Batman at 80 : Moviehole looks back

The billionaire playboy who dons a cowl and fights crime at night has been through so many iterations during his history he’s become a one-man entertainment industry. Moviehole looks back on his decades of inspiring fans and filling the coffers of several companies in the process.


Part One – Evolution of a Superhero

Batman appears on the top of plenty of ‘best superhero’ lists, even above the arguably better-known Superman, and as we celebrate the 80th anniversary of his first appearance, the Batman effect has found its way to all corners of comic book (and comic book inspired) entertainment. No superhero is worth his or her salt without a dark and tortured origin.

For the longest time the figures about our love of Batman over all others seemed to speak for themselves. Where ”Man Of Steel” (2013) made US$668m globally, ”Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) $873m and ”Justice League” (2017) $657m, the second and third films in Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy, ”The Dark Knight” (2008) and ”The Dark Knight Rises” (2012) each made over $1bn.

More recent stabs by DC like ”Wonder Woman” (2017) at $821m and ”Aquaman” (2018) at a globe-shattering $1.14bn are challenging the conventional wisdom of Batman being the high water mark of DC spandex quality on the big screen, but we haven’t seen Matt Reeves’ forthcoming vision of him yet. Even in his original stomping ground of comics, Batman’s been the best-selling character in the company’s history for more than 15 years.

Why is Batman so successful? For starters, the concept is as simple as it is durable – he’s a crime victim himself seeking revenge with a character design for the ages and the best villains ever. Why else are we getting not one but two (so far) movies just about the origins of The Joker? Writers, artists and directors can tell all kinds of stories across media and as the audience, we still know the essential elements to expect.

“Batman is just a guy fighting mad men in makeup,” said the world’s most famous Batman fan, director Kevin Smith, in The Hollywood Reporter back when the character was celebrating 75 years. “He’s not invulnerable: He’s a human being. And therein lies the appeal of the Batman: He is one of us.”


Shifting tones

Created by DC artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger and first appearing in Detective Comics’ May 1939 issue, Batman drew inspiration from dime store pulp fiction of the day as well as masked crime fighters like Zorro.

He was born into a very different world than ours, one where comics were for kids and the Hayes Code kept moral ambiguity firmly off movie screens. Even the formative event in Bruce Wayne’s life – witnessing the murder of his parents by Gotham City street hood Joe Chill – was little-referenced, merely a catalyst for his quest for justice. A two-page story in edition 33 finally revealed Batman’s origin story, showing young Bruce Wayne promising to fight crime over his parents’ graves after witnessing their murder.

Batman got his own series in 1940 and the basic mythology is said to have been in place by about 1942, with familiar elements like the square jaw to the utility belt gradually falling into place. But rather than reflect the bleakness and suffering in the real world at the time, DC Comics moved away from the darker elements in favour of fun and escapism, making Batman a respectable citizen and father figure.

Another element that quickly became important in the comic books was a sidekick. As Bill Finger explained back in the 1940s; ‘Holmes had his Watson. The thing that bothered me was that Batman didn’t have anyone to talk to, and it got a little tiresome always having him thinking. I found that … Batman needed a Watson to talk to. That’s how Robin came to be.’

Kane added that Robin would give younger fans a character to identify with while older comic book readers identified with Batman himself. The pair’s early days were a veritable parade of kitsch that showed them smiling as they handed crooks over to the police, selling war bonds, even waking up in the same bed and leading some decades later to wonder about a barely-hidden gay subtext.

It remained light and cheery in the post-war economic boom, with the dynamic duo turned into aliens, meeting Bat-mite and wearing different colored costumes each night (‘The Rainbow Batman’).

Another defining feature of the name has always been his many colourful nemeses, crucial to the Batman mythology and, unlike in most superhero mythologies, just as well known as he is. As Heath Ledger as The Joker hisses malevolently in ”The Dark Knight”; ‘You complete me’. Though the most famous are those that featured in the 1966 TV series (Riddler, Joker, Penguin and Catwoman) the Batman universe has over 100 villains, giving DC a rich history to mine.

After the essential mythology was laid down, few characters from fiction, let alone comic book superheroes, have been more open to creative reinterpretation in aesthetic as well as character. He’s been in everything from dark, samurai-inspired anime like ”Batman: Gotham Knight” (2008) to gatling gun gag comedy (with some of the most jaw-dropping computer VFX ever crafted) in ”The Lego Movie” (2014).

One aspect that’s curiously fallen away is the idea that Batman was a detective first and foremost, dedicated to fighting all crime, not just interplanetary despots. One of the few criticisms of Chris Nolan’s ”The Dark Knight Rises” was that after being a recluse for eight years, Batman (Christian Bale) only seems interested in political despots like Bane (Tom Hardy) rather than petty criminals.

Zack Snyder’s DC movies dropped the pretense even more, making Ben Affleck’s Batman just another CGI soldier at war with a supernatural creature. Ironically considering it was such a stylised version, Tim Burton’s 1989 version retained some of Batman’s (Michael Keaton) old skill when he cracked the code behind The Joker’s (Jack Nicholson) plan to poison the citizens of Gotham City through knock-off beauty and grooming products.


High camp

But a man running around in a cape and tights fighting crime at night has always had an essentially silly air, and when producer Bill Dozier and writer Lorenzo Semple Jr created the hit 1966 TV show starring Adam West and Burt Ward which aired for two seasons, they amplified the cartoonish elements to all-out comedy. From Adam West’s deadpan manner and range of bat-accouterments to Burt Ward’s creative phraseology (‘Holy Fate Worse Than Death, Batman!’), Batman turned decidedly camp.

The approach reached a creative high point in the big screen ”Batman: The Movie” (1966), with Batman running to and fro on a seaside pier hoping to throw a lit bomb overboard, thwarted by a butane tank, a mother and baby, a pair of nuns, a two-man brass band and a family of ducklings in his path before finally exclaiming with exasperation ‘some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!’

“I thought it was a sensational idea,” Semple later said when Dozier showed him the comic. “I never doubted it would be enormous fun and a big success.” ABC liked the pilot script so much they ordered the entire series into production before even shooting it.

The writer happily acknowledged the comedy of the series later. “It never crossed my mind to do it any other way,” he told Starlog magazine in 1983. “The comic books were camp in themselves. They were treated totally straight, yet were deliciously absurd.”

Semple also didn’t hold back when he addressed the offence comic book fans took at his light-hearted treatment. “To think that comics books are a legitimate form of artistic expression is utter nonsense!” he told Starlog, words that would see him hunted down and lynched nowadays. “As for those who love comic books… you need say very little more to me about their intellectual tastes.”


Dark days ahead

A new generation of comic and graphic novel creators changed the outlook again in the 1980s, drawing on the dark psychology of Gotham City’s heroes and villains to make Batman a tortured vigilante fighting dangerous killers. Those who’s always loved the conflicted soul at the heart of the mythology were vindicated by the appearance of two seminal works in graphic novel lore, Frank Miller’s ”Batman: Year One” series (1987) and Alan Moore’s standalone title ”The Killing Joke” (1988).

Also chronicling the origins of police commissioner Jim Gordon and The Joker, Miller and Moore’s titles explored realism, grit and humanity and sat much better with many comics and graphic novels fans. ”The Killing Joke” (along with Moore’s other big title, 1986’s ”Watchmen”) was also crucial in gaining attention outside the world of comic aficionados after traditional book publishing and literary critics took notice.

Director Tim Burton, seeing himself an outsider like he saw in Batman, agreed with the approach and adopted it for the character’s first screen appearance since the Dozier/Semple days with ”Batman” (1989).

Despite the franchise ultimately devolving back towards the comedy of the series under director Joel Schumacher, it paved the way for Chris Nolan to further develop the serious brooding in the Batman legend. “To a country and world that had lost its innocence with the assassinations of JFK, RFK and MLK, the more somber Dark Knight Batman had a deeper impact than the Bright Knight that was the Adam West iteration of the character,” is how Smith described it.

The success Nolan enjoyed after reviving the character in ”Batman Begins” (2005) was so influential it made tortured origins the default posture in the then-exploding comic book movie genre. After more than 70 years, the world of Batman had evolved from smiling do-gooders and onscreen sound effect graphics (‘Zap! Pow!’) to gripping drama and twisted psychology – to the point an actor portraying a comic book character (Heath Ledger in his final complete role) won an Oscar.

“It’s an editorial approach DC comics has had about superheroes for decades,” DC Comics publisher Jim Lee said about Batman’s changing face for the 75th anniversary. “They’re always out there and timeless but we want them to be rooted in the time they’re read or viewed. It’s a testament to the strength of the character that he can be interpreted so many different ways”

It’s all added up to a very lucrative picture for owner Warner Bros, so we turn now to the billions Batman owns – in the real world.


Part Two – Empire of the Bat

Why few other characters in popular culture have had as much of an impact on its owners’ bottom lines.

The name ‘Batman’ could be a byword for the very model of an entertainment franchise. Batman characters have appeared in every conceivable media, reinvented for every new generation and prompting a new goldmine of profits every time.

Batman, his friends, enemies, vehicles and weapons have appeared everywhere from comics to movies, toys to lunchboxes and candy to hamburger wrappers. They’re in graphic novels for serious readers and first readers for four year olds.

Before James Wan and Patty Jenkins did with minor characters what Marvel had done with its own lesser known names, Batman seemed to be the only thing that made Warner Bros’ ownership of the company worth it.

Chris Nolan had left Batman behind to further stretch himself with original films like ”Inception”, ”Interstellar” and ”Dunkirk”. Before ”Man of Steel” things seemed especially grim for the company’s cinematic prospects after the lacklustre critical and commercial performance of ”The Green Lantern” ($219,851,172 globally from a $200m budget), the last standalone DC hero movie.

After the dour darkness of the DC movies under Zack Snyder, Warner Bros listened, and Patty Jenkins was no doubt tasked with giving ”Wonder Woman” (2017) some of the romantic swashbuckling, humour and sheer joy Marvel had by-then cornered the market in.

The approach worked, propelling Jenkins to the directing A list, star Gal Gadot to worldwide stardom after her biggest role (second fiddle love interest in the ”Fast & The Furious” movies) and paving the way to DC’s own cinematic universe that culminated in Justice League.

Fans mostly rejected Snyder’s over the top, emotionally leaden and VFX-heavy vision, but Warner/DC was quick to double down on Wonder Woman’s approach, giving Aquaman the same twinkle in its eye and giving the company at least one more lucrative topline character.

Success on screens now seems assured for DC’s characters and as always, Batman will be the one they keep coming back to.


Batman, TV star

Directors Tim Burton and Chris Nolan or stars Michael Keaton and Christian Bale weren’t the first ones to save Batman from obscurity and ignominy. When producer Bill Dozier revived the character with screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr (”Flash Gordon”, ”Papillon”, ”The Parallax View”, ”King Kong”) for Fox TV in the mid 1960s, they took a comical spin that proved a hit with kids around the world.

As star Adam West told The Hollywood Reporter, DC Comics didn’t like the camp iteration of their hero – until they saw comic book sales increase. “They began to love us,” West wrote, “as did the Japanese color TV manufacturers.”

A knot of legal ownership and license issues prevented the possibility of bringing the series to home video for decades, both Fox (who produced the show) and Warner Bros (who’s owned the characters since the 1989 merger of Warner Communications and Time, Inc) no doubt dreaming about the huge sales awaiting them.

Contracts for countless stars and guest stars, clearances for music, ownership by American network ABC (which aired the show and was acquired by Disney in the mid 90s) and even the rights to the Batmobile design were a legal quagmire, but in June 2012 a deal was finally struck for the show and a swath of products based on its designs and characters, and the DVD box set came out in March 2015.

Batman, movie star

15-episode theatrical sequels appeared in 1943 and 1949, precursors to the kind of serials that inspired the young George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Any records of their profits are lost in time, but even though they were more serious in tone than the 1960s series they were hobbled by extremely cheap production, rights tangles and standards of decency. The vigilantism of the story is absent, none of the iconic villains from the comics appear and both series are said to be outrageously racist.

The financial success of the 1966 theatrical outing of the TV series was moderately successful, but with so many characters under its roof, serious revenue began for Warner Bros when it hired director Tim Burton – newly hot off the success of Beetlejuice – to bring Batman to the screen for a new generation in the late 1980s.

Burton adhered to the twisted darkness of graphic novel work by Frank Miller and Alan Moore, and audiences agreed. The unmistakable bronzed steel bat logo owned the northern hemisphere summer of 1989, returning $411m worldwide from a $35m budget.

Burton went even darker in sequel ”Batman Returns” (1992) but this time fans weren’t so impressed, returning only $266m from a budget more than twice its predecessor at $80m.

Producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters had always envisioned a vigilante action romp full of quips and gadgets, and they constantly battled Burton’s insistence on his vision as a tortured misfit who dressed like a bat to fight crime thanks to near-psychosis rather than the pursuit of justice. They finally got their wish when they handed the reins to Joel Schumacher for ”Batman Forever” (1995). It fared a little better with $336m globally, but it cost $100m.

”Batman & Robin” (1997) was the universally hated final nail in the first modern Batman movie franchise, Schumacher later saying his work was constantly assailed by lawyers, marketers and licensing executives poking into every corner of the production, retrofitting the script by brute force to allow for more merchandising. Audiences saw grasping corporate hands all over it and turned their backs in droves, not even doubling the $125m film’s budget with global box office of $238m.

Schumacher had unwittingly bought the franchise full circle, back to the one-liners and bat-trickery of the 1960s TV show, with even star George Clooney admitting he’d killed a franchise.

Another big screen Batman seemed unlikely until British auteur Chris Nolan once again stripped the story back to the dark origins of a man driven by vengeance and rage. Just as concerned with talented acting and grounding Batman in reality as special effects, ”Batman Begins” (2005) returned $374m from a $150m budget.

It wasn’t the biggest selling movie ever, but the critical and audience response was so fawning Warner Bros virtually wrote Nolan a blank check for the subsequent sequels. 2008’s ”The Dark Knight” made $1.044bn from a $185m budget, 2012’s ”The Dark Knight Rises” $1.084 from a $250m budget.

His first home; comics

Ironically, the media that’s seen Batman’s fortunes seesaw the most is the one that invented him. 1990 saw a notorious boom that propelled the values of first editions to million dollar-levels before new policies at distributors and overstretched retailers in the US saw the industry crash dramatically.

Sales were strong again in the early to mid 2000s (though nowhere near where they had been), driven by bookstore sales of graphic novels made popular by the Japanese manga craze sweeping the Western World. Then – like many industries – comics took another dive when the global economy crashed in 2008. The loss of bookstore chain Borders was a particular blow.

The recovery years starting around 2010 saw a general upswing thanks to interest in the source material behind some high profile TV and movie projects like AMC’s ”The Walking Dead”. Among the titles that saw sales creep over 100,000 again were Batman and the Justice League, and the popularity of digital comics rose, comprising almost 15 percent of the retail market in 2010 and up from around three percent a few years earlier thanks to the tools that gave readers the means to better consume them like the Kindle and iPad.

But by 2014, aside from temporary blips like Marvel’s 500,000-selling Amazing Spider-Man #1, sales were sliding again, down from one month to the next for most of the year. Even though geek culture had established itself firmly at the top of the entertainment tree, it wasn’t necessarily reaching the devoted fringes and the media they loved.

But in today’s world, success in one media is advertising for another. The performance of ”The Amazing Spider-Man #1” can likely be attributed to awareness of ”The Amazing Spider-man 2” (2014) starring Andrew Garfield.

With everything from console games to TV binge-watching, comic books (or any other media) can be a loss leader or incidental income for movies, Happy Meals or a hundred other iterations of characters or stories. The box office revenue from Tim Burton’s 1989 outing was impressive enough, but it’s also said to have generated an additional $750m worth of associated merchandise.


A new bat world

Today, any new Batman story will arrive in a very different entertainment climate from the ones Kane and Finger, Dozier and Semple Jr, Burton or even Nolan knew.

After ”The Dark Knight Rises” (2012), Batman’s fiercest enemy wasn’t some larger-than-life tyrant but rival publisher/studio Marvel. Just a few years after ”Batman Begins” (2005), the newly minted Marvel Studios rolled the dice on Iron Man (2008), kick starting a 22 film series that’s culminating in the forthcoming ”Avengers: Endgame” and has earned almost $18.5bn since.

However much you believe the MCU was a happy accident inspired by Iron Man’s success, it sure looks like the company took its time to get up and running, approaching their IP strategically and building up a series carefully with a very long view. DC’s approach is more filmmaker-friendly than the iron grip over tone Marvel overlord Kevin Fiege maintains, but that makes it a little more slipshod, subject to changes in vision and tone between films that often feature the same characters.

The first film from Marvel’s modern production efforts – ”Blade” (1998) – arrived only a year after Batman & Robin (1997) tanked, giving the studio a decade to fully realise the value of screen superheroes with the success of ”Iron Man” (2008). A year later Disney agreed, paying $4.64b for the company.

By the time the ”Dark Knight” (2008) and ”The Dark Knight Rises” (2012) had become billion dollar films, Marvel’s cinematic universe was in full swing, culminating in ”The Avengers”’ (2012) $1.518bn haul and leading directly to the globe-stopping Avengers: Infinity War (2018), which is the fourth biggest movie of all time just behind ”Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015) at $2.068bn.

For most of the time since ”Iron Man”, Warner Bros executives have been looking across the street in Burbank at the Disney/Marvel office with envious eyes. 2011’s Ryan Reynolds-starrer ”The Green Lantern” failed financially, the first Justice League movie featuring the topline DC characters under ”Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) director George Miller fell apart in January 2013 and when Zack Snyder’s iteration of it finally hit screens in 2017, it’s was a critical dud and hardly lit the box office on fire at $657m.


Batman: phase three?

Today, Marvel owns comic book movies. When DC’s ”Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” got a May 6, 2016 release date Marvel barely batted an eyelid, shrugging and dating ‘‘Captain America: Civil War” for the exact same day (it almost doubled ”BvS: DOJ”’s global box office).

Warner Bros has spent most of the time since ”The Dark Knight Rises” trying to catch up. In 2009 it set up DC Entertainment to re-engineer DC characters to other media. In 2014 it moved the DC headquarters from New York to its Los Angeles lot, a clear sign it believed movies are where it’s at.

After ”Justice League”’s underperformance DC executives Diane Nelson and Geoff Johns both left the company – officially to take on an external producer role (Johns) and retire (Nelson), but with very suspicious timing in the face of what was revealing itself to be a failed attempt at a DC comic universe. Suicide Squad had performed well enough at the box office after massive excitement among moviegoers ($746m from a $175m budget), but it received a huge critical thumbs down just like Snyder’s movies had.

At the moment, things are up in the air for Warner Bros again. With renewed credibility thanks to ”Argo” (2012) and Gone Girl (2014), Ben Affleck seemed the perfect choice when it was announced in 2015 he’d not only star in but direct a new standalone Batman movie.

First the star pulled out of directing, saying he realised it was too big a job on top of acting in it, then in 2017 he announced he wouldn’t direct it either. Maybe, after the critical drubbing Synder’s vision had received, it was the perfect time to keep his head down and bow out quietly.

The announcement a few weeks later that Matt Reeves would direct was cause for plenty of excitement after what he did with the updated ”Planet of the Apes” trilogy, but ”The Batman” isn’t due until 2021.

For the time being, DC is betting big on ”Wonder Woman 1984” (May 2020) and ”Aquaman 2” (December 2022), so Batman isn’t the only jewel in the DC crown anymore. But with Batman video games continuing to rack up sales, a devoted fan base and great reviews for Fox TV’s ”Gotham” and the Ruby Rose-starring ”Batwoman” coming soon and generating a lot of heat, there’s plenty of life in the character yet – an accolade befitting an 80 year old superhero.

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