Though he transcends history and the media, starring in numerous adaptations and remakes of his character, one thing will always stay the same about Batman: Though his thematic role may shift on the streets of Gotham, he is, as a character, always what the world needs him to be. Whether he is seen as the dark, brooding, and visceral Dark Knight of Christopher Nolan’s films, or the light and campy Batman of the 1960’s, or any and everything in between, Batman stays the same. Throughout various iterations of the Batman mythos, one factor retains its residency in the streets of Gotham: While other DC superheroes are godly, physically unbeatable, sculpted from marble, and or descended from the stars, or the otherwise unexplored, Batman is but an ordinary man. His weapons are his intellect and his ingenuity. Disproportionate wealth excluded from the conversation, he is a regular person trying to make a difference. In his genesis, a new breed of superhero that did not rely on superpowers, while still trying to save a city overrun with deprivation, was born. This relative normality in the Batman character represented, and still does represent, the common man, and what we could, should, and need to do in order to quell an influx of metropolitan crime.
Batman’s dominating reign over popular media began with the 1960’s television show, Batman, which served to rejuvenate the dying comic book property at the time of the program’s inception. Rather than mimic the nitty-gritty nature of the source material, the show transposed Bob Kane’s melodrama into parody. Starring a jocular Adam West, supported by the whimsical Burt Ward, the show’s chief protagonists were injected with a playful campiness that defined an entire generation. In each half-hour slot of popular television programming, Batman tackled social issues in an uncompromising way, while retaining its thematic focus by providing a sense of humor when handling other weightier, supported issues.
Following the Adam West serial, the character receded in the public imagination for over a decade, in terms of visibility within the mainstream, after the cancellation of the show, until finally being reincarnated in Tim Burton’s darker, more violent adaptation of the character in 1989. In Burton’s first film, the Caped Crusader became a means by which to convey criticism on social issues, all while still grappling with the character’s most personally held fears, implicitly engaged in by the film’s viewers. In 1989’s Batman, the character battled corruption in a Gotham made manifest by a cultural inability to maintain a uniformly structured system of justice. In 1992, Burton’s Batman Returns featured a duality of villains, pairing the Penguin, depicted as a deformed orphan, with Catwoman, characterized as a lonely secretary facing abuse from her boss, the political magnate Max Shreck. By a cosmic twist of fate, each character in the film becomes evil as a result of their own psychoses rooted in the surrounding societal structure, making these two villains mere byproducts of a larger scheme of mass villainy. In Burton’s cinematic rendering of the Batman character, an original character like Max Schreck, a businessman whose manipulation of the Penguin is used in order to grab political power, shines as the true puppeteer of social dysfunction, showcasing the grip that political pundits extend over their citizens, especially those afflicted by hardship.
Then came Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, the darkest take yet on the Batman character, which dropped our hero in the midst of the post-9/11 American subconscious. 2005’s Batman Begins uses public fear heavily as a theme and a plot device; while our titular hero travels and learns to overcome his own fears through joining the League of Shadows, in a simultaneous act of chemical terrorism, pulled straight from the national subconscious, Scarecrow and his cronies use a hallucinogenic drug to expose and exploit societal fear, and take control of the city. In effect, Nolan’s adaptation of the Batman character comes to illustrate the tensions surrounding the very real fear of another terrorist attack on American soil during a time of a very real and national unease and paranoia.
In the next, and most popular, film of the trilogy, The Dark Knight, Batman faces not so much a villain as an ideal epitomized in the Joker: Chaos. There is no physical challenge. There are no evil motives to be exploited. The Joker is an entity, aimlessly capitalizing on fear in order to expose the citizens of Gotham to their own weaknesses through his very own brand of imposed social disarray; Nolan’s Joker “upsets the established order” and “introduces a little anarchy,” and orders his followers to do the same. He turns the city’s symbols on their heads, rendering someone as judiciously moralistic as Harvey Dent into the villainous Two-Face. At an especially pivotal juncture within the film’s narrative, he proselytizes, “You know the thing about Chaos? It’s fair,” a sentiment that echoed reactionary thought already existent on the fringe and extremist edge of cultural reaction to the political injustice and confusion that served to define the Bush-era of the 2000’s. This unbeatable agent of terror served as an allegory on the futilities of a nation embroiled in violent foreign relations in the Middle East, post-9/11. Despite Batman’s victory in the film, the Joker is never truly killed; though imprisoned, he is still present, forever lingering in the dark recesses of civilized thought.
And yet, Nolan’s watermark contribution to the Batman mythos is not a hopeless one. In one of the final sequences of The Dark Knight, the Joker takes two boats hostage, each one loaded with explosives. He gives each boat the option to detonate the other in order to achieve individual freedom and live. If neither ship detonates the other, then both will be destroyed. In a dramatic scene of excruciating tension, neither boat decides to push the button, and Batman swoops in and saves the day. The human spirit, defined by morality, remains intact; there is hope for Gotham, and America, in its commitment to peace and compassion, existing as the fabric of basic human nobility.
Throughout all of these variegated versions of Batman in film and on television, we as an audience are presented with a palimpsestic superhero, one supporting the core values of super heroics we all know and love superimposed upon the popular culture as an expression of our collective cultural conscience. From fighting crime in generic costumes, to inviting frivolity and living freely, to delving into the shadows and becoming the antihero necessitated by the complexity of the political climate of the time, an approach that has since permeated into the rest of the superhero film genre, the Batman character has maintained his core of vigilante justice and intelligent crime-fighting. What changes is his relevance within our society, a relevance made malleable and elastic, which is what makes his character so timelessly popular for each generation, past, present, and future.