For over 80 years, Batman has evolved and changed while still being one of the biggest forces in pop culture. This week, Cracked is doing a deep dive into the Dark Knight.

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One of the most arguably concerning trends in Batman movies has nothing to do with eyeliner or rubber nipples – it’s the way the Caped Crusader has become increasingly militarized, employing war-like tactics that age poorly almost immediately. Which is kind of a weird development for a character that began as simply an urban ninja who enjoyed beating up gangsters.  

Take The Dark Knight, in which Batman cooks up a plan to eavesdrop on all of Gotham using their own cell phones and routinely tortures suspects in order to extract information. Obviously, this seems like a pointed reflection of post-9/11 U.S. government policy, but in the muddled allegory of the movie, Batman is both condemned for his Bush-like ethical transgressions, while ultimately portrayed as a hero for doing so, because in the end, it’s still a Batman movie with Australian Happy Meal toys to sell. 

What might have begun as a hazy criticism of American foreign policy soon became the default setting for the character; in Zack Snyder’s subsequent take on the character, Batman gleefully tortures criminals as an outlet for his own personal demons and battles Superman while wearing a suit of armor and manning remote control machine guns, Walter White-style.  

Not to mention his Batmobile that’s equipped with missiles, yet more guns, and presumably a crapload of Evanescence CDs. 

But while Batman’s heat-packing vehicle from Batman v Superman and Justice League stoked fan controversy, this was pretty much the logical extension of the Batmobile’s cinematic evolution. Even back in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, the Batmobile had twin machine guns that popped out of the front of the car but were able to remain hidden on, say, McDonald’s collector’s cups.

And, of course, the Tumbler that was first introduced in Batman Begins was a goddamn tank, literal military tech that Bruce Wayne repurposed.

If the Batmobile is the clearest signifier of Batman’s growing militarism, seemingly the source of this trend was Frank Miller’s classic 1986 comic The Dark Knight Returns in which Batman’s car is similarly a giant crazy tank that in no way seems at all street legal.

But while the comic offered a wacky dystopian alternative to the familiar Batman-verse, Miller’s influence permeated Batman films to such a degree that many elements of this crazed, facistic, hyper-stylized version of the character found their way into otherwise mainstream tellings of the Batman story. While the Batman in The Dark Knight Returns is a right-wing nut living in a neon-bathed hellscape who literally doesn’t care if he lives or dies, we often get movies in which a young, relatively well-adjusted Bruce Wayne adopts the same over-the-top approach with little-to-no accompanying social commentary.

And there are some real problems with Batman continually going down this path; for one thing, Batman’s militarism has weirdly developed in tandem with the increasing militarism of real-world police – but Batman, at his core, is a representation of an alternative to the broken, unjust systems of law enforcement. And even side-stepping the ethical issues, purely from a storytelling perspective, doesn’t it make sense that Batman shouldn’t make it painfully obvious just how well funded he is? When Batman is operating in the shadows, he could be anybody. When he’s driving a billion-dollar tank down the streets, he’s probably the one guy in town who could afford such an extravagance. 

The upcoming The Batman is seemingly aiming to curb this trend to some extent – at least in the sense that Batman drives a relatively normal car that, while it might be tricked out with weapons and gadgets, could still, like, sit in the parking lot of a Taco Bell without freaking everybody out. 

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Top Image: Warner Bros.

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