"Who Owns Batman?" (Part 2 of 2) Author: Robert Reineke
December 19, 2014
EDITOR'S NOTE: In PART ONE, the main claimants for ownership of Batman were ranked as follows:
11) Warner Bros./DC Entertainment
10) Batman Fans
9) Michael Uslan
8) Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers
7) Tim Burton
6) Dennis OíNeil/Neal Adams
Continue reading for claimant rankings 5 to 1.
5) Adam West
For an enormous amount of people, Adam West is the first thing that leaps to mind when Batman is brought up. There hasnít been a time since 1966 when his television series wasnít being broadcast somewhere and itís certainly still the first introduction to the character to many children. And with 120 episodes thereís true breadth to the world shown on that series. The series has embedded itself into our culture in a number of ways.
Thereís also been a backlash. You can get away with ďHoley rusted metal, BatmanĒ in 1995ís BATMAN FOREVER as a one-off joke, but overall the preferred tone for Batman is dark and serious rather than bright and campy.
Still, when you see flames jetting out of the back of the Batmobile, thatís because of Adam Westís series. You see a turntable in the Batcave or THE DARK KNIGHT RISESís Catwoman, Anne Hathaway, in a costume resembling Julie Newmarís, and you can point right to the obvious influence. Heck, inadvertently or deliberately, direct comparison was made to ďSomedays you just canít get rid of a bombĒ with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. Unfortunately, we havenít escaped the time when ďBiff, bam, powĒ doesnít often lead off a headline about superheroes or comic books. It also solidly cemented in the publicís mind that the big 4 villains are The Joker, The Riddler, Catwoman, and The Penguin and itís no coincidence that three of those characters prominently feature in GOTHAM. Or that there was fan speculation turning in the direction of The Penguin and The Riddler during Christopher Nolanís run. The animated BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD obviously didnít ignore the series either.
To the general public, I think the idea of Batman and Robin teaming up to fight over the top villains in colorful outfits is sort of the Platonic ideal of what they imagine the character to be. They just want it to be dark and serious at the same time.
It doesnít hurt that Adam West remains a charming personality. Heís spent the better part of 50 years as Batman basically, showing up at car shows, conventions, etc. and has left a positive impression. We can talk all we want about Batman as a dark, tortured yet heroic character, but Adam West supplies likability to the equation and has been about as good an ambassador for the character as you would want. Thereís a store of goodwill for the character that Adam West is directly responsible for. And that goodwill has made it impossible for this incarnation to be forgotten. (For all of BOF's coverage of the 60s BATMAN TV series, CLICK HERE.)
4) Bruce Timm / Paul Dini
Itís tough to understate the importance of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES to Batman. It remains enormously popular, it has breadth, and it already has a legacy. When Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill show up voicing enormously popular video games that only tells you part of that legacy. Heck, thereís a good bet to be made that Marvel Studios took a page out of the follow-up JUSTICE LEAGUE series when deciding on a shared universe as a direction.
When you talk about a Platonic ideal of what Batman is, BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES is a good place to start. It updated classic stories, it covered the full gamut of story types, it fleshed out an enormous amount of characters, including versions of Mister Freeze and Poison Ivy who have become fairly standard, itís dark yet fun for all ages.
It hasnít even truly ended as we see various animated series still emulate it in various ways. Weíre 20 plus years since it debuted and you can still find it airing regularly on cable channels and various animated movies being made as a result of it.
Frankly, I expect it to move up the list as kids who grew up on the show move into creative positions. The fact that Harley Quinn is poised to make her big screen debut in the near future (2016ís SUICIDE SQUAD) points that the series hasnít stopped making its influence felt. If anything, it looks like it could rise closer to the top.
3) Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan made a terrific trilogy with two films making over a billion dollars at the global box office. He helped create a modern version of the Joker, with enormous credit to Heath Ledger, thatís one of the most acclaimed villains of the millennium and won the biggest awards Hollywood can bestow. Cinematically, this is the version that reigns number one in movie-goers minds currently.
That said, Christopher Nolanís vision is so particular and specific, that it only captures part of Batman. Christopher Nolan told a story with a beginning, middle, and end and closed it off not leaving a lot of room for further adventures, officially or in the imagination of the fans. Itís an artistic statement for sure, but it also means that Nolanís Batman will never include The Penguin, Mister Freeze, The Riddler, Dick Grayson, a gothic Arkham Asylum, Batgirl, etc. For better or worse, thereís no room for a shared universe in Christopher Nolanís vision.
The craft of Christopher Nolan will be remembered and hopefully itís a standard that all future Batman filmmakers strive to emulate. That said, even Christopher Nolan strained a bit against the constraints of his realistic approach, with nuclear fusion reactor bombs, cell phone sonar locating, and microwave emitters being important in all the films. Grounding those larger than life gizmos in a realistic aesthetic is something that canít be sustained long term and doesnít seem to be the goal on anything thatís likely to come in the near future. Weíve already seen signs of moving toward a mixture of what Burton brought to the table and what Nolan brought to the table in future endeavors.
ďThe Dark Knight TrilogyĒ might be the cherry on top of all things Batman, but thereís a lot surrounding it that make up Batman. Sealing the films off from anything extraneous made the films themselves better, but also limited exactly how much of an encompassing vision it could be. I expect that while the movies will always be well respected, the influence of this particular vision on future Batman movies and stories is likely to be rather limited. Ask me again in 10 years and I think Christopher Nolan is going to rank lower on the list. (For BOF's extensive coverage of "The Dark Knight Trilogy," CLICK HERE.)
2) Frank Miller
Itís kind of amazing that Frank Miller only wrote two major Batman stories that are really acclaimed. That tells you a lot about how great those stories are. BATMAN: YEAR ONE and BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS represent the alpha and omega of Batman and have been well mined for content over the years, but they also have been a springboard for talented individuals to go in their own direction.
Part of what makes them influential is that they allow a lot of room to play in between them. Miller alludes to the middle of Batmanís career, but he also allows for people to define that in their own way. The two stories are also vastly different in style. YEAR ONE is grounded, realistic, and low key. THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is big, satirical, and operatic. You can fit ranges of stories and styles in between those two without violating either. You can carry threads forward, Miller created Carmine ďThe RomanĒ Falcone who ended up playing big roles in THE LONG HALLOWEEN, BATMAN BEGINS and GOTHAM and fill in backstory, the death of Jason Todd is immediately attributable to THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.
Arguably, by making Batman angry, or at least cranky, he gave the character a personality that heíd previously been lacking. Christian Baleís angry Batman didnít exist before Frank Miller. Ultimately, I think Grant Morrison is right that to do all of the things that Batman does, heíd have to have a balanced personality, but I also have to admit that angry, cranky Batman is also a more interesting, compelling, entertaining protagonist.
Itís hard to get away from Frank Miller at this point. You can spot his influence on BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, the lightning bolt illuminating Batman in the opening credits is just one such influence, itís present in Tim Burtonís BATMAN, particularly with the armor and military weaponry, and itís present in Christopher Nolanís ďDark Knight Trilogy.Ē And, already, you can see that itís going to be an influence on BATMAN V SUPERMAN. Almost all of the comic book runs since 1986 can be seen as a continuation of or a reaction to Frank Millerís two seminal stories.
Frank Miller could easily still be number 1 on this list.
1) ďBob KaneĒ
ďBob KaneĒ is in quotes as itís hard to attribute exactly what was created by the folks that were working on Batman during his tenure controlling the character up to the mid-sixties. Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, Dick Sprang, Sheldon Moldoff, and a whole slew of others all made monumental contributions to the character. Obviously, they had the benefit of being first and working on Batman for decades, but the character also didnít get a reboot like The Flash or Green Lantern in the Silver Age. Heck, Wolverine has been fleshed out a lot more than Len Weinís original conception.
Whatís amazing is how much those early stories are still vital. Many origins, including Batmanís, get reworked to keep them vital, sometimes not changing the plot points as much as the characterís motivation, but Batmanís origin and motivation are rock solid. Sure, someone may graft on a detail, like Martha Wayneís pearl necklace breaking as a metaphor for a shattered life, but the central idea remains the same. Ask me if Superman does what he does out of pure altruism, itís his destiny, or to connect with the regular population and it will change, or whatís Supermanís relationship with Earth and Krypton, and it will be a much more complicated answer which will amount to ďit dependsĒ.
You can hand a fan a copy of BATMAN #1 from 1940 and ask the question ďIs this Batman as you understand him today?Ē and the answer is yes. Sure, that Batman is less sophisticated and dated in many ways, but the core of the character is right there. Nobody has come up with a villain to really challenge The Joker for supremacy. Nobody has really improved fundamentally on the origin. Nobody has come up with a love interest as intriguing as Catwoman. Even though Dick Grayson hasnít been teaming up with Bruce Wayne regularly since the early 1970s, that relationship still is the first one that jumps to mind.
Certainly that core has been improved upon, substantially to be sure, but itís also true that nobody has really reinvented the wheel as far as Batman goes. Heís a dark character, sometimes teamed with the lighter Robin, who battles crazy, colorful human criminals with a combination of physical prowess and keen intellect. Heís not a revolutionary, even if Frank Miller suggested he might become one. Heís not sporting an Iron Man like suit consistently. He and the supernatural cross paths only occasionally. He doesnít slip into anonymity easily and remains a symbol. His vigilantism has limits.
Thatís been true for most of the last 75 years. It wonít necessarily apply to the next 75 as the 21st century undergoes its own upheavals. Could his mission change from criminals interested in robbing banks to battling the corrupt elite? Or more towards political corruption? Will video games come to dominate how we view the character? Weíll have to see. But, for the immediate future, heís still very recognizable as the character that Bob Kane and Bill Finger dreamed up 75 years ago.
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 heís a Civil and Environmental Engineer residing in Wisconsin.
Heís 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.