Batman's Evolution through Media

Batman, as he appears today

The American superhero has made a huge impact not only in comic books and graphic novels, but also on scores of other types of media, such as television, Hollywood films, and video games. As many superheroes there are, however, one of them has been adapted again and again on all these types of media. The result is almost always incredible. Some people call this character “The Caped Crusader,” “The World’s Greatest Detective,” or, more recently, “The Dark Knight,” but, this character is universally known as “Batman.” Since his first appearance in 1939, Batman has evolved greatly into the character he has become today through media outside of comic books. A legacy, he continues to evolve throughout other media, and is the constant source for all various forms of entertainment, not only comic books.

During the late 1930’s DC comics was buzzing with their stellar creation, Superman. A successful cash-cow, Superman was practically everywhere. From lunchboxes and radio plays, to the inevitable Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon, it was almost impossible to be an American and not know who Superman is. Continuing the business of DC comics with a new superhero after Superman was imperative. With the orders from the publishers of DC comics, the assignment was given, and dozens of writers went to work on what needed to be “the next big thing” (Westfahl).

The beginning of a cultural phenomenon

In 1939, Bob Kane had answered the call with “The Bat-Man.” Kane had been inspired by characters like Zorro and The Shadow for the character, and sketches of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “flying machine” inspired the bat-like cowl his character would wear. Much different than Superman before him, Bat-Man was a dark, mysterious character. Born from tragedy, the Bat-Man’s back story was that, after billionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed right in front of him as a child, he would avenge their deaths by training his body, fighting skills, and detective skills to become a masked vigilante. Armed with a black and grey costume, a vast array of technology, and his incredibly unique gadgets, the Bat-Man was a force to be reckoned with. Just before his project was green lit, Kane had changed the character’s name to “Batman.” Artist Bill Finger teamed up with Kane in the May of 1939 to bring DC’s Detective Comics #27 into the public, where the Bat-Man made his first official debut.

Batman and the first comic book sidekick: Robin

To say that Kane’s creation sold well is a huge understatement. Just like Superman before him, the comic-reading audience was crazy about Batman. He was dark, gritty, and all-around tragic. With the United States entering the Second World War, DC wanted Batman to appeal more to the children. They felt that if children were inspired to be more like Batman, they would be more likely to do all they could for the war effort. With this in mind, Kane introduced a new character in May’s Detective Comics #38, 1940. (Batman Unmasked) Robin, the Boy Wonder, was Batman’s new “kid” sidekick. With Robin, the whole comic book changed from its dark, gritty tone, to a more lighthearted, kiddy tone. Nevertheless, Robin’s introduction was not only a huge success for younger readers, but it was also a milestone for comics in general. DC, and almost every comic book company at the time, was giving their superheroes kid sidekicks.

With high demands from their fans, DC launched Batman #1 in the spring of 1940 (Batman Unmasked). In yet another milestone of an issue, this marked the first appearance of the Joker. The Joker was inspired by the 1928 film, The Man Who Laughs. While he was nothing but a harmless prankster in this particular issue, this character, much like Batman himself, would evolve greatly in the next few decades as Batman’s greatest enemy. After writing Batman comics for about four years, Kane left the title in 1943, and went on to write Batman in a daily newspaper comic strip. (Batman Unmasked)

While Superman had a radio show, Batman would be one of the first superheroes to star in his own movie serials in 1943, and once more in 1949 in Batman and Robin. (Batman Unmasked) This would be the very beginning of Batman’s career outside of the comic books. Unfortunately, it was a slow start. In 1954, Dr. Frederick Wertham published Seduction of the Innocence. (Westfahl) In this book, he claimed that superheroes were poisoning the minds of the children who read them. He went on to make ridiculous accusations about DC’s Superman, calling him a fascist. The biggest blow, however, was the accusation that “Batman and Robin make kids gay.” Once this book hit the shelves, sales in comic books plummeted. Batman’s title would soon be canceled if DC did not do something to “change the game.”

Finally, in 1966, ABC decided to give Batman and Robin a chance to shine on the television screens in Batman. (Westfahl) Batman would star Adam West and Burt Ward as the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder, respectively. Not only was Robin featured, but just about every villain from Batman’s extensive rogue’s gallery has been featured in at least one episode. Cesar Romero, Frank Gorshin, and Burgess Meredith would portray the live-action versions of the Joker, the Riddler, and the Penguin, respectively. This show also marked the first appearance of Mr. Freeze, a very popular character still used today. Batman would be a bi-weekly show, in color. During its initial release, it was reviewed as “campy” and “utterly ridiculous,” but the general audience did not care. They fell in love with West’s comedic portrayal as Batman. “Bat-Mania” had swept the nation. The ratings went “through the roof,” and it would go on until 1968. It was so successful, in fact, that Batman would receive his first feature film in Batman: The Movie in 1966, starring the same actors from the thriving television show. (IMDb)

Adam West's portrayal of a more, lighthearted, Batman

After the successes from ABC’s Batman, Batman and Robin would be featured in various animated appearances. Among them, the most popular were in The New Scooby-Doo, where the characters were voiced by West and Ward, Super Friends, and the short-lived New Adventures of Batman. The 1973 cartoon, Super Friends, was particularly the most successful of the few, because not only were Batman and Robin featured in it, but also DC’s other successful characters: Superman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman. With Batman’s campiness at an all-time high, the up and coming comic book writers sought out to change that.

Batman and the Joker as played by Michael Keaton and Jack Nicolson

Writer Frank Miller wanted to bring Batman’s character back to his darker roots. In 1986, he wrote “The Dark Knight Returns.” (Westfahl) In this four-issue series, it featured an older, more experienced Bruce Wayne who comes back to the Batman identity after years of retirement. With the new audience this series brought, combined with the huge financial success of Warner Brothers’ Superman: The Movie, plans had gone in motion to give the dark, gritty Batman his time to shine on the big screen. Tim Burton, who had previously directed Beetlejuice in 1988, would direct the film, Michael Keaton would star as this film’s Batman, and Jack Nicolson would be the Joker. Fans were particularly wary of the casting decisions, especially Keaton, who was previously in Mr. Mom. All doubts were lost, however, when the film made its release on June 23, 1989. (IMDb)

Bruce Timm's Batman: The Animated Series roped in many new fans

Burton’s Batman made more money than DC and Warner Brothers had ever dreamed of, with an opening weekend of $42,705,884. (IMDb) It no doubt spawned three sequels with Batman Returns along with its other less than stellar sequels: Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. It also sparked Batman: The Animated Series, created by Bruce Timm. (Westfahl) This cartoon was much different than any other because it was a drama. Instead of the campiness the previous Super Friends portrayed, this show had Batman rely on his detective skills and his wits to defeat his many villains. His entire rogue’s gallery was featured, from the well-known Joker and Penguin, to the more obscure ones at the time like Two-Face and Scarecrow. It also debuted the first appearance of the widely popular character Harley Quinn, the Joker’s female equivalent and companion. This show, along with Superman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond paved the way towards Bruce Timm’s Justice League cartoon in 2001. (Westfahl) It featured the prominent comic book team with its most popular members: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Hawkgirl, and the Martian Manhunter.

One of the many posters for The Dark Knight, featuring Heath Ledger's Joker and the tagline "Why so serious?"

Since Batman’s last feature film was dubbed a failure by critics and audiences alike in 1997, the character did not return to film until 2005. Renowned filmmaker Christopher Nolan wanted to take Batman in a new, “realistic” approach. In his idea, superpowers would not exist, and Batman’s origin would actually be featured onscreen, which had never been done before. (Batman Begins: Behind the Mask) With Christian Bale donning the cowl and Liam Neeson and Cilian Murphy portraying the villains Ra’s Al Ghul and Scarecrow, Batman Begins was a phenomenal film according to audiences and well-known critics. Warner Brothers demanded a sequel, and the cast and crew were more than willing to go forth with it. The year, 2008, saw The Dark Knight hit theaters, breaking box-office records. (IMDb) It was the first film based on a comic book to make over one billion dollars, and it is currently the eleventh highest grossing film of all time. (Box Office Mojo) Heath Ledger won an Academy Award for best supporting actor for his portrayal of the Joker, after his untimely death as the film entered post-production.

Batman is without a doubt the most successful comic book character to be featured in other types of media, television, and film. It was this character’s film that shattered box-office records. It was his film that won an Academy Award and a nomination for Best Picture. Finally, it was this character who redefined how superheroes should be treated outside the comic books. Batman is the character that all other comic book characters should aspire to be, with his colossal successes in and out of the comic books.

Sources:

“All Time Worldwide Box Office Grosses." Box Office Mojo. 13 Mar. 2012. Web. 14 Mar. 2012.

"Batman." IMDb. n.d. Web. 14 Mar. 2012.

Batman Begins: Behind the Mask. Dir. Simon Ragoonanan. Perf. Christian Bale, Katie Holmes. Warner Brothers Entertainment, 2003. Television documentary.

Batman Unmasked. Dir. Steven Smith. Perf. Robert Clotworthy, Paul Levitz. Triage Entertainment, 2003. Television documentary.

Westfahl, Gary. “Batman in Film and Television.” Pop Culture Universe: Icons, Idols, Ideas. ABC-CLIO, 2012. Web. 13 Feb. 2012.

7 Comments
7 Comments
Posted by jrock85

I think Geoff Johns should be required to read this article every day.

Edited by sinestro_GL

@Gambit1024: Not to mention that Batman (1989) won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction and earned Jack Nicholson a Golden Globe and BAFTA nomination for his portrayal of the Joker. Batman: The Animated Series also won two Emmy Awards and had its own cinematic release with Batman: Mask of the Phantasm that remains a favourite with Batman fans to this day.

...and don't forget the recent releases of Batman Arkham Asylum and Batman Arkham City that has won the praise of game critics and fans worldwide - both winning awards for Game of the Year - using the voice talents of the very successful Batman: The Animated Series.

Posted by Gambit1024

@jrock85: Lol

@sinestro_GL: Yep, I know all about that. The above blog was a college thesis English paper I wrote (and got an A on, btw :D). It was too long to hand in originally, so I had to shave off a few things. Including info on The Dark Knight Rises, the Arkham Asylum games, and more information on Batman (1989).

Posted by primepower53

Great blog!

Posted by Gambit1024

@primepower53: Thanks!

Posted by Joygirl

Cool! Didn't know about the WW2 bits, and I thought I knew everything about "da bat". ^_^

Posted by ArturoCalaKayVee

I enjoyed this very much, awesome blog, Gambit. Very interesting read no matter how much or how little you know about the Bat.