Please understand I write this from a place of love. If you have a problem with it, bear that in mind.
I’m also going to pre-emptively disqualify anyone who tries to use “multiverse” storylines to try to refute this by reciting how a character behaves on Earth 245B. I’m obviously dealing with the well-established notions of the characters in the culture.
I Like Batman
I love Batman. I’ve loved every incarnation of the character I’ve encountered, even when he’s acted like his extreme descendant, The Punisher. My house has just about as much paraphernalia celebrating the Caped Crusader as it does Star Wars.
But as I pondered Batman one day, after reading Superman Unchained of all things, I came to an awful realization.
It’s Batman that’s the government stooge, not Superman.
That Damn Bat Signal
The notion of Superman as an extra-judicial tool of government oppression was made popular first by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns, and hasn’t faded since. His “Boy Scout” nature was portrayed as an easy lever by which to upend the power balances of the world. It remains an easy grab for people looking for a reason to dislike the Last Son of Krypton, and I’ve used it myself.
Batman, also since The Dark Knight Returns, has been allowed to flourish as the tortured defender of individual freedoms and safeguards. He’s Captain America of the Night.
It’s also not true.
This champion of individual heroism has been turned into a tool of the government by the constructs designed to absolve him of vigilantism. He has been turned into a police stooge specifically because of how he has tied himself to Jim Gordon and the Bat Signal.
Superman, on the other hand, does exactly what Batman fans claim is at Bruce Wayne’s core – he stays true to a moral compass despite no limits on what he can accomplish on Earth. If anything, Superman flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even when faced with the opportunity to rule Earth, he doesn’t.
You get the sense that Bruce Wayne creates his own chain of command specifically to prevent himself from going too far and becoming a monster. While I respect this as a form of discipline – he acknowledges a human being as a fallen creature capable of terrible temptations to do the wrong thing and so takes steps to prevent it – it winds up making him the Secret Police.
Circles of the Bat
We can debate in circles to try to give Batman an “out,” but we wind up trapped by the Bat Signal. The only creators I’ve known to take Batman outside that comfort zone are (wait for it) Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan. In Batman (Burton), Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight Rises (Nolan), Batman acts independently from the police. When he acts of his own initiative, I have far less a problem with him…which seems to be quite the statement about me.
But while vigilantism presents certain moral quandaries difficult to resolve, putting Batman at the beck and call of a police commissioner turns him into the unaccountable field agent of an unelected official. That does, in fact, make him even worse.
Further, Batman shows a disturbing loyalty to Gordon in specific. What vetting does Batman have aside from a long-standing friendship? Placing trust in the judgment of a single person as if they’re some all-wise god-king allows them to rule you by executive order.
In fact, it elevates Gordon above the mayor of Gotham. While there’s a certain Romanticism to Gordon-as-Roosevelt-Reforming-New-York (the undoubted inspiration, down to the mustache), and I’d be horrified if the World’s Greatest Detective were at the beck-and-call of someone like the legendary Marion Barry, the point is I don’t want him loyal to any specific government official.
In the Social Media era, we could excuse Batman as an anonymous online detective. I’d sleep easier, though, if he did no detecting at the behest of Commissioner Gordon.
While it doesn’t use the same weak rationales as the Brocialists who call Batman “fascist” because he’s violent, and they don’t understand what fascism is outside of an Internet talking point, I’m giving them the reasoning here. It’s a generous gift to the intellectually lazy, that I’m counting as charity.