Batman at 75: Dark Knights, Lite Knights & the Time of the Bat

Batman (alone) cartoon

It’s the time of the bat, haven’t you heard?  Although Tim Burton’s 1989 masterpiece turns 25 next month, no patient of Arkham Asylum can forget that it’s the leading character’s 75th birthday this month.  As he reaches that milestone it’s clear that the character’s in greater shape than ever.  How things have changed for the awkward outsider of comic book adaptation…

NEXT MONTH IS THE 25TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE RELEASE OF TIM BURTON’S BATMAN.  That film stands in the same short field as Jaws and Star Wars, creating a new wave of blockbuster movie-making.  That was when summer movies came out in June, not May and men were bats.  It’s worth nothing that Batman came it came only 14 years after Jaws and just six years after The Return of the Jedi.  It’s been a long 25 years of blockbusters since Jack Nicholson’s Joker laughed his last.

Infinitely more important is this month’s anniversary:  75 years since Bob Kane unleashed Batman into popular culture.  Yes, I know:  it’s unbelievable that Warner Brothers scheduled one month out from the Golden anniversary in 1989, but back then the reign of the comic film was a long way off.

In context, Tim Burton’s Batman was released a mere 21 years after the Batman TV series was pulled from the schedules.  In part, that enjoyably hokum show resigned batman to a camp scrapheap for some time.  It was the earnest work undertaken by comic creators such as Neal Adams and editor-in-excelsis Denny O’Neil that confronted that overpowering softening of Batman and created the chameleon of comics that we know today.  The result of their and others’ exemplary 1970s work were characters such as Ra’s al Ghul – a villain who has and remains at the core of modern Batman films and animated series.

Batman was released a mere 21 years after the Batman TV series

While good work was being undertaken on the printed page. Warner’s caped screen antics fell onto the super powered box office potential of Superman, ably filling the gap between 1978 and 1987, although not quite avoiding a dive into his own camp dreariness at the end.

Enduring Bat

Since 1989 though, Batman has barely been away from the screens, even if Joel Schumacher’s laughably credible third sequel Batman and Robin kept the Knight away for eight years.  Still, he clung on by the Batarang to the small screen.  From the incredibly influential Batman: The Animated Series, through Batman Beyond, Justice League (a commendably continuous animated universe under the guidance of Bruce Timm) and onto the current CGI trinket Beware the Batman (alongside countless spin-off movies).  Special mention must go to Batman: The Brave and the Bold, a wonderfully referential and good natured show that showcased a host of DC characters in three seasons between 2008 and 2011.  I’ve written at length about the quality of intention behind that show, but it could escape falling slightly foul of those intervening years between Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. Of course Nolan’s universe was a not an easy fit for a cartoon, even though earlier series The Batman gave a half stab at the young Batman theory and Gotham Knight, prequel to The Dark Knight added a Matrix-style universe expansion.  As a result The Brave and the Bold proved once again, that a light knight will always bring a reaction.  I fear that show will be wrongly dismissed as frippery in the canon, but Beware the Batman makes a brave stab at obliterating it.

Beware the CGI

The Brave and the Bold proved again that a light knight will always bring a reaction…

Beware the Batman is an intriguing concept.  While the CGI is as hard to warm to as ever, it’s an interesting expansion in the fast evolving Bat-universe.  The ex-spy, glabrous Alfred signals the direction of Sean Pertwee’s upcoming ex-spy guardian in television series Gotham.  It’s a far cry from the classic pencil moustached Alfred of legend, Michael Gough’s four film stint and (presumably/hopefully) Jeremy Iron’s next big screen iteration.  Michael Caine of course, falls peerlessly in the middle.

While a character – and Outsider – with her own comic legacy, Katana still takes the role of a Robin here.  It’s really with its foes that Beware the Batman stakes its claim.  A series-long arc of villainy steers well clear of the well established rogues’ gallery – well, mostly.  Catwoman is missing, replaced with Magpie.  Arkham Asylum has less of a presence, Blackgate Prison more.  Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s Anarky makes a welcome (re)appearance while the main fodder is supplied by the rather better known League of Assassins.  That brings Lady Shiva, though here she’s not addressed as one of Batman’s early mentors, and inevitably, Ra’s himself.  Ever since I first came across the long-lived, beardily eerie eco-terrorist I’ve been hooked – I’m not surprised that he forms a major part of both this and the Nolan trilogy.

Perhaps most interesting in this new animated series is the appearance of Grant Morrison’s Professor Pyg and Mr Toad (the latterly brilliantly voiced by Udo Kier I was delighted to see).  Yes, those fiends are rather differently presented than in their 2008 comic debut, but once again, the inclusion of Wind in the Willows shows just how well Gotham takes to being the land of fiction…

The glut of Batman in the last 25 years signals and creates one thing: confidence.  Warners didn’t seem put off by the relatively minor haul of 2005’s Batman Begins and that, er, wildcard Joker and patience proved astute when the sequel, the stand-out example of Batman on film, crossed $1 billion.

With Nolan, things changed.  While the comic scene has increased yet further, only Marvel has remained strong enough among blockbuster producers not to mine at least some of the perceived ‘dark realism’ of the Dark Knight trilogy.

Party like it’s 1989

That is and ever will be the Batmobile

True, Tim Burton’s Batman started a mini craze in 1989, but that was for blockbusters as Indiana Jones took a false-retirement.  A prime example of its impact being felt five years later was Russell Mulcahy’s extraordinary homage, The Shadow in 1994.  That example showed how definitively brilliant some part of Batman were.  It’s the late Anton Furst’s delectable production design meeting Tim Burton’s singularly artistic vision and bold casting that made that legend.Batman - and Robin

With this week’s reveal of Zack Snyder’s new Batmobile, it’s no surprise that immediate thoughts turn to Anton Furst’s superior 1989 design,

just as the late 2000s had everyone wishing that the Tumbler would develop that same sleek aesthetic.  That is and ever will be the Batmobile.  And Batman versus Superman’s design seems to acknowledge that debt.

It’s undeniable that Burton’s Batman made that one crucial mistake: giving Batman ultimate revenge for the death of his parents, credit for which screenwriter Sam Hamm lays with Burton.  That redemption set the franchise up for a fall, not to provide Joel Schumacher any excuses.  It meant that in the three successive films, no matter who wore the cowl, Bruce Wayne had to retread and uncover further trauma in his earlier tragedy.  Last decade Nolan got it right. Well, apart from that ending, but let’s just call that an Inception moment.

 

The Comics are Coming

Comic book movies cannot and will not ever over-saturate

Since that film kicked off Batman on the big screen (really, it did), he hasn’t left us.  But his is a celluloid history often slightly removed from comic book trends.   It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t Sam Raimi’s very successful Spiderman trilogy that kicked off the comic film boom in 2002, nor Bryan Singer’s stable if under-powered X-Men two years before.  That honour belongs to Stephen Norrington’s Blade in 1998.  A well made but under-sold film of the titular Marvel character, it opened up the box office for the super-powered assault we see today.  And crucially, just to futilely banish those same suggestions made each year: comic book movies cannot and will not ever reach over-saturation.

And Wesley Snipes’ Blade sliced into cinemas just one year after Batman and Robin had supposedly stopped the comic trend cold. Mr Freeze cold.  But although Batman wasn’t there during those early years of Marvel taking a foothold through three different studios, Warners were still simmering in their bat cave.

At the turn of the century Miles Millar and Alfred Gough III pitched an idea for a young Bruce Wayne television series, but Warners dismissed it, eager to pursue the Dark Knight’s more lucrative career on the big screen.  That series morphed into the incredibly successful Smallville.  It wasn’t that Superman wasn’t box office property, but it seemed that Nic Cage’s pay-or-play contract for Tim Burton’s aborted Superman Returns had burnt them a little more than Batman ever could.  Either that or Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was really far worse than Batman and Robin.  Well…

Traits of the Batmen

The Dark Knight’s one simple appeal keeps him relevant

Nonetheless, Smallville’s 10 seasons happened because Warners’ aspirations for Batman on film signalled a brand conflict.  14 years later, it couldn’t be more different.  We live in a universe of multiple batmen.  New animated series are lined up to reboot the last when their natural lives conclude.  Gotham will bring us classic villains before they’d even heard of Arkham and Jim Gordon before he grew a moustache.  And at the flicks, Ben Affleck’s Batman takes on the Man of Steel in what must be one of 2016’s big hitters.  And that’s not even including the wildly successful Arkham videogame series, it’s Lego counterpart and the Caped Crusader’s constant appearances in the well produced line of DC Universe Animated Original Movies.

So why the increasing multiplicty?  Well, you can read why Batman’s a fascinating character, if not quite with the potential of Superman, here.  But some clear indicators lie in his key traits.  There’s the inherent darkness, the Jekyll and Hyde, the fact he’s the world’s greatest detective and most dangerous human (modern adaptations suggest that the great detective’s morphing more into Batman than the other way around). There’s the fact that he’s mortal, he’s a playboy, he has the greatest rogues’ gallery in comics, many representing a psychological disorder or primal instinct.  He’s a bat, that atavistic and distinctive symbol conjuring up vampires, darkness, base fear… He’s the protector, the winged guardian angel who overcomes all odds…

But really it’s the Dark Knight’s one simple appeal that keeps him relevant – it’s that alluring 101 to psychological damage that stands him alone as a character who can carry this off.  Batman exists in multiple guises at the same time because that is what the character is.  When he doesn’t, he’s diminished.  Not even Warren Ellis did that in Planetary…  But his guardian’s increasingly realise it.  And in each and every guise, the Dark Knight stands watch over the ultimate fictional city.  That once and maybe never were New York, Gotham.

A great figure in the Batman story, Darwyn Cooke’s 75th anniversary animated tribute get’s it about right, with a fitting and good spoonful of other pop culture to go with it.  As that shows, Batman’s in very good health this 75th birthday and as more and more share the Mantle of the Bat, it’s certain that he’s going to be with us a good while yet.

Now, time for a Batrospective…

2 thoughts on “Batman at 75: Dark Knights, Lite Knights & the Time of the Bat”

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