Bring Back Doofus Batman

What's great about this tale is that Batman is both utterly incompetent and blithely immoral. When he tries to infiltrate the plastic surgery operation, he is instantly detected and beaten up by two standard-issue thugs — so much for the greatest martial artist ever. Then, his next plan is to have Deadman possess the body of the chief suspect, because warrants are for sissies. Inevitably, Deadman, in the body of the bad guy, falls in love with the bad guy's girlfriend and partner in crime, Lily Lang. When the ghost tries to get Batman to let his new love off the hook for her role in the operation, Batman refuses, because doing that, unlike taking over a suspect's body, would be wrong. And, anyway, why should he feel gratitude to Brand just because the guy is doing all of his work for him? Batman goes on to mess up the investigation further, with the result that Lily ends up dead, and Deadman is grief-stricken. The last we see of Batman, our hero is thinking about how happy he is that the criminal ring has been shut down, and entertaining an ineffectual regret or two about having so completely screwed Deadman over. "I feel badly about Boston," he muses. That's big of you, chief.

By the standards of present-day comics and comic-book movies, Haney's story isn't particularly violent or bloody. Quite a few people die, but none of it is shown in exploitative ways; there's no torture or rape. Yet, the story's vision is a lot direr than that of its R-rated successors.

That's because Batman here is not competent, efficient, or smart. He's just some bumbling fool who's decided to take justice into his own hands, with predictably gruesome results. He breaks the law, treats other people as chits in his dunder-headed game plan, and causes a load of pointless death and suffering. And yet, as far as he's concerned, it's basically a successful case, albeit one with a couple of regrettable loose ends. For Haney, the unjust, the petty, and the callous triumph so thoroughly that they aren’t even forced to realize that they're unjust, petty, and callous.  It's a small, stupid world, and self-appointed heroes mostly work to make it smaller and stupider.

Batman's so popular because people like to think of themselves righting wrongs and dispensing justice with a grim determination and a grimmer sneer. As with many popular things, though, the meme gets overplayed — in part because it's deceitful. The grim, the powerful, and the (supposedly) omniscient aren't cool avengers who are willing to cut corners to save us. They're jackasses who mostly make a mess of things, a la Dick Cheney or George Zimmerman or, I’d unfortunately have to argue, the current occupant of the White House.  I wish Ben Affleck were a Batman who could get that point across. But, alas, he's no Adam West. And even if he were, Zack Snyder and Zack Snyder's audience clearly want the comforting, popular Bat thing. The doofus we need is not the doofus we want, nor the doofus we're going to get.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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