Batman Through the Ages, 75 Years On

BatmanPart 1: Evolution of a superhero

Comic book geeks and at least one film studio celebrated a very special birthday this month, the 75th anniversary of the appearance of Batman in the May 1939 edition of Detective Comics. In this SSN series we’ll be looking at one of entertainment’s most enduring characters, from his history to the financial empire of his mythology.

Batman appears on the top of best superhero lists, even above the arguably better-known Superman, and today the dark, somber tone we associate with the Batman mythology 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 tortured origin.

The figures speak for themselves. Where Superman film Man Of Steel (2013) made $668m globally, the second films in Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight (2008) and the Dark Knight Rises (2012) each made over $1bn.

DC Comics publisher Jim Lee confirms the same success in print. “Batman’s actually been the best selling character in our entire industry in over a decade,” he says.

To explain why, entertainment industry consultant and analyst Rob Salkowitz calls Batman’s story ‘an incredibly simple, durable concept’. “He’s a crime victim seeking revenge with a character design for the ages and the best villains ever,” he says. “Creators can tell all kinds of stories in all kinds of media and the audience still basically knows what 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. “He’s not invulnerable: He’s a human being. And therein lies the appeal of the Batman: He is one of us.”

The shifting tone in Batman’s universe

Created by DC artist Bob Kane in collaboration with writer Bill Finger, Batman drew inspiration from the pulp fiction of the day as well as masked crime fighters like Zorro.

He was born into a very different world than ours, when comics were children’s products and the Hayes Code kept moral ambiguity 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.

He and Robin’s early days were a veritable parade of kitsch that showed the pair smiling as they handed crooks over to the police, selling war bonds, even waking up in the same bed and leading some to wonder decades later about an intentional gay subtext.

Since then, few characters from fiction (let alone comic book superheroes) have been more open to creative reinterpretation in aesthetic as well as character – just one aspect that’s gradually fallen away is the idea that Batman was a detective first and foremost, dedicated to fighting all crime. A common criticism of Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises was that after retiring for eight years, Batman (Christian Bale) only seems interested in political despots like Bane (Tom Hardy) rather than petty criminals.

When producer Bill Dozier and writer Lorenzo Semple Jr created the hit 1966 TV show that starred Adam West and Burt Ward and aired for two seasons, they amplified the cartoonish elements from the comics to all-out comedy proportions. 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.

It reached a creative high point in the big screen Batman: The Movie (1966), with Batman running all over a seaside pier hoping to throw a 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 the way and finally saying ‘some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!’.

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.

Director Tim Burton, seeing himself a similar outsider, agreed with the approach and adopted it for Batman’s first big screen appearance since the Dozier/Semple days with Batman (1989).

Despite the first Batman franchise devolving back towards the TV campiness 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 Kevin Smith describes 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-burgeoning comic book movie genre.

After over 70 years, Batman had gone from smiling do-gooders to emotional drama, to the point an actor portraying a comic book character (Heath Ledger as The Joker, in his final complete role) won an Oscar.

“It’s an editorial approach DC comics has had about superheroes decades,” says Jim Lee of DC Comics of Batman’s changing face. “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”

Batman’s World

One of Batman’s defining features has always been colorful criminal masterminds, and his many enemies in Gotham City are as crucial to the mythology and, unlike most superhero mythologies, just as well known as he is. As The Joker (Heath Ledger) hisses malevolently in The Dark Knight; ‘You complete me’

Though the most famous are those that featured in the 1966 TV series, the Batman universe has over a hundred villains, giving DC Comics a rich history to explore.

Another element that quickly became important in the comic books was a sidekick. As co-creator Bill Finger explained at the time; ‘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 as I went along Batman needed a Watson to talk to. That’s how Robin came to be.’

Kane added that Robin’s addition would give younger fans a character to identify with while older comic book readers identified with Batman himself.

All the elements have added up to a very lucrative picture for owner Warner Bros.

Part 2: Empire of the Bat

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.

The latest company to make a large bet is Warner Bros, owner of Batman comic publisher DC. After the success of Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel (2013) ($668,045,518 globally from its $225m budget), the studio started work on the inevitable sequel and announced Oscar winner Ben Affleck would star as Batman in the as-yet unnamed film.

“Batman is a known quantity and you can usually be sure DC has its top talent working on it,” says industry consultant and analyst Rob Salkowitz.

Prior to Man Of Steel things seemed grim for the company’s cinematic prospects after the lackluster critical and commercial performance of The Green Lantern ($219,851,172 globally from a $200m budget), the last standalone DC hero movie.

When subsequent news of Israeli model/actress Gal Gadot’s (Fast & the Furious franchise) casting as Wonder Woman broke, fans wondered if Warner Bros were planning the seemingly-inevitable Justice League movie, bringing the topline DC superheroes together like Marvel’s The Avengers had done.

Either way success on screens now seems assured for DC’s characters.

Batman, TV star

It wasn’t the first time Batman had saved a franchise or format. When producer Bill Dozier revived the character with screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr (1980’s Flash Gordon, Papillon, The Parallax View, 1976’s King Kong) for Fox TV, 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 writes, “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 now owns the characters) no doubt missing huge sales along with the success of both Tim Burton and Chris Nolan’s films.

Contracts for countless stars and guest stars, clearances for music, ownership by ABC (who aired the show) and even the rights to the Batmobile design have been a legal quagmire, but in June 2012 Variety reported a deal had been struck for the show itself and a whole range of products based on it. In January, Batman fan Conan O’Brien confirmed the DVD release of the whole series in 2014.

Batman, movie star

Profits from two serials released by Columbia in 1943 and 1949 are lost in time and profit from the 1966 theatrical outing of the TV series was moderately successful.

With the rich history of so many characters under its roof (following the 1989 merger of Warner Communications and Time, Inc), serious revenue began for Warner Bros when it hired hot director Tim Burton to bring Batman to the screen for a new generation.

Burton adhered to the twisted darkness of graphic novel work by Frank Miller and Alan Moore, and audiences agreed. The unmistakable burnished steel bat logo owned the summer of 1989, returning $411m worldwide ($251m domestically) from a $35m budget, plus an additional $750m worth of merchandise.

Burton went even darker in sequel Batman Returns (1989) but this time fans weren’t so impressed, returning only $266m ($162 domestically) from a budget more than twice its predecessor ($80m).

Producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters, who’d envisioned a vigilante action film full of quips and gadgets, got their wish by handing the reins to Joel Schumacher for Batman Forever (1995). It fared a little better with $336,529,144 globally ($184,031,112 domestically), but it cost $100m.

Batman & Robin (1997) was the universally hated final film in Batman’s first phase, Schumacher later saying his work was constantly assailed by lawyers, marketers and licensing executives poking into every corner of the production as they retrofitted the script by force to allow for more merchandising. Audiences saw the grasping hands all over it, not even doubling the $125m film’s budget with global box office of $238,207,122 ($107,325,195 domestically).

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 justice. Just as concerned with talented acting as special effects and grounding Batman in reality, Batman Begins (2005) returned $374,218,673 ($206,852,432) domestically from a $150m budget.

For the subsequent sequels, Warner Bros virtually wrote Nolan a blank check. 2008’s The Dark Knight earned $1,004,558,444 ($534,858,444 domestically) from a $185m budget, 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises earned $1,084,439,099 ($448,139,099 domestically) 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 values of first editions to million dollar-levels before new policies at the nation’s distributors and overstretched retailers 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 and the popularity of manga. 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.

According to Salkowitz, there’s been a general upswing since 2011 thanks to interest in the source material graphic novel behind TV’s The Walking Dead and DC’s New 52 series – essentially a reboot of every series and character. Among the titles that saw sales creep over 100,000 again were Batman and The Justice League. “The surging popularity of digital comics, which are now something like 15 percent of the retail market and up from 3 percent in 2010, also helped,” he adds.

But in 2014 – aside from temporary blips like Marvel’s 500,000-selling Amazing Spider-Man #1 in April – sales have been down from one month to the next throughout the first quarter, and Salkowitz warns that even though geek culture sits on top of the entertainment tree right now, studios ultimately follow the money. “Sooner or later, popular tastes change and comics could find themselves back as a subculture again overnight.”

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 Sony’s $200m superhero sequel. Zack Snyder’s Batman vs Superman/Man Of Steel 2 and the already-announced Justice League movie will undoubtedly generate similar spikes for DC.

But with everything from console games to TV binge-watching competing with the 80-year-old format, success in comic books will likely come through intellectual property ownership than publishing in the future.

Part 3: a Bat of Many Faces

Some characters or stories grow such cachet they break banks not just between media, but throughout culture. As Diane Nelson, president of DC Entertainment Studios, says, “The origin of Batman, Bruce Wayne and the famous citizens of Gotham are legendary and likely a story you know inside out, even if you’ve never picked up a comic book in your life.”

Born in Detective Comics No. 27 (May 1939), the comic book Batman was inspired by the masked avengers of literature and the dime store pulp dramas of the day – he originally had little remorse over killing crooks.

Familiar elements from the square jaw to the utility belt fell into place over the next year, and a two-page story in edition no. 33 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 1942, but rather than reflect the bleakness and suffering in the real world, DC Comics moved away from the darker elements in favour of fun and escapism, making Batman a respectable citizen and father figure.

15-episode theatrical sequels appeared in 1943 and 1949, more serious than the 1960’s TV series but 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.

Out of light comes darkness

Batman 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’).

ABC offered Batman to producer Bill Dozier and playwright Lorenzo Semple Jr (who died earlier this year aged 91) after the pair had worked on TV pilots together. “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 Papillon/Three Days of the Condor 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.”

Also aware of Batman’s dark side, Semple 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. “As for those who live comic books… you need say very little more to me about their intellectual tastes.”

Batman’s always had an inherent darkness, agrees DC publisher Jim Lee. “He’s more deeply rooted in reality and has a darker side. Even the Batman of 1939 stands out from all the other superheroes that were dressed in very bright costumes. He really fitted into the shadows.”

Those who’d always loved the conflicted soul at the heart of the mythology were vindicated in the 1980s 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).

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 aficianados after traditional book publishing and literary critics took notice.

The eras of DC on screen

Director Tim Burton saw Batman as a misfit and an outsider like Miller and Moore had done, dressing like a bat to fight crime thanks to near-psychosis rather than the pursuit of justice.

Audiences eventually rejected Burton’s aesthetic after the financially less successful sequel, Batman Returns (1992), and subsequent director Joel Schumacher eventually bought the franchise full circle, back to the one-liners and bat-trickery of the 1960s TV show. Even Batman & Robin (1997) star George Clooney admitted he’d killed a franchise.

It took another eight years, but Memento and The Prestige director Chris Nolan gave longtime Batman fans the vision they’d longed for. He retained Moore and Millers’ grim tones but used stark realism instead of the twisted, fantastical worlds of Burton and Schumacher, and Batman was catapulted back to the forefront of public consciousness with Batman Begins (2005).

Post-Nolan, Batman’s fiercest enemy won’t be with some larger-than-life tyrant but rival studio Marvel, and entertainment industry consultant and analyst Rob Salkowitz thinks it has the drop on him.

“[Marvel] waited a bit longer to get off the ground but approached it strategically, building up the Avengers franchise one film at a time to get the wheels turning,” he says. “DC’s been trying to make [character] Cyborg happen as a big-time concept for decades, but it’s all very contrived. That’s DC’s whole problem on the big screen in a nutshell.”

Salkowitz might be right – the first film in Marvel’s current production efforts, Blade (1998), arrived only a year after Batman & Robin tanked, giving the studio a decade to fully realise the value of screen superheroes thanks to 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), which made $$1.518bn ($623,357,910 domestically).

Warner Bros executives would likely have been looking on with envious eyes. 2011’s Ryan Reynolds-starrer The Green Lantern (a DC title) made only $219m globally ($116m domestically) from a $200m budget, and a Justice League movie featuring the topline DC characters under Australian director George Miller fell apart in January 2013.

Batman: phase three?

May 6, 2016 will be very important to Warner Bros as it releases Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel sequel – not that Disney is worried. As SSN said in our Disney studio series; “Consider the cojones Marvel displayed by announcing that they’ll release the third [Captain America] the same day as the Superman/Batman film in May 2016. Marvel and Disney doesn’t fear Warners and probably shouldn’t.”

But Warner Bros is certainly trying to catch up. In 2009 it set up DC Entertainment to re-engineer DC characters to other media. Next year it will move from New York to Warner Bros’ Burbank home in LA – a strong message that movies are where DC is at.

A picture of Ben Affleck as Batman stoked already frenzied interest online, and in April Warner Bros confirmed the long-mooted Justice League movie will follow, with Snyder directing.

Nor is the studio confining itself to big screens. Batman video games continue to rack up blockbuster sales and the origins of the characters will be further explored on the Fox series Gotham, premiering later this year.

Though late to the superhero party, Warner Bros seems intent on giving Marvel and Disney a run for their considerable money, and Batman will be a lynchpin in the company’s strategy – an honor certainly befitting a 75-year-old superhero.