WARNING: The following contains spoilers for director Todd Phillips' Joker, in theaters now.
As much as fans love Batman and clamor for any media offering related to the Dark Knight, recently a lot of Batman-centric content has been released that is not related to Bruce Wayne and his vigilante alter-ego. And fans have been lapping it up, obsessing over these properties even though they might just mention the Caped Crusader now and then, if at all.
This makes us wonder: why do stories without the shadow of the Bat looming appeal to audiences? It comes down to the symbolism of everything, from the characters to the settings, associated with the world created around Batman by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in the '30s.
Shows such as Gotham and Pennyworth don't directly deal with Bruce's future vigilante, while Batwoman refers to the Bat tangentially. In Titans the character appears in cameos. And while this seems like a current phenomenon, it goes all the way back to the WB's 2002 series Birds of Prey.
Now, we've gotten our first big-screen taste of a world influenced by, but not really incorporating Batman in Todd Phillips' Joker. While some critics at first wondered if Batman's greatest villain should appear in a movie without him, the film's box office showing and rave reviews of Joaquin Phoenix's performance continue to prove the fascination audiences have with Batman-related works, even without the iconic superhero.
Batman is a symbol and philosophy, so even if he's absent, we still see the Bat's code and modus operandi in play. Ruby Rose's Batwoman follows this path, as do Titans' Dick Grayson and Jason Todd. We can clearly see the Batman in these characters, even if they have different personalities.
More so, these characters are part of the biggest vigilante narrative in comics, with decades of stories packed into our minds. Marvel's Punisher and Moon Knight are fun but they're not big symbols like Batman. And this is also why DC's other Batman-related characters are so appealing -- we view them as an extension of Bruce.
The current Batman-less Batman stories came about because Warner Bros. is stingy with the rights to Batman himself. So this has left TV and movie producers to work with the Batman intellectual property they can get their hands on. If we want to visit the world of Batman, we have to go with these options until the studio puts out the next Batman movie.
No matter what, though, we always show up because we need our Bat fix. There are so many Batman comics, TV series, cartoons and video games, we have already connected emotionally to the Bat-family, and his major rogues like the Joker -- and we want to keep returning to that world.
In addition, Batman's city, Gotham works as a backdrop for the Fox TV series and the Joker movie because it's an extreme example of a society on the brink; one mired in muck, grime and corruption. It's about seedy politicians, the one percent exploiting the city, two-faced cops and criminals running amok, and a select few who want to do good rather than benefit from the blight on the city. It's about society's minorities, the forgotten and the abandoned. And when war's waged on Gotham's corrupt institutions, it's a rebellion we wish we could replicate in the real world.
Gotham City's recognizable and its problems relatable. So there's some catharsis to seeing the city fixed in ways that can't happen in reality. That's why even without Batman, we'll always enjoy watching the city rise up against oppression, whether the source of that oppression is Bane or a Thomas Wayne who looks down on the poor. Gotham is as fluid a character as the heroes and villains that populate it. And in Phillips' current film, we see how the lower-class partners with the Joker, becoming a force that doesn't need to suit up in kevlar or use a million dollar bank account to achieve justice for the common folk.
Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Bill Camp, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Marc Maron, Josh Pais and Shea Whigham. The film is in theaters now.