When your coworkers are people who can run so fast they accidentally move through time, punch a mountain to death, or project images through their jewelry, you better bring something unique to the table. While his Justice League allies are certainly far from stupid (Vibe notwithstanding), Batman’s intellect is a cut above. Hell, in Tower of Babel, his brilliant strategies were enough to bring down the entire JLA. In the past, the Dark Detective has out-thought alien gods like Darkseid, sentient computer programs, and even alternate versions of himself. But nobody’s perfect, not even Batman.
The fact is, there’s no story in perfection. Sometimes you have to be undermined to learn a lesson or to keep characters from seeming omnipotent. It’s rare for Bruce Wayne to be outwitted, but it has happened. Sometimes it’s a small, strange oversight, but sometimes the consequences are deep and cutting. If Batman’s smarts save the day, what would happen when they’ve failed him?
We’ve searched through the Dark Knight’s history and come up with 15 Times Batman Has Been Outsmarted.
This one is a surprise. One doesn’t expect much intellectual prowess out of a villain whose lexicon consists only of sound effects. In The Widening Gyre, Batman is acting so out of character because he’s in love (or because of bad writing) that he takes on a potential successor in Baphomet who raises more red flags than a college freshman. Baphomet rambles interminably about executing villains for the greater good, but Batman shrugs this off, apparently forgetting his entire philosophy is based on not killing. Rather, he chooses to focus on what a kind man Baphomet is; he has a family, so he must be a good guy!
After meeting Baphomet on a few occasions, Bruce decides to take him to the Batcave, reveal his secret identity, and introduce this newcomer to his girlfriend, Silver St. Cloud, because this definitely worked out well last time with Jean-Paul Valley.
Immediately upon revealing his identity, Baphomet reveals himself to be Onomatopoeia and cuts Silver St. Cloud’s throat, which begs the question of why this new baddie relies so heavily on his gimmick when he can talk normally. When did that even happen? Up until now, he was considered disabled. But then, applying logic to this story is like ramming your head into a brick wall; you could do it, but there’d be no point. The Widening Gyre is a unique entry because it wasn’t so much that Batman was outsmarted, he just continuously made stupid decisions.
No matter how good you are, there’s always someone better. In the Justice League animated series, Batman was presumed to be the best strategist in the bunch, but his title was far from undisputed. Hawkgirl actually countered Batman and his plans on several occasions—something we hadn’t seen in the DCAU before.
At first, there were small references: Aquaman mentions how frustrated Batman was that Hawkgirl was routinely able to beat him at chess. She had also found his discreet tracking device on her weapon. But eventually, something much bigger happened.
Hawkgirl was sending secret communications to her people from the Justice League Watchtower, which was built by Batman using Wayne Enterprises technology, and was run by both Batman and Martian Manhunter (a hero with psychic powers). And none of them had any idea until she betrayed the League in battle. Later, she would infiltrate the Batcave without any of the security features detecting her.
Making Hawkgirl the best strategist on the team helped put her over as someone worthy of being on the Justice League to a largely unfamiliar audience, and gave her some much-needed development. It also didn’t hurt Batman in any real way either. It made the “Starcrossed” episode more interesting, as he tried to counter her betrayal and created more tension in seeing Batman as an underdog.
13. Alfred Pennyworth
In an alternate reality, a congregation of his supporting cast — both hero and villain — meet for a secret wake to honor the fallen Batman. Characters appear from different universes, continuities, and comic eras to pay their respects and try to figure out whatever happened to the Caped Crusader. Each person has a different story representing a different era, but one is a particular standout.
Here, Bruce Wanye’s mania was stabilized by fighting crime, and when Alfred realized this, he hired friends from his old theater troupe to become colorful villains. It kept Bruce going, but it was a lie. His feats weren’t real, and his villains were just actors. This continued for years until the night Bruce found Alfred’s Joker makeup.
They discuss the lie, and the importance of it. It gave Bruce a mission, a reason to live. It gave him a sense of responsibility; a philosophy to live by. So when the bat-signal lit up again, Bruce answered the call. Despite knowing his victories were fake, he understood what Batman symbolized. The bravery, the nobility. He wanted to live up to that ideal, knowing that out there in one universe or another there was a true Batman with real villains. That Batman wouldn’t give up, so neither could he.
12. The Predator
The strangest item on this list, Batman and the Predator have crossed over numerous times in the last twenty years. While our hero has had to deal with aliens before, he was outmatched in every way by the Predators. The creatures were born to hunt; their lives and culture are devoted to besting the most dangerous prey they can find. While Bruce trained his entire life, it wasn’t sewn into his DNA the way it was in theirs. Already giving up a size and strength advantage, their technology was more advanced, and their willingness to kill gave them another decisive edge.
Then they blinded Batman (bad sportsmanship) and invaded the Batcave repeatedly. (As you’ll see on this list, the Batcave is even easier to get into than Greendale Community College.) In the end, it took a concerted effort between Batman, Robin, Huntress, the GCPD, the FBI, the mafia (!) and a shotgun-wielding Alfred to push back the invasion.
They would, however, eventually return to avenge their losses, focusing specifically on Batman rather than Gotham. It was only then that Batman had enough experience in fighting the creatures that he was able to develop a working profile and strategy to defeat them.
11. Hugo Strange
Hugo Strange actually made his debut before the Joker, and was originally meant to be Batman’s archenemy. Taking more than one cue from the Sherlock Holmes adversary Moriarty, Hugo Strange was a criminal genius, meant to challenge Batman’s mind while his Monster Men challenged his body.
Strange also has the distinction of being the first villain to ever figure out that Bruce Wayne was Batman. For all those years of effort and all those clever means of appearing in the same place as Batman to throw people off, Strange was able to disprove it all and provide incontrovertible proof that they were the same man. The maniac would use this information at first as a way of making money, attempting to auction off Batman’s identity to Rupert Thorne, Joker and Penguin. Later on, however, Strange would eventually exploit this knowledge for his own personal vendetta. Using this unique insight, he targeted Bruce Wayne — bankrupting his company, having Child Protective Services take Jason Todd away, and putting Alfred in a coma.
At that point, Batman had never dealt with anything so personal, and it clearly had him off-balance. By dressing as Batman, Strange also was confronting the real Batman with the idea that he was fighting a superior version of himself. Strange had done what Batman had always done to others: outsmarted, outmaneuvered and outfought. Strange was better at being Batman than Bruce.
10. The Black Mask
Organized crime in Gotham used to be run by one man: Carmine Falcone. After Batman took down the entire family, Bruce’s hometown was carved up by different gangs and syndicates, a trend that lasted for more than a decade. Then War Games happened.
Black Mask used the confusion of a gang war to kill its leaders and absorb their crews and territories. All of Batman’s efforts in stopping Mask’s rise came up short, and resulted in terrible consequences. The villain was able to unite all the gangs under his organization by using his innate charm…and by killing Stephanie Brown and destroying Oracle’s Watchtower.
Batman’s contingencies never accounted for failures of this magnitude, forcing him to improvise and remain on the defensive. He was forced to operate in daytime, and was thusly outed as a real man and not the urban legend he was previously believed to be. Gotham’s criminals were less afraid of him now, and seeing as how Black Mask had unbalanced him, the baddies of the city were more inclined to work for his organization.
Black Mask then framed the Caped Crusader for Stephanie Brown’s murder, dressed like him, and attacked Steph’s mother on national TV, resulting in vigilantes being made illegal in Gotham. For the next year, Batman and Red Hood (see below) would try to bring him down, only to fail. His organization was too big, and his insulation from crime was too great. Only when Catwoman blew Mask’s brains out on his expensive curtains did his reign come to an end.
What if Batman was a bad guy? For more open-minded readers, Mark Millar attempted to answer that intriguing question by writing an awful series called Nemesis for Icon Comics. DC itself has tried numerous times with different characters to answer the question as well, but none were as good (or even as readable) as the JLA story that introduced Prometheus. His origin story is an inverse of the Dark Knight’s, where Prometheus desires to fight the cause of justice wherever it may be. Naturally, the Justice League would be a problem for him. Prometheus’ Batman-like preparation allowed for him — an otherwise powerless hero — to incapacitate Superman, Zuriel, Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter in a manner similar to the Caped Crusader’s own plans in the Tower of Babel story arc that released a year or two later.
Even fighting is a thinking man’s war when you’re dealing with Batman. Each move is considered and reconsidered for possible blocks and counters. With the dozen-plus methods of martial arts he’s mastered or developed himself, he has taken down the best in the world. Except with Prometheus. Using a downloaded CD in his brain (it was the ’90s!), Prometheus cheated. He beat Batman by using a computer program that let him move faster and strike fatally.
In the Dark Knight’s history, this is one time where he was simply out-strategized and completely unprepared. Oddly, it’s only someone like Batman that can defeat Batman, and isn’t that the most Batman thing of all?
8. The Flash (Wally West)
In an alternate reality, two-part episode of Cartoon Network’s Justice League, the team took over the world after Superman killed President Lex Luthor, who had killed their Flash. The Scarlet Speedster’s easy-going personality and humor made him the conscience of the group; as the youngest member, he was like their little brother. With his death, the Justice League became the Justice Lords. Their Batman used a device to look into “our” universe where the League was still the League and the Flash was alive. In order to help out and avoid the death of another Flash, the Lords invaded, capturing the Justice League.
The team awakens in shackles of the alternate world Batman’s design. With our Dark Knight realizing that he’d never come up with a plan that could top the designs of his parallel self, it was up to the Flash to save the day. And Wally West doesn’t disappoint.
The Flash supercharges his heart rate so that the machines can’t pick it up, making it appear as though he’s flat-lined. Justice Lord Batman rushes down and immediately unlocks the shackles, allowing the unanticipatable Flash a shot at a knockout blow that alt-Bruce never sees coming.
7. The Red Hood (Jason Todd)
Jason Todd was the second Robin, the one who was beaten to death by the Joker in the famed Death in the Family arc. He was resurrected some years later and turned against Batman after learning his mentor had never avenged him and killed the Joker. Jason eventually became the Red Hood and attacked Gotham’s underworld, making the sort of dent in organized crime that Batman never could. While Batman investigated the Red Hood case, he could only vaguely ever broach the idea that it was his former sidekick causing all the mayhem. Upon finally revealing himself, Jason also details how he operated for years under Batman’s nose, all while Bruce himself thought Jason was dead.
In their ensuing confrontations, Batman was repeatedly outmaneuvered by the former Boy Wonder, leading to Red Hood’s many escapes. By placing his former mentor in no-win scenarios like being forced to save drug dealers while Jason blows up a crack house, Batman was forced to consider his own efficacy. In their climactic showdown, Jason gave Batman one last ultimatum. If Batman didn’t kill the Joker, Jason would; Batman could save his archnemesis, but only by killing his former protégée. In choosing to save Joker — and cutting Jason’s throat without killing him — Batman was forced to once again contemplate whether or not his way was the best way, but his own choices and failures as a crime fighter and father figure.
6. Talia al Ghul
Considering his lifestyle, it’s not surprising that at some point Bruce Wayne got a woman pregnant. Given his tastes in women, it’s not surprising it would be Talia al Ghul. What makes Talia such a strong villain is the complex emotions she and Bruce have for each other. It’s not quite love and it’s not quite hate, but it’s still all-encompassing. When Talia realizes he can’t love or devote himself to her the way he has his mission, she fakes a miscarriage and sends him on his way, guilt-free. Bruce wouldn’t know the child survived until ten years later when the kid literally walked up to him and put a sword to his throat.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Talia represents a second chance. In Talia, he sees someone who has struggled similarly to him. He risks his life returning to Gotham City not just to save it, but to save her as well. He trusted her with his secrets, and was betrayed. The stricken look on Batman’s face—even through the mask—isn’t really from the thin, short blade she wedged between his ribs, but at having been fooled by someone he cared about, and seeing his second chance was a lie.
Bruce wants to believe in the best of her, and often attempts to ignore the worst in doing so. That blind spot is given life in Damian, their son, which proved to be just another weakness for her to exploit.
5. Hush (Tommy Eliot)
Like his Robins, Bruce Wayne’s friends have a way of either dying or becoming his mortal enemies. Tommy Eliot hated Bruce for being lucky in that both of his parents died when he was young, giving him access to their fortune. As an adult, he took the name Hush, and began working the Dark Knight. Over the course of a year, he contrived his way back into Bruce’s life by causing a severe accident that would demand Tommy’s skills as a neurosurgeon. During the surgery, he implanted a chip into Bruce’s skull, and got Harold — Batman’s former mechanic — to betray him and place a bug into the Batcomputer’s systems to cover Hush’s tracks.
All of Batman’s villains were able to work together — an unprecedented event that only ever happens in every single Jeph Loeb Batman story — forcing the Caped Crusader to rethink his profiles and strategies. As with Talia, Bruce allowed emotion to cloud his thinking. He wanted to believe in the sanctity of his friendship with Tommy, as it was one of his few great memories as a child. His emotions had betrayed him once again, and Batman was blindsided when he was confronted with the truth.
In Hush, the Riddler had deduced Batman’s secret identity as Bruce Wayne. He used his inroads in the rogue’s gallery to get them to keep Batman off balance, and Tommy Eliot’s money to pay them and provide materials. Having long been considered a joke by Batman — who had started to solve his riddles too easily, and even thought Nygma retired at one point — the Riddler wanted to show that he was still Batman’s intellectual superior. (Admittedly it was already a tough sell; what kind of genius would voluntarily wear a green bowler hat?) Regardless, the Riddler was at the center of the biggest Batman story in a decade. The Dark Knight would isolate himself after this, having become more paranoid. This character arc would affect Batman for years to come in stories like War Games and Under the Red Hood.
More recently, Batman: Zero Year focused an arc on Batman and Riddler’s first encounter. This time, the Riddler was given a different stupid hat and an even worse haircut. He was also substantially more dangerous, having wrested control of Wayne Tower from Bruce Wayne. He brought down Gotham City’s power grid during a hurricane and essentially held the city hostage for supplies and energy for months on end. Batman repeatedly failed to outsmart the Riddler, and only won control back of Gotham after a concerted effort between himself, the GCPD and the US military. In the end, it was the Caped Crusader’s strength of will and Riddler’s intellectual vanity that allowed Gotham’s hero to win the day.
Bane looks like a combination of a luchador and the dumb jock you hated in high school. You’d think that he’d also be as stupid as said jock, but he is actually one of the few to truly outsmart Batman. Bane’s strength and surprising speed already made him the Dark Knight’s potential superior, but he wanted more than just a physical victory, so he broke all of Batman’s villains out of Arkham. Even with the help of the rest of the Bat Family, the problems caused by the villains took three months to solve before everyone was incarcerated again and the damage to the city was repaired.
A completely exhausted Bruce returns to Wayne Manor, where he is confronted by Bane. The point was to wear him down physically, then gain the psychological edge by revealing he knows Batman’s identity and defeating him on his own turf. Bane cripples Bruce but leaves him alive for a simple reason: Bruce has to idly watch as his nemesis takes over Gotham. He has to live with the fact he failed, and in that understanding, realize that Bane was his always superior.
2. The Court of Owls
Here’s an overused quote you’ve probably heard before: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” When it comes to the Court of Owls, it actually fits pretty well. They’re a secret society that operated in Gotham for hundreds of years. As a child, Bruce believed they had his parents killed, though he couldn’t find any evidence that this cabal even truly existed. Into adulthood, he considered them a myth, even after he was repeatedly targeted and attacked by the Court’s militia, the Talons.
In Batman #5, he gets trapped in an Owl stronghold beneath Gotham City for over a week. The Owls toy with him through sleep deprivation and a series of traps, instigating Bruce Wayne’s already deep paranoia. As layers of his costume are ripped apart, as he hallucinates and becomes downright terrified, it’s clear that not only have the Owls succeeded in breaking Batman psychologically, but that they always had control over everything in Gotham. Everything Bats had done was at best a half measure, and at worst, done only because the Court allowed it to happen.
During his escape, Batman flatlines from the physical stress of the torture. Were it not for the coincidental appearance of Mary Sue Harper Row, the Dark Knight would have been a lost myth, like the Owls themselves.
1. Doctor Simon Hurt
Outside of the Joker, you won’t find someone better at screwing up Batman’s life than Simon Hurt. His reason why is simple in its brutality: he hates noble spirits, and seeks to either corrupt or destroy them. To Hurt, there is no one more noble than Batman, so he spent decades slowly planning and implementing his coup de grace. Our unsuspecting hero never saw it coming.
Playing the long game, Hurt instigated the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Later, in Bruce’s early years as Batman, he placed a post-hypnotic trigger in his mind during an isolation experiment funded by the Department of Defense. He sold off misleading information about the Wayne family, assassinating their character and tarnishing their legacy by casting them as drug addicts, sexual deviants, and corrupted would-be gangsters. He did the same to Bruce by activating psychotic replacement Batmen to murder, pillage, and destroy the Caped Crusader’s image.
After invading the Batcave and beating Alfred half to death, Hurt destroys Bruce’s mind with the trigger phrase Zur-En-Arrh. Bruce has a complete breakdown, begins hallucinating, and loses most of his memory. Hurt then presents himself as Thomas Wayne to the press, claiming he’d faked his death and lending credence to the claims of Wayne family wrongdoing. Also, he doses Bruce Wayne with street heroin and “weapons-grade” crystal meth, so there’s that.
Of all the characters on the list, Dr. Hurt had the fewest encounters with Batman, but he may well have had the greatest impact.
Do you know any other instances where Batman’s been outsmarted? Let us know in the comments section. Want more Dark Knight? Check out our controversial ranking of all the characters who have ever been Batman.