Evolution of Batman From the Character's Earliest Term Paper

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¶ … evolution of Batman from the character's earliest depictions on film and television through to the most recent adaptations by Christopher Nolan. The purpose of this paper is to illustrate the ways in which Nolan's Dark Knight has distinguished the Batman character from previous adaptations. It will also show how Nolan has elevated the superhero genre by depicting the fantastic world of the superhero in a realistic manner. Nolan also uses the film noir genre to introduce into the superhero mythology elements of doubt and ambiguity, which give rise to a number of questions pertaining to the role of the superhero. The synopsis of The Dark Knight, for example, is that the social order has broken down and vigilante justice appears to be necessary until the rule of law can be exercised by the proper authorities. The seriousness with which Nolan depicts his superhero in the "real world" of Gotham City serves as a means by which larger questions of morality and human nature may be explored. Nolan's cinematic exploration of the big questions concerning good and evil, and law and order, have helped transform the fantastical superhero genre into a respectable genre through which life may be observed artistically, realistically, and seriously.

The Evolution of Batman and the Elevation of the Superhero: an Analysis of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight

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The evolution of Batman in particular and the superhero genre in general (from comic book to television to film and back again) has seen in the latest adaptation from Christopher Nolan's Batman revamp a veritable tilting point for the character once known as the World's Greatest Detective. (That name may now be applied -- or misapplied -- to Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, a sleuthing, bare knuckle fighting, martial artist whose literary exploits have been translated into terms beholden of the superhero genre). It originally, of course, belonged to DC Comics' Batman -- a superhero quite different from the one envisioned by Nolan and company. Noted for being a darker, grittier, and more realistic vision (in which the old-fashioned Caped Crusader goes by his much gloomier moniker the Dark Knight), Nolan's Batman is said to have elevated the superhero genre from its campy and comedic origins. Indeed, Batman has taken on mythological status and even ventured to step foot in the "real world" of Gotham City -- a modern day metropolis, where corruption riddles every known institution and where capital is god. This paper will assess the ways in which Nolan distinguishes Batman from his predecessors since the hero's television/cinematic debut in the 1960s, and show how the Batman of the new millennium has both rejuvenated and altered perception of the superhero film.


As Justin Lucas writes, "the study of comic books and comic book films allows myriad research methods to deconstruct the meanings behind each panel and gutter, frame and edit" (13). In other words, there is no one way to assess the superhero film, whether it be fantasy, fable, realistic, or magical realism. Lucas continues, "Since the comic book film phenomenon is relatively new in its popularity, many researchers have yet to streamline their research styles into distinct avenues" (13). The study of the superhero has been, in a way, already performed by Joseph Campbell, whose Hero with a Thousand Faces attempts to be the definitive source of the hero myth. Yet, cultural studies theory and psychoanalysis both allow the researcher to view the superhero in a different way: The latter represents an assessment of the "inner workings of [the superhero's] mind…[while] researchers like James Iaccino and William Indick look at structural mythology not from a physical standpoint but as a reflection of society's psychological tendencies" (Lucas 19). This paper, however, will use genre studies as the framework for focusing on the evolution of Batman. Genre is "a framework of archetypes that helps readers connect with a storyline based on experience with similar (but not the same) materials" (Lucas 24). Because Batman as a superhero has undergone a number of transformations since his creation, the study of Batman from the standpoint of genre appears to be the most readily accessible vantage point.

Batman's Beginnings

Batman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939 for Detective Comics, and for more than two decades it depicted a hero defined by his mystery-solving techniques and cast of quirky characters against whom his braininess and eccentric costume could be balanced (along with his knack for solving crimes). By the 1960s, Batman found himself in the midst of social revolution; camp was the fad and Batman adapted to this fad by jumping from the page to the screen and enlarging the campy nature inherent in the Caped Crusader.

The 1960s television series (and film) Batman starred Adam West and Burt Ward as the Caped Crusader and his sidekick Robin respectively. The duo takes part in a number of campy and unrealistic battles with villains ranging from the Riddler to the Penguin. Both the series and the film that followed the first season in 1966 were cartoonish live-action; Batman was a kind of academic Robin Hood for the 20th century -- a superhero whose brains were more powerful than his brawn. His costume was nothing more than a leotard with a mask and a cape -- a far cry from the rigorous, metallic, Kevlar body armor sported by Nolan's Batman in 2005 and 2008. Adam West's 1966 Batman was a scientist complete with laboratory and learning: he was a combination of scientific know-how and daring acrobatics, accompanied by a moral compass epitomized by the classic scene from the 1966 film in which Batman attempts to get rid of a bomb only to be thwarted at every turn by a marching band, a couple of nuns, an eatery, a pair of lovers, and a group of ducks. Not willing to disturb any of them with an explosion, he makes a comedic dash to the end of the pier and is almost blown to bits himself. To compare, Nolan's Batman opens The Dark Knight (the sequel to Nolan's Batman Begins re-boot) by pulverizing a parking garage with the hi-tech, militarized Batmobile. In other words, Batman in the 21st century is less sensitive to his surroundings. Or maybe the public simply appreciates greater spectacle, more carnage, and a higher scale of destruction. In either case, Nolan's Batman is no Adam West. He is a playboy by day and a crusader by knight.

And, yet, as hard as it tries, Nolan's Batman cannot rise above the ridiculousness of its subject. On the one hand, it is an attempt to tap the film noir roots of the Batman story (Ebert) -- the conflict between good and evil, law and disorder. On the other hand, it is an attempt to make sense of a fantastic world in which a man disguised as a bat, with seemingly unlimited technology at his hands, acts as a kind of hammer of Justice. The fact is that Batman is better read as a myth -- one in which the mystery is neither probed nor slighted, but accepted with proper respect for the fantastic. Tim Burton's 1989 Batman adhered to this principle particularly well, blending the fantasy of the subject with the darker forces inherent in the material -- neither dismissing the darkness of the narrative nor diminishing the childlike lens through which it is viewed. In this manner, Burton revived the entire Batman myth, as well as the superhero genre, by playing to its strengths and accepting its conditions on its own terms. Burton's Batman was fantastical. Nolan's Batman is literal. In other words, Nolan's Batman steps out of the realm of fantasy to probe the underlying themes that have brought him and his arch-nemesis The Joker into existence. The Dark Knight is a meditation on two things: human nature and transcendence. Where Batman fits into that puzzle is a question posed through a series of precarious events involving a fantastic bank heist, a fantastic underworld, and a fantastic villain (who undermines his own philosophical position -- subversion of the totalitarian state through anarchy -- by turning into a totalitarian himself). Thus, Nolan undermines his own effort by presenting a villain that is inconsistent and a film that does not know if it is real or fantastic. It is only The Joker's tragic-comic mask and classic tag, "Why so serious?" that saves the film from sinking under the weight of its own premise -- which is, essentially, what are we to think of Batman?

Batman: Coming of Age

That question was, of coursed, posed earlier by Frank Miller in his classic The Dark Knight Returns, which appeared in print three years before Burton's Batman reboot helped return Batman and the comic book heroes to the big screen with its story of a brooding superhero emerging into the spotlight like a butterfly from its cocoon. In Miller's graphic novel, Batman is an aged veteran who trains an underground school of young vigilantes after having a final showdown with the representative of… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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