Batman, business, and the incomparable

How one Batman cartoon from 1992 demonstrates the strategic value of looking for what makes your business impossible to compare to the competition. 

By Brad Berens

The most important question in business isn’t “how does your offering compare to the competition?” Instead, the question to ask is “how is your offering incomparable?” What is it about your business that the competition simply doesn’t have and cannot duplicate?

If the answer to that question is “nothing,” then your product is a commodity and your customers will construct consideration sets within which they’ll make arbitrary decisions.

At the moment, Tesla’s incomparability in the EV market comes from its vast network of Superchargers, which is why I find it shortsighted that Tesla will open the Superchargers to other EVs in 2024.

Often, incomparability comes from context. This is easiest to see with narrative products, but the phenomenon exists with other offerings. Amazon Prime, for example, is strategically incomparable: subscribers get so much for it that keeping the service is a hard to think about no brainer.

One helpful illustration of incomparability comes from a 1992 Batman cartoon.

Secret audience experiences

A particular audience phenomenon has fascinated me for decades: this is when one part of an audience has a distinct experience from the general audience because of additional context. There’s a caveat: the general audience can’t know that they’re missing something.

Incomparability is a high bar for any business to jump over, but in our age of digital transformation where technology makes comparison effortless, it’s the best metric for true differentiation.

Here’s an example of what I’m not talking about: when the Genie (voiced by Robin Williams) in Aladdin (1992) suddenly does a William F. Buckley impression, it was a reference for adults only. Unless a kid had been watching Firing Line (a PBS show about politics that Buckley hosted), that kid knew that there was something he or she wasn’t understanding.

One perfect example of a secret, incomparable audience experience is Episode 32 of Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS): “Beware the Gray Ghost” (1992).

BTAS was a remarkable series featuring the purest superhero storytelling: the first season contained a whopping 65 episodes with fantastic animation that looked like the 1930s Max Fleisher Superman cartoons and had an art deco style that was a powerful part of its world building.

The first season went from September of 1992 to September of 1993, and just a few months after in December of 1993 came a theatrical release — Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm, set in the same animated universe—which, in my opinion, remains the single best Batman movie ever made.

You can watch all of BTAS on MAX, and here’s a direct link to “Beware the Gray Ghost.”

What happens in “Beware the Gray Ghost”?

Should I write “spoiler alert” for a 31 year old cartoon? OK: Spoiler Alert! (Consider yourselves warned.)

A villain who calls himself “The Mad Bomber” is blowing up buildings throughout Gotham City, demanding ransom to stop. Batman/Bruce Wayne recognizes the pattern of bombing because the Bomber is a copycat who is imitating an episode of a TV show from Bruce’s childhood: The Gray Ghost. The show inspired Batman’s accoutrement (the cape, jumping off buildings, the Batcave which looks like the Gray Ghost’s Lair.)

When Bruce can’t find a copy of the show to review, he consults Simon Trent, the actor who played the Gray Ghost. After some initial tension, Batman and the Gray Ghost team up to defeat the Bomber, who turns out to be the vintage toy seller to whom Trent has been selling his old memorabilia in order to cover his rent.

Trent hasn’t been able to get acting work because he is too associated with the Gray Ghost. At the end, having helped Batman, Trent finds himself once again in the limelight.

Why is “Beware the Gray Ghost” a secret audience experience?

Because the voice of Simon Trent/the Gray Ghost was Adam West.

West played Batman/Bruce Wayne in the classic, ultra-campy 1960s live-action Batman TV series. (I was devoted to it in reruns as a child and was shocked to realize it was campy when I saw it again years later.) Batman was a huge hit in its first season, but after the series ended West often struggled to get work because he was so associated with the caped crusader.

For viewers who remembered the Biff! Wham! live-action Batman series, the parallel between Simon Trent and Adam West is impossible to miss the moment the Gray Ghost first says something at the three minute mark in the episode: West had an unmistakably distinct voice.

Younger viewers who didn’t know the 1960s series would still have seen a terrific episode, but for viewers with that secret context Simon Trent’s redemption at the end of the episode was also Adam West’s redemption. Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) teaming up with the Gray Ghost was also the 1992 Batman teaming up with the 1960s Batman.

Secret experiences versus Easter Eggs

Stunt casting callbacks are common in pop culture movies. For example, in the recent (and lamentable) Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Michael Gray, who played Billy Batson in the 1970s, had a brief cameo. But such things don’t deepen the experience of the story: they’re just enjoyable momentary distractions that created a different sort of immersion. Easter eggs, fan service, and other sorts of reference work in similar ways.

“Beware the Gray Ghost” is incomparable in a literal way: no other actor alive at that time could have played Simon Trent and provided that extra level of experience only available to viewers with additional context and imperturbably invisible to a general audience.

I would love to know which came first back in the 1990s: did the writers ask themselves, “hey, can we write a story for Adam West?” or did they come up with the plot of “Beware the Gray Ghost” and then realize that it was perfect for Adam West?

Incomparability is a high bar for any business to jump over, but in our age of digital transformation where technology makes comparison effortless, it’s the best metric for true differentiation.


Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at, follow him on Post and/or LinkedIn, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).


See all columns from the Center.

August 30, 2023