The Evolution Of Batman In Popular Culture

In the mid-90s, the attitude in America started changing once again. Alt rockers and grunge musicians started falling off the charts for various reasons. Films like Natural Born Killers started being replaced with movies like Titanic. Britney Spears, N’Sync, and The Backstreet Boys all started making their ways into the music industry, so it was to a point where a gothic, outcasted hero would no longer suffice in the public’s mind, especially when you consider the waves of school shootings later in the decade. No, a dark Batman could not fill seats in movie theaters at that time. The economy was booming, things were looking up, so Batman must change yet again. Enter Joel Schumacher with Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Your and my opinion of these films can wait for another time, because that’s a whole different conversation, but for the sake of this story, the different take on Batman is completely in line with all of the other shifts and changes that Batman has experienced throughout his tenure as America’s top hero. Batman in these films is a colorful, campy hero, an image that lends itself well to the attitude of the time. Unfortunately for Schumacher and those who were doing well in the late 90s/early 2000s, the candy-coated gloss of the era didn’t stick around for long as we moved into the mid-late 2000s and Batman saw yet another shift that was brought to fruition by many different aspects.

War, greed, strong political powers, The Patriot Act, The Black Eyed Peas. All of these things we saw led to the rise of Christopher Nolan and the return of The Dark Knight with Batman Begins. America was at war with terrorism, and America was fighting that fear with more fear. We were confronted with one of the most terrifying national tragedies with the September 11 attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center as well as a terrorist attack on The Pentagon. We were put in a position of being completely terrified by the villains of the attacks, and between the media’s portrayal of the events in the 24-hour news cycle alongside our own government stripping away our freedoms for our own protection, we were in need of a hero who could bear this burden. In Batman Begins, we were given a reluctant hero who was dead set on revenge for the murder of his parents. A character who went overseas to train in a way that gave him the abilities to fight through his demons and release his aggression much in the way that Americans and many citizens across the globe went along blindly with any war that was declared. Our nation’s youth went off to fight in these wars for revenge. These brave souls sacrificed themselves to fight the villains who dared attack The United States. We needed it. We needed to feel like we were doing something about the problems that were haunting us. We needed to release the aggression that was building up. Batman’s fight against Ra’s Al Ghul, a terrorist from the far east, who wanted nothing more than to save Babylon in the fictional Gotham City, to rebuild it, represented our own fight with the global threat of terrorism. Al Ghul wanted nothing more than to destroy the unholy city and replace it with what he deemed was ideal. On the other hand, The Scarecrow was a powerful, intelligent doctor who worked with Al Ghul to drive the city completely mad for his own twisted sense of power. The Scarecrow represents our distrust of the government at the time. A shadowy fear monger was on the loose, and it was Batman’s job to stop the madness. This is something that we as a society were growing more towards at the time of Batman Begins‘ release. We didn’t know how or why, but we were being scared for little reason other than to guide our willingness to play along. Our distrust and anger lead to chaos, which in turn, led to Heath Ledger’s outstanding performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight.

By 2008, we had enough of being scared. We were no longer living in fear, we were living in anger. It was an election year, and we were fed up with the lies. By this time, it had come out that there were no “Weapons of Mass Destruction” in Iraq. We knew we were being lied to for the benefit of those in power. We didn’t know what to do other than to overthrow the regime that had been controlling us for eight years. We wanted something different. We wanted an agent of change. We wanted someone to go completely crazy and show us the right path. The Joker in The Dark Knight represents all of this. This “agent of chaos” showed us what we wanted so desperately, but at the same time, it showed us just exactly how we would end up if we kept on this path. Destruction of the old system sounds great until you realize that you’re no better than the villains who you were fighting off less than a decade ago. Our desperate need for change could lead to the corruption and downfall of those who are truly good, as was the case with the character of Harvey Dent. The Dark Knight taught us, and represented us by showing that anarchy isn’t as glamorous as it sounds, and some people who we may look to simply want to “watch the world burn.” No, we thought our hero would be The Joker, but we had to look once again to see that Batman is representing us even more. We say we want the downfall, but in our hearts, we want to be good. We need structure, we need some to add order to the chaos. And Batman did just that. While Batman played shadowy fascist by having cell phones act as sonar to locate The Joker, we were scared that we were seeing our beloved hero turning to the dark side. We thought he had become the government agent that we despised, but when he tells Lucius Fox to destroy the technology after its one and only use, we knew once again that Batman was there for us. He was our vantage point that we needed in this time of economic and societal chaos. We would bend the rules to make sure the best outcome was there. We were always Batman, and The Dark Knight perfectly embodied this sense of right and wrong in 2008.

Post-Dark Knight Batman was a bit of a hodgepodge. We were given one of the most popular interpretations of the character with Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, two video games that took the recent Nolan versions of Gotham City’s cast of character, but also acted as a bit of a sequel to Batman: The Animated Series. Batman: The Animated Series is quite possibly the most influential interpretations of the characters to date because they mixed a real world sensibility to the characters by making them act like people. The Joker wasn’t throwing parades in downtown Gotham City throwing out money and gassing the streets. The Penguin wasn’t living in the sewers with an army of technologically enhanced winter birds. Catwoman and Poison Ivy weren’t basically cat/human and plant/human characters, respectfully, they were activists. Penguin was a corporate fat cat. Joker was, well, The Joker, a crazy person who pretty much wanted to kill lots of things. This interpretation stuck with fans and future creators and when Arkham Asylum was released, we got to fully experience the universe of Batman, a tech-driven, dark and brooding character who is not on a mission of vengeance, but rather on a mission to protect his city. We can relate to that in a way, because it was us. We, as a whole, would prefer things to not be chaotic and terrible with villains on the loose trying to kill us, right? I’m joking here, of course, but seriously these characters were the most real to life interpretations that we had seen. We see a bit of ourselves in all of the characters in Gotham City, and so we want to act as them. We want to glide across a city with a cape guiding us along the way. The video games were wish fulfillment, which we’ve wanted for some time, while the story was a direct ancestor to Batman: The Animated Series. The comics, the movies, and the TV shows converged to give us the best video game interpretation of the characters.

On the other hand, we also were given three seasons of the criminally underrated Batman: The Brave and The Bold. This show was very much a show for children, but as I’ve stated, that’s more than okay. By the time this show premiered, we desperately needed to laugh again. We were in the midst of a dark time economically and we needed someone, something to make us believe in justice again, and we needed a character that, in a time when all heroes became dark, could be bright, colorful and positive for our children. Batman: The Brave and The Bold filled this void to perfection. It was the same model as the 1960s television show, crazy backdrop, supporting cast, and scenarios with a straight-laced do-gooder in the main role. We needed this desperately, but in a world when the darkness was reigning supreme, many fans didn’t want it. Nonetheless, it provided a wholesome look at the character while also paying homage to many stories that comic fans loved.

So what does The Dark Knight Rises hold in store for us? Who knows other than those who have already seen the film? But at this point the majority of us are waiting. We can expect maybe a hopeful message, a dawn of a new day. An end to the darkness and hopefully a return to the light. I see our economy and our society starting to move into a more positive light, and since Batman is a reflection of our culture, we might just see this. Batman can represent all things to us. He can be the dark government fighter, he can be the silly deputy, he can be the dark and brooding gothic hero, he can be the candy-coated icon, he can be The Dark Knight. And as Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon says so beautifully in The Dark Knight, “He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.”

Further reading –

Gotham City: 14 Miles
The Essential Batman Encyclopedia
The Batman Vault
Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight
The Official Batman Batbook
Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes Vol. 1 – Batman
Batman: The Complete History

Amazon.com Widgets


  1. Very interesting read! Neat to get a perspective of each incarnation of Batman as it relates to the mindset of their respective periods. Never seen a breakdown of Batman’s evolution in this context before. Good job!

    Comment by PAUL — July 18, 2012 @ 9:33 am

  2. Try reading Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight
    It’s a good read:)

    Comment by RKT — May 5, 2013 @ 9:33 pm

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