This is the second in a three part series covering the history of Batman which is an extension of my notes from a talk that I gave on Batman at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema at the time of The Dark Knight‘s release. Read Parts One and Three
In 1966 Batman was given a shot in the arm by the hit Pop Art inspired television series that is still iconic today. Starring Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin, as well as a wealth of guest stars including Caesar Romero, Frank Gorshin, Julie Newmar and even horror icon, Vincent Price, Batman was a show that was watched and treasured by adults and children alike. Bright colours and Dutch angles peppered the show, as well as the thunderous and vivid onomatopoeic cries of “Pow”, “Bam” and “Biff.”
While not overtly true to the original comic book origins, this interpretation of Batman maintained his existence, and would help the persona persevere into the 1970s. Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams transported the caped crusader back into the real world and helped to construct even more iconic scoundrels for our hero to battle – including Ras Al Ghul – who would go on to play an integral part in Christopher Nolan’s franchise re-boot, Batman Begins.
The 1980s saw Batman become a sinister, ominous character once more. Frank Miller’s seminal work of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, as well as Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke portrayed a grittier Batman and gave an origin tale for the Joker.
Over the years directors such as Ivan Reitman and Joe Dante took turns at developing a Batman feature, but nobody could achieve the appropriate tone or plot. Actors such as Bill Murray, Charlie Sheen and even future James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan, were considered for the role, but with no feasible script and a non-existent director, it looked like Batman might not make it on to the big screen.
In 1988 director Tim Burton was working on his second feature, Beetlejuice, at Warner Bros, when the director was offered a Batman film. For the first time in a decade, the project gathered real momentum. Bringing along his Beetlejuice star Michael Keaton, Burton’s Batman was the first appropriate big-screen incarnation of The Dark Knight. Furthermore, Jack Nicholson’s legendary Joker seized the limelight, but Keaton’s Batman/Bruce Wayne persona came under a lot of fire even before a trailer was cut. Fans bombarded Warner Bros with letters of protest in the belief that the actor (who was best known for his comic performances) would deliver a character who was similar to Adam West’s crime fighter. After a trailer was rush released for a comic convention to soothe fans’ worries, Batman media hype went into overdrive.
The film was a huge success, and Warner Bros, sought a sequel – giving Burton carte blanche and a phenomenal $80 million budget. What he delivered has to be one of the most astounding summer-blockbusters ever made: grotesque to the extreme, Burton’s Batman Returns was a German expressionist horror with a McDonald’s tie-in. Parent groups and promotional partners were horrified at Danny DeVito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s PVC clad Catwoman. Whilst not a strict Batman film in the traditional sense, it is a splendid comic book film in the tradition of Bizarro, or Elseworlds series. The cinematography and the breathtaking Germanic sets, coupled with the wintry setting and haunting Danny Elfman score, make Batman Returns a feast for eyes and ears.