What is Batman for?
The whole idea is crazy, it always has been. A man dresses up like a bat to scare criminals. Not something that can truly chill the blood — a snake, say, or even a spider — but a bat, the sight of which causes most of us to sigh and reach for a tennis racket to shoo the little guy out the nearest window.
It’s an idea a kid would come up with, which is one reason it’s such an easy target for comedy these days: Pow. Zap. “Holy rusted metal Batman!” (ask Joel Schumacher if you’re unfamiliar with that reference)
After all, a costumed billionaire’s War on Crime is the kind of notion that loses its primal power as soon as it leaves the comic book pages, which is when the mind proceeds to boggle at the real-world logistics it would entail. Christopher Nolan’s films work very hard to create a world of plausible-seeming technology to keep our disbelief suspended, or at least loosely tethered, for those two-plus hours. Even so.
And then there’s the violence. In his every iteration, Batman fights crime by fist-fighting it never with guns and never to kill but still brutal nonetheless.
Gotham City is a grim, brutal place with a sociopath on every street corner, wreaking senseless havoc, murdering innocent bystanders in cold blood. In a Batman story, this violence exists for a reason: It is the triggering action, the set of conditions that spur our hero into battle. Without it, Batman would spend the whole movie sitting on a rooftop or hanging out in his cave.
Drawing connections between film violence and a staggeringly senseless act like the one that took place in Aurora on Friday morning is easy. It’s almost too easy. We look for reasons where no reason exists; we stare at CNN in abject horror and comfort ourselves by imagining we can crack the case and figure out what causes someone to slip this far into madness.
But madness isn’t so tidy. No reason will satisfy; no reason can, because the act occurred in reason’s absence. We are left in its wake to guess and blame and, finally, to mourn.
Batman didn’t create this act of random violence. In a very real sense, his existence helps us respond to it.
Comic-book heroes are childish notions (I can see my friends shaking their heads at me for saying that!). But this is exactly what gives them their simple, primal purity of meaning. They are a means by which we too can (albeit vicariously) confront — and defeat — the evils that threaten us. Batman is personification that Good exists and that it will always wins out over Evil. On the streets of Gotham he will be met by Fear (The Scarecrow), Greed (The Penguin), Wrath (Bane) and, inevitably, repeatedly, Insanity (The Joker).
But he — and in turn, we — will win. Always. Every time. That knowledge is what he gives us and what we cling to and what Batman is there for.
And how he wins is just as important as that he wins: He doesn’t seek vengeance, but rather justice — which is to say, he refuses to kill his foes. Instead, he incapacitates them. He contains them until the justice system takes over.
And that is his greater symbolic role, to help us contain the horror of senseless violence like this and to provide a cathartic pressure valve. So, for example, we’re thrilled as we watch him swoop down upon some vile fiend seconds before the killing stroke lands.
“Never again,” he whispers, and for a moment, a tiny second, we’re able to imagine a world where such a ridiculous, childish promise could be kept, where violence never erupts again, and where no more innocent people die.
Of course we all know that world doesn’t exist. Tomorrow a new costumed criminal will plague Gotham, and another act of real-world violence will leave us feeling lost and scared longing for our hero to swoop in and save us from danger again.
Luckily Gotham has Batman to protect it. But we have him too, well, the idea of him, anyway. And on even the worst of days, it’s possible to think about that silly, ridiculous, utterly childish idea, and feel a little less lost and a little less scared.