Dateline: Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, April 2013—“The Wall St. Journal” reports that the “Bagram Batman” patrols the U.S. Army base, watching for miscreants who forget safety regulations or shoplift at the base store. Leaping from rooftops or from between huts, the camo-wearing cowled crusader brings order to the troops.
Dateline: San Francisco, Nov, 2013—The Make-a-Wish Foundation grants the request of five-year-old Miles Scott, in remission from leukemia, to be “Batkid” for a day. The resulting event makes international news as the city comes together to grant his wish. Batman himself takes Miles on patrol (in a black Lamborghini), where they encounter and capture various Batman villains.
As he reaches his 75th anniversary, Batman is now much more than a comic book superhero, exploited by a large media conglomerate. The character that used to inspire journalists to headline their stories about anything to do with Batman with “Pow!” “Wham!” and “Zap!” now inspires people to use him as a role model, a symbol of perseverance and triumph over daunting circumstances.
How and why did the Caped Crusader become such a sign of public virtue in a crass and self-indulgent era? The answer lies in the Batman’s origin and in the way it shaped his development from a character in a pulpy new medium to a resilient figure whom many have come to see as a symbol of hope.
In 1939, 22-year-old Bob Kane, an artist for what would later be called DC Comics, was assigned to create a character to follow up on the success of the company’s explosively popular Superman, who had arrived the previous year. Inspired by such disparate elements as Leonardo Da Vinci’s bat-wing designs, Zorro, and then-popular pulp fiction and radio hero the Shadow, Kane came up with a red-suited figure with a black domino mask and Da Vinci’s wings, called the “Bat-Man.” A friend of Kane’s, writer Bill Finger, made some crucial suggestions, recounted in Kane’s autobiography: “Why not make him look more like a bat and put a hood on him, and take the eyeballs out and just put slits for eyes to make him look more mysterious?”
Adding demonically pointed ears to the hood, they had arrived at the essential version of Batman, who, in his first year, was downright scary in appearance—and an immediate success. Within a year, the eldritch elements had been curtailed as the character’s design became a short-eared, barrel-chested, less fearsome-looking “Scoutmaster” to his new sidekick, Robin, the Boy Wonder, who helped him fight an increasingly fantastic rogues’ gallery. This more domesticated characterization stayed on through the post-WWII decades, until DC began to present Batman drawn as a more proportionately accurate figure with a bit more realism. This was the era of the 1960s “Batman” television series when camp was king and Batman was to be laughed at by anyone over ten years old.
DC realized after the series ended that they needed to return Batman to his darker roots. Soon Robin was shipped off to college after a long-arrested adolescence, and Batman prowled the streets alone, scary again as drawn by Neal Adams and written by Denny O’Neil.
By now, it was becoming apparent that Batman was more adaptable to changing times than Superman, who had become sort of a goodwill ambassador for DC—idealistic and admirable as a character, but so uncomplicated and powerful that it was hard to write really interesting stories for him. But the Dark Knight had a backstory to which readers could more easily relate. A child of violence, he is touched with human suffering, being a wounded warrior and spending himself to restore the disrupted social order.
By the time Batman had been reinvigorated yet again in the mid-’80s with Frank Miller’s landmark graphic novel, “The Dark Knight Returns,” DC realized that Batman had transcended most comic book superheroes to become something unique, a character whose appeal ran deep in the human consciousness. Soon there would be a series of feature films, starting with 1989’s “Batman,” which demonstrated that the character could be treated with some seriousness. But the series grew increasingly more flamboyant until, with 1997’s neo-camp “Batman and Robin,” Warner Bros.’ top franchise was a laughingstock. It would be eight years before the Batman was rehabilitated on film.
In 2005, Christopher Nolan’s origin story, “Batman Begins” effectively and finally captured what so many Bat-fans loved about the character. By taking Batman on his own terms, by avoiding an ironic tone and scene-stealing superstar villains, and by moving the narrative several degrees toward realism, the film helped the mass audience grasp what drove traumatized Bruce Wayne to adopt the guise of a night creature. A mentor tells the young Wayne, frustrated at his inability to seek justice for his slain parents, that “if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you—then you become something else entirely . . . legend, Mr. Wayne.” Bruce uses the fearsome Batman as a means of warring on criminals and inspiring Gothamites to believe their city can be redeemed from crime and corruption.
By the time Batman confronts the manic Joker in 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” Nolan had raised the stakes higher than anyone could have anticipated in a superhero film. By the end of the film, Batman had taken on the guilt of another to save the city from hopelessness, and was now a pariah. “Because,” Commissioner Gordon tries to explain to his son, “he’s the hero Gotham deserves . . . but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero . . . he’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector . . . a dark knight.”
Eight years later, after an era of peace, founded in desperate deception, the reclusive Wayne sees a new evil arise in the brutal and calculating Bane, and returns to his other identity to wage a renewed war on crime, in 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises.” But this time, evil has settled deep into the city’s very roots. Soon Batman is broken by Bane, carried off to a distant prison, and made to watch as Bane’s forces invade and take over Wayne’s beloved Gotham, intent on its total destruction. Recovering his will to live as his body heals, Wayne climbs the sheer walls of the prison’s pit, experiencing a renewing baptism as bats fly out of the prison walls around him. Reaching the top of the pit, he throws down a rope to free others, figuratively mirroring Ephesians’ description of Christ’s harrowing of hell: “When He ascended on high, He led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.”
Returning to Gotham, Batman, one last time, inspires its citizens to fight back against its oppressors, leading them into battle against Bane’s forces before making a final sacrifice—to know his city has recovered its soul, but to never live in the peace he has made possible. “A hero can be anyone,” he tells his friend, Commissioner Gordon, before leaving forever. “It was never about me. That was always the point. Anyone.”
So, after 75 years of his adjusting to changing times, even those who’ve never read a Batman comic book understand that Batman is now a singular culture hero, a virtuous warrior, someone on whom we project some of our best qualities. (And face it, he’s also just plain awesome in that black suit and all those wonderful vehicles and tech, always at least 10 years ahead of everyone else.) There’s a book worth reading, “Wisdom from the Batcave,” written by a rabbi, Cary A. Friedman, which recounts the moral insights culled from years of Batman comics.
Batman does what all great heroes do—inspires us to be better, to endure, to strive against the odds. There’s even a new documentary film out, “Legends of the Knight,” depicting how people facing all sorts of challenges found the courage to persevere through Batman’s example. Its theme, “We are Batman,” reflects the lessons distilled so well by the Nolan films. A hero can be anyone.
Image copyright McFarland.
Alex Wainer, Ph.D., is the author of the new book “Soul of the Dark Knight: Batman as Mythic Hero in Comics and Film.” He teaches communication and media at Palm Beach Atlantic University. To find out how to win a copy of Alex’s book, click here!