Batman piloting a plane

Batman…

Batman may be the most popular comic character of all time. Certainly, he is the character that gets pointed to the most as the epitome of superheroic excitement, and the superhero character most comics fans seem to want to emulate the most.

But the surprising thing is that for a character who is so beloved, about whom literally thousands of comics have been published, there are a relatively small number of actual good Batman comics. Ask even the biggest Batman fan to list the really good stories in which the Caped Crusader has featured, and you’ll get the same few answers — Frank Miller and Lyn Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns, Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One, maybe Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum, Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, and John Higgins’ The Killing Joke. After this, things dry up very quickly. There have been a lot of good runs on the various Batman titles, with plenty of enjoyable comics, but there have been few great ones. Even the titles I just listed are among their creators’ weaker work, and tend not to stand up wonderfully in retrospect.

Of course, Batman turns up in other characters’ comics, too, and is often at his best there. But even so, the list of great Batman stories is not hugely expanded even by his appearances with the Justice League, or teaming up with other heroes in The Brave And The Bold.

So why is Batman so beloved? The answer is, at least in part, for his appearances in other media. For some reason, the character Bob Kane and Bill Finger created has been far more malleable than any other superhero, and thus far more adaptable to the changing needs of film and TV. While Superman is always the world’s biggest Boy Scout, and Spider-Man a wisecracking web-slinger who is tormented by responsibility, and any deviation from those templates has caused both artistic and commercial failure, Batman has been, at various times, a secret agent working for the government battling Japanese fifth columnists and in favour of internment, a clean-cut all-American hero who with his ward Robin battles colourful criminals like King Tut and the Clock King, a broody, near-autistic nebbish tormented by the death of his parents at the hands of the man who would become the Joker, a gruff-voiced jut-jawed cartoon in an art deco landscape, a broken near-psychopath driven by loss, and a Lego version of every twenty-one-year-old who ever had a seventeen-year-old girlfriend who was impressed by his having a car and being in a band. And no doubt when the forthcoming Batman vs Superman film featuring Ben Affleck as Batman comes out, we’ll see yet another take on the character.

So if we’re going to look at why Batman is so popular, we really need to look at his career in other media.

Rather surprisingly, it took a long time for Batman to become the phenomenon the character is now. While from early on Superman had his own radio show, a series of absolutely wonderful cartoons made by the Fleischer brothers, and then later the 1950s TV series starring George Reeves, up until 1966 Batman’s appearances in other media were confined to the odd cameo in the Superman radio show, and two film serials in the 1940s.

Since 1966, though, the Batman media juggernaut has made up for lost time, and there’s barely been a year in which Batman hasn’t been appearing in a film, TV series, or cartoon.

In this series of essays, I want to look at those appearances, and see if I can find that they tell us interesting things about the times in which they were created. I rather think they will. My plan is to cover the 1940s film serials, the 1966-68 TV series and its film spin-off, the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher film series, the cartoons Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, The New Batman Adventures, and Batman: The Brave And The Bold, the animated films The Batman Superman Movie, Mask of the Phantasm, and Mystery of the Batwoman, the three Christopher Nolan Batman films, and The Lego Movie.

My initial plan is to cover every episode of these, but given my tendency to create ambitious plans and then fail to complete them, and the fact that not every episode may give me anything of worth to say, I may revise that plan and cover some series in far less detail than others. On the other hand, it’s also possible I’ll revise the plan upwards, and cover the Filmation cartoons or the Justice League cartoon series. And who knows, Gotham may yet get become worth talking about.

Either way, I think this will be an interesting experiment. There are very few characters that have been continuously reinterpreted by different people over a seventy-five year period. We may not learn a lot about Batman from watching these films, but we may get a better understanding of the latter half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first.

So I’ll try to get these posted one a week. I’ll see you back here next week for Batman, the 1943 serial. Same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel…

[These are being published several weeks in advance on my Patreon, where I've just posted the first Batman 66 TV series post, which will not appear here until after Xmas. If you want to read them before they're posted here, sign up to support my writing at $1 per month or whatever you can afford. If you can't afford anything or don't like the idea of me having money, they'll all turn up here for free eventually anyway.]

10 Responses to “Batman on Screen: An Introduction”

  1. Zakaria Says:

    Sounds like a trip worth taking!

    May I also recommend looking into the video-games. Here I’m thinking in particular of the widely popular (Still ongoing right?) “Arkham” series.

    In the same way that the animated series did for “my generation”, those games have(as much as the Nolan films and certainly more than the comics) shaped/catered to, the young viewers image of -The Batman-, and therefore tells us just as much about the current media-scape, if not even more so, as it is one of these new fangled interact-a-trons.

    If you’ve never played any of the games I’m sure there’s a “lets-play” to be found. One could even use the player’s self-narration and the user comments for the analysis.

    If there is any Batman theatre, prose or radio to look into that will probably not fit within the perimeters of “Batman On Screen”, but I think the videogames will be both pertinent and interesting to look at.

    And although I did only finish one of the games my younger brother managed to finish every single one before methodologically hunting down every sidequest and Riddler-trophy.

    Something as terrifying and obsessive to me I’m sure as “Franken Miller” was to the “stalWard” (sic) Batmaniacs.

  2. Andrew Hickey Says:

    A few people have suggested the games, but I won’t be covering them. Video games are simply not an artform with which I’m even vaguely familiar — the last time I played a video game (other than solitaire type games and text adventures) was probably Street Fighter 2 or Super Mario Bros 3, and I was never any good at either of those. I don’t even have a machine capable of playing the Arkham games.

  3. Zakaria Says:

    Well I did suggest looking at a “lets play” video, if you don’t have the machine, appropriate ability or perhaps more likely the inclination to spend that many hours looking into it.

    It would have been an interesting view, even through your grandfatherly eyes. Unfamiliarity is not an invalid perspective. But alas alack, I’ll have to do without.

    Eagerly awaiting the essays nonetheless.

    Feed me your thoughts, your soul!!!

    Bats wishes.

  4. Matthew Craig Says:

    I’ve watched Let’s Plays of the Arkham cycle (yogscast2), unable as I am to actually pay the things thanks to RSI/no dosh. They’re funny old things. The repetetive structure of the gameplay – button-mash, mini-boss, the same button-mash, big-boss part 1, big boss suddenly becomes a superboss, more button-mash, rinse, repeat – made my hands hurt (c.f. the story structure of Spider-Man: Web of Shadows/Shattered Dimensions and Dan Slott’s Spider-Island).

    The aesthetic is an ultimate extension of Jim Lee’s asthmatic Hulkobat style – everything is so leaden and heavy and “REAL,” even the slinking gamine women (the Venn overlap where Lee meets Timm, becoming the final form of Batman), that it makes the weird snap-to martial arts style all the odder (c.f. Faora in Zak Snyder’s Man of Steel). The weird slick texturing doesn’t help, a seamy spill-over from the movies to the games bleeding into the comics.

    It’s a pretty decent reduction of The Batman Experience, I guess, inasmuch as every villain is the same kind of psychotic/sexbomb, every fight is the same combination of Pinwheel Arms and X-Ray Vision. It throws everything at the wall in some kind of weird desperation, all the toys on every page (thanks, Jeph Loeb) as if this was a last-ditch attempt to get people to care about The Most Popular Superhero Of All, as if there might never be another Batman game.

    And through the catastroporn style borrowed from the No Man’s Land cycle – the dilapidated, degraged city, the Beyond Thunderdome henchmen, that f*^%&&ing stupid mockney Penguin – the Arkham games tie into a broader disaster-envy…thingy, of the sort you see in all those blue-tinted movies, games and TV shows about Australian women doing American accents being concerned about aliens/mutants/the Rapture/the Fall/sexy robots (hell, of the sort we saw in The Dark Knight Rises!), e.g. The Last of Us, Half-Life, Walking Dead, Battlestar Galactica, etc., etc., etc..

    Basically, There’s No Hope And No Soap, so let’s all punch our way to Hell. Bat-Mann!

    //\Oo/\\

  5. Andrew Hickey Says:

    I don’t even know what a “let’s play” video is.
    I simply don’t have the critical tools to talk sensibly about video games, and I suspect that to actually deal with them properly would rely on playing them, which I don’t have the physical ability to do (I’m dyspraxic, and don’t have the co-ordination to cope with even the simplest game).

  6. Paul Jon Thrillne Says:

    I’ve played very few computo games that have a storyline worth talking about in any great depth.

    Sure, the narrative of a fair few games have affected me, but in different ways to films and books and comics etc. A not-super-well-written storyline can still work wonders if you’re engaged with the gameplay, and broad stokes characterisation and melodramatic emotional plot beats can be very effective as you enjoy the narrative on a certain level, due to the interactivity.

    When the people that make games go for ‘cinematic’ and pace the interminable cutscenes (with their stilted acting and Straczynskian scripts) as if they were films, with all the waiting around, uncanny valley character reactions and back-and-forth conversations that entails, I thank my OCD medication for letting me have the fortitude to skip past them.

    I think maybe voice acting is the worst thing to happen to gaming, other than gamers, y’know? Now everyone thinks they’re writing an Important Film.

    The recent Batman games, they play well, but by jove do they ever have an ugly aesthetic, in that ‘gritty’ and ‘real world’ way that makes it somehow more adolescent than if it was just straight-up cartoony Bat-larks.

    I look forward to reading these essays. Batman TV has been mostly successful, I feel, bar the hideous anomaly of cartoon ‘The Batman’, which was the most overtly “it’s saturday morning! let’s sell action figures!” of the cartoons. Still, it probably has interesting things to say about the time it was made, and the cultural climate and so forth.

  7. Zakaria Says:

    @Andrew H

    Well it’s not obligatory viewing anyway, yet… the thing is in a lot of ways an extension of earlier products.

    @AllOfTheLovelyPeople

    (Bear in mind I’ve only played the first game)

    It is interesting to look at as that product, a Frankenstein’s monster made from disparate parts.

    It’s a game by British developers, Rocksteady and publisher, Eidos named after a Morrison work from the (veery)late 80s that looks like Jim Lee comics anno 2005(But post Nolan’s TDK so the colours are dampened), sounds like the animated series(Hamill, Conroy), written by Dini inspired by Nolan but told by the games producers to write dialogue for levels and gameplay that really feel more like the plot of a Hush-era Loeb story.. with a hidden subplot more concerned with Morrison’s Lovecraftian Arkham family and served with a side of Scarecrow psychedelic horror.

    Were this a film or comic it might have been terrible, but as a videogame a lot of those choice made sense. And that is befuddling in all the best ways.

    Except for Batman’s costume, that shit has to stop.
    He looks like McFarlane’s Batman with Iron Man envy.

    But having been raised to always end on a positive note, I like how they made the whole world of Gotham/Arkham feel like it was in a perpetual state of Autumn/Halloween. I enjoyed that.

  8. James Wheeler Says:

    It’s a similar approach to Lee but far, far uglier. Lee’s slick, those games look like a pile of lead pipes.

  9. tam Says:

    Telling point about Batman’s fame being due to success in other mediums. I remember being very surprised to learn that an Iron Man film was being made given the character’s relative obscurity and the even greater dearth of good comics featuring the character but of course this proved to be irrelevant and the film was a huge success. As you say, the source material doesn’t have that much to do with it.

    That said, I reckon there are probably more runs of really good comics featuring Batman than any other superhero although I’d agree that still doesn’t amount to much which is probably why I don’t read much superhero stuff any more.

  10. Andrew Hickey Says:

    There may be more *good* runs of Batman, yes, though very few great ones — that said, when for much of the last thirty years he’s only been rivalled by Wolverine for the number of comics out, that may have something to do with it.

    (I’m assuming here that we don’t count Judge Dredd as a superhero, because there’s been a remarkable consistency in Dredd quality over the years, with the exception of the early-90s, “let’s have everyone *EXCEPT* John Wagner write it!”, period…

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