Has there been a character as widely interpreted as Batman? The story is familiar to a point where it has essentially become modern folklore; an orphan, witnessing his parent’s death at the hands of a petty criminal, devotes his life to justice and cleaning up the seedy city of Gotham by, uh, dressing up as a bat and hitting people. The characters, the setting, and The Caped Crusader’s brand of gunless vigilante justice are always the same, and yet, there is something so malleable about the legend of Batman that a campy tights-clad romp is just as easy to make as a grim post-911 political thriller.
In 1939, in response to the popularity of Superman, a a masked hero called ‘the Bat-Man’ was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger (mostly by Bill Finger, but that’s for another article). Drawing from Zorro, The Phantom, and pulp novels, Batman was a product of the uncertain, disillusioned era of World War II, the war that spawned film noir and existentialist philosophy. It is in this gloomy context that Batman’s first foray into celluloid was made, with the Columbia pictures Batman serials. These were essentially war propaganda films, where Batman was not an illegal vigilante but a government agent, and instead of fighting the Rogue’s Gallery we’re familiar with, his main nemesis was Dr Daka, an evil Japanese scientist who brainwashes Americans. Watching these films is pretty shocking today, unless you really think all Japanese people are sneaky evildoers. But this was the time it was made, and would set a precedent for adapting Batman to the Zeitgeist.
The next major step in the evolution of Batman was the 1960s Batman TV series. You know, the one where they dress in colourful spandex, and helpful title-cards appear on the screen saying ‘BIFF!’ OR ‘ZOCK!’ every time Batman or Robin punches a bad guy. It’s hard to imagine a bigger contrast to the po-faced Columbia serials. Batman was now campy, fun, and child-oriented. Instead of warning us about the perils of the axis of evil of its time, he was reminding us to eat our vegetables and to always wear a seatbelt. And out of this comes the first of Batman’s feature-length adventures: Batman: The Movie from 1966. It may seem silly now (though I unashamedly love it), but the tone Adam West’s Batman is quite an accurate representation of The Silver Age of Comics, which was made in the spirit of the Pop Art movement and psychedelic liberal counter-culture. In other words, this was the era of Warhol and Creedence. Also, what people don’t seem to realise about 60s Batman is that it isn’t ‘so-bad-it’s-good’, it’s completely tongue in cheek and self-aware, and gently pokes fun at itself and its genre. Come on, the Batcycle? The shark-repellant spray? The greatest line in cinematic history: “some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb”? Batman: The Movie is the Deadpool movie before the Deadpool movie.
It would be another two decades before Batman appeared on the silver screen again. Throughout the 70s, Gotham was a world for children, as Batman’s few appearences on a screen were in cartoons such as Scooby Doo Meets Batman. The comics began to dwindle. But then, a comic book writer named Frank Miller published a four-issue comic book series called The Dark Knight Returns, a neo-noir tale about a middle-aged Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement. It was gritty, it was political, it was intelligent, and it was a huge success. Batman was once again a central figure in western popular culture, and the comic, along with Watchmen by Alan Moore, ushered in what’s known as The Modern Age of Comic Books, in which comic books became less of a diversion for children and moved toward a literary art form. Stories were dark, psychologically complex, and written for grown-ups. Around this time, some of Batman’s best stories were written such as Year One (also by Miller), Knightfall, and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, a character study of the Joker which I hold is the best Batman story ever written. At the same time, the youth were filled with a post-Reagan melancholy, who identified not with the yuppies, but the frail, damaged and homeless. Kids were feeling disillusionment, angst and an uncertainty over the future. It’s hard not to feel that reflected in the Gotham of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989).
Inspired by Miller and Moore’s portrayal of Batman, Tim Burton’s Batman was dark, moody and maimed by the death of his parents. Tim Burton loves cartoonish oddballs that don’t fit in, so a story about Batman and The Joker was a perfect fit for him. However, by far the aspect of the movie that holds up the most is its production design, with the bleak, art-deco Gotham and the costumes of the all-black Batsuit and the pimp-esque purple suit of the Joker. Burton in Batman and Batman Returns brought Batman to its noir, pulp fiction roots.
The mid-90s saw culture change once again, and the cynical era of Nirvana and Reservoir Dogs gave way to the America of Britney Spears and Friends. The Cold War was over, the economy was growing, and the War on Terror was an obscure fuzz on the horizon. Tim Burton’s Gothic Batman was no longer relevant, which is why we got Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. They were a return to the colourful, cheerful Batman of the 1960s, sure, but whilst the old Batman was fun and silly, Joel Schumacher’s Batman is just… silly. Batman Forever feels formulaic and calculated, and for a movie filled with wacky villains’ one-liners and fetishistic costumes (has anyone ever got to the bottom of why the batsuit has nipples?!), it’s so much more boring than it should be. The sequel, Batman and Robin, is even worse, and is facinating to watch today for just how wrong a film can be. It’s over-stuffed with villains the studio insisted on adding, but Joel Schumacher isn’t entirely exempt from blame. It does not take itself seriously at all – in the words of Schumacher himself, “they’re called comic books, not drama books” – but at the same time, the audience has no reason to care about what they’re seeing, except perhaps Arnold Schwarzenegger’s nonsensical one-liners (“What killed the dinosaurs? The Ice Age!”). After the disaster of Batman and Robin, no one thought it would ever be possible to make a Batman film again.
Enter Christopher Nolan. The United States was still reeling from the collapse of the World Trade Centre, a symbolic attack on everything that America represents, which heralded in the climate of fear, distrust and the government’s removal of our freedoms. This impacted almost every facet of popular culture. In Batman Begins, the villain is Ra’s Al Ghul, an Arabian terrorist who wishes to save Gotham by destroying it. Batman Begins plays into the fears of the time through Ra’s Al Ghul and the conflict of ideals between him and Batman. But what really makes this the first great Batman film is that Nolan understands that a Batman movie doesn’t need to rely on villains; Bruce Wayne is a fascinating character within himself, with a duality and motivation that Tim Burton only touches on.
The themes of Batman Begins are further explored in the rest of Nolan’s trilogy; The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. No one knew what to expect of Heath Ledger’s Joker – really, the guy from 10 Things I Hate About You thinks he can outdo Jack Nicholson? – but of course, by devoting an unhealthy amount of work and research into the character, Ledger created one of the most memorable villains in cinema history. The Joker is a self-described agent of chaos, who exists merely to upset the established order. The Dark Knight is basically neo-conservative in its outlook; Nolan plays with our frustrations with government and desire for disorder and a new system, but ultimately portrays such anarchism as psychotic lunacy. The film also seems to claim that a just society must impinge upon its citizen’s freedoms, and that lies are necessary to preserve order. The Dark Knight Rises was made in the context of Occupy Wall Street and the frustration with corruption in the financial system, but ultimately portrays the Occupy movement as impotent. Whatever you think of this, it’s clear that these films were moulded by their troubled, uncertain times. Nolan managed to make not just one, but three great Batman films that were brooding, smart and complex.
Zack Snyder’s Batman in Batman v Superman seems to be treading a similar path to Nolan’s gritty, realistic characterization. But who knows where movies will take him next? There is an aspect of Batman which has yet to be explored, that of the ‘World’s Greatest Detective’. Batman never displays the problem-solving skills he clearly has in some of the comic books, so maybe another film-maker will take him back to his pulp novel roots. But it depends where the future takes us. No matter how he’s portrayed, he’ll always be, to paraphrase Jim Gordon in The Dark Knight, ‘the hero we deserve’.