O Batman, My Batman

How many Batmen does one culture need?

While T.S. Eliot may have said, “We go to the movies because we cannot meet enough Batmans.”(emphasis on the “may”) audiences already traumatized by the DC Extended Universe now faced with the arrival of Matt Reeves’s ‘The Batman’ may beg to differ.

Here’s a timely typology of key and lesser known elements of The Pointy Eared One’s already ample IMDb portfolio.

Batman (1943)

Batman
Lewis Wilson as old-timey racist Batman.

Batman Type: Racist Old Timey Movie Serial

Batman: Lewis Wilson

Description and Traits: The Batman character was barely four years old and you probably could have picked up a 1939 first edition or Detective Comics #27, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” for less than its 10-cent cover price when Lewis Wilson first donned the fabled cowl to film the 15 20-minute chapters that made up this serial. The resulting WWII anti-Japanese–inevitably racist–propaganda film mostly followed the era’s Batman comic book design and narrative cues. Although Wilson’s costume with its devil horns-style cowl had enough of a resemblance to Disney’s devil of Bald Mountain to raise more than a few eyebrows.

Watchability and Production Values: Filled with ray guns, remote control zombies, pits full of hungry alligators, and a climax that appropriately took place in a fun house the serial thrilled audiences of the time. Sadly, its unignorable and pervasive racism ruins it for contemporary viewers.

Enduring Legacy: The first. There will never be another. Arguably, the popularity of the serial when re-released in theaters in 1965 as “An Evening With Batman and Robin” with a camp sensibility marketing push (racism intact) led to 1966’s Batman.

Batman Dracula (1964)

Batman Type: Andy Warhol

Batman: Jack Smith

Description and Traits: Early comic lover Andy Warhol art film. Little remains from this unfinished early sixties “Let’s all dress up and make a movie.” Warhol factory effort. Existing grainy clips of the film often shown during Warhol’s art exhibits include Warhol hangers on twirling in capes and mad scientist labs set up in discotheques.

Watch-ability and Production Values: Did I mention it was a low budget unfinished early sixties art film?

Enduring Legacy: Indelibly linked Pop Art master Warhol with the Batman franchise thus adding a frisson of real art-world cred to the franchise. Warhol would double down on his fan-boy affection by posing as Robin to German avant garde chanteuse Nico’s Caped Crusader in a not-bad-at-all 1967 Esquire photo spread.

Batman TV Series and Related Film (1966-1968)

Batman Joker

Batman Type: Swinging Sixties Bright Knight

Batman: Adam West

Description and Traits: Relentlessly cheerful, day-glo, mass-market camp with a Pop Art sensibility, granny panties adorned, ab-less, slim-limbed, but velvety voiced body positive Batman was the right superhero for the right era.

Watch-ability and Production Values:  The slyly self aware “Bright Knight”; perhaps second only to Hamlet in his capacity for, what literary critic Harold Bloom terms, “self-overhearing”, charmed a nation, intrigued the art world, and, as planned, helped sell a lot of color TVs.

Currently mucho controversial in comic book circles artist/”re-contextualiser” Roy Lichtenstein continued the Pop Art intertwine with this artiest of Batman iterations when Roy was commissioned to design the 1966 TV Guide cover featuring the series. POW!

Enduring Legacy:  Stands the test of time. Still interacting with and influencing pop culture today.

Batman (1989) Batman Returns (1992) Batman Begins (2005) The Dark Knight (2008) The Dark Knight Rises (2012) DC Extended Universe (2016-2022)

Batman Type: Dark Knight Grim Batman

Batman: Michael Keaton, Christian Bale, Ben Affleck

Description and Traits: Frank Miller’s 1986 Dark Knight graphic novel inspired the now familiar teetering on nihilism, grim, violent, gloomy, prone to striking rooftop poses, Batman that’s had such a remarkable run.

Watch-ability and Production Values: Early to mid Grim Batman clearly gave the audience what they wanted. Low light, surly, time to take out the trash, vicarious vigilantism served up with a world weary, grumbly, gritty, bone-breaking panache.

Enduring Legacy: Five great films followed by an almost unavoidable decline due to Grim Batman audience exhaustion syndrome coupled with poor execution and really bad lighting in the DC Extended Universe efforts. Upside. One too many Grim Batmen bred Lego Batman.

Batman Forever (1995) Batman and Robin (1997)

Batman Type: WTF

Batman: Val Kilmer, George Clooney

Description and Traits: Not quite 100 percent in actors. They didn’t quite believe they were Batman. We didn’t either. Unlike Grim Batman Michael Keaton variant, easily overwhelmed by big star villains.

Watch-ability and Production Values: Director Joel Schumacher put together some big budgets and a lot of it appeared on the screen. Viewers left theaters feeling empty and overstuffed at the same time.

Enduring Legacy and Impact: Apart from the much noted nipples on the bat suits – none. Kilmer and Clooney mostly did “let the costumes do the acting”.

Lego Movie (2014), The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

Batman Type: Lego Parody

Batman: Will Arnett

Description and Traits: Adorably squat, comically grim, endlessly self-absorbed, overly in love with his “Dark Knight” narrative, Billundian Batman.

Watch-ability and Production Values: Deservedly hugely popular films. The Lego Batman scene of the ever the downer, “world’s greatest detective” wet blanket Batman discovering he’s not been invited to the Justice League of America anniversary party was a blow from which Grim Batman may never recover.

Enduring Legacy: Helped signal the aesthetic dead end Grim Batman had become. Ben Affleck had reason to bail. However, fun as it is, parody; a parasitical art form needs a healthy “host” to survive. With Grim Batman in retreat, no surprise Lego Batman 2 (2021) was canceled. Fortunately, director Matt Reeves, all up in his feelings, target rich, Earth 2 Emo Batman has arrived!

The Batman (2022)

Batman Type: Earth 2 Emo Batman

Batman: Robert Pattinson

Description and Details: Character look by way of Dr. Caligari’s Caesar the Somnambulist via Edward Scissorhands. Character angst courtesy, honorary first millennial, Kurt Cobain. Result? Mopey, slump shouldered, struggling not to take up too much space, Margaret Keane orbed, dreamboat for moody girls Earth 2 Emo Batman. Pattison in this incarnation certainly does have the air of those white kids Chris Rock purports to cross the street to avoid when seen coming.

Watch-ability and Production Values: Reeves struggled Batmanfully with the challenge of producing a “new enough” take and may well have produced a film the many fans of the franchise will adore. On the production side, it’s nice to see Reeves nod to realist painter and noir film aficionado Edward Hopper. The foreboding Riddler all alone in the diner scene appears to borrow heavily from Hoppers 1942 oil on canvas classic Nighthawks. A master of melancholy who was both influenced by and influenced film, Hopper would have been pleased.

Enduring Legacy: Too soon to tell, although corporate spin-offs are already in play. If it keeps Lego Batman going it will have all been worthwhile.

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Samuel Porteous

Samuel Porteous is a Shanghai/Hong Kong-based artist/author and founder of Drowsy Emperor Studio represented by Creative Artists Agency (CAA). His work includes visual arts, illustration, graphic novels, screenwriting and film. Sam has published in the WSJ, Financial Times, SCMP, Fortune China, the Globe and Mail, National Post and Hong Kong Standard among others. He is also the author of "Ching Ling Foo: America's First Chinese Superstar" a biography of the late polymath magician come diplomat and author/illustrator of the graphic novel series Constable Khang's Mysteries of Old Shanghai.

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