The Many Faces of Batman

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Matt Mallinson

Matt is an aspiring journalist and self confessed nerd. In addition to comics, he has a great love of film, video games and TV, particularly Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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Novels have been adapted into films for many years now, with a successful mass-market book inevitably being adapted into a film in many cases. Comic books are generally adapted very differently from novels, with adaptations only using characters and certain plot devices as opposed to adapting them outright.

Batman is one of the most popular comic book heroes and has appeared in thousands of comics since his first appearance in 1939. His origin has been portrayed in different ways, with four different Robins and vastly varying representations of his antagonists, such as the Joker and Two Face. To succeed, a Batman film has to adapt the characters and villains in such a way that they are true to the comics, while bringing new life and direction to a well known and somewhat predictable story arc.

One of the earliest adaptations of Batman, and one of the most well known, sees Adam West starring in the  Batman TV series (1966-1968). The series is remembered for its bright kitsch value and generally camp atmosphere. However, it can be argued that while the series doesn’t portray the original incarnation of Batman, it can be said that it matched the attitudes of comics at the time, which featured often outlandish plots and had lost much of its seriousness since the introduction of Robin. Despite this, due to the fact that the series doesn’t capture the essence of the original, it is often cited as a terrible adaptation of the comics by fans and directors alike.

However, the series was incredibly popular at the time with criticisms of its camp nature only coming later in the wake of the ‘darker’ Batman projects. The style of the show can be attributed to the time it was made, as in the sixties zany comedies were very popular. The more recent versions of Batman probably reflect the mood of our age, with a liking for angst over camp. The idea of Gotham City as a near paradise in the Adam West series has transformed across the adaptations to the hell-hole that is Gotham in the Nolan franchise.

Tim Burton’s Batman is a far better adaptation of the comics, but it does take certain liberties with established facts. Batman is portrayed as a thin man who wears artificial muscle and needs his suit to be powerful, whereas in the comics Batman is portrayed as a highly muscular athlete with incredible training. The Joker is made into the killer of Bruce’s parents, whereas in the comics it is a petty criminal. Batman also kills his nemesis The Joker which breaks his one rule – that he will never kill. Killing the man who killed his parents allows Batman to have some sort of catharsis, whereas the original intention of the killer being a petty criminal is that he never can pursue adequate revenge. While the film takes liberties with the mythology, it does capture the mood of the comics at the time. The Batman comics aren’t as realistic as the world of Batman Begins where Batman commonly communicates with aliens and characters like Superman. His villains are also very other-worldly, with even his more realistic villains like The Joker having strange origins. As such, the world of Tim Burton’s Batman could be said to be a better, skewed adaptation.

The sequels to the 1989 Batman were seen as far closer to the Adam West TV series. While Batman Returns was not as critiqued as the Schumacher films, it definitely embraces the camp far more than the first film through the villain of the penguin – who has an army of penguins at his command. It was also far darker than its predecessor in many ways, especially the portrayal of Batman and Catwoman. Catwoman is portrayed as a villainous character but in the comics is more of an anti-hero, more likely to join Batman and only fighting him when he gets in her way or she believes he’s in the wrong. These elements don’t mix too well, with scenes jumping from darkness to comedy at seemingly random intervals.

With Batman Returns being deemed too dark by the studios and some members of the public, Tim Burton was pulled off a second sequel and Joel Schumacher was brought in. He first made Batman Forever which makes many mistakes that bring it far more in line with the 1960s TV series. The film was lighter and funnier than the usual trade. The gothic atmosphere and noir style from Burton’s films were replaced with bright colours and fast-paced action. A teenage Robin was brought in to make the film more accessible for children. And in one of the weirdest fashion choices of all time, nipples were added to the costumes, apparently to give the characters God-like appearances – instead they are just laughable. While a lesser film than the first two, it’s not quite as off-puttingly camp as the movie that followed.

Batman & Robin took these elements and amplified them. As well as nipples the costumes now had enlarged codpieces, to emphasise the crotch. Many close-ups showed the heroes’ butts and crotches, raising controversy as Schumacher inserted homo-erotic elements into a children’s franchise, cited by critics as a result of Schumacher’s own sexuality. Out of the film’s three villains Poison Ivy and Mr Freeze in some ways match their comic book counterparts, having the same motives but lacking much of their personality. The villain of Bane however, is turned from a super-powered genius to a mindless thug. The movie as a whole lacked the darkness of even the film released previously, and was seen by many as a vehicle to sell toys to children. At the time Batman & Robin was believed to have killed the Batman franchise, with another film not surfacing for eight years.

Another example is Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) which was created shortly after Batman Returns, essentially being set in the same universe. The series’ portrayal of Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne was especially well praised. In particular Bruce Wayne was portrayed as a real person that was committed to his job as opposed to the fumbling façade that the films and comics had previously shown him as. This TV series actually had quite an effect on the comic book series. The Joker’s girlfriend and side-kick Harley Quinn proved so popular that she was carried over into the comics. The series recreated Mr Freeze as a sympathetic character that became a villain in an attempt to save his wife, an angle the comics then copied as an origin story. However, as it was still a children’s TV show it wasn’t entirely dark. This series is seen as a high benchmark for adaptations of Batman and is definitely a far better interpretation of the comics than Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.

The most recent Batman films take into account the failure of Schumacher to set the right tone for his films, presenting a Batman franchise far more realistic than any seen before. Villains aren’t created from falling into vats of acid, gadgets are believable and the Batmobile is essentially a tank. The new films adapt the comics very well, in several ways Batman Begins being a close adaptation of the comic Batman: Year One. Both tell the story of Batman training to be the hero he will become, taking on the mob and developing a friendship with Detective Gordon, a key character in the comics who was often made into a minor character or totally ignored in past films. One key difference is that it takes the mob villains from the comic and turns them into pawns of two slightly lesser-known villains Ra’s al Ghul and The Scarecrow, who are terrorists trying to destroy Gotham City. The characterisation of Batman is suitably dark and conflicted to match that of his comic book counterpart. It also restores the idea that Bruce’s parents were killed by a random thug and that no matter what he does he’ll never be able to get over his parents’ deaths.

The film’s sequel The Dark Knight expanded on the previous film’s ideas of a realistic Batman while introducing the most well-known Batman villain, The Joker. Despite differences in origin, in the comics The Joker gains his trademark look from falling into chemicals. In the film however he wears make-up, dyes his hair, and has his smile cut into his skin, but The Joker’s trademark insanity remains. The majority of commentators agreed that Heath Ledger is not only the best Joker ever to take on the role, but also one of the gloomiest villains in the history of film. The popular comic The Killing Joke is used as the basis for much of the plot, exploring the comic’s theme of one very bad day being all it takes to drive a man to madness. The darkness of Batman is explored to great detail with him being pushed to the brink by Joker’s tactics, but still not breaking his one rule.

The final film in the Dark Knight trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, explores the theme of how far Bruce would go to protect his city. The film doesn’t actually focus too strongly on Batman, featuring Bruce as himself for much of the runtime, a relief for many who dislike the voice Bale puts on as the character. The film’s villain Bane is one of Batman’s most powerful and calculating enemies in the comics. This is handled well here, a vast improvement on his previous portrayal in Batman & Robin where he was a simple minion. Adapted from Batman: Knightfall in which Bane breaks Batman’s spine and then takes over the city in his absence, Bruce has to overcome his injury to defeat the villain and save the town. The adaptation also draws on my personal favourite Batman story The Dark Knight Returns in which Batman has retired, leaving Gotham to fall into darkness. His return sees him save the city in much the same manner. Catwoman is introduced to Nolan’s franchise with this film, as the anti-hero we all love from the comics, and arguably the true highlight of the movie. We also finally get to see the film’s version of Robin, as a young man who Bruce trains to be his replacement.

While unfaithful to the style and technology of the comics, Nolan’s films are faithful to the characters, which for most readers is far more important. They portray the characters far better than previous films and capture the true essence of the Batman story – a man fighting to keep his city safe. Tim Burton’s films probably best captured the style of the comic books with their futuristic and unbelievable gadgets, which were later replaced by realistic gadgets for the Nolan films. There are many great films and TV shows based around Batman, all portraying him in a different light and cementing his position as a fictional icon across many genres.

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