A Superhero Gets Serious Attention

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While the first Batman comic books were dark and violent, the comic book company DC wanted the superhero to appeal to everyone, especially children. Batman's teen sidekick, Robin (left), was introduced to attract younger readers. The 1960s television show Batman, pictured, took a light and comic approach to the superhero. The Batmobile, which is currently featured in a Smithsonian exhibit, became so popular because of this show that miniature Batmobiles became popular toys.

The first Batman comic books were violent and serious, but DC Comics wanted their superhero to appeal to younger readers. DC introduced Batman’s teen sidekick, Robin (left), as one way draw a younger audience.  The 1960s television show Batman, pictured, took a lighter approach to the Caped Crusader. The show was so popular with children that Batman’s special car, the Batmobile–currently featured in a museum exhibit–became a popular toy.

As he approaches his 79th birthday this coming May, Batman shows no signs of slowing down. The hooded superhero has intrigued fans since his first appearance in Detective Comics—now better known as DC Comics—in 1939. Since then, the Caped Crusader has also had his own live-action television show, animated series, movies, toys, and video games. Now he can add another accomplishment to the list: museum exhibit.

For the next three years, Batman’s vehicle of choice, the Batmobile, will be on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. This version of the Batmobile comes from the 1989 film Batman. While no one doubts that the Batmobile is very cool, the Smithsonian says that this fictional vehicle can also teach visitors a lot about American culture.

“I’m in the fortunate position of being one of the curators to work on our entertainment and popular culture collections,” says Smithsonian Deputy Chair and Curator Eric Jentsch, “and one of the things we want to do is really show how these kinds of cultural phenomena like Batman become part of the shared experience of American life, and are therefore worthy of investigation and exploration.”

Individualism and Society

Matt Yockey is the author of the 2014 book Batman. He believes that Batman remains popular because the character reflects familiar parts of American culture. Americans have traditionally embraced two ideas which are often in conflict. On the one hand, Americans celebrate the idea of a melting pot, that different people from all over the world can come together in a united society. On the other hand, Americans celebrate the accomplishments of single individuals. American culture traditionally values people being true to themselves, or individualism. Batman reflects this conflict. He is a mysterious man driven to fight crime. At the same time, his work is directed toward helping other people and society.

“Batman is the ultimate individual,” Yockey explains, “but he’s always working for the good of the larger social body. So you get to have it both ways with Batman.”

Americans are also attracted to Batman because he is an example of a self-made man. While superheroes like Wonder Woman or Superman were born with super powers, Batman is a normal human being. He becomes strong and powerful only through his own effort. Batman’s main advantage, however, is that he is very wealthy. Batman is the disguise of a millionaire named Bruce Wayne. With his wealth, Wayne is able to afford high-tech items such as the Batmobile. These make him more powerful than other humans.

A Troubling Past

Readers connected with Batman emotionally. Batman first adopted his crime-fighting persona after witnessing both his parents being killed, while still a child. “He has to earn everything that he does emotionally and psychically, because of that trauma,” Yockey says. That Bruce Wayne is a wealthy person with a painful past also added to his appeal. Batman was first introduced during an economic crisis in the United States called the Great Depression. At this time, Yockey thinks, people affected by financial loss would have been attracted to the idea of a very rich person who was also struggling with loss.

Batman’s tragic past has always been a key part of his story. In the earliest Batman comic books, the pain of experiencing his parents’ deaths is reflected in his use of violence. That Batman would behave brutally was not unusual. Magazines that published stories about violent heroes were very popular at the time. At first, Batman resembles this type of hero. “He’s pretty vicious,” Yockey admits.

DC Comics started to worry that Batman was too violent. They wanted Batman to appeal to more readers. Since they were concerned that parents would object to the comic book’s violence, they started to write stories that would also appeal to children. Instead of using dangerous weapons like guns or knives, Batman relied on high-tech tools to fight criminals. DC also introduced the character Robin in an effort to appeal to younger readers. Robin, a teenager, became Batman’s sidekick and something like a son to the millionaire.

A Super Souped-Up Car

The most famous of Batman’s high-tech gadgets is his car, the Batmobile. Today, the Batmobile is special enough to earn a place in a famous museum. However, at first Batman drove a normal red-colored car. Within a few years, however, the car stopped being plain or ordinary. “It becomes dark blue, it has a fully enclosed top,” Yockey describes. “It has a bat head front and a single shark-like fin in the back, and it’s just presented as a super souped-up car.”

The Batmobile received another makeover in 1950. Because the original Batmobile is destroyed in an accident, Batman must build a replacement. The new Batmobile is faster than the first one. It also includes crime-fighting tools, such as a search light, radar, and a mobile forensic science lab.

Like Batman himself, the Batmobile reflects aspects of American culture. Both Batman and his custom car balance individualism with being part of a larger group. A car, says Yockey, is “a mass-market item that, through your ownership of it, you can use to express your individuality.” In other words, while the Batmobile is a commonplace automobile, Batman is able to customize it to reflect his individualism.

The Batmobile changed again in the 1960s. The Batmobile was featured on the popular television series Batman. This television show took a lighter, more comic view of the superhero. As a result, the Batmobile was now seen as a very fancy object, like a toy. In fact, based on the popularity of the series, miniature Batmobiles became an actual toy for children that was very popular.

The Batmobile reflects American's interest in individuality while also being part of a larger society. Batman is able to take commonplace manufactured object like a car but customize it to make it uniquely his own.

The Batmobile reflects Americans’ interest in individuality while also remaining part of a larger society. Batman drives an automobile, a very common manufactured object. However, through his ingenuity and wealth, he makes the Batmobile uniquely his own.

The Modern Batmobile

The Batmobile was updated again in the 1989’s Batman movie. While the 1960s television show had been funny, this movie was more serious, like the early comic books had been. The design of Gotham City, the city where Batman resides, was influenced by a twentieth-century artistic style called art deco. First popular in the 1920s and 1930s, art deco favored geometric shapes and strong colors.  When it was time to design the Batmobile for that film, production designer Anton Furst’s vision of the famous vehicle was far from a toy. It was long, slender, and stylish. Furst would eventually win an Academy Award for his design work on Batman.

“It’s got this strange art deco design to it that visually quite directly links it to the art deco design of Gotham City in the film,” Yockey says of this version of the Batmobile. While the design of the Batmobile makes it look unique, it also reflects the city around it and the overall art deco design motif. Once again, Batman seems to be a unique individual who is also part of a larger society of people. “It’s such a reflection of the city Batman protects,” Yockey thinks. “It literalizes and materializes the fact that the city itself produced Batman.”

While the Batmobile continues to receive makeovers, the 1989 version on display at the Smithsonian seems to be the one most popular with Batman fans. It symbolizes that although Batman is part of society, he remains an individual apart from it, combining these points of view into one American ideal.

Smithsonian Deputy Chair and Curator Eric Jentsch expects that the Batmobile will be a popular stop at the museum. “We know our visitors are fascinated by the subject,” he explains, “and this is an opportunity to give them a really great object to get excited about, and get them thinking about [American] entertainment.”

Additional Resources

Read about the Batmobile at Smithsonian Magazine and Warner Brothers Studios.

Learn more about art deco design at Bryn Mawr College and the New York Public Library.

Explore why superheroes continue to be so popular at CNN and Vanity Fair.

Images and Sources

Batman and Robin photo: Greenway Productions
Batman and Robin photo license: public domain

Batmobile photo: Kārlis Dambrāns
Batmobile photo license: Creative Commons 2.0