The hero we deserve: putting Batman in context

Robert takes a look at how three different portrayals of Batman reflect social issues of their time

When the very wise Gary Oldman called Batman ‘the hero we deserve’ at the end of The Dark Knight, he touched upon the mystery and adaptability of The World’s Greatest Detective. These traits make him a very versatile tool for social commentary. Batman, not Gary Oldman. By regularly representing what society ‘needs right now’ in film, Batman has come to reflect social concerns and changing opinions through the ages.

Unfortunately, space does not allow discussion for every screen Batman in full detail. Here I will discuss three key Batman productions from the character’s long history – the original 1943 serial, the launch of the Adam West TV Series and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

The 1940s: The Bat at War

Batman shot to success very quickly after first appearing in May 1939. He began with quite a pulp style, wielding a gun and dishing out murderous crime-fighting. Despite this, within a year he had a sidekick and a solo publication. He was enjoying regular team-ups with Superman in World’s Finest Comics by the autumn of 1940. 

However, World War II spreading across Europe changed the world of comic books greatly and patriotism was everywhere. Like many, Batman was partially co-opted into the war effort, mainly through a series of war bond-selling patriotic cover pictures. These brightly coloured pictures stripped away the dark mystery of the character. Gotham’s guardian even left the city to deliver a gun to the front line in broad daylight on the cover of Batman #30.

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Amongst this context, the first screen Batman was born when the 1943 Batman serial was released by Columbia. Like many interpretations to follow, this take on the character split opinions.

Bob Kane, co-creator of the caped crusader, voiced several concerns with the serial, including the poor casting of Robin (Douglas Croft) and Batman (Lewis Wilson), and over the ‘ordinary grey convertible’ replacing the Batmobile. He criticised the low production costs too. Kane dismissed the serial as ‘one of those typical propaganda vehicles for bolstering up the war effort’.

Alternatively, James Van Hise (in his book Batmania II) described the serial as a ‘faithful adaptation of Batman for the time’, suggesting that the changes made between comic book and screen may actually have enhanced the story of Batman for the 1940s viewership.

Instead of the most popular Batman villains The Joker and The Penguin, who appeared regularly throughout the wartime comics, Batman’s main adversary in the serial was Dr Daka (J Carrol Naish), a Japanese scientist who captures and brainwashes Americans. This character bears similarity to a minor comic villain Dr Deker who stole a brainwashing machine in the comics. By representing the axis powers as a criminal mastermind, the Batman mythos of urban crime-fighting could merge with relevant wartime concerns.

Batman himself was presented as a secret government agent, not an unlawful vigilante. Given the wartime setting, this change to the character’s backstory can be understood: while the nation is encouraged to unite against common foreign adversaries, attempting to make the audience side with a vigilante who takes the law into his own hands would contrast to the national sense of togetherness brought on by the war.

Other areas of the film do stay true to the Batman mythos, including the introductory narration to the first episode, The Electrical Brain, which captures Kane’s gothic tone: ‘high atop one of the hills which ring the teeming metropolis of Gotham City a large house rears its bulk against the dark sky’. This dramatic voiceover mimics the tone used by comic writers to create the brooding mood in his early Batman comics.

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So we can see that, despite the low production costs of the serial, the concept at the centre of it – adapting Batman to suit the society of the time – actually pre-empts how Batman would be used in the future.

The 1960s: The Camp Knight and Pop Art

In the mid-to-late 1950s, Pop Art emerged into British and American culture. The movement became known for ‘cartoonish characters, cheap industrial tools, gimmicky special effects, a flattened-out and exaggerated use of colour, repetitious imagery, and factory-like production’ (as William Brooker, author of Batman Unmasked puts it).

At the time, the comic book Batman was struggling under the scrutiny of Fredic Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent. Wertham’s homosexual reading of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson’s relationship was a contributing factor to the creation of the stifling Comics Code in September 1954.

Bat-Woman, a female counterpart for Batman was introduced in 1956, and her niece Bat-Girl, Robin’s intended partner, joined the new Bat-gang in 1961. Batman was now a family man, devoid of any gritty mystery that made him popular originally.

In his official biography Batman and Me Bob Kane reveals that he had been warned by his publishers ‘that unless sales picked up the next year, it would mean the demise of the Caped Crusader’. It is clear that Batman needed a sharp increase in popularity to keep going, and thankfully, the art world was about to make comic books stylish.

In 1963 Roy Lichtenstein, pioneer of American Pop Art, unveiled two of his most popular works ‘Drowning Girl’ and ‘Whaam!’, both of which recreate DC Comics – the former from Secret Hearts #83 and the latter All-American Men of War #89.

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William Dozier, who directed the Bewitched and Dennis the Menace children’s shows, was soon approached to take on the mantle of a new primetime Batman series. In the spirit of pop art Dozier himself admitted to embracing ‘the simple idea of just overdoing it’, creating a gimmicky television series with bright colours in abundance and even POW! and WHAM! signs, a clear attempt to echo the pillars of Pop Art through pure over-the-top camp.

Dozier’s Batman, which cast Adam West in the starring role, looked to tick all the boxes of Pop Art conventions, including what Brooker calls ‘Pop’s sense of wry irony, more alliteration, word play and the clunky dialogue familiar to Lichtenstein’s panels’, referring to Lichtenstein’s text boxes which included broken, emphasised dialogue such as ‘Why, Brad, darling, this painting is … a masterpiece…’. Sound… familiar… anyone?

The show was a hit which not only lead to more, increasingly outlandish, series and movies, but also saved the comic book Bat. Brooker notes an apparent ‘doubling [of] sales during 1966-1967’ causing a ‘second wave of Batmania surpassing the merchandising triumphs of 1940-1943’, and that ‘the first issue of Batman published after the TV show’s debut sold a phenomenal 98% of its one million print run’.

The comics soon began imitating the show. Dead-in-the-comics-but-a-hit-in-the-show, British butler Alfred Penniworth, was soon resurrected in the comics and Robin’s new TV catchphrase ‘holy [something] Batman!’ became a frequent occurrence in the comics.

So, Adam West’s Batman, through embracing Pop Art and camp, was the hero that the 1960s deserved, and as such, he saved the Bat to fight another day.

The 00s: Batman versus Terrorism

Just as World War II dominated American cinemas and comic books in the 1940s, the al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Centre on September 11th 2001 had an all-encompassing effect on popular culture. Given modern technological advances, the event was captured on various cameras from multiple angles, including camera phones on ground level. This meant that, unlike those who had to buy comic books or watch sensationalist recreations to gather an idea of what World War II might be like, the actual event of the devastating September 11th attacks was documented immediately and displayed worldwide almost immediately.

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The September 11th attacks spawned a wealth of films and also had an impact on the use of the handheld/found footage visual style. Roger Ebert noted the ‘unmistakable evocations of 9/11’ in Cloverfield which went on to influence a whole hand-held found-footage movement reaching through the action, horror and even comedy genres.

To react to this event in the comic book world proved to be a difficult task. Unlike the elongated struggle of World War II, in which superheroes could come and go in their attempts to support America, the September 11th attacks occurred in the space of one morning. How could a superhero be made relevant to an event that had already happened?

To send superheroes back to stop the attacks would be distasteful and disrespectful for those who lost their lives in the attacks, and the families that continued to mourn for them. This rendered superheroes essentially powerless: they had not stopped the event, and nothing could be done about that, comic writers had to find another way to adapt to this new all-encompassing social context.

There were a number of attempted ways to keep superhero comics relevant post-9/11, most notably Spider-Man in The Amazing Spider-Man Volume 2, 36, also known as ‘The Black Issue’ for its plain black mournful cover. Within the issue Spider-Man arrives at Ground Zero, the site of the attacks, too late to stop the planes or save everyone. Spider-Man is confronted by passers-by who demand to know where he was.

Marc Dipaolo (author of War, Politics and Superheroes) recalls another reaction, this time from DC figurehead Superman who apologised in a short story ‘for failing to leap from the pages of his comic book into the real world and prevent the September 11 attacks’. DC collaborated with Dark Horse to publish two graphic novels entitled 9/11; the cover bore the image of Superman facing towards a crowd of ‘real heroes’ including doctors, firemen and police officers and exclaiming ‘wow!’. In a similar vein, Marvel published Heroes in which the X-Men and the Fantastic Four collaborated with police officers and firemen to clear the rubble from Ground Zero.

Adapting Batman into this post-event aid was avoided, perhaps because a cloaked Gotham detective and a renowned figure of the night appearing in New York in broad daylight to help clear rubble was simply too abnormal or out of character. DC comics disaffiliated with Frank Miller’s plans to bring Batman toe to toe with Osama Bin Laden in a proposed graphic novel entitled Holy Terror, Batman!.

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Miller described the project as ‘a piece of propaganda’ in which Batman ‘kicks Al-Qaeda’s ass’, explaining his motives being based in the fact that ‘Superman punched out Hitler. So did Captain America. That’s one of the things they’re there for’. Opting out was a smart move by DC as when the project finally saw light over ten years after the event (with Batman replaced by The Fixer), it was described by Spencer Ackerman as ‘one of the most appalling, offensive and vindictive comics of all time’.

By this point though, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was already out, and in this film we can find Batman’s real battle against terrorism. The September 11th-focused readings of The Dark Knight began in press coverage of the poster for the film which depicted Batman standing in front of a large skyscraper with a burning Bat-symbol emitting from the front of the building as smoke billows up towards the tagline ‘welcome to a world without rules’.

Joshua C Feblowitz noted that ‘this imagery is hauntingly familiar. The flaming wing-shaped hole in the side of the building, the smoke-darkened sky, and flaming debris all conjure up painful memories’.

These associations with 9/11 increased upon the movie’s release, with several reviewers highlighting the parallels between the September 11th attacks and the plot of the movie, including Jeff Dawson of the London Times who asked ‘has the new Batman flick plundered its plot from 9/11?’, citing his reasoning in ‘blatant’ imagery such as ‘fire-fighters framed in tableau against the smouldering rubble of downtown’.

These references to terrorism all emit from one character – Heath Ledger’s Joker. While Bale’s Wayne is arguably the most suave and sophisticated playboy screen Wayne to date, Ledger’s Joker is amongst the most dishevelled, insane and unstoppable enemies to ever face him. Even when he has gone to great effort to steal a large sum of money, he simply turns the situation around and begins burning it. Ledger’s Joker is a self-professed ‘agent of chaos’, not satisfied with money nor on any personal vendetta – the Joker’s ever-changing stories about his past suggest the any personal motive is long lost to his insanity – he is simply driven to prove that ‘everything burns’.

Dipaolo describes Ledger’s Joker as ‘more of a force of nature than a mere man – an agent of chaos that forces Batman to use more ruthless means’. Indeed Batman must invade personal privacy to stop the Joker by tapping mobile phones. It’s worth noting that although the official launch of the Levison enquiry here in the UK wasn’t until 2011, phone hacking and illegal methods of obtaining information was already a public concern at this point, caused not least by the events of 2005 when Frank Lautenberg (US Senator) alleged publically that News America Marketing had been using illegal espionage to obtain their information. Ledger’s Joker is so evil, chaotic and unstoppable that, in order to stop him, Batman must resort to techniques so questionable that they mirror the illegal actions of the real-world media that created widespread scandal.

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In the cruel twist of fate at the end of the narrative, Batman defeats the terrorists, killing Two-Face and jailing the Joker, but must accept their position as Gotham’s most wanted. In Nolan’s frightening allegory for terrorism, the Joker and Two-Face turn Gotham against its own saviour, proof enough that the most perfect reputation can tarnish, that everything burns.

The Dark Knight then, as the Columbia serial did in 1946, adapted the Batman mythos to become more relevant to a new political landscape, creating an allegory for terrorism in the 21st century. Much of city is endangered, a whole hospital is destroyed and Batman’s heroic reputation is lost – Batman won the fight, but, as with America, his war with terror continues.

These three examples show us that on-screen Batmen are closely linked to their social context – since the 1940s the character of Batman has been used to convey political meaning and to act as a mirror to social context. This ability stems from the adaptability of the Batman mythos, which is non-time specific and carries the universal message of one non-powered man’s quest for justice and good defeating evil by any means. The on-screen versions of Batman use these universal themes to match their Batmen to the context around them, making Batman more culturally relevant than other costumed heroes.

Batman on-screen benefits from constantly being reborn and often matches social context in the way that comics cannot. The screen Batman’s adaptability has saved the comic book Batman from further adapting to World War II propaganda, saved the character through Pop Art in the 1960s and solved the difficult problem of post-9/11 irrelevance.

I haven’t had time to talk about all the screen incarnations of Batman here. But how do you think the other Batmen could fit into this theory..? 

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