Basically, my interpretation of Batman is this: Batman loves his job. There’s more to it, of course, but that’s the most important bit.
Part of Batman enjoying his job means that the “Bruce Wayne is the mask” interpretation is both true and false. In the sense that Bruce Wayne is overall expendable and exists solely to provide income for Batman, it is definitely untrue. As Jon Bernhardt says in this piece for Funnybook Babylon, Bruce Wayne as Mask is a drastic misreading of Dark Knight Returns, and antithetical to the idea of Batman.
In essence, Batman wears two masks. One is the Batman mask– it’s an urban Zorro. The other is Playboy Bruce Wayne, and that one is an exercise in theatrical distraction. Playboy Bruce Wayne provides the perfect alibi. Who’d believe that this flighty guy could ever do anything worthwhile? This is part of the reason that Bruce Wayne hasn’t had a lasting relationship. The Playboy role is a barrier against that.
The Batman mask, though, is the interesting one. Bruce Wayne is, at heart, damaged goods. When his parents were murdered in front of his eyes, Bruce Wayne immediately went from innocent to lost. He can’t make the same emotional connections that other people do. Look at his best friends– all costumes. Does Bruce Wayne have non-costumed, or non-costume related, friends? Lucius Fox, perhaps.
Bruce is incapable of sustaining a regular relationship. He connects best with the other people who wear costumes, or run in those same circles. Look at his long-term on-again/off-again relationship with Catwoman. Look at Zatanna and Wonder Woman. Maybe it’s just a side effect of the job and shared experiences, but he tends to hang with super-women.
Anyway, going from innocent to lost doesn’t mean that you stop being a kid inside. The Batman mask and persona, if you think about it, are the reaction of a kid who had his childhood stolen from him. He puts on a mask and a cape, emulating his favorite hero, and fights the thing that hurt him when he was a child. He goes out at night and plays at being a hero. Look at Batman’s conduct. He puts on a gruff voice and uses parlor tricks to strike fear into the hearts of criminals, who are “a superstitious and cowardly lot.” He’s acting like something he thinks criminals would be afraid of.
Though, this doesn’t mean that he doesn’t love his job. Being Batman is what Bruce Wayne uses as an outlet for his aggression. One thing Frank Miller does in All-Star Batman that I love is that he writes a Bruce Wayne who has a childlike glee at being Batman. Everything from the dialogue to the inner monologue speaks to a man who is a) acting (he’s deciding which persona to put on before he strikes), b) acting poorly (Dick Grayson sees through him immediately), and c) loves doing it anyway (“Every inch of me is alive“). He strikes with a laugh, rather, “the laugh” because he knows it scares criminals. He makes it a point to use theatrics when he fights. It gives him an advantage in the fight and it lets him playact.
I mean, for real, though. That giant t-rex and all those other trophies were in the cave before Robin got there. That’s Brucie at work.
Batman is a dark, serious, brooding, and violent knight, but he’s also someone who has to enjoy what he does. He likes getting out there, acting gruff, and breaking bones. He likes being able to make people safe and striking terror into the heart of criminals. In DKSA, this is best shown by the scene where he’s relaxing and leaning back in his Batplane, hands behind his head and feet up on the console. “Striking terror. Best part of the job.”
Batman is also that guy who is scarily competent at everything. It isn’t that he’s a genius. He’s just a person of maybe slightly above-average intelligence who applies himself. He studies and practices and trains with a fervor most people don’t ever employ. He can place the origins of accents by simply hearing them, give you the etymology of certain words and which poems they were used in and why, and even track a wolf eighteen miles through the underbrush. Why? Because he thought it’d be a good idea to know all these things.
He’s the ultimate jack-of-all-trades. In hindsight, he essentially spent the remainder of his childhood studying to become the Batman. He travelled the world, studied martial arts, science, and who knows what else solely so that he could be the best at his job. He turned himself into a detective of incredible skill just in case he needed it later. He’s an obsessive amongst obsessives, if that makes sense. Capo di tutti capi.
Finally, Batman has to have Robin. Robin is the perfect foil for Batman. Where Batman is the guy who lost his childhood, but never really left it behind, Robin is the child that came close to losing his, but managed to find it again. Batman isn’t so much a father figure to Robin as a big brother. They go and hang out together and play all the same games.
Robin existing gives both of them a chance to win back some lost humanity. They can use each other for moral support, since they are so similar in origin, and when that doesn’t work, they can go out and bust heads together. For Bruce, Robin is in danger of going down the same path he did. He’s lost his parents in a tragedy, just like Bruce did, but being Robin gives him a chance to cope. It gives him an outlet for his grief.
Alfred keeps Bruce honest. When he sometimes slips a little too deep into the Batman persona and starts to walk his talk, Alfred is there to call him out on it. His constantly sarcastic wit reminds Bruce that he is still a human being, and an adult at that.
The somber, super serious, depressed, hates-to-live Batman that was popularized a few years back is a mistake. Batman gives Bruce Wayne a reason to live and enjoy life. He likes being Batman. He feels that it’s right. Robin provides a balance to his darkness, and Alfred keeps him honest.
That’s the way it should work, anyway.