There’s no denying the pop culture influence Batman has had during his lengthy reign as one of the comic industry’s biggest names. There is no medium the Dark Knight hasn’t succeeded in and the extended Bat-family nearly single-handedly leads DC’s main sellers in the comics department. But he’s been equally influential inside the comic world as well. He watches over Gotham, the home of his crusade against crime on top of his founding member status within the Justice League. But there is an argument that has gained some ground in recent years that suggests that Bruce Wayne suiting up as Batman and fighting crime is actually bad for Gotham City. Two prime examples of this argument can be found in a Cracked After Hours video and in a John Green Vlog, and I’ve linked to both there so if you wish, you can hear their side of the story before reading my perspective.
As a long term and devoted Bat-fanatic, my first instinct is to scoff at the notion, but there are some interesting points that are made. So I took a breath, put aside my bias for a while and tried to look at the question objectively. Is Batman bad for Gotham? The argument really comes down to two main points, one focusing on Batman himself and the other more on Bruce Wayne. So in order to consider the question, I’ve broken those points down, and then considered the influences as a full problem. The two points: Would the Rogues Gallery still exist/threaten Gotham without Batman?, and “Would the money invested into the creation and maintenance of the Batman persona be better spent investing directly into the city of Gotham itself?
Would the Rogues Gallery still be a threat to Gotham without Batman?
There is a theory that the reason why Gotham is so overrun with criminals, particularly of the ‘super’ variety, is because Batman acts as a magnet of sorts for them. Criminals are drawn to Gotham because with Batman and his family operating out of it there is a platform from which they can make a name for themselves. If you can succeed as a criminal in Gotham, then you’re doing something right (wrong?). This is partially canon, as Batman has mentioned as much in the comics.
Considering this, then the argument can be made that he is a catalyst for the high rate of villainy in the city. On top of villains coming to Gotham for the prestige, there are several villains whose existence or workings in Gotham are directly tied into either Batman or Bruce Wayne. It goes beyond just the stars like Two-Face and Penguin, these villains need henchmen, and as such it can be argued that Gotham is a potentially lucrative job market for goons and thugs looking for a gang. Also, spend a few years under Joker and not get killed? That has to earn you some street cred.
Below I’ve compiled a list of villains who you can argue are directly or indirectly affected specifically by the existence of Batman. This is really only focussing on the main players, because weighing up every villain that’s walked through Gotham would take an eternity. This is also with consideration that Gotham is the focus point here. So they can exist and still be evil, but would Gotham be in danger because of that?
Joker – Joker’s origin is technically undefined, but the most common and widely accepted canon is from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, where Joker under the guise of Red Hood was trying to escape from Batman and in the chaos fell into a vat of acid. It can be argued that if not for Batman he never would have had the ‘One Bad Day’ which turned him into the Clown Prince of Crime. Plus the two are so densely intertwined it’s hard to imagine one existing without the other.
Harley Quinn – Wouldn’t exist in her current form without Joker, who came about as described above. So you can say she is indirectly affected by Batman’s existence.
Red Hood – The former Robin Jason Todd who holds Bruce responsible for his death at the hands of Joker? Easy. Definitely a product of Batman. Though it is worth remembering that this iteration of Red Hood (as opposed to the Red Hood gimmick that was used by criminals earlier on) is not always portrayed as a villain.
Hush – This is more a Bruce Wayne connection than Batman, but given Thomas Elliot’s relationship with Bruce, both before and after Batman, there’s a solid enough connection that Hush wouldn’t be Hush without Wayne being Batman.
Bane – Bane’s comic origin saw him come to Gotham to challenge himself against Batman, whom he heard rumours of while in prison. Everything that was done to him to create Bane would still have happened, but he wouldn’t have come to Gotham if it weren’t for the Bat. Batman acted as a lighting rod for Bane to arrive in the city.
Ra’s Al Ghul – Ra’s existed in his form long before Bruce was even born, and his work to rid to cleanse the world would still potentially bring him to Gotham (this depends on the city’s portrayal). But there is a sustained interest in The Caped Crusader which has led Ra’s to the city on multiple occasions.
Talia Al Ghul – The above with her father can be attributed here, plus you add on the love affair, baby drama and scorned ex issues and her connection to Gotham is greatly enhanced, more so than even her father.
Hugo Strange – Strange’s obsession with the Batman is a big part of his character in the comics. He’d still be an evil psychologist/scientist, but exactly how he’d go about his evil schemes in a Bat-free world is hard to determine. But Gotham would probably be safer since his focus would likely be elsewhere.
The Riddler – Edward Nygma only becomes the Riddler directly because of Batman in Schumacher’s Batman Forever, but in every other iteration the Riddler purposefully targets Gotham because of the Batman. He seeks the ultimate intellectual challenge and The Dark Knight Detective is the only one who he believes can challenge him. Without Batman The Riddler would likely ply his craft elsewhere in some other form, or simply get bored by the criminal game and move on to something else.
Two Face – This is a tough one. Harvey Dent’s disfiguration wasn’t thanks to Batman, but the war on the mob would have transpired differently without Batman’s influence and Dent may never have been attacked in the court room. (it would have taken longer or the mob wouldn’t have been so desperate). I fully accept that I might be reaching on this one, but a case can be made albeit indirectly.
As I said, there are others that can be argued onto that list, but this gives credence for the point being made. Other villains like Freeze and Scarecrow aren’t directly influenced by The Batman in their creation or focus. But while these villains made not target Gotham explicitly because of the Dark Knight (unlike a Joker or Riddler), there are still examples to be found where their desire to defeat Batman has led to them endangering Gotham. It’s just that their motives are separate from Batman, and Gotham would still potentially have issues without his existence – it’s also likely that unless the plan was big enough that it caught the attention of the Justice League, their plans would come to fruition without The Dark Knight to keep them in check.
There’s also more traditional criminals like Catwoman and Penguin, who would operate as normal without Batman there. Black Mask also counts here, essentially leading his own mob. There are some childhood connections between Roman Sionis and Bruce Wayne, but it’d be unfair to count this against Batman as it is not the existence of Batman that affects Black Mask like it can be argued it does with Hush.
So assuming the more dangerous operations like those we see from Scarecrow and Ivy become a Justice League issue, the grand scale Gotham destruction Batman often fights against probably doesn’t happen with the kind of consistency we currently see. As mentioned Batman acts as a magnet for this, and the fact that he considers Gotham to be his turf (potentially keeping others like Superman from getting directly involved) might put it in more danger than otherwise.
That said, during the No Man’s Land arc, Superman realises that he can’t affect the kind of revival in Gotham that’s required like Batman can. Sure he could force things to change (we see this in Elseworlds stories) but he recognises the importance that it comes from the people. And Batman is the hero that Gotham needs (whether or not it is the one they deserve…) So this could be an argument that Gotham needs a more grounded hero to get behind and that League intervention in a Batman-less world wouldn’t necessarily change Gotham for the better (beyond saving it from death and destruction of course). Gotham has always been an incredibly dangerous city to live in by all considerations, so having Batman there might be the hope civilians need to stay there and try to make the city great. Especially in a world where he isn’t an urban legend like he was in his early days (and in both the Nolan trilogy and Dawn of Justice), but instead when he and the Bat-family was a known public figure.
Also, considering that general mob and lower level crime such as robbery (lower comparative to citywide destruction…) would be too far below League priorities to actively affect, you could argue that Gotham would be more consistently dangerous than in a Batman-protected Gotham. Freeze commits a lot of robbery based crime to pay for his experiments, so he would be out in full force, alongside a less hindered gangs led by the likes of The Ventriloquist and Black Mask. Catwoman and Penguin would keep doing their thing, Killer Croc wouldn’t be kept in check and foes like Anarchy would still be a threat to the city. And that’s not even considering the presence of Two Face is still a 50/50 chance (ha) in a Batman-less Gotham.
The question really comes down to this: which would you rather? A city that is utterly dominated by mob and gang warfare with occasional city-wide threats (Gotham’s still an important enough city to be the target of Scarecrow-esque experiments), or a city with a more managed mob but with terrorist scale events more frequently? How valuable is taking someone like The joker off of the board? He is really the consistently biggest threat to Gotham – both by his sheer number of appearances and tendency to cause mass destruction, huge random loss of life and general chaos.
Without Batman you’re not free of the terrorist level attacks as it is still a big name city, and the gang/mob wars run free with a police force that is even more corrupt without Batman to help the few good guys like Jim Gordon. What could he really achieve without Batman backing him up? There’s also the Court of Owls to worry about. Even though they come out of the woodwork because of events Bruce Wayne put in motion, the whole point of the Court is that they have had their talons deep into the Gotham infrastructure and would basically continue to manipulate the city as they desire without the Bat to prove they exist and then defeat them.
Would the money spent Batmanning be better put into city infrastructure?
This is the other main argument I see, especially in the two videos I linked to above. The argument is that for all the time and money that Bruce Wayne invests into being Batman, he could instead be devoted toward more conventional means for improving a city. Instead of spending money on the latest Batmobile upgrades, he could be helping to build schools and low income housing.
This argument is stepping away from traditional comic reasons (comic books about people donating money don’t tend to sell on superhero levels) but as comics become a focus for intellectual debate – and as these worlds aim to project themselves in a more realistic light – the argument gets made. And on the surface it is fair enough. How much money and technological innovation is put into Bat-gadgetry alone? What could be achieved with that kind of financing and innovation? But the argument tends to understate what Bruce Wayne actually does. In several media (primarily comics) we’ve seen Bruce Wayne do far more than just live the party life and then throw on the batsuit.
In the recent Scott Snyder written arc the Court of Owls, we see Bruce Wayne heavily involved with a new citywide initiative, both from a financial sense and as a conceptual vision for the city. While the plan gets disrupted thanks to the actions of the Court of Owls (namely sending an assassin after Bruce and trying to drop him from one of the tallest buildings in the city) there was a clear intention to improve Gotham as Bruce as well as Batman. We’ve also seen him take an active role in stories like No Mans Land in the video game Arkham City, so to say that Bruce Wayne is only trying to fix Gotham in costume is ignoring several key media.
This assumption of Bruce doing nothing for Gotham tends to come from consumption of only the movies and some of the cartoons, where there is less focus in this area. But it is also important to consider that in Dark Knight Rises Bruce invested heavily in clean renewable energy, and the only reason the project was halted was because of the perceived danger of their invention if it fell into terrorist hands (actively trying to avoid making Gotham a target). Whether this was the right call or not is debatable, but it shows a conscious effort to improve Gotham as Wayne, not Batman. In fact he even hung up the cape and cowl in that trilogy in part because his work as Batman had done what it needed to do. Gotham didn’t ‘need’ Batman anymore.
The other thing you have to ask here is quite simply, could money alone really fix Gotham? Sure Bruce could throw a near unimaginable amount of money at city infrastructure, but you’ve also got to remember that Gotham is most commonly portrayed as deeply corrupt across the board. There’s a reason why Batman and Jim Gordon have such a close relationship, the Commissioner is one of the few people that is trustworthy and clean in the city. Who’s to say the money would go towards the right things? It’s easy to believe that Bruce wants to do the right thing but simply can’t trust the system.
And even so, it’s arguable he’s invested more money into his base city than many other modern day philanthropists – who’s focus is often more global (which is not a knock on them by any means mind you, just an observation). An argument can be made Bruce should be more globally focused (outside of projects like Batman Inc. of course) but that doesn’t really make Gotham a better place, which is the question being asked. Bruce’s crusade has him protecting his family’s city, a heritage that runs as deep as the city’s birth if you read stories like The Gates of Gotham. Anyone but Bruce in this position would arguably be less invested in the city’s future.
It’s also worth quickly mentioning that Gotham may simply be doomed even before Bruce was walking, let alone gliding. Several stories paint Gotham’s past as corrupt and evil, from occult ceremonies such as in ‘Dark Knight, Dark City’ to various curses and other supernatural mumbo jumbo. Taking into account the legitimacy of the supernatural in the DC universe, such events could more or less doom Gotham to eternal problems. Depending on which comic canon you follow there are several stories with similar notions, tying into work some modern writers have done in trying to paint Gotham as a living city.
On top of that you’ve got to consider the work of the generational Court of Owls again, and yet another story that suggested Bruce’s own father Thomas could be partly to blame. In one story Bruce finds a secret room in Wayne Manor with notes highlighting a plan his father and other doctors had. It revealed that they may have tainted Gotham’s water supply with an experimental anti-psychotic drug, and it either had the reverse effect or had some nasty side issues.
Is it possible to argue Batman is part of the problem? It’s certainly hard to completely clear him of all charges when you consider that he’s made a habit of recruiting minors to work on his crusade alongside him. And as seen above you can argue he has an influence over some of the villainy we see in Gotham. But when you consider everything presented, Gotham would at best be taking a sidewards step without the Bat around, rather than a step forward. But it certainly wouldn’t transform Gotham into a safe city. And frankly, Gotham is a far more interesting city to follow with the Bat-signal in the air.