Since swooping onto the scene in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, Batman (or the Bat-Man as he was originally known) has appeared in countless graphic novels, radio and television serials, animated series and blockbuster movies.
Aside from possibly Sherlock Holmes, Batman eclipses pretty much any other literary character under the sun for sheer flexibility. Across nearly eight decades in our collective cultural zeitgeist, the Caped Crusader has shown himself to display immense aesthetic, tonal, narrative and thematic malleability, from the original black-and-white TV serials starring Robert Lowery right up to the present day iterations such as Christian Bale and Ben Affleck.
More so than other superheroes like Superman, I would argue that it’s Batman who displays the greatest variance with regards to appearance, form and overall approach, all whilst staying true to the core iconography and values that define and underscore the character. Even on the most extreme ends of the spectrum, like Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin or the more recent animated The LEGO Batman Movie voiced by Will Arnett, Batman is still instantly recognisable as Batman.
Unlike Spider-man (teen drama) or Captain America (spirited wartime patriotism), you never really know what you’re going to get with Batman. One moment he’s leading Christopher Nolan’s grounded Dark Knight trilogy, and the next he’s a kid-friendly blockhead in The Lego Movie. On one end of the scale you have a punchy, brooding Batman who prowls the streets of a drab, sprawling urban jungle. On the other hand is a colourful, zippy Batman who is quick-witted, immature and maybe just a little bit sassy when the mood takes him.
Filmmakers the likes of Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher and Zach Snyder have also had the chance to imprint their own idea of what the Dark Knight should look and sound like. With Burton, Batman became an imposing exaggeration of comic book peculiarity and Expressionist inspired tech; in the hands of Schumacher, Batman was a commercialised action figure garnished in garish neon; presently with Snyder, Batman is a hyper-masculine gym junkie crossed with a mass murderer who hungers for torture and destruction.
The differences don’t begin and end in the realm of cinema; in just the past few years we’ve seen a multitude of different versions of Batman in video games, kid’s animation and even network TV. Even when Batman is thrust into a totally different era in comic books like Gotham by Gaslight or Batman Beyond, the hallmarks are all there. It’s a never-ending deluge of Batman that covers pretty much every age bracket and taste, all whilst remaining instantly recognisable and understandable.
Unlike Superman who comes from outer space or Spider-man who is lucky enough for a magic spider to nibble his neck, Bruce Wayne doesn’t have superpowers. Other than being crazy rich, Batman has endured with readers of all ages across the last 75 years because it’s easy to see ourselves in his selfless quest. Through training, discipline and bravery, we too could be like Batman – if only we also had a spare fortune lying around that is.
No need for a magic ring or lasso; just grim determination and the will to succeed and survive at all costs. Bruce Wayne takes tragedy (the death of his parents) and turns it into his motivation to be something better, stronger and greater. It’s a desire that transcends borders or race.
Despite the ups and downs of storytelling quality, Batman remains popular because he remains a hero we can imagine ourselves as, irrespective of that fact that he might be made of Lego or have ridiculous nipples on the outside of his suit. A symbol in both fiction and real-life, his enduring cinematic legacy is one ironclad iconography, and those identifiers remain universal, even when everything else about the character is subject to change and trends.
Image courtesy of Roadshow Films