Batman v. Christianity: Reflections on a Complicated Hero
“The most important thing in life is to always be yourself. Unless you can be Batman, in which case, always be Batman.”
Everyone loves Batman. Since debuting in Detective Comics on March 30, 1939, Batman has appeared in over twenty feature films, more than a dozen television shows, countless comic books and graphic novels, and become a global pop culture icon. Some people have suggested that superheroes have become the mythology of modern culture. Far from mere children’s stories about people in capes and tights, superheroes provide archetypal narratives, moral lessons, and wrestle with deep philosophical worldview issues (and they do it all while rocking some spandex).
A common mistake Christians make regarding fictional stories and characters is the expectation that the heroes must conform to or align with their own Christian values. Thus, when Christians make movies or write books, the protagonist is typically a Christian. Batman is captivating because he is not a typical hero. We appreciate and admire Batman, but we dare not imitate him. Unlike Superman or Wonder Woman, he does not provide virtuous ideals for us to aspire. The value of the Batman character is that he says the quiet part out loud. He makes us uncomfortable by exposing the darker parts of our own human nature and probing the gray area between holiness and human depravity.
Below are four areas that Christians can glean insight and wisdom from Batman movies.
Justice v. Vengeance
Eighty-three years (and counting) of Batman stories provide an interesting case study for how society views superheroes. Much has changed since Batman: The Movie (1966) when Adam West’s goofy Batman battled a rubber shark with a can of Anti-Shark Bat Repellent. Christopher’s Nolan’s critically acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012) Matt Reeves’ The Batman (2022) have plunged further into the dark abyss of the caped crusader’s complicated identity. When asked his identity in The Batman, the masked vigilant (played by Robert Pattinson) simply growls, “I’m vengeance.”
An engrossing theme in these recent Batman movies is the tension between justice and vengeance. Batman is both a member of the honorable Justice League and a violent manifestation of vengeance in Gotham. This tension is evident in scripture as well. The Bible calls Christians to fight for justice and shine light into the darkness, but also affirms that vengeance and final judgment belongs to God alone (Romans 12:19).
The words from the classic novel The Count of Monte Cristo, a precursor to the Batman stories, come to mind: “He decided it was human hatred and not divine vengeance that had plunged him into this abyss,” and “[H]e felt he had passed beyond the bounds of vengeance, and that he could no longer say, ‘God is for and with me.’” What are the limits of earthly justice? When do we go too far and infringe upon that which belongs to God alone? The Batman doesn’t provide easy answers, but it is willing to grapple with these difficult questions.
Human v. Divine
Batman will forever be linked to Superman. The Mount Rushmore of superheroes begins with those two. The famed heroes offer a fascinating juxtaposition. Superman is a traditional “Christ figure” archetype as a quasi-divine being who comes to Earth as its protector and self-sacrificial savior. It is perhaps a reflection of an increasingly secularized society that Superman has been largely left behind. In the last 35 years, there have been ten Batman-centric films compared to Superman’s two. Christopher Nolan, producer of the most recent Superman film, Man of Steel (2013), said, “He has the most extraordinary ideals to live up to. He’s very God-like in a lot of ways and it’s been difficult to imagine that in a contemporary setting.”
In stark contrast, Batman has arguably never been more relatable or popular. Batman is a hero—sometimes an anti-hero—but never a savior. He is not a divine outsider come to earth to rescue it, but a visceral, flawed, and fundamentally human response to evil and injustice. Films like Wonder Woman (2017) show that there is still an appetite for optimistic heroes and benevolent saviors, but the balance has clearly shifted. It is fitting that in Zach Snyder’s Batman v Superman (2016), Batman is the surprising victor; a reflection of a culture that has increasingly abandoned faith in the divine and placed its hopes for salvation in human might, power, and rage.
Superhero v. Civilian Duty
Despite what every marketing campaign promises, most recent versions of Batman are remarkably similar. There are nuanced differences, but once the mask is on and he starts pounding goons, there’s only so much room for variation. What truly differentiates the Batman stories is Bruce Wayne. In a film like The Dark Knight Rises (2012), for example, Batman is in the suit and cape for only 13% of the screen time. How a movie depicts Bruce Wayne is arguably more essential than how it does Batman.
The “alter ego” is a standard trope in most superhero stories. Typically, the purpose is to blend in or hide from the world, driven by an understandable selfishness and the desire to balance superhero responsibilities with a relatively normal life. In the best Batman stories, however, Bruce Wayne breaks from his mindset. There is a foundational unity and partnership between Bruce Wayne and the Batman persona.
Part of what makes the unity of Batman and Bruce Wayne unique is that, unlike many of his super-powered friends, Batman is a powerless mortal. When asked what his superpower is, Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne humorously says, “I’m rich.” While many superhero stories showcase the limitations of the average citizen and the need for special heroes, Batman also explores the limitations of the superhero persona and the need for normal citizens to join the fight against injustice. This idea is captured in Commissioner Gordan’s famous lines at the end of The Dark Knight (2008): “He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.”
Sin v. The New Creation
Gotham City is almost as much a character in the drama as Batman himself. Beyond the undeniably cool aesthetic, Gotham is also a magnifying glass that exposes the worst aspects of human society and the depths human depravity. Batman never succeeds in cleaning up Gotham. His efforts are a drop in the ocean of the corruption and sin that infests the city. A Batman story rarely ends on an optimistic note. Far from achieving victory, the stories declare the futility of even humanity’s best efforts to overcome its sinful, fallen nature. God is perceivable in Gotham largely through His silence, painting a bleak picture of a world—or at least a city—without God. The absence of the divine in Gotham City provides Christians with a raw picture of sin, and a renewed hopefulness for the coming of the new Creation (Revelation 21-22).