Ask Chris #135: Under the Hood
By Chris Sims
Q: I just watched the Batmobile documentary on the Blu-ray of The Dark Knight Rises. How important is Batman’s whip, really? — @graemevirtue
A: Before I get into actually answering this question, I just want to take a moment to reflect on the fact that you refer to the Batmobile as a “whip.” If any of you out there would like to draw a picture of Batman ghost-riding through the streets of Gotham City, then please, by all means, you can find my email address at the end of the column.
Anyway, the Batmobile is easily one of the most distinctive and recognizable elements of the Batman mythos, but I’ve never really considered it to be important to the character at all. There are things that are truly necessary for the character that can’t be taken away without altering it beyond recognition — the tragic origin, the bat imagery and reliance on fear as a weapon against crime, the status as a man without super-powers who forges himself through sheer determination — and there are elements that aren’t strictly required but that add depth to the character — Alfred and Robin as the surrogate family, the Utility Belt that represents his preparedness, the wealth that allows him the freedom to fight crime as his full-time “job” — but of all the things that make up what we think of as Batman, the car is way on the outskirts of what actually makes up the character.
When I did that in-depth breakdown of the opening to Batman: The Animated Series a while back, I spent a little time talking about how the Batmobile’s major contribution to the imagery set up in that perfect 57 seconds of television is that it tells us Batman has a car. Because of that, we know that Batman needs a car, and that the one he has is a custom job that’s like nothing else on the streets. There’s a lot of subtext going on with the Batmobile — it reinforces the idea that he’s a man of means, but not a man of superpowers and, to a lesser extent, that he is a dude who is straight up obsessive about branding himself. He can’t fly to wherever there’s trouble so he has to drive, but he still drives in the coolest car you can imagine, one that’s distinctive enough that you know he wants people to know who he is and what he does. Batman is a guy who wants Crime to know he’s coming for it, and the Batmobile, with its stylized frame and flaming jet exhaust, does a pretty good job of that.
But at the same time, it’s not really something he needs.