Comic book fans are familiar with Batman’s nickname. No, I don’t mean the Dark Knight or the Caped Crusader or Bats or even BatGuano. Everyone’s favorite orphan is known in the DC universe as “the world’s greatest detective” yet, if you only know the character from the movieverse, it’s hard to understand why he gets that name. Batman movies have not, to date, focused on the detective side of things. And while an argument can be made that Rorschach or even Nightwing is a better super-sleuth, that’s not what we’re doing here. We’re exploring Batman films and why there’s so little detecting done by the world’s greatest dick.
Why isn’t the world’s greatest detective always absent on film? Before we get to that answer, let’s quickly review the movies we’ve had so far.
In the original Tim Burton film, Batsy takes on The Joker who is poisoning the entire city through unknown means. Batman is an action film through and through. However, there is a little moment where Bats figures out what Joker’s chemical concoction is and where he’s doing it. It’s a touch of detecting, but that’s it. Otherwise, Batman is trying to manage being a borderline sociopath with love while closing in on the Clown Prince of Crime.
Criticism regarding Burton’s last Bat-film centered around it being “too adult” and “mean spirited” for a comic book movie. These descriptions are why I’d rank it the second best movie featuring the character ever made. Batman Returns puts Batman in a battle with The Penguin and Catwoman. The Penguin is trying to take over the city with an army of armed penguins. Batman does far less detecting here.
Dear universe, please grant me the strength to talk about the Schumacher Batman films without devolving into nerd rage. To counter Burton’s vision of a dark, Dark Knight, Schumacher added neon and nipples. And the film as a whole features even less real detective work by the world’s greatest.
Batman & Robin
Less detecting, more steroids pumped into the stupidity. Batman and Robin is great if you consider an avant-garde art-house film honoring the original 60s TV show. Unfortunately, it was a blockbuster studio action film that clipped The Bat’s cinematic wings for a decade. No detecting here. Just the joy of watching Arnold Schwarzenegger ham it up as Mr. Freeze and half-ass one of the villains in Batman’s rogue’s gallery with the most sympathetic and tragic back stories.
Eleven years after Batman & Robin put the world’s greatest detective out of business, Christopher Nolan brought Bats back to life. The grittier take (even grittier than Batman Returns ever was) on the Dark Knight was a box office hit that reignited the hero’s cinematic adventures. However, it was yet another adventure where the gumshoe is simply an action hero and not a detective.
The Dark Knight
Arguably the best Batman film made thus far; The Dark Knight is ripe with layers and contemporary themes such as the surveillance state. Batman is a super-spy here, traveling the world to stop the Joker’s agenda of chaos. However, he’s no super-detective, even being (fairly easily) fooled by the Joker as to where his beloved Rachel Dawes was held captive.
The Dark Knight Rises
The last Batman film until 2019(?), The Dark Knight Rises features one incredible detective. However, it’s played by police officer John “Robin” Blake who figures out Batman’s secret identity from a “look?” Any who, long story short, not much detecting happening here either.
Why is it so hard to put the world’s greatest detective part of Batman into a movie?
So, we’ve quickly covered the seven solo films. Affleck’s Caped Crusader in BvS, the last film appearance of the hero, does little detecting too. In fact, he’s so bad he doesn’t ever figure out who Superman is or that his mom’s name was Martha. The best detective in the DCEU so far is Lois Lane or perhaps, Lex Luthor.
Why is it so hard to put the world’s greatest detective part of Batman into a movie? The comics do it on a regular basis. Sure, an argument exists that the Dark Knight fails there too, but at least there are many stories where Bats goes full on sleuth. The simple answer, though, and frankly, the anticlimactic answer is: money. Name the last hard-boiled detective film that grossed 500 million dollars? You can’t because that movie does not exist. And for WB, particularly in this age of super-blockbusters, a 500 million dollar return on investment for a Caped Crusader movie is simply not enough.
The popular cinematic formulas of any age have never included a pure detective story. Peruse the list of Top 20 blockbusters, and you won’t find even one in the bunch. The pattern is clear. A blockbuster needs crisp, beautiful eye-candy and action. Batman crawling through dark streets looking for clues makes the eye-candy side of things a bit harder, so Warner Brothers has to double up on the action (which, in turn, helps with the eye-candy). There’s simply no room in all this for a detective. But that doesn’t mean there’s no way to do it. And there will be no shortage of Batman movies anytime soon, so maybe it’ll happen one day.
However, all hope is not lost. You see, there is a place where sleuthing and action live happily alongside each other.
The True Detective
If you want to see the Caped Crusader the way he’s meant to be, then look no further than some of the animated shows (and comics, of course), notably Batman: The Animated Series. The early 90s show is arguably the best representation of the entire Bat-verse there has ever been. The Dark Knight does plenty of fighting with his knowledge of a million fighting styles, but there are also episodes dedicated to showing off the investigative mind that’s under the cowl. See episodes like “The Demon’s Quest” or “What is Reality?” to see the sleuth be super.