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.


  • Peter

    Forgive me if I’m wrong but I do remember Nolan’s Batman doing detective work in the films. Sure, some of them were with the help of gadgets, but the Arkham games’ Batman had help with gadgets, too.

    • Dave Trumbore

      No, you’re right. Nolan’s Batman definitely does do detective work, especially in “Begins.” He roughs up low-level thugs, he does surveillance and recon either with or without gadgets and he whips up cures to chemical toxins. That’s all well and good, but I want to see a Batman that’s challenged to the point of nearly being out-smarted, not just a bit of detective work and a lot of explosions. (Don’t get me wrong, I still love the movies…I just would like a different perspective the next time around.)

  • Sean Kay

    In batman begins, he studied scarecrows weapon hallucinogens, in dark knight he matched the fingerprints off the shattered bullet. In dark knight returns, he examined print dust to find out why Selina stole the pearls….so batman does do detective work. He is known for being a detective but that’s not why he’s batman. He kicks ass. A whole batman movie on him just detecting shit sounds boring. Oh and detectives are suppose to question suspects and what not. Bales batman questions A LOT OF PEOPLE in the movies. “where is ..blah blah”. That’s part of being a detective.

    • nick

      I have never understood how he got prints off that shattered bullet. After all, it’s the shell casing that has the fingerprint on it, right? Not the bullet in the casing?

    • Dave Trumbore

      You make good points and yes there are examples of Nolan’s Batman playing up his detective side. Without taking anything away from his trilogy or the Burton films, I’d simply like to see that investigative angle given a stronger focus. Nolan’s version of Batman is also very reactive. The Batman I grew up with prevented crimes before they got out of hand rather than cleaning up the mess afterwards. The detective work allows him to be in the right place to kick the right ass and prevent chaos, destruction, death and mayhem.

      Noir films aren’t for everyone, but it would be a perfect genre for a Batman story.

  • Weeks

    I’d love to see a cerebral approach to the character to complement what Nolan did with his trilogy in the grand scheme of things in the Batman universe. Just seeing Batman doing his crime fighting thang a la Batman The Animated Series instead of saving the world sure sounds appealing to me.

    My only concern is the shortsightedness that seems to be in Warner Bros.’ DNA. They are always grasping for the mega blockbuster approach to everything, and I think it would take a personality as strong as Nolan’s to convince the Warners brass to take a low-key approach.

    • Dave Trumbore

      Well, you’ve nailed it. The issue is that any of these superhero movies now have to be a balls-out blockbuster spectacular. Even “Batman Begins,” which was easily the most trimmed down of the three, had a budget of $150M. Perhaps once we’ve swung too far in one direction, someone will come along and show studios that a pared down superhero flick could actually generate even MORE revenue for them if it’s done right. But that’s in an ideal world, which is probably the only way we’ll see “Batman Noir,” ie never.

      • Weeks

        Noir is a great way to describe many of the best Batman comics. I think Batman Begins is the closest we’ve ever gotten to film noir with the character.

        If we could get a director who could channel some L.A. Confidential in the next Batman movie, that would be awesome.

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  • what the fuckin fuck

    hollywood; adapt this, something original. Lets give batman some time off.

    • Josh Kaye

      …If it was original it wouldn’t be an adaptation.

      • what the fuckin fuck

        sure, you could always write an original screenplay and then adapt it into a finished film. I was just wondering, is there really still this guttural desire in people to see ANOTHER batman this soon? Too much of a good thing is after all, too much.

    • Truf

      sorry but there are no original ideas left that hollywood would ever pursue.

  • Al

    I had an idea for doing a batman noir film set in the 40s, done with a virtual backlot like Sin City. Vicki Vale would be a secondary protagonist, reporting on his crime-fighting. But i never wrote it because A) I’m not a screenwriter and B) Warners wouldn’t be interested as it wouldn’t be a blockbuster.

    • Dave Trumbore

      I love the idea of Batman moving through the shadows using the negative visual space, ie a white silhouette against a blacked-out/saturated background, like you said. It would certainly add a stylized element to the noir feel. Who knows? All writers have to start somewhere!

  • Gabi Spitzer

    Hey Dave, I just wanted to say im a big fan and I loved the article, I just wanted to correct you in the fact that the scene in BTAS you mentioned with the riddler making batman remove his cape and cowl wasnt the riddler, It was some off brand villain named something like “The Interrogator” in the episode “The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy”.


    • Ben Wigler

      lol Gabi, I was going to say the same thing. You know, he actually gives The Interrogator his cape & cowl at the end as an act of kindness, and isn’t outsmarted at all in that episode ;) Cool thing about that episode is that Batman uses the cape/cowl as a conceptual lure to draw out The Interrogator, and not as pieces of utility gear.

      Also, nice to be reminded of a Bat-Man who isn’t wearing basically plate armor, but just a blue cloth not much different than any store-bought costume, and that it’s about the character, wit, instincts and training of the man wearing the silly unitard, NOT about the gear itself.

      I think Dave is right – we need to see Bat-Man outsmarted almost to the point of agony. And then he wins by having that final uncanny insight.

      Wouldn’t that be so much more satisfying than freakin’ Catwoman (sorry, Selina Kyle, we’re too cool for school around these parts) blowing up Bane with a rocket and then uttering a one-liner that would have been perfectly at home in The Rock ?

      • Dave Trumbore

        Gabi and Ben,

        Great job on the fact checking! It gave me an excuse to go back and watch some of the old episodes. It just goes to show that you don’t even need a villain with a household name to showcase Batman’s abilities. Hell, I’d be happy with the Ventriloquist and Scarface just to change it up and throw some more mind games into the picture!

  • Gabi Spitzer

    Hey Dave, I just wanted to say im a big fan and I loved the article, I just wanted to correct you in the fact that the scene in BTAS you mentioned with the riddler making batman remove his cape and cowl wasnt the riddler, It was some off brand villain named something like \"The Interrogator\" in the episode \"The Cape and Cowl Conspiracy\".


  • bobhaney

    I hope that the next writer and director taking the helm of the next reboot will understand, appreciate and respect all of Batman’s depth and potential. Despite many high-minded but half-baked attempts to flesh him out, fans are clamouring for the real deal.

    • Dave Trumbore

      I’m happy with most of the adaptations so far, but man would I be thrilled if someone recognized his intellect as an asset. Like I mentioned, I think it’s possible that this is the angle for Batman in terms of his character in/after JUSTICE LEAGUE only because he’s so over-powered by his allies/enemies that it would make a lot of sense to use his genius to separate him from the pack.

      Let’s be honest though, they’ll probably just resort to relying on gadgetry :-/

  • bobhaney

    I hope that the next writer and director taking the helm of the next reboot will understand, appreciate and respect all of Batman\’s depth and potential. Despite many high-minded but half-baked attempts to flesh him out, fans are clamouring for the real deal.

  • thedroop

    “corruption of pubic officials“
    great stuff

    • Dave Trumbore

      You know, even after reading your comment a couple times I still didn’t catch it. Not much of a difference between the two, is there? haha

  • Shaun

    “Ghetto people don’t own boats”?

    W. T. F.

    • Dave Trumbore

      That was way too weird a comic panel to pass up! And it goes to my point that there are so few images or iterations of Bats acting the detective!

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  • ed

    I sorry to said this Dave but everytime you come with a good idea, people are going to bitch about it. If you want your “dectective” batman, than go watch Beware the Batman when it aired on Cartoon Network because that is the closing we can get to and chances for your “DETECTIVE BATMAN” movie to come out is when the Cleveland Browns win the SUPER BOWL.