While Superman is the quintessential good guy who always stands up for what is right, Batman is the antihero. He represents the darkness, the cunning, and the lust we possess for greed and materialism. Superman was born a hero and uses his gifts to help humanity with an almost naive optimism. Batman couldn’t be further from that.
Batman was originally just a follow-up idea for the runaway success of the Superman comics. The original concept art was as cheesy and childish as it gets. He had a domino mask paired with a black-and-red suit, which made him look more like Robin than Batman. After D.C. Comics legends Bob Kane and Bill Finger expanded on the initial idea, Batman donned his iconic black mask and matching black cape.
The rich playboy-by-day/vigilante-by-night story line was already a proven success thanks to the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro. Both of these characters had tragic backstories, and Batman’s was no exception.
Bruce Wayne was born to billionaire parents. While playing on their vast estate, Bruce falls down a well where he is attacked by bats. Bruce is rescued, and while he physically recovers from the fall, he is forever traumatized by the incident. The fall was the catalyst for Bruce’s lifelong fear of bats.
A short while later, Bruce is out with his parents and a mugger threatens the family at gunpoint. Although Mr. and Mrs. Wayne try to co-operate, the two are killed in cold blood. Bruce swears vengeance on Gotham’s criminals and pledges to devote the rest of his life to fighting crime.
He spends his adolescence traveling around the world and learning over 100 different disciplines of hand-to-hand combat. Under the guidance of Alfred — the Wayne family butler — Bruce inherits Wayne Enterprises and takes the company even farther than his father did, becoming the richest person in Gotham.
In order to dismiss any suspicion he’s Batman, Bruce carefully crafts the image of a dimwitted playboy whose only interests are booze and women. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. In reality, Bruce is extremely well-educated, health conscious and has an incredible physique.
His brains and brawn are also aided by his family’s fortune, which allows him to innovate his Batsuit, Batmobile and utility belt. In his 80-year history, Batman has used almost anything to fight crime, although he avoids guns because his parents were killed by a gun.
What makes Batman different from Superman and other “good guys” is that he is driven by guilt, anger, self-loathing and vengeance. He hates the man who killed his parents, and has a personal vendetta against criminals. While Batman doesn’t kill, he derives joy from physically hurting criminals and will even sadistically torture his enemies.
The 1966 television series is where our collective unconscious begins with Batman as a superhero onscreen. Adam West plays a very different Batman than we are used to today.
His Batman wears a costume that for that era may have been acceptable, but by today’s standards may only be acceptable for trick-or-treating. As for the Robin costume… it’s best not to go there. There is a charm to that series. After all, it gave us the earworm-inducing Batman theme song. You know the one! “Na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na Batman!” Enjoy having it stuck in your head for the rest of the day.
Fans of Family Guy will notice that Mayor Adam West is the very same Adam West from Batman. If you’ve seen both series you’ll understand why Adam West was cast in Family Guy. The Batman dialogue was so verbose and so rigid that it felt Dickensian at times. Batman felt more like an English teacher than a playboy with a dark past.
Fifty years later, West still spoke with the same sophistication and unnecessarily excessive verbal acuity on Family Guy. Still, the 1960s series was a success and helped establish Batman’s legacy.
When the Batman television series was cancelled in 1968, the comics did not fare well. Sales of Batman comics steadily declined throughout the 1970s and 1980s, reaching an all-time low in 1985. Frank Miller was brought on board to resuscitate Batman.
Miller, whose comics have become classic movies such as Sin City and 300, wrote and illustrated The Dark Knight Returns. In the comic, Bruce Wayne is 55 and he’s retired Batman after a government mandate is issued ordering that all superhero activity cease. Jason Todd, better known as the second man to be known as Robin, has died at the hands of the Joker.
This series culminates with Batman and Superman fighting. Batman simply cannot stop being Batman, regardless of what the law says. The government deploys Superman to arrest Batman, and fighting ensues. Batman is the outlaw and Superman represents authority. It was more than just seeing two superheroes fighting in a “gladiator” match — it was about what the characters personified.
For years movie studios were afraid to touch Batman. Children weren’t as crazy about superheroes as they once were. Thankfully Warner Bros. released Batman in 1989. Under the capable hands of Tim Burton, the film helped create a surge of renewed interest in the Batman comics.
The 1990s were a good time for comic books. Tim Burton‘s Batman, starring Michael Keaton in the title role, helped launch a Batman renaissance. In 1992, Batman: The Animated Series debuted to both critical and audience acclaim. What both Burton and the animated series did was capture the darkness and the emotional maturity of Batman, rather than play it safe by making it too kid-friendly. This made the series truly an all-ages show, bringing the Batman renaissance to its peak.
When Batman Returns came out in 1992, it was anything but a sophomore slump. The film’s darker tone matched that of the animated series, which polarized audiences (especially the parents of small children). Still, the momentum of the previous film combined with the animated series meant Batman Returns made $266.8 million on an $80 million budget.
The more family-friendly Batman Forever released in 1995, with Val Kilmer taking the lead as the caped crusader. The film was considered by many fans to be the weakest of the Batman films, but that would not be the case for long.
Batman & Robin (1997) was a return to the cartoonish nature of the 1960s television series. By this point, any attempts to make Batman a serious film for adults was completely abandoned. At the 2014 New York Comic-Con, George Clooney, who portrayed Batman in the film, apologized to fans for “ruining Batman.” In 2017, Joel Schumacher, the film’s director, told Vice, “I want to apologize to every fan that was disappointed because I think I owe them that,” adding, “A lot of it was my choice. No one is responsible for my mistakes but me.”
Fans got the Batman they needed and deserved when Christopher Nolan directed Batman Begins (2006). Many consider The Dark Knight, the second film in the Nolan trilogy, to be not only the greatest Batman film ever made, but also the greatest comic book movie ever made.
The Dark Knight Rises, the third and final installment in Nolan’s trilogy, was also well received. Many fans consider Nolan’s trilogy to be the definitive cinematic depiction of Batman.
Let’s not forget Will Arnett‘s unforgettable vocal performance as Batman in The LEGO Batman Movie, a parody of the intense Nolan films. Trying to shoehorn comedy into a “real” Batman movie has often proved problematic, but The LEGO Batman Movie cleverly works around this by being a parody film.
Ben Affleck‘s performance in Batman v. Superman gave us a hint of what’s to come in Justice League, giving fans high hopes that the D.C. Cinematic Universe has learned from the past and will give Batman a conflict befitting of his character rather than a comic plot.
They don’t call him the Dark Knight just because he wears black and comes out at night! ~Yanis Khamsi
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