Thursday, June 16, 2011

How Do You Like Your Batman?

I've had that blog title sitting in my head for months if not years now. I think I've been putting off writing it for so long simply because I feel like I can't possibly put everything I'm feeling into words. However, I don't think it's right to start off my recurring Batman posts without at least first giving you an idea of where I'm coming from.

I'm not sure if there has been any pop culture icon who has been reinvented and changed in so many ways over the year as Batman has. His compatriot Superman has seen a lot of adaptations, but beyond tweaking his powers here and there, I don't think the character varies all that much. Mickey Mouse is drastically different from the original prankster he started out as, but the squeaky clean reinvention of his personality has largely stayed the same, even if the way he's drawn changes. Every character changes at least a little bit with the times, but Batman seems to take it to a whole different level.

The early Batman comics were targeted towards children, and the movie serials that ran at the same time were also for kids. The sixties television show rocketed Batman to greater fame than he had ever achieved before, and it is best known for being overly campy and silly. By the eighties, we started to see a grittier side of Batman, particularly in the comics with Frank Millar's The Dark Knight Returns and the many others it influenced. Tim Burton's Batman films were similarly gritty and dark, though they had a larger than life, cartoonish feel to them as well. When Joel Schumacher took over, he clearly tried to inject a feeling a little more similar to the sixties television show or the four color comics that proceeded it though in nineties DayGlo tones. Not long after the Burton films began, Batman: The Animated Series was created. It also had a dark tone but treated Batman just a little more seriously, and introduced many more characters than the movies had time for. Batman & Robin's failure killed the movie series until Nolan came along with his reboot, Batman Begins, that took Batman a little closer to the real world. It took themes that had been used in the comics and put them into movies that even people who didn't previously care for superheroes could enjoy. And of course all during this time Batman evolved in the comics, even letting other people take on the role, to the point that we now have Batman, Inc. where multiple people are all Batman at once. Until the September reboot, anyway, where Bruce Wayne will be the only person left under the cowl again.

These drastic changes combined with the immense popularity of the character means most people have their own favorite version. It stands to reason that if the sixties show was your first experience with Batman, you may not enjoy the seriousness of The Dark Knight. It's kind of amazing to think that Adam West and Christian Bale are playing the same character. Sure, you can see similarities in the costume and the names are the same, but it ventures off pretty far otherwise.

So how do I like my Batman? Thanks for asking! Like most children of the eighties I first watched Batman through the Tim Burton film. (It's hard to say the first time I heard about him.. Batman as an icon is just sort of ever present in at least Western culture.) I remember most of my younger brother's friends praising it immensely. We eventually borrowed a copy of the film from someone and honestly I didn't see what the big deal was. I didn't hate it but I didn't love it either. Like a lot of stuff around that time period, I had more fun playing with the action figures with my brother and the stories we would make up for them instead. I got excited for Batman Returns because of Catwoman's appearance - I've always had an interest in females in action roles for as long as I can remember, but I didn't actually see the film until it came out on video. Before that video release, Batman: The Animated Series premiered on television and changed everything for me. Since the X-men cartoon had just come out, I was aching for more superheroes, and this show delivered.

I originally loved Batman for most of the reasons that we all love Batman. He's intelligent, strong, and although he has no superpowers he is able to get himself out of any difficult situation. He has a tragic past and uses that as fuel to make a difference and stop criminals.

What really appealed to me though was that the show really took itself seriously, especially for something shown at a children's level. Much like the X-men cartoon, it understood that children didn't need to be talked down to in their entertainment. You can limit the violence and sex without sacrificing good storytelling. You could also tell that the creators were familiar with the comics and knew that Batman himself was not just kiddie stuff.

While I would eventually see all the movies, the sixties television show, and even dabble in the comics, the animated series remains my golden standard for what Batman should be. There's no doubt in my mind that the reason I find Nolan's movies to be far superior to Burton's is related to this, and the fact that the Batman: Arkham Asylum game was utter joy for me to play has a lot to do with the fact that I got to hear the voices of Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arleen Sorkin in their proper roles once again.

I made a list of potential Batman related posts, and it is very nearly 50 items long. It includes movies, television shows, video games, comics, novels, and some character spotlights. I hope to do at least one a month, so it should be going for quite a while!

So now I'll ask you. How do you like your Batman?

12 comments:

  1. Well since you asked ...

    I grew up a fan of all the incarnations of Batman, dressing my sister up as Robin as we played the Adam West version all the time, until the Animated Series hit the waves; then it was all about that guy. Unsurprisingly, Nolan's reboot changed everything for me again. I guess you can argue my tastes evolved with the times, with and partly because of Batman?

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  2. I don't think the Adam West version was played on television in my area until a couple years after the animated series. I always wonder if anything would be different if I had seen that one first.

    So would you say that the Nolan version is your favorite now?

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  3. +JMJ+

    My first Batman was Adam West. And now that you mention it, yes, it's kind of freaky to stop and think that he, Christian Bale and Michael Keaton are playing the same character.

    There's a classic campiness to West's portrayal that means he'll always be charming, but I think that if I met Nolan's Batman first, I wouldn't have much patience with West. =P

    I don't know who my favourite Batman is, but my favourite Batman movie is still Batman Returns. Catwoman and the Penguin just made my year!

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  4. Yeah, I'd say that. I've been a fan of "take it and ground it in reality" stories like that for years!

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  5. +JMJ+

    PS--I watched a few episodes of the animated series and loved the slick, sophisticated 30s look even then . . . but by that time, I was growing into my teens and not as crazy about cartoons as I once was. I do recall being very impressed by Two Face--but no actual details. And I think I'm more of a movie girl in general, when it comes to Batman.

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  6. I will probably spend a lot of time talking about the animated series and go into specifics on at least a few episodes, so you will probably either feel like you know everything you need to know about the series, or be enticed to see more of it. :)

    After watching the first disc of Tiny Toon Adventures last night, I was thinking about just how on top of the game Warner Brothers was in television animation in the early 90s. A lot of other shows from that time period (even one I love as much as the X-men cartoon) just can't beat them in both the quality of the animation and the writing.

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  7. The Adam West Batman aired regularly in syndication when I was a kid and I still have fond memories of the colorful style and rogue's gallery of character actors gleefully being offered scenery to chew on. But it's not Batman for me.

    I was swept up in the Batmania surrounding Tim Burton's film. I had the action figures. The Batmobile. I even bought my mom some Bat-symbol earrings that she never wore. I enjoyed the way it mixed the camp with Burton's usual gothic tones, the sequel even moreso. But they're still not Batman for me.

    Batman: The Animated Series is my Batman. That's the first incarnation that really pulled me into the head of this tragic yet inspiring character and, like the X-Men cartoon, took decades of convoluted comic book backstory and suddenly made it clear and accessible without betraying the heart of it. Hell, some characters like Mr. Freeze and Clayface didn't come into their own until the tv series found strikingly iconic and engrossing ways to redefine them. I dare anyone to find a single episode of American animation that's better than "Heart of Ice", the thrilling and devastating introduction to Freeze.

    I love the Nolan films, too, and in my mind, they build off of the animated series, whether that was the intention or not. While even more grounded in reality, the deep exploration of what makes these bizarre iconic characters tick, the psychological and emotional trauma that drove them to become who they are, sometimes hero, sometimes villain, is very much the same.

    And I'm also a huge fan of Batman Beyond. Not just because it had the balls to try to reinvent an already established world by pushing into its future, but that it succeeded in a thread that the comic has often teased with, but never followed through on: legacy. Old heroes grow old and mantles are passed on to younger generations. And there's something so tragic about the fact that Bruce has to find someone fresh and new to pass the title on to, because none of the wards he's trained in the past can stand to be around him any more.

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  8. It's been awhile since I watched "Heart of Ice", but I like that one a lot too, even if I don't particularly care for the character.

    I agree with you that the animated series and Nolan's films are very closely linked. Probably not intentionally, but I think Nolan, Paul Dini, and Bruce Timm all view the Batman in a similar fashion at least.

    For some reason, I never really got in to Batman Beyond. Fortunately this review series will allow me to give it a second chance.

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  9. I'm very nostalgic of 60s era Adam West Batman due to many weekends watching it at my great-grandparents' house growing up (along with The Three Stooges).

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  10. I watched the West series a ton as a kid, and it holds a very special place for me. The 66 movie is an instant cheer up piece for me.

    I was at the perfect age to get caught up in Burton's Batman craze, too...but looking back those two movies aren't faves of mine. Not sure why now, they just haven't aged well for me.

    I have a VERY soft spot for Batman Forever. It played often during my "study whatever is on HBO" teenage years, and I knew it wasn't good....but I always had fun with it. Loved the cast, loved Alfred (my favorite part of the Burton/Schumacher era is EASILY Michael Gough as Alfred), loved the cheesiness - probably because it was more like the West show.

    I'm mixed on Nolan's films. I really enjoyed Batman Begins a ton, but I'm not as fond of Dark Knight as most are. I guess that, since I started with West, the villians have always been kind of interchangable to me...and I don't like when the movies focus more on them than Batman.

    Oh, and I've never really tried the Animated series and haven't played Arkham Asylum...though I do have a copy I've been meaning to get to.

    That's about it. Bring on more of the Bat!

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  11. I also have a very soft spot for Batman Forever, but I should probably wait for my review to explain why. :)

    I personally thought Dark Knight balanced a good line between showing off the Joker, creating Two Face, and explaining Batman's place in Gotham, but I can certainly see how you would think the focus was mostly on the villains.

    You need to play the game! Even without the animated series fan love, it is hands down the best Batman game ever made. You actually get to be a detective with stealth, not just go around punching and kicking like so many Batman games have had you do in the past.

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  12. Yeah, I did the thing where I sound like I don't like The Dark Knight again. :) I do it all the time, and I can't figure out why. (Embarassing confession - I fell asleep in the midnight showing of it opening night. I know, I know. It had been a long day, but there's no excuse.) It's awesome, but I just didn't connect with it as much as Batman Begins. It's still like a 1a & 1b situation.

    I didn't plan on playing the game, but I found a copy for an extraordinarily low price (Hooray for Wal-Mart computer glitches!) and now just need to make time for it. I've heard good things.

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