That's what a great many people, including those writing him currently, seem think of him. However that's not what I think when I see him or read about him. In fact, I see the exact opposite. To me Bruce Wayne / Batman is the Ultimate Family Man.
Why do I think this?
A variety of reasons, which I'll spell out below. This is of course only my interpretation of his character. Many other interpretations are perfectly valid and can be equally supported by the canon texts available to us. Please note that this is based on the old DCU. I don't feel that I have sufficient familiarity with the DCnU to speak to his lack of interest in or obsession with family connections in the DCnU.
Bruce Wayne: A man obsessed with the family he lost.
We all know the story of Bruce Wayne. He had loving parents who were gunned down when he was just a child. Their deaths left such an impact on him that he spent the rest of his life training to stop criminals and keep the same thing from happening to other people. Bruce quite literally spent years isolating himself from the people around him to be better prepared for his mission. A case can easily be made that his isolation from his fellow humanity shows that he is a loner, someone who has no need for other people.
I don't see that when I look at Bruce.
Instead, I see a boy who was so heart-struck by the loss of his parents that he was never able to move beyond their deaths. What drove Bruce to spend all that time training? The memory of his parents. What drove him to fight crime? The love that he lost, that he could never regain. Everything about his Mission is defined by the loss of the loving family of his childhood.
His entire childhood, young adulthood and the earliest years of being Batman were wrapped up in his parents' deaths. There would never have been a Batman if Bruce hadn't lost his parents. We can debate endlessly whether his response is rational or whether he's quite insane for doing what he's doing. For my purposes it's irrelevant. His relative sanity or insanity has no bearing whatsoever on Bruce's obsession with family. What matters is that Bruce's motivation for becoming Batman was the family that he lost.
But that family doesn't stay lost forever. Granted, he never gets his dead parents back in canon but eventually Bruce does being to form bonds, to move beyond the pain of his parent's death. He joins the Justice League, works with other heroes such as Superman and Wonder Woman and begins, in small ways, to open up to life again. I do think that that his parents' deaths stays with him forever. It was such a traumatic event for him that it was indelibly marked into his psyche but eventually he was able to step beyond it to begin to build a new family. What changed?
Dick Grayson: The boy who brought sunshine back to Bruce's life.
If Bruce is generally defined by his brooding then Dick is defined by his cheerful optimism and enjoyment of life. In many ways the shadows are a part of Bruce's soul. He lives in them, thrives in them and takes his vengeance in them. Dick is the opposite. He's a living ray of sunshine and his entry into Bruce's life brought life and laughter back to Wayne Manor.
Dick's origin is in many ways similar to Bruce's. His parents were murdered and he lost not only their love but his entire way of life. No longer could he travel with the circus and perform. For many people that would have been a crushing blow. It was terribly hard for Dick to deal with but in fairly short order his naturally bright and optimistic personality reasserted itself. He quite literally brought joy and laughter back to Wayne Manor after years of mourning. More importantly, Dick's bright personality automatically lightened Bruce's mood, drew him out and let him smile again. Alfred, of course, had been there all along but he was too reserved to conquer Bruce's darkness. I like to think that Dick didn't even have to try all that hard.
More importantly, Dick became something very like Bruce's son as well as his partner as Robin. For the first time Bruce had someone to take care of as his parents and Alfred had taken care of him. Granted, Bruce wasn't very good at being a father but I think that something inside of him desperately latched onto Dick's love and brightness. While he couldn't have his parents back, he could have a son, a bright cheerful loving son who looked up to him in all ways.
Of course, having a son who was also a vigilante meant that Bruce had to repeatedly face the possibility of losing his son to the crime that they fought together. Eventually that fear overwhelmed Bruce and he drove Dick away by firing him. It was a huge blow to both of them, not in the least part because neither of them ever excelled at communicating their emotional states with each other.
Bruce went back to being a loner while Dick went on to become Nightwing, a hero in his own right who earned the respect of the hero community as well as the civilian world. I like to think that Bruce was quietly proud of how well Dick did on his own. I do believe that canon supports that he regretted driving Dick away and that they both felt that they should reconcile but neither of them could take that first step.
Then there was another change in Bruce's life.
Jason Todd: The boy who made Bruce laugh in Crime Alley
The Jason I know best is the post-Crisis Jason who lived on the streets and stole the Batmobile's tires. He was a scrappy, determined, downright cocky kid who bowed to no one and nothing but he wasn't in any way bad. Jason did what was required to survive. If that meant stealing, he stole. If he didn't have to steal, then he didn't. Fanon likes to portray Jason as a child prostitute. There are enough hints in canon that it can be read that way, though unsurprisingly it's never been made explicit in canon. Either way, Jason was as tough as Dick was bright.
At a time when Bruce was once again spiraling into brooding and darkness, Jason brought him out again. It wasn't the smoothest of relationships but Jason was exactly what Bruce needed. He was a child in need but he wasn't Dick. He was intelligent, interested in school and determined to help Bruce as Robin. Jason was just as driven to fight crime as either Bruce or Dick had been. In fact, he tried to do it before Bruce adopted him despite lacking the skills and resources to do it effectively.
The one thing that I love most about this era in Jason's life is that as grateful as he was for the opportunities he got when Bruce adopted him, he insisted on making his own way. Certainly, he appreciated good food and a safe place to sleep. He loved getting to go to school and learn things. But he wouldn't accept charity. Jason was determined to pay Bruce back for the wonderful things he was given and he used the only method he had to do it: Robin.
What Jason gave Bruce that he hadn't had before was a challenge. Dick was easy to have as a son. His basic personality let him bounce back from most everything that he encountered. Jason, on the other hand, needed Bruce in ways that Dick hadn't. He required a great deal more engagement from Bruce and as such drew him out of his shell once more.
Granted, as Jason aged they began to conflict but I don't see that as Jason slowly sliding towards being 'bad'. When I look at that era, the era just before Jason's untimely death, I see perfectly natural and normal father/son conflict. Jason wasn't going bad. He was growing up and, as all teens do, he began to challenge Bruce's moral code. That process of challenging your parent's beliefs and behavioral expectations is totally normal. It wasn't, however, something that Bruce knew to look out for. Dick's teenage rebellion took a very different form and Bruce somehow expected that Jason would be the same despite their being completely different people.
I like to think that if Jason had lived they would have made it past the stage of butting heads over everything. Jason would (and did once he was resurrected) develop his own moral code that felt right for him. Bruce, however reluctantly, would have learned to accept that his son would never be a copy of either Dick or himself.
Unfortunately, change hit once more in the worst possible way when Jason was killed by the Joker. This time the darkness that Bruce descended into was easily as dark and deep as when his parents were killed. He began to lose his moral compass, to tread on that line between good and evil. Dick, Alfred, Clark, Diana and the League all tried to bring him out of it but they were dealing with their own grief and none of them could get through to him. It took the arrival of Bruce's next family member for Bruce to climb back out of his depression.
Tim Drake: The boy who saved Batman from himself
I have to admit that Tim Drake is my favorite Robin. He was the Robin I began reading. He's also the Robin I feel the closest connection to, not because of his brilliance but because of his reluctance. Tim never wanted to be Robin but when he saw the path that Bruce was on he stepped up to do what had to be done.
Jason's death hit Bruce terribly hard. Not only had he lost his partner, he'd lost his son. His actions were very unhealthy mentally and physically. I tend to believe that creating the case with Jason's uniform, not to mention all the other memorials he created, was a way for Bruce to punish himself for Jason's death. Bruce couldn't allow himself to forgive or forget what happened to Jason because to do so would be to abandon his son. Given Bruce's obsession with family, that was the one thing he could never, ever do.
Tim Drake stepped into Bruce's maelstrom of guilt, loss and obsession of his own free will. Tim was another boy who had major issues with family, though Tim's issues were completely different. There isn't much in canon about Tim's family but there are a few basics that are clear. His parents were absent much of the time, leaving Tim effectively unsupervised. This allowed him to stalk Batman and Robin, to discover their secret identities and take a presumably large number of photos of Batman and Robin in action.
Just as Bruce tends towards obsession so does Tim. While Bruce's obsession has always been family, Tim's obsession is Batman and Robin themselves. The existence of Batman and Robin as symbols of hope in Gotham was hugely important to Tim. So when he saw that Robin had been killed and Bruce was traveling down a dark path, Tim acted.
He more or less forced himself into Bruce's life at a time when Bruce was trying to tell himself that he had no need of family anymore. It's a sad truth that Bruce was very harsh with Tim in the training but Tim took everything that Bruce threw at him and more. The sheer depth of his belief in what Bruce could be, what he should be, pulled Bruce out of his tailspin. I think that Alfred saw the potential for Tim to save Bruce and that was why he allowed Tim to put on the Robin uniform. That was why he supported Tim.
In the process of training Tim, Bruce not only got a new, highly dedicated son, he got his first son back. Dick, who had been just as broken up by Jason's death as Bruce, returned to the fold to be the brother to Tim that he'd never been to Jason. The more Tim was around, the more Dick was around and thus Bruce suddenly had twice the family he'd had at any time before.
It wasn't just a change for Bruce. Tim was changed just as much by this sudden family forming between them. He'd always been independent and essentially unsupervised but now there were three people who cared if he ate, slept, got his homework done and felt well. I think Tim pulled away from the flood of caring only to be drawn back in again and again. In Bruce's family of choice Tim saw the possibility of having a family of his own. In Young Justice Tim began to create his own family. By saving Bruce, Tim saved himself too.
But life is change so just when Bruce, Dick and Tim had their lives coming together a major earthquake hit Gotham and destroyed the city. Enter Bruce's next child.
Cass Cain: The daughter of Bruce's heart
Cassandra Cain made her way to Gotham in the middle of No Man's Land. She worked with Barbara Gordon as a runner and when her assassin father came to Gotham to kill Jim Gordon, Cass protected him. Despite Bruce and Jim's opposition to her helping, Cass was there to keep Jim safe. You could claim that it was because she owed a debt of gratitude to Barbara for helping her learn to speak and read but I prefer to believe that it was because Cass is simply a good person who knows what is right despite everything she's been through.
And she has been through a lot. Her upbringing practically defines 'abusive' to me. Cain raised Cass completely without language, teaching her to fight and kill but not to communicate. When Cain sent her to assassinate a target as a small girl Cass killed the man but then ran away rather than return to her father's side. That murder horrified her enough that she formed her own no-kill rule. No one is sure how she ended up in Gotham but once Bruce understood just who and what Cass was, how incredible she was, he adopted her as his daughter.
She took up the mantle of Batgirl with Barbara's full approval and became a powerful force for good in Gotham City. More importantly, Cass was a young woman who, while she couldn't communicate very effectively with words, could see straight to the heart of the people around her. All of Bruce's emotional issues and the love he hides inside were obvious to her. So Cass knew that if she reached out for hugs or training or just to spend time with Bruce that it would be welcome.
Before this Bruce always hid his need for a loving family from everyone around him. His childhood trauma demanded that he disguise how badly he needs a family to protect himself from their 'inevitable' loss. He couldn't hide his need for love from Cass. Tim couldn't hide from Cass and quickly saw her as his sister in truth. Dick, being the highly affectionate person that he was, didn't try to hide from Cass, even if he didn't always understand her. By virtue of her communication difficulties and her perceptiveness, Cass brought openness to Bruce's family that hadn't been there before.
Added to that, Dick, Jason and Tim never truly wanted to take over the mantle of Batman. They certainly each wanted to make a difference in Gotham, to help and protect people. Each of them had their own goals and desires for what they got from their training. But Cass actually wanted to follow in Bruce's footsteps. She wanted the title, the costume and the responsibilities of being Batman. I think that as much as anything else touched Bruce's heart.
If you read Cass' appearances in the comics with Bruce, there's a great deal more open affection between the two of them than Bruce allowed himself with his other children. He hugs her, touches her, takes care of her in ways that he doesn't with the boys. In a very real way Cass opened Bruce's heart up for the first time since his parent's death. Personally, I believe that Cass was the child that turned Bruce's house into a home and his team into a family.
However life wasn't done with Bruce and his family and powerful forces once again came at them to tear them apart. In this case it was Tim's real family, Jack and Janet Drake. After Gotham recovered from No Man's Land, Tim worked as Robin while Cass was Batgirl and Dick was Nightwing. But Tim's parents were struck down while on a trip to Haiti. His mother was killed outright while his father went into a coma. Once his father woke from that coma Tim had to be even more careful about his activities as Robin. Eventually his father discovered that Tim was Robin and made him stop.
Jack Drake tore Tim away from his family of choice, tearing a hole in that family as well as in Tim's heart. He lost his entire support system when Jack did this, something that I could write thousands of words on, but that's not the focus of this essay. Because there was another child waiting to step in to take the mantle of Robin: Stephanie Brown.
Stephanie Brown: The Girl Who Would Not Take No As An Answer
Steph had been a part of Gotham's vigilante community for a while before she became Robin. She started out as Spoiler, donning an eggplant uniform so that she could 'spoil' her minor villain father's plans. Before too long, Steph fought alongside Tim, got told to stop by Batman on a regular basis and was awesomely determined and cheerful in ways that strongly remind me of Jason Todd.
Like Jason, Steph is from a lower-class background. She wasn't the same sort of hero as DC's normal upper-middle-class WASP heroes. A great many people have written torrents of words on the subject of Steph, many of them far more eloquently than I could. What matters here is that when Tim had to step down as Robin, Steph stepped up.
She put aside her Spoiler uniform and sewed a Robin uniform of her own. Then she showed up at the cave and demanded the right to be Robin in Tim's place. I honestly believe that Steph did it because she thought it was the best thing for both Gotham and for Bruce. She wouldn't allow Bruce to slide back into his depression. She wouldn't allow him to go out and fight on his own when he needed backup. Despite Bruce's resistance, and he did resist, Steph became Robin.
And she became a part of the family, as well. Bruce, by this point, had gathered a fairly large family. He had Alfred, Dick, Tim (even if Tim had to sneak out to see them), Cass and now Steph. There was the constant memory of Jason as well. Steph was and wasn't like the others. She had made friends with Tim and Cass before she became Robin and thus officially became part of the family. For a while, she and Tim had dated, which gave her a different impact on Bruce than Cass had.
Steph was the reminder for Bruce that not only did he have a family that cared about him; his family was also growing up and would form families of their own in the not too distant future. In Steph, I think that Bruce saw the possibility of grandchildren, of retiring someday and allowing the next generation to carry on his mission.
It wasn't something that Bruce could have seen before. He wasn't blind to the fact that he and his children were growing older. I think that Bruce assumed that he wouldn't survive long enough to worry about grandchildren, legacies and retirement. Even Cass' desire to be Batman wasn't enough to make him think about the future. I believe that Bruce thought that she or one of the boys would take over when he was killed in the line of duty, not because he chose to step away from the cowl. But as he interacted with Steph, the girl who had dated Robin before becoming Robin, Bruce for the first time saw the possibility of a time when he stepped away from Batman and passed the mantle on to other people.
This isn't something that he said but I see it when I read his interactions with Steph. Unfortunately, a month in canon after she became Robin Steph 'died' in a vicious attack by one of Bruce's villains. She didn't actually die but everyone thought that she did. Fairly typical DC shenanigans, in my opinion, but either way, Steph exited stage right. Tim returned to being Robin after straightening things out with his father, before his father was killed. The poor boy has as horrible luck with family as Bruce does. They struggled on together until another child entered Bruce's family.
Damian Wayne: The Heir to the Throne
Damian is a challenge to sum up, in part because I have to admit that I find him to be a very difficult character as he's written in canon. His sense of privilege and superiority is quite annoying for me. However he is a significant character in that he is quite literally the heir to Batman, if only in his and Talia's minds.
Bruce was not aware of Damian's existence until Talia gave him to Bruce. Depending on which versions of canon you're looking at Damian's conception was either consensual or the result of Talia drugging Bruce. I prefer to believe that it was consensual and that Talia was one of two women that Bruce truly loved (Selina Kyle/Catwoman being the other). Either way, Damian was kept secret from Bruce until he was ten years old.
While Bruce knew nothing of his biological son, Damian spent his entire childhood training to be his father's heir. This would have been a good thing if the people doing the training had kept in mind Bruce's code and his moral repugnance for killing however that isn't what happened. Damian was trained by the best assassins that the League of Shadows had. From his earliest memories he was shaped to be the perfect killer and most efficient heir that Bruce could have.
I honestly have a hard time reconciling Talia's methods of raising Damian that way with the idea that he was conceived in love. Whether it was something that Talia failed to convey properly to Damian's trainers, something that Ra's al Ghul, Damian's grandfather, insisted on, or simply poorly thought out writing on DC's part, Damian's understanding of his role as heir was completely distorted compared to what Bruce would have wanted it to be.
This automatically led to conflicts between them once Damian came to live with Bruce. Damian's disregard for the sanctity of life caused a lot of arguments between them. His distrust for and attempts to kill Tim were an issue that wasn't handled very well in canon. But Alfred, Steph and Dick did their best to welcome Damian to the family. Damian actually had some small level of respect for Cass, which was good to see given his issues with women otherwise. I could easily write entire essays on Damian alone but that isn't the focus of this essay so I'll move along.
At first Damian worked with Bruce but soon Dick took over as his partner. That worked better for Damian who is very similar in temperament to Bruce. Dick was a good contrast to Damian's grumpiness and he took on a father's role for Damian. I think that Bruce realized that he couldn't be a true father to Damian, not with all the twisted messages Damian had been taught before he joined Bruce's family. So Bruce stepped back and let Dick take on the role of father for the first time.
Seeing Dick with Damian reinforced for Bruce the reality of his aging and eventual replacement as Batman. I like to think that a part of him accepted it and began to plan for it; however, in canon it's obvious to me that he pulled away from what Damian represented, that he tried to deny that he was eventually going to have to give his mission to other people, to his sons and daughters. His denial might have gone on for quite a while but life intervened in the form of Darkseid 'killing' Bruce by sending him back through time.
Bruce Wayne: The man and his family
During his trip through time, Bruce's memories were screwed up. He remembered portions of who he was and why he did things but not everything. The drive to help people, to protect them, remained, especially when he saw families that needed help. I think that his decision to start Batman, Inc. on his return had a lot to do with his having had the time and distance to accept that yes, he had a family and yes, they could and would take over for him if he was gone. Because they did fill Bruce's place while he was gone, not perfectly or comfortably, but they did their best to carry Bruce's mission forward as they thought he would want.
It opened Bruce's eyes to the thought that Batman was more of a symbol than he'd thought. Batman wasn't one man's fight against crime in one city; it was a symbol of hope that could spread far beyond what he'd originally intended. In the same way, Bruce's family was far greater what he'd originally thought.
Yes, he lost his parents and that was a horrible tragedy but Bruce took that tragedy and transformed it into a new family, a new mission, a new way of life that included his sons and daughters surrounding him, his allies backing him up and another generation following after them. No matter what emphasis is put on Bruce being a loner I will always look at the family that he gathered over time and see a man obsessed with family in all its permutations.
Bruce isn't a perfect father. He isn't a perfect brother or son or grandfather. But he is a man who tries desperately hard to protect and care for the people and things which matter to him, no matter how scarred he is by his past, no matter how hard it is for him to express the emotions hidden inside. He's made many mistakes, more with Tim and Damian than the others in my opinion, but he keeps trying to do the right thing.
Canon has given us a lot of really beautiful moments between Bruce and his various children as well as some truly terrible ones. For a writer like me who focuses on alternate universes, canon is my starting point, not my sole arbitrator of what can and cannot be. I'm sure that another essay could be written emphasizing that Bruce is actually a loner who cares nothing for family but for me this is his core.
For me, Bruce will always be a family man who wants nothing more than to be surrounded by those he loves.