why os batman great?
I tend to focus on the guy in the red cape at the expense of my second-favorite character, but let’s make something very, very clear: in terms of the sheer scale on which he and his iconography have imprinted onto the popular consciousness, the ratio of output to quality across all mediums for a character that’s experienced the kind of proliferation he has, and his ability to not only endure but remain at the forefront of the genre he practically co-founded across decades, Batman is easily the greatest superhero of all time.
Explaining why that’s the case is tricky to truly, substantively get right, because there’s a difference between what makes him great as a character, and what’s made him the most popular character in the world. Not to remotely denigrate the attention span/intellect of the average moviegoer or suggest they don’t ‘get it’, but I have to imagine most people don’t love Batman because they’ve extensively thought about his complex motives and the fascinating symbolism that rules his world, but because he drives the world’s dopest car over to his job of suplexing crime into the pavement, which is valid because that rules. So we’ll start at the immediate mass-appeal stuff and work our way down, and the big one is something we’ve already touched on:
Batman’s cool as hell
There are certainly contrarian souls who would argue that Batman is not, in fact, relentlessly awesome. Think about him for a couple seconds, they might note, and he’s a silly manchild living in his parents’ underground basement who can only emotionally engage as an equal with literal children; they might drive the point home that his particular brand of macho hyper-capitalist performative Hard Man edginess is both shallow and ultimately passe. And if you’re engaging in a character-centered examination of his archetype as in The Lego Batman Movie or Morrison’s work with the character, those are fine points. But in terms of whether or not he’s surface-level cool? Pull your head out of your ass, peel open your eyes, and engage with the larger culture for a second: Batman is as close to objectively rad as it is possible for a concept to be.
Batman wears black body armor and drives awesome cars and sounds like Kevin Conroy. Batman lives in a mansion that also has a cave in it, and wears the slickest suits when he’s not being Batman, because Batman can buy anything. Batman is ripped and sexy.* Batman knows every martial art and parkour and can blend into the shadows, and he has a belt of James Bond gadgets. Batman is a genius who’s always ten steps ahead and can escape any trap. Batman has a pitch-black sense of humor. Batman is vicious even as he’s utterly cool in the face of danger. Batman fights horror movie villains of the supernatural, monstrous, fetishistically disturbing, and plain ‘ol slasher varieties, and wins (when he’s not busy dancing across the rooftops in pursuit of a leather-clad Anne Hathaway/Michelle Pfeiffer/Julie Newmar). Batman’s climbed his way back from chemically-induced psychosis, a shattered spine, and the gates of death, all by wit and sheer brutal force of will. Batman has a city that’s New York and Chicago and Vegas and Hell rolled into one, and when he’s needed it literally blasts his logo onto the sky in public acknowledgement of his supreme coolness, but he also travels the world to other cool-looking exotic locales so he can be cool there too. Batman has theme songs by Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer. And crucially, in spite of all of this, Batman is tormented. You can argue the validity of those conventions on an intellectual level, but what it amounts to is that Batman is a kickass figure of the night who’s the best at everything and has the best of everything, snarling all the while even as he keeps an air of amused detachment about the whole affair, and those are archetypes that humanity’s long since given the thumbs up as constituting capital-c Cool. We like people who can kick ass, the outlaws, the capable and the mysterious, so long as they’re in good stories that let us buy it. And more than anyone in pop culture aside from maybe Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine - and that dude’s done, while the Dark Knight forever remains - he’s That, the superhero.
* Yes, his depiction is more typically centered around a straight dude perspective of male physical perfection than anything actually particularly sensual or alluring, but the intent’s clearly there, and when you’ve been played by Clooney and Affleck I figure you get to claim ‘sexy’ as a fair semi-universal descriptor.
Batman is spooky
Of course, if cool was all there was to Batman’s general persona, he wouldn’t be cool at all, he’d be Poochie in a Dracula cape (which given it will presumably last until the heat death of the universe is a premise The Simpsons will inevitably have to get around to at some point, so remember you saw it here first). But what backs it up and lets people take it seriously is that he’s spooky. Not necessarily frightening - though he can most definitely be that too - but there’s an ethereal, shadowy aspect to his world that goes beyond the fright mask. It can take many forms for many situations and versions of him and his setting: lurking on a gargoyle over an alleyway, waiting for some poor unsuspecting punk to try and stick up an innocent family only to drag him ten stories up and leave him sobbing for his mother; karate-chopping his way through deathtraps and colorful henchmen, which for all its unabashed fun still carries the air of Halloween pageantry and neuroses let loose; haunting the grimiest parts of an urban hellhole, waiting to burst through the window of a roach-infested apartment or a musty disused warehouse to break bones and spill blood; appearing from nowhere, grappling with mind-bending chemical trips and fighting to stay one step ahead of killers in the shadows, dueling mad rich perverted cultists and literal demons of the underworld, overlooking a shadow city forever in flux to reflect the horrors of the moment. Even at his most innocent, there’s something irreducibly seedy and violent and enigmatic about Batman, and that not only provides immediate distinction and character to him and his surroundings - one that distinguishes both from their contemporaries - but legitimizes the entire enterprise as something that can be taken seriously.
Batman is playful
At the same time, Batman’s fun - even at his most serious he uses Batman-shaped boomerangs, and drives a cool car even though gliding and swinging lets him better avoid traffic. He needs to be fun for the kind of ubiquitous pop appeal he has, and it’s built in on every level of the brand no matter how far away you try and veer from it, letting a character rooted in loss and declarations of bloody revenge work just as well for four-year-olds as forty-somethings. The cave, the costumes, the sidekicks and signal and colorful rogues and utility belt and trophies, they give his world a size and dimension that lets him dip his toe in nearly any genre, with his inherent seriousness backing him up to let you buy him in any of those narrative territories. At the end of the day, the people shaping Batman at least subconsciously know it’s all a game, and in letting him have that kind of fun he’s granted versatility and the ability to invigorate as well as stun audiences.
Batman is emotionally, symbolically raw
And sitting at the heart of it all, giving him the gas in the engine that propels all of the above forward, is that he comes from the most viscerally, broadly relatable place of any superhero. The only one who approaches him is Spider-Man, and even there the meaning of his tragedy is somewhat displaced - there’s loss and guilt, yes, but that’s merely the catalyst for a message of responsibility. Here, that Bruce Wayne loses a concept everyone is on some level familiar with, of the happiness and comfort and stability that family is supposed to provide, is itself the point. He grabs the emotional lever right at the animal hindbrain and pulls until it snaps off: everything has gone wrong, and someone must pay for making things this way. Then for good measure he actually does make them pay while adhering to a righteous moral code that defies all he fights against, elevating himself from spooky fun action hero into myth. He’s surrounded by a city where abstract horrors consolidate down into entirely literal figures - for instance, in Gotham the fear that we can be outfoxed, overwhelmed, and systematically taken apart in service of evil stroking its own ego because we just aren’t good enough to survive is a dick in a neon green hat who likes crossword puzzles (as opposed to Superman’s world of much more personal and basic human concerns blown up to cosmic scale) - and he in turn becomes a myth of us persevering through the worst to fight back.
Batman is genuinely a good character
I place this last because this is really the nuts-and-bolts level. It’s essential, none of the above would work for 79 years and counting without it, but it’s not something many but the hardcore (which includes the comic readers by default at this point) consciously think about. But on the ground floor beneath everything else, Batman’s not just an effective piece of branding, atmosphere, and emotional manipulation, but a good character. In his motivations, with the anger that compels him often making many miss that underneath, he far more powerfully wants to ensure that no one else goes through what he did. The childishness of his methods and mindset regarding ‘the mission’ meeting the maturity of his dedication and brilliance, and the humor that can come from that disconnect (especially when his alternating disgust and amusement with his daytime masquerade as a normal person gets involved). The tentative, essential friendships he’s built with the likes of Gordon and Superman. The fatherly connection with Alfred, and the see-saw of the latter’s feelings of guilt, responsibility, and pride in his charge. The spark of his rivalries at their best. The detective work that can be as thrilling as a good punch-out when pulled off right. The forever changing complexity of the Family, a web of Robins and Batgirls and assorted hangers-on with him at the center, their existence and growth a chart of his own emotional progress and regression. His jet-black wit and self-awareness, his ability to empathize with fellow victims, his difficulties in trusting and openly loving those around him when his world is built on the knowledge of how easily those can be stripped away and how badly it hurts. The paranoia, the compassion, the drive and endurance. Beneath all the trappings, Bruce Wayne is just plain and simple a really, really good, interesting, multi-faceted character, fine-tuned under decades of creators and by his existence facilitating the creation and development of countless *other* good characters. And that’s really all it takes underneath it all to prop up a symbol that’s built empires, redefined cultures, and changed lives: the idea of a good man who refused to give up in the face of a cruel world when it forever scarred him, and made himself something greater to fight back and help others not have to go through it alone. That’s why Batman’s great.