A Review of “Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul”

Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the SoulBatman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul by Mark D. White

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My curiosity has been easily piqued by books in this vein…that is, popular culture and philosophy examinations. I’m interested in them because the characters and worlds of the books that we read, and programs and films that we watch, provide so much insight into the philosophical and theological through-lines of our generation and culture. Batman has long been one of my favorite superheroes, because his existence on the edge between hero and antihero…the way in which he embraces the darkness in order to attempt to use it for good…is simultaneously disturbing and enthralling.

I anticipated Batman and Philosophy to be an interesting and fun read, but didn’t think that it would be quite as thought-provoking as it turned out to be. I’ll say up front that, if you’ve done any serious study of philosophy or theology, then you will likely, as I did, anticipate a more academic tone in the writing, but remember that this is geared to a more general audience. I think that’s a good thing, because it doesn’t become bogged down in the trappings of academic writing, but I don’t think that it will feel shallow to any reader. The writing styles, as with any collected volume, vary greatly, and are disappointing at times. While some of the contributors don’t shy away from the more formal tone of their discipline, others make attempts at interjecting humor that left me scratching my head more than laughing.

That said, there are extremely well-crafted analyses of the Dark Knight and his world lying behind that forced humor, and I found myself in deep thought more often than not as I worked my way through these pages. In fact, I’ll admit that, in all of the thought and exploration and appreciation that I have given the character of Batman through the years, some of the deeper questions raised by the writers of these chapters had never occurred to me. Moreover, once they’re presented for your consideration, you’re left with that wonderful feeling of having so much more left to think about on the topic.

My favorite chapter was “Alfred, the Dark Knight of Faith: Batman and Kierkegaard”, in which Alfred appears as the true hero through the lens of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling (I’ve always had an existentialist tendency, I’ll confess). I also found the chapter, “Could Batman Have Been the Joker?” and it’s exploration of modal logic and possible worlds in relation to the genre of comic book literature at large to be absolutely fascinating. There are thought-provoking discussions of identity, as well…one of the central tenants of many superhero characters. And, of course, the discussion of whether or not Batman is better than Superman…well, that’s just fun.

Some chapters dwelt a bit too heavily in a humanist philosophy for my taste, and others left obvious holes in their arguments (debating whether or not Batman was ethically justified in permitting Robin to accompany him ducks the fact that Robin is a moral free agent).

What I found particularly engaging about this collection is that the authors are well-read in the literature. Not only do they display their expertise in their discipline, but each chapter is well-noted with specific Batman story-arcs, including examples and dialogue, to provide cases to which to apply their analyses. In many instances, I found myself digging back through my bookshelves to re-read these stories (and, in one case, purchased a graphic novel that had been glaringly absent from my shelf).

Batman and Philosophy is a surprisingly deep and provocative exploration of the Dark Night Detective and his world, as well as his place in the larger DC Universe and comic book history and thought in general. The book is a light read at under 250 pages, accessible while not boring, and I found myself engaged with each chapter. If you’re a Batman fan, and especially if you enjoy philosophical discourse at all, I would recommend you treat yourself to this collection.

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