WITH "Batman Returns" on its way to grossing $100 million faster than any film in history, and Bat merchandise engulfing the nation, this is clearly the season of the Caped Crusader. To be sure, we went through much the same thing in the summer of '89, when the first Batman movie became the sixth-largest grossing film in history.
In an odd way, this reincarnation of Batman has become the pop culture symbol of the Bush years -- a figure for the '90s in much the same way Rambo symbolized the '80s or James Bond the '60s. But who, exactly, is Batman? Why does he have this grip on us, and what does his popularity tell us about America?
He began as a comic book hero in 1939 and he has always reflected his times. As the story goes, when Bruce Wayne was 10 years old, he saw his parents murdered by a gunman outside a movie theater in New York, changed in later versions to "Gotham City."
Traumatized by the incident, Wayne vowed to dedicate his life to fighting crime. He trained himself in martial arts (he eschews guns), developed some sophisticated machinery, picked up a teen-age partner (Robin), and donned the costume of a bat so as to frighten his adversaries. Emerging only at night, this odd loner was called Batman.
In the staid '50s, Batman's creators cleaned up his image somewhat, as the Caped Crusader grew more suburban and clean-cut, and began appearing during the day. When TV began mocking the conventions of the '50s, it was this relatively straight Batman who provided the model for the campy, satirical superhero of the hit TV series of the '60s.
In the '70s and '80s, as comic books moved more into the realm of science fiction, Batman's persona began to return to its roots as the hero became darker, gloomier and the problems he fought became more terrifying. Those themes have carried over into the current movies, with Gotham City now depicted as a futuristic, urban hell. Meanwhile, Michael Keaton has described his '90s Batman, now working without a partner, as "depressed and tired." "I saw him as a man in pain," he once said.
That's a key part of Batman's appeal today. Unlike other comic book and pop culture heroes, he's human to the point of being dysfunctional. On one level, that allows Batman to tap into the therapeutic zeitgeist, currently the rage.
Yet, as writers such as Dean Husler have noted, there's something else going on too. Scarred in childhood, the "batty man" is as troubled as the individuals with whom he struggles. If most pop culture allegories are battles of good vs. evil, the latest Batman saga depicts a world in which it's hard to tell the difference between the two. That strikes a chord with audiences. As the Cold War has ended and our key enemy has disappeared, we find ourselves lost in a new era -- facing a series of domestic problems such as homelessness and crime where it's hard to finger an enemy other than ourselves. That's made it difficult to accept bipolar confrontations, even in fantasy.
Without superpowers or weapons -- symbols of strength -- Batman is also forced to rely on disguises and gimmicks. Perhaps that's a metaphor for the American condition too: As we doubt our status as a superpower, our hero reflects a diminished view of ourselves. A Superman could get us out of this mess; a mere Batman maybe can't. What's more, in an era of super-realism when "real-life" simulations and talk dominate television, it's no surprise the masses have flocked to a hero of less than mythic proportions too.
There are other elements in the Batman story that appeal to an audience of the '90s. Unlike Rambo or the hero of a Western who are what they are, Batman possesses a secret identity: Bruce Wayne has a dark, threatening private side. That corresponds roughly with how the public now views celebrities, if not their own neighbors.
This is an era, after all, when the tabloid news highlights how mild-mannered colleagues and spouses turn into killers, fatal diseases are spread by lovers and even a prince is estranged from his fairy-tale princess. You can't trust anybody anymore, even that nice millionaire, Bruce Wayne.
In that atmosphere, it's no shock that the problem Batman confronts is crime -- the lingering obsession of the age. (In contrast, James Bond fought Russians; the heroes of "Star Wars" battled aliens.) In the age of suburbia, it's also no coincidence that he wages his war in a city, namely New York, which has commonly come to be identified as the mythic source of all evils in American life.
Maybe it says something good about the country that audiences are no longer enamored of the fantastic superheroes who dominated the pop culture of the Reagan era. All too human, conflicted and flustered, Batman is every man as superhero, which means, of course, he is no superhero at all. Perhaps that's a sign that instead of expecting a cowboy or a Superman to save us this time, we're finally ready to go in and clean up our proverbial Gotham Cities the right way. Ourselves.
Steven Stark is a columnist for the Boston Globe.