With Batman set to return, casts an eye over the franchise that gave new life to superhero films
welcomes Batman’s dark return
AS comic book cliffhangers go, it’s a corker: having just saved Lieutenant Jim Gordon’s son from the evil clutches of Harvey
Two-Face’’ Dent and in the process vanquishing the district attorney turned demented avenger, Batman persuades the policeman to let him take the blame for Dent’s recent murder spree to preserve his reputation as well as the sense of law and order among the nervous citizenry of Gotham City.
People need a hero with a face, Batman reasons, not a mysterious, misunderstood, caped and cowled crusader. Feeling himself strong enough to take the fall, I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be,’’ he says, before disappearing into the night.
That was four years ago, the moments of Christopher Nolan’s
the extraordinary and immensely successful sequel to 2005’s which in turn marked the director’s thus far triumphant rebooting of one of comicdom’s most cherished crime fighting figures.
It is too early to tell if which opens in a fortnight, will conclude the trilogy as strongly as continued it, but there’s little question Nolan’s hat trick will be seen as one of unparalleled ambition that incorporates a series of remarkably astute creative and technical choices in service to one of popular culture’s most influential and durable characters.
Just as the modern Batman can serve as needed, the character itself has proven to be surprisingly resilient, a litmus test for changing times and an enduring figure of strength and justice in the face of often dubious artistic choices. So before the world discovers where Batman is going, a brief look back on where the caped crusader has been and some thoughts on what he means to popular culture are in order.
While graphic novels had been around in one form or another since the mid-19th century, historians of the form — of which there are many — generally agree that the golden age of comic books as they’re known today began with the 1938 debut of Superman in Action Comics 1. The early companies that defined the era eventually coalesced into dominant rivals DC Comics and Marvel Co- mics, both of which are heavily invested today in filmed versions of their superhero stable (Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, The Flash and others for DC Comics, Captain America, Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, the Hulk, Avengers, Thor and more with Marvel).
Superman was such an immediate hit that DC’s editors began brainstorming additional superheroes. Bob Kane, a 24-year-old New Yorker who had already been in the nascent industry for three years, combined his impressions of Douglas Fairbanks’s swashbuckling turn as Zorro, the winged design of Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter and concepts from director Roland West’s 1930 early talkie
into a crime fighter he called
THE BATMAN CHARACTER HAS PROVEN TO BE SURPRISINGLY RESILIENT, A LITMUS TEST FOR CHANGING TIMES
tually. fortune increases and he gains prominence as a businessman and philanthropist in his home town, Gotham City (played by Chicago in and
Pittsburgh will do the honours for
The subterfuge is aided and abetted by faithful family butler Alfred and young ward Dick Grayson, the latter fighting alongside him as Robin (though not in this iteration of the legend). From an early age Wayne has been mentored and protected by a policeman, Jim Gordon, who rises steadily in the department ranks even as he develops a strong working relationship with Batman.
During the so-called silver age of comics, from 1956 to the early 1970s, DC’s writers developed a stable of accomplices and nemeses. Batgirl is perhaps the most prominent of the former, while the latter include the Joker (famously played by Heath Ledger in
the Riddler, Two-Face, the Penguin, the Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul.
Mention Batman to Americans of a certain age and they’ll inevitably think of the improbably successful half-hour prime-time television show that ran from 1966 to 1968. In truth, by the early 60s sales of the comic book had plummeted to such depths that DC Comics considered killing off the character entirely. Instead, the show harnessed the garish, anything-goes vibe of the decade to immensely popular, if ultimately trendy, effect: crime fighting as vaudeville.
Starring Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin, the program’s visual style mixed then-current pop art stylings with recognisable comic book tropes such as word balloons with exclamations such as POW!’’ and BAM!’’ during the anticipated, if clumsily choreographed, fight scenes.
Another gimmick was to employ former movie stars as villains, including Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, Cesar Romero as the Joker and Vincent Price as Egghead.
The camp novelty wore thin, however, and following the show’s cancellation a team of young writers and artists returned the character to his grim, nocturnal roots.
In the early 80s, Warner Bros decided to give Batman the big-screen treatment. This wasn’t the first time Batman had starred in Christian Bale as Batman in
. . . watchful protector of Gotham his own movie: a pair of 15-chapter serials had been produced by Columbia Pictures in 1943 and 1949. Little-known actors Lewis Wilson and Robert Lowery essayed the caped crusader, respectively, with the first film keyed around World War II espionage and the second featuring one-off nemesis the Wizard.
West and Ward had in the 1966 production made between the first and second seasons of the television show. Technically speaking the first featurelength live-action film built around a character in the DC Comics stable, the saturated colours and parodic nature of the vaguely Cold Warthemed proceedings render it nothing more or less than a longer version of the program.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, numerous concepts and scripts were bandied about. Chief among the advocates of returning Batman to his original, more serious, conception were producers Michael Uslan, a hard-core comic book collector, and Benjamin Melniker, a former studio executive. To their distress, the pair found most Hollywood studios were interested in the same kind of comic spin as the TV show, and even after Warner picked up the property it still took the better part of a decade to get the film made.
The resulting 1989 film, combined the lighter and darker elements of the character’s previous incarnations. Making his third studio feature film following
and Tim Burton chafed against studio interference and endured endless criticism for casting comic actor Michael Keaton in the lead and Jack Nicholson as the Joker.
Despite these impediments, or perhaps because of them, Batman grossed more than $400 million worldwide and kick-started the modern era of superheroes on film. That the film doesn’t hold up that well today underscores the idea that each generation will do with the Batman what they will; though Keaton acquits himself with admirable gravitas as a thoughtful hero, Nicholson’s Joker hasn’t fared nearly as well and the sets look more like