The Three Faces of Batman

July 18, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Change is good, and that has certainly been the case with Batman. For clarity's sake, the Caped Crusader I'm referring to is the live-action one from movies and TV, not the comic book hero or the one who has participated in various animated programs over the years. I'll leave it to someone with more expertise in those arenas to dissect that Batman. My goal here is to reminisce about the pop culture Batman: the one who is known to those who don't read comic books or watch comic book-inspired animation.

When I was growing up, Batman was synonymous with Adam West. The 1966 television series, which ran for three seasons and inspired a movie, was not the first time Batman emerged from his comic book birthplace, however. Two 15-part serials were made in the 1940s (one in 1943 and one in 1949). While these are largely forgotten, they were issued on DVD in 2005 to capitalize on the release of Batman Begins. So, although Lewis Wilson and Robert Lowery played Batman before West, he is the Batman that my generation grew up with.

The 1966 TV show, with its cartoonish exclamations of "KAPOW!" and "BAM!", its "holy" everything, its bright colors and gay costumes, was more of a Batman parody than a serious adaptation of the comic book, although a large portion of the Rogues Gallery was present. The program did well during its original run but gained popularity in syndication. Its absence on DVD is a result of the same kind of bizarre rights snafu that is keeping The Six Million Dollar Man from Region 1 release. It is somewhat amazing that a show not available on DVD could retain such a loyal following. I was a regular watcher in the early '70s and probably haven't seen an episode since 1975, but I recall it with a vividness that's almost scary. (I first started watching Batman because I had a crush on Batgirl. I remember being disappointed when the station I was watching re-ran the batch of episodes where she was absent. In terms of early crushes for TV personalities, Yvonne Craig was up there with Lindsay Wagner.)

By the early 1980s, Warner Brothers (who had gained the rights to Batman via a series of mergers and purchases) was interested in bringing the then-dormant property to the screen. While there was a strong fan-based push to bring back Adam West, Warner Brothers wanted to distance the new, more serious Batman from its campy TV ancestor. The project ended up in turnaround until, in 1985, Tim Burton came on board to direct and, after a prolonged period of script-rewriting, a new era began for the Caped Crusader. What's amusing in retrospect is to consider how often words like "dark" and "gothic" were used to describe the 1989 movie and its sequel when, in comparison to what we have today, Burton's vision was relatively lighthearted (although warped as only something from Burton can be).

Although the camp was mostly gone in 1989, it began to re-emerge in the '90s sequels, especially after Joel Schumacher took over. Batman and Robin was, in fact, little more than a big-budget re-creation of the '60s TV series. The public and the fans turned on Batman at the same time and the movie series collapsed under its own weight, despite the participation of stars like George Clooney, Uma Thurman, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Batman Triumphant, a fifth movie, was killed before it ever got off the ground.

The Burton/Schumacher era of Batman hasn't aged especially well. The first movie was all about The Joker. After peaking with Batman Returns, the series started on a downward trajectory. Looking back, those four movies typify what the average viewer thinks of when he imagines a "superhero movie." At the time, the films were considered revolutionary because… well… they weren't Superman (which was really the only frame of reference). But a lot has happened since then and those Batman movies look better filtered through the lens of memory and nostalgia than projected onto a movie screen.

Which brings us to Christopher Nolan and his vision. This is dark. This is mature. This is what makes Tim Burton's interpretation seem like a bedtime story. Batman was never a real character in any of those four '80s/'90s movies. He was a guy wearing a cape and a mask. By Batman and Robin, he was beginning to look disturbingly like The Gimp. When Nolan embarked upon Batman Begins, his #1 mandate was to make Batman a character. Give him a personality and don't be afraid to show his really dark side. It wasn't until 2005 that audiences finally got a serious movie in which Batman wasn't a sideshow to the villains.

The Dark Knight represents a major step forward in how superhero movies can be viewed. While the target demographic for his genre will always be teenage boys, this film proves that an intelligently scripted, expertly made movie of this sort can reach out to other age groups and cross the gender gap. When Tim Burton made Batman, girls went to provide dates for their boyfriends. With The Dark Knight, girls are going on their own. How many women, I wonder, will engage in a theatrical double-feature this weekend with The Dark Knight and Mamma Mia!? (Recommendation: See the ABBA movie second. Its sunny optimism may be welcome after the cloak of gloom spread by The Dark Knight.)

The Dark Knight represents the best of what the summer has to offer, in large part because it doesn't tone things down in search of the "family movie" label grail. Having seen a lot of what's still awaiting release, I can say with some confidence that there's nothing like this waiting to be unveiled.