June 18, 2017
The Batman Dichotomy
From the campy portrayals to the dark and gritty representations, a brief history from Adam West to Ben Affleck.
Holy heartbreak Batman! Adam West died. While the older generations remember him for his iconic portrayal of the Caped Crusader in ABC’s late 60s TV show, the budding ones know him for the legend that built up around that role. Cameos in The Simpsons, Futurama, Johnny Bravo, The Fairy OddParents and his voice work in Family Guy and even Spongebob Squarepants helped preserve his status within pop culture while perpetuating some of its clichés too.
When the news broke last weekend, many personalities expressed their condolences: from fellow Batman Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill to Neil Gaiman. A recurring theme among the comments was the redemption of West’s Batman as a childhood hero and/or favorite embodiment of the Dark Knight, which is an interesting thing to admit in a decade that has distinguished itself for its serious takes on the Bat.
Rest in Peace Adam West. We met once in 1987 and I was too embarrassed and too foolishly “cool” to tell you what you meant to my childhood.
— Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) June 10, 2017
Both the show and Adam West’s portrayal are known — and often have been looked down — for their campy humor and light-heartedness and they have been the standard from which most of the subsequent representations of Bruce Wayne in film have tried to distance themselves. Even though the 1966 Batman was a success at the time and brought the world’s greatest detective to mainstream attention, there is a stigma that lingers in the less somber versions of Gotham’s vigilante.
However, Batman’s struggle between the cheerful and uplifting against the dark and brooding goes way back, even before the days of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
During the Silver Age of comic books, between the second half of the 50s and the early 60s, there was a controversy over the alleged link between comics and juvenile delinquency, which resulted in the implementation of the Comics Code Authority: a system that allowed/compelled publishers to regulate their content. This marked a change from Batman’s dark origins and influenced not only the tone of the 60s era comics but also the TV adaptation.
The Batman television series’ camp style, upbeat music, colorful onomatopoeias and light humor would become a trademark associated with the character years after the show’s cancellation. The program’s simplicity and black and white morals were directed mainly towards children and teenagers, while some of the perceived cheesiness can be attributed to the generational gap. Overall, 1966 Batman has distinctive flaws as well as commendable traits.
Yet, many people considered West’s Batman as a shameful low in the character’s history. Twenty years later, around the same time as comic book writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore worked to return the Caped Crusader to his dark roots with “The Dark Knight Returns” and “The Killing Joke” in the late 80s, Warner Brothers decided to produce a new film adaptation directed by Tim Burton, encouraged by the success of both graphic novels and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
The tone of Burton’s Batman was influenced by Moore’s and Miller’s works, which were darker portrayals of the character, with graphic sexual and violent content and greater moral complexity. Even though 1989 Batman was considered serious and grim, it kept some campy traits: the theatricality, some of Cesar Romero’s exaggerated mannerisms can be found in Jack Nicholson’s performance and the Prince soundtrack, which Edgar Wright deemed (un)worthy enough to be used as a disposable weapon during a zombie apocalypse. Nevertheless, it became the top-grossing film of the year and set the foundation of a merchandising empire.
Warner Brothers rode that wave and convinced Burton to make a sequel. Batman Returns hit theaters in 1992 and even though it had a positive reception, it was perceived as a darker and more violent take than its predecessor, despite its PG-13 rating. After Burton’s exit from the franchise and the parental backlash the movie faced for its violence and sexual references, the studio decided to continue with a third installment but with a more family-friendly approach. Enter Joel Schumacher.
In 1995, Batman Forever went back to square one, taking inspiration from Adam West’s Batman, and attempting to make the character and the story more accessible. The gothic and gloomy production design that characterized Burton’s vision of Gotham — and even awarded them Oscar nominations — was replaced with sleazy CGI (even by the standards of the decade) and along came the neon colors, the hard rubber suits, and the bat-nipples. Schumacher started treading the line between cheesy and tacky.
Yet, the last nail in the coffin was 1997 Batman & Robin, which sealed the Caped Crusader’s fate with tight shots of bat-butts and bat-crotches and bad one-liner puns, in a poorly executed version of the light humor of Adam West’s style.
Eight years later came Christopher Nolan and the Bat-naissance. In 2005, Batman Begins rebooted the character with a dark tone once again, but also with an approach that championed realism and focused on exploring Batman’s identity and motivations. Believable action and gadgets, along with storylines that alluded to current affairs such as terrorism and financial crisis, helped keep the narratives grounded. The trilogy peaked with The Dark Knight in 2008 and wrapped up in 2012 with The Dark Knight Rises.
Nolan’s take on the tormented millionaire not only added new layers of depth to Batman portrayals, but it also set a tone that could also end up stunting the character’s growth. While Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’s problems don’t stem solely from Zack Snyder’s dark and bleak angle, most of the time it does more harm than good. The brooding moodiness and aggressive tenacity of Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne fall apart after the whole Martha business and reveals, as Kevin Smith puts it, “a lack of understanding of what the characters are about”.
Throughout their history, Batman depictions in movies seem to be subjected to the dichotomy of light vs dark approaches. Serious, flawed Batman against heroic, fun Batman. A constant opposition between entertainment aimed at young audiences — which often underestimates them — and mature and intellectually complex content, as if they were inherent, mutually exclusive.
The Dark Knight has been everything under the black and white spectrum: from terrible comedy with Bat-credit cards to the good-hearted, Batusi dancing humor. Criminal branding Batfleck and gritty-voiced and ethically conflicted Christian Bale. Surprisingly, the Batman version that started embracing both worlds is Will Arnett’s Lego Batman: with all his heavy metal raping about darkness, the references to Adam West and the lesser-known gallery of rogues and the fourth-wall breaking.
For all their achievements and flaws, these portrayals allow us to construct, deconstruct and reconstruct the nature of a character that reflects his surrounding context as much as he is affected by it. Each iteration is a response to what has come before it and there is still much territory to chart. In the meantime, just remember: there is no shame in liking Adam West.