Hollywood! Adapt This: BATMAN as “The World’s Greatest Detective”

     January 13, 2013


Since his introduction in Detective Comics #27 in May of 1939, the masked vigilante known as Batman has also been called the Caped Crusader and the Dark Knight.  However, another nickname for Bats has been thrown around for a number of years, but we’ve yet to see it fully realized on the screen.  Of course, I’m talking about Batman as the “World’s Greatest Detective.”  (I think Mr. Sherlock Holmes might have something to say about that.)  For the sake of answering the question as to whether or not this is an appropriate nickname for Bats (and for a fresh outlook on the property), I think it’s time for a more cerebral adaptation of Batman.  Hit the jump for what’s sure to be a lively discussion on the topic.  Hollywood! Adapt this: Batman as “The World’s Greatest Detective.”

batman-worlds-greatest-detectiveBefore we get into the brainy side of Batman, I’d like to take a moment to point out that, yes, Batman first appeared in Detective Comics, thus making him a de facto detective.  Somewhere along the line, Bats had the superlative “World’s Greatest” put in front of “Detective” and it just stuck.  Sure the Internet has had some fun with it over the years, putting “World’s Greatest Detective” on Batman’s coffee mug (or maybe Robin gave him that for Father’s Day) and other such shenanigans, but is there any truth to the moniker?

What It’s About:

Just as important as the villains themselves in each of the eight live-action Batman films (without counting the 1940s serials) were the evils they represented.  In the films directed by Tim Burton, Batman faced the evils of organized crime personified by Jack Nicholson’s Joker, the corruption of public officials with Danny DeVito’s Penguin and a near-equal physical match with feminine wiles to boot in Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman.  Don’t worry, I won’t spend much time going over Joel Schumacher’s abominations except to say that they were squandered opportunities to do justice to the Riddler, Bane, Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze.

Now let’s rip the Band-Aid off of the much more recent trilogy by Christopher Nolan.  When it comes to establishing a theme of evil that our hero must defeat, The Dark Knight Trilogy is clearly the most well-defined of the Batman films.  In order to become the Bat, Batman Begins forces Bruce Wayne to overcome his fears and his own perceived limitations, personified by Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow and Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul.  The Dark Knight pits the established guardian of Gotham against the unpredictable agent of chaos that is Heath Ledger’s Joker (a performance which will never be topped). Though I feel it’s the weakest of the three films, The Dark Knight Rises still manages to establish Tom Hardy’s Bane as an example of the dangers of fundamentalism and Marion Cotillard’s “Miranda Tate” as a personified past that can come back to destroy you.  For all their strengths, the Batman films have never challenged our hero on screen at the level of intellect that title of “The World’s Greatest Detective” should afford.  Is there even a precedent of source material for such a thing?

jla-tower-of-babelHow Could / Why Should It Be Adapted?

The examples of Batman as “The World’s Greatest Detective” are few and far between, but they do exist.  Some hold up Frank Miller’s “Batman: Year One” as one such tome, but I see it more as a self-discovering origin story than a straight-up detective work.  Arcs that hit closer to the gumshoe angle of Batman are seen in Mark Waid’s “JLA: Tower of Babel” (which was recently made into the animated film, Justice League: Doom) and in Grant Morrison’s “Batman: Gothic.”  Personally, some of my favorite episodes of Batman: The Animated Series were the ones that had more of a mystery slant to them (or the ones with Ra’s Al Ghul since he always called Bruce “Detective”).  The pilot episode, “On Leather Wings” has Batman tracking down the Man-Bat by pure detective work.  Another episode features Batman teaming up with his childhood hero, a fictional crime-fighter known as the Gray Ghost, in order to track down a mad bomber.  Even “The Sewer King” episode featured detective work! There are certainly more stories out there that play up Batman’s detective skills and they should all be sourced for a more cerebral take on the Dark Knight, but we know enough about the baddies in the rogues’ gallery to set up a mental madman for Batman.  What better villain for him to match wits against than The Riddler?

As smart as the Nolan brothers are, I’m confident they could have turned in a great film that featured The Riddler as their centerpiece villain.  Unfortunately, chances are less than slim that we’ll ever see that concept realized.  I’m reminded of a couple different episodes of the animated series in which The Riddler nearly gets Batman, or at least comes close to figuring out his secret identity.  One episode shows Batman and Robin trapped within a virtual game of The Riddler’s design in which they have to use their wits to escape.  In another episode, The Riddler tricks Batman into giving up his cape and cowl in person, only to reveal that he’s wearing an additional mask beneath in order to conceal his identity. These mind games have been hinted at in previous Batman films but never used as their central focus.  Maybe the studio mentality is that fans aren’t ready for a cerebral superhero film, but I say that for fans of Batman, that’s exactly what they’ve been waiting for.

gotham-noirThe Final Word:

With Warner Bros.’ plans to bring Batman back to screen in the upcoming Justice League adaptation, followed by future solo character spin-offs, this is the perfect opportunity to show the world a more deductive and logical Batman.  In “JLA: Tower of Babel,” Batman’s own ingenuity almost causes the downfall of the entire league, because each of his fail safe protocols (ones that would bring down each of the super-powered heroes should they go rogue) are compromised and fall into the hands of their enemies.  This is a great plot device for showing both the frailty and humanity of Bruce Wayne as he’s surrounded by the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, as well as the genius intellect and reasoning skills of Batman.

We all love the gadgetry of Batman, the cool toys, weapons, vehicles, etc., but when that becomes a crutch, the brilliance of Batman is dimmed somewhat.  Take away that tech and you’ll find that Batman’s powers aren’t all that diminished and that he still gets the job done.  I’d love a picture that gets back to the root of Batman as a crime solver as well as a crime fighter.  Give me the stealth and strategy that gamers have seen in Arkham Asylum along with the ability to kick ass.  Give me villains that outmatch Batman with brawn so that he must outwit them in order to win the day OR ones that challenge him intellectually and push him to his absolute limits.  Hell, I’d even love to see a noir Batman for once, just for something different!  If nothing else, it would give fans plenty of material to continue arguing over whether or not Batman truly is “The World’s Greatest Detective.”

Check out all of our previous “Hollywood! Adapt This!” articles here and be sure to tune in next weekend when our latest suggestion pays homage to Jurassic Park…with a little bit of modern tech thrown in for good measure.


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