Today’s Batman is a dark, somewhat-brooding character that is faced with morally ambiguous decisions and has his ethical structure continuously tested. It is easy to forget that it wasn’t always this way, especially if your experience with Batman (or even superheroes in general) doesn’t extend past the most recent films.
See, Batman was one of numerous heroes who underwent a significant change in image during what has been called “The Dark Age of Comic Books”. And while the Batman of the comics of today may have moved slightly away from the grittier feel of the late eighties and early nineties, the Batman movies (and, one might argue, superhero movies generally) have mostly stayed there. More on that later. For now: how did this happen? How did Batman go from Adam West to Christian Bale?
The Dark Age Begins
Batman’s transformation and the dark metamorphosis of comic book heroes generally started in 1986, with the release of The Dark Knight Returns. In it, Frank Miller takes a harder and frankly darker look at Batman.
In The Dark Knight Returns, Bruce Wayne is 55, having spent the last 10 years drowning his guilt from the death of the last Robin at the bottom of numerous bottles. He is ultimately convinced to bring Batman out of retirement by a series of events that threatens Gotham.
The art style held nothing back, showing violence in more graphic detail than before, and dealt with themes that had hitherto been ignored by superhero fiction. Batman was re-cast, and was less the white-bread hero he had been previously. Although the Adam West Batman of the 60s TV show was made to be intentionally campy, this Frank Miller miniseries represented a serious change to the Batman of the comics as well. Batman was a flawed human being faced with terrible events and ethical gray areas.
The other watershed graphic novel released around the same time was Watchmen which, in addition to the graphic violence, depicted a sexual assault. You could argue that the “heroes” in Watchmen have good intentions, but all of them are heavily flawed people facing real ethical problems and Alan Moore pulls no punches regarding the often-brutal violence that takes place.
This tone in comics continued well into the nineties. Both Marvel and DC rushed to make changes to existing heroes. In some cases this fit, in others it became truly bizarre. The Dark Knight Returns was a good story that put Batman into a dark situation, and he reacted and developed accordingly. But a lot of the changes started with a “hero-first” approach, where it was obvious that the intent was to first redesign the hero to be darker, rather than letting the circumstances of the narrative do that. For example, Aquaman:
His hand is eaten by piranhas and replaced with a hook. He grows a suitably-gross hobo beard.
The Legacy of the Dark Age
Love them or not, the comic books and graphic novels of the late eighties and early nineties were greatly influenced by “The Dark Age.” Spawn and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman are products of this period, and several heroes received succesful and well-received mature reboots during this period of time including Animal Man and Doom Patrol. Iconic characters like Carnage were introduced, and prior “dark” villains like Venom were given their own comic series.
Depending on your viewpoint, this period of time either ended back in the mid- to late-nineties, or it never did. I think the answer is somewhere in the middle. The tendency to make things graphic for the sake of making them graphic has mostly gone away in mainstream comics, and most of them are now normally at least readable by younger readers (which was very much not true for much of the Dark Age).
However, it is alive and well in superhero films. Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are good examples of the use of darker themes. The Watchmen film was also fairly well-received, and as one of the graphic novels that started it all, the film was suitably dark. The Dark Knight Rises shows no signs of deviating from this style, and if the possible plotlines with Bane are any indication it could indeed be even darker.
Other films have tried to riff on this visual theme, but much like in the comics, it was often poorly received. Superman Returns decided to make Clark Kent appear to be a desperate stalker of Lois Lane, who has already moved on and wants nothing to do with him. Perhaps the worst example of this is Spiderman 3, which somehow confused a dark and flawed character faced with moral ambiguity with an angsty teenager with emo hair.
What about Batman?
We’ve looked a bit at the Dark Age as a phenomenon, but what about Batman? We know The Dark Knight Returns was one of the works that started it all, but what did this actually mean for Batman in a visual sense?
Specifically, let’s look at the difference between the 1970-1980 “Bronze Age” Batman characters and the 1986-1988 Alan Moore and Frank Miller era characters:
As we discussed earlier, 1986 was the beginning of the Dark Age. I think this image speaks for itself–you can see how much darker the characters became during this period. Miller’s influence extends, in some form or another, to today’s visuals. You can see that this is the beginning of the Batman you know today in the films, continuing all the way to today’s Batman as interpreted by Chris Nolan. Though the change originated in comics, it inevitably carried over to film depictions. Even the Tim Burton depiction of Batman is significantly darker than the Batman of the Bronze Age period.
So when you’re sitting in the theatre this weekend and you hear the growly Batman voice again for the first time, you’ll know how we went from Adam West to Christian Bale.