Batman movies in the 80s and 90s: the hero we deserved?

Feature Rob Leane 26 Feb 2014 - 07:19

How do capes, cowls and cultural context intertwine in some of history’s more troublesome Batman movies?

Once upon a time on this site, we looked at Batman’s ability to offer social commentary to different cultural contexts; you can find that piece here. Through analysing the 1943 Batman serial, the 1960s Adam West TV show and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, we saw how the caped crusader had repeatedly held a mirror to his surrounding contextual issues.

In the 40s, the Bat was a government agent enlisted to bring down a newly-made Japanese villain. In the 60s, inspired by Warhol and Lichtenstein, he became a Pop Art icon, actually superseding the popularity of the comics and securing the character’s future. In The Dark Knight Christian Bale’s incarnation went to questionable lengths to bring down an unstoppable terrorist, reflecting the political scandals of the modern age.

In these cases, Gary Oldman had been right. Batman was ‘the hero we deserve’, a fictional character who had an uncanny ability to reflect the context of our times. While other properties might be remade with better effects and a new script, Batman is re-casted repeatedly with a whole new message and purpose.

But is this always the case? As some readers rightly pointed out, how bad was society in the 90s if we ‘deserved’ to sit through Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin? What did dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight have to do with Tim Burton’s world-view? Had this writer just cherry-picked the only suitable Batmen for this theory, or could Keaton, Kilmer and Clooney join the culturally-aware cowl-wearers club? Let’s investigate…

1989 – 1992: The Cold War, Consumerism and Cowls

Right at the end of 1980s, Tim Burton unleashed a brand new version of the Dark Knight to an unsuspecting public. Before this, Batman had floundered around as a campy Adam West until he became culturally irrelevant and easily ridiculed. Now Batman had returned full of angst, hints of tragic backstory and not even the faintest whiff of a shark repellent Bat-spray. What did this reinterpretation say for life in the 1980s?

In terms of political clashes, this era was defined by the Cold War. Two nations poised with twitchy fingers above buttons of unfathomable destruction. Nations were indeed at war, but it wasn’t one that the most people could see. This was a time where important discussions were behind closed doors, paranoia amongst the public was high and a feeling that certain destruction could be only a minute away ran as an undercurrent to everyday life.

Aspects of this context undeniably bled into Tim Burton’s take on Batman. Long before Sam Raimi introduced J Jonah Jameson to the cinematic world and made such characters commonplace, Burton had created an on-screen universe where the press doubted, questioned and constantly speculated about Batman. The Dark Knight was a dirty secret the police didn’t want to admit to.

Keaton’s Bat was a shadow in the night tackling the underworld and spreading a reputation of well-earned fear despite rarely being seen. Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) was introduced as the journalist who constantly hounded the authorities for answers desperate for a quote to confirm his theories. He was consistently met with a wall of ‘no comment’ and several sarcastic onlookers doubting his ideas, despite the fact he was right.

Culturally, the 1980s has become known as a time of decadence and plenty in America. Films like American Psycho and The Wolf Of Wall Street have since displayed this era as a time of crooked commercialism where coke-fuelled stock-brokers ruled supreme and murderous high-flyers obsessed over their beauty regime, returning videotapes and Huey Lewis. Indeed, pop culture was on the rise and Walkmans, VCRs and tapes were flying off shelves.

Enter Jack Nicholson’s Joker, a villain who didn’t hide in the shadows. Instead he strutted around in public and terrorised the world through cosmetic products. This Joker danced through galleries with Prince blaring from his boom-box. He described his tortures as art and had an array of silly outfits for all occasions. His final evil plan took place during a huge parade and his threats were televised advertisement parodies.

This production was undoubtedly filled with cultural influence. Batman was the shady back-room character akin to the Cold War politicians while the Joker was the painted-on happy face of consumerism taking over public events, TV schedules and even shop shelves. By pitting the two of them against each-other as the shady mystery met the public problem, Burton visualised a microcosm for life in the 1980s, producing a hero that this era ‘deserved’. Burton continued his social commentary in Batman Returns by encouraging Daniel Walter’s satirical script which the writer described as showing ‘an evil mogul (Christopher Walken) backing a bid for the Mayor's office by the Penguin’ and aimed to prove that ‘not all villains wear costumes’.

1995-1997: The Political Subtext of Bat-nipples

While Tim Burton was a director who fully understood the social adaptability of The World’s Greatest Detective, the same cannot be said for Joel Schumacher. Sadly, this is where the ‘hero we deserve’ theory begins to struggle.

Nipples on Bat-suits, the return of catchphrases and a Batcave full of puns are quite difficult to fit into any kind of sociolpolitcal agenda. This was the time of the Clinton administration though, so perhaps the battles between wacky villains and poorly-dressed hammily-written good-guys could somehow be seen as a reflection of a crooked political landscape.

Joking aside, it is films like this which don’t do Batman justice. This is a character with infinite potential to produce socially-relevant stories that actually mean something, but in the hands of a director pushed to sell toys and make films that appeal to children (Warner Bros had been stung by the complaints from parents about Tim Burton's Batman Returns), this is easy to lose.

That isn’t to say that social comment isn’t completely missing from this era. The continuing rise of cable TV and home viewing in the 1990s took centre stage in the Riddler’s character arc in Batman Forever. Jim Carrey’s villain, using his new set-top box as a form of mind-control, became arguably the strongest aspect of the Schumacher years in turning popular culture against Batman in a similar way to Nicholson’s Joker.

If you really want to buy into the suggestion that these films have something social to say, why not uphold the belief that Mr Freeze had a distinct global warming subtext or that the lack of an expiry date on Bat-credit card was a warning of the credit crunch to come.

The Missing Movies: Sloppy Reboot Vs Socially Aware Series

If you’ve been paying close attention, you will notice that there are a handful of live-action Batman movies that still haven’t got much attention in these two articles. These are Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, which share Nolan’s take on the League of Shadows plot, and the 1949 Batman and Robin serial which served as a re-casted follow-up to the war propaganda of 1943.

While their exclusion thus far was hardly due to months of intricate planning, these productions actually provide a fitting comparison point to round things off with. The 1949 serial suffered thanks to a lack of having anything to say. Having lost the war context of its predecessor, the new serial suddenly seemed less like a film noir-esque culturally-relevant Batman interpretation and more like a knock-off attempt to grab some money while the character was still popular. Sound familiar?

Yes, this serial effectively pre-empted the Bat-decline of the 1990s, proving that money-grabbing studio execs and directors who are just looking to sell a popular product are a sure-fire way to lessen the cultural relevance of the caped crusader, and kill a franchise at the same time.

With a look at the arc that links Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises though, we can see how Batman movies should be done. These movies had a cultural message, pointing at the growing gap between the rich and the unemployed/criminal underclass. In the threequel in particular, Nolan presents Bane and his followers as an Occupy-style group of social activists.

These criminals don’t rob banks or kidnap people like generic super-baddies, they target the stock exchange and seek to make all people equal. This arc highlights the problem of the rich-poor divide, and sees Bruce Wayne provide a better alternative to a brutal gang-controlled Gotham by encouraging taking children off the streets through opening a children’s home and ensuring more non-corrupt justice by handing the Bat-baton to Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

This serves as proof that, in the hands of auteurs, good writers and committed production teams, Batman is capable of so much more than when he is simply used as a corporate cash cow. It is under the direction of Burton and Nolan that Batman has achieved the most critical acclaim and fan adoration. With cultural relevance as a cornerstone to their productions, they have shown how Batman can engage audience imaginations by holding a mirror to contemporary context. In reflecting Pop Art to save the franchise in the sixties and adopting war-era sensibilities in the forties, we can see further evidence of this theory at work.

While Batman can be the generic superhero fighting off the latest bonkers brain box, he has the ability to be a true cultural icon, reflecting social issues of varying eras through adaptability. This is mainly thanks to his mythos, which stands as a blank canvas with many possible interpretations. While Burton chose to only give teases of information, Nolan could weave in an intricate League of Shadows adventure before the cowl had even been considered. Compare that to Spider-Man who has had two major film adaptations recently which both had to include very similar emotional beats and plot points. Comparatively, Batman can be reinterpreted countless times to find new relevance and social meaning.

It seems likely that Batman will once again reflect popular social opinion when he returns to deal some swift justice to Zack Snyder and Henry Cavill’s Superman, last seen levelling Metropolis and snapping necks in Man Of Steel. While Bats may not be the main player in this movie, which is still a Man Of Steel sequel apparently, expect to see Batman continuing to mirror our concerns as he confronts Superman over the destruction, murder and lack of care in Snyder’s reboot that stunned viewers and movie critics alike.

This is a key function of fictional characters, to reflect and confront real-life issues. In the hands of the right director, Batman can do this better than most thanks to his adaptable mythos and his ability to fit several different styles. It’s only due to sloppy studio-rushed productions and unnecessary cash cow decisions that lead him off track. Let’s hope Snyder takes note of this and doesn’t just serve up some destruction porn in May 2016.

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