"Who Owns Batman?" (Part 1 of 2) Author: Robert Reineke
December 18, 2014
Who Owns Batman?
Recently Scott Tobias of The Dissolve asked the question “Who Owns Star Wars?” He wasn’t asking the question in the literal sense of who owns the title, Disney owns that, but in the sense of the fact that all that Star Wars contains is either in conjunction with George Lucas’ vision or in knowing opposition to it. When you say “George Lucas’ Star Wars” it’s pretty synonymous with the cultural perception of Star Wars.
In many cases the answer to that question is obvious. Sherlock Holmes is obviously Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation. Dracula is still Bram Stoker’s creation. However, with Frankenstein you’re more likely to conjure up visions of Boris Karloff than what Mary Shelley set down. With Iron Man, I’d argue that Robert Downey Jr. is the first thing that will come to mind. Sometimes it’s complicated.
Which brings us around to our favorite Dark Knight…
Or Caped Crusader...
Or one half of a Dynamic Duo…
Or Darknight Detective…
Or Weird Creature of the Night.
As you can tell, there are certainly competing visions all under the name of Batman. Sorting them out is the hard part and somewhat subjective.
To my mind, here are the main claimants for ownership:
Dennis O’Neil / Neal Adams
Steve Englehart / Marshall Rogers
Bruce Timm / Paul Dini
Warner Bros. / DC Entertainment
Let’s start the process of elimination and rank these various claims.
11) Warner Bros./DC Entertainment
In a court of law, this is the right answer. But, unlike Marvel, the hand of Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment has been relatively light on the character, ceding authority to auteurs like Christopher Nolan and Tim Burton on the big screen and to creators like Bruce Timm and Paul Dini on the small screen. Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder have been driving Batman for the better part of a decade and seem to march to the beat of their own drummer. Warner Bros. ended up driving the franchise on the big screen off a cliff with BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997) and seem to have learned their lesson.
Warner Bros. might have more of a claim if the next wave of films with Batman is a success, but right now they’ve been pretty hands off as far as owners go and have been more reactive than proactive.
10) The Fans
I’ll say this for fans of Batman, they’re willing to flex their muscles and voice their opinions. They essentially vetoed the franchise from continuing in the wake of BATMAN AND ROBIN when box office numbers allowed for the possibility of continuing. They’ve talked the talk and walked the walk. They’re not lemmings. And that gives the fans some real power over the character and his direction.
Also, lobbying for Christian Bale as Batman likely had an impact.
Otherwise, it’s hard to mount much of an argument. Finding a consensus of opinion on just what is Batman among fandom is sometimes like herding cats. Even among the general parameters, there is debate about how dark, serious, and realistic they want Batman to be. How much detective work they want to see. How rigid they hold “no killing” to be as a code.
Moreover, it’s hard to point to a time when fandom as a whole has shown forward thinking and vision. The controversy over the casting of Michael Keaton and Heath Ledger, two moves that turned out to be quite brilliant, shows a lack of imagination and vision. Fandom is good at looking backwards, but not so good at looking forward. In many ways, saying fandom owns Batman is saying that the tail wags the dog.
9) Michael Uslan
Michael Uslan has played an important part in getting Batman to the big screen with dividends being paid to this day. There’s a reason that his name is on every film. And his vision of the viability of big budget, dark, serious Batman films was truly forward thinking.
That said, every indication that his creative role in these individual films is limited. He’s a voice at the table, but he’s not the voice at the table. If I was asked to describe Michael Uslan’s vision of Batman, I’d be stumped in providing much for specifics. CLICK HERE for Jett's most recent interview with Michael Ulsan for the 25th anniversary of BATMAN '89.)
8) Steve Englehart / Marshall Rogers
Their run was short in the grand scheme of Batman, but it looms large. And there’s good reason for that it took all the elements that made up Batman previously, filtered them through their artistic vision, and came up with something that was both fresh and classic.
Marshall Rogers brought Gotham to gothic life like it never had been before. Rogers also found the sweet spot between cartoony Batman and realistic Batman that combined the strengths of both approaches. His vision of The Joker managed to swing between funny and scary on a moment’s notice. Englehart managed to take earlier stories of Batman and polish them into something fresh and modern. Moreover, they found the man inside the suit and gave him real conflicts and perhaps his first really adult relationship with a love interest. It’s not the only way to do Batman, but it’s a timeless model of how to do it right.
It’s their vision that Michael Uslan first tried to bring to the screen and although Tim Burton’s film is distinctly different in a number of ways from that vision, you can easily spot the influence. Their influence is just as apparent in BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES with the depiction of Batman bearing a striking resemblance to Rogers’ version. There are lingering vestiges of that vision in Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” and the current Batman-themed TV series GOTHAM.
The hard part in assigning ownership to Englehart and Rogers is in deciding how much is distinctly their own vs. how much is just a smart combining of previous material. “The Laughing Fish/The Sign of the Joker” is both a terrific story and a reimagining of the Joker story in BATMAN #1. I can make a case that they should be #1 on this list, but separating them from the work of Bob Kane and company is where the difficulty lies.
7) Tim Burton
His vision of Batman may have been supplanted to an extent, but that vision is still with us in many ways. The technology may have evolved with time, but Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films still have black rubber suits, dark windowed vehicles, often with a cockpit that slides forward to open, and nods towards exaggerated architecture, like The Narrows. Not to mention a line like “I’m Batman.” The Batman symbol is certainly still iconic, owing largely to the marketing surrounding the 1989 movie. And the enormous success of that movie and resulting Batmania has convinced Warner Bros. to always be looking towards making another Batman movie, even during difficult periods.
Even beyond live action, you can point to the 1989 movie having an impact on comics. Not to mention that BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES probably wouldn’t exist without it. Even now, in a post-Nolan Batman world, you can see some of Tim Burton’s influence reassert itself in GOTHAM and some of the early looks at BATMAN V SUPERMAN.
If you had asked me “Who Owns Batman?” in 2003, Tim Burton would rank much higher on this list. But obviously Christopher Nolan came along, and while there were some holdouts, “The Dark Knight Trilogy” is the consensus better movies.
6) Dennis O’Neil/Neal Adams
Make no mistake, these two are enormously influential. In the aftermath of the 1960s Batmania, they reinvented Batman as a dark creature of the night with help from Frank Robbins, Irv Novick, and others. Moreover, Neal Adams created the ideal “realistic” version of Batman that’s been a heavy influence on generations of artists that have followed him. They brought back Two-Face, returned The Joker to his homicidal maniac ways, and introduced Ra’s al Ghul and Talia. Batman became a martial artist rather than a brawler and they balanced the gothic with the realistic.
That said, the team worked on a relatively small body of work together and although much of it is good and memorable, it’s more in a general way. We remember a shirtless fight in the desert with Ra’s al Ghul, we remember “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge,” we remember images, but does anyone really sit down and discuss the plot and themes of more than that? We remember the idea of Batman as hairy-chested love god having globe-trotting adventures in the 1970s without really identifying with any story in particular.
None of the above should be considered any sort of knock on them. Adams’ still sets the realistic model for the character in comic books. It’s no coincidence that Ra’s al Ghul, The Joker, Two-Face, and Talia popped up in Christopher Nolan’s films. (Nor should the fact that Dennis O’Neil was group editor when Bane, “Knightfall,” and “No Man’s Land” were conceived be forgotten.) The only reason that they’re not higher is simply due to exposure. You can’t put their work together into a trade paperback that won’t jump around from story to story. Even the Ra’s al Ghul storyline reads like it’s a bit scattershot, and Neal Adams only worked on parts of it. There’s no THE LONG HALLOWEEN or even STRANGE APPARITIONS collection which shows the whole being more than the sum of the parts.
Robert Reineke watched BATMAN as a child in the 1970s and the scientist Batman may have had an influence on him pursuing a career in the sciences. Now he’s a Civil and Environmental Engineer residing in Wisconsin.
He’s recently finished writing a monthly column on the films of Akira Kurosawa at Where the Long Tail Ends where he also hosts the "Still Watching the Skies" podcast and can be found regularly at Modern Myth Media expounding on superhero movies and television.