Countdown to The Dark Knight Rises: The Many Faces of Batman

When Bob Kane and Bill Finger created the character of “The Batman” in 1939 to capitalize on the success of DC’s foray into superheroes with Superman, they probably had no idea they were creating one of the most enduring characters of the 20th century, not just in comic books, but in popular culture at large. At first a character modeled on hard-boiled pulp detective fiction, remorseless and ruthless when dealing with criminals, over time Batman came to be one of the most justice-oriented and ethical of all superheroes, refusing to kill even his worst enemies. Led by a need to avenge his parents’ death, Bruce Wayne, devoid of superpowers, leveraged his intellect, his wealth, and his indomitable will to protect the citizens of Gotham City against the kind of senseless crimes, both petty and grandiose, that had taken his parents from him.

In the post-war years, Batman’s image shifted from a noirish denizen of the night to a brighter figure; a respected individual rather than a vigilante in the shadows, and by the 1950s he was dabbling in the science fiction plots that had taken over pulps and comics in general. Though the comic series was pulling back into more serious detective stories by the 1960s, the colorful, campy Batman burst onto TV screens in 1966 with Adam West as the caped hero. In response to the success of the show, the comics turned back to campy, and predictably, when the show’s success waned, so did the popularity of the comics. The bright and colorful take on Batman was over (and DC worked for decades to shake the campy image), and it was time for Batman to return to the shadows. Under Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams, he did so, becoming once again a grim avenger, but it would take Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) to fully bring to life the Batman that most of us are familiar with today.

Miller’s dark and complicated take on Batman popularized the character once again, and along with books by Alan Moore (The Killing Joke) and others led to the noirish Batman films of Tim Burton. Joel Schumacher’s return to the campy style of the ’60s TV show didn’t fare as well with ’90s audiences already acclimated to a more sinister Bat-style, but Christopher Nolan’s Miller-inspired Batman series was exactly what the modern generation wanted. Nolan’s Batman is complicated, dark, morally ambiguous, and a far cry from either the pulpy crime-fighter of the 1940s or the campy do-gooder of the 1960s. Yet they are all Batman, and the fact that the character has managed to sustain such a wide variety of approaches over the past 80 years without his backstory undergoing many significant changes is pretty amazing. Superman may be the hero who stands up for truth, justice, and the American way, but Batman reminds us of the seedier side of American life, the darkness that is inherent in our grandest cities, and in our most upstanding citizens. He is also that most American of things, the self-made hero – he is heroic because he chooses to be, because he chooses to fight for a better world, even though he knows such a world may not, and may never exist.

The Camp Batman (Batman: The Movie – 1966)

Originally intended as a straight-forward adventure show aimed at kids (like the popular Lone Ranger or Adventures of Superman), instead the 1960s Batman TV ended up in the hands of producer William Dozier, who disliked comic books and decided to do the show as deliberately campy. Filled with bright colors and outlandish acting, the show and the movie which appeared between the show’s two seasons often seem simply poorly made – a garish and over-the-top approach to a character who had previously been known for slinking through shadows, gliding silently through the night, and instilling fear into his enemies. Adam West’s Batman isn’t instilling fear into anybody, let’s be honest. And yet, there’s something so absolutely delightful about the show and the movie that it’s impossible to write it off so easily, especially since there’s every evidence that the people who worked on this knew EXACTLY what they were doing every step of the way.

Every show is carefully structured in two parts, with a cliffhanger that seems assured to bring destruction to our heroes. The second half was aired later in the week, splitting them up like old serials, or more immediately, like the satirical Boris & Natasha segments on Rocky and Bullwinkle (which aired from 1959-1964, just prior to Batman‘s appearance on TV). Partially that was to allow for ABC’s programming schedule, but it also introduced a self-aware retro quality to the show, tying it more specifically to the serialized nature of the pulp fictions that inspired comic books in the first place, and the film serials that succeeded them. The shows are often eye-rollingly ridiculous, but played so straight by West and Burt Ward (as Robin) that it works. This is how you do camp, folks.

The movie was originally planned to launch the series, but after the show’s premiere date was moved up, the movie was pushed back to the summer between the first and second seasons, and released theatrically. By this time, Batman’s major enemies had pretty much all been featured in their own plotlines on the show, and the movie one-upped the show by having them ALL in there. The Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin, and Catwoman, all working together to execute a nefarious plot to dehydrate and kidnap the UN’s Security Council. But who really cares about plot when you’ve got Batman fighting a rubber shark and dancing the Batusi with Miss Kitka (actually Catwoman in a very obvious disguise)? This movie is so ridiculous you’ve pretty much either got to reject it outright or just go along with the joke. Because once you get to segments like Batman trying desperately for MINUTES to put a bomb in a safe place before it explodes, but being met every time by a bunch of kids or a group of nuns before he finally turns to the camera in exasperation and says “some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb,” you can’t maintain that the creators of this were merely incompetent. Everything here is done on purpose to make as fully realized a piece of pop-art camp as you could want. Put it in a museum next to Andy Warhol.

Joel Schumacher would try to bring some of this campy goodness to Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, but with little success. Perhaps the conjunction of pop-art and Batman in the 1960s was a happy accident, a perfect convergence of style and time. Perhaps in a post-Frank Miller Batman world, there’s no room for campiness any longer. Perhaps ’90s audiences simply weren’t expecting a return to the bright and overexposed after the noirish Burton films. Whatever the reason, modern audiences have clearly chosen the dark and conflicted version of Batman, a trend that continues with Nolan’s trilogy of Bat-films. I’m plenty happy with the shadowy Bat myself, but I also can’t deny the joy I get from watching West and Ward cavort around the screen, spouting off ridiculous riddles and getting into and out of impossible scrapes.

– Jandy Hardesty

The Burton Batman (Batman Returns – 1992)

“The Bat, The Cat, The Penguin,” the movie posters snarled in the summer of 1992, and Batman Returns did not disappoint; here was a Gotham bestiary par excellence. If the task of sequelizing Batman was an inherently thankless one – Tim Burton almost didn’t take the job, and audiences did not take to Returns as they did its predecessor – then the advantages of ultimately convincing the director of your major, major, major hit Batman movie to create a follow-up to his own work can be seen in every frame of Batman Returns. Batman hinted at Burton’s now-unmistakable “Burtonness” only in drips and fragments, but Batman Returns is the Original Unexpurgated Bat-Burton: the movie you make when you have absolutely nothing standing in your way. I greatly prefer it to the original; in fact, I greatly prefer it to every other film Tim Burton has ever made.

It was Burton’s rethink of the Penguin which is said to have gotten the director started on the project; his doodle of a Penguin-ish child with the caption “My name is Jimmy, but my friends just call me the Hideous Penguin Boy” not only served as Burton’s inspiration for the character, but brought Danny DeVito onside as well. But anything Batman Returns achieves with the Penguin will forever pale next to its defining contribution to the genre, which is of course Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. In 1992, Catwoman was a stunningly holistic reaction to the 80s’ entire cinematic offering of shitty female leads and disposable “girlfriend” bimbos. A whip-cracking, kick-boxing, back-flipping, sub-vigilante (Catwoman never intercedes heroically, only self-interestedly), Returns’ heroine is also a total (and, one assumes, intentional) inversion of the general uselessness of Vicki Vale.

Catwoman visually disassembles throughout the picture, subtly underscoring the fragmentation of Selina’s psyche and the slow rundown of her “nine lives” – once she’s out, she’s out. Selina cobbles her costume together out of spare vinyl in her closet after being chucked out a window, single-handedly inventing steampunk with her sewing needle claws and broken-dollie white stiching over what looks like poured black glass. But where most movies would be content to stop there, Catwoman was a fully dimensional character who followed her own purposes all the way to the end, rather than subordinating her interests to the men in the film or to the story of the film, as most woman-props in action movies previous had tended to do. Catwoman gets a beauty of a send-off, expending her last “lives” turning away bullet after bullet from Max Shreck’s gun before administering an electrifying kiss of death to the true villain of the piece. What remains for Bruce Wayne – to prowl Gotham’s streets on Christmas Eve, looking for any sign that Selina might have survived – remains touching, and is the reason I still name Batman Returns as my favourite Christmas movie when asked. Batman Returns is a film of three impressive and imaginative characters grasping for some basic human connection that none of them can ultimately achieve… and if that’s not Christmas, I don’t know what is.

– Matt Brown
Note: This piece was excerpted from my longer piece on Batman Returns, which appears this week on TheSubstream.com.

The Schumacher Batman (Batman & Robin – 1997)

Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin is one of the most maligned Hollywood motion pictures of all time. It frequently appears on lists of the worst movies ever made, and is almost universally credited with driving the 80s/90s Batman franchise singlehandedly into the ground. For that reason, I almost think that this piece’s title should begin with the words “in defence of”. Don’t get me wrong, the film’s not some kind of misunderstood masterpiece and most of the criticisms’ levelled against it (silly set-pieces, bad acting, atrocious ice-puns) are absolutely valid. But where I differ from the critical consensus is in my opinion that the film is a) enjoyable to watch, at least in a “so bad its funny” kind of way, and b) contains at least somewhat of a subversive streak that is often unfairly ignored.

Indeed, what strikes some as a soulless corporate project meant to sell Happy Meals and Batman lunchboxes strikes me as the ultimate send up of Western capitalism in all its bright and colourful glory. In this film, rather than being portrayed as social outcasts, Batman and Robin are beloved celebrities who make guest appearances at charity balls and make lavish, unnecessary purchases on their Bat-credit cards (“never leave the cave without it”). In one fight sequence, Poison Ivy pauses to mention a Poison Ivy action figure that comes complete with Bane figurine; the line was tongue in cheek, but rings more than a little true given the sheer amount of merchandise films like this end up producing. The movie shoehorns in everything that was cool in the mind of twelve year old boys at the time of its release, from computer hacking to street racing to an end credits song by The Smashing Pumpkins.

Rather than being depicted as a merciless killer or thief, Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze is a man desperate to be reunited with the love of his life, and by the end of the film is given a chance for redemption. By contrast, the true villain of the piece is the pro-earth Poison Ivy, whose non-violent attempts to save the planet at the beginning of the film are ridiculed, and whose eventual defeat signifies consumerism’s ultimate triumph over the eternal irritation of environmentalism. The movie even throws in some timely Spice Girl feminism courtesy of Batgirl, a buxom female hero who yells “hi-YA!” heroically even time she high kicks, and who even takes time out to lecture Poison Ivy on “giving women a bad name”. Don’t let Alicia Silverstone’s atrocious acting convince you that the film is any less girl-empowering.

Then there’s the more adult content. Although most people like to highlight Arnies’ dialogue, consider some of Ivy’s double entendres: “my garden needs tending”, “I can help you grab your rocks”, “some lucky boy’s about to hit the honey pot”. Along with the frequent close-ups of our heroes’ latex clad Bat-butts, Bat-crotches and Bat-tits (not to mention those infamous nipples), this piece of “family” entertainment contains some pretty inappropriate stuff.

Is it possibly I’m being too generous? I’d say not only possible, but probable. Whether or not Batman & Robin is intentionally a satire or just accidentally one is certainly up for debate, but I’d play my trump card in arguing that it actually doesn’t matter. Schumacher, obviously at the behest of the dollar obsessed studio, cranks everything in this movie up to eleven, to the point that, in my mind at least, it can only be interpreted as parody. And at the end of the day, if I can read a film in such a way that lets me enjoy it, then that’s exactly the thing I’m going to do.

– Tom Clift

The Nolan Batman (2005-2012)

Never fear, we will be covering the Christopher Nolan Batman films along with our post on Nolan later in the week.

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