People are great at missing the point. It’s happened throughout history and never ends well. A bunch of medieval scholars convinced several generations to march across the desert and stab Muslims in the name of a prophet who preached love. Centuries later, French thinkers and logicians beheaded hundreds in the name of reason. And today, people say that Batman isn’t a real superhero because he doesn’t have any powers.
However, Batman’s popularity doesn’t seem to be diminished by how many people hold the opinion that he isn’t a real superhero. It’s coming up on nearly a century since his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 and his comics, films and television shows are still overwhelmingly popular. I grew up with Bruce Timm’s animated Batman series, and that’s where I fell in love with the caped crusader.
There is overwhelming love for Batman that similarly storied superheroes simply don’t have. Why is it that seven and a half decades later we still adore a weird, rich detective who dresses up as an animal in tights to fight crime while hanging out with a young boy? There are many popular superheroes that we could have latched onto, so it’s important in explaining his overwhelming popularity to look at what makes Batman unique.
I’ve heard people argue that it’s Batman’s sense of morality that makes him so well liked compared to other comic heroes. Long before he donned the cowl, Batman made this promise: “I don’t use guns; today no one dies.” However, the only thing unique about Batman’s morality is his overtness about it. Apart from outliers like Wolverine or The Punisher, it’s very rare to see any A-list or even B-list heroes using guns or killing evildoers.
Moreover, when it’s time for heroes to break with morality to defend the earth from some overwhelming alien force, Batman will often make an exception to morality along with everyone else in the Justice League. So until there is an issue with Spider-Man slinging an AK-47 around New York, blasting muggers full of holes, Batman’s no-guns, no-murder clause isn’t what makes him unique.
Others have argued that it’s Batman’s gallery of rogues that makes him such an appealing hero. A hero by nature is often defined by his or her challenges, and it would make sense that a hero with the most interesting villains would end up as the most popular. What people tend to forget about Batman however is that, although he has the best, most interesting villains, he also has some of the worst. For every amazing villain like the Joker or Victor Zsasz, there are several awful ones like The Ventriloquist, The Great White Shark or The Penguin. Some would put The Penguin alongside Batman’s best villains but those people are wrong. Even The Riddler is almost a bit too cheesy for my tastes.
The last and most often cited reason for Batman’s success and popularity is that fans are engaging in a form of power fantasy or wish-fulfillment. The theory is that people want to be like Batman, and so he is well liked. It’s the same reason people buy the same jersey as their favourite athlete or cut their hair to match their favourite rock star. This doesn’t work for Batman though because no matter how cool it would be to drive his car or leap across skylights in a warehouse on the docks, no one really wants to be Batman. As a child, his parents died in front of him. He is generally disliked by everyone he meets and is just a lonely, anti-social person, while Superman grew up with adoptive parents and is more-or-less widely adored. Why then do we still all want to be Batman? I believe the reason is because Batman has agency.
Batman is one of the only superheroes who consciously chose to become a hero. Usually, other heroes are either born with their powers or get them through some random happenstance. Even Ironman, the other de-facto “non-powered superhero” has his origins in a coercive situation where he had to either become a hero or die. Batman made a conscious, human and thoughtful choice to become a hero. He has agency and agency is important. Without agency, Batman would have spent the rest of his life depressed and traumatized.
Depression is helplessness, an absence of agency. When you’re depressed, you walk through your day and things just happen to you. There is a general feeling that the choices you make have little effect on the world around you. Depression, in its truest form, is living in a grey world where you have an utter inability to add colour. It’s no surprise that those with clinical depression sometimes choose to end their own lives.
Suicide is the final act of someone who hasn’t felt the power of agency in a very long time. It’s a conscious choice that someone makes to end their life and their suffering. It’s no surprise that people who live with the feeling of helplessness turn to suicide; it’s the only option where they feel like they have the ability to make a change, to act on a desire with real consequences and effects.
Batman didn’t make that choice even though the thug in the alley who shot Bruce Wayne’s parents took away his agency. He couldn’t stop his parents from being murdered and he walked through the world with a numbness that some of us know far too well. But Bruce Wayne took his agency back when he became Batman.
This is why we love Batman. We want to be Batman, but not in the same way we want to be other superheroes. It’s not the car, or the gadgets or the heroic feats that make Batman appealing. We want to reject helplessness. We want to achieve agency. We want to be able to affect the world around us in a way that will save lives. Anyone who has ever stared at a bottle of pills for too long, cradled a pair of scissors in their lap or tasted the metallic barrel of a gun will know exactly what I mean.
You don’t need powers to be a hero. Being a hero is about making a choice. Sometimes it means putting down the bottle, picking up the phone and taking your finger off the trigger. Sometimes it means waking up in the morning and promising yourself: “I don’t use guns; today no one dies.”