The Rise of the Dark Knight
Batman is undoubtedly one of the most popular superheroes out there, but how much do you really know about his evolution and inception? Read on to find out
I can't be the only person delighted by the news that Ben Affleck will not only star in a Batman movie but also direct it. In my mind, Affleck's Batman in Batman v Superman, the recent DC movie, was one of the best. He successfully re-interpreted a character that has eluded so many other actors.
We know that the character Batman was created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger between the two World Wars. At that time, America was full of (now forgotten) super-heroes and crime fighting comic book characters. So, the first Batman story was merely a short tale in a publication called Detective Comics, dedicated to featuring various heroes.
In the original story, many of the elements that we now regard as integral to the Batman ethos were already present. He is a millionaire called Bruce Wayne, fights criminals using a secret identity, is a mysterious figure and only comes out at night.
Later writers added other elements, including the origin story in which Bruce Wayne's parents are killed by a mugger and how he resolved to fight crime as a means of avenging their deaths. And, over time, we got the Batcave, the Batmobile, Commissioner Gordon and all the other stuff that we now regard as part of the Batman ethos.
Batman Begins, the first in the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, that came out in 2005
Somewhere along the way, as Batman's popularity grew, the writers decided to make him less dark and mysterious. Inspired, perhaps by the success of Superman (much more popular than Batman in the early days), they decided to make the comic more wholesome with an appeal to younger readers. This led to the addition of Robin, the so-called Boy Wonder, as a regular in the comic book, so that kids (by then, the main audience for the comic) had somebody they could identify with. (Bizarre. Do you know any kid who wanted to be Robin? We all wanted to be Batman!)
That kid-friendly avatar of Batman and Robin lasted well into the 1980s. Two movie serials (low-budget and bad quality) were made for kids. And when the Batman TV show was launched in 1966, it was a children's show that adults only watched so that they could laugh at the absurdity of it all.
That's how Batman would have remained, had it not been for factors outside the world of DC Comics. By the 1980s, graphic novels had developed and were starting to get popular. These were long comic books directed at adults. They featured unreal characters (super-heroes, demons etc.) but gave them adult problems, which were dealt with in an adult tone.
DC Comics was unsure about how to handle these new arrivals. So a compromise was reached - DC would invite famous graphic novel artists to write one-offs using DC characters. But these books/novels would be outside the continuity of the normal comics and whatever happened to DC characters in these graphic novels would remain confined to books.
Many graphic novels featuring Batman were written but, by far, the most influential was The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. This was set in a future where Batman had retired and law and order had broken down. Bruce Wayne then donned his Batman mask and cape and became Batman once again.
Though the events of Miller's book did not affect the existing Batman comic, they forever altered the way in which writers and film directors saw Batman.
The first Tim Burton Batman movie, starring Michael Keaton, drew on elements of Miller's Batman to suggest that Bruce Wayne was nearly as messed up as the villains he fought. His Batman persona was a dark obsession.
Burton lost it a little with his second Batman instalment, Batman Returns, which was too adult and Danny DeVito's Penguin actually scared young audiences. Val Kilmer took over the role of Batman in Batman Forever, the third film series and, though he was good, the producers wrecked the movie by adding Robin. By the fourth Batman (Batman & Robin, starring George Clooney) it was all over - especially when they added Batgirl.
British director Christopher Nolan revived the franchise with a trilogy featuring a largely British-Irish cast (Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, etc.) and the films not only drew on the Frank Miller vision of Batman, they even appropriated his name, The Dark Knight.
Batman goes up against the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)
While the Nolan movies were good at capturing the genesis of Batman, they had run out of steam by the end when he, wisely, called it quits.
They are still remembered with great fondness and when Ben Affleck was cast in the Batman role for Batman v Superman, there were howls of protest.
Affleck proved, however, that the character could be rethought. Unlike Burton and Nolan, who wanted to show us the beginning of Batman, Affleck played an older Batman, weary after doing the same thing for 20 years (the Batman shown here is in his 40s.) This Batman has seen it all and done it all. Perhaps he has even seen the death of Robin (killed off by the Joker in the comic book). So he has no illusions, just a grim determination.
I am guessing that Affleck will portray Batman the same way in the next movie, closer to Miller's Dark Knight than ever before.
If so, it will be an acknowledgement that after all these years, audiences are ready for a more mature Batman. They don't really want to see the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents on the screen yet again. They want a superhero who can create new experiences.
Let's wait and see.