As we’ve established, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was a bit of a mess – but arguably not as bad as some people were making it out to be. The film held up pretty well globally, making it the second-highest-grossing movie of the year after South Park: Stacked Deck – but it also faced some pretty terrible reviews. One thing that many critics got wrong was the comparison to the 1960s Batman series. Although the two movies do have some similarities – notably in the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman/Bruce Wayne and a similar plot – they couldn’t be more different than that. If anything, they’re more similar to each other than either is to the ’60s series.
That’s what this article is going to explore, going through each movie to see how and why it holds up (or rather, why it doesn’t) when compared to the other.
The 1960s Batman Series
The first – and, to this point, the only – season of the 1960s Batman series focuses on the serial killer who calls himself The Joker. The movies based on this season don’t necessarily follow the same narrative thread as the others in the series, but they do share a lot of the same qualities: a dark setting; an overuse of shadows; and a clownish protagonist who is very similar to the Joker we meet in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But before we get into specifics, let’s take a quick look back at how Batman came to be:
The series begins with the caped crusader’s parents being murdered by the Joker. This causes Batman to develop an unhealthy obsession with the criminal, eventually leading him to join the police force and pursue the man – whose identity remains a mystery – who is terrorizing Gotham City. In this iteration of Batman, the Dark Knight is portrayed as a no-nonsense badass who doesn’t hesitate to go after the guy who murdered his parents. He is, as we’ve established, kind of a dick. This is made particularly clear in the first movie in the series, where Barbara Gordon (the daughter of Commissioner Gordon) says, “If you’ve got a problem, you’ve got one man to eliminate it – yourself.”
Batman v Superman
This is the comparison that everyone is making, and for good reason. Batman v Superman is very much a product of its time. Before 2017, it would have been difficult to find an entire movie that focused so heavily on two comic characters that are arguably among the most iconic of all time. We’re not just talking about superhero movies here; this particular iteration of Batman and Superman existed in what was, at the time, considered ‘mainstream’ culture. These were the movies that people went to see – the ones that were advertised and promoted throughout the year. And if you needed further proof that this was the era of superhero movies, look no further than the first two installments of the Batman v Superman franchise. Together, these movies made more than $1 billion at the box office worldwide and are credited with helping to ‘legitimize’ comic book movies as a legitimate cinematic form. (It is interesting to note, however, that both of these films were released during an ‘era of moderation’ in Hollywood. While in the ‘70s and ‘80s, horror and fantasy movies were given much more leeway, in the ‘00s, this gradually changed and the MPAA began classifying these movies as a ‘genre all their own’.)
Suicide Squad, now considered by many to be the best of the 1960s Batman series, is an exception to the rule. For one thing, the storyline was very much rooted in current events. At the time of its release, the Vietnam War was still ongoing and there was concern among the American people over whether or not this was the right thing to be doing. The film’s advertisements made this connection clear, focusing on the war and promising “a chance to make a difference.” The movie follows a similar plot to The Amazing Spider-Man, where the titular character assembles a team of villains – including the Joker, Harley Quinn, and, notably, the Penguin (who had been in a similar role in the 1960s series) – to combat the corruption that he sees in the police force. However, unlike many of the other Marvel/DC entries, this one doesn’t lean too heavily on the ‘70s movies, instead drawing more heavily from the ‘60s Batman series.
Batman: The Movie
Finally, we arrive at The Movie, which is, in some ways, a mish-mash of everything above. Like many of the other ‘60s Batman movies, it begins with the Joker committing a series of murders. This time, however, it’s his former dentist, Walter Finch, that he’s targeting. What follows is a fairly standard ‘60s Batman movie, complete with a madman with a vendetta, a struggle for justice, and, of course, the Joker. One of the most interesting aspects of The Movie is how it handles the Joker. Up until this point in the franchise, the cinematic incarnation of the infamous villain had largely gone for laughs. (The Joker was a popular guest on ‘60s TV shows and appeared in various shorts, playing pranks on other characters or just showing up to be a dick.) In The Movie, the Joker is presented as a fully formed character. Not only does he exhibit all of the traits we’ve come to associate with the comic book character, but he also manages to evoke the ‘60s Batman series without being too close to it. The filmmakers deserve a lot of credit for how they handled this comparison, as well as how they handled a lot of the darker elements that they included in the movie (such as a bloody fight scene).
Ultimately, none of this is meant to suggest that these are bad films or that they’re undeserving of critical praise. On the contrary, there is a lot to appreciate about these movies. What is interesting is that even though they were released more than half a century apart, it is clear that they have much in common. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise, as these are the movies that helped to create Batman, one of the most recognizable and iconic superheroes of all time. What it does suggest is that there’s a reason why Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was compared to the ‘60s Batman series so often, beyond just the similar casting of Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill.