Batman has been a comic book character for over 70 years, inspiring countless sidekicks, spin-offs, TV shows, movies and video games. With all this in mind, it comes as no surprise that stories with The Dark Knight have shifted in tone over time. We only need to take a look at the Batman series of the 1960’s to see how cheesy and camp those stories used to be, a far cry from the gothic and dark stories that we are presented with now. However, does a different tone equal better storytelling? Is there a way to capture both elements and still be a success?
When we examine Batman in live action, we delve into a world of promise and disappointment. As previously mentioned, Adam West’s lighthearted portrayal was in keeping with the general tone of the 60’s. Whether it was the colourful villains, the wacky ‘BAM’ text effects when someone gets punched or the aptly named ‘Batusi’ dance, the show had no trouble creating entertainment for the audience of the time. In that regard, it definitely achieved success and to this day it still holds up as pleasurable viewing. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that today’s audience would want a Batman show, or film to be made that way. Despite the traps that the Dynamic Duo manage to get in every episode, there still isn’t much tension in the story and Gotham appears to be a rather pleasant place to live, where the colourful villains seem rather like a nuisance when compared to their modern day counterparts.
The late 80’s through to the 90’s introduced a different type of Batman to the big screen. Tim Burton directed Batman and its sequel, Batman Returns, two movies that began to embrace the darker side of the iconic hero. Gotham is depicted as being more corrupt and undesirable than its 60’s counterpart. It is from these movies that society at large begins to associate Michael Keaton’s Batman with his moniker, ‘The Dark Knight’. Classic villains such as Joker, Catwoman and Penguin all get a chance to be reinvented. While some moments of their performances may induce cringe, they are in my opinion, very good attempts at foraying into the darker, unseemly nature of the Batman mythos. After Burton’s movies came Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, both of which were directed by Joel Schumacher. Val Kilmer portrayed Batman in the former and managed to do a good job at showing the struggle of co-existence between Bruce Wayne the man and Batman the symbol. George Clooney portrayed Batman in the latter and seemed to fit well with the playboy, public persona of Bruce Wayne. On the whole, the movies continued to run with the dark motif but we can see prime examples of the conflict between camp and gothic. For example, the questionable decision to include Bat-Nipples and Bat credit cards. The villains also have a role to play in the pivotal clash of tones. Jim Carrey, Tommy Lee Jones, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Uma Thurman succeed in delivering zany performances of the main antagonists. And yet, when we look back, we find ourselves shaking our heads at Mr Freeze’s ice puns. Even at the time of release, these movies did not get the reception that they would have hoped for, so it’s no wonder that films of their nature would not be well received today.
Fast forward to 2005 and we see the first entry in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Batman Begins. Christian Bale plays the titular character, showing us his travels across the world that made the man beneath the mask. Whilst people may criticise his use of ‘the Batman voice’, his performance of the character was well rounded and in keeping with what audiences would expect. With villains such as Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul, the movie managed to maintain its level of grounded reality. When Dark Knight came out in 2008, a film which is considered to be one of the best superhero movies of all time, audiences were more than happy to watch Batman go head to head against the Joker in a story that did not shy away from the philosophical implications and gritty reality of such characters. Batman refuses to cross the line and kill Joker, whilst also allowing the public to believe he is a bad man himself. The Joker is a self proclaimed agent of chaos who differs from the stereotypical villain who pines for wealth or world domination. To paraphrase Michael Caine’s Alfred, he simply wants to watch the world burn. Finally, The Dark Knight Rises rounds up the trilogy by displaying an out of practice Batman go up against physical powerhouse Bane, who the movie quickly establishes to be a ruthless combatant with a fearsome strategic mind. This is a much more serious portrayal compared to his role in Batman and Robin, where he was a mindless, grunting, muscle-bound henchman. Batman figuratively and literally rises out of the shadows in order to save the day at the end, which is in keeping with modern Batman stories where he can’t simply solve every problem with an arbitrary device from his utility belt.
And yet I feel like the balance hasn’t been struck properly. At least not in the movies. The TV show, Gotham, explores Jim Gordon’s days as a Detective before he becomes the Commissioner. It also shows Bruce’s journey from the day his parents are killed to the day he becomes Batman. The Gotham City that we are presented here is far darker than the one we see in the 1960’s Batman show. Corruption, poverty, petty crime and villainy all take centre stage as honest cop Jim Gordon attempts to fight them all. But the tone isn’t restrained to just the gothic. We see the early days of villains such as Penguin, Riddler and even Joker. The characters are shown to be psychologically disturbed while still holding onto some of that trademark campy quality that made them so entertaining in the 60’s.
Batman: The Brave and the Bold is a cartoon that has been criticised by some for being too lighthearted but the show did not shy away from having high stakes. The villains were colourful and used goofy gimmicks but it was believable that they were serious threats to either Gotham or the world. The tone of the show was refreshing in that it felt like you were watching a comic book come to life. Even in this day and age where there is often a desire for darker, more grounded comic book shows, I would definitely recommend it to people.
I hope that moving forward; studios are able to capture the right balance between camp and gothic. Given what we’ve seen so far about ‘The Batman’ starring Robert Pattinson, they’re certainly exploring other aspects of Batman e.g. his detective skills and early days in his career. I hope they also leave room to work in some appropriate levity for his dark world.