Editor's note: With Batman Begins now showing in theaters, we thought we'd take a closer look at the man Bruce Wayne—and what makes him tick. This chapter is abridged from H. Michael Brewer's book, Who Needs a Superhero?: Finding Virtue, Vice, and What's Holy in the Comics (BakerBooks). The book is available at Christianbook.com
The well-dressed couple and their son emerge from the movie theater and amble into the autumn evening. They stroll away from the marquee lights, treading on their own elongated shadows. The crowds thin and the streets darken as the Wayne family chats about the movie they have just seen, The Mark of Zorro.
Young Bruce is particularly impressed by the adventures of the masked avenger. The boy strikes heroic poses with an imaginary sword and chatters on about the swashbuckling crusader, unaware that his own belief in justice is about to be tested in the crucible of suffering.
A hollow-eyed figure lunges from an unlit alley. The thug brandishes a gun and demands money. The moments that follow sear Bruce's memory forever, snapshots in a family album of horror.
A flash from the gun barrel. His father toppling to the dirty pavement. A second muzzle flare. His mother's collapse. The mugger fleeing. A broken necklace scattering pearls into the gutter.
Bruce is the only survivor of the assault. Physically, the boy is unharmed, but all sense of order and reason bleeds from Bruce's life as he kneels beside his slain parents. At that moment Bruce makes a decision that will shape his future. He refuses to accept this violation. He will never allow this loss to heal. He will spend his life avenging this brutal atrocity.
And so Batman was born.
Eighteen years passed before Bruce Wayne donned the grim cowl and cape of Gotham City's protector. Nevertheless, his destiny was chiseled in granite the night Thomas and Martha Wayne died. In the ensuing eighteen years, Bruce organized the extensive family business to operate without his direct involvement. He honed his body with weight training, Olympic-level gymnastics, and martial arts. He mastered criminology, forensics, chemistry, engineering, computer science, and a dozen more fields. Drawing on the family fortune, Bruce Wayne built an arsenal of high-tech weapons and equipped his hidden headquarters in the huge cavern beneath Wayne Manor.
When Bruce deemed himself ready to undertake his mission, he donned a bizarre costume designed to terrify criminals. Inspired partly by his childhood hero Zorro but also by the fluttering bats in the cave beneath his estate, Bruce Wayne draped himself in a long cape and a cowl with bat ears. The uniform is black and gray, camouflage for a hunter of the night. Is it merely coincidental that black is also the hue of despair, the color of mourning?
Most superheroes put on a mask to hide their real identity. Not so with this caped vigilante. Bruce Wayne is the mask; Batman is the true identity. To devote himself wholly to fighting crime, Bruce Wayne forsook childhood, adolescence, romance, and normal human desires. The millionaire maintains just enough social life to divert suspicion from his nighttime crusade. As a result, Bruce Wayne is a two-dimensional prop, merely a façade behind which lurks the true person: the grim, driven, relentless Batman.
Human Potential Beyond Belief
Try to forget the corny Batman of the sixties television series, a campy character whose utility belt routinely produced collapsible ladders and shark repellant. Even forty years later, that SMASH-BANG-KAPOW parody remains an embarrassment to comic fans. As suggested by his origin story, the comic book Batman was a figure dark and fearsome. Sometimes meting out justice with a gun, he stalked the shadows in a never-ending quest to balance the scales for the murder of his parents. Perhaps pressured by parental watchdogs, comic book scripters soon had Batman abandon the gun and adopt a personal code against killing. Even so, this orphaned avenger remained dour and forbidding.
If possible, the comic stories of the last twenty-five years have created an even more severe Batman. Former Batman writer and editor Dennis O'Neil presents a disturbing picture of Bruce Wayne's alter ego. "The basic story is that [Batman] is an obsessed loner," O'Neil explained in an interview, "not crazy, not psychotic. There is a big difference between obsession and psychosis. Batman knows who he is and knows what drives him, and he chooses not to fight it. He permits his obsession to be the meaning of his life because he cannot think of anything better. He is also rife with natural gifts. He is possibly the only person in the world who could do what he is doing."
Obsession and talent combine in Batman to create a character who demands our admiration and respect. In a world of superpowered heroes and villains, Batman excels through steely determination and uncompromising commitment. He does not fly. His skin will not repel bullets. He cannot see through walls or overturn cars or hurl blasts of energy from his fingertips. He is purely and simply human in every way, yet he routinely topples foes mightier than himself. Armed with cunning and scientific wonders, Batman has even bested Superman on occasion.
Behind the cowl, Batman is only a man, but he has made himself the absolute best that a man can be. Driving himself to the limits of human accomplishment, Batman has achieved the apex of physical and mental prowess. No one could work harder. No one could become more. Batman is the pinnacle of human potential.
He is also a failure.
Despite all his valiant efforts, Batman cannot save the world from violence and death. For every innocent victim Batman rescues from the grimy streets of Gotham City, the vices of poverty, drugs, and crime will slay a dozen more. Batman repeatedly defeats the Penguin, the Riddler, the Scarecrow, and the Mad Hatter, knowing full well that after a brief stay at Arkham Asylum, these fiends will inevitably escape to wreak more mayhem.
Sadly, Batman cannot even protect the few intimate friends he has allowed to enter his private world. In a truly horrific story in the late 1980s, the almost infallible Batman follows a false trail and unknowingly leaves his sidekick Robin to face the Joker alone in a warehouse. The Joker and his henchmen savagely beat Robin, and the Joker himself delivers the final blows with a crowbar. After Robin is broken and unconscious, the Joker departs, blowing up the building as he leaves.
Batman arrives mere minutes too late to save Robin. As he sifts through the smoking wreckage, he ponders his relationship with his young sidekick. He wonders why he took on a partner in the first place.
"I guess the truth is that I was lonely," he admits to himself. "Didn't want to go it alone. So what do I do? I bring a young innocent into this mad game."
Batman's broodings end with the discovery of Robin's body. The hero's grief and guilt are palpable as he lifts the bloodied corpse in his arms. Appropriately, the storyline of Robin's murder was called "A Death in the Family."
We can forgive Batman for failing to protect every innocent and save every victim. He is, after all, only human. Unfortunately, Batman cannot forgive himself. His own heart tells him he should have tried harder. He should have done better. He should have been faster, stronger, smarter.
When Batman pursues the Joker after Robin's death, the villain's gunfire kills a luckless bystander.
"Another innocent sacrifice to the Joker's mania," Batman laments. "Another hapless victim to haunt my sleep."
Physician, Heal Thyself
In fact, the specter of guilt haunts Batman whether waking or sleeping. The true tragedy of the Dark Knight is not his failure to save the world but his inability to save himself. Behind the harsh mask of the ultimate crime fighter huddles a tearful little boy cradling the head of his dying mother. Batman passes through the world wrapped in mourning colors and guilt. His hard work and good deeds always fall short. He tries so fervently, but he never measures up in his own eyes. A lifetime of self-sacrifice and joyless virtue cannot atone for the guilt he carries. Even his muscled shoulders can scarcely bear that load.
Batman has much in common with the rich young man who asked Jesus how to find salvation (Matt. 19:16-26 NRSV). "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" the man asked.
Jesus first reminded the young man that only God is good and we human beings should keep our "goodness" in proper perspective. Then Jesus pointed the seeker to the laws of Moses: "You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
"I have kept all these," he said. "What do I still lack?"
If we take his claims at face value, the wealthy young man must have been virtuous and upright. He kept every rule, gave alms to every beggar, prayed every day—and still it was not enough.
His question to Jesus exposed his doubts. If the young man were fully convinced of his own righteousness, why would he seek out the Nazarene teacher to ask about the requirements for eternal life? In spite of his zeal for the law, the young man worried that something was missing. The more scrupulously he kept the commandments, the more he feared falling short of God's requirements. He came looking for one more good deed to put him over the top, one more righteous act to silence the nagging doubts within his heart.
Jesus answered, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
Ouch. Jesus had put his finger on the issue: The young man wanted to be perfect, so unassailably good that the gates of heaven would fly open at his approach. Instead he found himself unready for the cost of perfection.
Afterwards Jesus told the disciples that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter God's kingdom. The disciples were shocked. If even the rich with their vast advantages cannot attain salvation, then how can anyone be saved?
Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible."
What was Jesus saying? That wealth is an evil force?
Hardly. Money is not evil. The evil resides in misplaced priorities. Wealth tempts us to trust our own resources. As long as we believe we can provide for ourselves, by ourselves, we have no reason to put our faith in God. Jesus didn't require all his followers to give up their money. Perhaps he made this demand of the rich young man precisely to show that the seeker had never admitted the limits of his own obedience, nor was he willing to place his full trust in God. Instead he had spent a lifetime trusting himself. He trusted his wealth. He trusted his position in the community, his own virtue and good deeds. But he never learned how to trust God. So he wandered away sadly to work still harder, keep more rules, and pile up even more good works.
Jesus was painfully clear. If we can save ourselves, we do not need God. If we cannot save ourselves, then we need God above all else. We cannot have it both ways. We must accept one alternative or the other. We must either place our whole faith in God or, like Batman, rely upon ourselves—our wealth, goodness, dedication, hard work, and self-sacrifice.
Company in the Bat Cave
In every place I've ever worked (and these days I work in a church), I find people trying so very hard to make themselves okay, and in many cases better than okay—good, exemplary. These folks will always take on one more job, serve on one more committee, write one more check.
Batman would fit right in. In fact, church would be a good place for Batman to hang out and always find a warm welcome. Who isn't delighted with the hard-working colleague, the good-deed-doing neighbor, the dedicated, self-sacrificing servant to the church? But are the good deeds, determination, best intentions, and sacrifices so selfless?
The apostle Paul wouldn't think so. For years Paul was a driven man, obsessed with rule-keeping, good-deed-doing, and salvation-seeking. He eagerly and diligently persecuted anyone who went against the rules of Jewish law.
One day Paul's obsession with doing "right" was confronted by Jesus. Grace calls us to serve and guilt drives us to serve, Jesus showed Paul. Though these two forces may look all the same on the outside, there is a big difference inside between being called and feeling driven. It's the difference between working hard because you're feeling saved, thankful, and so filled with excitement that you just can't sit still or keep quiet, and slaving away because you feel lost and scared, driven and desperate.
Jesus lovingly offered an escape from the dead end of salvation by works, and Paul took it. The rich young man, however, found the offer just too much. Did he think the offer too expensive, requiring him to hand over forever his greatest superpower—wealth? Or did he fear the offer was one more sham, just too good to be true? In any case, the rich man could not surrender his search for salvation through personal goodness. In spite of his doubts, he clung to his desperate quest for self-justification.
Batman is caught in precisely the same tragic quandary. The shadowy crime fighter is a noble but heartbreaking figure. Betrayed by the apparent random cruelty of life, Batman lacks faith in anything or anyone beyond himself. He operates on a simple philosophy: "The world only makes sense," he says, "when you force it to." He relies entirely on his own strength, intellect, and determination. In spite of losses that would have broken many people, Batman fights on.
In Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, considered by many to be the ultimate Batman story, writer and artist Frank Miller depicts an aging Batman's continuing pursuit of salvation. At an undesignated time in the future, Batman has retired from crime fighting. In the ten years since he gave up the cape and cowl, Bruce Wayne has grown morose. He broods and numbs himself with alcohol. Since Batman disappeared, Gotham City has become a cesspool of viciousness and mindless violence.
In a key scene, Bruce Wayne sits alone late at night staring through a window. He wrestles with the temptation to bring Batman out of retirement. Miller's artwork is simple but evocative. One panel shows a portion of the window, the mullions forming a stark cross. Next we see a bat flying outside the window, juxtaposed to the cross. Miller then shows us the shadow of the cross falling across Bruce Wayne's troubled face. These images repeat with increasing intensity until the bat crashes through the window in a cascade of glass shards and broken mullions.
In that moment Bruce Wayne's decision is made, and he once again dons the costume of the Batman. The Dark Knight cannot accept the way of the cross; he returns to the way of the bat and sets out once more to save himself by his own heroic efforts. Initially he revels in his decision, caught up in euphoria. As he leaps into action against the backdrop of the city, he muses, "The rain on my chest is a baptism. I'm born again."
But Batman's rebirth and salvation are only a temporary illusion. His own sense of unworthiness emerges again within a few pages. While disarming a bomb, Batman thinks, "If I had the time or the right, I'd say a prayer."
In an even more telling moment, the supposedly born again Batman stares into the eyes of Two-Face, a villain psychologically scarred by shame and self-hatred.
"Take a look," says Two-Face, flaunting his own ugliness.
Staring intently, Batman replies, "I see a reflection."
Is this the sound of a man with a new life?
It sounds more like the voice of a man longing for salvation and still falling short—the sound of a man whose vocabulary is missing the word "surrender."
The truth is, Batman's sole hope for peace and redemption lies precisely in surrendering himself to forgiveness. Only when Batman gives up the quest for personal perfection will he be able to welcome the grace that cannot be earned. Although Batman is as good as any human being could be, he will never be good enough. Neither hard work nor good works can free Bruce Wayne from the guilt and despair that torment him; no matter how fiercely he tries, Batman can never save himself.
No one can.
Michael Brewer is an adjunct professor of religious studies at Northern Kentucky University. He is also a pastor at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church, where he infuses his sermons with comic and cartoon mythology.
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