Love at Arm’s Length: The Dark Knight Can Do Anything but Give You His Heart

Wenatchee the Hatchet continues his series, “Justice Has Its Price: The Exiles and Orphans of the […]

Mockingbird / 4.25.16

Wenatchee the Hatchet continues his series, “Justice Has Its Price: The Exiles and Orphans of the Justice League,” with this look at the character of Batman.


Over the years the Batman given to us by Kevin Conroy, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm has done a lot of things. Batman has foiled the Joker repeatedly. He has overcome worlds of illusion to stop the Mad Hatter. He has thwarted Ra’s al Ghul’s plans to kill most of humanity. He has outsmarted the Riddler. He’s done battle with Lex Luthor. He’s battled magicians. He’s even managed to dodge Darkseid’s Omega beams. It would seem there’s just about nothing the Dark Knight can’t do.

But very early in the series Justice League, Superman jokes to one Martian Manhunter about the one thing Batman can’t do, telegraphed when Batman hesitates to shake the Martian’s hand. Superman jokes, “Don’t take it personally. He doesn’t trust anybody.”

But even more difficult than gaining Batman’s trust? Ever seeing the day when he admits he actually likes you. In his years of war on crime, Batman has gained a steady run of victories at the cost of being so on guard that he can’t really give his heart to anyone.

It’s not as though we can’t understand why. When it turns out one of the founding members of the Justice League, Hawkgirl, is a Thanagarian spy and a double agent who sells out the League and the entire planet to an invading army, Batman would take it badly. When Green Lantern issues orders that everyone train more, Batman feels insulted, because, really, who’s been doing this hero thing longer than him? Maybe Superman but that’s it. Batman likes the Flash but the closest Wally West gets to hearing this is when a despotic alternate universe Batman has the Flash imprisoned “for your own good.” Our Batman tells Wally dryly, “I think he likes you.” That’s our Batman, the only way he can admit he likes somebody is if he’s saying it about his alternate universe doppelganger.

But then, even in alternate universes, the Justice Lord Batman turns on the rest of his team, a League in another universe that chose to rule the world rather than save it. It’s as if there isn’t a universe where Batman feels he can completely be at ease or completely trust anyone, even himself.

So by the time Justice League became Justice League Unlimited, the Establishment billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne has, as Batman, recruited fresh blood into the Justice League team. Who? The traditionally socialist/old left Green Arrow and the paranoid objectivist, the Question. Why? Because as Green Arrow puts it to Superman, Batman wanted them on the team to keep the League honest about its motives and methods. Somebody has to remind the League they’re supposed to be in this hero thing to help the little guy.

Batman is even willing to cautiously consider the perspective of someone who seems to be a sworn enemy of the Justice League, Amanda Waller, one of the heads of Project Cadmus. Batman visits her and listens as she warns him that the League has so much power and such a vast array of weaponry that, if the League ever went rogue, no power on Earth could stop them. Batman assures her that wouldn’t and couldn’t happen, but it isn’t long before he tells Superman that, really, they could conquer the world and that should scare them, not just people like Amanda Waller. The world hasn’t forgotten that Superman conquered Earth under the mind control of Darkseid and neither has Batman. Even if they’re friends, Batman still carries Kryptonite with him just in case the worst happens.

It’s not as though Batman can’t trust people at all. He comes to trust Martian Manhunter with his life. He even comes to regained trust in Shayera Hol after she betrayed the League as Hawkgirl. He can even tolerate a little teasing from Green Lantern about why he isn’t willing to date Wonder Woman. But that’s the problem: he can’t let himself date Wonder Woman because dating within the team ends in disaster, because she’s an immortal Amazon and he’s a maladjusted rich boy with a lot of issues, and because, well, basically she deserves a better guy than he knows he could ever be, even for her.

With so many years of Batman: The Animated Series behind them, Justice League gives us a heroic Batman who still has some serious flaws. He’s aloof and elitist. He’s stubborn and even arrogant. He’s principled but often cold. He has moments where even Superman turns to him in frustration and tells him, “You know what, Bruce? You’re not always right.” When a battle with Toyman ends in Superman’s seeming death, Batman skips the funeral. Only someone as good-natured as Clark Kent could hear about this and tell Batman, “Coming from you, I’m going to take that as a compliment.” The Man of Steel and the Dark Knight like each other, but most of the time Superman has to trust the actions of Batman rather than wait for “I like you” to ever be said in words. The two super-orphans have an often tacit understanding of each other.

How Bruce Wayne feels rarely comes up, and often in short moments. After a magical adventure in which members of the League battle Morgan La Fay’s petulant son Mordred in a magical realm where only children can exist, Wonder Woman mused on how it was fun to be a kid again–Batman’s grim reply, “I haven’t been a kid since I was eight years old.” Having never gotten over the eruption of death and chaos into his life, some part of Bruce Wayne can’t open up to anyone for fear of losing them, too. Sometimes he even pushes people away.

Perhaps the one time Batman lets his guard down is the one time he’s got no choice, going out to meet a reality-warping child named Ace who’s dying of a brain disorder that gave her super powers. Able to read minds, transmit illusions, and telepathically manipulate physical matter, Ace is a girl who is going to die of an aneurysm that might unleash her powers in a way that could kill countless people. Batman, instructed by Amanda Waller that he has to use a device to kill Ace, goes to meet the child to talk. Even though she’s read his mind already, Batman calmly explains that Ace will be dying very soon. Amanda Waller has instructed Batman to kill her using a device, but Batman won’t do it. Ace tells Batman, “You don’t need to explain. I already read your mind.”

Ace and Batman sit in the park, and she shares with him how, for her whole life, she was being trained as a weapon by the U.S. military. “They got their weapon,” Ace says forlornly. “I got cheated out of my childhood.”

Batman, looking down at the grass in the park, says, “I know what that feels like.”

“You do, don’t you?” Ace says with a smile. She’s finally met someone who understands how she feels. Her mood returns to sadness as she tells Batman, “You’ve come to tell me I’m dying.”

“Yes,” Batman replies.

“I’m dying very soon, aren’t I?” Ace asks.

“Yes,” Batman says with a frown. “I’m sorry.”

Caught between irrevocable loss and an impossible desire for a world free of crime, Bruce Wayne can only let his guard down, kind of, in a conversation with a dying child. It’s not that Bruce Wayne doesn’t love his friends, it’s that after so many years of fighting crime the fists of justice love at arm’s length.