Batman is one of the most popular superheroes of all time. With dozens of movie and TV adaptations, supporting characters with enough personality to merit their own spin-offs, and theme music everyone knows, this comic book legend is responsible for a lot of the basic tropes for superhero tropes.
However, what makes Batman stand out is how different he is from other superheroes. Unlike most superheroes, Batman has no superhuman abilities. The only superpower he has is his drive to establish some justice in a broken world. Oh, and he’s essentially both a tactical and technological genius who often makes his own gadgets.
His endless money allows him to get anything he needs and go anywhere he wants. Batman can do whatever he needs to do to achieve his goals. In fact, he went all over the world to train and learn new martial arts. Allowing him to fight with anyone who could be considered a threat.
Maybe that’s precisely what makes him so special though. He does not have superpowers, he’s simply human. Yet the drive and determination to his mission makes him one of the greatest comic book characters to ever exist. Let’s dive into more about what makes the dark knight so special.
Batman burst onto comic pages on May 1, 1939. Yep, Batman’s older than your grandparents.
DC introduced Superman to the world in 1938. Demand for the character skyrocketed. The general demand for hopeful stories about good guys saving the world rose, too, probably increased by the fact that World War II loomed on the horizon. Bob Kane sketched out the “Bat-Man” and wrote the stories alongside Bill Finger. The rest is history.
Actually, Kane and Finger took the Bat-Man’s name from two historical figures. Bruce comes from Robert the Bruce, a Scottish warrior king from the 1300s who won several important battles against the English. Think Braveheart, but historical. The Bat-Man’s last name came from “Mad Anthony” Wayne, a general known for the American Revolutionary War.
By using these two figures, Bruce Wayne’s name establishes his character. He’s an independent superhero, a vigilante.
Kane and Finger clearly put a lot of thought into various aspects of their character. Finger also came up with Batman’s infamous backstory.
Batman’s beginnings are dramatic enough that a lot of movies and shows adapt them and put their own spin on them. However, the general gist is always the same.
Bruce Wayne was born into a wealthy, prestigious family. His dad, Thomas, was a doctor. His mom, Martha, was a loving mom. Bruce wasn’t always comfortable as a nepo-baby and sometimes snuck out into seedier parts of town.
Everything changed when his parents went to see a movie: The Mark of Zorro. Fun fact: it’s a real movie with three different versions. There’s a 1920s silent film, a 1940s remake, and a 1974 remake. Whichever version Thomas and Martha saw, they would never be able to compare it to the others: they were mugged and murdered by a no-chill guy named Joe Chill.
Obviously, Bruce was devastated. He sunk into a deep depression. Through it all, his family’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth, was there for him. Bruce eventually decided to live. He spends his days as a well-known CEO and spends his nights as a vigilante superhero.
2016’s Batman #36 – SuperFriends Part 1 has Superman sum him up like this:
His parents died when he was so young. Shot. Killed right in front of him. He was raised alone. A kid in a huge mansion. With his memories of his mother and father. He had love, and they took it from him. He should be a killer. He should want to tear the world apart for what it did. And yet he took that pain. That shock of death. And he turned it into hope.”
Batman And Robin(s)
Robin first appeared as Batman’s sidekick in 1940. However, Robin’s not just one character. Instead, Robin is a role for Batman’s mentees to slip into. There have been five Robins in total.
Dick Grayson was the first Robin. His backstory is similar to Bruce’s: he saw his parents murdered in front of him. Batman then takes Dick under his wing (pun intended) and trains him to be a vigilante hero. Dick ends up as the superhero Nightwing and even took over the Batman mantle for a bit when Batman faked his death.
Dick Grayson’s one of the most popular Robins. Not only was he the first, but he’s also a major part of Teen Titans! The Titans have spawned several series of their own.
Next came Jason Todd. Jason was picked off the streets, where he was living in extreme poverty. Jason wasn’t super popular with fans, and a vote was held to see whether he should die. Sadly, fans were bloodthirsty, and Joker murdered Jason. After Jason’s murder, Batman struggled with immense guilt… until Jason returned from the dead as the family disappointment. More on that later.
Jason Todd was followed by Tim Drake, who’s known as Red Robin. Batman legally adopts Tim, and Tim’s sometimes-girlfriend Stephanie Brown becomes Robin #4. The most recent Robin is Batman’s own son, Damian Wayne.
Yep, Batman has a kid. Born to Batman’s sometimes-lover-sometimes enemy, Batman didn’t know Damian existed for the first decade of Damian’s life. Instead of being raised in luxury, Damian was raised by the League of Assassins.
As a result, Damian doesn’t really do Batman’s “no killing” policy. Kinda the opposite. He’s eager to kill despite his young age and doesn’t understand why killing upsets his dad. After all, it was the only way to impress people in the League of Assassins. Plus, the League encouraged Damian to kill all rivals… which puts Tim Drake in a dicey spot.
Bruce eventually has a test done to see whether the wild child is truly his son. When the results confirm his suspicions, Tim Drake comments “The son of Satan is my brother?” Welcome to the Bat-family, Damian.
Bruce and Damian grow to love each other. Batman grows into his responsibilities as an actual dad instead of just a surrogate one to various Robins. With Batman and Dick Grayson as mentors, Damian slowly channels his traumatic upbringing into heroism.
Batman’s Love Interests
Bruce Wayne is known as a playboy, and Batman’s had his own share of love interests.
Bruce Wayne was once engaged to Julia Madison. He was then involved with a woman named Vicki Vale, and then with Linda Page. None of these were a long-term love interest, though. In fact, Batman hasn’t really had a long-term love interest.
However, there are two women with whom Batman has had multiple romantic entanglements and story arcs: Talia al-Ghul and Selina Kyle.
Talia al-Ghul is the daughter of one of Batman’s enemies, Ra’s al-Ghul. Talia is also the mother of Damian Wayne. Talia’s father aimed for her to manipulate Batman through love. Talia does develop genuine feelings, but can never quite choose to cut ties with the toxic supervillain dad, who is also basically DC’s Satan.
Selina Kyle, of course, is better known as Catwoman. A cat burglar, Selina’s more familiar with the criminal side of Gotham. This pits her against Batman and creates a fascinating internal conflict for Batman. Over time, Catwoman’s become less of a villain and more of an antihero. She’s been portrayed as Batman’s love interest in several film adaptations of the comics.
Aspects of Batman
Talia and Catwoman both represent different parts of Batman.
Like Bruce, Talia can never quite cut herself away from her past, and specifically from her parents. Okay, Talia’s dad’s alive, and Bruce’s parents aren’t, but both feel intense obligations to their parents. In some ways, these feelings limit Talia and Bruce. In other ways, they define their paths.
Like Batman, Catwoman prefers her super identity to her real self in a lot of ways. It’s easier to be a masked being than to look in a mirror… especially when you might not like all of who you are. Sometimes, it even seems like Batman and Catwoman have better understandings of each other than they do of themselves.
Batman’s Enemies: (Rogues Gallery)
Batman’s villains are almost as famous as he is. In fact, many are household names and have spawned their own franchises.
Let’s start with Batman’s original villain: the Joker. The Joker is almost as old as Batman himself: he first appeared in 1940. A homicidal maniac, he’s the one who kills Jason Todd to taunt Batman.
The Joker is everything Batman isn’t. He murders freely, while Batman refuses to kill. He thrives on chaos, while Batman maintains tight control over his life and identity. The Joker sees life as an absurdist, cosmic joke, while Batman seeks to right some of the world’s wrongs.
However, they’re not as different as Batman would like to think. Sure, their methods couldn’t be more different. Still, Batman does work outside the law. Hence, not everything is as black and white or orderly as he might like—perhaps not even justice.
For his part, the Joker’s greatest desire is to see Batman break his principles and smite someone. Batman’s refusal to do so fundamentally challenges the Joker’s worldview. If one person sticks to order even among the chaos, is the world really as random as he thinks? If it’s not random, then what are his obligations? Pfft, obligations aren’t funny, bring on more murder instead.
Bruce Wayne vs. Two-Face
Harvey Dent, or Two-Face, is second only to the Joker in terms of big-name Batman villains. Like Batman, Harvey Dent starts out as someone utterly dedicated to justice and to rooting out corruption. He and Batman even become friends.
However, his relentless pursuit of justice reaps the rewards of an unjust world. Someone throws acid onto his face, giving him a two-faced appearance. As a result, Harvey loses hope in any kind of just world.
Yet, this isn’t so much a huge personality change so much as a change in perspective. Harvey was always big on duality, on black and white. Now he’s just firmly on the wrong side.
Due to his double nature, Two-Face represents the worst of what Batman could become.
Not Quite Father-in-Law: Ra’s Al-Ghul
There’s another villain who represents a dark future Batman has to fight against: Ra’s al-Ghul.
Like Poison Ivy, Ra’s al-Ghul wants environmental harmony. Like Marvel’s Thanos, reducing the world’s population is his go-to solution. Ra’s is the father of Talia and grandfather of Damian. He knows that Batman is really Bruce Wayne, which fits because he also runs a vast international business as Bruce does. Ra’s is called The Demon.
There’s also a subtle difference in Batman and Ra’s dynamic from that of Batman’s with the Joker. The Joker seeks to pull Batman down to his level. Ra’s views Batman as being on his level. They share a deep respect, despite a fundamentally different opinions on things like, you know, morality.
They both let their personal tragedies drive them toward improving the world. In fact, Ra’s and Batman are so similar that others have argued they’re essentially the same person. Ra’s uses the Lazarus Pools to keep himself alive for centuries, but the pools strip him of his humanity. If Bruce isn’t careful, his costumed identity could consume him like the Pools are consuming Ra’s.
Other Villains vs. Batman
Like the Joker and Catwoman, Batman’s other villains tend to represent parts of himself that he’s gotta fight against.
Harley Quinn, like Batman, is very aware of the corruption in Gotham’s justice system. Harley just decided to ditch the farce of caring for patients in Arkham Asylum. Batman, on the other hand, takes matters into his own hands. However, the two have enough in common to where they occasionally get along. In Injustice, she’s even one of Batman’s allies.
Poison Ivy’s femme fatale persona foils both Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne. Bruce maintains his playboy reputation as a cover for Batman. Poison Ivy also has noble intentions: she wants to save the planet. She just resorts to extremes to do it.
Riddler’s a genius who wants to challenge (read: impress) Batman. One could make an argument Bruce is trying to impress his dead parents. Plus, Riddler’s villainy forces Batman to contemplate that his vigilante persona can actually create more crime.
Scarecrow loves to terrorize people. He also uses that fear to get people to do things he wants them to do. Batman might be on the side of justice, but he also relies on scaring criminals to stay in line.
Lastly, the Penguin presents himself as a wealthy gentleman. This calls to mind Batman’s daytime persona of Bruce Wayne. However, both of them have secret identities. Batman’s quests to unmask the Penguin challenge him about just how separate his Bruce Wayne and Batman personas can or should really be.
Then there’s Bane, who we’ll talk about below.
There are several important Batman arcs to read.
What’s unique about Miller’s take is that Batman is older and less aggressive. He looks back on his life and his vigilanteism. It also includes Batman coming to terms with his parents’ losses. He even forgives Joe Chill and acknowledges that he knows the man was scared after killing the Waynes.
I was naïve enough to think [Joe Chill] the lowest sort of man.”
There’s also No Man’s Land, which follows Gotham when it’s been utterly abandoned by the United States government. It also introduces Cassandra Cain, one of four Batgirls. The others were Betty Kane, a temporary love interest; Stephanie Brown, Cassandra’s friend who was also Robin #4, and Barbara Gordon, the most well-known and loved Batgirl. Well, loved by everyone except Warner Bros. Discovery.
Batman: Night of the Owls covers the fictional Illuminati. No, but really: the Court of Owls is involved in almost every criminal enterprise in Gotham, and was first introduced in The New 52. Night of the Owls features the Court most prominently. It’s a very compelling and high-stakes arc.
Breaking Batman: Knightfall
Knightfall introduced Bane, who blows up Gotham and breaks Batman physically and mentally. Literally, he snaps Batman’s spine.
While that makes Knightfall sound rather bleak, it’s actually quite a hopeful story. In many ways, it’s Batman’s darkest hour. Yet in the end, Batman manages to prevail with the help of his loved ones.
In fact, this leads to the creation of the “Bat-Fam(ily)” that helps keep Batman grounded. They also remind Bruce Wayne that one of the limits of being a human superhero means sometimes relying on other people.
As for Bane himself, he also represents an extreme version of Batman. He sees people as symbols, rather than as people. He uses them like objects. Batman can be tempted to do the same, seeing people as “criminals” or good people. All of this makes the Knightfall arc’s thematic resolution with the creation of the Bat-Fam all the more powerful.
Death in the Family & Under the Red Hood
Death in the Family is the arc where the Joker kills Jason. Being taken in by Bruce and given a purpose as Robin 2.0 don’t actually solve Jason’s problems or fix his trauma. When Batman begins to notice, he decides Jason should step back from “Robin duty” for a while. Jason becomes terrified this is Batman thinking he’s broken as a person.
Jason then finds out he might have a biological mom still alive. He takes off searching for her, and Batman focuses on his work instead of on looking for Jason. As it turns out, Joker blackmailed Jason’s bio mom into selling him out, and Joker murders him.
Under the Red Hood, though, is the arc where Jason comes back… wrong.
Or, is Jason just traumatized? Under the Red Hood doesn’t answer this question, and that makes it one of the best stories wrestling with the resurrection trope since Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Jason joins Gotham’s crime world and fights crime from the inside. However, he violates Batman’s main rule: don’t kill. Why shouldn’t he, though? He got killed himself, in part because of that rule.
This arc is especially poignant because it forces Batman to face his motive for becoming Batman: grief. It then puts this motive in conflict with Batman’s way of coping with grief (strict morality). Finally, it asks important questions about what it really means to save someone.
It’s no wonder this arc is massively influential, inspiring manga and anime and individual people.
Battle for the Cowl
Battle for the Cowl‘s premise is the death of Batman. Well, he’s sort of dead. In a way. As a result, all sorts of Next Generation Batmans pop up across Gotham.
Of course, some of the most prominent candidates are Dick Grayson, who now goes by Nightwing, Jason Todd, and Damian Wayne. Jason’s bid for Batman is particularly brutal, and he and Nightwing exchange blows. At one point it even looks like Jason might have died.
Nightwing eventually takes over the Batman persona for the time being, with Damian as his Robin. Batman eventually returns, because no one’s ever really dead in comics.
On the bright side for the Bat-Fam, the storyline leads to events that start prodigal son Jason Todd on the path of redemption.
As mentioned above, Batman’s had dozens if not hundreds of adaptations. Adam West’s turn as the vigilante superhero in 1966”s Batman: The Movie was the first feature film about the character. 1989’s Batman starred Michael Keaton opposite Jack Nicholson as the Joker. Keaton reprised the role in 1992’s Batman Returns. Val Kilmer took over the titular role in 1995’s Batman Forever, and George Clooney donned the mask for 1997’s Batman & Robin.
Meanwhile, Batman: The Animated Series aired from 1992-1995. Kevin Conroy voiced Bruce Wayne, while Luke Skywalker’s human counterpart Mark Hamill voiced the Joker. The Animated Series also introduced Harley Quinn!
We can’t forget Christopher Nolan’s trilogy: Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Returns. Released between 2005 and 2012, these films starred Christian Bale and raked in critical acclaim. Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his turn as the Joker.
Ben Affleck has played the role five times for the DC Universe so far. Most recently, Robert Pattinson played the character in 2022’s The Batman, which also received critical acclaim. Batman has also appeared in the Harley Quinn animated series, voiced by Diedrich Bader.
As for where James Gunn and Peter Safran plan to take Batman in the DC Universe’s future, we’ll have to wait and see!
Batman: The Human Hero
What makes Batman stand out?
Honestly, you could ask a hundred fans and get a hundred different answers. His grittiness. The raw portrayal of grief. His complexity. Really cool villains. Awesome fights. Not having superpowers. Acting outside the law. The list goes on and on.
Even forgetting that Batman technically has no superpowers, there’s something uniquely human about him. He’s flawed in ways other superheroes aren’t. He makes mistakes. Through it all, he’s motivated by grief, hope, and justice. These very motives empower him and make up for his greatest flaws. He might be dark and brooding, but he wants to make a better world.
Sometimes, that hope for a better world is all we have.