Ever since I first laid eyes on the caped crusader I was hooked. I have been a devout fan of the bat ever since 1992 when I saw Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. I went everywhere in a Batman cape after I saw that movie. My parents had to buy four copies of Batman (1989) because I wore those VHS tapes out. After that I fell in love with the animated series. Some of the most thoughtful and interesting takes on Batman and his rouge’s gallery ever made. The live-action movies, ridiculous as some were, were a near constant part of my early life. In ’95 was Val Kilmer in Batman Forever. ’97 had George Clooney in Batman and Robin. ’05 saw the start of Nolan’s films with Batman Begins, ’08’s the Dark Knight, and while I was in college in 2012 there was the Dark Knight Rises. During my younger years, we got some of the best spinoff shows ever made: Superman: the Animated Series, Batman Beyond, the Xeta Files, Static Shock, Justice League/Unlimited. There were videogames and toys and all manner of other merchandise too, and almost without question everyone loved Batman.
Batman means something to people.
Kevin Conroy, the Voice of Batman almost exclusively from ’92 on, tells a story of working in a soup kitchen in New York City just after the 9/11 attacks.
He was in the back, nobody could see him, and one of his fellow volunteers asked what he did for a living. Conroy explained he was an actor and he’d done some voice work. The man immediately recognized him at this point. He starts shouting to the crowds out in the dining hall, “You’ll never guess who’s been making your food! It’s Batman!” “Bulls@#$! Make him prove it!” There’s a long silence before Conroy bellows out his iconic, “I am vengeance. I am the night. I am BATMAN,” from the series to uproarious applause. “Holy f@#$! That is Batman!” People of all ages started talking about how much that show meant to them. How much that character meant to them. This is barely a week after the attacks and people are laughing and talking and feeling human again for the first time since the tragedy. Conroy finishes the story by saying the man who recognized him asked, “How does it feel to be Santa Claus? ‘Cause that’s what just happened here.”
This story comes from the director/actor commentary track of Batman: Gotham Knights as well as his interview in I KNOW THAT VOICE if you want to hear it firsthand. It’s quite possibly the most wholesome thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life.
What Makes Batman work?
To this day, Batman: The Animated Series is considered the definitive Batman series. No other show or movie has been able to recapture its lightning in a bottle. Why is that? Each series has been great in its own unique way to be sure, but there was something truly special about the 90’s animated series that just hasn’t been seen since. The sprawling art deco architecture with touches of gothic created the perfect setting and atmosphere. This was further expounded upon by how technology was utilized. Batman had a computer, sure, but it was running on tape reels. The televisions were all still black and white. Everyone’s car was coach-built and unique. There were zeppelins and tommy-gun wielding henchmen. Batman himself was just a guy who knows martial arts and had the detective skills to hunt down and subdue the crazies of Gotham. He’s not wearing military body armor; he’s wearing a strongman suit with a belt full of thieves’ tools and throwing knives under a cape and cowl.
For the foes that Batman contends with, he has everything that he needs. Even the villains all fit perfectly in this “yesterday’s world of tomorrow” universe. Joker, Penguin, and Two-Face are gangsters with creative schtick. Riddler, Clayface, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, Ra’s Al Ghul, etc. are all either 50’s sci-fi B-movie villains or just regular people with dramatic flare and an axe to grind. They all work just as well, if not better, in the past as they do in the present, and there is almost no trace of super-powers. There’s some light magical touches here and there, and there are some fantastical elements in characters like Freeze and Clayface, but this world and what’s in it all feel grounded and semi-realistic.
In short everything has purpose and is taken seriously.
This show’s only failing, for me, doesn’t come until its final season, and that failing is the drastic change in animation style. When Batman: the Animated Series became the New Batman Adventures it adopted Bruce Timm’s art style in full force to have more of a resemblance to Superman and his ongoing series. The two would eventually be partnered into the Batman/Superman hour to really drive home the point that these characters did indeed exist in the same universe, knew each other, and occasionally helped each other out.
This was laying the groundwork for projects down the line, that I still love to this day, but it also forced Batman’s previously perfect setting and ambiance to change into something entirely new to fit this decidedly different mold. While most of the touches were still there, they were updated to match with Metropolis’ “city of the future” vibe. That’s what brought the first part of the issue with Batman to light for me.
I think the final nail in the coffin was Batman Beyond. Before everyone starts gathering their torches and pitchforks, I don’t mean this in a bad way AT ALL. Batman Beyond is an amazing series that genuinely makes every other series around it better just by association. The problem with Batman Beyond is that it showed us what a modern Batman should be. This is a Batman with a suit that allows him to fly, become invisible, covertly listen to criminals, and augments his physical abilities (i.e. a suit for fighting super-beings AND being Batman). The art deco and gothic architecture have been replaced with towering pyramidal skyscrapers and multi-layered streets. There are still dark alleys, but now they’re lit with LED billboards. Cars fly everywhere, including the new Batmobile.
The changes made to facilitate the character of Batman Beyond all make sense because they’re in greater service to the series. This is a Batman that can contend with the challenges of the world, and larger universe, that he exists in. Bruce Wayne is more than capable of handling the likes of the Joker, Two-Face, and Riddler, but it would take Terry McGinnis’ Batman Beyond to tackle the likes of Blight or Inque. The more important point is, both are a product of the time in which they exist. Villains like Blight need a more futuristic setting and means to even exist in a way that makes any sense at all. On the other hand, characters like Two-Face don’t typically work in a futuristic setting as well. And therein lies the problem with Batman…
Batman doesn’t work in the futuristic world of the DC universe. Batman Beyond does.
How Can This Be?
Batman was created originally for the world of 1938. As time went on Batman’s gear and arsenal would be updated slightly, but it wouldn’t change much from the body suit with cape and cowl, batarangs, and grappling hook that he still uses today. Aside from the bat-shark repellent and a few key others, there weren’t a lot of consistent additions to Batman’s arsenal unless there was an advancement in criminal detection. Batman was made out to be “the world’s greatest detective,” and this was his key focus for a very long time. Obviously he was capable of fighting, but this wasn’t his most prominent feature.
When he joined the Justice Society of America with Superman and the others it still felt like he was contributing in an equal part to all efforts. They needed his detective skill to figure things out or his skill at infiltration to get somewhere. When the Justice Society gave way to the Justice League in the Silver Age it still felt mostly natural. This was the Adam West Batman era that was colorful and creative and full of craziness. It all still worked in the context of the greater universe. It wasn’t until the “modern age” of comics that Batman’s standard kit began to evolve and his personality would start to take on its more aggressive and violent aspects that propel us into the issue at hand.
Frank Miller’s the Dark Knight Returns saved the character from cancellation in the late 80’s by taking him down a much darker, grittier, and more violent path. Miller’s story portrayed an older Batman that had been retired for a decade and had watched his city fall back into chaos and depravity. He returns with a vengeance. He’s angry, and he takes that out on the criminals he stalks through the city. Gotham itself stands as a terrifying neo-gothic mixed with 80’s urban grime character in its own right. We’re treated to newscasts and cutaways to the citizenry as the events of the story unfold. Eventually, Batman’s more brutal tactics get the attention of the White House and Superman is asked to step in. The two have an epic battle in the streets with aged-Bruce wearing a gigantic suit of armor to even stand a chance.
This is a theme throughout the story. Batman has to become increasingly more brutal as the story goes on to compensate for the fact that he isn’t as agile as he used to be. He has to use progressively more violent means and tools to accomplish the same goals. He even acknowledges that he can’t do it alone and needs someone to be Robin, despite the fact that putting a child into this kind of danger is incredibly irresponsible. This is a Batman that enjoys being back in the suit, but also hates the fact that he can’t be like he used to be. A Batman that has to utilize stronger and more aggressive technology and tactics just to keep up. A Batman that acknowledges his history and the fact that he doesn’t have the same place in the modern world that he once did.
How Do We Fix the Problem?
I propose a three-step solution:
Step 1: Return Batman to the past in the DC universe. Let him exist in the 40’s-80’s and then retire. We’ve already seen the effect that doing this would have on the success of the character, and I think letting him return to the past is the best thing for Batman if he is to stay like he is and has been. Dick Grayson, the other Robins, and Barbara could handle Gotham for a few years as a team after Bruce retires and contribute to the Justice League in waves as they all mature.
Step 2: Use Oliver Queen/Green Arrow in place in Batman for the early years of the Justice League. This is going to be a controversial opinion, but here it goes: He’s a better fit, and can do everything that Batman currently does for the team. He’s colorful and fun while also still having a gravity to his character. He’s every bit as human as Batman, and thus would provide the same perspective to his more god-like teammates without necessarily being a shadow or foil to their positivity.
Step 3: Replace Batman in the modern DC universe with Batman Beyond. Batman has essentially become Batman Beyond in every way that matters except for the look. If he needs to have those tools to fit in, why not let him have them? He’s basically already using them in one way or another. By choosing to replace Bruce with Terry and letting that natural age progression happen, it allows for Batman to exist in the ways that make the most sense all-around. Classic Batman that we all love still happens, and Batman Beyond gets to happen too.
And there we have it.
By implementing these three steps we can fix the issue that has plagued Batman for decades and keep him around for many more. If Bruce is Batman from roughly the 40’s-the 80’s before he retires at 60ish we have a solid timeline to fit anything and everything Batman that we want on there. Time to meet and train the Robins, found the Justice Society, and become an urban legend. He could even still be a founding member of the Justice League before he hangs up the cape.
Replacing Batman in the Justice League with Oliver Queen while Nightwing and the Robins grow into their more adult alter-egos under Bruce’s aging mentorship allows for a natural age progression and keeps the character’s legacy intact. It also allows for Green Arrow to get some much deserved time in the sun as a leader in the League. When it does come time for Batman to return, having it be Terry as Batman Beyond is the perfect way to introduce that character to the main universe while still preserving the legacy of Batman as a whole.
The Final Word
The point to be made here is that Batman works extremely well in certain settings and situations. Those settings and situations being in a bygone time. There are some absolutely fantastic modern Batman stories, but they all rely heavily on incredible future technology to work. Batman knows aliens, literal gods, and people from other universes and thus has access to impossible things. Bringing Batman back to a simpler time immediately makes him more believable and more interesting.
Knowing that Bruce can’t just go back to the Batcave and have his computer work everything out for him adds suspense and lets us see how intelligent the character is. We see him problem solve and do actual detective work. When he fights there’s tension because we know that he’s not completely bulletproof over every inch of his body. There are real believable stakes to Batman in yesteryear that don’t exist anymore. I don’t want to see Batman disappear from the DC universe as a whole. I want to see the character grow and fit the situations he’s set into.
There is hope on the horizon. With Matt Reeves’ film debuting today, 3/4/22, and with J.J. Abrams and Bruce Timm’s the Caped Crusader on its way, there may yet be more examples to show us all that Batman is going to be with us for another 80 years. For now, I’ve got fingers crossed and breath bated. I’m going to keep my hopes high.
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I’ve worked my whole life to become a comic book illustrator, writer, and stand-up comedian. Batman and Captain Benjamin Sisko helped put a good head on my shoulders. I spent most of my childhood saving Hyrule and the Mushroom Kingdom and seeing the Justice League save all of creation time and time again. I live in Johnson City, TN with my wife Kary and daughter Laila enjoying the beautiful mountain scenery and occasional show. Three puppies round out the family and take up the rest of the time that isn’t spent debating which Wes Anderson or Studio Ghibli movie to watch. I spend an inordinate amount of time binge watching SVU, Futurama, and Letterkenny, and when I’m not watching I’m listening to “My Brother, My Brother, and Me” or playing the occasional game of D&D. If there’s a nerdy endeavor out there, I’ve probably at least tried it.