With The Dark Knight Rises hitting theaters this week, we thought we’d look back at the history of Caped Crusader, and note those key moments that truly defined him. There have been some big ones: comics, movies or TV shows where the character suddenly took a giant leap forward in the pop culture stratosphere. We’ll take his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 as a given, and we’re also skipping various first appearances (Robin, the Joker, the Batmobile, etc.). They’re important milestones, but they don’t signal the ground shift the way these do. We’ve arranged them in chronological order.
Batman and Superman both played prominent roles in the Golden Age of Comics, but their eventual team-up in Superman #76 marked something very different. For the first time, two superheroes definitively occupied the same universe. They could fight the same villains, travel to the same cities and play poker at each other’s houses. The move paved the way for larger team-ups like The Justice League and The Avengers, while planting the seeds of the DC Universe as we currently know it (as well as the Marvel Universe which followed its example).
In the mid-1960s, Batman was in poor shape. The backlash against comics a decade earlier took a heavy toll, and the resulting kinder, gentler Caped Crusader suffered against hipper superheroes like The Flash and Green Lantern. Then, in early 1966, he found his way to the television screen with Adam West donning the cape and cowl. The show’s deliberate campiness made light of his more ridiculous qualities… and turned him into a pop-culture phenomenon. The TV show brought him widespread adoration that not only saved his comics, but created an entire generation of new fans to keep Bat-mania alive.
On the heels of the live action show came The Batman Superman Hour, the first time Bats appeared in a cartoon. The show wasn’t great, but it held an appeal for the very young, again opening the character up to new fans who might not otherwise have seen him. It also set the stage for a long line of animated shows to follow, including multiple incarnations of The SuperFriends in the 1970s and 1980s.
In January, 1970, a new creative duo took over the Batman comic titles. They had no interest in the fading campiness of Adam West, instead seeking to return Batman to his dark roots. Writer Dennis O’Neal and artist Neal Adams looked for inspiration in both film noir and contemporary issues such as drug abuse. Under their tenure, Batman took on the grim, foreboding aspects that most people know him for, as well as creating such key figures as Leslie Thompkins and Ra’s al Ghul.
What O’Neil and Adams began, Frank Miller kicked into overdrive with the publication of The Dark Knight Returns. The mini-series posited an end to the Batman saga, in which an aging, borderline psychotic Bruce Wayne donned the cape and cowl for one final stint as Batman. The series became a watershed for comics in the 1980s: sophisticated, nihilistic and unashamedly adult. It further cemented the character as a tormented avenger and turned Miller into a legend in the comic book community.
What Miller did for Batman, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland did for The Joker: a twisted possible origin story that established him firmly as a demented psychopath rather than a jovial clown. Like The Dark Knight Returns, it took the character to his logical extremes. It also established a frightening new twist to the canon: placing Barbara Gordon in a wheelchair for the next twenty-five years.
Jason Todd, the second Robin, was something of a cypher for DC. They didn’t know what fans thought of him and his edgier attitude didn’t sit well with some fans who preferred his predecessor Dick Grayson. So the company established a phone poll and let the fans vote on whether he would live or die. Controversies remain – some fans maintain to this day that a small bloc of “kill Jason” callers jobbed the system with multiple votes – but the results stood. Todd died at the Joker’s hands, and while he inevitably returned, the voice of the readers changed the face of the Batman mythos forever.
It’s hard to remember twenty years on just what a gamble Warner Bros took by entrusting their Batman movie to a former Disney animator with only two previous movies under his belt. But love him or hate him, Tim Burton has a vision, and his deeply flawed version of the Caped Crusader nonetheless took the world by storm. His retro-noir visual designs felt perfect for Gotham City, while Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson delivered dark takes on Batman and The Joker that permanently put the Adam West incarnations out to pasture. The character’s current status in pop culture wouldn’t be possible without it.
As influential as the Burton version was, it suffered from a number of problems: poor pacing, ill-conceived plot and the whole Vicki Vale nonsense. But when Warners ordered a new animated series to capitalize on the success of Batman Returns, the creators delivered perhaps the single definitive version of the Caped Crusader. Bolstered by the imaginations of Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and a bevy of talented artists, it found an ideal blend of darkness, humor and atmosphere to bring its hero to life. Many people consider voice artist Kevin Conroy the last word on Batman, while Mark Hamill’s Joker gave all other incarnations of the character a serious run for their money.
Christopher Nolan already endeared himself to Batman fans with his masterful reboot Batman Begins, erasing all memory of the Joel Schumacher movies in the bargain. With his follow-up The Dark Knight, however, he entered entirely new territory. The film became a phenomenon, bolstered by its complex script and an Oscar-winning performance from Heath Ledger as The Joker. (We should also note with no small amount of sadness that the publicity surrounding Ledger’s death played a part as well.) The film’s incredible box office take and lingering goodwill among the fans established Batman as the most popular superhero of the 21st century… and gave us all a good reason to stand in line this Thursday night.