You wouldn’t know this from about 70 percent of the movies about him, but for the majority of his existence, Batman has never been a loner. Bill Finger and Bob Kane created Batman in 1939’s Detective Comics #27, and in the 80-plus years we’ve gotten Batman stories, he was only truly alone for one; by 1940’s Detective Comics #38, Robin was born. Eleven comic books: That’s how many were published before Batman’s creators decided to give him a sidekick.
While there have been many comic books that featured the Dark Knight flying solo, every one of them did so with a rapidly growing cast of caped heroes joining Batman’s crusade in the background, either in comics or Saturday morning cartoons. After a certain point, it feels like these movies are less Bruce Wayne and more Drake, hiding a child. The child is Robin. All of them.
If there’s a major flaw to The Batman, it’s that it’s largely a remix of the familiar. It’s an incredibly stylish and very good reconsideration of what came before, but it’s a rehash nonetheless. The reason for this is simple: Most of the ideas about Batman still unexplored on-screen only come into play when you surround him with other characters: A Robin (any Robin), Batgirl (any Batgirl), Batwoman, Batwing, Nightwing, the Huntress, the Signal, Red Hood, Azrael, and in one very good Detective Comics run written by James Tynion IV, Clayface. It is frankly bizarre that a major movie studio, in a Hollywood environment best described as “the tulip craze, but for IP,” is leaving so much franchise gold on the table due to the strange, ahistorical assertion that Batman is a solo act.
Part of this is a holdover from a more insecure era where comics evangelists felt the need to relentlessly advocate that the medium was not just for children anymore. The 1980s played host to some genuinely revolutionary comics, and the growth of a fan perception of Batman as a more “real world” hero due to his lack of traditional superpowers. Batman became the avatar for the Thinking Man’s (emphasis on Man) superhero. It’s worth remembering, however, that outside of comic fandom, the average person’s touchstone for Batman was still Adam West. Batman has always contained multitudes.
Modern Movie Batman, however, has not, and this is arguably due to filmmakers’ reticence to bring on the Bat-family beyond Joel Schumacher casting Chris O’Donnell in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin (The latter also featured Alicia Silvestone as Batgirl). Much like post-Adam West Batman comics, post-Schumacher Batman is most clearly defined by a desire to move away from a blockbuster Batman deemed too toyetic and childish, and, ironically, it’s achieved by similar means: excising Robin, the scapegoat for kiddie Batman, because he is often portrayed as a child. (For more on the cyclical nature of Batman fandom, check out Glen Weldon’s excellent book The Caped Crusade.)
This is narrow thinking. Robin — and the entire Bat-family — is the answer to all these ponderous questions that crop up around Bat-films about whether or not Batman’s crusade is effective or worthwhile or achieving anything. The Bat-family is how Bruce Wayne’s singular mission can take on a more complex, human shape, with characters that are raised under it and push against it and interpret it differently.
Batgirl and Batwoman start off as independent actors inspired by Batman’s crusade, each with their own motivations and subtly different moral lines. The various young men who have been Robin are all constant litmus tests for whether or not the idea of Batman is working: Has he made Gotham a safe enough place to send this young man out after him? Has bringing another of Gotham’s lost children under his wing made their lives better than his? Sometimes, the answer is yes — and Batman’s greatest tragedies are often when the answer is no.
There’s also an odd side effect to the Bat-family’s absence in film: It makes Batman’s only counterpoints villains, rich people, cops, and his own employees, direct representations of the failed institutions that necessitate Batman’s existence or, like Lucius Fox, people paid to keep him flush with toys. Without other bat-people around him, Batman frankly looks deranged, and the world must warp around him to prop up the assertion that he is not being ridiculous.
On some level, modern Bat-films understand this. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy ultimately became about Harvey Dent as much as it was about Batman, a symbolic force for good that could clean up Gotham within the system without the need for masked justice — and ended with a more optimistic “Robin” in place to assume the cowl if needed. Ben Affleck’s late-career Batman is haunted by the loss of an unseen Robin, and his arc across two crossover films is one where he realizes that loss has turned him sour, and he needs others to keep him focused on hope.
So much of modern Batman cinema is dedicated to selling audiences on the fiction that the character sells to criminals: That he is a weird creature of the night, a boogeyman you don’t want to ever really see. Perhaps this is why tiresome arguments persist about why doesn’t Bruce Wayne just give money to charity instead, or put his considerable resources towards something other than custom bat-themed ninja gear. There is a desire for a richer world where being Batman does something to Gotham City other than inspire an allergic rash of carnival-themed madmen — a renewable resource that will never run dry, because Batman is a character that exists to fight such madmen.
This is frustrating because the answer to “does Batman make a difference” is there, and has always been there from the start, for anyone who cares to look. Despite the loss of his family, Batman becomes brave enough to build a new one. Then that family builds a better Batman: One that isn’t limited to just one man, or the stories told about him.