Batman has captured our imaginations for more than eighty years, and part of his appeal rests in the fact that he’s an oxymoron. Out of DC’s Trinity—Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman—Batman is the only human, and the only one without superpowers at that. And while he’s just a man in a suit, he holds this mythical, animalistic power in Gotham City. As plenty of comics and films have shown us over the years, Batman can appear less like a man and more like a massive creature to the goons he fights. This tension between the tangible and the imaginary is precisely what makes Batman such an endlessly fascinating character to unpack.
This element of Batman’s identity was highlighted in Matt Reeves’s The Batman, portraying a young, slightly awkward Dark Knight, whose place in Gotham City was still a shadowy rumor. The Batman features several scenes with television newscasts. On one occasion, Batman comes up as a point of debate over whether or not the city’s plans for renewal have failed. Through its use of television, the film presents Gotham City as a place fraught with tension and discord over the city’s needs. This is a central tenet of Matt Reeves’s vision of Batman, one that’s rooted in his comic book history—most notably in The Dark Knight Returns.
In Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns, television is a window into Gotham’s psyche, and the loneliness that can underlie Batman’s character. Set in a future where Bruce Wayne left the Batman mantle behind ten years earlier, The Dark Knight Returns chronicles a series of violent attacks across Gotham that forces Bruce back into the Batsuit. Just like The Batman, The Dark Knight Returns uses television to show a city at war with itself, the pages of the comic peppered with small, television-shaped panels of talking heads delivering the latest.
Because television is so frequently brought up in The Dark Knight Returns, it becomes, arguably, the dominant voice through which the story is narrated. Once Batman makes his official return to Gotham, the comic erupts into chatter about the merits of his brand of vigilantism. Even as the story progresses and introduces its new Robin, Carrie Kelley, its use of television only intensifies, as different experts offer their opinions about Batman. This then orients the focus of The Dark Knight Returns away from the psychological experience of Bruce getting into the suit again, to a larger exploration into whether or not Batman is actually helpful to society.
Instead of just being a Batman story, The Dark Knight Returns is a story about how Gotham rationalizes an uncomfortable truth: violence is central to its identity. The comic’s use of television only underscores this idea. Gotham literally frames itself as a television news story on the pages of the comic, one that is consumed by everyone from the Joker to Commissioner Gordon, to even the reader themself.
In this way, violence becomes the story that Gotham chooses to tell about itself, in the form of a television newscast. It is how the city introduces itself to the reader. On the second page of The Dark Knight Returns #1, when readers first get a glimpse of this near-future Gotham, a television news anchor explains that a “heat wave has sparked many acts of civil violence here in Gotham City…” before detailing the latest rash of crimes. As the comic goes on, the heinous crimes spoken about on the news in each small, square-shaped panel are literally drops in the ocean of Gotham’s larger social unrest, depicted in the rest of the story. The latest gruesome murder is reported on in one panel, then vanishes from conversation in the next panel, as more pressing information is revealed.
Conversely, The Batman uses television as a vehicle for truth about Gotham’s darker reality. Newscast scenes in the film reveal to both Batman and the audience how Thomas Wayne was working with with criminals like Carmine Falcone during his mayoral campaign. This is also why the villain, the Riddler, is largely only seen in video footage aired during newscasts. Because the Riddler’s ultimate aim is to expose the corruption within Gotham’s most powerful people, his power rests in him, an unknown figure, using mass media to achieve his ends.
However, what unites both The Batman and The Dark Knight Returns is how they use television to depict the loneliness of the Caped Crusader. Bruce Wayne’s life as a public figure and masked vigilante makes him a news story in both the film and the comic. Early in The Batman, Bruce watches a segment about the anniversary of his parents’ deaths. Likewise, The Dark Knight Returns opens with Bruce crashing a racecar, only for a news anchor to reveal that he was not killed in the crash. The anchor then remarks, “I’m surprised anyone can even think of sports in this weather.”
In both instances, the stories characterize Bruce Wayne as estranged from society, even when he’s the subject of their conversation.
Ultimately, this is part of what makes Batman such an inspiring figure. Even when he’s ostracized from the rest of society, he stays committed to protecting Gotham however he can. His traumatic experiences have made him deeply empathetic to the anxieties felt by ordinary people. Despite how much of Gotham’s culture has been shaped by violence and its mass media that he’s been the subject of, Batman remains sensitive, instead of desensitized.
Jules Chin Greene writes about comics for DC.com, and his work can also be found at Nerdist, Popverse and Multiverse of Color. You can follow him on Twitter and Bluesky at @JulesChinGreene.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are solely those of Jules Chin Greene and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros., nor should they be read as confirmation or denial of future DC plans.