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A kinder, gentler Batman

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Batman Returns, but he never really left. For more than 50 years now, through movies, TV shows, and cartoons as well as comic books, Batman has practically been our national nocturnal mammal. In fact, there are many more screen versions of Batman available on video than most moms and dads may realize, offering a wealth of alternatives to parents who find the gushing blood and kidnapped babies in Batman Returns a tad inappropriate for kids.

Of course, Batman Returns announces its intentions with a PG-13 rating, as did 1989’s Batman. But it’s still start-ling to see a venerable comic-book hero in a movie that’s not meant for young children, especially since Warner Bros. is aggressively pushing another huge wave of Batman-themed toys in such kiddie venues as McDonald’s.

To put the character in perspective, the Batman of Tim Burton’s two movies is actually a throwback to the bitter, traumatized child of violence that artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger created in 1939 for Detective Comics, in which a Dirty Harry-style Batman beat up thugs, occasionally used a pistol, and shot to kill. When the first of the Col-umbia Pictures movie serials was released in 1943, only hints of this nightmarish vigilante remained. In Batman, we first encounter our hero in a German-expressionist Batcave straight out of a Fritz Lang film noir. This Batman, played with verve by Lewis Wilson, gleefully uses psychological torture on a captured punk who’s deathly afraid of bats. Yet through most of the serial, Batman and Robin (Douglas Croft) engage in kiddie- suitable derring-do as they battle suave Japanese saboteur Dr. Daka (J. Carrol Naish) and his disintegration gun. (The narrator’s wartime anti-Japanese slurs have even been edited out for video.)

By the time of Columbia’s 1949 sequel, Batman and Robin, Batman has become even more of a conventional hero. Played in this version by Victor Mature look-alike Robert Lowery, this serious-minded Batman fights an equally serious arch-villain, the Wizard (William Fawcett), who doesn’t cackle or camp it up through 15 chapters — despite deploying his thieves from an underground sanctum of Flash Gordon gadgetry.

Batman became still more straitlaced years later in animation, even though kids had presumably grown more sophisticated since the ’40s. In TV cartoons from 1968’s Batman-Superman Hour to the ’70s’ Super Friends, the Caped Crusader is as chummy with Gotham authorities as he is with Robin, while battling the Joker and the Penguin.

In all of these videos, Batman is an old-fashioned kids’ hero: ingenious, fair, brave, and noble, with a leavening sense of humor. These same heroic qualities are exaggerated for laughs in the 1966-68 live-action TV show Batman and its ’66 movie spin-off, both starring Adam West. Though he’s campy to teens and adults, young children take this Batman straight, largely because that’s the way West played him. Even when a rubber shark chomps bloodlessly on his leg in the movie, Batman is still portrayed as a hero, not a buffoon.

Neither is he a fool in 1989’s Batman, but he’s no fun, either. Grim and tedious, like much of the film itself, Michael Keaton’s troubled Batman has no particular traits a kid can relate to, much less admire. In comparison, all the other Batvideos have distinct assets: The serials, for all their quaintness, move like a bullet train. The cartoons, though silly and artless, have more easily graspable and well thought out narratives than either of the new films. And the 1960s TV show and movie may be deliberately corny, but their eye-catching gimmicks and visuals make them great dumb fun. In short, when it comes to Batman and children, go West, young person.

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