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Batman in the Media


Although he began his comic-book career as a creature of the night, Batman has been portrayed on television and film as both a dark avenger and a campy crime-fighting clown. Artist Bob Kane was influenced by Douglas Fairbanks' look in The Mark of Zorro (1920) and the villainous cloaked character in The Bat (1926) when he designed Batman, and as he and writer Bill Finger further developed the character following his May 1939 debut, cinematic influences continued. Although sidekick Robin was introduced in 1940 without specific media inspirations, the look of arch-villain the Joker was transferred almost verbatim from the eerie smiling appearance of Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs (1927).

In 1943, just four years after his comic debut, Batman was brought to the masses in a film serial. Columbia had the rights to both Superman and Batman, but they chose to film the non-superpowered hero first. Film serials were short films that played in movie theaters every week, each ending in a cliff-hanger so that audiences would return the following week to see the next chapter.

The fifteen-chapter Batman serial debuted on July 16, 1943, starring Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin. The damsel-in-distress of the piece was Linda Page, played by Shirley Patterson, while Caucasian actor J. Carroll Naish pushed racial boundaries (and, a later generation of viewers would agree, crossed the line into stereotype) as the villainous Japanese spy Dr. Daka. While trying to steal radium to fuel his atomic disintegrator, Daka uses a mind-control device on the residents of Gotham City, turning them into zombies.

Since the serial was shot in black-and-white, the colors of Batman and Robin's costumes were irrelevant, but they looked very similar to the comic designs, even if Batman's ears more closely resembled horns. The serial was dull at times—largely due to both Wilson and Croft's performances and a meandering script—but it did firmly establish the Batcave (which was utilized more in publisher DC's comics thereafter).

In 1945, Batman and Robin both made regular guest-appearances on the Superman radio show, often played by Matt Crowley and Ronald Liss, respectively. A few aborted attempts at a solo Batman radio series were made, but the Dark Knight's next appearance was back in the serials. Following the success of their first Superman serial in 1948, Columbia chose to go back to the Batcave, with Superman's director, Spencer Bennet, at the helm.

Batman and Robin, a fifteen-chapter serial (also known as The Return of Batman) premiered in theaters on May 26, 1949. This time, Robert Lowery played Batman and John Duncan played Robin. In this outing, they faced the Wizard (Leonard Penn), who uses a top-secret remote control device to take command of planes, trains, and automobiles, then uses a stolen neutralizer and a zone of invisibility, all to commit dastardly crimes such as stealing diamonds. The serial uses Vicki Vale (Jane Adams), who had recently been introduced in the comics, but it is a lackluster production in almost every sense. The cliff-hangers are poorly written, the acting is mediocre, the costumes are bad, the music is weak, and even the director seems to have lost interest in his own product.

Batman retreated to the pages of comics for another fifteen years, at which time the first serial was re-edited and re-released under the title An Evening with Batman and Robin (1965). The press materials for the re-release called it The Greatest Serial Ever Filmed, and quoted a review that noted that it was two high-camp folk heroes in a marathon of fist-fights, zombies, & ravenous alligators! It was that camp element that would become the public's prime association with Batman for the next several years.

Television network ABC acquired the rights for a live-action Batman series shortly after the serial was re-released (one legend has it that an executive was inspired by a print of the film he saw at Hugh Hefner's Chicago Playboy mansion), and work on a pilot began in fall 1965. Producer William Dozier and his crew decided on a style for the series that would mimic the elements of the comic in a way that stayed true to them and made fun of them at the same time. Cameras were tilted for an askew perspective, colors were brightened, deadpan narration was employed, and most famously, animated sound effects of Biff! Bam! Pow! were superimposed on the screen during fight scenes.

Although Lyle Waggoner originally read for the dual role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, the part went to fellow small-screen bit-parter Adam West, who proved perfect at staying in completely serious character no matter what wackiness ensued around him. Newcomer Burt Ward was youthful partner Dick Grayson/Robin, whose expressions were generally preceded by the adjective Holy, as in Holy Priceless Collection of Etruscan Snoods! Genteel Alan Napier was butler Alfred, while befuddled Commissioner Gordon and Chief O'Hara were played by Neil Hamilton and Stafford Repp, respectively.

Debuting mid-season on January 12, 1966, Batman was an almost immediate success. Each half-hour show was a two-parter, with the first part ending in a cliff-hanger and the conclusion airing the following night. It was a bold experiment, and it paid off handsomely in ratings and merchandising; even the theme song by Neal Hefti hit the music charts. Additionally, big-name actors wanted to be a part of the series, enabling the producers to cast villains and bit parts more easily. Villains included the Riddler (Frank Gorshin [who would get an Emmy nomination for the role], and John Astin), the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), Catwoman (Julie Newmar, Lee Meriwether, Eartha Kitt), Mr. Freeze (George Sanders, Otto Preminger), Bookworm (Roddy McDowall), Ma Parker (Shelley Winters), Egghead (Vincent Price), Chandell (Liberace), Siren (Joan Collins), and many more.

Batman was popular enough that, between the first and second seasons, a feature film was shot utilizing much of the series' cast as Batman and Robin faced their four toughest villains: the Penguin, the Joker, the Riddler (Gorshin), and Catwoman (Meriwether). Batman was released by 20th Century Fox on August 3, 1966, further fueling the Bat-craze sweeping the country. A Batcopter and Batboat were created for the film, and were later utilized in addition to the Batmobile on the series. Other Bat-vehicles and Bat-gadgets include the Batcycle; the Batmobile's micro-TV Bat-scanner; the Bat-charger launcher; and various Batcave accessories, including the navigational aid computer and the complete anti-criminal eye-pattern master file. Although a scene with Shark-Repellent Batspray is funny, perhaps the most memorable scene in the film involves Batman trying to get rid of an explosive device on a crowded pier. Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb, he intones, deadpan.

Fearing then-significant concerns that Batman and Robin would be perceived as homosexual, two female characters were added to the TV series. Aunt Harriet Cooper (Madge Blake) was introduced into the household of stately Wayne Manor, and—following an eight-minute presentation pilot which was filmed to test the character—femme sidekick Batgirl (a luminous Yvonne Craig) followed in the series' third season in fall 1967. Batgirl, who debuted in comic-book form only a few months before, had actually been created as an advance tie-in to what the TV producers had in mind.

But by the third season, even Batgirl could not help save the Batman series, which had been experiencing a significant drop in viewership during year two. ABC cut the series back to one night a week, and on March 14, 1968, ended Batman with its 120th episode. Although NBC expressed an interest in reviving the series, by the time they made clear overtures to 20th Century Fox, ABC had already scrapped the sets. Batman almost immediately entered the syndication market, where it has been an ultra-popular television staple for more than thirty years.

Six months after the live-action Batman series ended, CBS debuted a Filmation animated series of adventures in The Batman/Superman Hour. Each episode featured one seven-minute story, as well as a two-part fourteen-minute show. The tone of the tales was slightly less campy than the live series, though the villainous deathtraps were just as elaborate. Antagonists included Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, Scarecrow, Riddler, Mr. Freeze, and others. Olan Soule voiced Batman, with Casey Kasem (before his radio stardom) voicing Robin, and Jane Webb handling vocal chores for Batgirl. Ted Knight lent his tones to almost all of the villains, as well as Commissioner Gordon and the Narrator. From 1969 to 1970, the Bat-stories were split off into their own series, titled The Adventures of Batman and Robin. During this period, Filmation also animated five brief Batman segments for Children's Television Workshop's Sesame Street series, some of which featured Joker and Penguin.

The animated Batman wasn't off the air for too long after the Filmation series ended. In 1972, Hanna-Barbera was producing The New Scooby-Doo Movies for CBS. Each episode found the familiar gang of mystery-solvers teaming up with celebrities, both real—such as Sonny and Cher or the Three Stooges—and fictional. Batman and Robin guest-starred in two episodes, helping the Scooby Gang foil the dastardly plans of Joker and Penguin. Interestingly enough, Casey Kasem provided the voices for both Shaggy and Robin, while Olan Soule again voiced Batman. The shows were a warm-up for Hanna-Barbera, who thought that a crime-fighting team of superheroes should work in animation as well as it did in the comics.

On September 8, 1973, ABC-TV debuted Super Friends, a new Hanna-Barbera series that teamed Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Robin, and Aquaman to fight crime. The group was accompanied on their adventures by teenagers Wendy and Marvin, and their pet, Wonder Dog (in the comics, Wendy was retroactively written to be Bruce Wayne's niece). Soule and Kasem stayed on to provide the Dynamic Duo's voices. The series was a relative success, and its sixteen episodes stayed in rotation on ABC until fall 1977, when the format was revamped and new characters were added to create The All-New Super Friends Hour.

It wasn't until 1978's revamp, Challenge of the Super Friends, that any Batman villains showed up in the Super Friends milieu. Joining in with the Legion of Doom were Scarecrow and Riddler, certainly not the most powerful of Batman's rogues' gallery. Riddler would pop up again in 1980's The Super Friends Hour, but it wasn't until the 1985 incarnation of the series, The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians (which saw Adam West take over Batman's vocal duties from Olan Soule) that other Bat-villains came into play. Penguin would reappear, as would Joker (as a member of the Wild Cards gang), but it was in an episode titled The Fear that ground was broken. In the episode, Scarecrow subjects Batman to a fear device and puts him in Crime Alley, the place where his parents were murdered. The show marked the first time in Batman's near-fifty-year history that his origin had been addressed in any medium other than print.

Even while he was appearing as a regular in the various Super Friends series, the animated Batman was also showing up on another network. In early 1977, Filmation produced The New Adventures of Batman for CBS. The sixteen episodes found Batman, Robin, and Batgirl joined in their crime-fighting adventures by a fifth-dimensional imp known as Bat-Mite. Villains ranged from known characters such as Joker, Catwoman, Penguin, Mr. Freeze, and Clayface to newcomers like Sweet Tooth, Professor Bubbles, Electro, and Chameleon (the latter two unrelated to Marvel Comics villains of the same names). Adam West and Burt Ward were reunited for the lead character voices, though Filmation didn't really tout the reunion in any advertising or marketing campaigns.

In the fall of 1977, CBS teamed the Caped Crusader with the King of the Jungle for The Batman/Tarzan Adventure Hour, though no new episodes were produced. The following year the series became Tarzan and the Super 7, and that title lasted until 1980 when it was changed to Batman and the Super 7 (on NBC). Having rebroadcast the Batman episodes to death, the network finally retired the series in the fall of 1981. Bat-Mite would eventually make his reappearance in the comics.

Batman and Robin made one further appearance on television in the 1970s, when Hanna-Barbera produced two hour-long live-action specials for NBC. Legends of the Super-Heroes was the overall title, but The Challenge aired January 18, 1979 and The Roast aired January 25, 1979. Not only did Adam West and Burt Ward reprise their famous roles, but so did Frank Gorshin as Riddler. Even the Batmobile made an appearance. Most interestingly, the specials also saw the first live-action appearance of the Huntress, who in the comics was the daughter of the Earth-Two Batman and Catwoman! The specials were tremendously campy, and never re-aired.

Film producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber had been trying for years to get a Batman film on track in Hollywood, and in the late 1980s they finally found the key to their film with director Tim Burton, whose dark sensibilities gelled with the grittier Batman comics of the post–Dark Knight Returns era. With a script by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, production designer Anton Furst began creating stunning gothic sets for Gotham City at Pinewood Studios in London. The Warner Bros. film was slated to be a big-budget affair, and although few in the potential audience quibbled with Kim Basinger's casting as Vicki Vale, nor with Jack Nicholson as Joker, it was the man behind the Batmask that gave fans pause. Michael Keaton had been primarily known for his comedic roles, and fans were apoplectic when his casting as Batman was announced.

The $40 million Batman was released on June 23, 1989, with a huge media campaign behind it. Accepting Keaton wholeheartedly, fans were also agog at how seriously the film took the comic-book mythos, even if it did tweak Batman's origin so that Joker was involved. The film grossed over $250 million worldwide, and merchandising ran into the multi-million dollars. A sequel was immediately greenlighted, and Burton decided to up the ante in terms of strangeness and characters alike.

Batman Returns flew into theaters on June 12, 1992, but the story was darker than its predecessor and merchandisers were not happy. Danny DeVito played a creepy Penguin whose deformities caused him to be abandoned by his parents, while Michelle Pfeiffer played much-abused Selina Kyle, who becomes the sexually liberated Catwoman over the course of the film. Pfeiffer had gotten the role when first choice Annette Bening dropped out due to pregnancy; before the part had been recast however, actress Sean Young forced her way onto the Warner Bros. lot in a Catwoman costume, demanding to see Tim Burton about the role. He hid behind a desk rather than face Young, and she later went on talk shows to discuss the matter.

One character who would have been in Batman Returns was Robin, and the role was actually cast and costumed—with a twist. Young actor Marlon Wayans was set to play an African-American Robin, but the character was completely excised from the script before Wayans could film any scenes. Burton felt the movie was overstuffed with characters as written, and the cutting of Robin streamlined the film more.

Although it was the highest-grossing film of 1992, Batman Returns only made $163 million at the box office, and merchandising revenue was severely depressed. Warner now wanted a new vision for the films, one that would be brighter and more merchandising- and kid-friendly. Tim Burton exited talks for a sequel, and with him went Michael Keaton. Ironically, Burton's dark vision for the Caped Crusader was already being played out in a format that did appeal to younger and older audiences alike.

In 1990, several animators at Warner Bros. produced a three-minute test pilot of Batman, done in a style they called Dark Deco. Eventually the concept sold to Fox, and work began on the new Batman: The Animated Series. When the show started airing on September 5, 1992, Batman: TAS wowed audiences and critics alike. The stories were gloomy and dark, the villains were nasty, and Batman was brooding. The look of the series was particularly gorgeous, utilizing Art Deco architecture and character designs on darkened or black backgrounds, with heavy airbrushed effects. The animated Gotham City now seemed as if it could only exist at night, and its protector was right at home among the jutting spires and stone gargoyles.

Producers Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski were responsible for much of Batman: TAS's visual look, while Alan Burnett came in to serve as story editor and co-producer. Burnett had previously worked on The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians, and he hired writer Paul Dini to come aboard as well. The stories the production crew created included many classic and newer Batman comic villains, as well as supporting cast members and storylines lifted directly from the pages of the comics themselves.

Batman: TAS's voice cast was excellent, led by Kevin Conroy in the lead role. Loren Lester played Dick Grayson/Robin, while Melissa Gilbert and Tara Charendoff took on the role of Batgirl/Barbara Gordon. Once Grayson became Nightwing, the new Robin/Tim Drake was played by Mathew Valencia. The villain roster was once again filled with familiar Hollywood names: Mark Hamill (Joker); Adrienne Barbeau (Catwoman); Ron Perlman (Clayface); Richard Moll (Two-Face); Roddy McDowall (The Mad Hatter); David Warner (Ra's Al Ghul); and Helen Slater (Talia), among others. One episode even paid tribute to an older hero in Gotham—The Grey Ghost—and the producers cast Adam West in the vocal role.

Batman: The Animated Series quickly became one of the most critically acclaimed animated series in television history, winning numerous Emmy Awards and a generation of faithful viewers. Seventy episodes were produced in the original show. In September 1994, the series moved to Saturday mornings and adopted a more kid-friendly tone, becoming The Adventures of Batman & Robin. Fifteen more new episodes were produced, mixed in with older reruns. The last new show aired in the fall of 1995, but repeats continued for a while thereafter.

In 1997, the series jumped from Fox to the fledgling WB! Network, becoming even more stylized along the way. The show was paired with Superman episodes as The New Batman/Superman Adventures, and a final thirteen episodes were produced, airing through early 1999.

While the animated series was showing, several feature-length productions were created. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was the first Batman animated theatrical release, premiering on Christmas day of 1993. A direct-to-video story called Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero was released on March 17, 1998, while The Batman/Superman Movie was actually a video compilation of three October 1997 Superman TV episodes which guest-starred Batman.

Even as the animated Batman was pleasing fans, critics, and merchandisers alike, the feature-film franchise was gearing up for a pair of sequels. Joel Schumacher directed Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997), with a heavy-handed campy tone that laid on a thick homoerotic element to the series. Replacing Keaton in Forever was Val Kilmer, but George Clooney had to step into the cape and cowl for Batman & Robin. Marlon Wayans wasn't called back for Robin's role, and instead, Chris O'Donnell donned the rubber body-suit in both films. Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl joined the Dynamic Duo in Batman & Robin, but as in the TV series, the character's inclusion came too late to help the franchise's sagging box office.

Batman Forever utilized comedian Jim Carrey as Riddler, and Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face, but neither was served by the slapdash script, nor Schumacher's penchant for letting them run completely over the top with their characterizations. The campy tone and dialogue worsened for Batman & Robin, wherein Uma Thurman played a seductive Poison Ivy and Arnold Schwarzenegger played a leaden Mr. Freeze. Both films were savaged by the critics and fans, and after Batman & Robin underperformed at the box office, Schumacher even publicly admitted to having hurt the Batman film franchise.

No matter how the films fared at the box office, Warner was not about to let the successful part of its Batman franchise fall completely. In January 1999, the WB debuted Batman Beyond, a futuristic animated series in which a young boy named Terry McGinnis discovers the secrets of Batman fifty years into Gotham City's future. Now, using a high-tech costume—and being coached by the crotchety recluse Bruce Wayne—Terry fights crime as the Batman of the future. By its end in 2001, fifty-two episodes of Batman Beyond were produced.

In December 2000, a direct-to-video animated feature called Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker was released. Warner had planned an earlier street date, but after political pressure about violence aimed at young audiences, the studio decided to re-edit the film. In 2002, an uncut version of the film was released on DVD, rated PG-13 for violence.

In December 2001, Batman began to appear in Justice League, a half-hour animated series on the Cartoon Network. There, he occasionally battles against familiar Bat-villains like Joker and Clayface, although more often he joins his super-colleagues to battle other menaces. As with all of the other Warner-produced cartoons since 1990, Kevin Conroy provides the voice of Batman, while Mark Hamill is the Joker. Batman guest-starred with the Justice League on two episodes of WB's Static Shock cartoon in 2003, and that year also saw Robin appear on Cartoon Network's Teen Titans series and the release of the direct-to-video feature Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman.

In March 2003, CBS aired Return to the Batcave: The Misadventures of Adam and Burt, a telefilm comedy reuniting Adam West, Burt Ward, Frank Gorshin, Julie Newmar, and a handful of other Batman TV veterans in a story that told of their real-life misadventures filming the 1960s series. Warner Bros. executives are still planning on Batman returning to the live-action scene. Versions of a teenage Bruce Wayne have been discussed for his own TV series, as well as to guest-star in the hit series Smallville. Multiple movie scripts have been written for a new Batman film, with scenarios including the popular 1980s comics storyline Batman: Year One, a modern Batman, and the futuristic Batman Beyond all being considered.

In September 2003, Christian Bale (American Psycho) was announced as the next actor to play a big-screen Batman, for director Christopher Nolan (Memento) and scripter David Goyer (Blade). The film was released in 2005 as Batman Begins and, as the title indicates, is about the origins of the character. Bale reprises his starring role in the next Batman film, The Dark Knight (2008). The film was notable for an incredible performance by Heath Ledger as The Joker; it was also his last role as he died of an accidental drug overdose in January 2008. Ledger won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for his Joker role in 2009.

For the trailer for Batman's latest film, The Dark Knight Rises, visit

A return to animation was also in the works, with The Batman announced in February 2004 for Kids WB! and Cartoon Network. Set to debut in the fall of that year, the show focuses on the earliest days of Batman's career and his first clashes against his formidable rogues' gallery. The roofs of Gotham City may be silent for the time being, but the dark night shadows hold the promise of more Bat-adventures in the future. —AM

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