Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of the first appearance of Batman in Detective Comics #27, May 1939. The character was almost an immediate success, quickly becoming one of the most popular superheroes, surpassed only by Superman and Captain Marvel. He would maintain his popularity over the years, becoming one of the few superheroes to survive the Golden Age of Comics. Since the late Eighties it is quite possible that Batman could be the most popular superhero in the world, surpassing even Superman.
Given Batman's popularity it should come as no surprise that the character would appear in several media other than comic books over the years. In fact, it is quite possible that over the years Batman has appeared in more media than any other superhero, even Superman. Over the years Batman has appeared on film, in television, on radio, in newspaper comic strips, on several animated series, and even in video games. Since the Sixties there have probably been very few times when Batman was not appearing in at least one other medium besides comic books. Aside from comic books, it is quite possible the Caped Crusaders' biggest impact has been in film.
To say that The Batman was poorly made is perhaps an understatement. Like most of Columbia's serials it had a exceedingly low budget. The
costumes worn by Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft were ill fitting and
poorly designed. The production could not afford to build a Batmobile,
so a plain black Cadillac was used instead. There are also continuity errors throughout the serial as its budget would not even allow for scenes to be reshot if a mistake was made. In one fight scene Batman's cape is torn off, only to reappear back on the Caped Crusader moments later. In another scene Alfred fires a revolver eight times without ever reloading.
Modern viewers familiar with movie serials, particularly those produced by Columbia, might be willing to forgive The Batman for its shoddy production values. Unfortunately The Batman was produced during World War II and as a result a good deal of wartime propaganda was incorporated into the serial. The villain is a Japanese scientist and secret agent named Dr. Daka, played by J. Carrol Naish. Much of The Batman then appears shockingly racist to modern eyes. Such phrases as "shifty eyed Japs" and "Jap devil" occur throughout the serial. The serial even goes so far as to refer to the government as "wise" for interning Japanese Americans during the war. There can be little doubt that the filmmakers were to blame for the propaganda elements in the serial, as such wartime propaganda was uncharacteristic of the comic books of the time (Batman and Robin spent the war as they had before, fighting supervillains and gangsters). Regardless, from a modern point of view The Batman is exceedingly offensive.
Despite its many shortcomings, The Batman would prove important in the development of the character. Unlike many other serials The Batman was rather faithful to the comic books, only departing in a few ways. Namely, Batman was portrayed as an agent of the Federal government instead of as a civilian crimefighter associated with the Gotham City Police. While in the comic books Batman often worked side by side with Commissioner Gordon, Gordon does not appear in the serial. The Batman would have a lasting impact on the comic books. The serial introduced a secret headquarters for Batman called "The Bat's Cave". It would be incorporated into the comic books as the Batcave. The slender, moustachioed William Austen would give Alfred, originally overweight and clean shaven, his appearance in comic books for the past 71 years.
Strangely enough The Batman would impact the history of the character Batman twenty two years after its initial release. In 1965 the serial's chapters were edited together and released as An Evening with Batman and Robin. An Evening with Batman and Robin was screened at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago, where East Coast ABC executive Yale Udoff was present. Mr. Udoff then suggested to ABC a primetime Batman TV series might be a good idea. The end result was the famous Batman TV show that debuted in 1966 (more on that in part three).
The New Adventures of Batman and Robin-The Boy Wonder had a much more standard plot than that of The Batman, with none of the jingoism or racism of the earlier serial. Instead the Dynamic Duo faced a rather typical hooded villain known as The Wizard. If anything the production values of The New Adventures of Batman and Robin-The Boy Wonder were even lower than those of The Batman. The costumes were again poorly made and this time the Batmobile was an ordinary 1949 Mercury convertible!
Batman's next appearance in film would be made without the permission of National Periodical Publications (now known as DC Comics). Pop artist Andy Warhol was a fan of the Batman serials, so he paid homage to the character with the unfinished film Batman Dracula in 1964. The film is believed is to be the first intentional portrayal of a campy Batman on the screen. It was only shown at Andy Warhol's art exhibits and never in theatres (as blatant copyright infringement that wasn't a possibility). Batman Dracula was long thought lost, but recently resurfaced. Scenes from Batman Dracula appeared in the documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (2006).
Batman's next appearance on film would also be his first feature film. It should come as no surprise that it would be an outgrowth of the wildly successful television series that debuted on ABC in 1966 (more on that in part three). In fact, William Dozier, the executive producer of the Batman TV series, had wanted a Batman feature film to be released before the television series as a means of promoting the show. This idea was rejected by 20th Century Fox for two reasons. First 20th Century Fox would have to shoulder the entire burden for the budget of the feature film, while ABC would help with the costs of the television show. Before they would even consider a Batman feature film, 20th Century Fox wanted to know that they had a hit on their hands. The second reason was ABC's scheduling. Batman had been scheduled to debut in the fall of 1966, which would have given plenty of time to make a motion picture. When the fall of the 1965-1966 season proved to be one of the worst for ABC in its history, they moved the debut of Batman TV show up to January 1966. There would not have been time to produce a feature film.
It was largely because the Batman TV show had turned out to be a smash hit that William Dozier's plans for a feature film came to fruition. That having been said, for 20th Century Fox the Batman feature film was not simply a way of capitalising on the TV show's success in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom where it had already aired. It would also be a means of promoting the show in other parts of the world as well. Batman had yet to air in Europe, Japan, or Asia, places where people might not be familiar with the original characters from the comic books. 20th Century Fox then saw the film as a tool with which they could introduce the characters to foreign markets.
Contrary to popular belief, 20th Century Fox actually did a good deal of promotion for Batman (1966) in the United States. Unfortunately the film opened to mixed reviews and only did moderately well at the box office. Based on the smash hit television series of 1966, Batman (1966) was then a bit of a disappointment to 20th Century Fox upon its initial release. Since then its reputation has improved considerably to the point that it is considered by many to be a cult classic.
It was in 1978 that the big budget blockbuster Superman was released. With the enormous success of Superman it would seem reasonable to think that a similar film featuring Batman would follow in its wake. In fact, it was on 3 October 1979 that producers Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker bought the film rights to Batman with the intent of portraying the original Dark Knight of the comic book on the big screen. They were joined on the project by producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber in November 1979. The prospective Batman feature film was shopped around to various studios (including Columbia Pictures, United Artists, and Universal), all of whom rejected it. It was only after the project was announced at the Comic Art Convention in New York City that Warner Brothers came on board.
Unfortunately the prospective Batman film would undergo a protracted time of development. Tom Mankiewicz even finished a script for the film in June 1983, and a mid-1985 release date was even announced. A number of different directors would also be attached to the project. Finally in 1986 Tim Burton was hired as the director. A good deal of controversy erupted among fans when it was announced that Batman would be played by Michael Keaton, then best known for his work in comedies. The rest of the cast included Jack Nicholson as The Joker, Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale, and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon. The film's production did not always go smoothly. Its budget grew from $30 million to $48 million and the Writers Guild of America strike prevented writer Sam Hamm from doing any re-writes of his screenplay.
Despite its somewhat troubled production, Batman received positive reviews and was a smash hit at the box office. Ultimately it was the second highest grossing film worldwide of 1989, surpassed only by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Its success guaranteed there would be a sequel. Batman Returns (1992) was once more directed by Tim Burton and featured Danny DeVito as The Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. Batman Returns received largely positive reviews and many today regard it as being better than Batman (1989). Unfortunately, while Batman Returns made a good deal of money (it was the 6th highest grossing film for the year), Warner Brothers thought it was a disappointment at the box office. Warner Brothers blamed this perceived underperformance of Batman Returns at the box office on its dark tone and decided to take the Batman films in a lighter direction.
Before the release of the next live action Batman feature, however, there would be an animated feature film. Batman: The Animated Series had debuted on the Fox Network in 1992 and proved to be an enormous success, both with critics and in the ratings. Batman: Mask of The Phantasm was originally meant to be released direct to video, but Warner Brothers decided early in its development to release it to theatres instead. It was made in only eight months and was released on 25 December 1993.
Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm received largely positive reviews, with many critics believing it to be superior to the live action films. Unfortunately Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm would do poorly at the box office, perhaps because Warner Brothers rushed it into theatres. It would perform much better on home video and would be followed by several more direct to video, animated Batman feature films. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm has also maintained a good reputation among critics and Batman fans. It is still regarded as one of the best Batman films ever made.
Given the success of Batman Forever, there would naturally be another sequel. Batman and Robin (1997) featured Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl, with Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. Val Kilmer did not return as Batman, so that George Clooney was cast in the role. Chris O'Donnell returned as Robin. While Batman Forever did well at the box office, Batman and Robin did not. While the film earned $42,872,605 in its opening weekend, its box office receipts plummeted in the following weeks. In the end Batman and Robin earned a meagre $107.3 million at the box office.
Given its reviews it should perhaps be little wonder that Batman and Robin failed at the box office. The vast majority of critics panned the film, attacking it as outright camp. Since its release Batman and Robin has even occasionally made lists of the worst films ever made. It seems likely that audiences disliked the film as much as critics, and as a result word of mouth could have killed it at the box office.
Warner Brothers had planned a fifth film, Batman Triumphant with Joel Shcumacher once more in the director's chair, but the box office failure of Batman and Robin dashed any hopes of another film in the series. In the wake of the failure of Batman and Robin Warner Brothers looked at other options for Batman films. Over the next few years a live action version of the animated television series Batman Beyond was considered, as was a film adaptation of Frank Miller's comic book limited series Batman Year One and a film entitled Batman vs. Superman that would have featured both the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel. None of these projects would come to fruition.
Ultimately Warner Brothers hired Christopher Nolan, then best known for his films Memento (2000) and Insomnia (2002), was hired to direct the next Batman film. To write the screenplay the studio hired David S. Goyer. Mr. Goyer had worked in comic books, most notably on the title JSA (featuring the Golden Age superhero team the Justice Society of America). He also wrote the screenplays for such films as Dark City (1998), Blade (1998), and Blade II (2002). Rather than continuing the previous series of Batman films, Mr. Nolan decided to start fresh with a film that would tell the origin of Batman. While the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents had been portrayed in Batman (1989), Batman's complete origin had never been portrayed on film.
Christian Bale was cast in the role of Batman, with Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, and Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane (AKA The Scarecrow). The film would mark the first live action appearance of Batman's enemy Ra's al Ghul. A more realistic version of the Batmobile was made for the film, as was a new Batsuit that owed more to Batman's Golden Age costume than the one from the Sixties.
The sequel to Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, was historic in not only being the first Batman film not to have the name "Batman" anywhere in the title, but in possibly being the first comic book superhero film period not to have the hero's name in the title. The screenplay was written by Christopher Nolan and his brother Joanthan Nolan, based on a treatment by David S. Goyer. For inspiration Mr. Goyer looked to the very first two Joker stories published in Batman #1; the limited series Batman: The Long Halloween; the story The Joker's Five-Way Revenge!" from Batman #251, September 1973; and the graphic novel The Killing Joke. , Heath Ledger was cast as The Joker, and Aaron Eckhart as District Attorney Harvey Dent (who would become Two-Face).
The Dark Knight was followed by The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. The screenplay was once more written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan and based on a treatment by David S. Goyer. Anne Hathaway was cast as Selina Kyle (AKA The Catwoman), while Tom Hardy was cast as Bane and Marion Cotillard in another significant role. Like The Dark Knight before, The Dark Knight Rises appears to have drawn significantly from the comic books, namely from the story arc "Knightfall" that unfolded in issues of Batman, Detective Comics, and other titles in 1993 and 1994; the limited series The Dark Knight Returns; and the story arc "No Man's Land" that unfolded in Batman, Detective Comics, and other titles in 1999.
The Dark Knight Rises premiered in New York City on 16 July 2012 and went into wide release in the United States on 20 July 2012. Although not as critically acclaimed as The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises received largely positive reviews. The Dark Knight Rises also did very well at the box office. It would become the seventh highest grossing film in the United States and Canada. Worldwide it would even out gross The Dark Knight.
After making three Batman films (collectively known as "The Dark Knight Trilogy"), director Christopher Nolan elected to make no more. It was in June 2013 that Warner Brothers announced that they were considering a follow up to the Superman film Man of Steel (2013) that would include both Batman and Superman. Warner Brothers later confirmed this and in August 2013 announced that Ben Affleck had been cast as Batman. The casting proved to be a source of controversy among many fans. Regardless, the film (unofficially called Batman vs. Superman or Superman vs. Batman) will be directed by Zack Snyder (who directed Man of Steel) with a screenplay by David S. Goyer. It is currently set for release on 6 May 2016.
Arguably Batman is the single most successful superhero to appear on film. Both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises rank in the top twenty highest grossing films worldwide, while Batman (1989) ranks as the 174th highest grossing film of all time. Even given the box office of the various Marvel superheroes on screen, no other single superhero has seen the success that the Dark Knight has. Of course, in his 75 year history Batman would not only conquer film, but other media as well. Batman has appeared on radio, in books, video games, and most notably television. Part Three will examine his appearances in other media.