Monday, 31 March 2014

Batman Turns 75 Part Two: The Movies

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.

Indeed, while Superman would be the first superhero published by DC Comics to appear on film (in the classic Fleischer Brothers animated shorts), Batman would be the first superhero originally published by what would become DC Comics to ever appear in live action films. Namely, in 1943 Columbia Pictures released a 15 part serial featuring the character entitled The Batman. The Batman starred Lewis Wilson as Batman (and his alter ego Bruce Wayne) and Douglas Croft as Robin (and his alter ego Dick Grayson). William Austen played Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred. It was directed by Lambert Hillyer, who had previously directed the Universal horror movies The Invisible Ray (1936) and Dracula's Daughter (1936).

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 Batman would be followed in 1949 by another 15 chapter serial, The New Adventures of Batman and Robin-The Boy Wonder. The New Adventures of Batman and Robin-The Boy Wonder starred Robert Lowery as Batman (and his alter ego Bruce Wayne) and Johnny Duncan as Robin (and his alter ego Dick Grayson).  In many respects The New Adventures of Batman and Robin-The Boy Wonder was more faithful to the comic book feature than The Batman had been. Batman was no longer a government agent, but instead a civilian crimefighter associated with the Gotham City Police as he was in the comic book. The serial would also be the first time that the characters of Commissioner Gordon (played by Lyle Talbot) and Vicki Vale (played by Jane Adams) appeared on film.

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.

Batman (1966) was shot on a budget of $1, 377, 800, which was much larger than that of the television show. It starred the cast of the TV show (Adam West, Burt Ward, Alan Napier, Neil Hamilton, and so on), and was shot  in between the end of shooting for the first season and the start of filming for the second season. Naturally the Batman feature film had to have a bigger plot than the average television show episode. To this end the movie movie united four of Batman's rouge's gallery from both the comic books and the television show. Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, and Frank Gorshin reprised their roles as The Joker, The Penguin, and The Riddler respectively. Julie Newmar had a back injury which prevented her from doing the movie, so Lee Meriwether took over the role of Catwoman. The plot centred on the four villains kidnapping (and dehydrating) members of the United World's Security Council. The Batman feature also introduced two whole new vehicles, the Batcopter and the Batcycle. The Batboat, which had appeared in the comic books, made its film debut in the movie.

 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.

As mentioned earlier, Warner Brothers had decided the next live action Batman film, Batman Forever, would be lighter in tone. To this end, Joel Shcumacher was hired as the film's director. Before it even went into production, however, it lost its leading man. Michael Keaton did not care for the film's script, and as a result left the film. Val Kilmer was then cast as Batman. Chris O'Donnell joined the franchise as Robin. Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones were cast as The Riddler and Two-Face respectively. Batman Forever performed better at the box office than Batman Returns. Batman Forever received mixed reviews upon its release, although for the most part the reviews were positive. Since then its reputation has declined, with critics pointing out that Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones play their roles over the top and the script is often uneven.

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.

Batman Begins premiered on 15 June 2005  in the United Kingdom and on 17 June 2005 in the United States. The film received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics. While it was the number one film at the box office in its first weekend, its gross of $48,745,440 was considered disappointing. Fortunately it would go onto earn enough to be the second highest grossing Batman film at the time, surpassed only by Batman (1989). Its performance guaranteed a sequel would be made.

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 premiered on 14 July 2008 in New York City and went into wide release in the United States on 18 July 2008. The film received overwhelmingly favourable reviews and could well be one of the most critically acclaimed superhero film ever made. Heath Ledger's portrayal of The Joker was often singled out for praise. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards and won the Oscars for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (awarded posthumously to Heath Ledger) and Best Achievement in Sound Editing. It also did phenomenally well at the box office. The Dark Knight was the highest grossing film for the year 2008 and is still the fourth highest grossing film in the United States and Canada.

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.


PB210 said...

"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 **vigilante**.

I enjoy your blog posts, but you tripped up there, as the hero stood as deputized long prior to the release of the 1943 serial.

Batman was officially recognized by Commissioner Gordon and the GCPD in BATMAN # 7 (October-November, 1941) and the Bat-Signal came along in DETECTIVE # 60 (February, 1942). In the 1940's, they showed him testifying in court in a cape (cf. origin of Two-Face).

(The pulp heroes, such as the Spider and the Shadow, and radio’s the Green Hornet-whose 1966-1967 TV series shared the same producer as the Adam West show and remained faithful to the hero’s status as a wanted fugitive-have generally worked as outlaws.)

“During the conference [in the 1966 Adam West film] Commissioner Gordon states that Batman and Robin are fully deputized agents of the law [when someone asks if they operate as vigilantes]. Batman was deputized in the comics by Commissioner Gordon, way back in ‘The People vs. the Batman’ (Batman #7, November 1941). Throughout the remainder of the Pre-Crisis era [before 1985-1986] he was operating legally in collaboration with the GCPD”. Adam West himself reiterates his status as a deputized agent of the law in an episode guest-starring the Green Hornet, "Batman's Satisfaction". (Nice bit by the way, that Britt Reid mocks Batman's outfit. I wonder if the scene cut away from him then criticizing the boy sidekick in pixie shoes, shaved legs, etc.) "The fact of the matter is the first time Gordon lighted off the Bat-Signal (which does not work well with the idea of an urban legend), Batman and Robin became agents of the government".

The IMDB and Martin Grams seem to have repeated a similar misconception as covered in one of the blogs to which I provided a link (though Grams has less of an excuse, as his context referred to the Adam West show).

"The Green Hornet, like Batman before him, was another masked vigilante mistaken by newspaper columnists". In context, since Grams discusses the Adam West show preceding the 1966 Green Hornet series, I will not object to "before him". However, since he specifically refers to the Adam West show in this paragraph, I will have to civilly note that he made a mistake.

(The Green Hornet debuted in 1936 on radio.)

Terence Towles Canote said...

You are right that Batman was recognised by Commissioner Gordon and the GCPD prior to the serial, but even the serial would have departed from Batman in the comic books. Quite simply, Batman was deputised by the GCPD, whereas in the serial he is an agent of the Federal government.

PB210 said...

"In many respects The New Adventures of Batman and Robin-The Boy Wonder was more faithful to the comic book feature than The Batman had been. Batman was no longer a government agent, but instead a **vigilante** as he was in the comic book".

I reiterate that I enjoy your blog. So, do not take this as a personal attack. You may have to correct that sentence in a later paragraph, since as I have shown, he did not operate as a vigilante after 1941 but as a deputized civilian. People who join neighborhood watch groups do not necessarily represent examples of vigilantes. A person making a citizen's arrest does not serve as a vigilante perforce. If the police someone with a spotlight, that person must obey the Constitution and U.S. law as much as a regular policeman.

(I find it intriguing that radio and/or pulp heroes such as the Green Hornet, the Spider and the Shadow did not have such chummy arrangements with the police, rather stood as fugitives.)

Terence Towles Canote said...

You are quite right. I went ahead and corrected those lines to better reflect Batman as he was in the comic books.