Batman's true mission: The search for familial stability
The strange thing about Batman's enduring success is that there technically isn't anything special about him. Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter ego exist in a world where the innocent are largely protected by fantastical aliens or superhuman men and women who run at preposterous speeds and can talk to fish.
Batman, one of the most beloved — and timeless — characters in the history of comic books, has no special powers. He was not struck with radiation in a freak accident or born with the ability to walk through walls. When he runs too fast, he gets tired. When he falls, he gets hurt. He's just like you and me.
So how has he managed to keep people's interest for 75 years?
There are many possible answers to this question. But among them lies an area of Batman's mythology seldom explored that can help explain why so many for so long have found themselves caught up in his stories.
For those unfamiliar with the mythology, Batman's origins were born out of tragedy, like many superheroes before and after him. There is nothing particularly unique about his back story; the loss of his parents in a random robbery gone awry served as the inspiration for him fighting for justice and order. Superman, the first real "superhero," emerged from similar circumstances: He narrowly escaped the destruction of his home planet while he was still a baby, leaving behind his biological parents, orphaned on Earth. One of the many incarnations of The Flash, Barry Allen, came to be because his mother was murdered while he was young and his father was sent to jail. Tragedy, and particularly familial tragedy, have more often than not played an important role in the foundation of many a superhero.
But unlike Superman or The Flash, Batman's tragedy left him isolated in his own fallible humanity. At a young age — and with some help from his loving adoptive parents — Superman learned that he had superhuman powers. The Flash also benefitted from the company of an astonishing gift because of a freak accident involving a bolt of lightning and some very hokey science.
Because of this, Batman — whose inspiration draws more from pulp crime novels than science fiction and fantasy stories — quickly became a vehicle for exploring the frustrations of urban decay instead of dwelling on the fantastical (of course, that didn't last forever). Unlike Metropolis or even Spider-Man's New York City, Gotham has consistently been portrayed as a city run by corruption. The streets are dirty, the people are lonely and the police do little to help anyone but themselves.
A key factor in this display of inner-city tragedy has been the broken or struggling family. Though Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman's creators, may have intended his tragic backstory as a largely benign element (some have even suggested it was used only as a way to give Batman a reason not to use a gun, thus appeasing the Comics Code Authority), his lack of any superhuman ability has allowed the stories over the years to focus heavily, sometimes exclusively, on how that tragic moment impacted his life. The death of his parents, in Batman's eyes, was a crime of social justice. To grow up in a stable home is a right that should be awarded to all. Hammering in the point further, Bruce Wayne is depicted as an inheritor of great wealth who has little love and even disdain for his money. His parents' fortune can do nothing to right the wrong of his loss. Nothing, except helping him stop it from happening to anyone else.
One poignant scene in Christian Bale's first depiction of the character, "Batman Begins," shows Batman about his duties in the slums of Gotham. As he hangs from the side of a house, stressing to spy inside, he hears faint arguing in the background. When he looks to his side, he sees a young boy who has wandered outside his home into the rain, away from where his parents are yelling at each other.
"It's you, isn't it?" The boy says. After lamenting that the other kids won't believe that he has actually seen The Batman, Batman tosses the boy the gadget he was using to peer inside the house. The boy's face lights up, and for a second he realizes that Batman is within his grasp.
This little episode perfectly illustrates the appeal of Batman. He can be anyone, even a kid who comes from a broken home. Especially a kid who comes from a broken home. In 2008, the Daily Mail reported that children who come from broken homes are five times more likely to suffer from mental and emotional stress. Much of the frustration in the mind of the children likely stems from a sense of helplessness: Relationships crumble, people die, accidents and heartbreak happen. The sense of randomness can be debilitating, especially to a young mind. It only makes sense, then, that Batman's greatest foe, the Joker, is an embodiment of anarchy and randomness.
Batman is about turning tragedy into triumph, and for millions of children all across the world, the primary tragedy in their lives is the struggle for love at home, whether because of death, divorce or neglect.
"Years ago I became aware that a particular superhero, who has entertained millions of people, had special appeal to the traumatized children who visited my office," psychologist Richard A. Warshak wrote in The Atlantic last May.
Batman stories, according to Warshak, serve as a vehicle for emotional relief for many of his clients, precisely because they relate to them.
"The essence of psychic trauma is the experience of a sudden, unexpected turn of events," he wrote. "The rug being pulled out from under, plunging the victim into a nightmare that remains etched in memory."
Warshak believes Kane was himself traumatized as a child and "used his art to symbolically reenact his trauma." To those who feel they have lost control of their own futures, Batman serves as "the master who strikes terror" in those guilty of destabilizing our lives.
In the ultimate move toward balance and reconciliation, Batman has also taken on the role of father himself. Even though most superhero stories experiment with sidekicks, none have been as successful, or endearing, as Batman's relationship with Robin.
Since almost the very beginning, Wayne has acted as a father to the orphaned Dick Grayson (and later Jason Todd, Tim Drake and Stephanie Brown, who herself is not an orphan but a victim of irresponsible parenting). Known as the Dynamic Duo, Batman's relationship with Robin provides another peek into why so many young boys and girls are enamored by the stories of Gotham. Robin is anyone who has ever needed a mentor, a father figure or even a mother figure. Imagining yourself as the rich, debonaire Bruce Wayne may be difficult for some, but seeing yourself as the orphaned boy or girl by his side isn't much of a stretch for many.
In celebration of Batman's 75th anniversary, Detective Comics released a "special mega-sized anniversary issue" containing original stories and some rewrites that explore the question of Batman's longevity. In the first story in the series, "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate" (which is actually based on the very first Batman comic by Kane and Finger), the writers depict a young Batman writing in his journal after a particularly stressful night of crime fighting.
"Why do I do this?" he asks himself. Batman then lists numerous reasons why he would subject himself to such arduous late nights. "Secretly it thrills me" he says. "I do it because I'm insane."
After listing numerous reasons why he "does it," Batman then briefly stumbles upon that part of his subconscious that harbors the heartache of his lost parents.
"I do it because it masks the pain ... because my father taught me the value of service. ... I do it to make my father proud."
His reflection hits on one other point, the point that gives hope to all the kids who wish their parents could get along better, those who strive for stability and a better life one day.
"I do it," he says, "because there is nothing more powerful than an ordinary person."
Lingering constantly in the dreams of that ordinary person is a boy who simply wished his parents could tuck him in at night.