Enduring cultural figures like Batman endure precisely because of the slight but notable changes they incur over time. Batman has had a long history in the moving image, and while the character has maintained both the central conceit of being a crime-fighting detective, the cinematic Batman of seventy years ago bears little resemblance to the Batman we’re familiar with today. The character and his myth have been interpreted with variation by a multitude of creative persons other than Bob Kane and Bill Finger. In the moving image, Batman has been embodied by a range of actors including Robert Lowery, Adam West, and George Clooney, and Batman has been realized by directors and showrunners prone to various tastes and aesthetic interpretations like William Dozier and Christopher Nolan.
While Batman is perhaps best-known by a non-comic-astute mass culture through the many blockbuster feature films made about him, including this summer’s hotly anticipated The Dark Knight Rises, the character’s cinematic origins are rooted in the long-dead format of the movie serial. Batman first leapt off the page in a 15-part serial made in 1943 titled Batman and another six years later titled Batman and Robin. These serials did not influence Batman’s later cinematic iterations realized by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher as much as they inspired Batman’s representation on television.
Batman’s presence in film serials and on television have had a decisive and important impact in terms of how mass audiences perceive the Batman of feature films. At the same time, these serials and series provide a strikingly different picture of Batman than the one we typically see in movies, one depicts the regular trails and tribulations experienced in the everyday life of a working superhero.
The Batman Film Serials (1943, 1949)
Columbia Pictures optioned a 15-part Batman serial in 1943, only four years after Batman was first introduced in an issue of Detective Comics. Alongside the contemporaneous Superman animated shorts and subsequent live action serial as well as the Captain Marvel serials, the 1943 Batman serial was part of the first Hollywood surge of superhero narratives (the 2000s were hardly the first time studios became obsessed with capes).
Though Batman’s (Lewis Wilson) nemeses were primarily domestic, these serials (like nearly all of Hollywood’s output between 1941 and 1944) incorporated WWII-era intrigue including a plot where an enemy is suspected of colluding with the Japanese. This war-era surge of superheroes makes sense in retrospect, for these narratives worked like subsidiary propaganda, depicting Americans vanquishing exceptional enemies through the imposition of superior strength and seemingly readying the era of American exceptionalism. However, unlike the Superman media made at the time, Batman’s uniquely American abilities are here enabled through technology and manifested through superior mental detection rather than an innate superpower.
But the 1949 Batman and Robin serial is far more interesting, for it relocates Batman (Robert Lowery) within the many changes experienced by Americans in the prosperous postwar era. Wayne Manor is not an isolated mansion, but an upper-crust suburban household, and Bruce Wayne struggles to maintain his anonymity within the close and intrusive social circles that suburban living entails. Also, Batman here is more muscle than uber-equipped boy scout. He and Robin (Johnny Duncan) seem to impossibly possess the right accessories at precisely the right time despite the notable absence of utility belts. Most importantly, Batman here is more subject to the threats of consumer technology than able to fend of enemies with his own, as televisions disguised as mirrors and dangerous remote controls render his enemies potential totalitarians of tech.
As is characteristic of the film serial, these early cinematic iterations of the world’s greatest detective focus more on action and situational suspense than the origins or psychology of the title character. Furthermore, despite the fact that central villains like The Joker, The Penguin, and Catwoman had been well established in the comics by 1949, the serials instead opted for invented or minor villains. One gets a sense that these serials, especially in comparison to the Batman we’ve come to know elsewhere, give a glimpse of Batman’s everyday life as a superhero. He’s not struggling against his greatest enemies, nor is he forced to deal with his troubled past; instead, Batman is forced to simply solve the conflict/mystery of the moment, one that might be threatening but will largely prove inconsequential to the greater arc of his career.
The Batman TV series (1966-68)
The Batman TV series was originally planned as a Lone Ranger-style Saturday adventure show for kids, but after an ABC exec attended several parties at The Playboy Mansion in which the ‘40s Batman serials were screened to an enthusiastic audience, he saw prime-time potential in the Caped Crusader. Producer William Dozier, however, took the series in a decidedly more “high camp” direction than the serials (which, by contrast, only appear campy with the passage of time), though the Batman TV series retained the cliffhanger finales of its predecessor.
Unlike the serials, the Batman TV series focused more centrally on the comics’ defining villains, regularly incorporating The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), The Riddler (Frank Gorshin/John Astin), Catwoman (Eartha Kitt), and other characters into individual episodes. The series may be responsible for cementing these Batman villains, who had virtually no prior presence in the moving image, into mass culture renown outside the comic books.
Besides a few off-the-cuff mentions by Bruce Wayne (Adam West) about the tragic death of his parents in the pilot episode, little is made of Batman’s tragic origins, which wouldn’t fit the show’s light action-comedy tone and total embrace of absurdism. As a result, the series’ episodes were structured primarily around Batman and Robin (Burt Ward) repeatedly chasing down recurring villains and nearly getting themselves killed in the process. Thus, the Batman television series as a whole, beneath its thick layer of camp, stands as an examination of the futility of the working life of a superhero: Batman and Robin continue to chase and temporarily vanquish the same villains who inevitably show up again to wreak more havoc, as if Batman were only able to find short-term solutions to Gotham’s crime problems without realizing any sort of long-term good.
Batman: The Animated Series (1992-95)
Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski’s animated series was initially created to tie in with the popularity of Tim Burton’s live-action films, complete with a Danny Elfman score. But what we got instead was something altogether different. Rather than Burton’s gothic vision of Gotham (especially in Batman Returns), Batman: The Animated Series envisions an art deco, noirish Gotham and depicts what was easily the darkest vision of Bruce Wayne – as a man haunted both by his tragic past and his compulsions to erase it in the present – to make its way to television screens.
With a few exceptions, nearly each half-hour episode of the series contains an autonomous conflict solved by the episode’s end (which stands in stark contrast to the serials and the serial format adapted by the ‘60s TV series), but the dark psychology of Wayne/Batman is explored with unprecedented depth because the animated series posed the possibility that a character as eccentric as Wayne would have an interesting psychology worthy of investigation.
Ironically, it was the animated series, not the previous live-action iterations, that embraced the realist potential of a superhero operating without superpowers. And, like Burton’s films but unlike the previous series and serials, Batman: The Animated Series was the first (for its first season, at least) to initially go to air without Robin, whose presence elsewhere seems to automatically render the series more campy.
Batman: The Animated Series (which inspired one great feature film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and two subsequent animated series) was perhaps the defining interpretation of Batman for many of us who came of age in the ‘80s and ‘90s. As the comics had during the decade prior, Batman: The Animated Series treated the character and his conflicts (internal and external) with notable seriousness.
While Nolan’s vision of Gotham may have been more directly influenced by select stories from the comics than any previous moving image adaptations, for many fans of Nolan’s vision, Batman: The Animated Series cemented the notion that a psychologically broken man who dresses like a bat and fights comparably extravagant criminals was not only plausible, but resonant.
While the Batman films are often required to raise the stakes, finding the hero combating especially consequential villains in order to warrant cinematic attention given to this particular chapter in the Caped Crusader’s career, the Batman TV series and film serials paint a very different picture of the character, situating his conflicts as routine and positing an impression of the cyclical day-to-dayness of anonymous crime-fighting.
The series and serials, in short, have not only rendered Batman with his associated mythology and varying tone culturally ubiquitous, but have constructed a distinct impression of what we might imagine an active Batman to be doing between the major conflicts that make up his feature films.