The Evolution of Batman

I randomly happened to catch a bit of the 1966 Batman movie on television this morning, and that reminded me of how interesting I thought the evolution of how Batman has been depicted over the years was.

Let’s start with Batman from the 1960s:

Adam West played Batman in the popular television serial (and associated movie) and this role (which in itself felt like a parody) was parodied many times in cartoons like Johnny Bravo. If the ridiculousness of Batman’s costume with the eyebrows drawn on the mask didn’t give enough away about the nature of the show, then the villains surely would have. Antagonists included regulars like the Joker and the Riddler, but occasionally there were one-shots of characters like King Tut or the Sandman.

The ridiculousness of the show can more or less be represented by the Riddler’s riddles. One thing from the movie that comes to mind is a sparrow with a machine gun being the correct answer to what is something in a tree that weighs six ounces and is dangerous. This iteration of Batman never set out to take itself seriously with the dialogue being spiked with one bat-pun after another and the villains usually countering said puns with those that somehow relate to their own gimmicks. On top of that, you have Burt Ward’s Robin always exclaiming “Holy” something at every instance. In fact, the TV show can almost be considered a sitcom,  much in the same vain of other shows of the time like The Munsters.

Then in 1989, Batman took a new direction:

In 1989, Tim Burton helmed Batman (and its 1993 sequel Batman Returns), with Michael Keaton starring as the titular caped crusader. Burton being a director known for how he creates an atmosphere, took the character in a much darker direction.

Keaton’s Bruce Wayne, very much different from Adam West’s, was a very tormented individual, forever haunted by the murders of his parents (which he eventually discovers to be at the hands of the man who eventually became the Joker) and thus acting as a true vigilante so nobody has to endure what he did. Another thing that really changed was the treatment of villains. Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker was arguably much more disturbing than what Cesar Romero gave in the 1960s.

What is perhaps more significant is actually Batman Returns, especially with regard to the villains. The Penguin (Danny DeVito) was a man abandoned as a child due to the penguin-like deformities he was born with. At the same Catwoman (Michelle Pfieffer) was a lonely secretary who romances Bruce Wayne and, after an attempt on her life by her villainous boss, transforms into present alter ego. While both villains are deadly adversaries to Batman, both of them are also people that audience can sympathize with.

More so than in the original, Tim Burton created a dark, scary atmosphere in Batman Returns. Warner Brothers was attempting to market Batman to kids. After children reportedly ran out of the theater screaming, Warner Brothers decided that Tim Burton was not the guy they wanted directing their next Batman movie, so they handed it off to Joel Schumacher, and that is how Batman Forever (1995) came to be:

Save for the newly-added bat-nipples, the batsuit was largely in the same spirit as what Michael Keaton wore in the previous films. This time, Val Kilmer played Batman. Opposite him were Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face, an attorney who turned insane after getting splashed with chemicals that deformed his face by a defendant in the middle of a trial, and Jim Carrey as the Riddler, formerly Edward Nygma (E-nygma), a Bruce Wayne groupie who took Wayne’s rejection of his mind-reading device perhaps a little too personally. This time, Chris O’Donnell joined the cast as Robin, seeking revenge against Two-Face for the deaths of his own parents.

Bruce still shows that he is disturbed by the death of his parents, which is the reason he starts seeking help from (and romancing) Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman). Furthermore, Bruce confides to his new sidekick that he does not enjoy what he does.

On the other hand, the villains were treated much more lightly. Much more surprising than Jim Carrey’s Riddler was how funny Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face was. The fact that either one of them were once normal people turned insane was a fact that was more or less glossed over, and both characters were turned into simple caricatures. However, this was still nothing compared to what eventually was Batman and Robin (1997):

George Clooney played Batman in all his bat-nippled glory this time. Chris O’Donnell reprised his role as Robin. This time, they battled Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy.

Schumacher decided to continue with the campy direction he started with in Batman Forever, only taking it much further in Batman and Robin. Unlike Val Kilmer or Michael Keaton, Clooney’s Wayne was in what can only be described as a perpetual state of happy. Alfred falling ill was the only thing relating to Wayne that seemed emotional at all.

Of course, it is impossible to talk about Batman and Robin without talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze. The whole movie was one bad ice pun after another, as can be shown in this video. Uma Thurman’s Ivy was guilty of many of the same things Freeze did in terms of contributing to the comical, kid-friendly feel of the movie, but she simply could not match him, and that was probably solely due to the Arnold factor.

Joel Schumacher actually apologized for the abomination that was Batman and Robin. Then in 2005, there was a much needed revival of the Batman franchise.

In Batman Begins (and its sequel The Dark Knight), Batman was played by Christian Bale, adopting a brand new continuity. As the title implies, Batman Begins explored Batman’s origins, starting with the murders of Bruce Wayne’s parents, thus starting Bruce’s desire to battle the crime in Gotham City that the police were either unable or unwilling to deal with.

Christian Bale’s Batman was much more akin to the darker tone set by Michael Keaton’s, though much more so, and that was shown in The Dark Knight (2009), largely because of Heath Ledger’s reinterpretation of the Joker. While Jack Nicholson’s Joker had a tangible goal in sight, Heath Ledger’s was seeking to create pure anarchy, and he was doing that just by playing on people’s psychology, simply by egging people to play out their darker desires. Examples of this include when he had two boats held captive, one of them holding everyday citizens, the other death row inmates, and promising to let one boat go if it decides to detonate the explosives on the other. On the other hand, he had convinced Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham’s “knight in white armor” to go on carry out his one-man vendetta against the criminals responsible for the death of his love, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

As The Dark Knight Rises is still in production, I’m a little curious as to what it will turn out to be, but I think what Batman had gone through in the past is something of interest in itself. I have not seen the old 1945 TV series, but if anyone knows anything about that, please feel free to share in the comments.

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