Batman is one of the most recognizable characters in all of media. Even people who don’t read comics, watch the shows, or see the films, most people know who Batman and what he’s about. Kind of. Almost everyone knows the back story of how his parents were murdered when he was a kid, and that he dresses as a bat (duh), and fights crime in Gotham. A lot of people can even list a bunch of his rogues gallery with only a cursory knowledge of the character.
So what is it that makes Batman such a culturally saturating character? Why does everyone know his story?
Well, part of it is Batman is everywhere. He has had a continuous comicbook line (or really, several of them) for eighty years, and he has had films, shows and cartoons almost continuously since the 1960s. A major benefit that Batman has is that he has been in front of a wide audience for decades. However, there are plenty of characters who have been on front of an audience for a long time and don’t have the position in the zeitgeist that Master Wayne does.
The key things that have kept the Dark Knight in the limelight for so long are these: the aesthetic of the setting, Batman’s personality, his personal struggles, and, most importantly, his villains.
We’ll start with the simplest element of Batman’s staying power. Gotham is a dark place. Paul Dini, the guy who can lay claim almost exclusively to the success of Batman the Animated Series, had the show drawn on black paper, giving an inherent darkness and shadow to any uninked space. The city of Gotham, and some of the outside world, is portrayed with this darkness. Batman runs in the shadows, and his villains oftentimes work in the daylight, flipping the trope of the good guy being associated with light.
Batman is the boogeyman for the criminals of Gotham City. He runs in the shadows, comes out at night, and in some storylines, criminals talk about him in hushed tones, almost superstitiously avoiding even saying his name. Almost like a ghost, sweeping in, scaring the bejeebus out of the bad guys, and disappearing again; he really is the opposite of other heroes like The Flash or Superman, who are out in the daylight, striking strong, heroic poses, being entirely visible.
Another element of that aesthetic that sort of builds on the reversal of the light versus dark trope is the look and feel of Gotham City. In almost every iteration (barring the 1960s tv show and subsequent film) has architecture that is both older and futuristic, and the technology is antiquated and postmodern. There is a persistent fog, the weather is oftentimes cold or stormy. The fashion is generally made up of darker colors and sharper angles. All of this pulls Batman out of space and time. He could be on the American East Coast in the 1970s, or maybe he’s in the Great Lakes area during the 1990s, or perhaps even he lives in the Pacific Northwest in 2025. The setting is somewhat ambiguous, allowing every audience to feel comfortable sliding into Gotham City and going along for the ride. The setting may be dark and dangerous and scary, but for an audience, it is inviting even though it is all those other things. It does not alienate its audience; everyone has some point of reference that allows them to understand the world that Bruce Wayne lives in.
Stuggles and Personality
The next two points go hand in hand. Batman’s personality and his struggles. His struggles are defined by who he is, and his personality is shaped by his struggles. The Caped Crusader is a pillar of morality, one who is still capable of making mistakes. Most of his mistakes are in his personal life. Bruce is very good at being Batman; Batman is very bad at being Bruce. He does not struggle with the decisions he must make when it comes to villains. He knows he must stop them, and get them to a facility where they can hopefully get some help (although the supreme failures of the Arkham Mental Health System makes you wonder if Batman is using AA as his own personal prison).
No, where the Dark Knight finds his greatest challenges is inside Wayne Manor. He struggles with his role as a father figure to all the Robins individually, and as an actual father to Damien. He prefers his life as Batman, as the right path is much more obvious to him, and he is always in control of the situations around him, or he knows how to gain control. When it comes to fatherhood, he is clueless. He lives a punishing lifestyle, and the young men and women who look up to him are held to an impossible standard.
Bruce does have his shining moments, but it is this relatable weakness that gives Batman some humanity. He is not perfect, he is not a robot, he is a man, one with a glaring weakness that has dramatic affects on his entire life.
It is this inability to manage his personal life that showcases his personality. When Batman is in the field, he is confident, purposeful, and intimidating. When he is home, he is more vulnerable. He doubts himself, and has some furious arguments with the rest of the Bat family. Bruce wants to do the right thing, but when it comes to Damien, the Robins, Batgirl, or Catwoman, he doesn’t know what that would be. He sees himself as a dark loner, but there is a part of him that wants to be a part of a family and feel love and happiness, no matter how much he hides it.
Batman is also a prime example of how a tragic past should be handled. He has lost a lot of people. His parents died when he was young, which moved him to rise above the tragedy and impact the world in a positive way. The loss of his parents was his call to action, and he answered it. He also lost a Robin, Jason Todd, who was brutally murdered by the Joker. Granted, Jason came back many years later, the trauma remains: Batman was too late to save his ward. In the films, he was too late to save Rachel from the Joker in a similar fashion, and in that case he lost both his love interest and his friend Harvey Dent. He has had friends walk away from him or turn to villainy. He has had a lot to overcome. And yet he stands as this symbol of justice and good. This is why he is such an effective force for hope. Despite everything he has endured, he carries on, and he holds the greater good above himself. He inspires others to do the same.
Batman’s rogues gallery is full of great characters. Joker, Penguin, Mr. Freeze, Scarecrow, Riddler, Two Face, Poison Ivy…that’s such a small portion of the list. While not every villain is a hit (Calandar Man, anyone?), he has a surprisingly high percentage of his villains who are quite memorable. Again and again, he goes up against the likes of Victo Zsasz, and while this character has been in the rotation for twenty-eight years, because there are so many other villains, when the audience sees him, it is still fresh and exciting. Having so many villains cycling through, it rarely if ever feels like just a rehash of the same old story.
More importantly, though, these characters are compelling. Joker is a madman whose only fear is the IRS and someone learning his real name. Poison Ivy is a botanist who technically just wants to save the planet, albeit using violent and aggressive tactics. Mr. Freeze wants to save his wife from a deadly disease. Two Face is a former district attorney who has found the other side of the law to be more fulfilling.
All of these characters hate Batman for different reasons, and the same reason. They all have individual motivations for going toe to toe with the Caped Crusader. Riddler, for instance, sees Batman as possibly the smartest man he’s ever met; he wants to find out if he can out think the Great Detective. When Batman ultimately wins, he, like the rest of the rogues, is furious, because now Batman has gotten in the way and has put him away.
With every stint in Arkham or at Blackgate, these people have time to think about their next move (remember, half of the rogues gallery have doctorate degrees; they are smart people). Their characters have arcs of their own, where they grow and change, some for the better, others for the worse. They are sometimes almost as recognizable and memorable as Batman himself. Batman is cool, but he is nothing without his superbly well-written villains there to flesh out his stories.
If Batman’s villains were thin, the stories would get repetitive, showcasing a #sadboi taking down generic crazies. But these characters change. These characters interact with Batman and force HIM to change. Oftentimes, they inspire more character development in the titular character than anything else. Joker challenges his commitment to his beliefs. Riddler challenges his intelligence. Catwoman makes him question where the line between right and wrong should really be drawn. Penguin makes him question how he spends his wealth. These characters are fully fleshed out in their own right, but what makes them good villains, and thereby what elevates Gatman to the level of greatness he has achieved, is that they act as mirrors for our hero. When he believes he is at his best, they question him. When he feels he is solidly in the right, they force him to look at himself, his motives, and his beliefs.
Sure, his ultimate beliefs do not change. He knows they are committing crimes, and they must be dealt with appropriately. However, it is the more human things, the murkier things that perhaps Bruce does not think about often, that these unique individuals bring to mind. And since Bruce must deal with them, so must the audience.
Batman sticks in our minds for many reasons. His setting is mysterious, yet memorable. As a character, he is compelling and inspires loyalty from his audience as we walk with him through his battles, both as Batman and as Bruce Wayne. He is a man of many foils, and with each story told, we are shown a different side of him, that in turn displays a different side of us, or the world, or society itself. Batman is everything we need out of a heroic character.
There is so much more to say about this character. His transition from depression to acceptance and resolve, his relationships with the various members of the Bat family, how Alfred has helped shape the character over the years, the philosophy behind his methods and actions, and so much more. This is a topic we will be revisiting in great detail and on numerous occasions. For now, let this wet your beak a bit and get excited for the next installment. This is technically the first in our character study series, but as we go along, we may expand and give certain characters like Batman, Harry Potter, and Jason Bourne their own mini series under that umbrella. So keep your eyes peeled.