By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D. | Published April 4, 2022
On the second anniversary of the date that my family and I entered into the morass of the global COVID-19 pandemic—replete with remote work, school and Mass; masks, vaccines and boosters; and an unending cycle of fear, misinformation and anxiety—we all at last returned a few weeks ago to the relative normalcy of a movie house to see a film.
That we chose the latest installment of the Batman franchise is probably predictable. If you’ve been away from the movies for two years, best to go all in for a three-hour saga.
That we also saw a Batman film is more than predictable; it’s serendipitous.
Batman means many things to many people. The character, with perhaps the most compelling origin story of any superhero, has endured for decades in multiple incarnations. He has been a comic book staple, a TV camp phenomenon, a pop-culture icon, a movie star and an enduring symbol of right versus wrong, even when many people were resigned to the darkness.
From his eerie origins through his jingoistic period; through his tacky yet irresistible revival on television in the 60s and his marvelous rejuvenation in the 70s comics; and throughout his multiple cinematic incarnations from Tim Burton’s inspired Batman film to the new Matt Reeves movie my family saw, the Batman has been a constant symbol of law, order and justice.
He is also one of the most neurotic characters in modern culture, rather you consider his realm high or low, and he is a figure who has never been fully able to reconcile himself to his past.
The Batman origin is familiar to most. The young heir Bruce Wayne witnesses the tragic death of his parents, gunned down by a mugger in Gotham City after the family exits a movie theater. Left to the care of his butler and benefactor Alfred, Bruce decides to avenge his parents and wage war upon criminals by adopting the alter-ego of a bat. For the most part, he succeeds, though winning the hearts and minds of the bureaucracy in Gotham is no easy trick. Eventually, he earns the respect of the establishment, and even gets his own alert system, the “Bat Signal,” an illuminated emblem cast against a gothic sky whenever insidious criminals appear.
From here, we can veer off into any number of directions. Batman sells cereal. Batman sells costumes. Batman appears in loads of comic books, even when comics weren’t popular. Batman makes a silly TV series, and then appears “in person” in shopping malls all over the country to greet his fans (I was one of them). Batman gets revised in films and graphic novels, and then suddenly has a relevance his creators could not have imagined. He inhabits high art as easily as he navigates the popular imagination.
Yet all along, the artists and writers at DC comics, who make Batman real from week to week, month to month, were thinking about this character—and envisioning his inevitable development—in serious terms.
The reality of Batman
The average practicing Catholic has probably identified—beyond the gothic aspects—the “Catholic” qualities of the Batman. There is the iconography, for one, and that’s important. Think how much Catholics argue over how things “should look,” whether it’s a church or a parish bulletin. The image of the idea gives shape to the ideal; so it is with Batman.
Then there is the agony and grief, and the guilt. Young Bruce Wayne can never avenge his parents as a boy; he’s just a child. Instead, he builds an entire adult life based upon an obsession for justice: truth from lies, health from disease, deliverance from sorrow, even triumph over death. And he does it all in disguise.
Only at rare moments is the disguise teased toward revelation; only occasionally do we get glimpses of the reality of the Batman.
One of the most compelling instances of this occurs in the March 1976 #457 issue of Detective Comics, in which we meet in a back-story Dr. Leslie Thompkins, a character writer Dennis O’Neil says he based upon the real-life Catholic missionary and apologist Dorothy Day. Thompkins is revealed as the woman who came to young Bruce Wayne’s aid the night of his parents’ murders. The story, with gorgeous artwork by Dick Giordano, presents the idea that once a year, on the anniversary of the killings, Batman returns to Crime Alley to pay his respects to Dr. Thompkins.
According to O’Neill, who knew Day briefly, “Dorothy Day really walked the walk. She did exactly what Christ said—she went out and fed the hungry, and clothed people who needed clothing, and gave shelter to people who needed to get out of the cold, and was a relentless voice for nonviolence and pacifism …. So I thought maybe the Batman series should have someone who represented that point of view. I never wanted to be seen as believing that violence is a good answer to anything.”
Though Leslie doesn’t always approve of how Batman accomplishes his ends, she supports his larger mission. As she tells Batman, “I once saw a hideous thing—a child whose parents were murdered in front of his eyes! I’ve never forgotten the lad! I’ve devoted my life to doing what I can to prevent such tragedy. Forgive me, but I live for the time when you and your kind will be unnecessary, but until then, there is a need for you—and I’m glad you’re here to fill it.” And just as O’Neil envisioned her, she runs a shelter and halfway house in Crime Alley for anyone who needs aid and comfort.
Overcome by love
We need mythology, and we need heroes. The war in Ukraine, the simmering COVID pandemic threatening another flare-up and the rising cost of living in the United States are all constant reminders of this truth. Watching the new three-hour film, I found myself deeply moved by the ending, in which Batman’s selflessness and innate decency overshadow his powerful strength and ingenuity. For a moment, he seems as weak and vulnerable as any of us. Then he is overcome by love, and that love is stronger than any power, talent, or gadget he possesses.
Like all pop-culture heroes that endure, Batman changes with the times. He adapts; he reflects the age in which we live. The Batman created in 1939 arrived in a world not unlike our own. It was a world that had endured a Great Depression and was on the cusp of a second global war. It had known sickness, famine, corruption and hate. It needed a hero. It needed a Dark Knight. So do we now.
Batman came into being through suffering, yet his suffering was redemptive. His suffering also resonates more profoundly when we ourselves are suffering, for it becomes cathartic.
The poet Randall Jarrell once echoed the sentiment of St. John of the Cross’ theory of the “Dark Night of the Soul.”
“Pain comes from the darkness and we call it wisdom,” writes Jarrell. “It is pain.” Yet as St. John knew, that pain does precede spiritual growth.
For those who are interested, a further important embellishment of the Dr. Leslie Thompkins back-story occurs in the May 1987 #574 issue of Detective Comics in a story titled “My Beginning and My Probable End.” In that story, Dr. Thompkins asks Batman “Do you ever pray?” When he replies “No,” Thompkins says simply, “You might start.”
That might be the most relevant Catholic lesson the Batman has to teach us. We aren’t called to a life of constant worry, dread, and fear. We can’t accomplish everything on our own. We need a helper, a redeemer.
Just like the comics, one of the most riveting scenes in the current Batman film is when he jumps from one of Gotham’s tallest buildings into the darkness of the city below. One can’t help thinking that his plummet into the night represents also—whether he realizes it or not—a leap of faith.
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.