You can have your Avengers. You can moon over the various versions of Peter Parker’s Webslinger and clamor for more of his comic book buddies to bank on the big screen. But in a world of clearly commercial concerns, the Bat is where it’s at. Yes, Bruce Wayne, philanthropist and million/billionaire (depending on the era) raconteur and playboy has been the movie going publics fave rave for woe these last 40 years. He’s been the subject of a successful funny book run, reinvented by famed writers such as Frank Miller, reimagined as a ‘40s serials icon and a ‘60s camp champ. Yet it was the high concept ‘80s, and the even more micromanaged millennium, that turned the masked vigilante known as the Batman into a pure pop phenomenon.
It all started way back before blockbusters and boffo opening weekends. TV executives were looking for a companion piece to the popular ‘50s take on Clark Kent’s alter ego, aka The Adventures of Superman. That series, starring the George Reeves, was a huge hit among kids, and sensing a similar media splash, they figured the Bat would be best. Loathing the comics and going for a more potent pop art approach, ABC introduced Adam West as their wealthy warrior and Burt Ward as his faithful sidekick, Robin. With its plethora of guest stars as classic villains such as the Joker, the Penguin, and the Riddler, the show was an instant success. In fact, it was such a monster that it actually aired twice a week—the first episode setting up a cliffhanger that the next installment would resolve a few days later.
In retrospect, it’s not hard to see why this initial TV incarnation of the character was such a slam dunk. The producers hit on a formula which made every episode of Batman an event, from who would function as this week’s scoundrel (no baddie was ever bumped off, instead, they rotted in jail until time to battle the Bat again) to the various kitschy catchphrases and optical effects (“Bop!” “Biff”) they would use. In the middle stood West and Ward, each one acting as a dichotomy for the fledgling viewer. Bruce Wayne was always quiet, sober, and reasoned. Dick Grayson, aka Robin, was young, exasperated, and quick tempered. Together, they would pool their personal and physical resources to battle whomever showed up on menace marquee.
Like any splashy skyrocket, Batman barely lasted three season. It was sold as fun and frivolous, a combination which doesn’t have a long social self life. As the Peace Decade began to slowly implode, a goof like this couldn’t last. A movie was made in 1966, hoping to keep the series afloat overseas, but a less than successful run at home seemed to kill such chances. The film featured almost everyone from the TV show and a broader creative campus (Batman battles a combined criminal element made up of his four chief foes). Children used to their hero being plastered on a big, enormous 13-inch screen suddenly saw his paunchy polish 70-feet high, as well as the introduction of such action movie givens as the Batcopter and the Bat Boat.
For those who grew up during the time, this was the forever Batman. This was the event TV tale they shared with classmates over five cent cartoons of milk in the lunch line, or at heated if friendly debates on the playground. It was the concept of the Caped Crusader that carried them through the next two decades, with West and Ward frequently guesting on chat shows and variety hours in and out of their iconic garb. When they bought DC in 1969, Warner Brothers was already brainstorming a way to bring Batman back to the big screen. It would take 20 more years, and lots of backroom arguments, before a more serious version of the Dark Knight would arrive.
After the huge success of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, Warners hit on giving fledgling filmmaker Tim Burton the Bat reigns. As much a reintroduction as a reinvention of the character, this revamp was to be more serious, and would follow the original origins of the character. It would stick with the gloomy, brooding tone of the comic, turning the character from a deadpan goof into a troubled vigilante roaming the shadows of Gotham City, exacting justice. Controversial from the get go (few could see Burton behind the lens), things got even more dicey when the casting of comedian Michael Keaton in the lead role.
Sure, Oscar winner Jack Nicholson as the Joker more than made up for what many perceived was a bit of Burton nepotism, but Keaton was actually terrific as the dour, driven crusader. Even better, the cinematic novice brought his A-game to the production, piling on iconic elements that would eventually turn his version of Batman into the mainstream standard bearer. A massive hit with the popcorn crowd, it would spawn a sequel which saw Burton going overboard into his grand Goth designs. By the time a third installment was mandated, the auteur was off doing other things (like trying to reboot Superman). The control of this commercial goldmine was put in the hands of costume designer turned filmmaker Joel Schumacher.
Needless to say, without Burton behind the camera and Keaton in the lead, Batman Forever struggled. Yes, intense actor Val Kilmer filled the Bat suit out nicely, and there were intriguing additions like funnyman of the moment Jim Carrey as the Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones as Two Face, but as with the ‘60s TV series, Schumacher seemed more interested in turning everything into a Peter Max nightmare. This was especially true of the George Clooney led Batman and Robin. By this point, the public no longer loved the cowl and the franchise was mothballed. While there were rumors of possible proposals for a fifth film (including combining the character with Superman and other members of the Justice League), it would take another newcomer to redesign the Bat for a post-millennial audience.
Few knew Christopher Nolan outside his indie hit Memento. Most recognized his name as attached to the unnecessary US remake of the Swedish thriller Insomnia (featuring Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hillary Swank). With Batman, Nolan wanted to take the character in a more realistic and pragmatic direction. Gone would be the outlandish costumes and whimsical villainy. In their place would be a sense of danger, a feeling of placing the otherwise outsized icon into a world which bled, which died, which reflected the mood and temperament of the times. With Batman Begins, Nolan initiated his plan, peeling back who Bruce Wayne really was to reveal his true tormented, tortured soul. Set against recognizable evils and institutional mandates, it would launch a revolution that would rewrite the Bat forever.
With the Oscar winning The Dark Knight and the upcoming, highly anticipated (and so far, well reviewed) The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan brings closure to the character is a way that argues against any future reboots (though you know one is eventually coming). His Godfather of Comic Books approach grabs audiences that wouldn’t normally invest their time in such genre trappings while proving his proficiency as a filmmaker of the future. Yet none of this really argues for why we love the Bat, why we can’t get enough of the character is any of his various personal permutations. Sure, entertainment value is something, but not the only reason this particular superhero has managed to survive as an impactful part of the cultural landscape since introduced.
Of course, the obvious answer is… that Batman is us. Sure, he’s a high tech, insanely wealthy version of a normal human being, but he is still just that. He’s not gifted with alien abilities or cursed by a bug’s bite. He’s not pelted by gamma radiation or mutated via any number of scientific strategies. Instead, he’s a man lost in the psychosis of his past and the need for revenge. He’s capable of being hurt, though this being a fictional universe, such injuries are almost always survivable. When not plastered with primary colors or pushed to be a harlequin for someone’s idea of a joke, Batman is a bigger than life adolescent dream. He’s everything we wish we could be, including protector of the faith and righter of wrongs.
And thanks to Nolan, he’s been brought back down to the level we all live in. He’s no longer battling hoodlums who hide out in daft, dramatic costuming. Instead, his Joker is a scarred specter who can’t wait to reek his insane vengeance on an unsuspecting public. In fact, it’s safe to say that the newest incarnation of the Dark Knight thrives because, for all the pomp and wealth provided gadgetry, we are still dealing with a troubled, tormented man. For you see, as much as we love the Bat, it’s the second syllable that’s most important here. He’s not a Batmonster or a Batfiend. He’s not a Batchampion or a Batmyth. He’s a Bat-man, a truly Dark Knight… and that’s why we are continually drawn to him.