Batman can be Beaten
Yeah, I know, I just got done complaining about how Batman usually doesn’t kick enough ass in his own books, but he’s almost never actually beaten either. Most bad/bland Bat-stories have a familiar flow — villain shows up, outsmarts/escapes Batman a couple times, then is brought down before they can carry out their ultimate plan. The villain is a thorn in Batman’s side, but you never get the sense Batman’s in danger or about to suffer any sort of major defeat. Even when Batman “died” recently, he was still depicted as being more or less on top of things — dying was just an extra big setback. Bruce Wayne didn’t return from the dead diminished in any way or having lost anything.
The one bulging eye is a good look.
In issues #5 and #6 of Batman, Scott Snyder beats Batman. Beats him good. Batman is physically destroyed, his mind warped and his vision of Gotham and where he fits into the scheme of things is mocked and desecrated. The last time Batman was truly beaten was at the end of Knightfall at the hands of Bane, but at least that was a case of Batman nobly falling in battle. His defeat at the hands of the Court of Owls is on a completely different level — it was humiliating. Personal. The fact that it was super competent badass Batman that got beat makes the Court of Owls all the more frightening. Speaking of which…
The Court of Owls are Great Villains
The best villains play off Batman on some sort of personal level. The Joker works because he’s a twisted mirror image of Batman (the Joker dresses up as a clown and hurts people, Batman dresses as a monster and helps people). Two-Face was Bruce Wayne’s friend and a constant reminder that he can’t save everyone. Catwoman and Poison Ivy prey on Batman’s repressed sexuality. Stinging Batman in some sort of personal way is what divides the Jokers and Two-Faces from the guys nobody really gives a s–t about like the Penguin and Killer Croc.
The Court of Owls hits on the two things Bruce Wayne cares most about — Gotham and his family. Bruce Wayne cares about Gotham more than anything or anyone, and the Owls make him question how well he really knows the city and his place in it. Furthermore, they’ve apparently been preying on his family for years, and may have even had a hand in his parents’ death. These guys strike right to Batman’s core.
It also helps that the Court’s assassin, the Talon, has a great look and is capable of completely ripping Batman apart. Oh, and their underground labyrinth is maybe the best deathtrap Batman’s ever been faced with. These guys are everything Morrison’s goofy Black Glove should have been.
Batman Isn’t Always Two Steps Ahead
It seems like a lot of writers, Morrison especially, seem to interpret Batman being “The World’s Greatest Detective” as meaning he knows everything all the time without exception. That’s boring. Nobody would give a damn about Sherlock Holmes if he solved every crime on the first page.
Snyder’s Batman is smart — in fact this story has shown him doing some real detective work, which is something we don’t see often enough — but he isn’t an all-knowing God. The Court of Owls genuinely catches him off guard. As I read through issues #5 and #6 I kept waiting for the Morrison-esque moment where Batman reveals he knew about the Court all along and was just pretending to be beaten to lure them in — but no, he actually got outsmarted for once. Good I say. People who are right all the time aren’t that fun to be around (or read about).
Batman’s Kind of a Jerk
Over the past decade or two the trend’s been to make Batman so competent, wise and morally upright that he’s more or less reduced to a blank slate. Giving Robin or somebody a mild scolding is as close to an emotional outburst as he gets.
Batman needs to do this more often.
Not everyone will agree with me on this one, but I prefer a Batman who’s a bit of a dick. During the early issues of Snyder’s Batman run, Bruce is still kind of in “blank slate” mode, albeit a somewhat friendlier blank slate than usual. After the Court puts him through hell though, we see an entirely different Batman break through. This is an arrogant, angry, vengeful Batman. As he screams about tracking down and destroying the Owls, Batman is, for the first time in a long time, legitimately scary. Later when Nightwing pesters Batman with questions and concerns, Bruce passive-aggressively ignores him, and then punches him in the face when he touches a nerve.
There’s a place for noble, self-reserved Batman — it’s probably best that he’s usually like that, but sometimes we need a little violent, unhinged asshole Batman too.