As I have mentioned, my comic book universe of choice is Marvel. I have read far more Marvel comics than DC ones. So my first introduction to DC’s favorite superhero was through the movies/TV series. I have seen all the “Batman” movies and all the series (I think; I may have missed a cartoon series from the 60s.). Batman has two distinct styles – Darker and Edgier, and Lighter and Softer (please see www.tvtropes.com for a full explanation of these tropes). It seems contradictory one character can be portrayed in two opposing tropes. In my experience, fans tend to be vehemently one or the other (usually with younger fans absolutely aghast to think of Batman as anything but Darker and Edgier). I actually don’t mind either version, although mixing the two tropes is just a recipe for disaster.
Obviously, Lighter and Softer was prevelant mostly during the 50s and 60s. However, the comics themselves had taken a turn for the Lighter and Softer side so the TV shows (and movie) only reflected this, and I am to understand quite faithfully. There was a cartoon during that time with Robin being voiced by Casey Kasem (which must have made the Top 10 countdown especially surreal) and featured silly plots and a firm commitment to non-violent violence (i.e., Batman couldn’t even really hit a villain). The pinnacle of this style of Batman is of course the pun-tastic “Batman” show of the late 60s. There is a lot to snark about this show. Commissioner Gordon may be the most useless cop in the history of cops and Chief O’Hara is no better. I assume they just practice playing office golf all day in the Commissioner’s office and let Batman handle all the crimes. But for the most part it was pretty cleverly written, and, as I said, pun-tastic. Yes, the plots were silly but the characters were good. Frank Gorshin’s Riddler is, if you try to ignore the ridiculousness of the scheme, a bi-polar raging egomanic and really darn creepy (he is best viewed in his own episodes and not the movie). The various Catwomen have been ruthless and sexy. I distinctly remember one episode involving Julie Newmar’s Catwoman where Batman and Robin stumbled onto her plot very early in the show. Instead of some elaborate deathtrap, she just had them chucked out a window! Unfortunately there was a deus ex machina below the window.
Lighter and Softer got a very bad name in the 90s when some moron in the movie industry handed the Batman franchise over to a clueless director. Batman Forever was just not a good movie, but I did admire Jim Carrey’s attempt to channel Frank Gorshin’s Riddler (from the Adam West series). Then it got worse with Batman and Robin. It was campy but not camp-tastic. There was pretty much not one good thing about that movie and it had bat-gadgets stupider than Bat-Shark-Repellant. Lighter and Softer isn’t necessarily bad, but Lighter and Softer done badly is, well, bad. The best way to sum up this movie (if you haven’t seen it) is a quote from Adam West’s Batman movie – “Some days you just can’t rid of a bomb!”
But Lighter and Softer reached a new high point with the animated series “Batman: The Brave and the Bold.” It featured a lot of obscure, Silver Age characters, clever dialogue, more than a few puns, and some meta-humor (which I love). Batman was fun, but still completely bad-ass. My favorite episode was “Mayhem of the Music Meister” and I liked all the episodes with Bat-mite. As Ambush Bug told Bat-mite in the last episode (yes, they even had Ambush Bug), a character like Bat-mite can only be featured in a campy show, not in the dark and edgy upcoming Batman series. It had serious episodes too, such as when Batman went after Joe Chill for the murder of his parents and the sacrifice of B’wana Beast to save the world. Campy doesn’t mean there aren’t serious elements. Lighter and Softer done well is still done well.
And onto Darkier and Edgier. In the 1970s, Batman underwent an extreme makeover at the hands of legendary writer Frank Miller to become the brooding, almost anti-hero that is most commonly known. I have also seen the argument that Miller just brought Batman back to his pulp roots (the same ones that featured such a high body count Kane and Co. stopped the deaths so they could have recurring villains instead of having to constantly think of new ones). I’m not going into that debate. But it did spawn Tim Burton’s Batman, which was definitely Darker and Edgier, and also a little strange, but that’s Tim Burton. Say what you will about Michael Keaton as Batman, at least you could understand what the hell he was saying. Like Batman, the Joker has bounced between Lighter and Softer and Darkier and Edgier. In this case, Burton I think got a nice mix. He was a ruthless mobster, and dangerous, but not “Killing Joke” Joker. My favorite scene – “Bob, give me your gun.” Bob does so. Joker proceeds to kill Bob just because he’s annoyed his plans are being thwarted. Burton’s next movie was, to me, too Burton-esque and not Batman enough; however, it showed that just because Batman is Darker and Edgier, Darker and Edgier still has to be done well to be effective.
Burton’s Batman was the inspiration for the most excellent “Batman: the Animated Series.” I was introduced to Batman by Burton, but I was hooked on Batman by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. Animated or not, I don’t believe this show was really intended for children. The violence was pretty much bloodless, but there was plenty of it. B:TAS single-handedly revamped Mr. Freeze from a gimmicky flat mad scientist to a tortured soul trying to save his wife at great cost to himself. B:TAS also introduced Harley Quinn, Joker’s Girl Friday who proved to be so popular she jumped into the comic book universe. The series covered many major Batman characters and story arcs and managed to be dark without being too dark but also avoided watering down the source material (my familiarity with this series allowed me to see the twist ending in the latest movie). The characterization of the Joker pretty much came straight from Burton, but it worked in the series and the voice acting was spot-on (thank you Luke Skywalker). Actually, all the voice acting was really good, and frankly it is because Kevin Conroy was so good as Bruce Wayne/Batman that I find Christian Bale’s “gargling with marbles” Batman voice hard to take. Overall, my favorite non-comic book version of Batman.
In between B:TAS and B:TBATB were two series – “Batman Beyond” and “The Batman.” I watched both. “The Batman” was the worst, but even it was not bad. It simply didn’t have the mature take on the material that B:TAS did. I know many people hated “Batman Beyond” but I saw it as a logical “what-if” in the Bat-verse. I will say “Batman Beyond” could perhaps be seen as a mix between “Batman” and “Spider-man” in that the hero is a high school student learning to be Batman under the tutelage of an aged Bruce Wayne. But I still liked it.
Finally, the pinnacle of Darker and Edgier in cinema – Chris Nolan’s “Dark Knight Saga.” Nolan’s vision excels when he deals with psychology, themes, and metaphors. I thought the psychology was heavy-handed in the first movie, but just spot on in the second and third one as well. The story/character arc was well executed. Batman begins by overcoming his fear and hatred and suitably fighting the Scarecrow (a symbol of fear) and Ra’s al Ghul (a symbol of hatred). He becomes the dark knight by tempering his anger to fight against terrorism via chaos, with the Joker as the main villain. The dark knight rises by first falling prey to his own despair (he really just wants to die but doesn’t know how) and rising above his own issues to save his city from terrorism via facism, with Bane (an appropriate name) symbolizing his own self-loathing. I also like how Nolan tries to make the characters less cartoony (Burton kind of just went with that, but it worked with his cast). Scarecrow only wore the mask on certain occasions, Joker was insane and weird among criminals (and close to “Killing Joke” Joker), Bane was a fully human mercenary (no mention of the drug Venom that makes him super-strong in the comics), and Catwoman was a cat burglar stealing because she couldn’t find a way out of her life of crime (and in no way actually obsessed with cats or intentionally dressing as a cat). Throughout all of this, Nolan has been careful to show that Jim Gordon, at least, is equally a hero to Batman. He’s taken the hits, he lost his family, he’s nearly died in each movie, and he stayed to continue the work.
I do, however, have two issues with Nolan’s vision, which may be the result of trying to deal with such an overarching theme. First, and this isn’t his fault, is, as mentioned, Christian Bale’s Batman voice. It’s just like nails on chalkboard awful and worse makes it hard to take him seriously when you’re just waiting for someone to offer him a cough-drop. Unfortunately, that’s hard to help. The big con is a suspension of disbelief. Nolan is good at grounding his characters with some realism, but the narrative drama relies on what TvTropes, appropriately enough, dubs the “Batman Gambit.” Go to the website for a full explanation, but in short, “if there is any reasonable action the pawns could take that would ruin the entire scheme, then it’s a Batman Gambit.” The key to a Batman Gambit is not letting the pawns know there is any other reasonable action but the one the mastermind wants them to take. This is where Nolan fails. He does not always provide that key and for me as a movie-goer it’s a bit jarring to watch everything go down and then think to myself, “Hey! That wouldn’t happen for X, Y, and Z reasons!” This, of course, totally wrecks my suspension of disbelief. And in the last one, the finale is the result of what must have been a years-long Batman Gambit involving at least dozens and possibly hundreds of pawns, which makes it really unlikely either that not a single pawn would have taken any other reasonable action or that the villains could have controlled all the pawns so effectively they never took any other reasonable action. The scheme is simply too big.
That said, I liked the series and thought it was well done. I know there is another “Batman” animated series in the works, which I will at least try out (I’m not keen on a “gun-toting Alfred”). And I am 90% certain that DC and Warner Brothers are going into pre-production for the “Batman” series reboot coming to a theater near you in 2017. Not that I’m bitter about that. Money-grubbing executives aside, I am a Batman fan. B:TAS is still my favorite non-comic portrayal, but B:TBATB ranks a close second.
From B:TBATB –
Bat-Mite: [Reading from a piece of paper] “Batman’s rich history allows him to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. To be sure, this is a lighter incarnation, but is certainly no less valid ad true to the character’s roots than the tortured avenger, crying out for mommy and daddy.”
From B:TAS –
Batman – I am vengeance! I am the night! I – am – BATMAN!