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Batman: The Many Faces of Gotham’s Dark Knight

The very first appearance of Batman, in Issue #27 of Detective Comics released in May 1939, was a dramatic entrance for a character who has gone on to become one of our most enduring cultural icons, still popular enough after 72 years to make BatmanArkham City a major game release!  In contrast to the bright, colourful Superman portrayed in his Action Comics debut the year before, ‘The Batman’ was shown as a dark, Gothic figure swinging across the rooftops with a struggling crook caught in a headlock.  The first page of the story promised ‘A mysterious and adventurous figure fighting for righteousness and apprehending the wrong doer in his lone battle against the evil forces of society’.

Batman’s first ever appearance in a comic book encapsulated perfectly the essence of his character.  A dark, mysterious vigilante, who dressed in a scary costume in order to terrify criminals.  However, as the 20th century moved on, later portrayals of The Batman diverged from this premise- sometimes wildly, sometimes for the better.  There are a number of different Batmen in different types of media, and the Batman portrayed in Arkham Asylum (and its upcoming sequel, Arkham City) strikes his own distinct note.  

In the world of comics, Batman has, for the most part, remained fairly consistent to his original character.  Throughout the Silver Age of comics, lasting from roughly 1956 until 1970, the tone of Batman’s comics remained fairly light-hearted; Gotham’s caped crusader still swung around the rooftops dispensing heavy-handed justice, with the same air of boyish adventure that was shown in his earlier, Golden Age appearances.  An overall lightening in tone due to a mainstream backlash against comics (which were seen to be ‘corrupting’ children) led to more science fiction stories and a reworking of some of Batman’s villains; the Joker became a goofy prankster instead of a psychopath who murdered when he felt like it.
However, as the Silver Age came to an end in the 1970s, a paradigm shift in the tone of the wider comics world began to affect Batman, lending a new air of grit and darkness to the character.  The Joker returned to the comics (after a four-year absence) and went back to his roots as a homicidal maniac who committed brutal murders in a whimsical fashion.  As the 80s rolled on, Batman continued to get grittier; Frank Miller produced the noir-esque The Dark Knight Returns, one of the most influential Batman comics ever released, and revamped the character’s origin in Batman: Year One.  While Miller’s comics are an extreme example of ‘modern Batman’, his treatment of the character- a complex, Dionysian figure who cloaks himself in darkness in order to fight evil- has prevailed into the present day.  Despite the proliferation of allies that Batman has developed and surrounded himself with (Robin, Catwoman, Oracle, Batgirl, Huntress, etc.) that gritty edge has remained a key part of Batman stories, and has bled through into other media portraying the character.  

The film and television portrayal of Batman faced a much longer path to modernism, however.  Batman’s first appearance on film was in a 15-part serial released in 1943, called simply Batman.  The show maintained many of the key parts of the Batman mythos, but suffered from terribly low production values and a lack of inherent respect for the subject matter; the actor portraying Bruce Wayne/Batman, Lewis Wilson, appeared overweight and unathletic, with a high voice and a Boston accent that did not come close to approximating the cultured tones of Bruce Wayne in the comic.  The costumes looked ridiculous, and both Batman and Robin, played by Douglas Croft, lacked the fitness to convincingly fight crime.  The series was almost unintentionally farcical, and unfortunately began a trend that would continue in Batman’s film and television appearances for another 40 years.

Another Batman serial, this time entitled Batman and Robin, came out in 1949, but it was again low-budget and farcical as a result due to the silly costumes and production errors.  1966 saw one of the most famous live-action portrayals of Batman hit the screen- Adam West played Batman in a TV series which was the most successful on-screen showing of the Dark Knight yet, even if it differed drastically from the tone set in the comics that were being released at the time.  Adam West’s Batman was a campy, pop-art comedy series which featured slapstick, satire and action-comedy as well as plenty of fight scenes adorned with huge ‘BIFF’ and ‘POW’ captions.  It was silly and fun - but unfortunately ruined the mass-media credibility of Batman as a serious character for several decades.

Tim Burton’s Batman reboot in 1989 brought Batman back to his darker comic roots and laid the groundwork for a more serious, mature Batman on the big screen.  The film itself was a big box office success, and was the highest grossing film based on a DC comic book until 2008's The Dark Knight.  It also spawned Batman: The Animated Series, which is both critically acclaimed and loved by fans of the character.  Batman: TAS helped to kick-start the entire DC Animated Universe, and the voice actors from that series have become synonymous with their characters; Kevin Conroy voiced Batman and Mark Hamill voiced the Joker.  Both, coincidentally, voiced the characters in Arkham Asylum and will be reprising their roles for Arkham City, which draws a big connection between the games and the animated series.

Following the success of Tim Burton’s Batman and the sequel Batman Returns, the Batman films started to go downhill with a change in director; Joel Schumacher (reviled by fans as ‘the man who put nipples on the Batsuit’) brought back camp and bright neon, making Batman Forever into a more family-friendly film that failed to hit the mark with reviewers, and Batman & Robin into a turgid critical disaster which was so bad that it spurred a public apology from the director.  Once again, Batman’s credibility seemed to have been ruined, and it was not until 2005 and the release of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins that he could be seen as a serious character again.

The success of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is due in no small part to the way in which they treat the Batman comics.  Nolan mirrored the dark, sophisticated tone of modern-day Batman comics in his films, slipping in thought-provoking ideas on the nature of morality alongside excellent action sequences.  Heath Ledger’s Joker was pitch-perfect, reflecting on the essential duality between him and Batman while cackling insanely and trying to kill people.  

he success of Nolan’s Batman films, along with the incredible fan loyalty to Batman: The Animated Series, can be seen as the foundations for the release of Arkham Asylum in 2009.  The Batman in Arkham Asylum is voiced by Kevin Conroy, as in the Animated Series, wears an armoured Batsuit similar to the one worn by Christian Bale in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and uses the detective skills that he has honed across the 70 years that the Batman franchise has existed.  In short, the game combines all of that history into a strongly-developed Batman for the modern era, one who punches bad guys and solves crimes with his genius-level intellect, coming up against the most interesting and diverse Rogues Gallery (in my opinion) of any superhero.  The Batman of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City is distinct from those we’ve seen in other media due to that synergy and the desire of the game’s creators, Rocksteady, to do the character justice; they have looked at the original portrayal of Batman and stayed true to that, while bringing in the most successful elements from other versions of the character to create a critically-acclaimed and excellently-pitched portrayal of Gotham’s Dark Knight.

It remains to be seen where Batman’s character will go from here, but if the success of the Christopher Nolan films and Arkham Asylum is anything to go by- comic fans, filmgoers and videogamers like dark, serious Batman.


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