Pop Culture Icons #2 : Batman

One month after the first one we’re back for another episode of this series focusing on icons of the pop culture. This time we’re travelling to the legendary city of Gotham in order to talk about its mighty protector : billionaire during the day, crime fighter at night. Bruce Wayne a.k.a the Dark Knight a.k.a Batman !

Back to the beginning

Alongside Superman, Batman is one of the oldest hero ever created. We need to go back in 1939 to witness Batman’s first appearance in 1939 Detective Comics #27 after he was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Back then he was known as “The Bat-Man”. It’s only in 1940 that he’ll became “Batman” with his own comic book series. Despite having a totally original costume (that has a bat for only inspiration) the concept of what Batman is and what he’s doing take its inspiration from some movies from the 1940s’. The very first Batman adventure is based on 1936 Partners of Peril where Theodore Tinsley embodies a very violent vigilante, dressed with black clothes and killing criminals with no mercy. It’s for this reason that in his first adventures, Batman is actually killing the criminals. The first comic book dedicated to Batman is probably the more symbolic one as this first episode will integrate the characters of the Joker and Catwoman and it’s also the last time the readers will see Batman killing someone. According to Bob Kane, it took approximately a year for Batman to evolve throughout the stories and reach his “final form” or “version”, the one we know nowadays. Despite his huge success, Batman, like many superheroes, was hardly hitted by the end of World War II, as after the war, people were more interested by science-fictions or fantasy stories more than superheroes. This is why during the first years after the end of WWII, Batman stories became science-fiction stories rather than superheroes stories. Despite being a “disgrace” to what Batman is supposed to be, this drastic change probably saved Batman as he’s the only super-hero who survived this post war period alongside Superman and Wonder Woman.

Batman real success story really started during the 1960s’ when the character was adapted for the first time in the nowadays very famous (or unfamous…) 1966 Batman TV show with Adam West under the mask. Once again, this show may be a “disgrace” to what Batman is, especially because it has this very colourful and ridiculous aspect that is miles away from the dark vigilante we all know. Despite the fact that this version of Batman seems totally outdated nowadays, the show saved Batman once again as DC was struggling to sell comics partly because this period marks a time of censorship against comic books (and superheroes in general) as they were accused of perverting the youth. More importantly, this very first adaptation of Batman on screen is the first step towards more than 60 years of Batman movies, shows, video games and comic books. 2 years ago in 1968 the show was stopped due to a lack of interest from the public but Batman was back in the game and the rest is history…

Adam West as Batman in the 1966 Batman TV show. Credit: Fansided.

Who is Batman ?

Batman is first of all a billionaire : Bruce Wayne. Born and raised in Gotham City, Bruce Wayne is the son of Thomas Wayne, himself a billionaire entrepreneur who belongs to one of the oldest and richest family of Gotham City. However the life of Bruce Wayne radically changed when his parents, Martha and Thomas, were murdered in front of his eyes by a gangster. From that moment, Bruce Wayne was raised by Alfred, Wayne family’s butler. After the death of his parents, the character of Alfred will be the closest family Bruce Wayne ever had. For him, he’ll be a paternal figure, a scholar figure and more generally, a warm figure, who’s always here for Bruce whenever he needs it, wether he’s 10 or 30 years old, wether he’s wearing the mask or not. His life experience, wiseness and dedication towards the Wayne family (especially towards Bruce) are what makes Alfred one of the most important character but also a famous figure from the Batman universe. The death of Martha and Thomas in front of Bruce’s eyes is the very first moment that will lead to the creation of Batman. Despite his money and the empire that Wayne Enterprise represents, Bruce is only obsessed by one thing : eleminate the criminality of Gotham. By using the fear of he has for bats against the criminals, Bruce Wayne will create the character of Batman. An intimidant justiciar wearing a black and frightening costume reminding the general look of a bat. Somehow, Bruce Wayne metaphorically died the day his parents died.

Thomas and Martha Wayne’s death. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, 2016. DC / Warner Bros.

However, Batman is not only a character. It’s also an entire universe around him, an entire universe that represent a huge part of Batman’s legend. When I’m talking about that, I’m obviously thinking about the city of Gotham. Big, violent, dark, dangerous and showing no mercy and however full of hopes and good people, Gotham City is the incarnation of what Batman is, of what Bruce Wayne is but also of what Batman is fighting. Gotham is Batman and Batman is Gotham. Withtout Batman Gohtam would be lost and withtout Gotham Bruce Wayne and Batman wouldn’t exist. Wether he wants it or not, Bruce Wayne will stay in Gotham forever, because the city molded him. Part of what happened in Gotham made Bruce Wayne what he is. Gotham is a city that has its own idendity, almost as if Gotham was a character (this is something particularly visible in 2019 Joker by Todd Philipps) and if you understand Gotham, you understand what Batman is, what the universe he’s evolving into is. Batman is also about gadgets. As he’s a simple human with no power except some decent strength and fighting skills Batman uses the money and the technology produced by Wayne Enterprise in order to build incredible gadgets that helps him tracking and fighting the criminals. Among all the gadgets Batman had across his history, we can cite some famous one : the batarang, the bat grappling, the bat gun and of course, the very famous Batmobile. I could make an entire article focusing on the Batmobile but it’s important to know that just like Gotham, the Batmobile is a indivisble element of Batman. Every version of Batman had its Batmobile and everytime a new Batman movie, game or comic book is releasing, we’re all waiting to see how the Batmobile will look like. Once again and just like the city of Gotham, the Batmobile also has this frightening and impressive side and every apparition of the Batmobile is always spectacular. The actor, the costume, Gotham City and the Batmobile are the four elements that we associate to a certain version of Batman with a time of our life. Whenever we see a Batman costume or Batmobile we quickly remember from what Batman movie they’re coming from and who was the actor behind the mask. Elements like the Batmobile are so important that every appearance is always special and it’s always a galvanizing moment, just like each Batman’s first appearance. Sometimes both are combined in order to create an even more memorable scene.

Batman’s first appearance. The Dark Knight Rises, 2012. DC / Warner Bros.

A paradoxal and tortured hero

Among the incredible number of superheroes we have nowadays, Batman is quite special and unique. I’m not talking about the fact that he has no superpowers or tons of gadgets but I’m talking about what Batman is, the ideas he’s embodying and how he’s embodying these ideas. The man behind the mask, Bruce Wayne, grew up in a city consumed by the criminality, a criminality that was the reason of his parents’ death. Right from beginning, as a kid, Bruce Wayne wasn’t molded or educated by his parents but by Gotham. He is the incarnation of Gotham. A broken city for a broken man. As I’ve been saying it a few times across this article, Bruce Wayne died the night his parents were killed and became Batman. Batman is a creation of Gotham, he was generated by the city and its criminality and so Batman will always be attached to Gotham. The only way for him to bring back Bruce Wayne is either to eliminate definitely the criminality or to kill Batman (which is something he does at the end of 2012 The Dark Knight Rises). Also (and once again just like Gotham), Bruce Wayne is a mature man who wears on his body, the scars of an long and exhausting fight against criminals. However he also has the positive sides of Gotham. Batman is an eternal believer, fighter and has high hopes towards the citizens of Gotham. He may have been beaten and putted down many times, it’s impossible to take down Gotham the same way it’s impossible to take down the Batman. Batman is also trapped in a vicious circle towards criminality. He doesn’t want to kill the criminals which puts him in a circle of an endless criminality that keeps coming at him and Gotham and it’s something the Joker perfectly explained in the 2008 The Dark Knight as he says to Batman : “I think that you and I are destined to do this forever”. All this vicious circle is also a proof of Batman’s humanity and weakness. He doesn’t to kill because he doesn’t want to become like the criminals but this force him to eternally fight the criminals. He wants to stop being Batman, he wants to leave Gotham to the hands of its citizens but he can’t because of this vicious circle.

Batman is also a very human character with all the defaults and weakness we can have. He doesn’t want to kill however he’s violent towards the criminals. He uses fear as a weapon against them. Somehow, Batman has a role of catharsis for the public. We feel sad for Bruce Wayne, we feel happy for Gotham when the city wins iver criminality and the violence employed by Batman against criminals is a violence that we, spectator, wouldn’t be able to deliver in real life. Not a hero, more a simple human who wanted to fight his demons, demons that are also Gotham’s demons. Not a pyscopath, more a violent vigilante who keeps his part of humanity. Not a protector, more a symbol of hope and resilience for the citizens of Gotham. Batman’s past, relation with Gotham, relation with the criminals, tortured spirit, code of honour, beliefs towards Gotham and its citizens and other elements are the reason of why Batman is such a unique character and why he became such an icon.

In order to learn more about Batman and in order to add more precisions to this article I had an interview with “Captain Maks”, a DC content creator on YouTube and here is what he told me :

If I had to describe, I’d simply say that Batman is a comic book character who became an absolute worlwide and intergenerational icon of the pop culture.

I think I like the character of Batman mainly thanks to the 1992 animated show and a little bit thanks to 1992 Batman Returns. I immediatly liked this dark universe with such a frightening however reassuring hero. Obviously it’s a superhero, a detective, a ninja, a skilled fighter, he’s dark, badass, he has tons of gadgets and vehicles with his logo and name so it’s hard not to like such a character when you’re a kid. What’s cool is that even when you’re growing up, you can still follow his adventures as there is so many adult and mature Batman content, and somehow, this is what Batman always been.

I believe that the endless hype around Batman is because he’s one of the character who really managed to adapt himself to the different socities and times since his creation in the 1940s’. Whatever the time we’re living in, Batman is the reflection of the time he’s living in. From the incredible serious detective to the comical hero full of self-mockery passing by the violent night vigilante with strong convictions. The result is that Batman is a source of inspiration for so many passionate artists who are able to provide us iconic works that keep Batman’s popularity growing. Regarding Batman’s real identity, I actually believe that Batman is the real identity and Bruce Wayne is the mask, because Bruce Wayne died the night his parents were killed. So I think that the rich entrepreneur side is important because it’s part of the character but I don’t think he’s (Bruce Wayne) that much important when it comes to Batman’s success.

The fact that he’s a dark superhero without any superpowers is in my mind one of the main reason of why Batman marked the pop-culture so much. Consciously or not, I think that a lot of people are actually identifying themselves to the character. As I said, he’s reflecting our society both in positive and negative ways and it’s always interesting to follow such a contrasted character. However, the complexity of the character and all this dark side hasn’t always been a part of Batman and even without these elements he was still very popular, especially when Gotham was full of colours and when Batman was fighting hilarious and ridiculous vilains. Once again it’s about adapting the hero to his time and you gotta think about what the public wants but you also gotta think about all the socio-political context.

I think that Batman’s success is eternal. From the moment you have such a huge licence that has such a level of popularity I think it’s impossible to run out of ideas and content. There’s always gonna be a talented writer or director who will create a new iconic story about the Dark Knight. I can’t really say what makes a good or a bad Batman. I think that Batman firstly need to fit to his time, both in positive and negative ways. He needs to show the path to a better world but he also needs to make mistake so he can stay human. He can be a detective, a superhero, a man, a woman, etc. From the moment he still follows what I just said about fitting to his time, he’ll be a good Batman.

Finally, if I had to rank Batman alongside other pop-culture icons, I’d put him at the top, in the darkness…

We can definitely say that Batman is an absolute icon of the pop culture but when we make the comparison with others characters on this list, he’s quite special. For more than 70 years, Batman has been a part of the pop culture and always found a way to mark this pop culture. His costume, his gadgets, his car and the identity of Bruce Wayne made him a fan favourite and his very human emotional complexity allowed him to be understood by the public as they were identifying to himself. This speficities and the popularity he has allowed him provided him an iconic status right from the beginning. In 2021, Batman is an absolute worlwide cultural but also commercial icon. Alongside the movies, comic books and video games, Batman also Lego sets, toys, clothes and an incredible number of merchandise of all sorts. Movies like 2017 The Lego Batman Movie are a proof that the franchise is also able to play and modify its own codes and specifities while the upcoming Batman movie The Batman is a proof that the Dark Knight is and will always be an endless source of creation for every generation.

Batman has been protecting Gotham for more 81 years… and counting…

The five most famous elements of Batman :

  • The bat’s head inspired mask
  • The Batmobile
  • The bat signal
  • Gotham City
  • The batarang

Some of Batman’s apparitions in other contents than the main movies :

  • The Lego Batman movie (2017, Warner Bros.)
  • The Lego Movie 1 & 2 (2014 & 2019, Warner Bros.)
  • Lego Dimensions (PS4 / XBOX One / PC, 2015, TT Games)
  • Superman Red Son (2020, DC)

That’s all regarding Batman ! Special thanks to Captain Maks who kindly accepted to realize this interview in order to share his knowledge, passion and opinion about Batman and to my friend Clifford Carda who realized the head pic for the article.