I’m a big Batman fan. Have been ever since I was 9 or so and ordered a weird little Batman book from Scholastic. It was like a TPB, a collection of one story arc originally presented in single issues of the comic, but reduced to the size of a paperback and in black and white. I still have it, and it’s not doing too bad considering how many times I read it as a child. Not long after, I purchased my first real comics for $0.25 a piece at a huge flea market in Wichita.
Recently, the movie Boy Wonder made me love Batman even more, though the film isn’t nominally about Batman at all.
As I grew older, I realized that there was something different about Batman, something that drew me to the character more than other heroes. It wasn’t until I watched an episode of Batman Beyond, of all things, that I understood what it was. I didn’t love the show. The young Batman wasn’t really Batman. He was a reluctant hero, much more like a Spiderman. The redeeming quality was the presence of Bruce Wayne (and the voice of Kevin Conroy).
In one episode, Bruce Wayne starts hearing voices and gets sent to the mental ward. I don’t remember all the particulars, but the villain had planted some bit of electronics in a bandage wrapped around Bruce’s head, and was able to transmit thoughts directly to his brain through it. In the end, the villain is defeated, of course, and Terry, the young Batman, asks Bruce how he knew he wasn’t really crazy. How did he know those weren’t really his own thoughts?
Bruce replied, “Because the voice kept calling me Bruce.”
Terry said, “What do you call yourself?”
And Bruce didn’t reply, but his shadow suddenly grew the long, pointed ears of the cowl.
What sets Batman apart from other heroes is that his alter ego isn’t the costumed super hero, it’s Bruce Wayne. Bruce Wayne is the costume Batman puts on to achieve the things he can’t as Batman, not the other way around. Bruce died in that alley with his parents.
Unfortunately, this bit of psychology that makes the character unique and exciting is also a bit reductive. People are made orphans every day, and don’t spend every second of their lives for decades after seeking vengeance. Yeah, we acknowledge that Batman is a bit crazy, that he’s really the other side of the Joker coin, both crazy, but for different sides, order versus chaos. But the word “crazy” itself is reductive.
Boy Wonder is about a young man whose mother is brutally gunned down in front of him. As a result, through self-destructive tendencies and a desire for vengeance, he becomes a vigilante. When a new detective enters the precinct to replace the man who is essentially the boy’s Commissioner Gordon, she tells the young man, who seems to still be earnestly seeking his mother’s killer, that he should give up the search. His mother wouldn’t want this. She’d want him to live his life, because he didn’t die that night.
But he did. His humanity died, and what was left was relentless will. When I realized what the filmmakers were trying to do, to explore the depths of Batman’s psychology without ever saying “Batman,” I was intrigued. When they pulled it off, I flipped. I love Batman, but he often comes off as 2-dimensional (and not just because he literally is). Maybe that’s why Nolan couldn’t completely pull the trigger and let Bale play Batman as he should be played. Maybe that’s why the film Batman retained the humanity the comic book Batman couldn’t. Hopefully, the next filmmakers to tackle one of the only modern myths watch Boy Wonder and see what can be done with no cash, just a brilliant script. Because it literally gave me chills.
Hell, Boy Wonder even made me like Harvey Bullock. I didn’t think there was a way to do Bullock right, in print or on film. Go figure.