Ease up on those landings, Bruce. You’ve just hit 75, and no-one wants you risking that knee cartilage. 75 years ago this month, Batman debuted in the pages of Detective Comics, and he’s still going strong, with his last movie raking in more than a billion dollars, and heading towards a reboot in Zak Snyder‘s Batman vs. Superman. In the meantime, many other characters have been and gone, and lots have stuck around but never climbed to the heights of the Bat. So why has the Caped Crusader endured for so long, and why is he so popular?
One appealing answer is that he’s the best version of the superhero power fantasy. Okay, ‘power fantasy’ sounds a little unseemly, and you might argue that people like Batman because of the escapist aspect of his stories. But if that’s the case, you’d probably be better served by reading Superman. After all, Superman’s is the ultimate escapist story: he’s unstoppable, invulnerable, powerful to the point of being beyond human comprehension. Heck, he’s even from another world- a nice Freudian ‘changeling fantasy’ thrown into the mix. Batman, however, is none of these things. He’s got no powers (or even parents). He’s definitely human, and he’s part of a world not entirely dissimilar to ours (in his titles at least; in Justice League he often hangs out with gods). With this in mind, it’s difficult to see how the character of Batman offers an escapist fantasy.
What the Bat definitely does offer is a power fantasy. In this case, it looks like it’s quite a positive one. Batman is a man who took something horrible in his life, and used it as motivation to change himself into a paragon of justice. His constant hard work at becoming a better person is something we can all aspire to. This is obviously a relatively generous reading: it’s equally possible to see the Caped Crusader as a Dark Knight, an obsessive thug with a twisted, black and white idea of morality, who tyrannically forces his will on the world. In this writer’s opinion, the best Batman writing tries both of these takes, and delivers something more in the middle. But the common aspect of both of these takes on Batman is that they discuss, explain and present a power fantasy, where self-determination truly works.
I recognise this might sound a little insulting. ‘Power fantasy’ isn’t usually something positive, after all. But put it like this. How many people, when they read a great Batman comic, end up thinking about how they could change their lives for the better? That’s a positive force, a force for good, and for however many people that inspires into vigilantism (hopefully few), there are those using the image of the Caped Crusader to discuss childhood sexual abuse, or buoy the feelings of a seriously ill child. In more indirect ways, Batman inspires us to be the best we can be. It’s important that he got his start in 1939, when the world was on the cusp of an awful war; despite his darkness, he’s a symbol of hope, and always will be.
Why do you think Batman has been such an enduring character over the years? Sound off in the comments or send us your thoughts on Twitter!