As I write this, the London Olympics are in full swing, with many people glued to their screens as they watch the Games live. And which Olympian is the most interesting to watch, as the events unfold? Well, it’s not the sprinters or the swimmers or the tennis players or even the long jumpers. It’s Batman – yes, the caped crusader from the movie series. People are following his story, wondering what will happen next. And it’s a great testament to the lasting impact that the Batman film series has had, not just on popular culture, but on real-life inspiration as well.

The Evolution of Batman

The first feature film in the Batman series was released in 1939, and since then, there have been nine more movies, with the most recent one hitting theaters in 2017. (A musical based on the Batman universe is also in the works, but that’s a topic for another day.) And yet, nearly 80 years later, the Dark Knight still holds a special place in the hearts of movie fans and of course, the Hollywood industry as a whole. Why? Well, it’s hard to put into words the impact that the Batman films have had on generations of people. For those who have seen them, it’s like déjà vu all over again – as the actors and the characters speak directly to the audience, the films still feel fresh, new and relevant.

The actor who plays Batman in the most recent movie, The Dark Knight, is Christian Bale. And in a career spanning more than 25 years, he has played the role of Batman five times, the most recent one being in 2017. But even before these latest films, Bale was already the best at his job, embodying the angst-ridden detective in a way that made the character his own unique and versatile interpretation. For those who have seen the original The Dark Knight and the two prequels Knight Sense and The Dark Knight Rises, Bale’s performance will not be a surprise.

Why Batman?

The evolution of Batman is a fascinating study in the impact of popular culture in shaping modern society. The Dark Knight, for example, is often credited with popularizing the persona of the superhero in the mainstream. The character of Harvey Dent, who turns into the ultimate “Dark Knight”, serves as a sort of prototype for the Anti-Hero, a type that we see represented in shows like Breaking Bad and many other films and series nowadays.

What’s more, the success of Batman – along with the success of other iconic characters from the Golden Age of Hollywood – is a testament to the enduring appeal of those characters, even after many decades. They speak to us, not just as movie characters, but as individuals, each one a personification of their own era’s zeitgeist. And who could forget the character of Gordon, played by the late Hal Holbrook? In one scene, he’s giving the finger to a heckler, in another, he’s threatening to kill the Joker – clearly two very different representations of an authority figure, but both instantly recognizable as a ‘Gordon’ moment.

And while I’m on the subject of the Joker, what other character has transcended the decades, staying as popular as ever and in some cases, even becoming a fan favorite? Well, there’s actually a list of characters who have retained their popularity over the years, headed by Batman and the Joker. Here’s a short list:

Tony Stark (Ironman)

Tony Stark is the genius billionaire playboy inventor who appears in the Ironman series of films. He’s most famous for creating the artificial intelligence program J.A.R.V.I.S., which stands for “Just About Right/Virtual Intelligent System.” V.I.S. is essentially an elaborate life-like robot, which is why many people say that Tony Stark is the greatest inventor ever, since his inventions always seem to come with a large dose of whimsy and practical jokes.

Stark was played by actor Robert Downey Jr. in the first Ironman film, released in 2010 – the same year that the second film in the series came out. Since then, Ironman has become one of Marvel’s top-selling films, and Downey has starred in several more films and TV shows based on Marvel characters, the most recent being Spiderman: Homecoming, in which he plays the title character. In that movie, he’s teamed up with Tom Hardy (who plays Bane), playing the role of an adult Peter Parker, who is trying to lead a normal life, while dealing with his newfound spider powers and coming to grips with the death of his parents.

Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones)

Harrison Ford is, as I think we’ve established, an iconic American actor, best known for his roles in the Indiana Jones film franchise. (And yes, he does have a role in the upcoming Toy Story 4 as well, as he’s credited as one of the producers.)

One of the most interesting things about Ford is that he’s played so many iconic characters, and yet, he somehow keeps on reinventing himself, appearing in films that range from historical epics to small independent films, to big-budget superhero flicks. And he always seems to find the role that suits him best, whether it’s a no-nonsense cop or a hard-hearted soldier or an adventurous adventurer like Indiana Jones.

Indiana Jones was first played by actor Harrison Ford in 1981, and became an instant classic, winning several awards, including the Academy Award for Best Actor. Ford reprised his role in subsequent films, as well as in various TV series and shorts. In 2017, Ford celebrated 40 years since the character’s inception, appearing in public for the first time in decades for a Q&A with fans at the annual New York Comic Con.

Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury)

Nick Fury is the director of the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization, which stands for “Special Human Intelligence Division.” In the cinematic universe, Nick Fury is the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., the special forces group that protects the Earth from alien invasions and imminent danger. He’s also the leader of the Avengers, the group of superheroes who are based on the creations of comic book writer and artist Jack Kirby.

Jackson was born Samuel L. Jackson, in 1936. He started his acting career in the 1960s, playing a wide array of roles onscreen, from cool guys to tough guys, villains to heroes. He’s probably best known for his starring role as Mace Windu in the film version of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. (A young Harrison Ford plays his son in that film.)

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Jackson has played a variety of roles since the character’s inception in 2000, with appearances in nearly every single film. (He’s even showed up in animated form, playing a version of himself in the Marvelous movie Movers & Shakers.) He’s the only actor to have played both Nick Fury and Captain America and is often considered one of the best American actors of all time. (Incidentally, Jackson also has a small cameo in Spiderman: Homecoming as himself, congratulating Tom’s character for giving the performance of a lifetime.)

Bruce Willis (John McClane)

Now, we come to one of the most interesting cases of all, since Bruce Willis is technically playing himself in most of the films in which he appears. (He didn’t physically play John McClane in 1988’s Die Hard, but rather, portrayed himself, using a body double and special effects.)

John McClane is the police officer who teams up with terrorist group the Nazis in the first film, Die Hard – which hit theaters in 1988, almost 30 years ago. (The film was based on a story by W. Bruce Landrigan.) In Die Hard, McClane teams up with a group of Nakatomi Plaza employees to take down a villainous computer executive who has taken over the system and is terrorizing the city. While certainly not a pleasant experience, it’s the sort of thing that someone might go through in real life, inspired by the story’s events.

In subsequent films, Willis has played numerous other famous faces, from mobsters to rock stars. But he always returns to the role of John McClane – a loner who doesn’t like to talk about his feelings, but rather, stays focused on the problem at hand. (His character also has a drinking problem to contend with in Die Hard.) In fact, the character of John McClane has inspired a generation of action movie fans, appearing in several films throughout the course of the 21st century, as well as a television series.