The Cowl

"A cloud of smoke and he appears;
The master of surprise;
Who's that cunning mind behind
The shadowy disguise?
Nobody knows for sure, and bad guys are out of luck."

In the dead of night, an innocent's scream pierces through the darkness. The laughter of the wicked echoes through the streets, and with the click of a gun being cocked it seems that evil will take the life of yet another. But, all of a sudden, there is movement in the shadows. The alleys fill with smoke as the silhouette of a mysterious interloper rushes towards the would be murderer. In a moment, the tides turn, as swift and severe punishment is meted out to the unjust. Suddenly finding their life saved, the grateful citizen looks to find their savior, only to find merely a passing shadow, gone just as quick as it appeared.

Yet another tale of the night, a tale that leaves criminals looking over their shoulder in search of the shadowy phantom whose swift justice is as mysterious as it is indomitable. A hero who is always ahead of his quarry, and who never fails to arrive when help is needed, coming from the shadows, turning the monsters' own fears against them.

The Cowl is The Cape with a dark twist and typically on the cynical side on the Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism. Instead of adventuring in the daylight and showing themselves for the glory of the protected, they stick to the shadows of the night where evil lurks and prey on the fears of their quarry. The Cowl tends to be a Non-Powered Costumed Hero, their greatest assets being wit and psychological tactics, but if they do have powers, they tend to be related to darkness, ghosts, or some kind of sufficiently-creepy animal, such as wolves, bats, Ravens and Crows, snakes, spiders, or others.

See also Dark is Not Evil and Anti-Hero. Compare and contrast with The Cape. Sub trope of Terror Hero. Compare Batman Parody, which is a more direct parody of the Trope Codifier, Batman, and thus uses many elements of this trope.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica applies this to Magical Girls. This is especially true of Homura, whose mysteriousness and Stealth Hi/Bye antics make her Batman-esque even to other magical girls.
    • While all the magical girls with the arguable exception of Madoka display this to varying extents, the most stark example is Sayaka, as she is the most clear-cut example of The Cape (with an actual cape) who slides towards this trope as the reality of her idealistic wish bears down on her soul. Then she slides past it into Fallen Hero when she becomes a Witch. The series spends the most amount of time on her journey.
  • Kaitou Kid the Phantom Thief from Detective Conan and Magic Kaito has a cowl.
  • Shouta Aizawa, the homeroom teacher of Class 1-A from My Hero Academia, is also known as "Eraserhead", an underground hero that operates at night and generally avoids the press, thus he ends up not being as well-known as most professional heroes.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman has practically built this trope, or at least the way it is seen now, but is not the Ur-Example, and is arguably not exactly the Trope Maker (see Literature, below). The description describes the quintessential Batman Cold Open, emerging from the shadows and inducing fear in all the criminals his eyes meet. Most examples of the trope nowadays are at least partially influenced by the Dark Knight.
  • Batgirl Barbara Gordon was inspired by Batman and takes after him: she wears dark clothes and a cowl, she has no powers, and she patrols Gotham at the night, hunting criminals.
    • In Batgirl (2011) she reclaims her title and costume after recovering from her paralysis.
    • In Elseworld's Finest: Supergirl & Batgirl, Batgirl serves as The Cowl to Supergirl's The Cape: she is rude, cynical and bossy; but she wants to protect and help people. Luthor even accuses her from "[skulking] around in the dark alleys and back rooms".
  • Cassandra Cain -the second Batgirl- and Stephanie Brown -Batgirl III- are also this. They subvert the trope, though, since they are more idealistic than most vigilantes of Gotham.
  • Helena Wayne, a. k. a. Huntress takes after her parents -Batman and Catwoman-: she wears dark clothes and a pointed domino mask, operates in rough neighborhoods hunting human traffickers and abusers, uses crossbows, and is a bit more aggressive than other members of the Bat-family.
  • Moon Knight, a rare version that wears all white, because, unlike most cowled heroes, he wants to be seen coming by his enemies.
  • When The Phantom (the name is telling) is after a group of bad guys, there will typically be someone around to tell them about the legend of the Ghost Who Walks, the Man Who Cannot Die. Just when they dismiss it as nonsense, they start noticing members of their group turn up knocked out or having been attacked and questioned by a mysterious masked figure, with an ominous skull symbol (of the Ghost Who Walks!) where they were punched. He always disappears when they go after him, but if they try to victimise an innocent, he will be sure to show up to whisk them away unseen or reveal himself and kick arse. By the time he reveals himself to the last or leading villains, they're liable to be a bunch of nerves. Most good guys he saves will be left wondering who the heck that was (but agreeing that he was awesome).
  • Ironically, Supergirl -who is one of the classic examples of The Cape and cousin of THE Cape- used to be like this back in the Silver Age. Before Superman revealed her existence to the world she secretly patrolled the small town of Midvale at night, trying not to get caught while she stopped crimes and saved people. Midvale locals rumored that they were protected by a "guardian angel".
  • Superman was this back in the Golden Age, too: he was a feared urban legend and a vigilante who mercilessly beat thugs, crooks and wife abusers and cowed corrupt politicians and bussinessmen. He was pragmatic and harsh, he caught criminals by surprise and left as soon as he solved the situation.
  • V is an especially antiheroic version of one of these, fighting a fascist government that has taken over Britain and using quite terroristic means of fighting his adversaries, such as bombs. He rocks the fedora and Guy Fawkes mask, and does the swishy black cape thing quite well.
  • Spawn is one of the ultimate examples of the Cowl aside from Batman himself, a commando and assassin who is brought back to serve The Legions of Hell, but pulls a Faustian Rebellion to save the people he loves. You better believe his "necroflesh" body suit is intimidating as hell to any bad guys he faces.
  • Zorro, the masked swashbuckler who fought for the indigenous peoples of his land against tyrannical officials and other villains. Not only was he too cunning for the authorities to catch, but he also delighted in publicly humiliating them.
  • Daredevil, who is in many ways the closest Marvel analogue to Batman. Matt Murdock even Fights Like a Normal because his main superpower is basically a compensation for the sight that he lost.
  • In "Johnny Saturn", Johnny Saturn I is clearly a cowl, a street-level avenger who fights organized crime.
  • Rorschach in Watchmen considers himself The Cowl. Many others just see him as a psychopath.
  • From Stormwatch and The Authority, Midnighter, who is so rarely seen out of his cowl that no two artists have ever been able to agree on what colour his hair is (explained away by admitting that he likes to dye his hair). His husband and crime-fighting partner Apollo is very much The Cape.
  • X-23 takes after her daddy, and was mostly this when she was first introduced into the main X-books. For an unknown amount of time she was quietly operating in rough neighborhoods killing thugs and pimps terrorizing the locals, which brought her to Wolverine's attention (maybe. The timeline is screwy) when the reports of "parallel knife wounds" implicated him in the killings. By the time she joined the New X-Men she even scared her own teammates. However Character Development has changed her methods significantly, and by the time of All-New Wolverine she's bordering on becoming The Cape, if she hasn't done so already.
  • Astro City's most famous example is unarguably The Confessor, an Expy for Batman who easily surpasses him in all major skills — he fights off crowds of thugs without effort, avoids gunfire at point-blank range, intimidates everyone with his piercing gaze, is never seen in daylight hours, and has such mastery of the Stealth Hi/Bye that he's never been caught on film or camera. That's because he's a vampire.
  • In Night's Dominion, a fantasy/superhero mashup, the Furie is the shadowy grim avenger of the city of Umber, and the character who is most obviously a superhero character in a fantasy setting.
  • Maidman from Empowered , an expy/ loving parody of Batman, epitomises this trope perfectly except for one thing: he fights crime while wearing a skimpy French maid's outfit, complete with frilly panties. As a consequence, he is particularly feared by bad guys, both for his sheer badassery and because he is often believed to be a sexual deviant. He comments that dressing in frilly women's clothes is a lot less perverse than going around dressed as a giant bat.
  • Disney Ducks Comic Universe: Donald Duck in his super-hero alter-ego, Paperinik. Sometimes played straight (especially in Paperinik New Adventures), sometimes as an Affectionate Parody, sometimes Played for Laughs, and sometimes all of the above-such as the time he visited a criminal from another town who planned to come to Duckburg and showed him a film with what he had done to some of his friends that had moved to Duckburg.

  • Of course, Batman, in all of the movies (to greater or lesser success) except the one based on the 1960's TV show - and even that one shows that Batman (sometimes) has that effect on his enemies, at least when he wants to.
  • David Dunn from Unbreakable is an example of this trope applied to a somewhat realistic setting - he wears a cowl-like poncho as part of his "costume", uses violence to save innocents, and has difficult family issues to boot.
  • One of the best non-Batman examples ever happens at the beginning of the first Blade film. The rave sequence in the nightclub, merely ominous at the beginning, becomes absolutely terrifying when blood rains down from the ceiling and it's revealed that everyone except the poor innocent human lured to the dance is a bestial vampire. The lone human flees in panic - and runs smack into the film's titular silent, stoic, hate-filled, murderous vigilante. You never were so relieved to see a good vampire.

  • Once again, Batman, in many prose books and movie novelizations.
  • The Shadow is the other candidate for Trope Codifier of the modern version of this trope. Man of mystery? Check. Creature of the night? Check. The Dreaded to criminals? Double check. (While he debuted on radio as a narrator of an anthology series, his career as a protagonist actually began in Pulp Magazine literature of the day.)
  • The Spider was directly and almost immediately inspired by the Shadow. His usual disguise, a weird amalgam of the Shadow's nose, Dracula's fangs and Igor's hunchback, was enough to unnerve most criminals on its own. The fact that he was more bloodthirsty than the Shadow or even Rorschach made him even more The Dreaded.
  • Zorro, who was a main influence to the creation of Batman, is thought of as much more of a swashbuckler, especially in the Disney series, but in the original novels he was much more The Cowl, especially to his opponents. A black-clad night-prowling outlaw with the boldness (and skill) to carve his initial into the property and, occasionally, persons of his opponents tended to inspire a certain amount of uneasiness.
  • in Tales of an Mazing Girl Night Hawk, The flame and Knife Girl are all this-and all seem to be very diffrent examples of this from A street Level Bruiser, to a Masked Avenger to a Demonic Presence.
  • Philip Pullman's Spring-Heeled Jack is described as "Batman in Victorian Britain", and it suits.
  • The Opera Ghost in Terry Pratchett's Maskerade, while mostly a parody of, well, exactly who you'd expect, has a brief scene where he takes down a gang of muggers in a very Cowl-esque way.
  • Blackwolf in Soon I Will Be Invincible is a combination of Wolverine and Batman. Boasts that he can beat pretty much any super-powered hero or villain, and many agree that he can. The novel claims that he's on the autism spectrum, which is why he's so meticulous, but he seems to be far too socially adjusted for that.
  • Though a villainous example, the appropriately-named Cowl in The Dresden Files believes he is one of these.
  • NightHaunt, in In Hero Years, I'm Dead. Too bad, he's also the big bad
  • Dr Shade in Kim Newman's fiction. A British Captain Ersatz of The Shadow, he's so mysterious that the closest he's come to appearing in a story is as a spirit based on a fictional character in "The Original Doctor Shade". In settings where he's real (such as the Diogenes Club series... usually), he is only referenced, often as someone the Diogenes heroes really don't want involved, because it'll lead to a lot of dead people and no real answers.
  • Stealth from Ex-Heroes is am Expy of Batman.
  • Barry Reese's new pulp hero The Rook is one of these. Unsurprising, as he's a deliberate homage to characters like The Shadow, The Spider and The Phantom Detective discussed above.
    • Indeed, many pulp-throwback novels will feature variants of The Cowl as the protagonist, such as Chuck Miller's Black Centipede or PJ Lozito's Silver Manticore.
  • Anita and Edward from Anita Blake can make all minor and most moderate supernaturals shit bricks by simple introduction. Well, they have probably the highest body count of all kill..., ergh, executioners of preternatural criminals.
  • Gary Karkofsky in The Rules of Supervillainy is a Bunny-Ears Lawyer version of this, being a Ringwraith-looking sorcerer with a quirky sense of humor. He inherited his magical cloak from a more traditional one called the Nightwalker.

    Live Action TV 
  • Buffyverse:
    • Angel in early episodes of Buffy and his own series. At least in spirit since his wardrobe is more of a Badass Longcoat
    • Subverted in the final season, when he tries to pull this only for his security team to show up and the person he saved being asked to sign a form attesting that she had been saved by Angel, CEO of Wolfram and Hart, and they turned it into a photo op. He didn't try again.
    • Subverted on other occasions as well. At one point, he leapt heroically into the wrong car. ("City Of...")
  • An in-universe comic book cast the mysterious mass-murderer Dexter as one of these: The "Dark Defender".
  • Ironically, The Cape. He used to be a By-the-Book Cop until the Big Bad framed him, forcing the cop to fake his death. After being trained by carnies to use the titular cape and other magician tricks, he is forced to stay in the shadows and mostly comes out at night. He even has a Voice with an Internet Connection (the Big Bad's daughter with daddy issues). Meanwhile, the Big Bad is one of the most respected and powerful men in the city. In fact, when another villain tried to out him in the middle of a high society event, they just laughed at him (it didn't help that said villain looked and sounded like Vinnie Jones with a bad case of acne).
  • Spanish TV show Águila Roja (Red Eagle) set in 17th century Spain.
  • In Smallville, Green Arrow is the Cowl to Clark's Cape.
    • In the episode "Vengeance", Andrea Rojas aka "the Angel of Vengeance". Unlike Green Arrow, who was a recurring character before becoming a main character, she only appeared in one episode.
  • Green Arrow in Arrow, to a much greater extent than his portrayal in Smallville; this is more notable during crossovers with The Flash. However, this appears to be changing with Arrow changing his costume slightly and adding "Green" to his name, after rejecting League of Assassins membership.
  • John Reese of Person of Interest fulfills this role, at least from the perspective of those he rescues. In actuality, he receives the social security number of a person about to be involved in a violent crime, and so it is a bit more premeditated than it appears.
  • Even more than in the comics, Daredevil embodies this trope in the Netflix series. His first media tag, "The Devil of Hell's Kitchen," is inspired by the mystery, violence, and outright fear surrounding his exploits.

    Professional Wrestling 
  • Sting has shades of this following his change from Malibu Sting to Crow Sting- the black clothing, billowing trenchcoat, sudden dramatic appearances (either suddenly after the arena lights go out, or descending from the rafters in Batman-like fashion) and general Dark is Not Evil aesthetic definitely evoke this trope.
  • The Undertaker can have shades of this, as a face at least. Normally when he does save someone it's because he's feuding with the other wrestler. He can appear suddenly after the lights in the arena go black for a few seconds and come back on again to the sound of his gong.
  • Suicide dresses in full-body spandex, appears out of nowhere to save people with violence, goes on and on about his dark and mysterious past... despite not being billed as a Super Hero, he's(they're) probably the purest example of The Cowl in wrestling history.
  • El Zorro, who worked the masked wrestler gimmick for a number of years.

  • Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000's backstory has two, both Primarchs. Corvus Corax ended up leading the miners of his homeworld in an insurgency against their overlords, and passed on those skills of stealth and asymmetrical warfare when he was given command of the Raven Guard legion, resulting in an army of uncannily sneaky hulking armored Super Soldiers. Konrad Kurze, aka the Night Haunter, is a darker take on Batman - he turned his Wretched Hive home planet into a law-abiding community by personally hunting down and butchering every criminal on it, uniting the populace in mortal terror. His legion went renegade, and today the Night Lords are among the most dreaded foes the Imperium faces.
  • Both DC and Marvel have released role playing and table top games based off their comics, so yes, it is possible to play as Batman.
  • Further, there was a Zorro RPG released by Gold Rush Games.
  • The Freedom City setting for Mutants & Masterminds has The Raven, and his daughter, Raven II, homages to Batman and The Huntress, respectively.
  • Champions has the Dark Champions setting with extensive rules and suggestions for building street-level super heroes.

    Video Games 
  • Batman: Arkham Asylum
    • Taken further in the sequel Arkham City, particularly in the side mission which essentially allows you to do a variation of the trope description by swooping in to save innocent people being threatened by thugs and then swooping away again once the bad guy's been taken down.
  • You can play this character archetype in City of Heroes.
    • Through playing as a Vigilante, especially one of the Stalker Archetype. One of these beating a basic mob in the progress of robbing a civilian is practically a re-hash of the Cold Open above.
  • Both Altaïr and Ezio from the Assassin's Creed games have elements of this, albeit in a period setting. While primarily assassins (albeit, ones with heroic motivations and objectives), both are also acute sufferers of Chronic Hero Syndrome, and have no problem dealing with city guards assaulting young women/psycho's threatening to slice up the local prostitutes, etc. Both even wear cowls as part of their costumes.
    • Later protagonists Connor and Edward Kenway have some of the same elements (both are cowl-clad heroes who use stealthy tactics), but don't really match the trope completely due to their adventures generally not taking place in the sort of shadowy urban setting typical of The Cowl.
  • In Ace Attorney Investigations the newspaper artist's depiction of the Yatagarasu is a shadowy cowled figure. The real Yatagarasu looks nothing like this. For one, there's three of them.

    Web Comics 

    Web Original 
  • From the Global Guardians PBEM Universe: Achilles, leader of the Global Guardians. Battlecat and his daughter, Lynx, in New Orleans. The Nightwatchman in Boston. El Buho in Mexico City.
  • In The Glass Scientists, this is what fellow Society members believe Hyde to be.
    Miss Lavender: He's the phantom of the Society. Our very own caped vigilante!

    Western Animation 
  • Batman again, in virtually all of the animated series from Batman: The Animated Series on.
  • Zorro. He's had at least four animated adaptations, five if you count the Recycled IN SPACE! version.
  • Darkwing Duck, as the page quote shows, though, unlike most examples of this trope, despite being shadowy and mysterious he is also a teensy bit of a glory hound. Though he's a Affectionate Parody of this concept anyway.
  • South Park spoofed this in an episode where Cartman becomes a vigilante called The Coon but no one pays attention to anything he does. Played semi-straight with The Coon's Unknown Rival, Mysterion.
  • Monkey Man in Hey Arnold! is a comedic example of this.
  • An episode of The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh centered on Tigger calling himself the "Masked Offender", a Screwy Squirrel parody (though he initially fails to recognize it) of an adventure novel featuring a straight example called the "Masked Avenger". When he's outed as the "Masked Offender" thanks to a Batman Gambit concocted by Rabbit, he retires out of shame, but when real danger looms over the others, he comes back into action and genuinely saves the day.
  • "Catman" in The Fairly Oddparents is another obvious parody. They even hired Adam West to do the voice.
  • One episode of Disney's Hercules featured Theseus as The Cowl, in contrast with Herc being The Cape.
  • After having to retire from the Kids Next Door due to a technicality, Tommy begins to dress like The Shadow and attempts to reinvent himself as one of these.
  • Subverted with the Blue Spirit (Zuko) from Avatar: The Last Airbender, who frees Aang from Zhao's clutches, but only to capture Aang and get the glory for himself.