It should be fairly common knowledge that Batman is the greatest superhero of all time (Suck it, Achilles, you knock-off Beowulf). People have been trying to figure out why this truism exists since it’s fairly difficult to qualify superheroism outside of subjective preference. It has been argued that since he’s just a guy in a costume facing off against the same world-ending events as an invulnerable Kryptonian, it is his courage and willpower that makes him the greatest. He is the most at-risk, and continuing to fight in those circumstances is more noble than say, someone who is constantly protected by a lime-green hue.

I disagree. I don’t think people really believe that Batman is more at-risk – he’s fucking Batman. He figures it out. He’s fine. What makes Batman the greatest superhero of all time is his villains. What people love about Batman is he fights against Jungian versions of his shadow self. Batman represents humanity’s struggle to combat the darkness in ourselves, and that is what makes his character more relatable than being a braver-than-usual fleshy meat sack.

I_Am_the_Night-Title_Card

They are not at all subtle about it

Let me give you an example. Two-Face is a very clear symbol of the duality between darkness and light. Harvey Dent always begins as a friend to Bruce Wayne (in all the iterations of the character that I’ve seen, at least), and that’s why Bruce will pay for the plastic surgeries to repair the scarred side of Harvey’s face – to return the character to his lighter origins. However, thematically it’s always more than that. Bruce struggles to save Harvey from Two-Face because he needs to save the humanity in himself. Two-Face is the most obvious facsimile of Batman with one crucial difference that highlights the thesis of this post. Two-Face will always enact the dark side of his personal Manichean struggle, regardless of coin tosses, and Batman will always triumph in the light. That’s how the protagonist/antagonist relationship works.

BatmanTDKR1_055_The_Dark_Knight_Returns

It’s a comic about a guy in a bat-suit. It was never going to be subtle.

Our favourite Oswald that didn’t shoot a Kennedy, Penguin, fits into this thesis too. Penguin was born into the wealthy Cobblepot family. With that inherited privilege, he embodies the sin of greed and demands more. Penguin is the graphic representation of a Marxist wet dream excoriating the bourgeoisie. Bruce is again similar. He did nothing to earn the billions afforded to him from his familial inheritance, and he became the CEO of a mega-corporation rivaling LexCorp without any relevant education or business acumen. It is unclear what Wayne Enterprises actually does (Thomas Wayne was a practicing physician, not a businessman), but who cares. It’s been argued that a class critique of Bruce Wayne would prefer him systematically redistributing his wealth rather than acting out his well-funded revenge fantasy against “crime”, but within the liberal paradigm of Batman comics, Bruce Wayne is essentially a good, charitable dynasty billionaire to Penguin’s evil, selfish one.

Penguin

Batman is better. Batman is always better.

Scarecrow, Jonathan Crane, is another Jungian villain that begins to show the edge to Batman’s battle with himself. Scarecrow uses fear gas to terrify the populace into submitting to his criminal schemes. Batman dresses like a bat because he was scared of bats as a boy, and embodies that fear to intimidate his foes to make his vigilantism more effective. He uses fear just as intentionally as the Scarecrow, but on a different demographic. Fear is acknowledged as a devastating tactic, and must be precise in its implementation lest one slip into villainy. Batman walks that tightrope like a champ.

Superstitious and Cowardly

Children are a superstitious, cowardly lot

This leaves the Joker. The Joker’s whole deal is that he’s an insane clown, but not like the John Wayne Gacy type. He could have easily been a forgettable villain, overblown by too much camp and vanishing into the dustbin of history like the ICP, but against all odds, the Joker became the most iconic Batman villain. He did this by embodying Bruce Wayne’s madness. The Joker infamously believes that all it takes to drive a sane person mad is one bad day, and while he is proven wrong on many occasions, he is accurate in his analysis of Batman. Bruce had one bad day, and became a driven, megalomaniacal vigilante in response to it. He is held in check only by his single-minded focus on justice. The Joker broke under pressure, caving to unchecked violence, but Batman held on to his values just enough to stay in the light.

Two Guys in a Lunatic Asylum

What do you think I am? Crazy!? You’d turn it off when I was halfway across!

There are obviously a lot more Batman villains, and not all of them fit so neatly into this kind of categorization. Catwoman, sure, is as ethically grey as Batman, and her darkness slightly edges over the light much in the same way Batman’s light slightly edges over darkness, and as much as they want to, they can never quite meet in the middle. However, that’s just as much a Jungian conflict of coming to grips with one’s own ethical ambiguity as it is a Montague and Capulet love story. And I swear to God, if anyone brings up Calendar Man I’m going to lose it. The point isn’t that every villain perfectly represents Batman’s struggle with himself, but that the emblematic villains that define Batman as a character are lasting because they reflect his own inner demons.

This is what makes Batman the most interesting character that happens to be categorized as a superhero. The thing is, though, despite the socially agreed upon categorization, Batman is not a superhero. Not because he doesn’t have superpowers, but because a hero is someone you’re supposed to aspire to. Imagine genuinely believing that it is okay to terrify others in order to dominate and control their social behaviour – you’d be a monster. Who wants to aspire to madness? Or Manichean angst? Batman isn’t a hero, he’s a criminal. He knows he’s in the wrong, and strives for a world where he himself would not be welcome. If anything, Batman is a supervillain fighting against cartoon versions of himself in order to protect the world from his own potential for darkness.

BatmanTDKR3-135 Hunt The Dark Knight

Batman, the libertarian fantasy, pointing out the reality of the libertarian fantasy

The idea that Batman is a superhero has pretty dark implications. Kyle Rittenhouse was found innocent in his own vigilantism through claims of self-dense, which, legally speaking, would have similarly applied to the men he had killed if they had killed him instead – not exactly a glowing exoneration. The micro legality of it is less important than the macro perspective that sees a young boy leave his hometown with a semi-automatic rifle in order to protect property from those he sees as criminals. Kyle Rittenhouse and those who canonize him genuinely believe that it is right and good to basically pretend to be Batman. The reality is that Kyle Rittenhouse created a situation where people died because he wanted to live out his own revenge fantasy against “crime“. It doesn’t matter that he is legally innocent of murder, what he did is counterintuitive to the ongoing functionality of civilization.

On a more abstract level, Batman is truly a villain in that the impact of the superficial ideals of superheroism he represents is a net negative on the world. People tend to look at Batman and don’t see a man fighting against himself, they see a man fighting against incorrigible criminals. They see social systems as not being sufficient and true justice requiring individual citizens to rise up against otherwise unstoppable evil. They don’t learn to fix the social systems through collective action, they learn to use violence to bully degenerates into conforming to normative standards. They see a fairly traditional superhero.

Hockey Pads

I mean, he is pretty often portrayed that way. This is really only my own opinion as a Batman apologist

What makes Batman great is that he doesn’t have to be a superhero. If we see him as a villain, then we recognize that he is no one to aspire to. He can just be an interesting character dealing with the loss of his parents by combating anthropomorphized versions of his inner demons. He can be someone we can relate to when we have to face our own shadow. He can help us find the light by repudiating himself rather than uncritically celebrating his single-minded madness. To borrow a phrase: Batman is not the villain that we deserve, but the one we need.

A dark knight.