Why Robin Makes Batman Better

Robin plays a big part in the Harley Quinn's Revenge DLC that hits Batman: Arkham City today. Yeah, it's apparently not that great. But the character's presence in the add-on reminds me that people exist who really, really hate the Boy Wonder. I mean, folks who rabidly rail against the very idea of a Robin.

Those people are wrong. Robin is one of the best things about the Batman mythology.

It was about a year ago when I last had a conversation with Polygon's Chris Plante about whether Robin's an epically pointless character. I remember Plante's argument was something along the lines of "why would this grim avenger of the night ever adopt a boy, put him in green hotpants and have him fight crime with him?" When Robin, the Boy Wonder got introduced in 1940, it started off the kid sidekick trope in superhero comics and just as significantly, the move also gave young male readers a four-colour reflection of themselves. Part of the character's creation might have been market-driven. With adult superheroes popping up all over the place, a kid crusader on a comic-book cover would stand out. Still, it's a bit weird to think that some people hate The Dark Knight's junior partner when he's been around almost as long as Batman himself. Surely, the longevity of the concept would quiet such haters, no?

But it hasn't. The most infamous example of Robin hate happened when more fans called into a 1900 number and voted to have Jason Todd — the second person to wear the Robin costume — die after being badly beaten by the Joker. The margin of live-vs-die votes was close and that in and of itself stands as testament to a strain of Boy Wonder antipathy that had been brewing for a while, though to be fair a lot of it was probably Jason Todd-specific.

Superhero comics get called out a lot for being adolescent male power fantasies. Its pantheon is filled with characters who deal with trauma in ways that would be unhealthy in the real world and who use might to make right. Batman's a classic example of that argument, some would argue. Bruce Wayne could've moved on from the death of his parents without creating a macabre psychological construct that essentially preserves his grief for his entire life. Is Batman emotionally stunted, then? You could make a case for that.

Robin, however, punches out that logic. When Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson and Bob Kane had Bruce Wayne take a suddenly bereaved Dick Grayson under his wing, it introduced an element of empathy and family to Batman's evolution. After all, Batman could've been a hard-ass and left the tearful, traumatised boy acrobat at the circus. But the oath that Dick Grayson swears in the Batcave doesn't get the kid on the vengeance trail. It also pulls Bruce Wayne back from a darkness that would eat him alive.

Part of what we see in the Batman/Robin relationship is the ability to create family out of incredibly dire circumstances. It also gives him something to lose. If Batman dies in the course of battling evil, he's fulfilling the idea of a hero's ultimate sacrifice. In a way, it's what he supposed to do.

But if Robin dies while fighting crime, it's more tragic. He's younger and — by virtue of that and Batman's caretaking — hopefully less bound to the dark obsession that drives his mentor. He's also a brighter counterpoint to Batman's dour demeanor. So, if evil snuffs out the Boy Wonder, there goes Batman down into that abyss of grief again.

Critics who've tried to explain the anti-Robin sentiment have theorised that the Boy Wonder undermines the aspirational aspect of the Bat-mythos. Batman's only human and part of the appeal of the character is the implicit promise that you can become him if you train, study and brood enough. But if you're a kid reading about Robin, he's already more awesome than you'll ever be at the same age. And, it's even worse if you're an adult reading Robin because the same reasons get multiplied.

Yet, I'd argue that Robin's very existence means that Batman's not so far off the bend that people can't still care about him. In one way, it doesn't matter who's wearing the R-emblazoned red vest. They're all protégés and student in Bruce Wayne's obsessive crusade, interchangeable according to the needs of plot and subtext. But in another way, the specific presence of Dick Grayson, Jason, Todd, Tim Drake or Damian Wayne changes things greatly. You get the child who'll honour a father figure in their own way or the truculent spawn who haunts the same father's memory. Maybe it's the well-adjusted kid who handles the pressure abnormally well, the eager-to-please offspring working with a distant dad, or the prodigy brat whose skills outstrip his maturity. But the thing that connects all of them is that they highlight the Dark Knight's humanity in a way that's not incredibly bleak.


Comments

    Everyone go watch Under the Red Hood! DO IT NOW!

    Best batman movie ever.

      It's on par with The Dark Knight!

        It totally is! I was like, holy crap! This is amazing!

        Only saw it last week :p

          I picked it up on Bluray 2 years ago. There's a section for Bruce Timm detailing his favourite Robin episodes.

      i agree it is one of the best!!!

    Hello, I have batman arkham city PS3 and gone to the Australian PSN store but can't find the Harley Quinn’s Revenge - downloadable content. can you guys tell me what i'm doing wrong many thanks

      Hey Jack, I had the same trouble on Xbox LIVE. What I did was run the Arkham City game and access the store via that and It worked for me. Good luck!

    The problem is that while he is indeed 'the pet puppy' that shows Batman is a slightly different kind of psychopath to the psychopaths he fights against, that inevitably means that he will always digress to the same, helpless and brutal ends he always does.

    He's the character that will eat a crowbar to the face just to show how bad the Joker really is. He'll die and be replaced by another boy wonder, making you wonder how many precocious boy soldiers there are in that world, just so that he can eventually be killed or maimed again to lampshade how evil some other character is.

    Or he'll grow up and become a more morally dubious/ less hypocritical version of Batman to be a suitable foil until, again, he is owned. Though at least he is more inclined to be the convenient rescuer in this form. Hooray!

    Batman has been through plenty of soft resets and alt storylines, so in a lot of senses the plethora of Robins makes sense, but at the same time it's gotten to the point that it is really hard to care because you just know another one is waiting to make out with a crowbar later.

      Well said.

      I'm not sure I agree with you, although I see what you're saying - Robin will always be a narrative crutch in a sense, someone to be put in danger when a convenient love interest isn't available. He is also a foil for Batman, and that is part of why he exists and is necessary - I think Tim says as much when he's trying to convince Bruce to let him be the new Robin. But Jason is the only one who got truly 'owned' and that's because he was a punk the fans didn't like. Dick and Tim have both proven time and again they are more than capable in their own right and will never be 'owned' because the fans would rage against it - it's why they reversed the decision to kill Nightwing in Infinite Crisis, and presumably why they retconned Stephanie's death. Damien, on the other hand, is welcome to be wiped out in the next Crisis IMHO. In the end I've always liked the DC sense of legacy, even as it applies to the sidekicks - having the mantle picked up by another when the original dies or grows into another role. Of course, all this only really applies to the pre-Flashpoint DCU as far as I know, because I have no real interest in popped-collar nu52.

      ... pretty sure Drake is the only one who's died, dude. And his death had a huge effect on Batman and his feelings toward another Robin. One could go as far as to say that Drake's death affected as profound a change on the Batman character as Grayson's debut.

        Jason Todd 'died', Tim Drake was his eventual replacement. Stephanie 'died' too, but it depends on if you count her as a real Robin given Bats didn't let her be one, and everyone always knew Tim would be coming back. In any case, Jason was resurrected (Superboy Prime punch plus Lazarus Pit) and Steph's status was upgraded to alive in a retcon about her death being faked, so no Robins are dead.

        Tim Drake is still alive and well (as Red Robin)

        Jason Todd was the one that died.

    I remember seeing a Grayson spoof movie preview a few years back which included Bruce Campbell as Superman. It was enough to get me on the Dick Grayson band wagon - except for the old Adam West TV show robin - he annoyed me as a kid and it's only gotten worse.

    This one... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XiZuvJ48MZ0

    I have no real problem with Robin because despite understanding the reason for the hate, the people arguing don't seem to understand Batman is a comic book character, not a piece of the gretaest literature ever written. No I don't think comics are horrible, or just for kids, or void of any meaning, what I do think is what meaning you can derive from the medium is all the better for the campy, not entirely serious and far from top tier writing you get with neeearly every comic book universe (There are of course exceptions, particularly in the graphic novel area). Having some debates over whether certain aspects of the Batman universe really fit with Batman is fine, being truly convinced that a bright coloured costume is the metaphorical destruction of everything the batman universe stands for is probably reading too much into it when Robin was most likely introduced not because the author (authors really) had it all planned out and it was a vital to the overall saga of Batman, but because market research said a younger sidekick was a good way to make more moolah.

    Dick Grayson is cool as nightwing. I am really enjoying the new 52 stuff.

    Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Damian Wayne, and Stephanie Brown. If you count Earth 2 stuff as well, Helena Wayne too.

    But yes, I love all the Robins, and Batman wouldn't work nearly as well without them.

    I just saw inception today (because of the rsleaee differences worldwide). On my way home I thought of Batman and remembered this same episode. I was little back then ( 7 or 8), but I remembered the key points. Very similar theme. It's a nice coincidence that Nolan also directs the new Batman movie franchise.I made a search for this, but the only result I found was this. I can't believe no one else has posted something on this topic.

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