The Dark Knight turns 80: celebrating one of DC’s most iconic heroes

Courtesy of DC Comics

On March 30, DC Comics celebrated Batman’s 80th anniversary since debuting in Detective Comics #27 in 1939. Ever since, Batman has become a cultural icon as his bat symbol has become recognizable across the globe, even to those who have never picked up a comic book. Throughout the decades, countless writers and storytellers have had the opportunity to adapt and interpret the character in varied media spanning comics, radio, television, video games and film. Each generation of Bat fans have had their very own version of the Caped Crusader that is both incredibly loyal to the source material as they explore different aspects of the character and remarkably unique to the era of their release. His evolution as a pop culture icon has endured the test of time and has shaped the cultural landscape of this generation and will likely continue to do so for generations to come.

 

Following the unprecedented success of their first superhero in Superman, DC Comics tasked Bob Kane to create another hero for their comics. Alongside writer Bill Finger, Kane created the hero that would go on to become a cultural phenomenon. Together the duo created the story of a child of a wealthy family who witnesses them being gunned down before his very eyes. Vowing never to allow such a thing to happen again, Bruce Wayne declares a one-man war against crime, trains his mind and body and invests his wealth to become the masked vigilante Batman. As the character evolved, he was adapted to whatever era he was placed in.  Over the years, the Dark Knight has been dark and brooding, embracing the noir detective aspect of his character, or light and comical, embracing the campiness of the 60s and 70s as he fought aliens and had a bat gadget for literally anything.

 

As the character evolved on the pages of comic books, so did the character on the small and big screen. Wider audiences were finally introduced to the Cowled Crimefighter in the iconic 1966 Adam West “Batman” series on TV. The series famously embraced the inherently cartoonish nature of a costumed vigilante as the show was known for its campiness and unapologetically light tone. The 1966 Batman succeeded in introducing new audiences to the character but resulted in a comical tone that the character became known for until his cinematic debut in 1989 with the release of Tim Burton’s “Batman” and his follow up film “Batman Returns” starring Michael Keaton as the titular crimefighter. Burton’s take on the Caped Crusader embraced the darkness of the character as the bright lights and colorful costumes of the 1966 version were replaced with muted tones and dark city streets. Alongside 1978’s “Superman: The Movie,” 1989’s “Batman” proved that superheroes can make for great movies as well as financial successes. If it wasn’t for the cinematic success of both Batman and Superman, it is highly likely that Hollywood studios would’ve taken longer to pull the trigger on the big budget superhero spectacles audiences are accustomed to today.

 

Since West and Keaton have dawned the cape and cowl, several actors and voice actors have too worn the tights. Each generation has their very own Batman, some great and others who are probably best forgotten. Some of the all-time greats who have portrayed the World’s Greatest Detective and have become their generation’s Batman include the iconic voice performance of Kevin Conroy in 1992-1995’s “Batman: The Animated Series” that reintroduced the character to television and embraced both the darkness of the character and delivered on character defining interpretations of classic Batman friends and foes such as Mark Hamill’s maniacal and fan favorite Joker. The big screen has also reintroduced us to a more grounded and somewhat believable take on the hero with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy that gave us Christian Bale’s stunning performance as Bruce Wayne. Nolan’s series cast aside the supernatural and the extreme nature of the comics and instead embraced a Batman that could feasibly exist in the real world and fought sadistic villains that were both threatening and remarkably complex such as Heath Ledger’s critically acclaimed take on the Clown Prince of Crime, The Joker. Furthermore, Nolan’s arguably best film in the series, “The Dark Knight,” is more psychological crime thriller than superhero film as Batman takes on the mob and the Joker for the soul of Gotham.

 

Throughout the years, Batman continues to evolve and captivate audiences everywhere.  Despite 80 years and countless writers, the franchise has never run out of new and original stories as even today some of his best stories are being written and released both in comic shops and on the big screen. The wealth of material that has spanned Batman’s 80-year history is second to none in terms of comic book heroes. His rogues gallery is arguably the best in the industry and contains villains almost as iconic as the hero himself, such as the Joker, Two-Face and the Riddler, and who at their best each portray a different aspect of the Bat’s psyche and offer a stark look at what could’ve happened if Bruce embraced the darkest parts of the character. His friends and foes alike have helped create a vast collection of iconic stories, but it is a testament to the hero himself and the brilliant storytellers behind him that he can still carry a series for so long and retain its high quality.

 

Despite being born into wealth and riches, Batman still manages to be relatable to his many fans.  He’s a character who has endured the worst that the world can offer and manages to overcome despite only being human. He symbolizes the best that humans can be without needing super strength or x-ray vision. He epitomizes the peak of human perfection, a man who dedicated his life to justice, trained tirelessly to become the best fighter and best detective in the world.  Furthermore, despite the one-man war on crime he is known for, he also conveys the importance of having a support system as well. As much as the character wishes to be alone, he is constantly surrounded by those that help him such as the faithful Alfred, his closest ally Gordon, or his countless sidekicks and companions. Batman, and the culture he has helped create, has continued to be relevant for 80 years and likely will be for decades to come.

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