In 1939, a caped crusader appeared on the pages of Detective Comics #27. In 2022, 83 years later, Batman has become part of the global culture, with his distinctly American outlook on the world and dedication to protecting Gotham City. While he has continuously operated on an idealized internal devotion to justice, his secondary battles lie within his misdiagnosed mental illnesses and accumulated trauma.
Batman’s characterization has undergone multiple changes throughout the run of comics, films, television, and even video games. However, his personality has been an especially distinct and marked difference.
Though the original series from 1966, airing on ABC from January 12, 1966, to March 14, 1968 (starring Adam West), was quirky and cute, the hero quickly went through a significant change in 1989 with Tim Burton’s Batman. Michael Keaton took to the screen to embody the caped crusader, and under Burton’s direction, the film felt like a noir mixed with a mid-century, goth detective thriller aesthetic. In this iteration, we see a tortured Batman: Keaton’s Bruce continues to grapple with the death of his parents, the responsibility of being the CEO of Wayne Enterprises, and watching his decaying city fall into the depths of chaos at the hands of its roulette of villains. This Bruce Wayne loses his romantic interest, further isolating him in his literal house on a hill.
As Burton’s Batman series continues, we watch the city grapple with local politics, nuclear weapons, and an Exodus-inspired punishment for which Penguin (Danny DeVito) is the angel of death. Batman Returns takes a sharp turn to place our hero at the center of a moral debate and a budding romance with Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer).
Keaton’s Batman is still quirky and a little silly; he’s also shy and slow on the uptake when Selina tries flirting with him. While his Batman is a far cry from West’s silly and joke-happy caped crusader, the two share similar qualities in that they’re both a little distracted. However, Keaton is more reserved, and pain is always quietly expressed in his downturned mouth and cloudy eyes.
In 2005’s Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan introduced Christian Bale to the world as Batman. At that time, filmgoers began to desire more from their favorite heroes. Nolan took on the challenge of bringing a Batman to the screen who was wholly absorbed with despair and meditated day and night on his trauma. Bale’s performance as Batman is often cited as the best due to his dynamic portrayal. Some also viewed by some as a kind of reprisal of his infamous role: American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman.
The crown jewel of blockbuster comic book cinema, however, is Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which would have been nothing without the talent of the late Heath Ledger. Some may say this Batman is a love letter to cops; Batman sports a kevlar vest and wears riot gear that looks like a military-grade prototype. There have been suggestions that Batman is a fascist and acts as the secret police of Gotham City. While Batman’s behavior assumes that he is working in favor of the people, he enforces the status quo and terrorizes the citizens and law enforcement. The Dark Knight captures the unchecked instability and violent, control-hungry undercurrent that runs through Bruce Wayne’s psyche. Bale’s Batman is vicious, risking life and limb to destroy the Joker. He’s disaffected, cold, and seems to take from the following lines in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho novel, on which the Bale-starring film of the same name was based:
“I had all the characteristics of a human being—flesh, blood, skin, hair—but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that my normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning.”
Bale’s Batman isn’t theatrical or subtly depressed but is instead filled with rage as he interrogates the Joker and beats him to get answers. The Dark Knight reveals a thin line between the heroes and villains of Gotham. There is no relatable aspect to this Batman; instead, he is a metaphor for the type of masculinity and the wealth that American culture celebrates. Nolan’s Batman also leans into the playboy stereotype with unrestricted power and conventional attractiveness. Eventually, he comes to be viewed as the absolute terror of the city, causing him to hide for eight years until the last film in the series, in which he finally retires and stops harassing everyone.
Released earlier this month, Matt Reeves’ The Batman takes a different approach. Inspired by the grit of Burton’s gothic noir, the film takes a similar approach. Batman is now played by Robert Pattinson, who has been most associated in his extensive and impressive career with the role of Edward Cullen, but who has more recently been recognized as a ‘real’ actor.
This latest iteration of Batman is a visibly tortured, angry man who seems to radiate absolute agony. Pattinson portrays him as a nauseatingly depressed individual who has no other persona. Here, there is no shining playboy image to distract from the fact that he is traumatized. Instead, we watch a completely emotionally vulnerable Bruce Wayne’s hands shake as he applies eyeliner before going to fight, listens to Nirvana, and stares out of the window, contemplating his inevitable end.
This portrayal of Batman is not a male fantasy; in fact, we can argue that, with his boundless emotions, this Bruce Wayne is written as the kind of character that would traditionally be female-coded. His chemistry with his on-screen love interest (Selina Kyle, played here by Zoë Kravitz) is naturally intoxicating and is made even more so by his awkwardness and lack of actual intimate interaction.
2022’s Bruce Wayne feels the most relatable — not only because his parent’s death occurred in 2001, meaning he’s roughly the age of a younger millennial — but because his persona of an isolated young person feels particularly relevant as we reintegrate back into society following the pandemic. He has already gained popularity as a relatable figure with the young crowd, with memes celebrating the already culturally significant film and Tiktok’s of calling oneself “Batman” and “protecting Gotham.” At the same time, the creator is shown doing arbitrary tasks, romanticizing their lives, and creating a self-insert narrative.
More broadly, the film’s practical use of social media also allows it to reflect the landscape of modern society, using the reach of the internet as a sub-villain.
The 2022 Batman relies less on his ability to fight, but the film focuses on his detective work, taking cues from the animated series Batman: The Animated Series airing on Fox Kids from September 1992 to September 1995.
Batman’s history has spanned decades, but with all of his changing personalities and desires, one thing remains Bruce Wayne — the Batman — desires freedom from his mental prison. Because he can’t find relief, however, he uses violence and vengeance as tools to manage his emotions, bringing death and destruction to Gotham. In many ways, then, Batman is the extension of our darkest desires.