“The Sisyphus of Today’s Mythology” – Why is Batman So Popular?

Since his creation in 1939, Batman has continuously been at the forefront of the superhero genre. A genre the popularity of which is now finding a way into practically all mediums of culture, ranging from the original comic books themselves to the glistening cinema screen. There is no doubt that we are living in the age of superheroes, but why is it that a character like the Dark Knight has played such a pivotal role in what has led to the epoch we now find ourselves in? What is it about the character that has consistently resonated with audiences over the past 78 years?

Picture this scene. You are walking home down a familiar path you have traveled countless times. The only solace from the seemingly innate darkness is the harsh beams of streetlights that dissect the night with the coolness of a surgeon’s scalpel. From behind, you hear running and various cries of anguish. A person, pursued by two police officers, frantically sprints past you and continues up the path, dipping in and out of light and darkness. Your eyes remained fixed on the assailant, following his every move as he etches further away. Then, out of the distant night, an inhuman figure lunges into the light and persists to beat the person to a pulp as the police officers stop running.

When disconnected from the context of Gotham City, the cinema screen or the pages of a comic, moments like this are terrifying. In fact, applying the whole notion of a masked vigilante or police officers ferociously beating and traumatising criminals would be considered appalling by most people. Yet Batman, a character who relishes this form of abusive approach, is still so popular amongst a broad spectrum of people regardless of their outlook on violence. Unlike heroes such as Superman and Spider-Man who often tackle crime with a smile on their face and serve as bright beacons of hope, Batman is a brooding concoction whose prime ingredients are fear, tragedy and physicality. We would – I hope – never condone these types of actions in real life, but interestingly, we are willing to enjoy them in the realm of fiction.

That, perhaps, is the first quality of Batman that makes him so appealing: he reflects our own unconscious desires to stop, by any means, despicable people from committing what we consider to be horrendous acts. As human beings who want to participate in a functioning society, we suppress these desires from entering the realm of violence, whereas Batman distinctly does not. This somewhat utilitarian perspective – empowering one person to do what would be perceived as wrong in order to prevent mass harm being inflicted on a larger population – is at the heart of Batman’s crusade on justice. Common phrases such as ‘stomping out crime’ or ‘tackling criminals,’ rely on violent lexis to enforce their policing messages. Is it therefore such a surprise that we would be drawn to an individual character who literally embodies this physically forceful approach to justice, and stand gleefully by, observing the products of his actions?

Now it is important to acknowledge the distinct cries of Batman fans, who are protesting that Batman does restrain one urge:  no matter what, he chooses not to kill. Despite how many punches are thrown, or criminals literally thrown off buildings, Batman ensures he never fatally injures a villain (unless of course you are Zack Snyder’s vision of Batman, who seems to have read the guidelines laid down by Jack the Ripper). Testing this golden rule has been crucial in numerous stories both on the page and screen, most notably in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), where The Joker beckons Batman to mow him down in the street. “HIT ME! HIT ME!” he screams, but the hero, to his own detriment, avoids collision and crashes the Batpod. Most people fail to stick to what they say they are going to do. You need not look any further than New Year’s resolutions: how many of you have already failed to accomplish that one simple goal you set yourself? We enjoy Batman’s ability to remain attached to his principle, but we simultaneously relish – in what is clearly a form of schadenfreude – seeing how much pressure this rule can take before it breaks.

Besides these two aspects, another crucial component that makes Batman an interesting character is of course his origin story. Yes, we are all sick to death of seeing Thomas and Martha Wayne get shot, whilst Bruce helplessly lies crying in Crime Alley. But there is reason behind why it is so unavoidable when presenting the Batman story: it is fundamental to why Batman is an original and compelling character. Unlike other superheroes, Batman does not originate from chance or some form of supernatural thrusting of power upon on an individual; it starts with a boy, broken, alone, deciding through sheer grief that he is going to spend every moment of his life to right these wrongs. Although some people claim Spider-Man also originates in tragedy – due to the death of Uncle Ben playing a pivotal role in Peter Parker’s journey to become the web-slinging hero – people often forget that when Uncle Ben dies Peter has already been bitten by a radioactive spider and has the capacity to carry that great responsibility. On the other hand, heartbreak is the epicentre of Bruce Wayne’s journey to become a hero; it is the reason for his progression. He is one of the first superheroes who is destined to fail, as he will never be able to get his parents back. Therefore, Batman represents the channeling of tragedy into a force for good; the dedication to a just cause despite never being able to fully resolve what has been lost. Batman is truly the Sisyphus of today’s mythology.

 

These factors are only a few examples of many interesting elements (there is an entire article waiting to be written on Batman’s expansive rogues gallery) of the Bruce Wayne/Batman character, that have developed over time. They are the products of talented artists, who, when they get their hands-on Batman, have snowballed a cannon that is perhaps the most intriguing in the comic book community. Writers like Bill Finger, Bob Kane, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Scott Snyder and Grant Morrison have all been able to capture different sides of Batman, emphasising attributes that have formed the bedrock of society’s perception of the caped crusader. In addition, filmmakers like Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher (sigh), Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder (sigh) have then carved out of this bedrock (and the work of their predecessors) a sculpture that firmly holds up the pantheon of comic book culture.

Batman is a rare kind of character – akin to the likes of Sherlock Holmes – who as the years pass by, endures the emergence of new heroes and the decay of time because they continually and regularly amass new and interesting versions of the original material. Although the same can be said of many comic book characters, Batman, has an inherent scope and range that enables creative forces to perpetually challenge fundamental questions regarding humanity, because at the centre of it all, there is just one human struggling against all odds to find justice. And that is a timeless story.

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