A few months ago some friends and I were talking about characters who were boring on their own but had wonderful stories built around them. Among the characters discussed were Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter, and then I brought up Batman. This did not go over well, but I believe it to be true. And I'm going to give you a few reasons why.
Let's start this out by saying I don't hate Batman, or the comics about him. I have so many boxes full of Batman comics that I have literally made furniture out of them. Batverse comics are still the first things I scan the shelves for on Wednesdays. Bob Kane, with the help of subsequent creators, hit one out of the park. Batman is a character that has resonated powerfully with people through many different eras. He is, in many ways, perfect for comics readers. That's the problem. I won't say that the only way to make a character interesting is through flaws — that's untrue — but I will say that perfection has a price. And that's what I'll be discussing.
1. Batman is a Reactive, Not Active Character
What's the typical Batman intro? We all know it. A crime is being committed. Criminals menace the innocent, confident of their coming victory over the forces of good. Suddenly, just when things seem their darkest, a scuffle is heard from outside! Batman comes crashing through the window and saves the day! Alternately, in team books, the entire Justice League has fought for issues and issues against a terrible foe. They are about to be defeated, but will go down fighting. Suddenly, at the last second, Batman reveals his secret plan, the one that he's been hatching all along. The enemies fall like dominoes. The day is, again, saved.
This stuff makes Batman seem active, and it's true, he is. But generally we don't spend most of our time watching him act, we see the criminals acting. (Exceptions to this are the Batman origin stories, and the villain origin stories — because each villain introduces new character aspects to Batman — which is why I think they're such stand-out pieces and why they are so often retold.) Most of the time, we see Batman making the deciding play at the last second. We generally don't see him struggling to achieve things, or fretfully planning what's going to happen. We see the criminals doing that, and him stating what he's already done to counter it all. I'm not saying that this isn't a good story. This is the comics equivalent of the drawing-room seen at the end of a detective novel, where the hero reveals all to the stunned crowd. And Batman is the World's Greatest Detective. It's a nail-biting narrative, but it leaves the questions, the twists, and the breathless suspense to the villains, the bit players, and the sidekicks. It doesn't make the actual detective interesting. We need more for that. Which brings us to . . .
2. This Extends to His Personal Life
Almost every Batman Christmas Special I've seen is side characters attempting to get Batman to have a bit of cheer and celebrate Christmas. Almost every team-up involves some other character making overtures to Batman, only to be rebuffed. Alfred tries to get Batman to do things like go to the hospital and see daylight. Women try to get Batman to go out with them. Sidekicks are foisted on him. Team-mates practically beg him to even talk to them. It's a running joke that Batman, the famous loner of the DCU, has an entire family around him. It seems contradictory, but it's not. (You see the same thing with Wolverine and other characters who are famous loners.) Superman and Wonder Woman go out and mingle with people voluntarily. They have social lives, professional lives, and romantic lives. Batman doesn't. People have to crowd around him, and they have to be part of his family or indispensable to his work. If they didn't force their company on him, he'd just be a guy alone on a rooftop muttering to himself for 800 issues. His default answer, to every question, is "no." That, as a tough -guy archetype, works very well. But it's boring as hell unless you staple that pestering secondary character to him despite his refusals.
3. He Has Superman Problems
Think about one of the major problems with Superman — the necessity of giving him ridiculously powerful enemies to fight. Now how many times has Batman, in comics, beaten Superman in a fight? The answer, and I've made an exact count, is so many times. There's a reason why Batman, the guy who was inspired by his the murder of his parents to stop random street violence by small time crooks, has spent the last few issues of several of his own series, and all of his movies, fighting vast conspiratorial nets of high-powered criminals. Nothing less is any threat to him at all, and so it's generally not interesting.
This, to a certain extent, is a problem with any long-running heroic character. Buffy the Vampire Slayer only made it to her fifth season before the show had to insert an episode — Fool for Love — meant to remind viewers that fighting super-powered monsters to the death every night was still dangerous, and by the end of that season she was successfully fighting gods. Batman has been around a lot longer than that, and fought a lot more gods. We don't even expect him to have trouble fighting powered supervillains like Poison Ivy or Clayface. It would take superhuman effort (no pun intended) on the part of DC to make Batman fighting muggers a compelling story again. Not even Nolan did that.
4. His Group Dynamic is Frozen
Hey, quick — what does this Robin look like? How about the last one? How about the one before that? Yes, we all know about Stephanie Brown, but aside from about six issues, all the Robins look the same. (Technically, the best argument against this would be the pre-Crisis Jason Todd, who was merrier than post-Crisis Jason and was a strawberry-blond. When you look at his back-story, though, you find he's an acrobat at a circus, and Bruce adopted him when his two acrobat parents were murdered. Sound familiar? I think there must be something like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle For Robins. The farther you stray in backstory from the original Robin, the more the new Robin has to look like him. The closer you get in backstory, the farther you can get in looks. The bottom line is, some things have to stay the same.) Has Batman ever married, even for a time like Superman and Spider-man? Has he changed jobs? How about Alfred? Has he been away for more than a few issues at a time?
There's a problem with getting an archetype right. Once it's there, it's incredibly tough to mess with. The few things that have been messed with successfully — like Alfred turning from a bumbling comic-relief butler to a smart and resourceful ally in his own right — get clicked into place and become inviolate, just like the rest of the series.
5. He Can Only Recognize One Level of Tragedy
One of the major attractions of the Batman legend is its purity. Bruce Wayne never lets go of the tragedy he experienced as a child. He uses his will and clarity of focus to make himself into an instrument that can prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again. He lives in that tragic moment, perpetually, to make himself what he needs to be. Which makes him immune to things like the disappointment most of us experience when we can't get movie tickets, when we miss the call from our friend who was only in town for a while, or when we burn our tongue on some soup. Almost all superheroes have some tragedy in their background, but they also have normal lives and normal emotional ranges. Superman and Spider-Man and Wonder Woman can have bad days and bad break-ups. Batman has corpses. Nothing short of holding the dead body of a loved one in his arms will get Batman to be "sad." There's almost nothing that will get him to happy. And that's not really a huge problem. If I want to see someone have a long series of awkward dates or a fun day doing silly superhero things, I can pick up another comic. It takes, as I said, a purity of focus to make a character that much of an archetype, but it does mean that the character loses some narrative range and emotional plasticity. After a while, the loss does become a problem.
6. His Stories Have Been Told Thousands of Times
Well, it's the last entry on the list, so it's time to get some serious weaseling done. I have no doubt that there are multiple counter-examples of every item on this list. In part, this is because Batman has been placed in different universes, some unquestionably dark and adult, and some light-hearted and fun for kids. (In my defense, I'll say that within these frameworks Batman is still the grimmest, the most resistant to starting social relationships, the least emotional, and the most powerful character.) There are also multiple stories of Batman dying. There are multiple stories of Batman going crazy. Hell, there are multiple stories that center around Batman's relationship to contemporary music — Batman: Fortunate Son and Batman: Jazz. Batman is about as old as other major DC characters, but his extraordinary popularity has spawned so many elseworlds, team-ups, leagues, and imaginary tales that the sheer mass of pulp he's starred in means there isn't much new to say about him. Go to any scanned image or any discussion of a story and people will say, "This is like X story, a few years ago," or, "I prefer this other author's version of that." It's all been done. Any creator's ability to say something new about Batman diminishes as the reader's memory increases. We're past the point where we can do anything new with the character.
We can only do something new with the era. Batman will always be vengeance, and will always be the night, and those things will always endure, in new ways as the years go by. This is why Batman has also endured so long. He's gone from gun-toting killer noir hero in the 1930s and early 1940s, to comics-code and kid friendly crime fighter for justice in the late 1940s an 1950s, to the groovy camp hero of the 1960s, to the street-crime detective of the 1970s, to the embodiment of and reaction to the youthful anarchy movement of the 1980s, to the isolation-is-cool raging loner of the 1990s, and has emerged, in the 2000s, as a slightly-mad Morrison-y genius who can face the end of the universe. Batman doesn't change and grow as a dynamic character, the era is dynamic and he's refitted to it. But because the archetype is eternal, but because he is an archetype, he can't really be a character. We need everyone else for that.