Without a doubt, Batman was my introduction to the world of superheroes. Even in the article I wrote about how I became a Marvel fan, I credited Batman as my first favorite superhero predating Spider-Man. I think my initial surface-level fascination with Batman is credited to my adolescent predilection for the dark and macabre. Characters like Superman and Wonder Woman would never get my attention back then, although I love them now, and that’s because my love for Batman led to the Justice League comics and subsequently the rest of the DC superheroes, many of whom I am a big fan of now. But even as an adult, Batman is still my favorite DC character. I think the idea of a person going through the worst imaginable tragedy you could go through as a child and then using it as motivation to make the world a less tragic place by fighting crime just makes for a likable and interesting character. But on top of being a vigilante who cleans up the streets of Gotham City, Batman is an intelligent person who has trained himself both mentally and physically without the aid of alien powers or gamma radiation. His human vulnerability makes him an easy person to root for. It’s also easy to write for a character like this because he’s got depth, which probably explains why he has remained popular for so many decades.
Everyone probably knows Batman’s backstory by now but here’s the refresher anyway. Batman’s alias is Bruce Wayne, a wealthy playboy from Gotham City who owns Wayne Enterprises and whose parents Tom and Martha Wayne were murdered by robbers in front of him as a child, leaving him in the care of his butler Alfred Pennyworth. As a result of his trauma, Bruce trained himself to become a crime-fighting masked vigilante who brings justice to the streets of Gotham under the identity of Batman (bats being an animal that strikes fear in the hearts of most people).
The stories of Batman have also included many side characters who are just as fascinating and three-dimensional as Bruce Wayne. In addition to Alfred, Batman’s allies include his young sidekick Robin, Commissioner James Gordon of the Gotham City Police Department, Wayne Enterprises business manager Lucius Fox and Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara Gordon aka Batgirl.
But the most memorable characters in the Batman comics are by far the villains. The rogues gallery has earned praise as one of the best in comic book history and it includes great characters like psychotic clown the Joker, rival/love interest Catwoman, gentleman mobster the Penguin, the puzzle-loving Riddler and the deformed former attorney Two-Face as well as Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, Bane, Clayface, Firefly, Hugo Strange, Killer Croc, Mad Hatter, Ra’s al Ghul, the Ventriloquist and Harley Quinn.
Batman was created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger and the character first appeared in Detective Comics # 27 in 1939, a year after Superman made his debut in Action Comics. It was clear DC Comics wanted to capitalize on Superman’s success, although Bill Finger was more inspired by Lee Falk’s comic book character the Phantom. Finger refined Kane’s interpretation of the character by making him less bright and more dark, giving the character a cape and cowl and creating his alter ego Bruce Wayne. Aristocratic men who had secret identities as heroic vigilantes have been prevalent in pop culture since the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro were introduced in the early 1900s, while Batman’s super sleuthing was inspired by characters like Sherlock Holmes and Dick Tracy.
In 1940, Batman got his own spin-off comic separate from Detective Comics, and by that decade Superman and Batman were both DC’s most popular characters. As the comics went on, characters like Robin, Joker and Catwoman eventually got introduced and so did popular elements that have since become series mainstays like the Batarang, the Batmobile, the Batcave and the Bat-Signal.
In the early issues, Batman was a ruthless murderer who used guns, but DC editor Whitney Ellsworth pushed back on the violent portrayal and decreed killing and gun use as off-limits. The comic was targeting kids after all. Speaking of which, since the introduction of Batman’s sidekick Robin, sales doubled and a proliferation of child sidekicks appeared across the superhero comic landscape as a result, with the justification being that it would be more relatable to young readers that way, although Marvel thankfully put an end to that trend in the sixties.
After World War II, Batman started being less dark and menacing and more colorful and light-hearted, and probably not coincidentally superheroes started losing their popularity. DC decided to team up their two most popular characters Superman and Batman in the fifties with The World’s Finest Comics and that series helped renew interest in superheroes. New characters were also brought in to add a fresh spin, including Batgirl, Ace the Bat-Hound and Bat-Mite. Starting in the sixties, Batman even joined the Justice League in The Brave and the Bold.
The sixties were not a popular era for Batman. That is, until 1966 when the character was adapted to television in the highly popular Batman television series which ran for three seasons from 1966 to 1968 on ABC and starred Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. Its theme song by jazz trumpeter Neal Hefti and its comic book-like imagery have entered the pop culture lexicon to the point that this version is the one most baby boomers think of first when they hear the name Batman.
The show had a campy charm but its popularity quickly faded before the sixties even ended. Although the friendly and less brooding iteration of Batman has continued to appear on television since the show ended, including in Filmation’s The Batman/Superman Hour and Hanna-Barbera’s Super Friends. Adam West even voiced him a few times in these shows and even reprised the role years later in the animated films Batman: Return of the Caped Crusader (2016) and Batman vs. Two-Face (2017).
In the 1970s and 1980s, Batman comics were still not commercially successful, but writers like Dennis O’Neil and artists like Neal Adams experimented by taking the character back to his dark roots and successfully brought some edge back to the character that deliberately distanced itself from the Adam West version. Frank Miller’s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (1986) was what really brought the character back to life. This critically acclaimed and commercially successful story of a 55-year-old Batman coming out of retirement in an apocalyptic future made the character popular again, and this led to other brilliant comics like Year One written by Frank Miller and drawn by David Mazzucchelli which redefined Batman’s origin story and Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s one-shot issue Batman: The Killing Joke in which Joker, at his most sadistic, ends up crippling Batgirl.
Since then, many great Batman stories have been told (Some of my favorites are “Cataclysm,” “No Man’s Land,” “The Long Halloween” and “Night of the Owls” to name a few). Batman even eventually started a global superhero team called Batman Incorporated which included such heroes as Nightwing, Robin, Red Hood, Batwoman and Oracle as members.
Batman had been adapted for the big screen before in 1943 for a serial starring Lewis Wilson and again in 1949 for Batman and Robin starring Robert Lowery, but the first time a non-Adam West version of the character starred in a feature film was in 1989 when Michael Keaton played the character for Tim Burton (hot off their collaboration in Beetlejuice). Against the expectations of many, the film was a huge box office success and Keaton is seen by many as the definitive Batman along with Jack Nicholson as Joker. Tim Burton and Michael Keaton worked together on one more Batman film in 1992 called Batman Returns, in which Keaton co-starred with Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Danny DeVito as Penguin. Keaton is currently set to reprise the role in upcoming films The Flash and Batgirl.
Other actors who have portrayed Batman include Val Kilmer in Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (1995); George Clooney in Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (1997); Christian Bale in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012); Ben Affleck in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016), Joss Whedon’s Justice League (2017), Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) and later in The Flash; and Robert Pattinson in Matt Reeves’ The Batman (2022) with a sequel for that film already underway.
After the success of Tim Burton’s film, the series Batman: The Animated Series (1992-95) made its television debut on Fox Kids where the character was voiced by Kevin Conroy. This was the show that introduced many millennials to the character and it was also praised for being a more stylish and mature animated series than most cartoons aimed at kids at the time, so it left an impression on both audiences and critics.
This version of Batman would also appear in Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, The Zeta Project, Justice League, Static Shock and Justice League Unlimited. Other animated Batman series include The Batman (2004-08) in which he was voiced my Rino Romano, Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008-11) (voiced by Diedrich Bader), Beware the Batman (2013) (voiced by Anthony Ruivivar) and the upcoming Batman: Caped Crusader which will air on HBO Max and Cartoon Network and be produced by J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves. Batman has also appeared in Young Justice, Justice League Action, DC Super Hero Girls and Harley Quinn and made cameo appearances in Sesame Street, Scooby-Doo, Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs and Robot Chicken.
Batman has appeared in many animated films, including ones based on his animated series like Mask of the Phantasm, Sub-Zero and Return of the Joker, but also the excellent anime anthology film Batman: Gotham Knight (2008) (worth watching if you haven’t seen it yet) where Kevin Conroy reprises the role. Conroy also voices Batman in the movies Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009), Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010), Justice League: Doom (2012), Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014), Batman: The Killing Joke (2016), Batman and Harley Quinn (2017), Justice League vs. the Fatal Five (2019) and Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham video game series.
But a wide variety of actors also portrays Batman in DC’s animated films, including Bruce Greenwood (Under the Red Hood, Gotham by Gaslight), Benjamin McKenzie (Year One), Peter Welling (The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 and Part 2), Jason O’Mara (Son of Batman, Batman vs. Robin, Batman: Bad Blood, Justice League: War, Justice League: Throne of Atlantis, Justice League Dark, The Death of Superman, Reign of the Supermen, Justice League Dark: Apokalips War), Roger Craig Smith (the Batman Unlimited film series, Batman Ninja, Superman: Red Son), Jensen Ackles (Batman: The Long Halloween Part 1 and Part 2), Jeremy Sisto (Justice League: The New Frontier), William Baldwin (Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths), Kevin McKidd (Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox) and Jimmy Kimmel (Teen Titans Go! To the Movies).
Troy Baker has also voiced Batman prominently in the animated Lego DC Comics Superheroes series in addition to voicing Batman in the crossover film Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but Will Arnett is the voice most filmgoers are familiar with as he voiced Lego Batman in The Lego Movie, The Lego Batman Movie and The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part. Plus Arnett reprised the role in the TV spin-off Unikitty!
You can see how easily Batman can fit into any narrative you put him in. He can be the dark knight of vengeance who lurks in the city like a gargoyle, the most brilliant detective in the world, one of the greatest superheroes in the Justice League, the depressed loner, the father figure, or the self-serious comic relief. Most people might prefer one version over the other, or they might say Keaton is the only real Batman, or it all went downhill after Christopher Nolan, or the Adam West version must be burned with fire or whatever. But no matter which version you are seeing, someone absolutely loves that version because the character has universal appeal. My personal favorite is Kevin Conroy’s version in Batman: The Animated Series (I’m a millennial) so I think of that as the definitive version in my mind, but The Dark Knight and The Lego Batman Movie are still two of my favorite films of all time. I’m even excited to see the latest film from Matt Reeves and every version after that. As long as creative people keep writing Batman stories, I’m going to be interested in their takes.