Ed­die Cock­rell

With Bat­man set to re­turn, casts an eye over the fran­chise that gave new life to su­per­hero films

The Weekend Australian - Review - - CONTENTS -

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


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

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