Batman Unburied is not the kind of story I was expecting. When I heard that there would be a new Batman audio drama on Spotify, my assumption was that it would be a very standard superhero story structure, just spoken. Instead it turned out to be something more akin to a forensic police procedural. This acts as an interesting angle from which to explore crime in Gotham, even if it can sometimes not feel like a Batman story at all. However, there are hints throughout the first couple episodes that the initial framing of the story is more misleading than initially suggested.
At first glance, there is no Batman in Batman Unburied. Instead Bruce Wayne works as a forensic pathologist where he examines the bodies of murder victims. For weeks he has been trying to figure out clues regarding Gotham’s latest serial killer, The Harvester. The main thrust of the story kicks off when Bruce is attacked by The Harvester one night while working in the lab. This causes Bruce to start taking a more active role in the case while the looming threat starts closing in around him.
This kind of story is one I’m used to seeing (or, in this case, hearing) but not from a Batman story. Between heavy focus on bureaucratic procedure and the professional environment, it’s reminiscent of the dozens of police procedural shows that dominate network and cable TV. Nothing about the world that’s presented would feel out of place in one of these mostly grounded shows. The series that it specifically reminds me of is Hannibal. Even the way Bruce empathizes with the victims by playing out the attack in his head from their perspective is extremely similar to the way Hannibal‘s Will Graham would do the same but from the murderer’s perspective. And the fact that this serial killer is an amateur surgeon and cannibal makes the similarities uncanny.
This is not to say that the story feels boring or overly played out. The mystery and detective work are engaging to follow along with despite their familiarity. The character dynamics, especially between Bruce and his parents, are a highlight. Yes, you read that right. The show utilizes a still-alive Thomas and Martha Wayne to create tension between who Bruce is trying to be and the immense expectations set by being the son of a world-renowned surgeon.
There is a consistently appropriate dreary tone set by the audio design. The score is moody yet still blends into the background so that you hardly notice it’s there unless you’re listening for it. That being said, the melancholic tone can sometimes border on monotonous when every scene keeps the same consistent level of unease. I’m not saying you need slide-whistles in your serial killer story, but something to break up the flow and give more emotional peaks and valleys. The Foley work sounds authentic, though the sound mixing doesn’t always blend it in with the rest of the scene. Instead of immersing you in an audio theater experience, they just come across as sound effects being played over a script.
The cast is generally impressive, but Winston Duke especially sells his performance as Bruce Wayne. There’s a weariness to his voice that carries the stress and strain that Bruce is under. However, while his acting is very good, it feels very different from what one usually expects from the character. While The Bruce Wayne we know is determined and confident, this Bruce is apprehensive and full of self doubt; this is also a much gentler and reserved Bruce than the one who dresses up as a bat to strike fear into the hearts of criminals.
It’s not just Bruce, but everything that feels just a bit off. Many of the characters are just different enough from what they “should” be that it creates a dissonance. This is, however, clearly intentional. While the surface level story presented is a surprisingly ordinary crime investigation, there are constant hints throughout that this is all in Bruce’s head. The fact that Bruce’s parents are alive would be a strange creative decision given how critical their deaths are to Bruce Wayne as a character, but their presence plays into the notion that this is the life that Bruce imagines he would have had if that fateful night in Crime Alley never happened. In the comics, Bruce has often commented on the fact he would have become a doctor like his father were he not Batman. Being a forensic pathologist allows him to fulfill that role while still tapping into his true detective nature.
Sometimes the hints are far less subtle, such as when Martha’s pearl necklace breaks and falls on the ground, causing Bruce to panic and begin hearing bat noises in his head. The story wants you to know that the “real” Batman is in there and trying to get out. These moments of the façade slipping only become more and more common as the episodes go on. Bruce’s psychiatrist Dr. Hunter (LOTR‘s John Rhys-Davies) repeatedly tries to dig deep into his psyche in ways that are reminiscent of hypnotism, and Bruce’s aversion to the techniques suggest a struggle against the false world presented.
The ending of episode 2 reveals that the Harvester’s identity is Cornelius Stirk, a character that observant bat fans may recognize. Stirk is a Batman villain and cannibal who uses hallucinations to manipulate his victims. At this point it becomes clear that everything so far has been an illusion. If that weren’t enough, the final radio broadcast of the episode is a news report telling of Bruce Wayne’s death, and includes the fact that his parents were killed when he was a child, contrary to the reality presented thus far.
This isn’t the first time a story has played with the idea of making Bruce Wayne question his sanity and gaslighting him into believing he’s not Batman. Way back in Batman #327 Len Wein had Bruce infiltrate Arkham Asylum undercover where he was briefly drugged into believing he was in fact mad, though that ruse only lasted a couple pages. Peter Milligan took a more involved crack at the concept in Detective Comics #633 that kept the audience in the dark as to what was going on, more similar to the story here, and ends with an unexpected twist that I won’t spoil. Other writers have done similar stories like Bryan Talbot in Mask from Legends of the Dark Knight, but the most well known example is probably the episode Perchance to Dream from Batman: The Animated Series.
In all of those stories, once the twist has been revealed and the audience realizes what is going on, the story starts wrapping up. With Batman Unburied showing its hand so early, the question becomes how it will deal with that dichotomy between the hallucinatory narrative and the “real” narrative. It can be frustrating as an audience to know that everything you’re witnessing is all a dream unless the real stakes are made clear. Hopefully this show can manage to handle both aspects of the story without getting too bogged down in the juggling act.
- Police procedural shows like Hannibal are something you enjoy
- Your podcast list needs more Batman
- You like a story that intentionally misleads the audience as to what it’s about
Batman Unburied is a show with a lot of potential and so far is willing to take its story in unexpected directions. The decision to frame the narrative as a police procedural without any superheroes is unconventional and has with it some issues, but for the most part the cast is able to pull it off. What reservations I had about whether it’s an appropriate format for a Batman story are mostly assuaged by the frequent clues that there is more to it than what exists on the surface. There are a lot of questions that I’m looking forward to having answered, not just about the story but also the premise itself.
Episode 1 Score: 6/10
Episode 2 Score: 7/10