The Caped Crusader: From campy hero to brooding protector, Batman has been subject of many interpretations
As the popularity of detective stories waned, Batman adapted to find new audiences. In the 1950s, a period considered by many fans to be a dark age for the character, that meant an increased emphasis on sci-fi elements and novelty for the sake of novelty. Alien invasions, new additions to the burgeoning Bat-family like Batwoman and Ace the Bat-hound, and sci-fi-themed villains such as Mr. Freeze were all par for the course.
In the 1960s, Batman and his teenage ward Dick Grayson — the first of at least three different characters to call themselves Robin — achieved an unprecedented level of popularity outside of comics thanks to a campy TV series and movie starring Adam West as the titular hero. This was followed up by an animated show called “The Batman/Superman Hour.”
The lighthearted tone of Batman’s television incarnations was also reflected in the comics from this period, and it wasn’t until the late 1980s that Batman was completely reinvented once again thanks to acclaimed graphic novels like Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” and Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke.” In these, Batman was recast as the brooding protector of a crime-ridden metropolitan nightmare, and the stakes were suddenly much more real for the Dark Knight and his sidekicks. The at-times oppressively dark tone of the new Batman stories reinvigorated comic sales and helped set the stage for Batman’s return to the big screen in 1989.
Batman on film
In hindsight, Tim Burton’s “Batman,” starring Michael Keaton (“Beetlejuice”) as the Dark Knight, is by no means a perfect adaptation of the character — it’s far more Burton than Bob Kane. However, the director’s characteristically twisted depiction of the Caped Crusader helped establish the dark, brooding hero comic fans had come to appreciate for mainstream audiences, replacing the camp of Adam West. “Batman” (PG-13) went on to become the highest grossing film of 1989 and spawned three sequels (“Batman Returns,” “Batman Forever” and the critically reviled “Batman and Robin,” all PG-13) before collapsing under the weight of neon-lit sets.
Burton’s film also paved the way for a series of animated TV shows under the creative guidance of producers Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. Set in a highly stylized “dark deco” city full of mobsters and femme fatales pulled straight out of a pulp novel, “Batman: The Animated Series” (1993-1995, rated TV-PG) and its successors (“The New Batman Adventures” and “Batman Beyond,” both TV-PG) are still considered to be among the best portrayals of Batman in any medium. The show’s voice cast, including Luke Skywalker himself (Mark Hamill) as the Joker, became so identified with their characters, in fact, that many of them reprised their roles for Rocksteady’s critically acclaimed video games, “Batman: Arkham Asylum” and “Batman: Arkham City” (both rated T for Teens).
The Dark Knight trilogy
Before Christopher Nolan took over the reins for 2005’s “Batman Begins,” Warner Bros. had considered a number of options to reboot the lucrative franchise on the big screen. High-profile directors like the Wachowski siblings (“The Matrix,” “Speed Racer”) and Darren Aronofsky (“The Wrestler,” “Black Swan”) were approached with the possibility of adapting Frank Miller’s influential origin story “Batman: Year One.” Ultimately, that project was axed, although a number of elements from “Year One” still show up in “Batman Begins” (PG-13).
The studio finally opted for the relatively inexperienced Nolan because of his grounded take on both the world and the character of Batman, whom the director described as “an ordinary man who does a lot of push-ups.”
Critics of the Nolan films sometimes point out that his Caped Crusader is not entirely accurate to the Batman of the comics. If anything, “The Dark Knight Rises” (PG-13) looks to move even farther away from established canon, which could leave some diehard fans out in the cold.
Over the character’s 70-plus-year history, however, Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s creation has proved to be open to multiple interpretations. Because of that, whether as the World’s Greatest Detective or the Gotham Guardian, Batman continues to intrigue audiences with his complex psychology and dynamic characterization.
Sources: “Batman: The Complete History,” by Les Daniels; “Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon,” by Will Brooker; “Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America,” by Bradford W. Wright.
A native of Utah Valley and a devoted cinephile, Jeff Peterson is studying humanities and history at Brigham Young University.
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