Batman in film: The changing face of an ever-evolving franchise
The journey from camp 60s TV to darker 21st century incarnation
As Batman returns, once again, to the cinema, Hannah McGill looks back at a changing franchise that has evolved from camp 60s television to a darker 21st century incarnation
As Christian Bale makes ready to depart the Batcave, Andrew Garfield clings to multiplex walls as Spider-Man, and Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot Man of Steel prepares for a 2013 release, the turnover of reimagined big-screen superheroes appears bewilderingly swift. Meanwhile, attempted franchises featuring less iconic crimefighters – such as DC Comics’ Green Lantern, Marvel’s Daredevil and the antique radio character The Green Hornet – have stumbled of late. Familiar brand names being the shortcut into consumers’ base brains, it’s not hard to see why Hollywood studios favour intermittent regeneration of known characters over the risk of introducing obscure or brand new ones. Yet as we also know, the addled gnat brain of the modern information addict is wired for novelty, not long-term investment; as well as familiarity, it needs rapid change. (The consumer is in this regard not unlike a three-year-old child; and in the modern superhero movie, Hollywood has finally found a product that can, if honed right, satisfy both constituencies.) It’s also part of the grand tradition of the comic books from which most of our superheroes emanate that characters are fluid, subject to overhaul or reinvention – not just a visual makeover, but a whole new biography.
It seems a safe bet, therefore, that we can look forward to a near future of ever speedier superhero turnaround, with our Dark Knights, our Men of Steel and our Avengers more scrupulously tweaked and frequently relaunched than the Mac Operating System. The number of different Batmen one remembers could be adopted as a new measure of human longevity and life experience, like the rings inside a tree trunk: ‘Don’t try to get one over on me, sonny, I’m on my sixth Batman.’ Part of the reason Andrew Garfield always looks so skittish must be that lined up behind him are muscular but slightly offbeat-looking actors all ready to step into the role of Spider-Man if his take doesn’t take. And The Incredible Hulk is now being passed between mumbly, sensitive, built-but-bookish types – Eric Bana to Edward Norton to Mark Ruffalo – like it’s the baton in the Marlon Brando Memorial Relay Race.
It’s Batman who, to date, has undertaken the most dramatic shifts in onscreen portrayal – and the most variable resulting fortunes in terms of box office and credibility. Tim Burton’s 1989 film instilled a twist of hip darkness that had been absent from Batman’s campy 60s TV incarnation, and from the wholesome Superman movie franchise that had commenced in 1978. But its charisma, and that of its sequel, Batman Returns, rested with the villains and the visuals, not with the Dark Knight himself; Michael Keaton was a colourless and somewhat sour presence. (Now, of course, it’s hard to believe that Burton restrained himself from casting Johnny Depp in every role, Kind Hearts and Coronets-style.) Colour was certainly not lacking from the two sequels directed by Joel Schumacher, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, but credibility was. The Schumacher Batman films failed to strike the balance between spectacle and spoof; Val Kilmer, who reportedly accepted the role without reading the script when Keaton bowed out, didn’t seem to know what to do with the character, while George Clooney’s I’m-too-clever-for-this twinkle proved an ironic distance too far.
The next reboot was a major tonal shift, reflective of a general move away from the garish postmodern posturings of the 90s, and towards greater darkness and introspection. One might associate this change with the events of 11 September 2001 and their aftermath: an encroachment of paranoia, of fatalism, of sincerity. But it also had to do with a media-soaked generation resisting letting go of its childhood totems, and turning them – with the help of the internet’s onslaught of background detail – into adult obsessions. This in turn legitimised fancy film school graduate directors to make the films, in the earnest pretence that a) their lifelong investment in pop culture had been a sophisticated intellectual choice all along, and b) they were exploring the contemporary male psyche, not just chasing the mainstream megabucks. Thus was born the sad, serious superhero movie; a strange proposition, even in hands as skilled as Christopher Nolan’s, since it asks us to take seriously some very silly notions indeed. Somehow, however, this clash of style and content gave rise to a Batman who actually worked: Christian Bale’s gravel-voiced oddball successfully combined creepiness with cocky charm, and daft, overstated masculinity with enough vulnerability to undercut it.
Bale and Nolan look likely to walk away from the Batman franchise after The Dark Knight Rises, although both are playing never-say-never for now. Perhaps, indeed, they needn’t commit to ending it; the franchise could simply split into concurrent but alternative versions. Why not simultaneous but different Batmen, honed for various markets – tween Batman, hip hop Batman, Lena Dunham’s mumblecore Batman? A good myth, after all – like a well-equipped Batcave – contains the elements to create almost anything you want out of it.
The Dark Knight Rises is on general release from Fri 20 Jul.