SPOILER ALERT: This column includes spoilers from the first five episodes of Batman Unburied. If you haven’t yet listened to episode five, we suggest waiting to read it until you have.
It’s been over eighty years since we first met the Dark Knight, yet people are still finding new ways to tell stories about him. Take Batman Unburied, DC and Spotify’s new Dark Knight-centered audio series. It’s a Batman story that’s quite frankly unlike any other I’ve ever experienced before.
In Batman Unburied, Bruce Wayne works as a forensic pathologist in a hospital owned by his father. Yes, Thomas and Martha Wayne are alive, even though Bruce Wayne has reached adulthood.
As you can imagine, this immediately grabbed my attention. Was this a dream or an alternate reality? What kind of a butterfly effect would Thomas and Martha Wayne’s survival have? What kind of a man would Bruce have grown up to be if he hadn’t seen his parents gunned down? My mind was racing because this was a whole new dynamic to play with. Hearing Thomas and Martha Wayne interact with their adult son electrified my brain.
Then episode five, “Park Row,” revealed that the entire thing has been a fantasy built within Bruce’s mind after some manipulation from Professor Hugo Strange. This isn’t the first time Batman has found himself in a world where his parents survive to see him come of age. “Perchance to Dream,” a classic episode of Batman: The Animated Series, featured a similar setup, as did Batman #683. But this felt different. In no small part due to this new medium, we were able to get a lot more in-depth.
The first five episodes of Batman Unburied give us plenty of extended scenes between Bruce and his parents, something the other stories I mentioned weren’t able to provide. These conversations are very revealing, especially after we learn that Bruce was the architect of this world. Although Strange was the reason Bruce fell into this hallucination, the professor reveals that the fantasy world itself was all Bruce’s creation. He chose his job and decided what kind of relationship with his parents he had. In other words, the fantasy world we explore in the first half of Batman Unburied gives us some fascinating insight into how Batman views himself and his family relationships.
For starters, even though he never became Batman within this hallucination, Bruce never stopped embodying the Dark Knight. As a forensic pathologist, he finds himself obsessively trying to solve a series of murders and unmask a serial killer. In other words, even though he has a full-time career, Bruce is still exhibiting Batman-like behavior as he works tirelessly to bring the killer to justice. There’s no Robin, but Bruce’s fantasy includes a medical student named Kell (as in Carrie Kelly, perhaps?) who assists him on the job and whose relationship with her boss has an undeniable Robin-like rapport.
As for his family, Thomas Wayne and the people around Bruce are constantly telling him that he’s too driven, and he throws himself into his work at the expense of his own mental health. Does that sound familiar? Even when he’s in a fantasy, Bruce can’t seem to chill out. Interestingly, prior to falling under Strange’s spell, Batman had been trying to solve a murder mystery. And what does Bruce do while he’s in the hallucination? He has his hallucination persona continue to piece the clues together.
It’s true, Batman really does solve crimes in his sleep.
Bruce Wayne is voiced by Winston Duke in Batman Unburied (Photo by David Higgs)
It's clear that Bruce wanted to remain a crimefighter, but why choose to be a forensic pathologist at a hospital? He could’ve been closer to the action if he had chosen to be a detective or a prosecutor. In fact, he could’ve been the medical examiner for the police department, which is almost the same job. But instead, he chooses to work at a hospital—and not just any hospital, but one that his father owns. This makes Thomas Wayne his employer, which adds to his status as a domineering figure. During all their interactions, Thomas Wayne seems to have a large and commanding presence, which makes sense, since Bruce still sees his father through the eyes of an eight-year-old boy.
This becomes apparent in episode two, “Such Wonderful Secrets,” as the two of them brainstorm about the identity of a serial killer known as the Harvester. Strip away all the grisly violence the two men are describing (which admittedly, isn’t all that easy to do) and the scene is actually really sweet. It’s father and son working together to solve a mystery. Once you know that Bruce created this fantasy, the scene takes on a new meaning. It’s hard not to feel sad after realizing that Bruce misses bonding with his father and wishes he could share this part of his life with him.
One thing that raised my eyebrow was the absence of Alfred in Bruce’s dream. While in his fantasy, Bruce can’t remember who Alfred is. If this is an ideal world that Bruce has built, shouldn’t there be a place for Alfred in it?
I know I’m starting to sound like a psychiatrist, but I have a theory. After the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne, Alfred became the parental figure in Bruce’s life. Therefore, if his parents are alive, then Alfred’s role becomes superfluous. He doesn’t view Pennyworth as his butler, he views him as his father, but if Thomas Wayne is alive, then the equation is thrown off.
Batman Unburied will give you a lot to chew on. The murder mystery is disturbing, the Strange session tapes are downright scary, and the voice acting is phenomenal. Between this and HBO Max’s Batman: The Audio Adventures, it’s become clear that the audio medium holds exciting new potential for the Dark Knight. Batman Unburied asks some startling questions about its hero and his world and it challenged me as a fan to take a deeper look at the Caped Crusader. Perhaps that’s how it got its name because we’re all digging through Batman’s psyche together, waiting to find out what lies beneath.
Listen to new episodes of Batman Unburied, starring Winston Duke, Hassan Minhaj, Gina Rodriguez and Lance Reddick as Thomas Wayne, every Tuesday on Spotify.
Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DCComics.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, "Gotham Gazette." Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Joshua Lapin-Bertone and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.