Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
Last weekend, major cities across the world held Batman Day events. In ten of these global Gothams, the Bat-Signal was lit in order to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Dark Knight Detective. Was this a commercial stunt? Of course it was. Batman’s corporate owners can always benefit from some more sales of comics, movies, and merchandising. I think, however, that there is something else going on here. After all, Batman is not something we are required to celebrate. We love this Caped Crusader.
One of the enduring appeals of Batman is that he is a human being. No solar rays activated his alien biology. No laboratory accidents or radioactive creature bites gave him superpowers. No mutant genes lurked in his DNA until puberty.
Batman is as human as you or I. Beyond that, Batman is an example of human excellence. He represents what one completely driven human beings could do. True, he benefits from an enormous inheritance, but theoretically, we could all be Batman if we applied ourselves.
People will often say they want to be Batman. You’ve seen the memes about dressing for the job you want to have with a picture of someone cosplaying as the Batman. Or, rather, people say they want to be the Batman until one reminds them of the whole thing about Batman’s parents being murdered.
The tragedy of this origin is, I think, another appeal of Batman. Admittedly, “appeal” is a difficult word to use here. Thomas and Martha Wayne were at the top of their world. Wealthy socialites who were actually dedicated to making their troubled city into a better place. The kind of people we would all aspire to be. And in one horrible moment, they were gunned down in front of their only son.
Batman’s origin revolves around an existential crisis. Young Bruce Wayne encountered the capricious whims of fate and in the flash of gunfire, the hollow and cruel nature of life was revealed to him.
Although this origin has been told in a variety of ways over the past decades, a recurring element in all of these retellings is that Bruce Wayne rises from this moment. From our real world perspective, there is much to unpack culturally in the decision of an enraged child to embark upon a life-long quest to end all crime through costumed vigilantism. The powerful message of striving against adversity is, however, quite clear.
The identity of the Wayne’s killer has shifted over time. For many years, it was Joe Chill, an ordinary gangster when compared to Batman’s many costumed adversaries. Some stories of their confrontation feature Batman revealing his identity to Chill. When Chill reveals to his criminal cohorts that he caused the creation of Batman, they turn upon him and kill him for causing them such misery.
In another iteration, Jack Napier kills the Waynes years before he becomes the Joker. I’ve never liked that idea because it makes the Clown Prince of Crime a bit too conventional for my tastes. Yet another intriguing spin on Batman’s origin is that the killer remains unknown. It is chilling to think that Batman was the victim of a crime that he cannot solve.
No matter the identity of the killer, Batman stands against that chaos. By no means without flaws, Batman still represents our need to push back against danger. And that has been worth celebrating for decades.