In his 80+ years of existence, Batman has, in no particular order: been to space, ridden on the backs of dinosaurs, become addicted to a steroid-like drug called Venom, had his back broken by a different guy who was also addicted to the steroid-like drug Venom, adopted a kid and then dressed him up in super bright colors so he could fight alongside him at night. When that kid eventually grows up, Batman adopts a second kid and has him do the same thing, and then once that kid is killed by the Joker, Batman—you guessed it—adopts a third kid. Batman also hangs out with Superman on a regular basis. He’s survived cataclysmic earthquakes, plagues, and monsters made out of clay. He’s been hypnotized and indoctrinated into a sewer-dwelling cult. He’s discovered secret societies, traveled through time, been killed and brought back to life. He’s become a vampire. He’s fought the Aliens from Aliens and the Predator from Predator. He’s had sex with his mask on (no shirt though), and, as a result, fathered a child, then almost immediately after learning of his child’s existence, dressed him up in bright colors and trained him to fight alongside him at night, just like his prior youthful “wards.”
These stories all work to varying degrees (or have at least been absorbing failures) because the mythos behind Batman is so strong. Batman is not relatable, but he is recognizable. He doesn’t have any special powers, and granted, he is obscenely rich, but beyond that he’s extremely dedicated to bettering himself in order to prevent what happened to him as a child from ever happening to anyone else again. This framework allows creators to tell pretty much any Batman story they can possibly possibly, regardless of what might feel “right.” No matter the scenario, Batman’s focus is to stop people from dying — to prevent the creation of another tortured orphan who, for reasons internal and unknowable, must don the costume of a bat and pulverize criminals, in order to work out his demons. It almost doesn’t matter if he’s achieving that goal while beating up regular criminals, or, say, punching a dinosaur in the face. It’s all part of the character’s patchwork legacy across comic books, television shows, and an endlessly replenishing series of movies.
But some Batmans are better than others. In a recent cover story for this magazine, Robert Pattinson—who plays the caped crusader in this week’s The Batman—talked about realizing that Batman was not just a superhero, but was, in fact, “the world’s greatest detective.” It makes sense that this came as a surprise to Pattinson, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Most recently—and most visibly—Ben Affleck played a beefy Batman who spent his time fighting against and alongside the god-alien Superman, while trying to save the world from Darkseid (also a god-alien, but evil). Before him, Christian Bale’s gravel-voiced Caped Crusader defended Gotham City from a series of existential threats, with the detective work an afterthought of Christopher Nolan’s brisk storytelling. (Using bleeding edge technology to capture the fingerprint off a fired bullet is theoretically cool, but it doesn’t make any sense; Reddit threads today are still trying to figure out what was going on there.)
So there was Pattinson, making ambient music in his own VIP chillout tent because it was too hard to see through the cowl of the Batman costume well enough to do anything else, marinating on the importance of Batman. Not Batman the superhero, but Batman the dirty, obsessive detective of Gotham City. The man who, in his latest filmic iteration, is more than a little unhinged—a man who is actually terrifying, a creature of darkness stalking the grimy streets of a dark city populated with otherworldly villains, run of the mill crimelords (you know, those everyday kingpins of crime), and muggers. It’s this Batman that is, despite the decades upon decades of appearances in every medium imaginable, the true Batman: the nearly feral weirdo who can’t stop solving shit.
The first time Batman ever appeared was in Detective Comics #27, published by DC Comics in 1939. This Batman is visually recognizable, but otherwise miles away from any iteration of the hero we’ve seen since—he does solve a mystery that involves a murder frameup, but the brevity and crudeness of the story (this was the ’30s, and comic books were still a new art form) means that he also spends a lot of time bodyslamming balding criminals in suits, and callously pushing some of them into vats of acid. Still, the scene had been set: Readers didn’t yet know why Bruce Wayne is Batman, but they did know that he dresses up in a scary costume and likes to solve crimes. The character was a huge success, straddling the line between the dime store crime pulps of the past and the burgeoning new superhero movement that was just beginning to emerge in American comic books. Batman was a bridge to a new world.