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David Lemmink

Heroes, Comic Books, and American Society (001)

Professor Raider


The Dark Knight Evolves

Batman is one of the most recognizable comic book characters in American culture

alongside Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America. The Caped Crusader’s comic book

adventure began shortly after Superman’s success. Like Superman, Batman “wore a costume

and maintained a secret identity”, but what separated Batman from his DC companion is the

fact that he “possessed no superhuman powers” (Wright, 17). This limitation gave Batman a

vulnerability that Superman lacked, and a tragic backstory involving Batman’s parents’ brutal

murder when he was a child adds greater depth to his character. The early Batman comic run

with Bill Finger and Bob Kane were surreal and cinematic in a way that Superman was not. The

comic’s aesthetic even earned it the high praise of being the “Citizen Kane of comic books”

(Wright, 17). Batman’s striking style would diminish after Robin’s introduction, but the

character remained popular and would be one of the first comic book characters to be on the

big and small screen. Batman, while not technically first to the punch in either film or television,

set the tone for comic book characters in both mediums and would be the defining character

through the twentieth century.

Batman’s first feature film appearance was in the appropriately titled Batman (1966; dir.

Leslie H. Martinson). This movie was released between the first two seasons of the Batman TV

show (1966 – 1968; created by William Dozier) and features much of the show’s main cast. The
tone is deliberately campy and over-the-top. The low budget meant that costumes and sets

were cheaply made, which contributed to the idea that the show was more of a joke than a

serious attempt to accurately represent Batman’s dark history in the early 40’s. His origin story

is never mentioned, and the absurdity of his wearing of the Batsuit goes without questioning.

While popular at the time, Bradford Wright observed that “the show reinforced in the public’s

mind the silliness and irrelevance of superheroes” (Wright, 225). The film did not deviate from

the show’s tone whatsoever. Its plot is loose and feels more like three regular episodes stitched

together to reach feature-length time. While Wright is correct in his observation that the show

negatively affected the perception of comic books in mass culture, it does not hold up when

one observes trends in TV and film. Shows like Wonder Woman (1975 – 1977; developed by

Douglas S. Cramer and Stanley Ralph Ross) and The Incredible Hulk (1977 – 1982; developed by

Kenneth Johnson) sprang up in the following decade. They reeled in the amount of cheese and

dropped the parodic nature of the show, but were remained light television fare. In film,

Superman (1978; dir. Richard Donner) would command the highest budget of a film up to that

point and succeed critically and financially, even earning three Academy Award nominations.

The tone was relatively light, but offered a level of complexity in its narrative that a shark-

repellant-equipped Batman simply could not match. Three sequels would spawn from Donner’s

superhero flick. The first two sequels did well financially and did not deviate far from the tone

of the first, but the series was bought up the Cannon Group in the mid 1980’s and a fourth film

was produced. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987; dir. Sidney J. Furie) was noticeably

cheaper than its predecessors and upped the campiness to levels not seen since Adam West

dashed around a shipyard carrying a cartoonish bomb over his head. The film went on to earn
two Razzie Award nominations and put Superman into hibernation for nearly two decades.

Batman’s success in the late 60’s and in syndication in the following decade helped to establish

a winning formula in terms of tone and visual style. Comic book movies and TV shows that

would follow would maintain some elements from the show, but drop the aspects of parody in

favor of somewhat more serious storytelling.

It would take two decades before Batman would reemerge from the darkness, and

indeed that is precisely what he did. Batman (1989; dir. Tim Burton) opens with a sequence in

which the shadowy Dark Knight attacks and intimidates two thugs gloating over a robbery. The

darkness that Bob Kane brought to the early Batman comic books was realized on film, and for

the first time, Batman’s origin story was shown. While some changes were made to fit the

movie’s plot—namely that Jack Napier (aka the Joker) killed Bruce Wayne’s parents, not Joe

Chill. The small detail does not override the tragedy of the backstory, however. While New York

City was clearly where the original show and film took place, this film’s Gotham City is dark,

cold, and full of gothic architecture. Combined with the grand orchestral score by Danny

Elfman, the film creates a whole new ugly world for Batman to save. It is important to note the

film’s budget, as it is partially responsible for the flood of superhero films that would follow in

Batman’s wake, while also explaining why the same thing did not occur after Superman. The

budget for Batman in 1989 was $35 million. Adjusted for inflation, Superman would have cost

$104.6 million in that same year. A more modest budget meant a safer investment for studios.

The superhero genre was still very much untried after Superman. Aside from the Superman

sequels, Swamp Thing (1982; dir. Wes Craven) was the only other Marvel or DC superhero to
receive a film adaptation in the 80’s. Batman opened the floodgates and proved that a good

superhero film could be done stylishly and on a budget.

Batman would, like Superman, spawn three sequels. Batman Returns (1992; dir. Tim

Burton) would expand the world of the original and introduce more adult-oriented themes of

sex and violence. The darker tone would be met with backlash from parents who felt it was

inappropriate for children. The concerns over merchandise sales would lead to Burton’s ousting

from the director’s chair and Joel Schumacher replacing him. In spite of this, the genre had a

tone to build off of and a visual style to model itself after. The Crow (1994; dir. Alex Proyas) was

one such film. The story involves a resurrected man seeking revenge against a gang who

murdered him and his girlfriend. Like Batman, it features a tragic backstory and takes place in a

grimy, ugly city which sheds the gothic aesthetic in favor of an industrial one. The movie

incorporates grungy qualities as well. The soundtrack features a variety of hard rock and grunge

outfits and the main character plays electric guitar on his roof. The character is not a direct

result of Batman, as the Crow appeared in his own comic book story in February of 1989, four

months prior to Batman’s release. However, Batman’s success and dark visual style made a film

adaptation of the comic book possible.

Joel Schumacher would change the character of Batman into something more familiar

with his two films, Batman Forever (1995; dir. Joel Schumacher) and Batman and Robin (1997;

dir. Joel Schumacher). The most obvious difference between the two directors’ films is the look

of Gotham. Where Burton preferred the city caught in the perpetual cold of overcast and

pollution-choked skies, Schumacher dipped the entire city in neon. Batman is plagued with

visions of his parent’s death in Batman Forever, but any serious narrative possibility is dropped
in favor of the villains’ chewing of the scenery. Indeed, they appear to have walked right out of

the old TV show. Batman and Robin would take this lookback to the olden days as a guide for

the whole movie. In one scene, Batman, now played by George Clooney, air-surfs his way out of

a tight situation, an action that recalls a fight from the Batman TV show in which Batman fights

the Joker on a surfboard. The emphasis on humor and harkening back to the ways of old would

not receive the same positive response as it had three decades prior. Upon seeing the film, one

critic from the LA Times declared “the Batman franchise is no more” (Turan, 1997). Indeed, no

further sequels would be made, and, like Superman’s fourth installment, Batman and Robin

would receive Razzie nominations. In spite of this negative reception, however, Batman would

be an influencer upon the genre. Spawn (1997; dir. Mark A.Z. Dippé) would attempt to find a

happy compromise between the dark world of Burton’s Batman and the humor of

Schumacher’s Batman. A clown even serves as the film’s primary antagonist, drawing

comparisons to Jack Nicholson’s turn as the Joker in Batman. The result, while somewhat

confused, is but one example of a superhero film incorporating elements into its narrative that

first appeared in earlier Batman films. After the turn of the century, Spiderman (2002; dir. Sam

Raimi) would find the tonal balance in its narrative that Spawn sought, but ditched the dark city

in favor of a sunny, warm New York City. Other films like Hulk (2003; dir. Ang Lee), Catwoman

(2004; dir. Pitof), and Fantastic Four (2005; dir. Tim Story) would failed to accomplish the same

thing, but by the time the Fantastic Four had defeated Dr. Doom, Batman was back to redefine

the genre once more.

Batman Begins (2005; dir. Christopher Nolan) brought a new level of depth to Batman

and the world he existed within. Gotham is no longer stuck in eternal winter or a neon light
show. It looks like a normal city for the first time since the 60’s. Batman Begins and its

subsequent sequels brought realism to the superhero genre. The success of this creative

decision was not immediately apparent in the box office. Batman Begins brought in ~$375

million. Its sequel, The Dark Knight (2008; dir. Christopher Nolan) brought in ~$1 billion, and

The Dark Knight Rises (2012; dir. Christopher Nolan) brought in ~$1.085 billion. Realism and

desaturated color palettes sold, and the superhero genre was quick to follow suit. Iron Man

(2008; dir. Jon Favreau) is a notable example of this change on the Marvel side of the genre.

Tony Stark “is wounded” and “taken prisoner” by people “who insist that he build a new

weapon for them” (Wright, 215). The people in the movie are Middle Eastern terrorists instead

of Vietnamese Communists, but the idea remained the same. The difference comes from what

follows. In the movie, Tony Stark realizes the world is more complex than he once thought. The

moral ambiguity was typical of Marvel Comics in the late 50’s and 60’s, but also seems to be

inspired by the realism presented in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. On the DC side of

things, Man of Steel (2013; dir. Zach Snyder) washed away the color of the old films and made

Superman a character afraid of his own power, fearing what the world would think. When he

does use them in the film’s finale, he is responsible for the deaths of thousands in Metropolis.

He is held accountable by United States law in the sequel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

(2016; dir. Zach Snyder). The line between good and evil was blurred by Christopher Nolan’s

Batman films, but another change was taking place under Marvel’s supervision that would

change not just the genre, but Batman’s role within it.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017; dir. Taika Waititi) is the tonal culmination of the Marvel

Cinematic Universe. It is more of a comedy than a traditional superhero film. This change from
Iron Man to Thor: Ragnarok was gradual. The success of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014; dir.

James Gunn) proved that comedy and colorful settings could sell well, regardless of the titular

superhero(es). Over the next three years, the style in Marvel films became more apparent.

Psychedelic visual effects and humor became commonplace. Perhaps the most significant

aspect of the MCU is its democratization of the genre. Any character is capable of financial

success and turning out multiple sequels. Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor all have three

films, Ant-Man is receiving a second, the Guardians of the Galaxy a third, and with the huge

financial success of Black Panther (2018; dir. Ryan Coogler), that character will also return in his

own sequels. DC understood the financial viability of the cinematic universe, but did so five

years too late. The result is a hurried Justice League (2017; dir. Zach Snyder) that ranks as the

lowest grossing DC Extended Universe film to date, an alarming stat for what was an ensemble

superhero film. Batman’s role in the titular league is important as well. He may be the authority

figure, but his powers are overshadowed by everyone else’s. In the climactic fight, this

supposed leader becomes the weakest link of the team. He’s just another fighter, and, indeed,

this would appear to be Batman’s role in the superhero genre. As the Marvel Cinematic

Universe continues to expand and experimental with tone and characters, Batman’s influence

gradually wanes. For a majority of the superhero genre’s presence in film and TV, Batman has

been the key figure by which other superheroes measured themselves tonally and visually.

Now, he has evolved into just another member of an ever-expanding genre. There is potential

that a solo Batman movie may bring Batman back out of the shadows again, but for now, it

seems that the character is content to remain there, watching the genre he pioneered carry on

in its own manner.


Primary Sources:
Batman, directed by Leslie H. Martinson. 20th Century Fox, 1966.

Batman, produced by William Dozier. Warner Bros. Television Distribution, 1966 – 1968.

Batman, directed by Tim Burton. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1989.

Baman Begins, directed by Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005.

Batman and Robin, directed by Joel Schumacher. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1997.

Batman Forever, directed by Joel Schumacher. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1995.

Batman Returns, directed by Tim Burton. Warner Bros Pictures, 1992.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, directed by Zach Snyder. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2016.

Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2018.

Catwoman, directed by Pitof. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2004.

The Crow, directed by Alex Proyas. Miramax Films, 1994.

The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2008.

The Dark Knight Rises, directed by Christopher Nolan. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2012.

Fantastic Four, directed by Tim Story. 20th Century Fox, 2005.

Guardians of the Galaxy, directed by James Gunn. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2014.

Hulk, directed by Ang Lee. Universal Pictures, 2003.

The Incredible Hulk, produced by Kenneth Johnson. NBCUniversal Television Distribution, 1977
– 1982.

Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau. Paramount Pictures, 2008.

Justice League, directed by Zach Snyder. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2017.

Man of Steel, directed by Zach Snyder. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013.

Superman, directed by Richard Donner. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1978.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, directed by Sidney J. Furie. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1987.

Spawn, directed by Mark A.Z. Dippé. New Line Cinema, 1997.

Spiderman, directed by Sam Raimi. Columbia Pictures, 2002.

Swamp Thing, directed by Wes Craven, Embassy Pictures, 1982.

Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2017.

Wonder Woman, produced by Douglas S. Cramer, et al. Los Angeles: DC Comics and
Warner Bros. Television, 1975-1979.

Secondary Sources:
Turan, Kenneth, "Meanwhile, Back at the Batcave . . ." Los Angeles Times. June 20, 1997.
Accessed April 27, 2018. http://articles.latimes.com/1997-06-20/entertainment/ca-

Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation, revised ed. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press,