80 Years of the Caped Crusader: A Screen History of Batman; Part 1.

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Detective Comics 27, circa 1939. The first appearance of Batman.

Batman is a character that’s truly been through the ages. Existing since his conception in 1939, Bruce Wayne has remained a dominant figure in popular culture ever since, all the way up to the groundbreaking Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012) by director Christopher Nolan. In this article I’ll analyse and dissect every appearance of our beloved caped crusader on the big screen, as well as some notable television moments and some relevant factoids from the books that started it all.  

So before we dive right in, let’s talk a bit about the origins of Batman’s conception. Bruce Wayne was just a boy, as he saw his parents die in front of him in the hands of a mugger, as a result Batman was born. Bob Kane and Bill identify a lot of inspiration from The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Zorro in their creation of Batman. Both are aristocratic vigilantes with double identities, that play the fool in public.  In particular Bob Kane identifies The Mark of Zorro (1930) and The Bat Whispers (1920) as inspiration from the big screen. In his ideology he represents fear, that the guilty will be persecuted symbolized by his moniker of the bat. However, he has ranged from campy and incredibly flamboyant, to gadget-based and more reclusive, to darker and more brutal. What’s interesting is how the original content, the original premise of one character can be interpreted in so any contrasting and varying ways and how certain elements have come to define Batman, as others have been labeled obselete and discarded. Batman constantly changes as he journeys through different eras and spheres of popular culture, often reflecting the mood of the time.

Often referred to as the Yin and Yang of the DC Comics universe.

Often referred to as the Yin and Yang of the DC Comics universe.

A lot can be learned about Batman by contrasting him to Superman. Superman and Batman are juggernauts of the comic book world, and are often juxtaposed against each other. While both good, they share many oppositions. Superman often masquerades as Superman, while ultimately Clark Kent is the real person behind the crimson S. He is also working class and has a job. Ultimately Superman is about helping people, saving the day. Opposite to that, Batman is kind of the real form. Where Bruce Wayne is this publicity stunt, this lie, who appears at charity balls and in the newspaper with opulent models. In addition Batman isn’t so much about saving the day, as much as preventing crime, serving just desserts and such. Superman is the light, the hero people are proud of and all the kids want to be. Batman is the covert one, he preys at night, he is feared not worshiped, he is the dark.

Batman (1943) Directed by Lambert Hillyer

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I know a lot of you were probably expecting Adam West at this point. Yeah, turns out there were two serials released in the 1940’s that ultimately lead to the ultra-camp 60’s TV Show that we know and love. I won’t pretend that these serials were overtly important in Batman’s makeup or identity as a character, because ultimately they’re mostly just forgotten. However, there are a few notable things to mention. Batman (1943) was actually the first piece of media to have a bat-cave  a piece of continuity that actually continued on into the permanent lore of batman. It’s also notable for adjusting Albert’s appearance from a rather portly young fellow, into his older, thinner distinguished butler we know today.

Another interesting factoid is Batman was actually an agent of the government in Batman (1943), as producers were not willing to depict him as a vigilante taking the law into his own hands. Also there was no attempt for a bat-mobile due to sheer lack of budget, so Robin and Batman rode around in black Cadillac instead. In recent years, the serial has been known for it’s incredibly racial content. Being made in the war, the villain is contextually Japanese meaning the script is full of Japanese slur. For example, the narration in the opening ten minutes explains why the neighborhood the evil Dr.Daka lives in is so deserted: “This was part of a foreign land, transplanted bodily to America and known as little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs, it has become virtually a ghost street.” Yeah. ‘Shifty-eyed Japs’. Wow, no wonder when the Japanese owned Sony re-released the serial it was highly edited. Batman himself even comes out with quite a few racial slurs. Good thing that didn’t latch on to his lore, somehow I don’t think he’d still be a part of relevant popular culture as a notorious hater of Asian people. However while we lambaste it now, contextually the patriotism is probably a part of why Batman was so well-received among the American public, as terrible as that is.

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Robin (Douglas Croft) and Batman (Lewis Wilson)

While generally happy with the actors performances. A lot was said about Lewis Wilson’s physique and how it wasn’t suitable. He was ‘thick round the middle’, and didn’t have an athletic body like Batman always did. Though these oversights are forgivable given it’s an extremely modest low budget production of a superhero comic, a very ambitious project at that. Never the less, we can see here how this costume differs, but is extremely similar to the Adam West one of the 60’s. While not a cinematic masterpiece by any means, Batman (1943) and it’s sequel Batman and Robin (1949) put Batman on the map with cinema audiences and warranted enough popularity for the 1960’s TV Show and it’s subsequent film. 

Batman Dracula (1964)

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While not particularly important in the overall history of Batman, the fact that Andy Warhol of all people made a Batman film really makes you realize how big Batman was as a cultural symbol, and still is. Batman Dracula or ‘Batman x Dracula’ is mostly lost now with a few odd stills floating around, and no actual footage. However it was deemed incredibly subversive from those who saw it, and was said to be the first appearance of an incredibly campy Batman.  This would turn out to be the first of many sexual readings of Batman, and could be said to have loosely inspired the 60’s TV Show although we can’t say that in confidence since basically no one from this generation has seen it.

Batman (1966) and the 60’s Live-action series.

I guess this is Batman’s ‘True’ first appearance in film, as in feature film as its full-length and not a serial. Batman is played by Adam West, with Burt Ward as Robin. The film featured a menagerie of Batman’s more prominent villains in some ridiculous loopy scheme to get rid of Batman, mainly relying on the alluring Catwoman to seduce him. This depiction of Batman is entirely a product of it’s time that doesn’t really reflect the dark origins of the character at all. It’s campy, often ludicrous, and ultimately it’s more a light wacky humorous satire than anything else. The villains are essentially one and the same with only mildly different personalities which shows how the film and TV series wasn’t really based on the comic books, it was just a aesthetic shell for wacky hi-jinx. However the show did permanently introduce Batgirl into the series, first coining the origins of Barbara Gordon.

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From left to right, the 60’s incarnations of The Riddler, The Penguin, Catwoman, and of course The Joker.

As a result of this show, and after it had finished it left a certain legacy attached to Batman. Because of it’s brightly coloured aesthetics, ridiculous camp and quirky nature, people began to strongly associated that kind of thing with Batman. Particularly the idea that Batman and Robin might be of the homosexual persuasion. This tied with Andy Warhol’s interpretation, and a general opinion the public via a fair amount of sources, and some out of context reasoning from the older books from the 50’s, it’s understandable why.

Batman/Robin 60'sThe writers in the late 60’s after the show had been cancelled desperately tried to dispel ideas of homosexuality, and it being camp as sales were declining rapidly and mainly writers claimed it was because of the legacy the show left, so many people were at that point buying Marvel instead. It’s also claimed that at numerous points in the seventies DC wanted to cancel Batman due to drastically low sales while Superman was thriving, and possibly replace him with one of their more minor heroes.

Superfriends! and a general lack of direction

As of the 70’s sales were floundering due to a disinterest in Batman as moods changed towards the campish Batman everyone used to love although it maintained cult status outside the U.S. Regardless of the writing staff’s effort to change the comics Batman back into a moor brooding detective character interest will still mostly lax. However, 20th century animation giants Hanna Barbera were able to breath some new interest into Batman with his permanent place on the Superfriends.

The original queue card for the Super Friends (1973-1974)

The original queue card for the Super Friends (1973-1974)

The Super Friends was an incredibly popular Saturday morning cartoon that broke the mold for animation. It starred many of DC’s flagship characters along with Hanna-Barbera’s own creations.  The show originated in a time with Dc’s JLA (Justice League of America) was still a fairly young concept compared to the flagship title it is now. The fact Super Friends was made for children revitalized Batman somewhat, allowing his image to recover from allegations of homosexuality, and the camp nature that people began to reject from the TV Show.  However regardless of the show’s popularity the comic book still continued to flounder.

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‘The New Adventures of Batman’ starring Batman, Robin, and the now abandoned concept of Bat-mite, an Imp from another dimension who claims to be Batman’s biggest fan.

Following Super Friends Hanna Barbera saw enough marketability in Batman that they decided to continue his exploits in the cartoon The New Adventures of Bat-Man into late 80’s into a syndicated block with Tarzan, following the Superman/Batman adventure hour. As the 70’s receded into the 80’s, it would symbolize a time of change for Batman. A context in which the character would appreciated as the dark detective he was always conceived as to much critical acclaim.

The 1980’s and ‘The Dark Knight Returns’. 

Sales of Batman titles were still fairly low until 1986 when Frank Miller wrote the 4 part series ‘The Dark Knight Returns’. The book chronicles a 55-year old Bruce Wayne who is old and harrowed from years of crime fighting. He must return to the city again, dealing with a gang known as ‘the mutants’ who harass the city after a several year haitus. The series returned the character to his dark roots, whilst diversifying the character as well. 

To be continued.

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