporary storage for society’s growing collection of monsters.
A superhero universe that includes a Batman analog makes a statement about heart and heroism while adding nuance to the usual discussion of power dynamics that usually form the core of the genre.
What if I were Batman?
Knowing the great sacrifices required and minimal payoffs received, I don’t know that I’d want to take on that challenge. I don’t know whether Bruce Wayne himself would have chosen that path if there had been any happier, healthier option available for him.
I love the idea, at the core of the Spiderverse movies, that anyone can be Spider-Man. I love the idea that any random kid in the Star Wars universe can be Force sensitive. And I love the idea of alternate universes that explore alternate takes on Batman, but is that really true that anyone can be Batman?
Is there a fundamental difference between asking, “What if I were Spider-Man?” and asking, “What if I were Batman?”
Spider-Man, whether embodied by Peter Parker, Miles Morales, or Gwen Stacy, must also suffer a personal tragedy in order to fully embrace the great responsibility that comes with the acquisition of great power. But it’s a fully-empowered Peter Parker’s selfish choice that whollops him in the gut, while Bruce Wayne suffers his trauma as a helpless child who vows to never be helpless again.
The prison in Batman’s mind is a sense of vulnerability and weakness that’s entirely absent in the Spiderverse.
At a local thrift shop, my nine-year-old daughter found a Batman costume for Halloween. Not a Batgirl costume, not an Arrowverse Batwoman, and not Carrie Kelley as Robin. This was labeled as “Batman,” but a Batman reimagined for nine-year-old girls, a Girl-Batman with tule frills, bare arms, and a skirt, unapologetically allowing a child to inspire fear in the cowardly and superstitious lot of criminals.
Girl-Batmen aren’t bat-sidekicks or bat-replacements. Girl-Batmen don’t live in Batman’s shadow. Girl-Batmen embody the ethos of Batman and cast their own damn shadow, thank you very much.
My daughter declared that her character comes from a universe where Girl-Batman is the only bat-themed hero, on a mission to collect candy and save the world. And she had a blast!
Girl-Batman jumped around with the energy of Adam West, spoke in a gruff voice like Christian Bale, and riffed on Michael Keaton: “I’m Girl-Batman. Tell your friends about me!” She was the hit of our neighborhood.
Thus, my entire thesis was blown.
Every year, I chuckle over Batman-themed Father’s Day cards. Such a card would tear Bruce Wayne’s heart open and shred his psyche. A villain, looking to defeat the canonical Batman, could come up with no more effective plan than to disorient him with a Batman-themed Father’s Day card.
But it turns out that being Batman isn’t necessarily about overcoming trauma, as popular as that theme may have become in modern interpretations of the character. The weakness and vulnerability are optional if you can kick enough ass.
Grimdark Batman is no more or less valid than a nine-year-old Girl-Batman with dancing feet and a pumpkin-shaped bucket of fun-size candies. In fact, on 1960s television, the Batman who danced the Batusi with Catwoman had more in common with the latter than with the former.
So my new thesis is that being Batman is about being your best self, handling life’s challenges, and living up to your full potential.
For the Grimdark Batman character, that might still mean overcoming trauma and facing off against seemingly endless waves of battle. But to another version, it might mean collecting a record number of Almond Joy bars.
If you have an opportunity to be Batman, be Batman.
Be your own Batman.
Be the Batman who showcases your inner self.
Use logic when you can. Use fists when you must. Dance like no one is watching. Dance like everyone is watching. You don’t need a cape. You don’t need a cowl. You don’t need a costume of any kind.
All you need is a Batman state of mind.