Author Journal / Journal / Visual Culture

POW! Batman’s Greatest Film and Television Hits

Will Brooker.

POW! Batman’s Greatest Film and Television HitsThe release of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises is just over a week away, and needless to say, we at I.B.Tauris are extremely excited. Admittedly, our excitement would be more muted if we had not recently published Will Brooker’s new book Hunting the Dark Knight, but we did, so this gives us license to wear a cape, hone our Batman impressions, and cast an eye over Will’s favourite Batman moments on film and television over the past 70 years.

Batman (1943), Chapter 2: ‘The Bat’s Cave’, dir. Lambert Hillyer, Columbia Pictures

Released only four years since Batman’s appearance in comic books, this episode has all the elements that would recur over the next seventy years, in a bizarre, often wonderful mixture. The tone shifts from deliberate comedy to unwitting camp in the space of a single sentence; the fight scenes between sharp-suited gangsters and a Dynamic Duo in saggy costumes could be seen as ridiculous, and certainly inspired the 1960s TV show, but also have an authentic, brutal quality. The camera rolls, actors throw themselves into the rough-and-tumble, scuffle and hit the floor. There’s no fancy editing, and there must have been some bruises. Douglas Croft’s Robin, wiry and agile with a mop of dark hair, bears a strange resemblance to the Damian Wayne Robin of 2012, and Lewis Croft as Batman makes a suave but sinister vigilante. There are enough bulging pants and knowing looks to easily enable a gay reading; and if Dr Dakar (played by Irish-American J. Carrol Naish) now strikes us as a grotesque Japanese stereotype, thankfully never included in the comic books, the serial had one significant influence on the mythos. Every representation of Alfred the butler has been modelled on William Austin’s upright, uptight portrayal in 1943.

Batman (18 Jan 1968), ‘Nora Clavicle and the Ladies’ Crime Club’, ABC Network

How to choose any one scene from the glorious 1960s Batman? This extract, though there are many others to compete with it, demonstrates that the third season (featuring Batgirl) was up to the standard of the first two. There is much to enjoy here – the cheaply surreal sets and props, with bright plastic mice and flat, cartoonish black sets giving a trippy, dreamlike sense of Gotham city – but the pleasure must lie mostly in Adam West’s breathlessly earnest performance and his rapid gear-changes from staccato instructions to ponderous pronouncements. ‘East Side, West Side, I’ll go through the Midtown and we’ll meet each other at the docks… Just play, Robin. Play… for all… you’re worth.’ The pace is leisurely, with long takes emphasising the strangely languid, psychedelic quality, but stick with it to the end for Batman’s priceless explanation of his ‘flute toots’.

Batman (1989), dir. Tim Burton

With hindsight, Burton’s 1989 feature falls uncomfortably between two stools: neither ‘dark’ and plausible enough to be taken seriously – that would have to wait for Christopher Nolan – or camp and playful enough to be genuinely funny and loveable like the 1960s TV show. This brief sequence remains, arguably, its most important gift to the mythos, and its most iconic moment: Nolan paid direct tribute to the scene in his reboot, Batman Begins, and Christian Bale’s growl must owe a debt to Michael Keaton.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), dir. Erik Radomski, Bruce Timm

To some fans, the Animated Series – and its feature-film spin-offs – are still the most authentic adaptation of the comic book original. The Animated universe has an ambiguous relationship to other texts in the broader Batman matrix, sometimes borrowing and sometimes borrowing back; Harley Quinn, for instance, originated in the cartoon, crossed over into the comics and now, with the same voice actress, stars in the video games. This opening sequence shows that animation, whether traditionally drawn or computer-enhanced, can perfectly capture the blend of German Expressionism and noir that originally informed the Batman of the late 1930s, and draw us more smoothly and convincingly into Batman’s navigation of the city than any live-action camerawork tracking through a real urban location.

Batman & Robin (1997), dir. Joel Schumacher

POW! Batman’s Greatest Film and Television HitsAfter half an hour or so, it slackens into a long, unfunny pantomime, but for a while, Schumacher’s much-derided second feature reaches the glorious comic heights of the 1960s series. It’s absolute tack with a budget through the ceiling; supremely, unashamedly camp, like a Batman-themed Vegas hotel. Obviously, the line ‘chicks dig the car’ is an ironic cherry on the cake; this is the most openly gay Batman in mainstream culture. And if you can’t stand a glimpse of Bat-butt and huge codpieces as part of the diverse mosaic that makes up the Camp Crusader and Dark Knight, maybe you need to loosen up a little.

The Dark Knight (2008), dir. Christopher Nolan

There’s a man in a rubber suit sitting opposite another man in lipstick and sweaty white pan-stick; one’s growling and the other keeps licking his lips. It should be impossible to take seriously, but instead it’s hard to turn away. Bale’s head-to-head against Ledger is as captivating as anything from non-costumed crime dramas like Heat, and the theatrical appearance of the two antagonists adds to the drama: Batman’s eyes are solid, unblinking black and his cowl a smooth shell, in visual contrast to Joker’s messy make-up and facial tics. This scene, at the heart of Nolan’s trilogy to date, explores as adeptly as any comic the tense, fluid dynamic between Batman and Joker; the love-hate relationship between order and chaos that neither of them can ever quit. ■

Will Brooker is the world’s leading expert on Batman, and is the author of Hunting the Dark Knight: 21st Century Batman. He is Reader and Director of Research in Film and Television at Kingston University, London, and the first British editor of Cinema Journal. Follow him on Twitter @willbrooker.

Also by Will Brooker:

My Life With Batman

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