From ‘Detective Comics’ to The Dark Knight Rises’: A Bat-Timeline for the Cowled Crusader

Posted: July 19, 2012

Debuting in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939 (a mint copy will get you $1 million or more today), artist Bob Kane's Batman didn't have the otherworldly powers of DC's big star, Superman, but he did have a cool cowl and cape getup, a nifty alter ego (Bruce Wayne, millionaire philanthropist) and a determination to rid Gotham City of its crooks and goons.

Getting his own comic book the following spring, Batman has been with us ever since, with his rogue's gallery of neurotic nemeses, his trusty footman Alfred, that Robin kid, and various girlfriends and girl-fiends wondering why Bruce Wayne and Batman are never in the same place at the same time.

Just as Batman has experienced numerous tweaks and transformations in print, from Golden Age crime-buster to the brooding Dark Knight of the '80s and '90s graphic novels, his screen persona has changed over the decades, too.

Herewith, the Bat-iterations of Saturday morning matinees, TV and film, starting with the most recent - the blockbuster-in-waiting that opens everywhere Friday:

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Christopher Nolan completes his Bat-triptych, and Christian Bale does his Citizen Cane shtick, wobbling around Wayne Manor with a walking stick before getting back into fighting form. The villain is Bane, first introduced in Batman: Vengeance of Bane #1, a 1993 DC title. So Rush Limbaugh's lefty-conspiracy theory about Nolan and company taking swipes at Mitt Romney and Bain Capitol are nothing but hot air. P.S. - Anne Hathaway rocks as Catwoman.

The Dark Knight (2008) Was Nolan robbed of a Best Picture Academy Award nomination? Bat-fans think so, but a posthumous supporting actor Oscar did go - deservedly - to Heath Ledger, whose turn as The Joker was crazy and funny, sad and inspired.

Batman Begins (2005) Nolan's dark and stormy reboot of the Cowled Crusader legend, complete with Batman's origin story, and borrowing plot points and design elements from Frank Miller's graphic novels, notably Batman: Year One. After the debacle of Batman & Robin (see below), Bale's determinedly un-campy crimefighter comes as welcome relief.

Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998) A sequel to 1993's animated Mask of the Phantasm (see below), with the same attention to design and detail, and delivering a noirish punch. Mr. Freeze (voiced by Michael Ansara) is the titular bad guy, and Kevin Conroy once again voices Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. You Know Who. The theatrical release was delayed, drenched in the flopsweat experienced by. . .

Batman & Robin (1997) And speaking of debacles, Joel Schumacher's homoerotic teaming of George Clooney and Chris O'Donnell in the title roles came complete with rubber nipples and Bat-butt shots. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the villainous Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman is Poison Ivy, and Clooney is, strangely, a snooze. Schumacher eventually apologized for the film. Every which way, a bomb.

Batman Forever (1995) Joel Schumacher directs, and Val Kilmer moves into Wayne Manor, delivering a passable, but not much more than that, Batman. Lots of villainy, with Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and the Riddler (Jim Carrey) double-teaming our hero, and lots of needless Bat-shtick, too.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) From the creators of the Emmy-winning animated '90s TV series that debuted on Fox, Mask is steeped in vintage B-movie noir: figures swathed in shadows, crazed criminals (none more crazed then the Joker), and a stoic, lonely hero with a girlfriend who meets a tragic end. The opening title sequence, a flyover of Gotham City, is exhilarating.

Batman Returns (1992) Dark and darkly comic, Burton's Bat-sequel brought Michael Keaton (see below) back in his dual roles, and had Danny DeVito waddling and squawking as the mad, menacing Penguin. Michelle Pfeiffer makes a very fine, very feline Catwoman.

Batman (1990) Bat-fanatics were in a pre-blogosphere uproar over director Tim Burton's choice of Michael Keaton to play millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, who kept a Bat-suit ready in the Bat-basement of Wayne Manor. But the theretofore mostly comedic actor acquitted himself winningly, balancing dry wit with a jut-jawed integrity, and striking just the right crime-busting pose. From its noirish prologue to Danny Elfman's stormy score to Jack Nicholson's supersized spin as The Joker, this is one of the best of the Batmans. (Nicholson earned a huge paycheck for his shenanigans, and a cut of the grosses, which topped $400 million.)

Batman (1966-68) The hit '60s TV series kicked off with the unforgettably twangy Batman theme and was all camp, cliffhangers and comic book Pows! Zaps! and Whams! Adam West played it as loose as his Bat-tights, while Burt Ward didn't miss an opportunity to exclaim, "Holy something-or-other, Batman!" The superhero comedy show was really a platform for the celebrity villains, with Eartha Kitt and Julie Newmar playing Catwoman on different seasons, Burgess Meredith the Penguin, Frank Gorshin the Riddler, and Cesar Romero the Joker. There was a Batman movie, too, released in 1966 with a parade of the show's bad guys chewing up the cheesy backlot scenery. It's technically the first feature-length Batman adaptation.

Batman and Robin (1949) Produced on the cheap, with a montage of swirling newspaper headlines in lieu of actual action scenes, this 15-chapter serial starred Robert Lowery as Batman/Bruce Wayne and Johnny Duncan as Robin/Dick Grayson. These "glamorous figures" (per Chapter One's narrator) removed their masks and retreated to the suburbs of Gotham City, where Wayne Manor looks more like Ozzie and Harriet's modest home - even if Alfred the butler does answer the door. Crisp versions of the black-and-white serial are there for the viewing on YouTube.

Batman (1943) "America's number one crimefighter" sits at his desk in the Bat Cave, contemplating a couple of namesakes flapping their wings on his subterranean walls. Lewis Wilson is Batman, Douglas Croft is Robin, and J. Carrol Naish is the evil Japanese scientist Dr. Daka, inventor of a radium gun that turns people into zombies. With lots of references to "Axis criminals," the 15-part serial - the first film adaptation of Bob Kane's comics - was released at the height of World War II. Wilson's saggy Batman costume was released several decades before the invention of Spandex.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.

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