Movies | Comics | Artificial Intelligence

When Batman Loses His Job and Where That Leaves Us

Chip Zdarsky’s contemporary Dark Knight in a time without chivalry

The Ugly Monster


Cover from DC, art by Jorge Jimenez

I went to the airport yesterday and was surprised by how few actual human beings work there anymore. My immigration was handled by facial recognition cameras and passport scanning gates. I was welcomed by efficiency in exchange for friendly faces.

Now imagine a job that someone has dedicated their entire life to mastering, who sacrificed their childhood to hone the craft of. What would happen if that person was threatened by obsolescence? Conceptually, this is what Batman is facing in his current comic book run, written by Chip Zdarsky.

Riddle Me This

Artificial intelligence and algorithms: these data-driven systems dominate our modern world, from recruitment selections to going forward with movie pitches. Who gets hired? What gets the most investment, determined by what is predicted to garner more numbers? How many viewers watch that streaming show? Which products get sold the most?

And how does this work in regards to crime solving? Is Batman’s success merely determined by the monthly decreasing number of crimes, disregarding the methods done to achieve that goal? This is the question perfectly asked for today’s times; how can you calculate the value of a human life and how can a non-human entity affect someone’s life the way humans do?

An unfeeling Batman may technically save more lives, but can he spare a moment to sit with a dying girl just so she doesn’t die alone, or hold a victim’s hand to ensure them the world hadn’t ended? These split-second choices that do not contribute to the overall result of the goal, which may seem unimportant from a myopic analytical eye, may be the difference between joy and suffering for someone.

Maybe you can calculate how successful a movie is by numbers alone, but can you calculate how a movie touches someone’s life? The no-longer-upcoming Batgirl movie was canceled possibly as a tax write-off, predicted to be more profitable that way than if it were released. But how can anyone know if the canceled Batgirl movie couldn’t lift a young girl’s heart up just when she needed it most?

In a world where technology doesn’t take chances and doesn’t leave room for any margin of error, can magic still happen, or is today no place for wonder? In a time where paintings could be instantly generated at the push of a button, how can we still believe in the impossible?

Batman’s current foe in the comics is Zur-En-Arrh, his own backup personality that he created as a contingency if he was ever compromised by any one of his many enemies. An absurd proposition to be sure, though one could argue it has just the right amount of camp for the realm of comics.

Funnily enough, Zur-En-Arrh is an idea originally from the 60s, when censorship and the Space Race influenced comics to indulge in wild sci-fi ideas. In his first appearance, Zur was an alien on another planet who wore a multicolored Batman suit.

Then in the 2010s, along with the popularity of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Grant Morrison reinvented Zur closer to the realm of possibility. Though the idea of Zur being more grounded through pseudo-psychology can be a point of contention, it has stuck through the 2020s, until finally being prominently utilized again in the current comics run.

In this version, Zur is externalized into material reality through a mechanical body. As an automaton, he could do anything Batman could, but without the limits of flesh and the inhibitions of morality. Batman once created Zur as a contingency, not unlike actors of our time giving their faces so that they could conceptually live forever. Harrison Ford may have aged, but the brand of Indiana Jones is kept consistent. The video game they’re making most likely won’t have you play as an octogenarian.

Companies ask actors to license their likenesses to account for their untimely death or even mere aging. But this practice is often abused, replacing healthy actors with fully computer-generated doubles for convenience. These shortcuts that were once backups take precedence over more traditional methods that were never broken to begin with. As green screens take over real sets, and now The Volume is taking over from that, what once were exceptions become the rule. There are ways that these tools could be used skillfully, but more often than not, shortcuts are used without much forethought.

In the comics, Zur too gets out of control, oversteps his bounds and intended purpose to then take agency and become the main Batman.

The Dark Knight Retires

In theory, Batman could retire and let his errant personality do the job for him. Actors could just let their animated doubles take their place on sets. But then without the human element, what even is the point? Can it even be called superheroing or acting anymore? Without anyone behind the wheel, the whole ship loses verisimilitude and sinks.

If I just put in ideas in ChatGPT, am I really writing, or am I just telling ChatGPT to write for me? This convenience disguised as pragmatism spoils everyone as they forget what the act entails anymore and are just enamored by the idea of the act, letting a proxy appendage do the meaningful work and be content with just the thought of achieving the result.

Batman does not do this. He does not accept compromise. He listens to his Xerox copy monologue about what he could do better, and with his usual confidence, he denies that Zur ever had any chance of doing his job as there is only one Batman, and he is human.

Page from Batman #141 (2024) from DC, art by Jorge Jimenez, words by Chip Zdarsky

Yet Zur as an idea too loses its veracity once the original author is not present to convey it the way they meant to. Zur in his current iteration is just a copy of Morrison’s reinvention of France Herron and Dick Sprang’s original idea. It isn’t Zur-En-Arrh on the page, not the way he was first envisioned to be, just a pretend him dressed in similar clothing.

Every Batman comic is technically fan fiction since its original creators have long passed. Arguably, what separates the officially published works and those kept only in corner closets are the fresh ideas that each author brings to the canon. The psychedelia of Morrison, the horror of Snyder, the poetry of King. That’s what elevates and makes relevant an idea from 1939.

But it could also be said that Batman as an idea has been bled dry. His original writers and artists have died long ago, and even his newer ones have moved on to other projects. Despite that, his character doesn’t age and he doesn’t marry (he’s not allowed to), remaining a bachelor in a cryogenic stupor for every generation.

As an idea, he’s under contract and copyright to stay the same, perpetually on brand. But this does damage to the audience who grows up reading him, as readers who once related their traumas to him have most likely moved on, whilst the comics keep convincing them to stay indefinitely in suffering.

Without growth or meaningful change, there is no story, just a pretense of one. Batman himself becomes a Xerox of a Xerox. Without the originality and substance that every new team of writers and artists brings to the table, Batman is just a regurgitated bedtime story that every child on Earth knows verbatim.

Cover from DC, art by Chris Burnham

Infinite Mid-Life Crises

Now, we have multiple videos of an AI-generated image of Batman, with an AI-generated voice of the departed Kevin Conroy, giving motivational speeches and telling boys to stop smoking. We have the mask without the man, and masks technically last forever.

But what is the merit of forever? In 2023’s The Flash, Nicholas Cage prances around with laser eyes and fake chest hair but he isn’t really there. He’s as fake as the Superman costume he doesn’t wear. Michael Keaton’s Batman fares the same fate, somersaulting and gliding like an Olympic athlete at 72. A long-gone idea recycled for the audience’s peripheral memory, put out to the world to maintain copyright, just so people don’t forget that Superman and Batman are still here. Afraid of being buried by newer icons, they instead prove their waning relevance.

Perhaps they should grow out of it; not the outside underwear, but the fear that they look silly wearing it. They’re a product of their time, so of course they’re silly, the same way womanizing doesn’t look as good for James Bond as it did in the 20th Century. They should acknowledge and embrace their age in the only way they can.

Having the actual age of 85, while in the comics being perpetually in his late 20s to 40s, Batman no longer only fights crime, he is fighting irrelevance. Just like every blue-collar worker and human being in the world right now.

In a time where the internet shows us every possibility of success and extravagance every day, a glimpse at the multiverse and parallel reels of neighboring gardens, how can anyone be happy being themselves? Fighting the same fight, Batman now faces a multiverse of his secret self (not the first time). And how can he be relevant in a sea of similar attempts when there’s always a universe where he’s happily married or where his parents never died.

His answer is to stay true to himself, to what he knows. In a hall of black mirrors, to him, he’s always the only version of Batman. Everyone else is just pretend. When looked at through the lens of social media or AI, there is no original idea, just redundant echoes of someone else’s success. Everything trending shares DNA with one another, copying each other to infinity. But everyone has a voice that is true to them. We are all fighting for authenticity. And Batman knows when to not listen to the noise. So no matter how many shorts of AI-generated Batman there are on TikTok, or how many reels of people living their best lives, they’re not the real Batman, and they’re not you.

In the story, Batman loses his hand, just as he realizes he’s lost touch with the modern world and his found family. He’s gotten old. Most of his kids have moved out.

Batman lost his parents back in 1939, then again in 1989, and in every subsequent movie since. Shouldn’t we let him move on? Doesn’t he of all people deserve retirement?

Having the story of childhood trauma defining adulthood and leading to loneliness makes for a great Greek tragedy, but having it happen over and over again, only in different tights and trousers, feels less like a cautionary tale and more like déjà vu in hell. Well, he won’t let himself be replaced by anything less than human, that’s for sure.

But the current story is still ongoing, as comics always are. So maybe in that, there can be change. A fool’s hope perhaps, just as the hope that punching criminals every night will enact any meaningful change. Here, the readers are on the same page with the character, every other week turning pages in a trance with the illusion of progress.

Maybe one day Batman will settle down and marry the love of his life in his mainline continuity, or maybe that’s just not in the cards for him. He got dealt a bad hand once, 85 years ago, with Jokers always up his sleeves. But who knows? Maybe all an old idea needs is a little reshuffling with a firm but kind human hand.



The Ugly Monster

Chronic dreamer. Self-proclaimed poet, writer, and artist. Lover of art in all its myriad forms.