NOTE: Recently added some text to this. Understand that I'm not just referring to one interpretation of Batman here. More than any other other comic book protagonist, Batman has undergone several different transformations. I love every one of them, and I think it further demonstrates why he's the greatest superhero ever. Many of them resonate today with different audiences for different reasons. "No matter how often [Batman is] reinvented - a noir detective in the 40s, a camp icon in the 60s, a gothic Knight in the 80s, [or a mortal bat-god in the 90s] - he's always the coolest, most iconic and recognizable superhero there is." - Dave Golder, editor of SFX.co.uk
The power of Batman's origin doesn't come from its originality, though it certainly debuted before most of today's heroes. Its staying power resides in raw, uncaring brutality combined with the loss of childlike innocence. It's a very realistic occurrence which has only increased in relevance with America's growing gun culture. There's no soap opera twist here where Bruce knew the killer and could have prevented it. It wasn't some fantastical occurrence that happened on another planet. It happened here. It happened at home. It was also one of the first origins to demonstrate that heroes aren't made by chance, heroes are made through choice. And no one can forget that timeless image of a young weeping Bruce Wayne, swearing to avenge his parents. He made the hard choice and stuck to it, and that's the only reason why there's a Batman.
Gotham City. Gotham City PD. Arkham Asylum. Blackgate Prison. The Batcave. Wayne Manor. Batman's home turf, has a richer and more vibrant lore than any other hero in existence. This isn't a borrowed City where already existing historical occurrences and landmarks were simply copied. Everything was built from the ground up - panel by panel, story by story. Scott Snyder's acclaimed Court of the Owls run recently demonstrated how Gotham has a living, breathing personality all of its own. Jonah Hex's adventures in All-Star Western have also been touching on the history of this interesting place. But Gotham belongs to Batman. If there are other heroes in the city, it's because he lets them be there. If you want to raise the stakes and include Batman's JLA affiliations, the world gets even larger and more intricate, but I didn't do that here.
Best supporting cast
Take away Batman and his Bat family, and Marvel no longer has any serious competition. If you don't believe me, take a look the latest monthly best-sellers and count the number of Batman related books and their respective positions on the list. This is a bastion of comicdom that was first built within the pages of Detective Comics. But Batman's supporting cast isn't just about other superheroes. Thomas and Martha Wayne are often present in the form of meaningful flashbacks. Alfred, has proven himself to be beyond a mere butler. He's at the very heart of the Bat family. Jim Gordon is the most recognizable and layered character in comic book law enforcement. Oracle - a testament that once you get knocked down, you're usefulness isn't at an end. In fact, you can still be quite powerful even when bound to a wheelchair. Dr. Leslie Thompkins, Lucius Fox, Harvey Bullock, etc. I could talk about each of these characters for several pages. Not all of them are manifested in the current comics, but they've all been around with some consistency. These aren't paper-cutter stereotypes either. Many of them could easily have their own books. And they would sell. Notice, I haven't even opened the door to talk about the many unique Robins that we've seen, or the other crimefighters and anti-heroes which regularly populate Batman's world.
Of all of the categories listed here, this is probably the least argued over. The sheer amount of recognizable baddies in Batman's rouges gallery is just unmatched. Indeed, they could likely populate the schedules of three or four other heroes, and there would still be plenty to go around. And these villains come in all shapes and sizes - a wonderful variety. You have your fair share of Arkham crazies to be sure, but you also have your evil geniuses, your deadly assassins, and monsters. Spider-Man's gallery definitely comes the closest, but they're distinguished from Batman's in two important ways. First and generally speaking, Batman's villains have more complex psychologies. There are exceptions to this rule of course, but if we were to line them all up shoulder-to-shoulder it just isn't a contest. Second, the sheer variety of Batman's outclasses Spidey's in their unique traits. A lot of Spider-Man's villains carry these animal themes and share similar "mad scientist" backstories. What also happens a lot when you listen to Spidey fans argue about his villains is they often bring in characters who possibly belong to the Fantastic Four or the Avengers. Batman's villains are unquestionably his own. He also has the crown jewel in The Joker, the most recognizable comic villain in any medium.
Ok, so this is an important sticking point for some people. "How can you be the greatest superhero if you don't have superpowers?" Let me ask you something, could a normal person do the kind of things Batman does? Lets go down the list: He's a master of almost every known form of martial arts, has a body which exceeds most Olympic athletes, skilled in just about every scientific discipline, the world’s greatest detective, a professional pilot, driver, and sailor, a computer hacker, an escape artist, so stealthy he can vanish from plain sight, an extremely savvy businessman, the inventor of many unique and advanced pieces of technology, a master strategist, multilingual, and a master of disguise. Plus, he almost never sleeps. Oh yes, and let's not forget the prep. The prep that makes him nearly unbeatable in most hypothetical discussions. If these aren't amazing powers, I don't know what is. They're the powers of a peak-level human being. Basically we've taken the hypothetical best that a human can achieve in almost every facet of life, and affixed them all to Batman. It makes him extremely formidable. More so, than your average superpowered being - even with brilliant intelligence. Best powers? Definitely.
Batman's library has changed comics more than any other Superhero. Superman is famous for being the first. Spider-Man is famous for being the most relatable. But Batman has beaten them both consistently in terms of sheer quality through most major decades (I'll concede the 50's to Superman, and the 60's to Spidey). Now for something as subjective as comics, what measuring stick do we have here other than critical acclaim and maybe sales? Well, that's pretty much it, and the numbers support that Batman has been the #1 character since the mid 70's. Dennis O'Neil is the true godfather of the Batman movement in my mind. Throughout the 70's he made the Dark Knight the world's greatest detective again, he also started the transition to more serious adventures. Comics historian Les Daniels observed that "O'Neil's interpretation of Batman as a vengeful obsessive-compulsive, which he modestly describes as a return to the roots, was actually an act of creative imagination that has influenced every subsequent version of the Dark Knight."
This opened to the doors to Frank Miller's work in the 80's which changed the face of comic books forever. This is what made comic books an adult pastime. Many characters who were subsequently created or made more gritty have the Batman works to thank. Batman comics have been bestsellers ever since and have enjoyed a greater influx of creative talent than any other property. The works we've since been privileged to read are a reflection of this. Today, it's not even a contest: Grant Morrison is wrapping up his acclaimed run, Scott Snyder has made the main Batman title the hottest thing in comics, and Tomasi along with Gleason are doing their best work ever on Batman & Robin.
Best movies (and DVD's)
I'm going to be brief here. Tim Burton's Batman movies brought superhero movies back to life and demonstrated that they could thrive in the Hollywood environment. Nolan's trilogy did it all over again, except his offerings were more like raising the bar on the superhero medium in general. The amount of reboots that occurred after Batman Begins was ridiculous. Many directors in show business have credited Nolan's Batman films as not only an inspiration for reboots, but as an important influence on movies in general. The most recent directors to do this was JJ Abrams and Sam Mendes, director of Skyfall. No other comic book hero has even approached this same level of cinematic success. There have been good installments, true, but they weren't the pioneers or game-changers that Batman's movies have been. When it comes to direct-to-DVD offerings, it's also a no-contest situation.
Best TV shows
Adam West and Burt Ward defined TV in the 60's. The show was such a major commercial and cultural success that it effectively ended West and Ward's acting careers because they were so strongly typecast. It would have lasted longer if not for the formulaic writing of the show. But Batman received a reemergence on the little screen with Bruce Timm's Batman: The Animated Series. This show is widely regarded as one of the greatest animated shows ever. It also spawned a plethora of other superhero shows. It's a big reason why we have so many Batman fans today. Might even be the biggest single reason. The Batman shows that have followed weren't as widely acclaimed but have garnered solid reviews in their own right. Again, no other hero comes close in this area. It's not even debatable.
Best video games
This has been a quiet area for most heroes. But since the success of Batman '89 and TAS, Batman has enjoyed more activity in the video game category than most of his peers. In the modern era of gaming, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance was fairly successful, but most superhero games have come to us as rushed-knockoffs of preexisting movies. The Arkham series has changed all that. One of the most frequently repeated comments of any review from either fan or critic was "best superhero video game ever!" The fact that it has grown into its own successful franchise of stealth-action games only further validates that Batman holds the crown in this area. Marvel has of course put out some great games which include multiple characters, but no single hero stands toe-to-toe with Batman here. Once more, the sales figures and critical acclaim make this fact indisputable.
Batman's look is one of the most iconic looks in comics. When people think superheroes, they think "a mask." When people think superheroes, they think "a cape." Batman is rocking both. The other big 3 can't say that (Superman, Spider-Man, Wolverine). Batman's look is also so distinct that it's tough to replicate it without coming across as a blatant knockoff. Superman on the other hand, has been replicated successfully in many different ways. When you think of an unmasked man with a cape, he's certainly still the first to enter most people's minds, but there's also Captain Marvel (Shazam), Majestic, Supreme, and even Thor. Spider-Man's look has been replicated successfully by several characters in his own universe. Deadpool can't cross the street without hearing a Spider-Man crack. Daredevil also has the same problem. I'm not saying that Batman's look hasn't been duplicated, but it's so unique that characters who have tried to duplicate the look haven't really lasted. Again, when you think "cape and cowl" - it's Batman and pretty much only Batman that comes to mind. It's also a costume that has translated quite nicely in the modern context. It's simply badass. To be iconic and badass at the same time is a pretty tough thing to do.
Comicvine ran a fan-voted feature where the top 50 comic book moments were listed. You can Google it. Guess who had the most mentions? Yep, Batman. Guess who's moment was number one on the list? Yep, Batman. Needless to say, there were many tears shed by some angry bat-haters.
Let's walk through a few more lists, just to get a taste of some of the greatest moments Batman has had. Admittedly there's some overlap here:
Now, are we all going to agree on everything? Of course we're not. But you're starting to get a sense of consensus, I hope. Batman is simply the most relevant superhero out there right now. It's been that way for several decades now, and it doesn't appear like that's going to change anytime soon.
tl;dr - Sure, he might be one of us already, but Batman is the greatest superhero to ever grace our planet.