Batman’s Silver Screen Growing Pains

Published on July 20th, 2011

James looks at Batman’s long, fascinating and inevitable struggle at making a movie for adults.

This awesome poster, one of a line from artist Justin Van Genderson, is being touted as acceptable for adults to put in their room, and the defensive nature of this notion highlights one of our current cultural disconnects. Despite his history of being closely associated with children, adults are taking Batman seriously. Of course, Batman was created as a character in comic books, a medium closely associated with children. This is why there is such an interesting struggle for Batman to grow up and be a character for mature audiences. The battle has been raging since the first time Batman appeared on paper and has been affected by new inventions, world wars, moral panics, fast food giants, fan surveys, smart directors and brave writers.

When originally conceived by Bob Kane in the 1930s, Batman’s comic strip detailed a psychologically disturbed detective solving violent crimes and capturing those responsible by any means necessary. Batman’s violent beginnings witnessing his parents’ death led to an equally violent career where the Caped Crusader showed little concern maiming or killing the bad guys. The superhero genre was in its infancy and as time passed, it became clear that publishers and young readers wanted a softer tone. Only a year after his inception, and to his creator’s dismay, Batman was partnered with Robin, a young sidekick. The children who read these comic books seemed to like the change, resulting in sales doubling, likely because of Robin’s age and excitement to be with Batman mirroring the feelings of kids reading it. It would seem many kids liked Batman all along but perhaps had trouble identifying with the torn, brooding adult. Robin gave them a figure to see themselves as and be part of the crime-fighting, with the newest Batman playing a less-tortured, paternal role. This would not be the last time Robin was the wedge between those who wanted a darker Batman and lighter storytelling. By 1942, DC Comics, the owner of the rights to Batman, decided that he should no longer kill anyone or handle guns. (As this was a time before TV, film and video games, controlling the Batman comic book meant controlling the entire character). At that point, America had joined World War 2 and that likely created enough gun violence for the America family. However, when WW2 finished, the entire DC Comics universe took similar steps to make comics a place for escapism, not to be reminded of the grim realities of the world. When DC put their new “postwar editorial direction that increasingly de-emphasized social commentary in favor of lighthearted juvenile fantasy” into place, Batman found himself a respectable citizen of a new Gotham filled with bright colours and high-flying but safe adventures.

The 1950s are seen as a low point for comics and this is particularly true of Batman. New technologies brought a change in how people spent their time and what themes were still relevant to them. The proliferation of the television surely drew some eyes away from the comics while the nuclear end of the war brought the beginning of the atomic age which altered the public’s taste. Instead of run-of-the-mill criminals, people now identified with fears of nuclear accidents, effects of radiation and visitors from outer space. Batman now inhabited a passé medium and in the genre of yesteryear. To make things worse, moral panic over the content of comic books would set in and become big news in this decade. Psychologists claimed the medium had a vast array of negative effects on children. Of course the issue of violence in comic books was raised. This was less in reference to superheroes than to “true crime” and “horror” comic books, which depicted violent crime and gory supernatural havoc. Much of the criticism of Batman was focused on what was referred to as the “homosexual relationship between him and Robin.” Two men living together alone was not heteronormative enough for the conservative America of 1950s. The public bought into the moral panic and Comics Code Authority was put into place to regulate comic books, promising less violence and sexual deviancy.

For Batman comics, this code meant a few changes. Fairly tame Gotham became an even less violent place and female characters like Batgirl were more frequent, making things less of a dangerous sausage fest. To stay relevant and follow some successful comics of the time, Batman had some sci-fi adventures but this never really took off. By the mid 60’s sales of Batman titles were so poor that DC almost killed off the character entirely. In 1964, editor Julius Schwartz was put in charge of Batman titles and did some revamping. His look was updated and it was decided that Batman would return to being a detective solving crimes instead of fighting space monsters and talking animals. At the same time, ABC was preparing to air the Batman TV show. The program is now famous for its pop-art visuals, light tone and slapstick comedy and for a short time it did reinvigorate the character. A 1966 film was made in the same vein with the same cast. The television show was a hit and comic book writers started to take elements and characters from the show into their publications. The show brought Batman back into the cultural spotlight but it wasn’t meant to last as the show was cancelled after 2 and a half seasons. What went wrong?

As the 60s were a generation of public unrest, distrust in American institutions and a social civil war, should the TV show have played to that? Maybe, but there is reason to believe otherwise. Perhaps this new Batman was appreciated as a form of escapism. Just as people in the 40s didn’t want to be reminded of the war by seeing Batman firing a gun, this level of camp served the same function. This Batman lived in a vacuum where people weren’t dying or dealing with tough social issues. In the third season they decided to become more topical, discuss hippies and use 60s slang but by this point, the formulaic nature of the show and the unrealistic, campy tone had lost the audience. After ABC cancelled the show, NBC offered to continue making it if they could have the sets. ABC said they’d been destroyed and NBC was not willing to construct new ones. Batman was still seen as a valuable cultural commodity and it was merely a chance that had been ruined, not the character.

In the comic books, writers used the 70s as a chance to distance themselves from the 60s campy Batman. Influential writer Dennis O’Neil said his idea was “simply to take it back to where it started. I went to the DC library and read some of the early stories. I tried to get a sense of what Kane and Finger were after.” Making books with titles like “Secrets of the Waiting Graves”, writers and artists of the time tried to get to the grimy root Batman that was buried under camp, sci-fi and overly concerned parents. These titles were received very well by readers but Batman, like most superheroes, saw their sales decline from the 70s to a historical low in the mid-80s.

Comic book writers and die-hard fans weren’t the only ones who wanted to see an appropriately dark version of the Dark Knight. In 1979, producers Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker purchased the film rights of Batman from DC Comics. Their goal was to “make the definitive, dark, serious version of Batman, the way Bob Kane and Bill Finger had envisioned him in 1939. A creature of the night; stalking criminals in the shadows.” Declining sales in a darker Batman’s comic books made this film project look financially uncertain. When approaching studios to pitch the adult Batman movie, Uslan and Melniker were often met with disapproval and requests to bring the character back to its last successful incarnation: the campy 60s version. Uslan would write a script called Return of the Batman. Though it hadn’t been written yet, he later compared this script to The Dark Knight Returns, a violent, dark, engaging and unpredictable graphic novel Frank Miller would publish 6 years later to great critical acclaim. In 1981, Warner Brothers decided to accept the Batman project with a $15 million budget and a group of producers actively trying to get away from the 60s camp. From this point the script would go through a large series of rewrites. They tried to follow the Superman film’s template, as the 1978 first entry in that franchise was a success. Tom Mankiewicz , known for his work in the James Bond and Superman films, completed a script titled The Batman in June 1983. Later that year it was announced Batman would be released in 1985 with a $20 million budget. The project faced more changes and problems. Original casting choices of William Holden as Commissioner Gordon and David Niven as Alfred were made impossible the two actor’s subsequent deaths. Securing a director also proved difficult and several were attached at different points including Ivan Reitman and Joe Dante. The script itself went trough 9 different re-writes by 9 different writers. This difficulty finding the proper script and director illustrates the studio was not very confident in how they wanted to make this new film. In 1986, it was finally decided that Tim Burton would direct the picture.

Meanwhile, in the world of comic books…

1986 is viewed as a very important year in comic book medium as it saw the publication of 2 major works. Watchmen, written by Alan Moore, and The Dark Knight Returns, written by Frank Miller, were released within months of each other and the industry was changed. Watchmen explored the shades of grey between the good guys and bad guys, dealt with issues of rape, nuclear apocalypse, mentally unstable superheroes, Vietnam and some other issues you wouldn’t find in the Sunday paper’s comic pages. It received great sales and nearly universal critical acclaim, eventually making it on Time’s 100 Greatest Novels written since 1923. It was viewed not as a good comic book but masterfully crafted piece of art. The Dark Knight Returns saw Bruce Wayne return to his life as a vigilante at the age of 50 after a long retirement. Its adult tone and subject matter were matched by an equally mature presentation: The Dark Knight Returns was printed in what the publisher called ‘prestige format’ — squarebound, rather than stapled; on heavy-stock paper rather than newsprint, and with cardstock rather than glossy-paper covers. This showed a text and character that demanded to be taken seriously. While not celebrated as much as Watchmen, it is widely viewed as the second most notable comic publication of the decade and is still credited with maturing Batman, finally doing its creators justice and greatly boosting the popularity of the superhero in modern audiences. The two publications are seen as the beginning of the modern-era of comic books and giving the medium status as a legitimate form of artistic and literary output.

With Batman as a character, superheroes as a genre and comics as an art form being promoted to the art world, it was up to Burton to bring this quality, maturity and depth to the big screen. This new level of appreciation brought more money and interest to the flim, which in turn brought A-list talent. Many stars were considered for Bruce Wayne/Batman and the role eventually went to Michael Keaton. Jack Nicholson, a Hollywood legend, was cast as the Joker, arguably Batman’s most famous, darkest and interesting foe. 10 years after the film rights were purchased, Batman was released in 1989. The film was visually dark, featured some frightening moments including the Joker’s gruesome origin and even ended with his death. The film grossed over $400 million, breaking several box office records and making it a resounding financial success. Critics, too, were happy with the picture, appreciating the heavy themes, excitement and interesting visuals. If Watchmen/Dark Knight Returns started the modern era of comic books, this film started the modern superhero film era. However, the film’s Gotham wasn’t as harsh as that depicted in The Dark Knight Returns and the tone was not quite as dark as the best comics. Batman was a star agin, though, and merchandising and reinvigorated comics sales brought in more money. It was decided a sequel would be made with Keaton and Burton returning in hopes to repeat the success.

I suspect Burton, known for his dark and frightening style, thought he had to hold back such elements on the original to achieve mainstream success, which is why it is heavy, but not overbearingly so. He was reportedly unhappy with the final product which means he probably did get full control to realize his vision. When Batman was such a blockbuster, it seems Burton understood people could accept his style of filmmaking. Batman Returns was the follow-up and Burton doesn’t appear to have held back at all. All colour and joy seems to have been sucked out of Gotham. The colours of the film are restricted largely to pale sickly whites and dark and dreary blacks. The villain turned from The Joker, the fun-loving prankster, to The Penguin, the misanthropic hermit who dines on raw fish. The movie starts with this character as a child, thrown into a river by his parents for a physical deformity. Hmm, I guess cover your kid’s eyes for that part. Oh yeah, and Batman wants to catch Penguin because he and his gang are murdering children. Ok, mabye just don’t take your kid. These Batman movies were a huge cultural event and McDonald’s obviously got in on the action. They had a promotional tie-in where their Happy Meals were Batman-themed and came with a toy from the movie. This deal caused a controversy at the time, as Happy Meals were targeted towards children and this film seemed made for adults (or maybe for bad children whose parents wanted to threaten them with a river dunking of their own). Despite making more than 3 times its budget and being another critical success, Warner Brothers wanted to take things in a new direction. The Happy Meal fiasco proved there was incongruency between what the public thought a superhero movie should be and what the adults making them and buying the new, heavy comics thought they should be. Even outside of the McDonald’s issue, many parental groups protested that Batman, a character they viewed as for children, should not be in such dark and disturbing movies. It was decided that the franchise would become more family-friendly with its next installment, Batman Forever. Joel Shumacher was hired as director and the new goal was to make a mainstream action-comedy you could bring your kids too, explicitly stating an attempt to make up for its dark and violent predecessor.

It was true in the 40s and it was true in the 90s: kids love Robin. Although he is updated as a douchey teenager with a motorcycle and an earring rather than being an eager sidekick, he’s there. One of the first things you’ll notice by looking at the movie, or even just its posters, is the colour. Visually the world of Forever is much more bright and inviting than Returns, though it was hard to look bleaker than this:

The film was also intentionally very toyetic, meaning characters, vehicles and settings were designed so that they be easily merchandized as toys. Batman Forever received mixed critical reviews but succeeded in other important places: it made more money than Batman Returns and it didn’t enrage parental groups. In fact, the light tone and colourful nature of the film made it very accessible and appropriate for children and Warner Brothers made even more through merchandising. Following this success, and using a very similar formula, they went even further to the light fun end of the spectrum and made another colourful romp. Joel Schumacher and Chris O’Donnell returned to make the disastrous Batman & Robin. It was more colourful, less-engaging, more toyetic, less realistic, more commercialized and less enjoyable for pretty much everyone who saw it. It received 11 Razzie Nominations and was panned by critics. While the film made back its budget it is considered a failure, with Warner Brothers stating it hoped for a better return and George Clooney, who played Batman, calling it a waste of money and Schumacher apologizing for it.

What’s interesting is that while the movie was being made, no one seemed to realize it was going to be bad. The studio was impressed with the footage it saw being shot and was lining up the sequel. They planned to stick with Schumacher, who up until then had served them well. The idea was to do a movie called Batman: Triumphant and it seemed to pre-emptively respond to the public and critical disappointment that was to come for Batman & Robin. The villains were slated to be Scarecrow, employing a fear toxin to attack Batman psychologically. This was also going to contribute to the Joker appearing to him as a hallucination and tormenting him from inside his own mind. Harley Quinn, well-established in comics and cartoons, would show up, this time as the Joker’s daughter, seeking revenge on Batman for his death. Fear toxins, orphans, hallucinations? This was sounding like grown up time for Batman. However, due to the extremely negative feedback from Batman & Robin, the studio was apprehensive continuing with this franchise.

In fact, almost all of the projects being considered as next movie were shaping up to be pretty adult dealing with harsh violence, psychological attacks, and moral amibiguity similar to what we’d eventually see in Batman Begins. When Schumacher was still being considered for the 5th film in the franchise, he proposed doing Batman: Year One. This would have been based on the well-liked graphic novel of the same name by Frank Miller. It is a harsh and violent telling of the beginning of Batman’s crime-fighting career. After Schumacher was dropped from consideration, presumably into a garbage disposal somewhere, Darren Aronofsky showed great interest in directing the project. He was hired by Warner Brothers to write and direct this reboot. His was to be a loose adaptation but not one of that softened the tone. The government of Gotham was still to be highly corrupt, something that is is best displayed when Gordon gets the shit kicked out of him by other cops. Corrupt government and police are usually a sign that it is not aimed at children, who are to see authority figures as morally right. While executors of the Wayne Estate look for the rightful heir after his parents’ death, Bruce Wayne lives in a junkyard while haunted by nightmares. It sounds like Gordon serves as the character the audience was to relate to because Batman was a border-line psycho in this R-rated celebration of ultraviolence. Selina Kyle, AKA Catwoman, was a professional dominatrix, another clear indication this wasn’t for the kiddies. This project seems to have come close to fruition but was eventually shelved, too.

Batman vs. Superman was the title of one of the others possible follow-ups. It involved Batman suffering a mental breakdown after a 5 year retirement from crime-fighting. Robin, Alfred and Commissioner Gordon are all dead and Batman is understandably depressed. Things aren’t not much better for Superman who is struggling through his divorce with Lois Lane. Things start to turn around when Batman gets married to Elizabeth Miller, only she is killed shortly after the wedding. When Clark Kent tries to stop Bruce Wayne from plotting revenge, he blames Kent for her death and the 2 superheroes turn against each other. They find out it was all a plan hatched by Lex Luthor and they eventually team up against him. Sure, things got sunny at the end but that synopsis sounds like it was going to be a dark, depressing movie with adult themes. This project was abandoned in favour of separate reboots for Superman and Batman.

Just as we had seen before 1989’s Batman, the period from Batman & Robin to Batman Begins is full of pitches, scripts, rewrites, meetings, director changes and repeat. What’s clear is that, even before the terrible reception of Batman & Robin, this movie was not going to be aimed at children. It seemed that the big screen Batman’s maturity was inevitable. The most celebrated Batman comic books had been turn ever darker. Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke showed Commissioner Gordon’s daughter kidnapped by the Joker, stripped nude, paralyzed and then having her pictures taken and shown to her father. Not just by buying the more mature titles, but Batman fans showed their willingness to handle defeat, violence, sadness and heavier themes. A 1-900 number was included in a Batman comic which readers could call and enter their vote on how whether or not Robin should die. The readers chose his death in a clear sign that it was time to get away from childish adventure and explore more realistic and tragic stories. This was illustrated again when in 1993, Bane appeared in the comic Knightfall. The hulking villain would go on to break Batman’s back…and people loved it! Bane would be a staple of the Batman universe as “the man who broke the Bat” and people were very willing to question the idea of a superhero universe where the good guy always wins. The Long Halloween, completed in 1997, is a complex, film-noir like graphic novel that was well-received and featured chemical weapons attacks, violent gangsters and lots of homicide. The quality of the dark tales coming from the comics and the proposed projects for the next film made it clear Batman’s next picture would be very heavy, and probably very good.

Comic book readers, Batman fans and movie lovers got what they had waited a long time for when the Christopher Nolan-directed Batman Begins was released in 2005. Nolan struck some outsiders as an odd choice for a summer blockbuster, having been known for smaller movies like Memento and Insomnia. There was a lot of doubt about whether he could handle the budget, the action scenes, the iconic characters and the epic scale of Batman. According to most people, he did not falter. Nolan brought a more realistic Batman into play, based on many of the more adult-oriented comics of the past 20 years, allowing the rise of intellectual adult comics and the summer blockbuster superhero movie boom (brought about by hits like X-Men and Spiderman a few years earlier) to finally intersect with Batman Begins. The movie was a critical and financial success, and like 1989’s Batman, surprised mainstream audiences by the depth a comic movie can bring and surpassed that film’s commitment to drama and seriousness. The ball was not dropped on the visuals or the action either but excellent scriptwriting and direction still meant the human characters and the story were the stars. Retrospectively this movie is viewed well but now largely as a mere stepping stone to its sequel The Dark Knight, which one-upped its predecessor in almost every way.

The film broke box-office records, went deeper into the dark psychology of lead characters, and was a colossal critical and financial hit. It received several Academy Award nominations and even a win for Heath Ledger as the Joker, who many say was the best supervillain ever committed to film. Questions of moral relativism, utilitarianism and other philosophical debates were sparked by his character. People also debated the politics of this film, to see if it promoted the Bush Doctrine’s war on terror. Whether it does or not isn’t important right now, but that critics and pundits are reading into this text that is rich enough to offer such evaluation. It is viewed as a great film, not a good superhero or action movie. These 2 films deal with death, obsession, murder, violence and corruption in a realistic and upfront manner. Now with the final film of that trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, having its first trailer hit theatres, Batman movies are bigger than ever. They are taken seriously by critics, the academy and by the highly acclaimed director who makes them with as much heart as more personal indie projects. Financially they are viewed like other major film projects, perhaps bigger. The Dark Knight Rises was given a $250 million budget and no one seems even remotely worried that the film won’t make it back.

Batman films have finally been able to grow up. At long last, we are able to see him as a flawed character that has to struggle to determine morality in a violent world, and deal with the harsh realities of human life, and I don’t think that’s going to go away. The reason it couldn’t stick around after this was somewhat achieved in 1992 with Batman Returns was merely an issue of timing. It was a good adult Batman movie but it was ahead of its time. At that point, Batman was the only game in town and if superhero movies were being made, McDonald’s and toy companies are going want in on that action. But since the superhore movie boom of last decade, that’s not a problem. Now that we have so many superhero film franchises, let the Happy Meals hook up with Spiderman or Green Lantern or someone more kid-friendly and let Batman push the envelope of what a superhero movie could be. Batman has always been one of the edgiest characters and allowing him to grow, mature and experiment is what will continue to push and improve this genre for viewers of any age.

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