At the beginning of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” director Zack Snyder treats us to a three-minute précis of the Dark Knight’s origin, interweaving the murders of Bruce Wayne’s parents, their funeral, and the young orphan’s tumble down a well full of bats into a dream sequence that retells the trauma that birthed the superhero. He then takes us back the third act of “Man of Steel,” and shows us the battle between Superman and Zod from Bruce Wayne’s perspective.
Snyder’s Bruce Wayne, as portrayed by Ben Affleck, is iconic. Square-jawed, raven-haired, and in his forties, Affleck is the first actor to visually embody the post-Comics Code version of Gotham’s leading citizen in a live-action film. Just as Kevin Conroy’s astonishing voice lent gravitas to the animated version of the character, Affleck’s scowling physicality breathes life into the billionaire playboy. Merely looking the part would have amounted to little, but Affleck, Snyder and screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer built a better Bruce Wayne, and a better Batman followed.
The “Man of Steel” flashback that comes after the opening dream sequence shows us Bruce driving a black emergency vehicle through snarled traffic and collapsing architecture. He’s on the phone, barking evacuation orders at the head of his Metropolis office as he navigates the chaos. He halts the vehicle to witness the carnage. Then, with his sheer strength, and the help of others, he lifts a steel girder to free one of his security guards trapped beneath. Using his speed, he saves the daughter of one of his employees from the collapsing debris of Wayne Tower.
He accomplishes these heroics as Bruce Wayne. The cape and cowl are nowhere to be seen, but this is clearly Batman. Snyder gives us a couple of visual clues: Wayne’s blue-gray business attire mirrors the color palette of Neal Adams’ 1970s incarnation of the caped crusader, and the flashers atop his car echo the Batmobile driven by Adam West in the 1960s television series. From the very beginning, Snyder tells us the man in the batsuit is not the id to Bruce Wayne’s ego. There is no magical transformation, just a change of habit. Every suit is a business suit to Bruce Wayne. Every car can become a Batmobile when he’s behind the wheel, but some vehicles are better suited to the purpose.
As “Dawn of Justice” unfolds, we learn a little more about Bruce Wayne and the Batman, but not much. Snyder not only keeps his origin to a minimum, but also his backstory. We know he’s been at it for a while; that there was a Robin once, who was likely killed by the Joker; and that this comrade in arms is Alfred Pennyworth. There’s no Lucius Fox to design his weapons, and no explanation of his supply chain is given. He’s Bruce Wayne. He has toys; this is a comic book after all. Snyder does not suffer from Christopher Nolan’s need to shoehorn Batman into the real world, and this allows him to present us with a Bruce Wayne who is a little more mysterious, and therefore more iconic.
Snyder’s Bruce Wayne has been traumatized time and again. His rage is a form of solitary confinement. He clearly suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which clouds his judgment about Superman’s humanity. This sets up an iconic moment that forces him to confront the initial trauma of his parents’ murder, and to find common ground with his Kryptonian foe. In recognizing the humanity of a man whom he has reduced to an alien enemy, Bruce regains his own, and in doing so becomes a better Batman. He also learns to feel fear.
It’s learning to fear that makes Affleck’s Bruce Wayne more compelling than Christian Bale’s. The main thrust of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is Bruce Wayne’s efforts to understand the criminal mind, and to ultimately conquer fear. He literally and metaphorically has to climb out of the deep, dark well of his soul in “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” But this isn’t where Bale’s incarnation falls apart.
The issue with Nolan’s Bruce Wayne isn’t that Bale doesn’t look the part. It isn’t even his characterization. His Bruce Wayne is idealistic and also a little spoiled. He embodies the cockiness of the billionaire0playboy aspect of the character. It’s his endgame that separates his portrayal from Affleck’s. His goal is to walk away from being the Batman, and that’s why he makes an unconvincing Caped Crusader.
Prior to Nolan’s trilogy, we have to go back to the ’60s for an iconic representation of Bruce Wayne and Batman. Tim Burton’s gloomy 1989 Batman film is a triumph of style over substance; very little happens, and comedian Michael Keaton (who has since morphed into a fine dramatic actor) is horribly miscast as the lead. His delivery is monotonous, and substitutes dryness for charm. It also doesn’t help that he looks more like the Joker than an East Coast elite. The less said about Joel Schumacher’s dismal sequels starring Val Kilmer and George Clooney, the better.
Adam West’s iconic turn as Batman in the 1966 TV series, on the other hand, is a joyous high-water mark for camp. It straddles the line between the kid-friendly silliness of DC’s Comics Code era and the drug-induced pop-art sensibilities of the Swinging ’60s. West’s Bruce Wayne is hopelessly square. He is a milk-swilling Sherlock Holmes to Burt Ward’s teenage Watson. He is a member of the establishment who answers to the white-haired Commissioner Gordon and Police Chief O’Hara, and who shares Wayne Manor with Dick’s elderly Aunt Harriet and a sexagenarian Alfred.
West plays Bruce with tongue planted firmly in cheek. He is uptight, a bit of a cad, and walks a tightrope between the old and the new. To protect the interests of the staid social order of the 1950s he dresses up like the Technicolor freaks of the 1960s whom he faces in battle. To beat them, he has to join them.
The subversive charm of West’s Bruce Wayne lies in his ability to go from square to swinger with a slide down the Batpole. A press of a hidden button in a bust of Shakespeare grants access to the Batcave, and the rocket-powered Batmobile. Space Age technology and psychedelic thrills beckon, but the safety of Wayne Manor awaits at the end of every adventure. Wayne is the ultimate suburbanite. He dabbles in the underground culture of the day, but always returns to the comfort of his stately home. He is pure wish fulfillment.
This brings us to David Mazouz, the star of Fox’s “Gotham,” and the other current live-action Bruce Wayne. Mazouz plays a brooding teenage version of the character, who’s in the process of becoming the Caped Crusader. Young Bruce struggles to balance the need for closure — and vengeance — with his desire to continue the philanthropic work of his parents, while confronting the needs of a decaying city. Like any teenage boy, he pushes his physical and mental limits, explores his agency, and rebels against authority. In the process, he is building the future Batman.
“Gotham” is the prolonged origin story of Batman, and his greatest foes and allies. Bruce is not only acquiring the deductive and fighting skills that will make him the World’s Greatest Detective, he is also building an identity and a moral code. He is doing so lacking the traditional family structure that many of us take for granted. Orphanship is a core element of the Batman mythos, but “Gotham” treats it in a whole new way. As much as it is about Bruce growing up, it is also about how he is building a family.
Traditionally, Bruce has been raised by Alfred, who is at once a father figure, a mentor, and a confidante. But “Gotham,” sees the future Commissioner Gordon, who is a rookie detective investigating the Wayne murders, take a role in raising the boy. Not only does he help young Bruce hone his deductive skills, he also serves as a moral compass of sorts as the teenager works out the difference between vengeance and justice.
Selina Kyle, the future Catwoman, also has a role in helping Bruce become the Batman. The street-smart pickpocket is not only an ally who guides Bruce through the mean streets of Gotham City, she also witnessed the murders of his parents. This ties her to the boy and to Detective Gordon, further cementing the bonds between the members of Bruce’s chosen family.
The birth of the symbiotic relationship between the Cat and the Bat plays out against a backdrop of the feuding Falcone and Maroni crime clans. It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a city to raise a Batman. This is what makes Mazouz’s Bruce Wayne so compelling. He is a loner, but he is not alone. He is receiving the guidance and the wisdom that he will one day transmit to Dick Grayson. The adult Bruce Wayne is very much about family values, and “Gotham” is where he gets them.
In the meantime, we can look forward to Snyder’s “Justice League” and Affleck’s Batman film. As we saw in the mid-credits scene at the end of “Suicide Squad,” the fundamental change in the “Dawn of Justice” Bruce Wayne is his realization that he not only needs friends, but that he already has them.
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