This story first appeared in the May 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Since he was created 75 years ago by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman has captured more fancies than he has colorful characters from Gotham’s Rogues Gallery en route to the revolving door of Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane. The appeal of the Batman has become so undeniable that at the conclusion of his latest multi-billion dollar franchise, the Caped Crusader wasn’t gifted with the eight-year vacation his character was afforded by Christopher Nolan between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Instead, Warner Bros. lit the Bat-Signal and put his Bat-ass right back to work: on TV in Fox’s Gotham, in video games like Batman: Arkham Origins, in animation like the short-lived Beware the Batman on Cartoon Network and on the big screen again, in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel sequel, the tentatively titled Batman vs. Superman, and the director’s just-announced Justice League.
But why does Batman endure? In the age of the Marvel movie, a mild-mannered doctor can lose his temper and become a giant green monster, or a rich guy can put on a flying suit of armor and blow away bad guys with repulsor technology. In The Avengers, a whole slew of super souls battled side by side, giving us so much ass-kickin’ eye candy, the worldwide audience collectively screamed, “JUST TAKE ALL MY MONEY NOW!” The Marvel heroes were unwittingly designed for today’s modern movie, where digital artists can finally depict not only what it looks like but also how it feels to be Spider-Man swinging through the canyons of Manhattan.
By comparison, however, on paper Batman comes across as kinda dull. He pulls on a mask and a cape and fights street-level bad guys. He has no superpowers. He has cool tech like Iron Man, but he likes to rely on his brains and brawn more than anything else. In a world of super- heroes, he’s pretty uncinematically normal. When you take away the Batmobile and the Batcave, Batman is just a guy fighting mad men in makeup. He’s not invulnerable: He’s a human being.
And therein lies the appeal of the Batman: He is one of us. We can’t identify with Superman because, in the real world, he’d be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. We can’t identify with Wonder Woman because, in the real world, we don’t know any Amazonian women made from clay. We can’t identify with Green Lantern because, in the real world, there are no aliens giving out power rings.
But in the real world, parents die. Sometimes it’s a car crash that does it, and sometimes it’s a natural disaster. Sometimes it’s merely something mundane and medical. And sometimes, it’s a grisly crime at the hands of the desperate or demented. The thought of losing both parents is a primal fear that preoccupies our childhood imagination: There never has been a child who hasn’t fretted, at one point in their lives, “What if Mom and Dad disappear and I’m left all alone?” It’s a terrifying thought for a kid: “What would happen to me if the only two people in the world who love me the most were suddenly dead?”
See, it’s the Passion Play aspect that keeps us coming back to Batman. In 1966, Batman went mainstream in a campy television show that only once mentioned the heartbreaking origin of the Dark Knight. This was a fun Batman, Biff-ing and Bam-ing bad guys — in Dutch tilt shots — simply because it was the right thing to do. But after Watergate and Vietnam, the bubbly Batman was returned to his onerous origins as the boy whose life would be forever altered in Crime Alley. And to a country and world that had lost its innocence with the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK, the more somber Dark Knight Batman had a deeper impact than the Bright Knight that was the Adam West iteration of the character.
Ask someone in 1966 why Bruce Wayne became Batman and they couldn’t tell you. Ask anyone now? Even the least geeky of us can tell you a young Bruce Wayne watched a mugger murder his parents in the midst of a back-alley robbery. We take this aspect of the story to heart because it’s what appeals to us about Batman the most: his humanity. Before he was punching the Riddler in his turkey neck, Batman was a boy who survived the worst thing that can happen to a child.
Yes, we love the look of a man in uniform — particularly when that uniform includes a cape and cowl. But while Batman is visually arresting, it’s what lies at the heart of the character beneath the bat emblazoned across his chest that we respond to. We root for him with a mix of pity and power, the way we silently cheer on any kid we read about in the news who has to deal with issues and complications some full-grown adults couldn’t be expected to weather.
And in this less innocent age, where greed and corruption are so commonplace it makes our world more like Gotham and less like shiny-happy Metropolis, we trust the establishment less and less. When even priests and politicians are pederasts, what authority figure can you believe in anymore without including caveats or excuses? Although he’s a fictional character, Batman presents an adult any child (and most adults for that matter) can feel safe with, knowing that this masked man with his hidden identity will ironically never betray your trust. He will lay down his life to save yours. But because he spent his formative years honing his body and mind for a lifelong war on crime, we know he won’t have to die for us: Unlike most messiahs, you can’t stop the Batman.
At the core of the character is an arrested development of sorts: Only a child makes a vow as untenable as I will spend my life avenging my parents. And even though he’s a lethal fighting machine who refuses to kill, at the heart of the heroic adult is just a broken boy — so broken, in fact, that the man adheres to the juvenile promise he made as a child.
But without parents to tell him he’s mounting an impossible task, the shattered kid becomes the driven adult, and his dark days make him a Dark Knight.
Bruce Wayne is the original “boy who lived,” but his Voldemort isn’t the Joker — it’s injustice. The injustice of loving parents taken too young. The injustice of a ruined childhood. The injustice of those superstitious and cowardly criminals taking not only things that don’t belong to them, but also the innocence, joy, safety and security of the wonder years.
It wasn’t fair what happened to Bruce Wayne, so instantly, we’re on Bruce Wayne’s side. But he wins our loyalty not because he’s the victim we never want to be, but because he’s the survivor and champion every one of us dreams we are, with or without childhood trauma and tragedy. Bruce the Boy vows to avenge his parents’ murders, and Bruce the Adult makes good on the promise, taking it all one step further: On his watch, no child will ever have to know the pain of losing Mom and Dad. So even though this billionaire playboy has mountains of money with which to dry his eyes or can boo-hoo into the bosoms of any woman (or man) he desires, Bruce Wayne spends every waking hour as a soldier in the service of strangers. And because of this, we feel more connected to Bruce Wayne and Batman than Tony Stark and Iron Man, or Clark Kent and Superman. Or the pope. Or the president. Even the good ones.
We won’t let Batman go because, for such a ridiculous notion, he’s so easy to believe in. He’s a spiritual icon of survival for so many that it doesn’t matter if he’s a fictional character. He endures because of that young boy who made it through the worst thing that can ever happen to a child and came out stronger for it. And since every one of us has either faced or will face their own personal Crime Alley, where we lose someone precious to us, it’s good to know there’s someone out there who can show us how to survive heartbreak — even if he does it by overdressing and socking bad guys in the mush.
Kevin Smith is the writer-director of Clerks, Dogma and the upcoming Tusk, starring Justin Long and Michael Parks. For DC, he has written Green Arrow: Quiver and Batman: The Widening Gyre. He also is the executive producer of Comic Book Men on AMC.