Bring Back Doofus Batman

Attention, Ben Affleck: The Dark Knight is better when he's an idiot.
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20th Century Fox

The fan conniption over the fact that Ben Affleck will be the next Hollywood Batman offers one more reminder of Batman's greatest superpower. He is, in the words of Richard Cook, "really, really popular." It's that popularity that allows him, with no other special abilities, to come out on top against magic wishing-rings, super-speed, and god-like aliens. And it's that popularity that causes fans to lose their minds when an actor with insufficient gravitas or grittiness or what have you is foisted upon them.

For my part, I can't say I really understand why Christian Bale's self-satisfied Batman is supposed to be so, so much better than Affleck's whiny, wooden Daredevil. But, to be fair, I've rather lost patience with super-popular Batman altogether. I'm still fond of Frank Miller's hyperbolic, crusty, hard-ass from the Dark Knight Returns comic book — but if I want to read that, I can go back and read that. I don't need the 600th retread.

Besides, the greatest Batman stories aren't the ones where he's the ultra-competent grim and charismatic avatar of grittiness. The best ones are the ones where he's a doofus. So many people gush about how mature the bleak, dark version of Batman is — how Heath Ledger's prisoner's dilemmas show us something dirty and true about the human soul, or how Alan Moore shows us what superheroes would be like in the real world when he makes his Batman-analog Rorschach into a demented right-wing obsessive who smells bad. I, too, quite like Heath Ledger's Joker and love Watchmen. But the truth is that the most sophisticated and knowing Batman we've had thus far isn't Frank Miller's or Alan Moore's or Christopher Nolan's. It's Adam West's.

Under the guise of gritty realism, Nolan and Miller give us a cheerful, libertarian, cowboy power fantasy — billionaire savior as Bernhard Goetz. The ‘60s television Batman, on the other hand, presented fantastically wealthy would-be do-gooders as helplessly square busybodies, fighting crime less out of sober obsession than as a kind of decadent game of dress-up. When those stately Wayne bookcases slid back to reveal the Batpoles, you got the sense that crimefighting and/or the entire society in which crime occurred was a kind of amusement park for the obscenely rich.

Batman's omnipotence in the television show isn't a function of his popularity. It's a multi-level gag. Wouldn't it be fun, the TV Batman asks, to live in a world where the fuddy-duddy scions won't run stop-lights, where they'd rather die than blow up a handful of baby ducks, and where they can always get the right answer out of the bat computer? And isn't it also more than a little ridiculous to hope for that world and its paunchy, bat-eared dad? Trust me, Adam West assures us, and I will pretend to save you. Thus we have the conclusion of Batman: The Movie from 1966, in which Adam West in the batsuit accidentally swaps all the brains of the members of the UN Security Council one with the other. Having completely screwed everything up, he quietly declares victory and leaves — which is a much more insightful take on American imperial adventures than anything you're likely to find in Iron Man.

Batman-as-doofus has showed up in some other venues as well. Perhaps the greatest is the comic book The Brave and The Bold #104, "Second Chance for a Deadman?" with script by Bob Haney and art by Jim Aparo.

Haney was always willing to tailor his Batman to fit whatever nutty story was coming out of his keyboard. One memorable effort had Batman turn into an obsessive mad scientist type sporadically possessed by the ghost of an evil pirate.  "Second Chance for a Deadman" is almost as fanciful: Batman is trying to disrupt an operation that gives criminals complete plastic surgery makeovers. To do this, he enlists the help of Boston Brand, a.k.a. Deadman, a ghost who can possess the bodies of others.

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 correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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