In pop culture, certain characters will always be associated with one another. Some of these characters may have popped up in different media over the years, but many fans will recognize their iconic likenesses and instantly think of their origins. For example, we can all probably remember the first time we saw Spider-Man appear onscreen or the first time we heard his iconic voiceover introduction before each movie. Or perhaps it was when DC’s Batman appeared in live-action TV series for the first time. While audiences might have grown accustomed to seeing Bruce Wayne don a cowl and become Batman over the years, they’ll always know that origin stories like “la Familia”—Batman Begins—and “The Killing Joke” in particular became cult classics. A Brief History of Batman looks at how this modern vigilante has evolved. From comic book Superhero to TV series icon, this article traces Batman’s development from Gotham City’s leading crime fighter to a global symbol.
The Golden Age of Superhero TV: The 1960s-1980s
Superhero television took off in the 1960s and marked the birth of the modern Batman. With the success of The Man-Thing, the Fantastic Four, and Thelez the Superlative Chicken, American audiences were introduced to a new kind of hero. Batman was a natural choice to become the first TV superhero to feature a rock-solid foundation in the form of a moral code of ethics. That code would inform the character’s actions and relationship with his peers for decades. In addition to being the first television hero to draw inspiration from the pages of a comic book, Batman also represented a shift in the media’s focus away from the criminal side of things and toward the psychological. This shift saw the introduction of the concept of “darkness in man’s heart,” which linked the Batman stories to the subtext of anti-Semitism. Customers could now look forward to shows that explored the motivations and psychology of the heroes rather than just the villains.
Batman: The Dark Knight of the ’60s
By the late 1960s, Batman was the king of pop culture. The character was in a series of popular theatrical films and a popular TV show and was the star of a wildly successful comic book series. People’s imaginations were all engaged, unable to let go of the character they loved. With so much media and popularity for Batman, it was only a matter of time before someone tried to adapt his story for television. In his prime, the Caped Crusader was a brilliant, complex character with a fascinating back story. In a TV series, he is a washed-up, overweight loser with a drinking problem. Batman’s dark, brooding personality is nowhere to be found on TV’s Smallville-Esque series The Batman. Most of the show’s cast and crew couldn’t even bring themselves to dress the part. Instead of the brooding, dorky Batman of the comics, Smallville’s Batman is a stuttering, petulant lightning rod.
Batman: The Brave and the Bold
Even though it received a lukewarm response at best, The Brave and the Bold was a creative success for DC. It was a fun, predictable ride for longtime DC fans and introduced a few new heroes to the fold. The show’s spin-off, The Lying Adventures of Bastet, was a hit in its own right. It is noted for its ridiculous and often irreverent humor. In many ways, The Brave and the Bold was a precursor to modern cartoons like South Park and Futurama. It featured crude humor and a slapstick approach to storytelling, with slapstick elements borrowed from comedy movies. Batman’s relationship with his peers in The Brave and the Bold was unlike that depicted in the Silver Age of Comics. Unlike the sufficiently brilliant Bruce Wayne, The Brave and the Bold’s Batman is a dimwitted buffoon.
Batman: Cowl Changes, Crossover Events, and Other Comic Book Adaptations
Not every Batman story has to be a straight adaptation of the comics. The TV show must occasionally break the rules in order to tell a greater tale. This is especially true when dealing with larger-scale crossovers, like the one between Batman and Superman in “The War of the Worlds.” The crossover event was so hugely successful that it was recreated in film form. The new version starred Tom Cruise as Batman and was a bomb. In its place, The CW has used a more realistic approach to the character, which has worked quite well. The network has also used crossovers to introduce new characters to the DC Universe, including the psychotic meta-human Doomsday and the Society. These supervillains employ mind control and control devices to keep their members under their thumb.
Bruce Wayne is Confused, and the Internet is Numb
Many fans of the Batman mythos will likely be firmly in the “Numb” camp regarding their hero. After all, he doesn’t speak, he doesn’t date, and he doesn’t show any signs of emotion. That said, there was a time when comic book fans could read Batman as a “sane” character. In the early 1960s, the publication of the Batman comics jumped from six to 30 stories, and writer Bob Kane began to introduce elements that would prove to be vital to making Batman a viable cinematic character. For example, Bruce Wayne is a wealthy playboy who believes he has a responsibility as a wealthy American to support the poor and oppressed worldwide.
Anxious to BETA Test, Warner Bros. Orders a Pilot
With all of this in mind, WB decided to order a pilot for Batman. The series, tentatively entitled The Brave and the Bold, would focus on the Caped Crusader bailing out of a courtroom trap and teaming up with his arch-enemy, The Joker. Unfortunately for WB, the pilot was far more popular than the studio had anticipated. The series was a rating hit, and Warner Bros. realized it needed to bring the character to TV. The studio decided to order a second-season pilot, which was renamed The New Batman Adventures. The new series followed the same basic principles as the first while adding a few tweaks.
Showrunners Talk Up New Series, Announce Returning Favourite’s
With The New Batman Adventures numbers in the tank and a series order in hand, it was time for the team behind the show to turn their attention to the cast. Mostly, the producers stuck with familiar faces, but they brought in a few newbies, most notably comedian Patton Oswalt as the second Robin, Dick Grayson. Other than that, the producers stuck to familiar faces and delivered a characteristically light and silly series. Like the first series, The New Batman Adventures was canceled after two seasons, with the conclusion being a cliffhanger that would lead to the series finale.
While we can all still reminisce about our childhoods with memories of pop culture heroes like Batman, it seems that the path to television glory was less than smooth. The original team behind the character was never able to crack the code of success on their own and had to enlist the services of second-rate writers and cartoonists to bring Batman to life. Now, with the success of The CW’s hit series Arrow and The Flash, and the inevitable move to the big screen, we can look forward to seeing what fresh takes the character has in store for us. In the meantime, we can enjoy our favorite version of Bruce Wayne as the Dark Knight on television.