Why Has Batman Endured For 73 Years in American Pop Culture?

The Dark Knight Rises, the final chapter in director Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films, will be released on July 20, a full 73 years after the character’s first appearance in Detective Comics Issue One. That’s a long time, but Batman was built to endure.

Batman has existed for nearly the same amount of time as Superman, but unlike his invulnerable partner, he is full of weaknesses. In fact, he is defined by his struggle to overcome his human failings and make up for that one horrible moment when he stood helpless as his parents were gunned down in front of him. But even after dedicating so many years and resources to perfecting his body and sharpening his mind, he still proved unable to stop the Joker, his ultimate antithesis, from murdering his sidekick or crippling his friend, and the 1990s saw his back broken by Bane (the villain of the upcoming film, so look out). But still he endures, with the help of the ever-faithful butler Alfred, a boatload of incredible gadgets, a genius intellect, and killer fighting moves. And yes, of course, that incredible costume.  

How is that costume so cool? Dressing up like a bat and jumping across rooftops should be the lamest thing ever, but somehow it looks incredibly awesome (as long as there aren’t rubber nipples involved). Then again, the only really bat-looking things in Bruce Wayne’s costume are his pointy ears and the symbol on his chest; the rest is basically a combination of Dracula and Zorro. Like those two influences, Batman channels an aura of darkness and mystery that we viewers can’t help but find impossibly cool.

But the biggest reason for Batman being just as cool in 2012 as he was in 1939 has to do with his adaptability. Zorro hasn’t survived well beyond the pulp stories of the early century, and although everyone still knows the name Dracula, he remains a kitsch caricature who has lost some of his original fearsomeness, unable to do anything but look on helplessly as his vampiric nature is adopted for Mormon myths about abstinence. Batman, however, has changed his tone each decade. In the dark, pulp fiction-populated 40s, he was a detective investigating the darkest depths of Gotham crime, and he took no prisoners, pushing a gangster into an acid vat in his first appearance. In the science fiction-obsessed 50s, he had psychedelic adventures involving aliens (yes, aliens. These stories are mostly forgotten now). In the dark, depressed 80s, stories like Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns turned him back into an unapologetic badass. Although he regressed back into camp territory with the Joel Schumacher movies in the 90s, Christopher Nolan’s movies have grounded him in the same harsh realism that the Bush presidency brought to all Americans, and Catwoman’s trailer dialogue suggests that this final Nolan movie is looking to add some timely anti-99% flavor. But through it all, Batman remains a fantastically cool crusader against injustice, constantly striving to be the best he can be. When will someone like that ever go out of style?