The return of the 1966 Adam West Batman to Aussie TV screens this week is a reminder that Batman used to actually be fun. He wasn't always a hero in the dark with a grimace under his mask. Batman was both the hero we wanted and the hero we deserved.
So, why did Batman get to be so dark? It feels that with every movie, he has become increasingly moody and at odds with the idea of a white hatted hero. The darkness that surrounds Batman has always enveloped the character, but has always varied in tone depending on the mood of the world around him.
Batman in the not-so funny books
Comics are a weird mix of soap opera and pulp adventure. Their long-running, serialised nature means you can see the direct link between the Batman of today and the original Batman of 1939.
This idea, generally referred to by comics readers as 'continuity', is essentially a way of saying that every story published about Batman has, in some way, happened to the character. It manages to elevate superhero fiction from its disposable roots into something more resembling the epic storytelling of mythological sagas.
It's especially the case with DC's stable of icons, from which we get Batman, and also the likes of Superman, Wonder Woman and that guy that can talk to fish. In many ways, these characters embody heroic archetypes, and are able to perpetuate even as times and sensibilities shift around them.
As a character, the campy Batman of the 1960s TV series is much the same as Christian Bale’s gravelly-voiced Dark Knight. It’s the world around him that’s twisted into a new shape, reflecting both the times in which they were made and the different expectations of the audience.
This mutability (also the multi-billion dollar industry and - greatest superpower of all - avoiding public domain) is key to the longevity of the superhero concept. It's gifted us with some wonderful takes on the character and more than a few stinkers as well. But ultimately, if Batman doesn’t dance anymore, it’s our fault. And here’s the proof...
Batman in pop art
In Batman ’66, as the show has come to be affectionately referred to, '60s drug culture, pop art, and the surreal all collided to give us a world where the most sensible thing was the man in a bat costume at the centre of it all. In the years since, Batman ’66 is mostly remembered as a weird curiosity.
That's especially true given the very grim and serious take on the character that’s come to define him since 1986 and Frank Miller’s comic book miniseries Dark Knight Returns. That incarnation of the Caped Crusader was a response (following a move back to a more detective-orientated comic in the 1970s) to the pastel coloured shadow the '60s television series had cast over the character. Batman, we were told, was very serious.
Batman meets the '80s
You’ll often hear Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman described as mature or dark. It’s really none of those things. Burton essentially layered his goth aesthetic over the campy ridiculousness of Batman ’66. This wasn’t Batman as the stiff in the centre of an LSD trip, it was Batman in a world of big shoulder pads, hysterical media, consumerism and bad cocaine.
With Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, Joel Schumacher would run with this interpretation and take it all the way to its natural conclusion: the very worst of '90s blockbuster filmmaking and rubber bat-nipples. Audiences hated it. A bat-credit card? This was too much like Batman dancing. Outrageous!
Batman gets super serious
After Batman & Robin, it fell quiet on the superhero movie front. When the genre exploded back into popularity following 2000’s X-Men and 2002’s Spider-Man, audiences were eager for another Batman, but one more true to the character. One without nipples. One that definitely didn’t dance.
That’s what we got in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Gone was the gothic wonder of Burton’s Gotham City, replaced with a grimy facsimile of a modern American city. Everyone praised the realness of a man in a bat costume fighting ninjas on a train.
However, in the same way that Tim Burton’s Batman had unconsciously captured the late '80s zeitgeist, so too did Nolan's sequel The Dark Knight tap into society’s post 9/11 anxieties, mining them for blockbuster box office takings. This was Batman in a world of surveillance, execution videos and moral grey areas.
Batman isn’t for kids anymore
With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan proved you can’t capture the zeitgeist in a bottle twice, and by the time its confused politics and a take on the Occupy movement that saw Batman siding with cops to beat up the poor had played out, we had well and truly entered the world of the shared cinematic universe.
Audiences wanted to see Batman alongside Zack Snyder’s murdering Superman in a battle of the washed out colour palettes. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice reflected its times perfectly - a corporately driven attempt to replicate what a rival studio had slowly built to over five movies in the space of two bad ones to try and get in on those Avengers billions.
It was movie-making as a purely corporate pursuit. It also proved that if you stray too far from the heroic archetypes superheroes spring from in order to be the ultimate edgelord filmmaker, you end up with a Batman and Superman movie starring neither.
Audiences ultimately turned on Snyder’s take on Batman and Superman, and the entire DC movie universe seems to be on a fairly drastic course correction. But will Batman ever dance again?
We’ve had a few brief flashes of possibility, the short-lived Batman: The Brave and the Bold animated series chief among them. That show unfortunately appealed a little too strongly to nostalgia to ever cut through with a wider audience, but at least proved that even Batman had a place at the table of our current pop cultural ouroboros.
Whether or not Batman dances again ultimately has nothing to do with the character, but the way in which we use his world to hold a mirror up to our own.
Watch Batman dance his way onto TV screens and back into your heart every Friday on SBS VICELAND at 6:30pm.