With the horrifying image of a giant bat this hero strikes fear into the hearts of the superstitious and cowardly lot of Gotham’s underworld, Batman, the Caped Crusader, the Dark Knight, the World’s Greatest Detective, whose never ending battle for truth, justice and the American way…wait, no, that’s the other guy. Next to Superman you’d be hard pressed to find a more iconic character than Batman, his very silhouette is more identifiable than any other figure, with maybe the exception of Mickey Mouse, but he hasn’t been a static figure over the years, he’s had many incarnations, and today we will look at a few of them.
It all started back in 1939 when the success of Superman was about to open the floodgates of a whole new genre of comics. National Publications (later to become DC Comics) wanted more superheroes and Bob Kane, along with collaborator Bill Finger, were more than happy to oblige, and so The Bat-Man was born. The character was clearly influenced by Johnston McCulley’s Zorro and Walter Gibson’s The Shadow, and with design influences from Leonardo Da Vinci, but though Batman started as amalgamation of characters ranging from Doc Savage to Sherlock Holmes he quickly became his own man. His first appearance in issue Detective Comics #27 includes all the iconic elements we know of Batman today; cape, cowl, utility belt, and a duel identity as rich playboy Bruce Wayne, but he was also a rather different hero than what he’d later become.
Many fans, me included, were not too fond of the amount of killing Batman carried out in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice, but back in the early days of Detective Comics the Caped Crusader was not all that averse to killing. He was even known to carry a gun from time to time, which came in handy if he had to dispatch vampires with silver bullets.
The Batman of this early period was more akin to the pulp heroes he stemmed from, with no compunctions about killing or maiming his enemies, and more than a few villains had fatal encounters with Batman; from tumbling backwards into vats of chemicals, having their necks snapped with a well-placed Batman kick, or even being gunned down from the Bat-Plane.
It wasn’t until Detective Comics #38 in April of 1940 and the introduction of Robin, Batman’s under aged sidekick, that the hard pulpy edge of Batman began to soften. Robin was suggested by Bill Finger as a kind of Watson counterpoint for Batman to talk to, but Bob Kane preferred his dark avenger to run solo, and was not originally a fan of this addition. As much as Kane may have disliked the idea the doubling of sales clearly indicated that Robin the Boy Wonder was here to stay. And it was the aforementioned gunning done of criminals via the Bat-Plane that prompted Editor Whitney Ellsworth to decree that the character could no longer kill or use a gun. One can understand the reticence of having Batman murdering villains in front of his eight year old partner.
Psychologist Fredric Wertham, in his 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent, implied that children imitated crimes committed in comic books, and that these works corrupted the morals of the youth. This eventually led to the adoption of Comic Code of Authority which in turn forced Batman even further into the light. Also being this was the 50s the popularity of science fiction skewed the stories towards more outlandish adventures and introduced such characters as Batwoman, Ace the Bat-Hound, and Bat-Mite. But fighting aliens and teaming up with outer dimensional imps were the least of Batman’s problems as the stories became sillier with almost every issue published.
With a character as popular as Batman had become it’s no surprise that Hollywood would come calling, and in 1943 Columbia Pictures brought Batman to the big screen for the very first time with two movie serials. The first one starred Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin. Kids of the time were thrilled to see Batman brought to life, and didn’t seem to care if he looked like their dad dressed up for Halloween.
Movie serials were not known for having lavish budgets, and so viewers were not too surprised to find Wayne Manor to be a small house in the suburbs, or that the Batmobile was just Bruce Wayne’s car with the top up, but they may have been a bit shocked to discover a Robin who looks to be in his mid-twenties.
The film is most notable for introducing the Bat Cave, though here it’s basically a desk with a bat on string hovering over it, and the Bat Signal was just an overhead projector the police pointed out the window, but the film’s racist overtones will certainly surprise modern audiences. Filmed during the height of WWII the chief villain of the film is Dr. Daka, an evil Japanese scientist turning people into pseudo-zombies. That the Japanese villain was played by white actor J. Caroll Naish, with terrible Asian make-up, is only a tip of the iceberg of racism for this serial as the opening narration described the stories setting thus, “This was part of a foreign land, transplanted bodily to America and known as little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street.” Yeah, not America’s finest hour.
In the 1949 serial Batman Robert Lowery dons the cowl while Robin now is played by Johnny Duncan, who looks even older than Croft. This time the dynamic duo face off against the Wizard, a hooded villain with an electrical device which controls cars. We are not talking Joker level of villainy here. The Batmobile is still just Bruce Wayne’s car with the top up, but there is a brilliant moment when reporter Vicki Vale (Jane Adams), who is attempting to tail the Batmobile, is spotted by the caped crusaders. Batman pulls over and demands that Linda explain why she was following them. She answers with a question, “Why are you in Bruce Wayne’s car?” and the World’s Greatest Detective comes up with the dazzling retort. “He loaned it to us.”
The serials were re-released in 1965, with the racist elements wisely edited out, and was called An Evening with Batman and Robin. This proved so popular that its success is something many consider to be the inspiration for the William Dozier’s Batman television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.
The cultural impact of the 60s Batman television show cannot be overstated. Batmania swept the globe as stars from both big and small screen vied to get a chance to be a “guest villain” on the show. And if any series was a product of the sixties it’s this one, with its far out colours, it’s pantheon of wild characters, and brilliant comic touch, it has no equal. At the heart of what made this show work was of course Adam West, at no point does Batman ever look at the camera and wink, every goofy off-the-wall statement Batman utters was delivered with utmost sincerity. The series did so well that it got a mid-season theatrical released movie. What TV show has ever had that?
Though many consider the show to be the height of camp West himself believed they were merely satirizing the character, and not in a mean spirited way. Some consider this series as the death knell of Batman being taken seriously in the comics, but before this show aired DC was seriously considering killing off the character. So this show could be actually be considered a stay of execution, and if purists fans hated that the comics were starting to get as goofy of the television show all someone would have to do is remind them about Bat-Mite and the Rainbow collection of Bat-Suits.
As all good things must come to an end the Batman series was cancelled after just three seasons, and with its death once again sales of the Batman comic began to decline. Enter writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams who decided that the character needed to return to his roots as a “grim avenger of the night.”
Dennis O’Neil, Neal Adams, along with inker Dick Giordano, not only reinvigorated the comic but they also gave us Ra’s al Ghul, one of Batman’s greatest foes, and the story “Daughter of the Demon” is easily one of the top Batman stories ever told. Of course during the 70s many writers and artists put out excellent Batman stories but it was these guys who managed to yank Batman from another ignoble death. Speaking of ignoble things…
Let’s talk animation for a minute. In the 1940s Fleischer Studios produced eight excellent Superman cartoons, which were released theatrically, making it rather odd that it wasn’t until the late 60s for Batman to make the move into animation, and only on television. First there was The Batman/Superman Hour, later followed by the The Adventures of Batman, and then finally ending with Batman with Robin the Boy Wonder. All were from Filmation Studios, an animation studio not known for stellar work, and as these were made on the cheap for Saturday morning cartoons the animation was limited at the best of times.
Running in many incarnations from 1973 to 1986 the Super Friends was a kid friendly version of the Justice League. Now it certainly had better animation than the Filmation series, but the show was still rather goofy. In the first season Batman, Superman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and Robin the Boy Wonder were joined on their adventures by Marvin, Wendy and their Wonder Dog. Later that trio was replaced by Zan and Jayna, the Wonder Twins with their space monkey Gleek.
Due to Standards and Practices of the time Hanna-Barbera was not allowed to have overt acts of violence. That meant no kicking or punching. Now when your team includes Batman and Robin that is going to be a bit of a problem. The Dynamic Duo were forced to set aside their hand-to-hand combat skills and rely totally on the gadgets in their utility belts. “Holy Bat-lube, Batman!”
Frank Miller’s limited series The Dark Knight Returns hit comic stores in 1986, and really shook things up for the character. Writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman were already starting to show the world that comic books weren’t just for kids, but it was Miller’s story of an aged Batman coming out of retirement to battle a gang of street thugs that really blew new life into the character. Its influence and design is still affecting how many people perceive the character to this day, and obviously it greatly inspired Zack Snyder’s movie version. One could argue that if not for the popularity of this four issue series we may never have gotten Tim Burton’s Batman.
When Mister Mom was cast in Tim Burton’s upcoming Batman film it was quite controversial, but Michael Keaton proved naysayers wrong by giving us a well crafted performance of a psychological disturbed Bruce Wayne, a person you could believe would but on a bat suit to punch criminals. Jack Nicholson’s Joker was less of a surprise as all he did was basically channel Cesar Romero’s Joker from the television show. What Burton managed to pull off was the same thing that Richard Donner did back in 1979 with Superman; he made a serious movie that just happened to be based on a comic book character. Tim Burton’s version was also aided by Anton Furst’s fantastic designs for Gotham, which dominate the movie as does Prince’s soundtrack, and if Burton had been a little more interested in story than visuals we could have had a film that would have rivaled the Nolan series. What the film really lacks is a decent amount of Batman, though the Joker laments that Batman is getting “all his press” it’s Nicholson who dominates the film’s screen time.
In Burton’s sequel Batman Returns Keaton is back in all his rubber suited glory, and he’s still playing a very interesting Bruce Wayne, but by now it’s clear that Batman is more rubber suit than a full-fledged character. The second film also makes the mistake of overloading itself with villains; a latex clad Catwoman (Michelle Pheiffer), a hideously deformed Penguin (Danny DeVito), and Corporate Tycoon Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) all vie for screen time. Gotham City is still a nightmarish place of an indefinite time period, Alfred (Michael Gough) is still bringing tea down to the Bat Cave, but even though there is a Bat Signal now to call him when he’s needed he still feels like a guest star in his own movie. Burton clearly has more sympathy, and interest, in the more disturbed villains of the Batman universe than he is about the title character.
Taking inspiration from Tim Burton’s Batman movies, and from the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons as well, series creators Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski brought us one of the best incarnations of Batman to date. Timm’s decision to go with a noir feel and color palette still makes this one of the better looking animated shows out there. Kevin Conroy, as the voice of Batman/Bruce Wayne, nails the character perfectly, and it’s here that we clearly see that Batman is the real person and that the Bruce Wayne persona is the disguise. Not many will argue the fact that Mark Hamill’s Joker is brilliant, and to me he is still the definitive Joker. He is chaos personified. He loves death and destruction, but only as long as he has fun doing it. The show ran from 1992 to 1995, changing to The Adventures of Batman and Robin for season two. The series owes a lot to Bruce Timm but the voice direction of Andrea Romano is definitely one of the key reasons for this shows success, as well as the excellent music by Shirley Walker.
In this movie entry Tim Burton steps out of the director’s chair to be replaced by Lost Boys director Joel Schumacher. Though Burton remained on as producer this movie is clearly Schumacher’s baby. If one can take anything away from Schumacher’s Batman movies it’s his love of showing us Bat Nipples and Bat Ass shots. Val Kilmer is now playing Batman because Keaton read the script and wisely bailed. Once again the filmmakers assume more villains means a better movie, they are of course wrong, but not only do we get The Riddler (Jim Carrey) and Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) we also get the origin story for Robin (Chris O’Donnell) to clog up the running time even more.
Question: Why would a millionaire take a twenty-something circus performer as his ward?
Gone is Anton Furst’s gorgeous gothic city as it’s now replaced by a neon-epileptic inducing Gotham that is 60% giant statues. Kilmer is bland as both Bruce Wayne and Batman, while Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones try to outdo each other in the over-the-top terrible acting department. The only loser is us.
More Bat Nipples and Bat Ass shots than you can toss a Batarang at in this final Batman movie of the series. Joel Schumacher ups the garish visual levels to eleven with this entry, and because the last film wasn’t too overloaded characters we have Batman, now being played by the human bobble head George Clooney, a returning Chris O’Donnell as Robin, Arnold Schwarzenegger here to deliver a countless amounts of ice puns as Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman as plant loving Poison Ivy, Robert “Jeep” Swenson as Bane, who here is relegated to monosyllabic bodyguard duty to Ivy, and finally Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl, who for some reason is Barbara Wilson, Alfred’s niece, and not Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter. This movie reached such levels of terribleness that it completely imploded the franchise, and we’d have to wait eight years before they’d be able to get another one off the ground.
In this futuristic take on Batman Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and Alan Burnett teamed-up to produce an animated series that was across between Batman, Blade Runner, and Tron. Surprisingly this worked rather well. The basic premise was that in the year 2019 an aging Bruce Wayne had hung up his cowl because on his last case he was forced to betray a lifelong principle by threatening to use a gun. Twenty years later Terry McGinnis (Will Friedle), an athletic 17 year old, discovers that Bruce Wayne was Batman. With Bruce, working as basically Oracle from the Bat Cave, McGinnis dons a high-tech Batman suit and fights futuristic villains. The show ran for three seasons, and was overall quite good, the animation style was fresh and exciting and the techno-pop soundtrack was the bomb.
After the utterly awful direction Joel Schumacher took the Batman franchise the world was more than ready for Christopher Nolan’s grounded version of the Caped Crusader in his Dark Knight Trilogy. Gone are the giant statues, now replaced by the mean streets of Chicago (with a few not so great CGI matte paintings), and we are also given a new and fleshed out backstory for Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale). We learn after his parents were killed he wandered the world until becoming a pupil of Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson), and when he returns to Gotham with his new found skills he becomes Batman. With the aid of his butler Alfred (Michael Caine), tech-master Luscious Fox (Morgan Freeman), and Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) the Dark Knight keeps the citizens of Gotham safe. Still unable to make a Batman film with just one villain Batman Begins gives us, along with Ra’s al Ghul, crime lord Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) and The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy). Though flawed Batman Begins was a definite nice step in the right direction, and tries to answer that age old question, “What will happen when the train reaches Wayne Tower?”
In The Dark Knight we once again have a plethora of villains; crime boss Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts), Lau (Chin Han) a triad boss, and several other Gotham gang leaders who are all upset about the headache that is Batman, but of course the stand-out villain in this movie is the Joker (Heath Ledger). The late Heath Ledger swept twenty acting awards for his performance as the demented and scarred clown of terror, and they were all well deserved. He plays a Joker that just wants to see the world burn. In contrast Bale’s Batman, with his increasingly silly Batman voice, pales in comparison. We also have District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) turning into Two-Face for the last act, which is a shame as his character comes off unfairly as a bit of a loss when compared to Ledger’s Joker. Eckhart’s Two-Face deserved his own film. Overall The Dark Knight is simply a fantastic movie, and still the best Batman film to date.
The last entry in this trilogy is The Dark Knight Rises, which pits Batman against Bane (Tom Hardy), the villain notoriously known for being the man who broke Batman’s back in the comic book Knightfall. Having one of Batman’s relatively newer villains was apparently not enough so we again get more villains stuffed into this film; Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) is both villainous and a potential love interest for Batman, and even Scarecrow returns to make an extended cameo, but the orchestrator behind it all is Talia al Ghul (Marion Cotillard) who wants to finish her father’s work, which just so happens to be destroying Gotham City. Batman Begins was a nice jump start to the Batman franchise while The Dark Knight completely blew our collective minds with its awesomeness, so The Dark Knight Rises really had its work cut out for it. Sadly it doesn’t quite match up to its predecessors, it’s a decent enough film, but there are enough problems with the story to keep it from being one of the more re-watchable Batman movies.
In 2013 Warner Brothers hired director Zack Snyder to bring his vision of Superman for their first installment in the DC Extended Universe movie series. Man of Steel was a dark and gritty version of Superman, which caught many off guard as one does not think “Dark and Gritty” when thinking of Superman, cause that’s kind of Batman’s thing, but flash forward three years and we have Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice, where we get dark and gritty hero versus dark and gritty hero. The key to the Superman/Batman dynamic is their differences, but in this movie they are both kind of dark and brooding assholes. Superman (Henry Cavill) seems pissed that not everyone on the planet worships him like a god, and Batman holds Superman responsible for the thousands of deaths during the Battle of Metropolis. So if I have to pick sides I’ve got to go with Batman, but he is a bit of a dick about the whole thing, “ He has the power to wipe out the entire human race and if we believe there is even a one percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty.” I’d say Batman could use some Netflix and Chill.
Now as live action Batmans go I’d say Ben Affleck is pretty damn good, his Bruce Wayne and Batman personas aren’t as defined as say Kevin Conroy’s, but he still really sold the character for me. Also I love this older Batman look, clearly taken from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Ben Affleck completely owns the part. My biggest complaint here is that we should have had a solo Batman movie before we got this overcrowded team-up, because once again the cast is just jammed back. We have Jesse Eisenberg’s atrocious Lex Luthor, Gal Gadot’s nice turn as Wonder Woman, a cave troll from The Lord of the Rings as Doomsday, and an email of the Justice League.
As the DC Extended Universe continues there is no doubt that we are going to see a lot more of Batman on the big screen. He is going to appear in the upcoming Suicide Squad, and of course in the Justice League movie, but I do hope he gets another standalone film.
Now I didn’t include the television show Gotham in this list because it’s more about James Gordon and Batman’s rogues gallery, and kid Bruce is no Batman, but if I’ve missed one of your favorite versions of Batman please let me know in the comments below.
Before I leave you I’d fill remiss if I didn’t mention an awesome animated series called Batman: The Brave and the Bold. This is a brilliantly fun cartoon based on the comic book series that focused on Batman’s team-ups over the years. Diedrich Bader provides the voice of Batman, and he brings a nice classic heroic flair to the role. These are all standalone episodes, are also incredibly fun, and the comic tone for this series is a treat. I will now bid you adieu with the song “Birds of Prey.” Click on the link and enjoy. of Prey”
Film grad who spends most his time trying to catch up on his "To Watch" pile of movies.