Superheroes are fantastical, almost ethereal characters that continue to fascinate society and redefine the limits for creative literature. Virtually every one of these fictional figures have one or more metahuman traits. These often include super strength, super speed, enhanced senses, flight, healing factors, and other various superpowers. To be classified as a superhero, one or more of any of these traits must be present. The very definition of a superhero, according to Google, states that they are “a character with superhuman powers”. But is this prerequisite always true? Must a character in a comic book story possess superpowers to be “super”?
Of course, the answer is pretty clear in this case. Look no further then one of the most well-known heroes in the world: Batman. He is a man with a tragic past who became a legend. The Caped Crusader continues to bring justice to the streets of Gotham in the pages of his comic books, facing enemies more tenacious than ever without hesitation. All with absolutely no enhanced powers.
Batman’s persona has undergone some interesting changes throughout his existence in both comics and cinema. It’s hard to keep track at this point exactly how any different versions of Batman there are, and with DC Rebirth’s Dark Nights: Metal series including the evil variations, Batman has been a hotspot for discussion. However, even with all the changes and additions, I argue that there is a key message that his character brings to every story he participates in.
First of all, I think it is important to understand a basic comic history of the character in order to understand my argument. So to begin, let’s go back to the beginning. After the immense success of the newly created Superman in 1938, DC needed another hero to work just as well. Vin Sullivan, the editor at the time, hired an unlikely candidate to design and draw the new hero: gag cartoonist Bob Kane. He also put Bill Finger in charge of the story writing process, and had the two start pioneering their work to invent a brand new superhero. What they chose to create would forever change the way the world looked at superpowered characters.
Both Finger and Kane spent many days coming up with concepts and ideas for how their creation would look and act. They drew inspiration from a number of sources, such as a collection of serialized dramas in the 1930’s known as The Shadow, the fictional character Zorro, and even Leonardo Da Vinci. Slowly their hero was brought to life. Kane designed and drew the iconic suit that the hero would make his first appearance in, while Finger conceived the details, such as the gadgets. In May of 1939, Batman made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 with the story titled, “The Case of The Chemical Syndicate.”
As Batman became more and more successful in Detective Comics, more details were added to his arsenal and backstory. The first time we see Batman use his utility belt was only two issues later in Detective Comics #29, where a pellet of deadly choking gas was used on some thugs. The first batarang and bat-themed vehicle made their first appearances later in issue #31. However, the most crucial and well known element of Batman didn’t come until six months after his comic debut in issue #33: his all-too-familiar backstory involving a mugger gunning down his parents by a movie theatre. This iconic and classic addition to the Caped Crusader is perhaps the biggest contributor to his massive success over the years. It provided an original and very strong foundation for what fueled Bruce Wayne’s craving for justice—it was relatable, realistic, and fascinating all at the same time.
Issue after issue was released, and Batman became more famous among comic book readers. With every new addition, gadget, and accessory stirred into the mix, Batman’s mythology continued to thrive. Robin was introduced in Detective Comics #38 in April of 1940. The Boy Wonder was a breath of fresh air for Bruce Wayne’s personality, and Batman became more of a father figure, exchanging wisecracks with Dick Grayson instead of talking to himself. Batman earned his own title in the 1940’s as well, and continued to be featured in Detective Comics. Batman #1 introduced two of Batman’s most important characters to date: the Joker and Catwoman (referred by Batman as “The Cat” at the time). It’s worth mentioning that Batman did, in fact, use guns before this issue was published. Batman #1 prompted DC to remove Batman’s need for firearms, and establish his “one rule” of no killing.
Transitioning from the 1940’s to 1950’s was probably the most bizzare time for Batman readers. It was not uncommon to see Batman stories have the crime fighter wrestling aliens in space, battling monsters or even robots. One instance even involved Batman morphing into a radioactive, black-and-white striped “Zebra Batman”. Batman transformed from being a grim detective to more of an unlikely science-fiction star. During these issues, a number of other Bat Family characters joined the roster, including Batwoman, Bat-Girl, Bat-Mite, and even a crime-fighting dog named Ace The Bat-Hound. Batman finally joined forces with Superman in a 1952 team-up called “The Mightiest Team In The World”, where, oddly enough, the two fought for the attention of Lois Lane.
By the 1960’s, Batman became part of the Justice League of America and helped defeat the alien threat Starro in The Brave and The Bold #28. Here we saw him battle alongside The Flash, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, Superman, and Green Lantern for the first time.
In the early 1970’s, Batman started to revert to his original detective self. He no longer operated with a sidekick, and relied instead on his wits to solve his cases. Taking down street thugs and muggers became the norm once again for the him, haunting Gotham city by night and striking fear into the hearts of criminals. This would also be the first appearance of the mysterious and all-knowing Ra’s al Ghul in Batman #232.
Detective Comics #526 in 1981 introduced the orphan Jason Todd, who would later pick up the mantle as Robin just one year later in Batman #368 after Dick Grayson retired. A new four issue mini-series titled Batman: The Dark Knight, by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson, was published in 1986. This story reimagined a Batman coming out of retirement as older, tougher, and more brooding, seeking to take back his city from the criminals that stole his fear. It became the first story arc from DC Comics to be collected and printed as a single volume under the revised title of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. It continues to be printed and heralded as one of the best and most redefining stories for the character. Frank Miller also collaborated with artist David Mazzucchelli in the same year to update Batman’s origin story in the issues Batman #404-407. The volume collecting those issues, Batman: Year One, was yet another bestseller.
Tragedy struck hard again for Batman’s character in 1988, beginning with Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s chilling story Batman: The Killing Joke, in which the Joker shot and crippled Barbara Gordon before proceeding to torture her father Commissioner James Gordon. The same year, DC allowed readers to vote on the fate of Jason Todd, the second Boy Wonder. After an immense majority of negative votes, Jason was tortured and killed by the Joker. This established the Joker as both one of Batman’s most diabolical enemies and also caused Bruce Wayne to approach crime fighting differently. He began exhibiting excessive and reckless amounts of fury toward criminals. Batman operated solo on his missions from then until about the end of the decade. That was, of course, until Tim Drake stepped in as the third Robin to aid The Gotham Bat in his bringing about of justice.
One of Batman’s most popular story arcs, Knightfall, was published in 1992. This ambitious story basically took Batman through hell and back. It’s where we see Bane literally break Batman’s back. It’s also where Azrael was first introduced as the new Batman for a time, but with bloodier and more aggressive motives than Bruce. It truly is Batman’s redemption tale. The story was completed almost a year later and collected into a series of three large volumes, boasting over 650+ pages each. This arc not only added to the mythos of Batman, but was the foundation for Christopher Nolan’s epic The Dark Knight Rises film in 2012.
Coming into the early 2000’s, Batman was off to a very strong start. Writer Jeph Loeb, accompanied by newly added artist Jim Lee, created another daring adventure for the vigilante. The 12-part Hush story was published in 2003 and brought forth a massive new audience to the Batman character. In 2009, Final Crisis shocked readers across the world as Batman appeared to be killed by the godlike alien Darkseid. This spawned the 2009 title Battle For The Cowl, where a slew of Bat Family characters fought for the mantle of The Bat. In 2010, readers discovered that Bruce hadn’t been killed, but lost in time. He made his return shortly after, and became Batman once again. In 2014, DC Comics decided to hit the reset button on all their titles after the unparalleled Flashpoint storyline rewrote the timeline. Ushering in the “New 52” era for the character, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo updated Batman’s origin story afterwards for the first time in 25 years with Batman: Zero Year.
Now we come to the current DC Rebirth stories, which have mostly all been excellent so far. With Tom King helming the writer position for most of the new titles, the character has been given several unique and fresh ideas. Probably the biggest thing that has happened for the character is that he is now married to Catwoman. If you would like to read a further analysis on some of the new Rebirth stories for Batman, “Batman: Limitations and Liberations” by our very own Brandy Burgess is a must read.
Of course, I didn’t connect every single dot with Batman in his comic history. There have been dozens of iterations of the character. Just to name a few, Thomas Wayne from Flashpoint, Terry Mcginnis as the Batman of the future in Batman Beyond titles, Earth One Batman, and all of the new villain versions from the recent ongoing Dark Nights: Metal series. Each bring their own unique, and sometimes twisted, personalities and methods. All of these different renditions contribute to my argument that I will elaborate more on shortly.
But first, I think it also worth going over a brief history of Batman’s time throughout cinema, T.V., and other media.
Batman made his first debut in theatres at the height of World War II. Played by Lewis Wilson, this first cinematic iteration of the Bat Vigilante brought forth the founding nostalgia of the Batcave and the classic novelty style of a black Cadillac as the original Batmobile.
On January 12, 1966, Adam West launched a new era of colorful and campy onomatopoeias that scored huge ratings. The show launched two episodes a week, and appealed to family audiences by introducing moral lessons in the form of fighting crime. An immense number of toys and merchandise were spawned as a direct result, and Batman comics soared to new sales numbers. The show virtually saved the Batman comics from being canceled, and many who grew up with its quippy comic relief still watch it on the same Bat channel.
Tim Burton created an instant classic with the release of his Batman film in the early 1970’s. Portrayed by Michael Keaton, Batman was revitalized as a brooding detective with a knack for instilling fear into criminals. It was quite a different approach compared to Adam West as the goofy hero, but had just as much success. Keaton reprised his role in the sequel Batman Returns in 1992, representing the first modern Batman and putting the “dark” theme back into The Dark Knight. With Jack Nicholson as the Joker, and Gotham represented in a noir fashion, Michael Keaton’s Batman is a timeless incarnation of the character.
Along with Keaton’s live action version on-screen, Batman: The Animated Series aired its first episode in 1992. Kevin Conroy voiced The Caped Crusader with other stars such as Mark Hamill as The Joker. It was critically acclaimed almost instantly, and was a popular T.V. series throughout its seasons. It still remains as one of the most coercive television shows to date.
Burton was later replaced by Joe Schumacher, forcing Keaton to retire himself as Batman. This left the door open for Val Kilmer to undertake the role in 1995’s Batman Forever. While Kilmer’s performance as Bruce Wayne wasn’t received as well as Keaton’s, Bob Kane did comment that Kilmer portrayed one of the most accurate versions of the persona. Val Kilmer brought to life a different hero then expected that culminated in the Golden Age of comics, appealing to more “kid friendly” audiences.
A lot of people like to poke fun at Batman And Robin from 1997, and they would be right to do so. From the Bat-nipples added to some of the suits to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s chilling puns as Mr. Freeze, there wasn’t a lot to be gained from it. What there was to be gained was George Clooney’s interpretation of the character. It may not be the most accurate, realistic, or nostalgic, but it was a tribute to some of the panels from Batman’s mythos nonetheless.
World-class director Christopher Nolan added his mix to the pot with the release of Batman Begins in 2005, casting Christian Bale as The Dark Knight and ushering in a modernized Batman for the new decade of comic folk. Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy encompassed a new aspect of Batman’s character that had barely any light shed on it. This Batman was haunted by his fear of bats, and used his parent’s death as fuel for his desire to imbue justice on the streets of Gotham. More than anything, it affirmed Batman’s one rule: never kill in spectacular, heartfelt succession. The sequel, The Dark Knight, in 2008 shined even more than the original motion picture, winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor with Heath Ledger’s incomparable and legendary performance as the Joker. The finale to this trilogy released in 2012 with The Dark Knight Rises, adding Tom Hardy as the infamous Bane with Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle (Catwoman). The Dark Knight Trilogy unknowingly set the bar for future comic book films, specifically about Batman, and has been praised for its accomplishment as one of the greatest trilogies since The Lord of The Rings.
It’s also worth mentioning that in 2009 Rocksteady studios released their first Batman video game called Batman: Arkham Asylum . The game became one of the best reviewed and highest selling console games of all time. Three more Arkham-themed Batman games followed afterwards.
After Bale and Ledger’s nearly flawless displays as their respective characters, fans wondered what would be next for The Dark Avenger. They finally got their answer when it was announced that Zack Snyder would direct the sequel to his Man of Steel titled Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Ben Affleck would follow in Christian Bale’s footsteps as Batman to accompany Henry Cavill as Superman. The film would finally feature the World’s Finest duo of comic characters for the first time in cinema history. Admittingly, I wasn’t sure how to feel about Ben as the character when I first heard of it. However, after the first set photo of Ben in his Batsuit was revealed, I was on board, and when I witnessed Snyder’s epic film in the theatre, Affleck became my favorite live-action Batman. Affleck embodies several themes that Zack pulled directly from the comics, such as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. He not only was troubled by his parent’s murder, but was a more experienced Batman, broken by countless hardships and had no faith left in humanity. That is until Superman showed this Bruce Wayne, through the coincidence of their mother’s names and later with his dying breath, that there was still reason to believe in good. There was still hope, even after all the pain he endured. From then on, a quest of redemption burned within his soul. Ben made his second appearance as the hero in last year’s Justice League, delivering yet another amazing performance. Ben is both daring and accurate as Mr. Wayne, and continues to be some individuals favorite Batman to date.
It’s no secret that Batman has made some serious accomplishments over the years. He’s earned his place among the most outstanding figures in literature and pop culture, inspiring millions of people across the world. What does his history have to do with my argument? Everything.
If we all look back on our lives, no matter how old or young we are, I think we can find some similarities and differences between ourselves and The Dark Knight. Some didn’t begin life with sunshine and rainbows all around. Some people didn’t even have parental figures to begin with, leaving the future a dark and discouraging mystery. For many, these situations are not applicable, but that doesn’t mean they’re not relatable. I would be willing to bet that those people have had to endure multiple tribulations of their own, fearing the worst at some times.
Life isn’t always easy. It wasn’t for Batman. But life has its ups and downs. We may have bleak and ominous times, but more often than not, there are times of spectacular, almost science-fictional events that just don’t seem to have any foreboding distress beyond the horizon. If you look at Batman’s history through comics and film, his existence follows a very similar model.
So why is Batman so unique and relatable for so many? Is it because he is just a man, mortal just like the rest of us? Is it because his past is so horrifyingly realistic? Is it because he is probably the most realistically possible vigilante to exist in the real world? I say yes and no. I think a huge part of what sets Batman apart is the fact that he doesn’t have any kind of superpower. He has no enhancements to back him up in a fight, super senses to boost his mind when solving a puzzle, and has very limited control over any given environment. He just figures it out through trial and error because he knows he is able to. However, I think that concept has so much more meaning than any of us understand.
Batman understands that he is merely human. He knows he is susceptible to broken bones, bullet holes, scars, beatings, bruises, and even death whenever he ventures out into the night. He understands that evil exists in the world, ready to strike him down at any instant. Yet he never hesitates to face whatever life has to throw at him because he uses his weak times to make him strong. He uses the memory of his parents being murdered at gunpoint when he was a boy as motivation. The pain of it never leaves—he relives the experience everyday, in fact. But he cannot bear the notion of another innocent man, woman, or child losing themselves or someone they love because of some punk with a finger on a trigger.
So he fights. He exerts himself to whatever it takes to save every life he can. Even the wicked ones. Why doesn’t he kill? It’s not just because he doesn’t want to descend into the chasm of no return. It’s because he still believes that people, no matter how vile or cruel, can still be good. When life stares him down in the face and says, “You can’t push yourself past this point,” he responds, “Watch me.” When life puts a villain in the palm of his hand saying, “He’s not worth it. Finish it,” he replies, “No, they are worth it.” When life exclaims, “You can’t save everyone.” he declares, “Says who?”
Batman is both the peak of physical human performance and the epitome of resilience. By human standards, he’s a solid muscular powerhouse, but in a world of gods and aliens, that’s not much of anything. Batman isn’t much of anything next to his own superhero companions, but he doesn’t let that define what he is capable of. He learns, applies, reacts anyway he can to better himself for his cause. He could’ve easily let his parents’ murder penetrate and destroy him. He could’ve easily given up all hope, buried himself in his own sorrow, and remained in darkness. He chose to let the darkness be the foundation for his vision—a world where crime doesn’t exist, and where sorrow never sets in. When hope and despair seemed to violently rip his life away in an instant, he forged a new path. One where he could use his tragedies to inspire greatness. Even when Bruce found himself broken and unable to carry on, he was still willing to change; willing to thrust that broken husk into the wind and start anew. Batman is literally a manifestation of life itself.
I argue that everyone has this potential. Everyone has the ability to define what their limits are. It does not take literal super strength to lift a broken heart or heave depression off one’s shoulders. It may take figurative super strength, but it is still humanly possible. It may even take a friendly sidekick to help heal, but it is achievable. Life doesn’t have to be about what you cannot do. Rather it instead can be viewed as what can I do?
Tragedy or trial isn’t easy for anyone. I have had my fair share of pain, physical and emotional alike. However, we can choose what to do like Batman had do. We can choose to fall into a state of eternal pain and let the past delineate our possibilities. Or we can choose to push back and let our dreadful experiences prepare us for the future.
Don’t let your past life dictate what is possible for you. Challenge yourself. Think of what more you could be doing in today’s world. Anything is possible, and anyone can do it. Everyone is capable of something super. It does not take superpowers to be a superhero.
This is the example that Batman has set both for me and for you. This is why he is so popular in fiction today. So go tackle life with all your might. Don’t let anything stand the way of the pure things you desire. If Batman can be classified as a superhero, so can you. Go change the world.