As comic book cliffhangers go, it’s a corker: having just saved Lieutenant Gordon’s son from the evil clutches of Harvey “Two-Face” Dent and vanquished the crusading-district attorney-turned-demented-avenger in the process, Batman persuades the policeman to let him take the blame for Dent’s recent murder spree to preserve his reputation as well as the sense of law and order amongst the nervous citizenry of Gotham City.
People need a hero with a face, Batman reasons, not a mysterious, misunderstood, caped and cowled crusader. Feeling himself strong enough to take the fall, “I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be,” he says, before disappearing into the night.
That was four years ago, in the closing moments of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the extraordinary and immensely successful sequel to Batman Begins in 2005, which in turn marked the director’s thus far triumphant rebooting of one of comicdom’s most cherished crime fighting figures.
Though it is still to early to tell if The Dark Knight Rises, which opens in a fortnight’s time, will conclude the trilogy as strongly as The Dark Knight continued it, there’s little question Nolan’s hat trick will be seen as one of unparalleled ambition that incorporate a series of remarkably astute creative and technical choices in service to one of popular culture’s most influential and durable characters.
Just as the modern Batman can serve as needed, the character itself has proven to be surprisingly resilient, a litmus test for changing times and an enduring figure of strength and justice in the face of often dubious artistic choices. So before the world discovers where Batman is going, a brief look back on where the caped crusader has been, and some thoughts on what he means to popular culture, are in order.
While graphic novels had been around in one form or another since the mid-19th century, historians of the form—of which there are legion—generally agree that the so-called “Golden Age” of comic books as they’re known today began with the 1938 debut of Superman in Action Comics #1. The early companies that defined the era eventually coalesced into dominant rivals DC Comics and Marvel Comics, both of which are heavily invested today in filmed versions of their superhero stable (Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, The Flash and others for DC Comics, Captain America, Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, the Hulk, Avengers, Thor and more with Marvel).
Superman was such an immediate hit that DC’s editors began brainstorming additional superheroes. Twenty-four-year-old New Yorker Bob Kane, who had already been in the nascent industry for three years, combined his impressions of Douglas Fairbanks’ swashbuckling turn as Zorro, the winged design of Leonardo Da Vinci’s ornithopter and concepts from director Roland West’s 1930 early talkie The Bat Whispers into a crime-fighter he called “the Bat-Man.”
Then, as now, the origins of Batman remain relatively consistent. Developing a fear of bats at a young age, Bruce Wayne witnesses the murder of his parents and vows revenge on the criminal element in all its manifestations.
Taking the masked form of the very thing he fears, he trains himself physically and intellectually. His fortune increases and he gains prominence as a businessman and philanthropist in his hometown of Gotham City (played by Chicago in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Pittsburgh will do the honours as The Dark Knight Rises).
The subterfuge is aided and abetted by faithful family butler Alfred and young ward Dick Grayson, the latter of whom fights alongside him as Robin (though not in this iteration of the legend). From an early age Wayne has been mentored and protected by a policeman named Jim Gordon, who rises steadily in the department ranks even as he develops a strong working relationship with Batman.
During the so-called Silver Age of comics, roughly from 1956 to the early 1970s, DC’s writers developed a stable of accomplices and nemeses. Batgirl is perhaps the most prominent of the former, while the latter include The Joker (famously played by the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight), The Riddler, Two-Face, The Penguin, The Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul.
Mention “Batman” to Americans of a certain age and they’ll inevitably think of the improbably successful half-hour primetime television show that ran from 1966 to 1968. In truth, by the early 1960s sales of the comic book had plummeted to such depths that DC Comics considered killing off the character entirely. Instead, the show harnessed the garish, anything-goes vibe of the decade to immensely popular, if ultimately trendy, effect: crime-fighting as vaudeville.
Starring Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin, the program’s visual style mixed then-current pop art stylings with such recognizable comic book tropes as word balloons with exclamations like “POW!” and “BAM!” during the anticipated, if clumsily choreographed, fight scenes.
Another gimmick was to employ former movie stars as villains, including Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, Cesar Romero as The Joker and Vincent Price as Egghead.
The camp novelty wore thin, however, and following the show’s cancellation a team of young writers and artists returned the character to his grim, nocturnal roots.
In the early 1980s, Warner Bros. decided to give Batman the big-screen treatment. This wasn’t the first time Batman had starred in his own movie: a pair of 15-chapter serials had been produced by Columbia Pictures in 1943 and 1949. Little-known actors Lewis Wilson and Robert Lowery essayed the caped crusader, respectively, with the first film keyed around World War II espionage and the second featuring one-off nemesis the Wizard.
West and Ward had starred in the 1966 Batman: The Movie, made between the first and second seasons of the television show. Technically speaking the first feature-length live-action film built around a character in the DC Comics stable, the saturated colors and parodic nature of the vaguely Cold War-themed proceedings render it nothing more or less than a bigger version of the program.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, numerous concepts and scripts were bandied about. Chief amongst the advocates of returning Batman to his original, more serious, conception were producers Michael Uslan, a hard-core comic book collector, and Benjamin Melniker, a former studio executive. To their distress, the pair found the majority of Hollywood studios interested in the same kind of comic spin as the TV show, and even after Warners picked up the property it still took the better part of a decade to get the film made.
The resulting film, Batman, combined the lighter and darker elements of the character’s previous incarnations. Making his third studio feature film following Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, Tim Burton chafed against studio interference and endured endless criticism for casting comic actor Michael Keaton in the lead and Jack Nicholson as The Joker.
Despite these impediments, or perhaps because of them, Batman grossed over $400 million 1989 dollars worldwide and kickstarted the modern era of superheros on film. That the film doesn’t hold up all that well today underscores the idea that each generation will do with the Batman what they will; though Keaton acquits himself with admirable gravitas as a thoughtful hero, Nicholson’s Joker hasn’t fared nearly as well and the sets look more like the television show than a convincing urban metropolis.
Disillusioned with the process and unhappy with the film, Burton insisted on complete creative control for a sequel and received it from the studio. This is why the far darker and more ornate 1992 film Batman Returns looks more like subsequent Burton films and less like a blockbuster built by committee. Danny DeVito is pleasingly grungy as The Penguin, whilst Christopher Walken’s evil industrialist Max Shreck takes his misspelled name from the actor who starred in F.W. Murnau’s 1922 silent horror Nosferatu.
Though successful, the film underperformed relative to studio expectations. For 1995’s Batman Forever, Burton stepped aside and was replaced by Joel Schumacher, whilst Val Kilmer took over for Keaton. Chris O’Donnell joined the cast as Robin, with Jim Carrey playing The Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones hamming it up as Two-Face. Critics were conflicted, but the film earned $350 million worldwide so a fourth instalment was fast-tracked.
Remembered primarily as the only film in the franchise to feature nipples on the batsuit—“Holy eroticism!,” as Ward’s TV sidekick might have said—the 1997 Batman & Robin is a misfire from the opening credits. Schumacher’s camp approach falls flat, George Clooney is on record as being miserable in the part, and the less said about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze, the better (a lesser villain, Bane, had first appeared four years earlier in a comic book story arc called Skyfall). The film as a whole, whilst still a financial triumph, as they all have been to date, is generally considered the least successful in the modern franchise by a good margin.
At about the same time Warner Bros. was taking the decision to regroup and rethink the franchise in the wake of the Batman & Robin disaster, a 28-year-old filmmaker named Christopher Nolan was making his first feature. Shot on weekends over the course of a year because most cast and crew had day jobs, the 1998 black-and-white neo noir Following proved an effective calling card for the director. Born in London to an English adman and American flight attendant, Nolan began making short films in Chicago whilst being raised there, returning to study at University College London where he rain the film society.
With the attention garnered by this promising debut, Nolan was able to secure funding for his breakthrough film, Memento. Employing the same non-linear story structure he’d developed for Following and would use again in Batman Begins, the film stars Guy Pearce as a widower with short term memory loss. The script, which follows the events in reverse, garnered an Academy Award nomination for Nolan and his brother, Jonathan.
Under the tutelage of executive producers George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh under their since-dissolved Section Eight production banner, Nolan next impressed in 2002 with Insomnia. The smart psychological drama is a remake of a critically lauded Norwegian film from five years earlier, and features perhaps Robin Williams’ best dramatic performance as the suspect in an Alaskan village murder being investigated by transplanted Los Angeles cop Al Pacino. The film’s distributor, as fate would have it, was Warner Bros.
By 2003, Nolan had been retained by the studio and teamed with the heavily tattooed genre specialist David S. Goyer to write a screenplay. Their best and most enduring decision was likely amongst the earliest: keep it human, and keep it real. In much the same way Bruce Wayne is an emotionally traumatised adult and not a strange visitor from another planet or a crusading scientist accidentally zapped with an experimental ray or injected with an unproven serum, the villains themselves are flawed and dangerous mortals who lash out a world they feel has done them wrong.
The resulting films are successful realisations of the concept, and lift the character to a level of authenticity unprecedented in the canon. In Batman Begins, the caped crusader’s origins are established and he establishes his presence in Gotham City to fight vicious criminals as well as the Scarecrow, a corrupt doctor played by Cillian Murphy.
Nolan drew inspiration for the sequel, The Dark Knight, from the complex web of public officials versus evildoers in Michael Mann’s Heat. The gambit struck a nerve with the public, and the film is currently the eleventh highest-grossing film of all time.
For The Dark Knight Rises, which apparently takes place eight years after Batman fled Gotham City, he returns a hunted man to deal with a new Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) as well as the attempts of a newly-reappeared Bane (Tom Hardy) to wreak havoc on the city.
These success of the six films since 1989, plus a 1993 animated feature called Batman: Mask of the Phantom, places the tentpole fifth on the all-time box office franchise list, behind only the James Bond, Avengers, Star Wars and Harry Potter series.
Though Nolan is quite clear this will be the final Batman film on his watch, he’s far from through with the superhero genre. He’s co-producing the 2013 Superman reboot Man of Steel from a story he developed with Goyer and Goyer’s screenplay. Directed by Zach Snyder, who vaulted to success with a reboot of his own, the 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead, the film stars young Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman and Russell Crowe as his father, Jor-El.
Looking at the synergy achieved by the Marvel Comics superheros in this year’s popular and successful Avengers, it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine Superman and Batman joining forces. And that’s set to happen as well; after George Miller’s abortive attempt to get a Justice League of America movie off the ground in 2007, Warner Bros. has just hired screenwriter Will Beall to resurrect the DC Comics superhero supergroup.
Cynics may point to the corporate synergy of such a strategy, and there’s little doubt such superhero teamings make money: Marvel’s version of the gambit, Avengers, recently crossed the $600 million mark and is currently the third highest-grossing film in the United States behind James Cameron’s one-two punch of Titanic and Avatar.
Still, there’s nothing in Avengers or any of the individual superhero sagas preceding it with the emotional gravitas of this exchange, again from the end of The Dark Knight.
Watching Batman flee, Lt. Gordon’s son asks “why’s he running, Dad?”
“Because we have to chase him,” says Gordon.
“He didn’t do anything wrong,” the boy points out, with the utter honesty of the young.
“Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves,” Gordon explains, neatly encapsulating the purpose and allure of the trilogy. “But not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.”
Just the calibre of hero the Gotham that is contemporary cinema needs, and deserves.