Superman may be the most iconic of superheroes, providing people with a symbol of hope and setting an example for all mankind. But if you asked anyone who is the more interesting superhero, Batman or Superman, they would likely reply, “Batman,” in a heartbeat. But what is it that makes Batman so much more compelling than not just Superman, but Green Lantern, The Flash, Wonder Woman and various other superheroes? Is it because of his tragic past, dark persona, lack of superpowers, or endlessly impressive rouge gallery? That all certainly contributes to Batman’s appeal. On the whole though, Batman is all about great character development and storytelling. This is what has made Batman such an eternal character, from his first appearance in the comics to Christopher Nolan’s latest “Dark Knight” trilogy.
Deriving inspiration from the masked vigilante of Zorro and the Roland West mystery film “The Bat Whispers,” comic book artist and writer Bob Kane created Batman in 1939. The Caped Crusader made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27, meeting much acclaim from fans. Batman’s popularity amounted to a 15-chapter serial produced by Columbia Pictures in 1943 with Lewis Wilson as the title character. By today’s standards, the serial’s effects and costumes may come off as cheesy to say the least. The serial was also heavily influenced by World War II aftermath with an incredibly racist depiction of a Japanese doctor as the villain. While age hasn’t been kind to it, the Batman serial does hold a special place in history for being the character’s first live-action appearance.
After another 15-part serial six years later, Batman eventually achieved his own television program in 1966. People are often split on this intentionally campy series with some arguing it’s the single worst entry to the Batman franchise while others have defended it to the grave. The ’60s Batman show might not have been the most serious, artistic or important interpretation of the superhero. Like the original serial, it was very much a product of the time. Despite all of its corniness though, this was a very likable show mainly thanks to the charms of Adam West, Burt Ward and other cast members. Whether you’re laughing at it or laughing with it, the old Batman show is still fun to watch whenever reruns are shown on television.
In the 1980s, Batman returned to his darker roots via several celebrated graphic novels and comic book story arcs. The most commendable titles included “Batman: Year One,” an account of Bruce Wayne’s first year as the Batman, “The Killing Joke,” which presented a potential origin story for the Joker, and Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” the tale of a 55-year-old Batman who comes out of retirement. The success of these grimmer, more complex Batman stories lead to Tim Burton’s big screen adaptation in 1989.
Burton’s film was the complete opposite of the campy show and serial, presenting a much more tortured depiction of Batman starring as a surprisingly well-suited Michael Keaton. The film additionally fashioned Gotham City into one of the most marvelous settings of all cinema, deservingly winning the Best Art Direction Oscar. While this was a huge step-up from previous outings, Burton’s “Batman” wasn’t without its problems. The film’s main shortcoming was the lack of attention paid to Bruce Wayne’s inner demons and motivations for fighting crime in a bat costume. Burton seemed to have more interest in Jack Nicholson’s one-dimensional Joker, whose antics go on for far too long. All in all, “Batman” is an entertaining picture and a creditable landmark for the character. Like many of Burton’s movies though, it focused more on style and atmosphere than character and story, the two aspects that made Batman so engaging in the first place.
Since “Batman” was such a huge box office hit, Burton was naturally asked to come back and direct “Batman Returns.” Once again, this “Batman” movie paid more attention to the villains, which included Danny DeVito as the Penguin, Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Christopher Walken as himself essentially. It also left a lot of people depressed and some of the grotesque imagery scarred young children for life. Thus, Joel Schumacher was brought on to director the third entry to the franchise, “Batman Forever.” This was a more light-hearted, colorful, family friendly film that launched the infamous bat nipples. While “Batman Forever” wasn’t a very good movie, it was a masterpiece compared to Schumacher’s hunk of bat guano follow-up.
“Batman & Robin” has not only been marked as the most despised Batman movie, but quite possibly the absolute worst movie of all time. After the previous films attempted to stay loyal to the characters darker, sophisticated origins, “Batman & Robin” reverted to the tone of the ’60s show. Where the Adam West series could at least be construed as a guilty pleasure though, “Batman & Robin” didn’t even work as unintentionally hilarious camp. It was just joyless, stupid, boring and tacky beyond all content. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s never-ending cycle of bad freeze puns and George Clooney’s bat credit card didn’t help.
Throughout the ’90s, the best interpretation of Batman wasn’t any of the live-action movies, but the animated series helmed by Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and others. The show looked and sounded fantastic, employing a first-rate orchestra and art deco design. What really solidified the animated series as a classic was its rich representation of the Dark Knight.
Kevin Conroy delivered an emotionally charged and powerful voice-over performance as Batman/Bruce Wayne, a man haunted by the psychological turmoil of losing his parents. Where he could easily go down the path of vengeance, Batman channels his grief into something good by protecting the city of Gotham. Outside of the comics, this was the first version of the character that really made me consider whether it’s Batman or Bruce Wayne who wears the mask. In either case, Batman emerged as a multi-layered character that was equal parts superhero, detective and human.
The villains were much more fleshed out, too. Characters like Two-Face and Mr. Freeze were built up to be more tragic figures with depth as apposed to wacky madmen that were evil for the sake of it. “Batman: The Animated Series” could even be very funny at times, primarily thanks to Mark Hamill as The Joker and Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn. The show went on to inspire the overlooked theatrical release, “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm,” and other animated series like “Batman Beyond” and “Justice League.” A majority of the original voice-over cast and writer Paul Dini have recently reunited for “Batman: Arkham Asylum” and “Batman Arkham City,” easily the two best superhero games ever made. Humorous, moving, and exciting, the impact of “Batman: The Animated Series” is truly perennial.
As the 21st century rolled in, Warner Bros. was looking to completely revamp the “Batman” film franchise. For a while they considered doing a live-action take on the futuristic “Batman Beyond” or a crossover with Superman. In the end, they entrusted the project to Christopher Nolan, director of “Memento,” who at last granted us the live-action Batman movie we deserved. “Batman Begins” was a gripping retelling of the Batman origin story that encompassed all the pain, ethics, and desires of Bruce Wayne, played by the perfectly cast Christian Bale. Nolan further incorporated a more realistic tone to the Batman universe, creating a world with echoes of our own. This was appropriate seeing how Batman himself has no superpowers, nor do his foes.
As terrific as “Batman Begins” was, it was merely a dress rehearsal when stacked up against Nolan’s sequel, “The Dark Knight.” Nolan enhanced everything this time around with more intense action and poignant dialog in addition to a genuine sense of peril. It broke new grounds for the genre, exceeding the demeaning label of a “comic book movie.” People were so impressed with “The Dark Knight” that there was some serious consideration of it garnering major Oscar nominations. “The Dark Knight” unfortunately didn’t get the Best Picture or Best Director nominations it deserved. Yet, the late Heath Ledger did win Best Supporting Actor for his immortal portrayal as the homicidal, terrorist-like Joker.
Now Nolan’s Batman trilogy will come to a close today with the release of “The Dark Knight Rises.” It’s really amazing how a single comic from the ’30s has encouraged one of the most recognizable franchises of all time. Even today new Batman comics and cartoons are being produced. Warner Bros. is already making plans for another “Batman” film series, which will sadly have to walk in the footsteps of Nolan’s. It just goes to show how ceaselessly alluring Batman is, capturing the attention of every generation. As long as a bat symbol remains in the sky and people continue to quote Robin’s lame one-liners, the legacy of the Dark Knight will continue with no end in sight.
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.