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Justice League proves that the DC Extended Universe doesn’t know what to do with Batman

The villains and fights keep getting bigger. And that hurts Batman the most. 

Ben Affleck and Gal Gadot in Justice League.
Warner Bros.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Toward the end of Justice League, Ben Affleck’s Batman and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman share a small moment. Earlier in the film, he taunted her about the death of Steve Trevor, the love of her immortal-ish life and the man who taught her about hope in the human race; eventually, he apologizes for this boorish behavior — while also proposing that she replace him as the leader of the Justice League.

Wonder Woman is an Amazon — a demigod blessed with super strength and superhuman reflexes who is essentially immortal (aging has slowed down to a crawl for her). She’s a master of hand-to-hand combat; her weapons of choice were forged by the gods. And her story, believing in the goodness of man, is inspiring.

Meanwhile, Batman’s primary asset seems to be that he has a lot of disposable income, a constant joke throughout the movie. He’s constantly upstaged in Justice League by his superpowered teammates, who are stronger, faster, and smarter than him.

Wonder Woman stepping in to lead the league — even if that would mean sidelining Batman, its founder — would make complete logical sense. She appears to be more qualified in just about every way, a fact that by the end of the movie he seems painfully aware of.

His realization encapsulates one of the film’s gravest flaws: that Batman is sort of useless. While Wonder Woman would no doubt be a fantastic leader, and her character absolutely deserves a role at the center of the DC Extended Universe (Gadot has become the breakout star of Warner Bros.’ recent superhero movies), the fact remains that the DC Extended Universe has really done a disservice to DC Comics’ most popular hero.

It’s painted the Dark Knight into a corner. His skills in the comic books — his analytical mind, his knack for problem solving, his strategy and intelligence — have been downplayed in favor of a more rugged, more physical character. Batman has always been more than just a brawler, but now he’s strikingly one-dimensional in his brooding darkness, and, at times, stunningly ineffective. The Batman we see in Warner Bros.’ movies is a shadow of the hero he’s supposed to be.

Batman’s smarts are important. The DC Extended Universe doesn’t make that clear.

If this moment of truth between Batman and Wonder Woman had happened in one of DC’s comic books, there wouldn’t have been such a stark gap between the two heroes’ competence in terms which character is better suited to preside over the Justice League. Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman have historically been portrayed as leading the team equally and having the most important voices on the team (they’re often referred to as “the Trinity”). Batman’s tactical smarts and analytical skills are far superior to those of the other two. He doesn’t have the godlike gifts of Superman and Wonder Woman, but they can’t solve problems or think through a plan as well as Batman.

However, there’s a major storytelling divide between DC’s comic books and many of the movies they’ve spawned. Under director Zack Snyder’s creative vision, films like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and now Justice League have revolved around the mentality that brute strength equals power; in terms of importance, intelligence and cunning are secondary.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice contains an indelible scene where Bruce Wayne throws tires around during a workout, as if extreme training is going to make a tangible difference when he goes up against a powerhouse alien like Superman. And later in that movie, in the final fight against Doomsday, it’s Superman’s valiant display of strength that saves the day, as he plunges a kryptonite spear into his enemy and sacrifices himself. Never mind that a bit of strategy between him and his teammate Wonder Woman — who also has super strength but no weakness to kryptonite — could have yielded the same result; Superman needed to put on a show. (Meanwhile, when it comes to smarts, the savviest character in the movie is the spindly, conniving Lex Luthor.)

And in both Batman v Superman and Justice League, Batman in particular is more brooding than anything else; he isn’t much of a strategist or thinker.

In Justice League, Batman and his loyal butler–turned–tactician Alfred use information from Lex Luthor’s files to find recruits for the League, as opposed to relying on Batman’s own research.

Further, Batman needs Wonder Woman to point out to him that the villain Steppenwolf’s invasion of Earth has already begun — something DC Comics’ greatest investigator should have already known. He also takes a back seat to Cyborg’s surveillance and research skills when trying to locate Steppenwolf’s hideout.

Batman’s two strategic decisions in the movie are half-baked. His plan to revive Superman results in Superman throttling the team while in a state of shock, and the only recourse Batman has is a hope and a prayer that Superman will recognize Lois Lane, and that she’ll be enough to snap him out of his stupor. Batman’s other not-so-great idea is to try to distract the parademons in the movie’s final fight, a plan that almost gets him killed.

In essence, Justice League reduces Batman to a brawler with some cool vehicles (which inevitably get blown up). Characterizing him in this way doesn’t really do him any favors, since he has teammates who eclipse his strength, speed, and fighting skills in every way. As a result, he’s often an afterthought in Justice League’s biggest fight scenes, relegated to firing guns in the corner or writhing on the ground in pain. Couple that with the DC Extended Universe’s penchant for mounting giant, world-crushing villains like Doomsday and Steppenwolf, whom Batman can’t even put a scratch on, and the caped crusader starts to seem pretty expendable.

At best, he’s minimally helpful — and that’s an extremely worrisome development considering that villains tend to get bigger and badder as superhero cinematic universes are expanded.

But perhaps that’s the point. Rumors have been circulating that Affleck wants to leave the role of Batman. Maybe his Bruce Wayne is meant to be seen as a sentimental fan favorite, a character who is more symbolic than he is integral — a Batman on his last legs who will pass on the cape and cowl to someone else. It’s possible that because Justice League’s narrative is so scrambled, this wasn’t fully made clear.

But even if that’s the case, and even if Warner Bros. hires a new Batman, the studio still needs to do some soul searching to figure out what the character means to the DC Extended Universe, and what role he plays in it.

Is he the soul of the Justice League? Is he the brains? Does he add any value whatsoever? Right now he just feels lost. And that’s a major problem not just for Warner Bros. but for anyone who wants to see some justice done to the character and his legacy.

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