Everything is Batman: A companion piece to Episode 5: The Joke Written by Derek Jones
I just googled, "How popular is Batman?" The simple answer is, a lot. The first published comic book appearance of Batman was May of 1939, followed by a solo title in 1940. Since 1943, 13 live action or animated movies were made starring the Caped Crusader, 5 since 2005. Also, in 2018 Warner Brothers has slated another live action Batman movie. Lego just followed up its smash hit, The Lego Movie, with a Batman movie that made 53 million dollars in three days! Even Batman as a Lego has captivated our collective imagination and delighted audiences. No matter where we go, what we do, where we look, Batman has become America's Dark Knight, he is the superhero darling of our imagination. I'd like to think he's the American Achilles. Achilles’ deeds, immortalized by the epic words of Homer's Iliad, captivated the Ancient World and served as the template for all heroes, as Batman does for us today. For a thousand years, everyone recited the words of the Iliad, just to remember the heroism of Achilles and his tragic fall during the sack of Troy. One could argue that many Ancient Greek myths serve to detail the lineage of the heroes who would sail across the sea to fight in the Trojan War. The tales of Perseus, Hercules, Jason, Theseus and so on, are the origin story, the build up of the final act of Ancient Greek heroism: sailing across the Mediterranean Sea to retake Helen and burn Troy to the ground. If one endeavors to understand the psyche of the Ancient Western World, one must look at it through the prism of Achilles. A story resonates and holds on to the collective imagination of a society for a reason. Often, that reason is reflective and aspirational. The hero of the story reflects a crucial aspect of cultural identity and can only succeed if they aspire to become the best versions of themselves. In the case of Achilles, he is a proud warrior who fearlessly leads his troops and has the blessings of the immortal gods that equip him with invincible armor. Achilles is the ultimate Ancient Greek man, and what person in the ancient world would not romanticize their actions as they attempt to reflect an Achilles image?
The ancient world is very different from the world we live in, and if we can learn about the ancient world by understanding Achilles, what does our understanding of Batman teach us about ourselves? In other words, why Batman? There are a ton of really smart people who have looked at Batman and given amazing answers to Batman's astounding popularity. As a comic, he's always well drawn, with amazing writers giving life to the art work. In movies, film greats such as Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan have put their full creative prowess behind the character, reimagining and reinvigorating Batman for subsequent generations. Many people point out his lack of superhuman powers. This appeals to us, because somewhere deep down, believing in Batman means believing in humanity’s power to save itself. It isn't some fluke science experiment that goes wrong that enables Batman's journey into superhero status, he isn't from another galaxy, he can't read minds or fly, heal or teleport. Batman is a hero because he chooses to be. His choice to dawn a cape and mask separates himself from so many other heroes. What would Peter Parker be if a radioactive spider didn't bite him? More importantly, we know what he would not be: Spider-Man. What if planet Krypton didn't explode? No superman. What if Reed Richards went to space and the radioactive blast that gave him superpowers missed him and his family? Bye bye Fantastic Four. Because Batman chooses heroism, he represents the epoch of American rugged individualism coupled with self-determination. If Bruce Wayne lives a double life and fights super villains by sheer force of will, anyone of us can do anything.
We also have some of the greatest villains to pit Batman against. I have a theory about why his villains are so good, and it starts with understanding that all great Batman narratives are tragic. We all know what happened to Bruce Wayne, who watched his parents’ brutal execution. Faced with horrific trauma, Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, to avenge his parents, heal from his loss, and prevent others from a similar dark fate. Tragedy allows Batman stories to appeal to adults as much as they do to children. And with the rise of Batman, so rises the villainy of Gotham City. Each great Batman nemesis is part Batman, and Batman is always walking the line between hero and madman. Take for example, the Riddler. The Riddler has no superpowers, is ingenious, inventive, and cunning. However, because of his crime-ridden pathology, he leaves clues that invariably lead Batman directly to him. The Riddler could plan the perfect crime, but his compulsion to challenge Batman always leads to his capture. The Riddler needs Batman as much as Batman needs the Riddler. The duality of Batman manifests in his relationship with himself, as Bruce Wayne, his relationships with Alfred, Robin, and every twisted villain who plans Batman's downfall. But it's so very tragic. The Riddler hates Batman as much as he needs him, his compulsion to tackle Batman's weaknesses is a curse, and because of it, the Riddler-- and Batman-- will never be free. This is not a very new idea, after all, Achilles also needs Hector
In Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight, when the Joker finally gets to talk to Batman, the Clown Prince pontificates about how much he needs Batman, and without Batman his life is boring. "Kill you? What would I do without you?" the Joker says. Indeed, what would we all do without Batman? There is so much more one could say about this hero. But one thing we can not deny, Batman is here and here to stay. He is the hero we need, the hero we deserve, and he is going to delight our imaginations for a long time.