Comic book superheroes are frequently zipping in and out of discussions about science fiction, and why not? After all, many superheroes, like Spider-Man, the Flash, or the Incredible Hulk derive their powers from fantastical science fictional accidents. Further, some superheroes have bona fide extraterrestrial connections by virtue of being an actual space-alien (Superman) or having space-alien cronies (Green Lantern). And yet, among this pantheon of aliens and mutants, there are some superheroes with no “super” powers at all. These are simply regular people dressed up in funny costumes.
The greatest of these nut jobs is the Batman. And at first glance, because he’s not a meta-human or a super-human, one might not consider the Bat or his exploits to be science fictional at all. But, in most ways, he’s more SF than any of his contemporaries.
Now, it would be easy to say that the reason why Batman is a science fiction hero is because he inhabits a science fiction universe. If one sees Batman in the context of the larger DC universe, then this would certainly be true. This version of Batman keeps a kryptonite bullet locked away in his cave, just in case he needs to handle Earth’s resident altruistic alien, should the big blue Boy Scout get out of hand. This Batman is aware of Lex Luthor and all of his various dealings with Brainac. This Batman has hung out with a green guy called Martian Manhunter, who probably didn’t get that nickname on a Gotham City playground. Finally, the Batman of the larger DC universe has been through numerous crises involving a plethora of parallel Earths; likely more times than even his fantastic brain can remember.
But this is all too easy. A science fiction context does not necessarily make something real science fiction. True, semantically speaking, the argument may already be won. But we’re after something deeper here. We’re after the soul of the Batman, and whether or not that soul is SF.
In numerous incarnations of Batman, the caped crusader relies heavily upon technology, or his knowledge of forensic science to aid him in solving a specific mystery or besting one of his antagonists. Like his literary ancestor, Sherlock Holmes, Batman uses scientific theories about deduction, psychology, chemistry, and forensics in a fictional context. When he gives the Joker certain anti-psychotic meds in the 2009 Kevin Smith penned story “Cacophony,” we are simply lead to believe that these meds “work” and the Joker is now speaking to Batman as a regular person. Because psychology as it relates to neuroscience are both fields in which new discoveries are being made constantly, the reader must simply accept the fact the drugs employed by Batman do in fact work, which, functionally, is science fiction at its most basic level.
And yet the reader (or viewer) of Batman comics or movies is required to make many more leaps of faith than simple forensic science and chemical storylines. The existence of permanently disfigured persons, like the Penguin or Two-Face, who exist in grotesque states of mutation, is seemingly a lot to swallow. With the exception of gangsters like Carmine Falcone, Batman rarely fights everyday criminals. Usually, his foes are individuals just as colorful or unlikely as he is.
But a leap of faith does not necessarily make something good science fiction. In fact, leaving out the extraterrestrials from the expanded DC universe, so far, all of these things could take place on a sort of crazy cop show. Are cop shows science fiction, because cop shows use forensic science and criminal psychology in a fictional manner? Well, maybe. But I think there’s an even better reason why Batman is a science fiction kind of guy. And it all has to do with the basic theme of “What if?”
The greatest SF authors have always begun their stories with this premise. “What if somebody had a time machine, and was faced with a version of humanity that frightened them?” or “What if our entire world was indeed and in fact a computer program and all of our notions of humanity were questioned?” Or “What if a robot living with humans turned out to be a more moral person than the humans?” These are all wonderful ethical questions raised by the best kind of science fiction. I hesitate to use the term “morality tale,” as it seems to me that morality implies a finite sort of answer, whereas good science fiction asks great ethical questions in fantastical ways.
And Batman does this in spades. Unlike Superman, who is burdened with his powers, Batman can walk away at anytime. In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne briefly entertains the notion of giving up his whole Batman gig in favor of letting the new “white knight,” Harvey Dent, take over. How is this a science fictional dilemma, you ask? Well, simple. Remove the science fictional aspects of Batman’s arsenal, remove the way psychology is handled in a fictional way, and BIFF! POW!!!, suddenly, you’re got no story. The way the drama of Batman unfolds is thanks to a science fictional premise. BUT, the drama itself is deeply human.
The reason why so many people love Batman and consider him a more serious hero than many of his peers is because he’s human, and at the core of the best science fiction is an exploration of our own humanity.
Or maybe our own Bat-ness. In any case, the caped crusader, even without his gizmos or super-friends, will always be SF to me.
Ryan Britt’s writing has been published here, on Nerve.com, and Clarkesworld. He has a secret identity that is so secret even he is unaware of it.