With the “The Dark Knight Rises” concluding director Christopher Nolan’s Batman film trilogy, many are debating what direction DC Entertainment’s next Batman films should take and whether a whole new take or reboot should be employed.
To help put such discussions in context, CBR News presents the first of a two-part feature that reexamines the history of the many actors who’ve portrayed Batman/Bruce Wayne across film, television and radio.
With the U.S. having entered World War II a year earlier, this serialized adventure involved a Japanese scientist who sought to destroy the American government and used advanced technology to turn people into hypnotized zombies. The serials were peppered with racism and the narrator even remarked how “wise” the government had been to relocate many Japanese citizens. Along with this air of propaganda, Batman was interpreted not merely as a vigilante but as an agent of the U.S. government who actually had some legal authority in hunting down criminals he deemed dangerous.
Since he was a law enforcement agent, Wilson’s Batman was not a terrifying force who tried to convince people he was supernatural. He operated in broad daylight and was upfront about the fact that he was simply a man who was highly trained in fighting. He was gruff toward criminals but friendly enough to civilians and even prone to making the occasional joke. His humor was evident by his habit of stamping the foreheads of criminals he captured with a miniature bat-symbol.
Wilson’s Bruce Wayne was very accurate to the comics, treating nearly everything around him as a joke and stating that it was a personal sacrifice for him to be active before noon.
Interestingly, the Batman serials starring Lewis Wilson introduced the world to the idea that the hero had a subterranean lair inside a natural system of caverns. The serials called this the “Bat’s Cave.” The comic books adopted this idea, calling it simply “the Cave” or “the Batcave.”
Another fun piece of trivia: Wilson’s son Michael would later become an executive producer of the James Bond films.
BATMAN ON RADIO
The same year Wilson portrayed the Dark Knight Detective on screen, there were already discussions about giving Batman his own radio program, especially considering the success of “The Adventures of Superman.” A proposal was put together in 1943, teaming Batman with his apprentice Dick Grayson AKA Robin.
The pilot adventure was entitled “The Case of the Drowning Seal.” In this story, Dick Grayson was not the child of circus acrobats who were killed by mobsters; instead, his parents were undercover FBI agents murdered by Nazi spies. Like the movie serials, the creators meant to capitalize on U.S. involvement in World War II.
To promote interest in Batman’s radio exploits, the Caped Crusader first appeared as a guest star in “The Adventures of Superman” on September 15, 1945, in a story called “Dr. Bly’s Confidence Gang.” Part of the reason for the team-up was to give Superman actor Bud Collyer a rest from the show, providing a couple of episodes where the Dynamic Duo was the focus of the action instead of the Man of Steel.
This radio incarnation of Batman was played by Stacy Harris. His Batman was a friendly hero who was more of an adventurer rather than the world’s greatest detective. He was noticeably friendlier and more laid back than the gruff, often no-nonsense Superman. There also seemed to be very little difference between his Bruce Wayne and Batman personas.
After Batman’s appearance in “The Adventures of Superman,” it was decided that he would not get his own radio program and “The Case of the Drowning Seal” was never broadcast. Batman and Robin did appear in the Man of Steel’s radio show several times again over the years, sometimes taking over for several episodes when Superman had to leave Metropolis for a while. Occasionally, Stacy Harris couldn’t record and was substituted by actors Matt Crowley or Gary Merrill, who imitated the same portrayal of Batman.
Despite all these team-ups on radio, Batman and Superman would not team-up in the official comic book stories until June 1952 in the pages of “Superman” #76.
ROBERT LOWERY AND THE MYSTERY CLUB
Another set of Batman movie serials premiered in 1949, with actor Robert Lowery taking over the role. His previous credits included “The Mark of Zorro” starring Tyrone Power, the very same movie that later writers said Bruce Wayne saw on the night that his parents were murdered. Lowery’s Bruce Wayne and Batman were very similar to Wilson’s interpretation. Like Wilson, Harris and Crowley, Lowery was performing in a story that was geared for children.
In 1950, there was another attempt to give Batman his own radio series. This time the concept was reworked into “The Batman Mystery Club.” Each episode would involve Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson sitting down with members of the Batman Mystery Club, a group of children who were well aware of the Dynamic Duo’s secret identities. Bruce acted as narrator, describing past cases that he and Robin had been involved in, all of which involved investigating encounters with ghosts and seemingly haunted places, proving that these supernatural apparitions were really parlor tricks or clever deceptions by criminals. Basically, it was the premise of Scooby-Doo but with Batman sharing his secrets with a group of kids after each adventure.
This series was never approved for broadcast, though a single episode, “The Monster of Dumphrey’s Hall,” was recorded. Strangely, Bruce never donned his costume in the episode and it was unclear if “Batman” was a secret costumed identity he would assume or simply a strange nickname he had.
Decades later, Batman would be featured in audio books, audio comics, and even a couple of BBC radio plays, one an original story called “The Lazarus Syndrome” and the other an adaptation of “Knightfall.”
In the early 1960s, DC Comics was moving Batman’s stories to more serious adventures, removed from the camp and absurdity of the late 1940s and 1950s. Around the same time, Playboy Club in Chicago held screenings of the 1940s Batman movie serials, as Hugh Hefner was a big fan (and had once been interested in a career in comics). ABC executive Yale Udoff, a Batman fan himself, attended one of the screenings and noted how entertained the audience was.
ABC and DC Comics began discussing the creation of a weekly dramatic live-action series based on Batman, one that would be edgy and exciting like “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” The project was given to 20th Century Fox to produce and the studio handed it to William Dozier of Greenway Productions, with spy novelist Eric Ambler hired to write the pilot script. Dozier, however, disliked comic books and didn’t think it was possible to portray Batman in the serious, dramatic way ABC and DC Comics had requested. Instead, he decided on a campy comedic approach, similar to the style of Batman stories that the comics had recently moved away from. This prompted Ambler to leave the project, leaving the rest of us to wonder what sort of Batman show we might have gotten otherwise.
After seeing him play a James Bond-style character called Captain Q in commercials for Nestle Quik, Dozier had 36-year-old Adam West audition for the role of Bruce Wayne. West beat out Lyle Waggoner for the role and was excited to play the heroic vigilante, doing research in order to have a better sense of the character. West’s Bruce Wayne was very accurate to the comics — easy going, affable, and seemingly removed from any real concerns in life. He was occasionally ignorant, yet still charming.
West’s Batman was a recognized lawman who openly worked with the Gotham City Police Department. He was friendly but serious and often seemed ready to pounce, anticipating that a strange crime or disaster might spring on him at any moment. He also had a great respect for the law, politeness and safety. He wouldn’t engage in a dramatic car chase unless Robin had buckled his seat belt and he would lecture the teen hero on the importance of not walking underneath ladders. No, seriously, he did that.
“The show differed from the comic books I think in that we had more irony,” Adam West said in an interview. “We played it for laughs. But in order to play it for laughs, one had to never think that you’re funny. You had to pull on that cowl and believe that no one would recognize you — My approach was very childlike with it — when playing Batman it was like when you were a kid again, playing Batman — with a layer of sincerity that’s bigger than life.”
With three seasons on TV and a feature film, Adam West cemented himself as Batman for a generation of fans and his memorable portrayal has been parodied and imitated in many shows, comics and films. Adam West returned to the role of Batman via cartoons from 1977-78 when he voiced the character in the CBS show “The New Adventures of Batman,” and from 1984-86 in “Super Friends: The Legendary Super Powers Show” and “The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians.”
Following his tenure as Batman, Adam West was offered the role of James Bond in “Diamonds are Forever,” but turned it down since he didn’t think it was right for an American to play such a popular British hero.
Just as Adam West’s live-action show was wrapping up, Filmation put together “The Batman/Superman Hour” in 1968. Actor Olan Soule, who once played a newscaster on West’s show, portrayed the Batman in these animated adventures. His version was closer to the comics at the time, where Batman was a serious crime fighter, though not a demonic avenger. These adventures were later repackaged as “The Adventures of Batman” and “Batman with Robin the Boy Wonder.”
Olan Soule consistently voiced Batman in the various Super Friends franchise cartoons (not counting the last two, which featured Adam West) from 1973-1983, including: “Super Friends” (1973-74, 1980-83), “The All-New Super Friends Hour” (1977-78), “Challenge of the Super Friends” (1978-79) and “The World’s Greatest Super Friends” (1979-80). He also voiced Batman in appearances on the “New Scooby-Doo Movies” in 1972.
In 1989, after various attempts by producer Michael Uslan to get the project greenlit, a new live-action film simply titled “Batman” hit theaters. Directed by Tim Burton (“Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands”), the film starred 38-year-old Michael Keaton in the lead role. Some of the actors previously considered for the role included Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Pierce Brosnan, Kevin Costner, Robert Downey Jr., Patrick Swayze, Kevin Kline, Daniel Day-Lewis, Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise, Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez and even, apparently, Bill Murray.
For a while, 22-year-old Kiefer Sutherland was considered for the role of Dick Grayson, who would witness the Joker murder his acrobatic parents while the villain was being chased by Batman through a parade. He would then show up in costume as Robin only at the end of the film. Sutherland turned down the role and this subplot was removed from the shooting script.
Burton admitted he was not a comic book fan (and repeated this in interviews years after the Batman films were produced), but stated that he appreciated the dark tone of 1980s comics such as “The Dark Knight Returns” and “The Killing Joke” and sought to emulate that in his film. Burton also wanted to portray Bruce Wayne not as a charming playboy but as someone who seemed tormented by the trauma he’d suffered as a child. He and producer Jon Peters agreed that Keaton fit this idea. Keaton himself had admittedly no real knowledge or opinion on Batman before being cast, but became intrigued with the character and his history as filming progressed. He was also surprised just how many Batman comic fans objected to his casting, either due to his body of work, which at the time was largely comedic roles, or due to the fact that he didn’t physically resemble the tall, athletic figure.
“I didn’t understand how popular Batman was,” Michael Keaton admitted during an interview. “I was just doing my job — So at first I thought it was kind of funny that anyone could take this that seriously. Then it got enormous so I found it really curious. And then the next phase was I liked the idea of people questioning and I liked the idea of people challenging me. It was actually a perfect situation from which to work for me.”
Keaton’s Bruce Wayne was, indeed, not a playboy or a Gotham celebrity. On the contrary, he was evidently so private that he was not even recognized by local journalists attending a party in his own home. Whereas the comics have often portrayed the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne as local history and an event that shook Gotham City, the journalist characters in the film are completely unaware of this fact until after they research Bruce’s past.
This Bruce was withdrawn and, at times, a little neurotic and awkward, seemingly unsure how to handle people when it wasn’t about business, and with such a dry sense of humor that others found it difficult to tell when he was kidding.
Bruce Wayne was also less of a mask meant to completely hide Batman. He was withdrawn and distracted, seeming strange to some of those he encountered, and with a wit so dry it could be debated whether he was joking or not. Burton also told Keaton he envisioned Wayne as a man who obviously had “too much on his plate,” someone who understandably looked tired and distracted often due to the stresses of his double life. This Bruce, unlike the comics, also did not perpetually pretend to be a wealthy businessman ignorant of Gotham’s crime world and averse to physical violence. Upon meeting the Joker (seemingly for the first time), he reveals, “I know who you are,” and then challenges the villain with a poker. His lack of concern with concealing some of his ninja-training makes it fairly easy for love interest Vicki Vale, a photojournalist, to realize his true nature.
Keaton’s Batman was very similar to how the comics had recently brought the hero back to his Dark Knight roots, even a little bit darker in 1989 since he had recently suffered through “The Killing Joke” (in which the Joker tortured Jim Gordon and paralyzed Barbara Gordon, the original Batgirl) and “A Death in the Family” (where the Joker murdered Jason Todd, the second Robin). This Batman was mostly silent, striking from the shadows, seeming supernatural as he appeared and vanished in bursts of smoke. When he did speak, it was barely above a whisper and unlike West, Wilson or Lowery, not with a voice that was immediately identifiable as Bruce Wayne’s.
Similar to Christopher Reeve with Superman, Michael Keaton decided to let the suit do some of the acting, allowing it to convey that he was a superhero rather than feeling he had to pose constantly. A man with an admitted fear of enclosed spaced, Keaton was uncomfortable in the suit and used that feeling to get into character as the withdrawn and righteously angry vigilante. Tim Burton’s idea was that the body armor was not just practical but also compensated for the fact that the film’s Bruce Wayne was not the perfect, physical athlete from the comics. Keaton liked this, feeling it made him more human than heroes such as Superman.
Comic book fans noted that this Batman had a looser moral code than his comic book counterpart. Months after the character’s creation in 1939, DC decided he would have a strict rule against killing and certain other practices, in order to make him clearly noble despite his demonic appearance. But Burton’s Batman had no problem delivering and detonating bombs into buildings that housed criminals (hopefully he checked to make sure there were no innocent security guards or janitors around), had machine guns installed in his Batmobile, and unleashed bullets and missiles at the Joker in the middle of a public street.
Another thing some fans missed was an explanation behind Batman. Although the movie explained that Bruce Wayne had seen his parents gunned down, which led him to become Batman, nothing else was really said of the matter. Why did Bruce become a vigilante and not a police officer or an FBI agent? Why choose the Bat as his totem? Was the Cave always beneath his house or did he carve it out with dynamite when he decided he needed a lair? To be fair, these issues were not really touched on in the movie serials or the live-action show with Adam West, but then again those had featured over-the-top adventures geared for children, whereas this movie was meant for a more adult audience.
Michael Keaton proved very popular in the role and went on to reprise it in the film “Batman Returns” in 1992. When he was told about the direction and story of the third film, “Batman Forever,” Keaton decided he wasn’t interested in continuing the role. Years later, during an interview with “Access Hollywood,” Keaton remarked that “The Dark Knight” was the kind of story and direction he had wanted for a third movie featuring his version of Batman. “[Christopher Nolan] is the one who got it — he got it and he took it to a whole other level — [‘The Dark Knight’] is always where I thought that character and the story could go, because it was all there and he just did it brilliantly.”
Join CBR News again soon as we continue our look at the many actors who’ve portrayed the Batman!