A Brief Screen History of Batman

A look back at the iconic Batman

by Randy Krinsky

He’s been around for generations, known by many names, “Caped Crusader,” “The Dark Knight,” “World’s Greatest Detective,” but most know him as Batman. He’s the fictional superhero guardian of Gotham City made famous by DC Comics, and he’s a pop culture icon, instantly recognizable around the world.

Originally created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, Batman made his first appearance in a teaser in Action Comics #12 (May 1939), which announced his debut in the coming Detective Comics #27 (May 1939). Originally named “The Bat-Man,” his creation was prompted by the success of Superman and the need for more superheroes to fill the pages of the comic book division of National Publications (soon to be known as DC Comics).
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The story according to Bill Finger, as remembered in The Steranko History of Comics, Vol. 1, “I went over to Kane’s, and he had drawn a character who looked very much like Superman with kind … reddish tights, I believe, with boots … no gloves, no gauntlets … with a small domino mask, swinging on a rope. He had two stiff wings that were sticking out, looking like bat wings. And under it was a big sign … BATMAN.” Together, Kane and Finger developed the idea further, adding a cowl in place of the mask, a cape instead of wings, removing the red from the costume, and giving him gloves. It was Finger who came up with his alter-ego Bruce Wayne, drawing inspiration from the Scottish warrior king, Robert the Bruce, saying, “Bruce, being a playboy, was a man of gentry. I searched for a name that would suggest colonialism. I tried Adams, Hancock … then I thought of Mad Anthony Wayne.” Bruce Wayne, American billionaire, industrialist, and philanthropist was born.

Using contemporary 1930s popular culture as inspiration, they further developed Batman’s iconic look, values and weaponry, by cleaving details from other pulp fiction, comics, and newspapers. Bruce Wayne would be an aristocrat in public and hero in secret, performing his deeds as his alter-ego Batman. As an added touch, Finger likened Batman to other pulp fiction heroes, Dick Tracy, Doc Savage, and The Shadow, by making him a skilled detective.
Detective-27

With a tragic backstory of being the child witness to his parents’ murder, he has sworn an oath to fight evil. Without possessing superpowers, he instead trains himself to the peak of physical and mental perfection, using his superior intellect, unbreakable will, investigative skills, vast wealth and technology to wage his war against crime.

There have been various incarnations of Batman throughout the years, from the pages of the comic books to newspaper strips, books, radio shows, television series, and as well as theatrical feature films. Along with Superman and Marvel’s Captain America, Batman is possibly one of the longest running characters continuously portrayed in media.
Lewis-Wilson-1943

After his 1939 debut, it took only four years before the character was adapted into a 15-part theatrical serial, Batman, produced by Columbia Pictures in 1943. Lewis Wilson became the first actor to portray Batman on screen. The serial quickly became popular with viewers though bemoaned by critics. A particular point of contention was the casting of Wilson as the titular character. Critics found his physique wasn’t muscular enough and that his voice was too high. They ridiculed the costume as unconvincing and baggy. Nonetheless, the viewers loved it and comic writers adapted some of the film elements into storylines, such as the use of the Bat Cave, or that its entrance was through the grandfather clock in Wayne Manor. Additionally, up to that point the comic depicted Alfred Pennyworth, Wayne’s loyal butler, as rather overweight. This was quickly changed to reflect the svelte physique and distinguished look of actor William Austin as he portrayed Alfred in the serial.

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Beginning in 1945, Batman made occasional guest appearances on “The Adventures of Superman” radio serial that ran from 1940-1951. According to author Les Daniels, Batman, voiced by actor Stacy Harris, would be brought in as a backup character whenever Superman voice actor Bud Collyer needed some time off. However, it wouldn’t be long before Batman returned to the screen.

Robert-Lowery-1949

With the commercial success of the original serial, another was produced, Batman and Robin, and released in 1949. Actor Robert Lowery took over the role of the Batman, and featured Johnny Duncan as Robin, Jane Adams as Vicki Vale and Lyle Talbot as Commissioner Gordon. Though shot on an extremely low budget, with plot holes, goofs, and production design errors, the 1949 serial was again very popular and helped make the character of Batman known in millions of households where no one ever bought a comic book.

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Batman and Robin was re-released in 1965, retitled An Evening with Batman and Robin, and was widely received, with its success directly inspiring DC Comics to broker a deal with ABC Television to produce the popular action-comedy series, “Batman.”

Adam-West

The brainchild of creator/executive producer William Dozier, the show premiered on January 12, 1966. It was full of camp and humor and quickly became a pop culture sensation. Dozier supplied the iconic voice of the narrator, uncredited, for the entire series run. “Batman” ran for 120 episodes, airing in homes twice weekly for its first two seasons and then weekly for the third, with its final episode being aired on March 14, 1968. For the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, Dozier was torn between two actors, Adam West and Lyle Waggoner. Reportedly, West eventually won the role because he was the one who deliver the campy dialogue with a straight face. Waggoner went on to fame as both a cast member of “The Carol Burnett Show,” and then as Col. Steve Trevor in “Wonder Woman.” Cast alongside West, was Burt Ward as Dick Grayson/Robin, Alan Napier as Alfred, Neil Hamilton as Commissioner Gordon, and, in the third season, Yvonne Craig as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl. The series maintained a steady cast of impressive actors portraying the villains pitted against our caped heroes. There was Cesar Romero as The Joker, Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, Frank Gorshin (Season 1 & 3) and John Astin (Season 2) both portraying The Riddler, Julie Newmar (Season 1 & 2) and Eartha Kitt (Season 3) as Catwoman, Eli Wallach as Mr. Freeze, Vincent Price as Egghead, and, my old personal friend, June Wilkinson as Evelina, among many guest stars.

To capitalize on its initial success, immediately after filming the first season, the cast and crew dived into producing a theatrical film, Batman (1966). Most of the cast from the series appeared in the film, with only one notable change, Lee Meriwether, a former Miss America, taking over for Julie Newmar as Catwoman. The film premiered at the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas, on July 30, 1966, and opened to favorable reviews. Most critics got the tongue-in-cheek nature of the film and readily admitted that all the actors genuinely looked like they were having fun making the film.

Near the end of the third season of the show, ratings were dropping and ABC cancelled the series. However, the 1960s pop culture saturation of everything Batman had cemented the character as an icon that, that despite a slight slump in popularity in the 1970s, would never fade away. Animated television series featuring Batman sprang up throughout the late 1960s, on through the 1980s, and into the present. He was becoming more popular than ever.

By the late 1970s, plans were in development to bring a big budget Batman to the theatrical screen.  In October 1979, acclaimed comic book collector/educator Michael Uslan and former MGM studio executive Benjamin Melniker purchased the film rights for Batman from DC Comics. The pair hoped to make the definitive version of Batman, dark, serious, and moody. They unsuccessfully pitched their ideas to various film studios, like United Artists and Columbia, but were turned away because studios were still clinging to the campy 1960s version of the character.

Uslan wrote a script for a prospective project entitled Return of the Batman to better illustrate his future vision. The dark tone of this script was used as the base when, in November 1979, producers Jon Peters and Peter Gruber signed on to the project. Together, the four producers decided to arrange their film’s development similar to that of the recently released Superman (1978). The project was pitched to Universal Pictures and subsequently refused. A last ditch effort was made and a pitch was made to Warner Brothers – accepted! Uslan and Melniker have been involved as producers in every feature film, and some animated series, featuring Batman ever since.

In 1983, Warner Brothers brought in acclaimed James Bond screenwriter, Tom Mankiewicz to rewrite the script, titled Batman. This new story focused on the origins of Batman and Robin, with the Joker and crime boss Rupert Thorne as the villains, and Silver St. Cloud as the love interest. Reportedly, Mankiewicz took inspiration from Steve Englehart’s limited series “Batman: Strange Apparition.” Marshall Rogers, who was Englehart’s artist on the run, even joined the film as concept artist. Later that year, the film was announced with a budget of $20 million and a mid-1985 release date.

From that point, nine writers were each brought in and nine separate rewrites were done, with a number of different filmmakers briefly attached to the script, including Joe Dante and Ivan Reitman.  Eventually, Warner Brothers hired Tim Burton to direct the film, who immediately had his then-girlfriend Julie Hickson help him write a completely new 30-page treatment.

The success of Frank Miller’s 1986 limited series “The Dark Knight Returns” and its moody atmosphere help to effectively cement the transition from Batman’s previous campy incarnation. Burton, who by all accounts is no comic book fan, has said that he was impressed by the dark and gritty tone found in Miller’s work. This only helped to galvanize support for the film adaptation. Warner Brothers brought in Steve Englehart to write yet another treatment in March 1986.

Soon, Burton tapped comic book fan Sam Hamm to try to write a screenplay. Opting out of the origin story, Hamm’s depiction used flashbacks as a more suitable way to offer up the origins of our characters. He replaced Silver St. Cloud with Vicki Vale, and Rupert Thorne with an original character, Carl Grissom. His screenplay was completed in October 1986. This version of the film was given the greenlight to enter pre-production in April 1988.

Agreeing with Mankiewicz that an unknown actor be cast for the lead role, Burton was pressured by Warner Brothers to consider some of Hollywood’s top stars. Kevin Costner, Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Tom Selleck and Dennis Quaid are among those considered for the role of Batman. Burton offered the role to Pierce Brosnan, who had no interest in playing a comic book character. He offered an audition to Ray Liotta, who declined, and even considered Willem Dafoe early in development. It was reportedly producer Jon Peters who suggested Michael Keaton for the role, citing a tormented quality that was brought out in his dramatic performance in Clean and Sober (1988). Having directed Keaton in smash hit Beetlejuice, Burton agreed.

Once it became known that Michael Keaton had been cast as Batman, comic book fans were up in arms and Warner Bros. offices reported receiving over 50,000 protest letters. Batman co-creator Bob Kane, as well as Michael Uslan and Sam Hamm openly questioned the casting choice. Given his comedic background, executives questioned the tone of the film with Keaton in the lead role. Reportedly, Keaton was looking to remain true to the character and studied “The Dark Knight Returns” for inspiration.

Tim Burton further tried to solidify this incarnation of Batman as distinctly different from the campy 1960s version, more true to the dark, gritty version envisioned by Frank Miller. It was Burton who took Batman out of the grey and blue tights and outfitted him instead with black body armor. He agreed that Keaton voice the character with the now-definitive gravely whispered voice. This was a portrayal that heavily influenced the later Nolan trilogy.

When the film was released in 1989, it was a huge success. Not only was it the top-grossing film of the year, but also the first film to earn over $100 million in its first ten days of release. Production Designer Anton Furst and Peter Young won the Academy Award for Best Art Direction. Batman was a powerhouse of merchandising and featured dueling Danny Elfman and Prince soundtracks. This film showed Hollywood that fresh takes on established characters could be highly successful at the box office.

Kevin-Conroy-Anim

As a direct result of the film’s success, Warner Bros. began work on “Batman: The Animated Series.” It premiered in 1992 on the Fox television network. The series featured classically-trained actor Kevin Conroy in what has become his signature role as the voice of Batman. The series was celebrated for its mature tone and style when compared to previous superhero cartoons. The series won multiple Emmy Awards and led to animated films and spin-off television series, all of which featured Conroy as Batman and/or Bruce Wayne. In truth, “Batman: The Animated Series” kick-started the current DC animated universe, for which they all have Batman, to thank.

In addition to the animated series, Warner Bros. executives commenced work on producing the follow-up three sequels: Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997). Though initially hesitant, Burton returned for the first sequel, and along with him, Michael Keaton. Batman Returns was a financial success but failed to earn more than its predecessor, nor was it as well-received. This caused the studio to change gears and try to make the film more appealing to a younger audience.

This change in direction spawned Batman Forever and consequently Batman & Robin. Joel Schumacher took over as director for both films. Keaton, not embracing the change, declined to reprise the role and was replaced with Val Kilmer. Chris O’Donnell was brought in to portray Robin, and Jim Carrey starred as The Riddler, with Tommy Lee Jones starring as Two-Face. The film was released on June 16, 1995, again a financial success, yet still failing to out-earn Batman, though it did earn more than Batman Returns. Though it was nominated for three Academy Awards, the film was still met with mixed to negative reviews.

Batman-Collage

With Schumacher undeterred, Warner Bros. pushed forward with Batman & Robin, fast-tracking the film for a June 1997 release. Due to a scheduling conflict with The Saint (1997), Kilmer did not return as was replaced by George Clooney. Arnold Schwarzenegger starred as Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy, and Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl, with O’Donnell reprising his role as Robin. The film finished shooting two weeks ahead of schedule and was released on June 20, 1997. Critically panned and loathed by audiences, the film was heavily criticized for its obvious gear towards merchandising and campy nature. Though financially considered a success it almost universally regarded as the worst superhero film ever (for more on that please see my article, “10 Worst Superhero Films of All-Time.”).

Batman-and-Robin

Believing Batman & Robin was going to be received as a cinematic masterpiece, a script was written by Mark Protosevich with plans in place for Joel Schumacher to direct a fourth sequel, Batman Triumphant. George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell were naturally going to reprise their roles. Triumphant was tentatively scheduled for a 1999 release. The resulting backlash from Batman & Robin caused Warner Bros. to cancel the film and place the film series on indefinite hiatus.

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Although Batman & Robin was quite the stinker and almost anything would’ve been better, the plans for Batman Triumphant sounded pretty good. That might have been the film that redeemed the franchise.  The Scarecrow would have been the main villain, with Jack Nicholson in a cameo as the Joker in a hallucination created by Scarecrow’s fear gas.  Harley Quinn would appear seeking revenge for Joker’s death.  The short list for the role of Scarecrow included Nicholas Cage, Steve Buscemi, Ewan McGregor and Jeff Goldblum.  Reportedly, Schumacher’s choice for Harley Quinn was Madonna. More rumors had Martin Short appearing as the Mad Hatter and Mark Linn-Baker as Man-Bat, with possibly Alicia Silverstone reprising her role as Batgirl, but who knows. The embarrassment that was Batman & Robin got this project scrapped with the whole franchise brought back down with talks of a reboot.

Warner Bros. decided to pursue options for a live-action “Batman Beyond” film as well as an adaptation of Frank Miller's “Batman: Year One”.  Neither of those projects worked out either. However, a reboot was performed and new life breathed into the franchise with Christopher Nolan’s trilogy; with some elements of the dead projects purportedly used in Batman Begins.  So all-in-all everything worked out for the best! (For more on these projects left in development limbo and how they ultimately led to Nolan’s trilogy, see my article, “Another 10 Comic Book Movies That Were Almost Made.”)

In 2005, fans finally got that reboot with Batman Begins. Directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Christian Bale as Batman, the film opened to mainly positive reviews and was a financial success (though it still couldn’t break the cash ceiling set by Burton’s Batman.) The sequel however, The Dark Knight (2008) was the film to see. It set the record for the highest grossing domestic opening weekend of all time, earning approximately $158 million, and became the fastest film to reach the $400 million mark in the film history. 2008 saw The Dark Knight end its run as the highest grossing film of the year and take its place on the all-time worldwide gross list. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, The Dark Knight won two, including Best Supporting Actor for Heath Ledger (awarded posthumously).

Dark-Knight-Movie

This film was Batman versus the Joker, plain and simple. Taking inspiration from the 1988 graphic novel, “Batman: The Killing Joke”, Nolan wrote a villain of pure evil and chaos that would prove to be Batman’s greatest challenge.  I would offer that this is not a standard superhero film, but a crime drama showcasing a truly demented villain that was superbly depicted by Heath Ledger; his chaotic and insane interpretation the product of intense method preparation.  Nolan has gone on record as saying that he added nothing to Ledger’s performance digitally allowing only the true essence of Heath’s performance to come through on film; a performance that rightly earned him his posthumous Academy Award. With Ledger’s intense performance, it couldn’t help but bring the acting of all the other actors who shared screen time up a notch.

This film succeeds on all levels and is pretty much the perfect sequel, setting a high standard for future incarnations. Its success demanded the franchise continue and it was eventually followed by another sequel, The Dark Knight Rises (2012). One of the few superhero movies to gross worldwide over a billion dollars, The Dark Knight Rises had a great story and was a fitting end for Nolan’s trilogy starring Christian Bale.  It’s basically a story of rediscovery for Bruce Wayne.  After having given up the cowl years before, he is forced to re-emerge to take on a new type of villain in Bain; whose superior skill and resolve breaks Batman, both physically and psychologically.  Wayne must again find what drove him to don the mask in the first place and save himself and Gotham City. Additionally, I adored Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle and the end-tease of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Blake being the erstwhile “Robin.” It really makes you wonder what kind of Batman would’ve encountered Henry Cavill’s Superman in Batman V Superman, had Bale accepted the ginormous deal they offered him to reprise his role.

Ultimately, Bale stepped away from the role and, in late 2013, Warner Bros. announced that Ben Affleck will be portraying Batman in the upcoming Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Many are optimistic that this new incarnation of the Caped Crusader will breathe new life into the character and keep it at the top of pop culture for a new generation. Although, that’s the beauty of these Batman films, each cinematic representation has been unique, with each actor bringing their diverse talents to the role. Will Ben Affleck’s portrayal be any different? I, for one, am looking forward to the upcoming Affleck years, long may they be (after all, Affleck was the bomb in Phantoms, yo!).
Ben-Affleck

While it may be true that the action sub-genre of superhero movies broke wide open with the release of Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000, I would say that I’ve shown that the legacy of Batman on-screen has a foundation that was laid generations ago. Only four years after his comic debut in 1939, we had Lewis Wilson donning the cowl on the silver screen to the amazement of viewers. The character’s popularity has almost never waned. In 2014, we even saw the character’s proud return to live-action television in the form of 12-year old Bruce Wayne, portrayed by David Mazouz, in Fox’s “Gotham. I wonder if Bob Kane and Bill Finger knew all those years ago what an iconic figure their creation would become? Batman’s longevity will continue and I’m sure that once Ben Affleck’s tenure in the cape comes to an end, we’ll see a new generation be introduced to Batman. When that happens, years from now, us old-timers will smile in their young discovery. We’ll smile and remember all the great incarnations of Batman that came before; each one unique; each one perfect for their time. Born of tragedy, living for justice, Batman isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Bat-Signal

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