Batman: A superhero for all seasons

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
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Batman has always been at the top of the superhero heap. But what is it about the Caped Crusader that makes him top dog?

Is it the suit? Is it his story? It’s those things and more, as Batman is our most human superhero and the one who best reflects ourselves.

Next week, the Dark Knight returns to the big screen to battle the Man of Steel in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” There will likely be lots of smashing and shattering, since that is the language director Zack Snyder speaks, and of local interest are the Detroit locations where the movie filmed when production turned the Motor City into Gotham City in 2014.

“BvS” is the first building block in an eventual Justice League franchise, which will bring together Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and other heroes from the DC Comics Universe, the same way “The Avengers” pulled together characters from the Marvel Universe (and became one of the highest-grossing films of all-time).

So, while Batman and Superman will come to blows, they’ll find a way to work things out. And even if it’s fun to debate who would win in a fight (actually, Supes could just melt him with his heat vision, couldn’t he?), when it comes to coolness, there’s really no comparison.

Batman is the sleekest, sharpest and most relatable superhero in the comic world. He’s a billionaire playboy, a brooding loner and a justice-seeking vigilante — truly, a man for all seasons.

And he’s a man — one of us — which is important. He wasn’t sent here from another planet, he’s not the result of a lab experiment or a lab failure. He’s just a guy who lost his parents at a young age, which made him very emo and gave him a huge chip on his shoulder, and experiencing that loss makes him a sympathetic figure.

Other superheroes dress in hues of red and blue; Batman keeps it simple — and cool — in black. (His costume has changed over the years, though the black cape and cowl remain a staple of his wardrobe.) Black is slimming and easy to pull off, and it’s how most of us would choose to dress if we were out fighting crime in tights.

And his arsenal of bat-gadgets are the hottest accessories this side of James Bond. Who needs Superman’s ability to fly when you’ve got the keys to the Batmobile? Even his villains are great: the Joker, the Riddler and the Penguin are intriguing enough to carry their own stories minus the Bat, as they currently do on Fox’s “Gotham.” These villains, too, are men who bleed real blood, which grounds the “Batman” universe in reality (or at least a version of it, from which we can suspend our disbelief).

Batman has been around since the 1930s, though our modern fascination with him began in earnest with 1989’s “Batman,” which set the template for modern superhero films.

Director Tim Burton brought his dark, sulky vision to the film (and its sequel, 1992’s “Batman Returns”), and Michael Keaton’s Batman and Jack Nicholson’s Joker brought a sense of refinement to the superhero format.

From there, the cape changed hands, and the films became reflections of their times. Joel Schumacher’s colorful, carefree “Batman” films — especially his (rightfully) much-derided 1997 campfest “Batman & Robin” — were mirrors of the upbeat national mood in the Clinton ’90s, while director Christopher Nolan took the “Bat” franchise to a much darker, moodier and more cerebral place with his contemplative post-9/11 trilogy of “Bat” films.

For a while, “Batman” was the only superhero standing, but he now finds himself in an overcrowded superhero marketplace where even second- and third-tier properties such as “Ant Man” and “Deadpool” are becoming mega-blockbuster franchises. Even amid Marvel’s rise in recent years, “Batman” is still the big kahuna, with “Batman” casting rumors able to light up the Internet more than a selfie from Kim Kardashian.

There’s a reason other than alphabetical order that Batman’s name is the first-listed in “Batman v Superman.” Superman has never carried the same cinematic clout as Batman, and Batman is the chief draw of the new film and the foundation of the eventual (and inevitable) Justice League series. Superman, Aquaman and the rest of the gang can have a pow-wow and people would peek in out of curiosity, but once Batman shows up, it’s a party.

Ben Affleck’s casting in the cape made waves, not all of them positive, but whether “Batman v Superman” sinks or swims, Batman will endure. He’s bigger than the batsuit, and there will always be another star and another director to come along and put their own spin on him, because he’s transcended the world of superheroes and become a bigger symbol of our tastes, moods and feelings.

In a world of superheroes, he’s the one we count on most. He’s our bat, man.

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