In an age where superhero franchises can thrive on social media, it’s easy to forget that the original heroes of the silver screen still hold a special place in the hearts of fans everywhere. The Dark Knight, The Green Hornet, and The Fantastic Four all have dedicated fanbases that continue to this day and have transcended the decade since their theatrical releases.
However, these three men are not the only heroes of the DC universe. While some may know The Dark Knight as the protagonist of the Batman franchise, fewer know that Christian Bale never played the role of Batman in the comics. This was originally played by another man named Jim Gordon, a character more well known for his work as a cop than as a masked vigilante.
While Christian Bale spent much of his Batman career playing the role of a more traditional Batman opposed to the camp of the 1960s, there have been multiple other actors who have played the part of Batman in the comics. Here, we’re going to take a look at the three Batmen of the DC universe and compare and contrast their stories.
The Dark Knight Returns
The Dark Knight Returns is considered by many to be the capstone work of Frank Miller and it is here where he finally brings his vision to bear on the Batman character. Not only does Miller redefine the look of the character, but he also gives him a new identity that is more in tune with the gritty atmosphere he established earlier in his career. Indeed, in Miller’s hands, Batman takes on a more realistic identity, a dark and brooding figure who has been forced to fight for his survival against all odds, using his wits and his own martial arts skills rather than his toys and gadgets.
Interestingly, in 1966, Batman never existed in the comics—at least, not in the traditional sense. Instead, Dick Grayson, later adopted by Batman’s ally, the Joker, played the hero during that year’s “The Joker’s Wild” storyline. In the comics, Dick Grayson is more commonly associated with the role of Batman’s sidekick, the Boy Wonder.
In 1968, Miller would return to the Dark Knight character with The Dark Knight Strikes Again, an installment that would continue the new direction he set with The Dark Knight Rises. The second part of the trilogy would bring Bruce Wayne’s saga to a close with a final showdown between Batman and the Joker. It seemed as if the 1960s would see more of the dark knight than any other decade before it, a trend that has continued to this day.
The Dark Knight Rises
In a sense, The Dark Knight Rises can be seen as the direct follow-up to Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, although there were extensive story and design changes made for the big-budgeted live action adaptation. While it may not be considered the best of the trilogy, it does continue the gritty and realistic tone set by its predecessor.
One of the most significant changes made for The Dark Knight Rises is the introduction of ancillary characters, or, as the filmmakers would put it, “extras.” Though most of these characters would only appear in a few panels, Nolan’s love of the comics—and his faith in the power of the medium—brings these supporting characters to life, adding depth and dimension to an already rich story.
One of the most prominent ancillary characters in The Dark Knight Rises is John Blake, an ex-convict who becomes Batman’s closest ally in the film. Nolan gives Blake a key role in the story, allowing him to observe and assist Batman during the film’s climax. This allows Nolan to examine how much Batman’s life has changed since his retirement, how the loss of a family member has affected him, and what it means to be a superhero in today’s world.
Suicide Squad is another important film in the rebooted DC franchise, marking a turning point in the character’s history. For the first time, we see the members of the Suicide Squad portrayed as more than their stereotypes, something that had previously been avoided mostly for comedic effect. Additionally, the film introduces a new character, Rick Flagg, who is not only the perfect stand-in for the classic “stereotype cop,” but also manages to give the character a fresh dynamic.
However, while the film may breathe new life into the Suicide Squad, it fails to live up to the standards set by its source material. In 2016’s “Aquaman,” directed by James Wan and featuring a young Ryan Gosling in the lead role, the character of the Suicide Squad is almost completely erased, reduced to a handful of lines near the beginning of the film before being sidelined completely. With its emphasis on action and comedy, the filmmakers behind Suicide Squad treat its source material with little care and reverence, treating the characters and their world with a lack of respect and understanding.
Finally, let’s not forget about The Avengers, the blockbuster that united a previously divided Hollywood. Without the popularity of superheroes in the 2010s, the likelihood of The Avengers being made would have been pretty much zero. However, while the popularity of superheroes may have helped make the film possible, it certainly did not make it easy. In fact, getting all of the major players on board (Black Widow, Hawkeye, Falcon, and, of course, The Hulk) was no small feat.
While the success of The Avengers is a testament to the film’s ability to bring together the best talent in the industry and the popularity of superheroes in general, it’s also important to note the huge challenges that the film faced in order to even get made. The film was nearly ten years in the making and was plagued by numerous script and production changes. It also had a very public release, with fans in the know tracking every detail and criticizing almost every aspect of the finished product. This was extremely stressful for the filmmakers during the final stages of production and caused them to take shortcuts that, in the end, did not help save the movie from negative reviews.
However, the fact that The Avengers is considered one of the greatest comic book adaptations of all time is a testament not only to the talent of the men behind the cameras but also to the fact that, even though it took them ten years and countless failed attempts, they finally nailed it.
To this day, the popularity of all three of these characters continues to this day, and with good reason. The dynamic between these three men is as entertaining as it is insightful and, even though some may see them as stereotypes, it is the very same reason that has made them so appealing and popular in the first place.
The Many Voices of Batman
Batman is one of the most popular and recognizable characters in comics and film history, with his distinctive cowl and his use of gadgets and detective skills making him an unforgettable figure, capable of holding his own against any number of super villains. This is the essence of what makes Batman so fascinating—he is a man of many contradictions, embodying the very best and the very worst of what humanity has to offer.
However, this was not always the case, as Batman’s early adventures were largely missing the element of moral ambiguity that now defines the character. While some of Batman’s earliest stories, such as “The Joker’s Wild,” did feature the violent and often dysfunctional Joker, whom Batman would defeat in the end, other stories from this time period were markedly different, often focusing on the struggles of a young Bruce Wayne.
For much of the Golden Age of comics, Batman was a very different character, a man of courage and strength whose greatest fear was not of the crime rate or the wicked villains of the time but of failing as a father and a husband, of being unable to protect those he loved. While this may seem like a very un-Batman like sentiment, it should be noted that it was an unmitigated success, as the character would evolve alongside the angst-ridden youth of the era into the dark knight we know and love.
Ultimately, it is the films and the comics of the 1940s and 1950s that truly brought Batman into his own, establishing his identity as both a crimefighter and a symbol for the adult generation, the “boomer” generation that would grow up watching TV shows about superheroes, battling supervillains with real world consequences. However, while Batman may have adapted to the times, he has never lost his connection to that youthful angst that continues to define him today.