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Batman: Rating the cool and the dark

From Caped Crusader to camp classic to Dark Knight. By Wendell Wittler
/ Source: contributor

“Batman Begins” pushes the restart button on one of pop culture’s more durable icons, with the intent of making the classic comic book hero “cooler and darker.” Through 66 years, in scores of comics, big screen movies, prime-time and Saturday morning TV, Batman’s gotten multiple makeovers (extreme and subtle) and varied widely in his levels of “coolness” and “darkness.”

For our purposes, we'll use a 10 point scale. For coolness, the scale ranges from 0 for “Classics Illustrated” to 10 for R. Crumb. For darkness, the scale ranges from 0 for “Garfield” to 10 for “Sin City.” 1939 The Origin of Batman
In a mere two pages in “Detective Comics” magazine, Batman was brought to life as the first truly self-made Superhero ... no supernatural powers, just a dedication that crossed the line to obsession and an awesome arsenal of big-ticket gadgets. And the event that inspired his obsession, the murder of his parents in front of him as a young boy, made it the grimmest origin story in comics to date. (Yes, I know Superman's entire home planet blew up, but not right in front of him.) Coolness: 7 Darkness: 6 (anything higher would've been banned in the ’30s)

Bob Kane is officially the sole creator of Batman, but a journeyman comics writer named Bill Finger is credited with many early contributions — including the design of his costume. Apparently, if Kane had gone with his original design, Batman would have worn a standard eye mask instead of his cowl with the bat ears, and a rigid pair of wings instead of his cape. Definitely would've lost 2 to 3 points in both cool and dark.1940 The Origin of Robin and Debut of Batman ComicsThe introduction of the Batman's sidekick/ward/little brother in his brightly colored Robin Hood/Peter Pan-inspired costume certainly lowered his darkness factor, but a few months later “Batman Comics” No. 1 introduced the Dynamic Duo's greatest adversary, that Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker, and even the ad on the back cover was cool and dangerous — the Red Ryder Air Rifle (later made infamous in “A Christmas Story”). Coolness: 8 Darkness: 5 (6+ if you're afraid of clowns) 1943 - 1945 The Batman Movie Serial and The Batmobile All theatrical serials of this era were generally hokey, the costumers put little effort into our heroes’ ill-fitting outfits, and the “Batmobile” was a ’39 Cadillac convertible which transformed from Bruce Wayne's car to Batman’s by putting the top up. But it was still the Caped Crusader on the big screen, and, in beautiful black and white, it had a nice “noir” look to it.

Soon after, the first official Batmobile burst out of the front cover of the comic, and though its bat-mask over the front grill looked like a stylized cow-catcher, it set the precedent, continued to this day, of giving Batman the coolest car in the comic book universe. Coolness: 8 Darkness: 6

1955 - 1963 The Silver Age: Bathound, Bat-Mite, Batwoman
As the golden age of comics drew to a close, Batman and Robin adopted a dog — and put him in a mask, naming him Ace the Bathound. The silver age was more like a silly age with characters like Bat-Mite, a two-foot-tall tubby alien who was a fervent BatFan, dressing up in his version of a Batsuit and interfering with the Dynamic Duo's crime-fighting work in the usual bumbling sidekick manner for nearly four years.

At least the silver age gave us Batwoman, a former circus performer who inherited a fortune and used it to make herself the X Chromosome Crusader. There really wasn't much romance between her and Batman and her yellow-and-black costume could have just as easily been made for Canary Woman. She publicly retired from crimefighting in 1963 and has been mostly forgotten ever since. Coolness: 3 Darkness: 1 (unless you include mourning for the Golden Age) 1966 - 1968 "Batman (the TV Series)" Adam West may tell you it’s hip to be square, but the strongest appeal of Batman’s prime-time gig was the over-the-top performances of the special guest villains, falling mostly into two categories: serious actors taking a break from serious acting (“Penguin” Burgess Meredith, “Joker” Cesar Romero) and iconic celebrities (Liberace, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Otto Preminger) playing off their images, with legendary mimic Frank Gorshin in a category of his own as the Riddler. 

With production budgets falling far short of aspirations, the producers used a variety of low-tech gimmicks (the walking up the wall scenes are classic) to give the show the look and feel of a comic book without the ink-smudged fingers and achieved a self-satirical humor — from the Batusi dance to Robin’s “Holy everythings” — that is still today the textbook definition of “camp.”Coolness: 8 Darkness: 0 (who needed it?)

If the people making the TV Batman were being slyly cool, the comic books at that time were seriously clueless about certain problems with the image of the Dynamic Duo, summed up in a single panel from a "Justice League of America" comic.

1968 - “The Batman/Superman Hour”The prime-time Batman went from phenomenon to cancellation in two-and-a-half years, so Filmation, already producing a Saturday morning Superman cartoon, got to bring Batman to the kiddie zone. The result, stripped of the self-satire, was the first step toward recapturing the dramatic aspects of the Batman franchise. Coolness: 5 Darkness: 3 1970 - Man-Bat At first glance looking like something from the “silly age,” Man-Bat became one of the most complex characters in the Bat-iverse. A serious scientist who had done the Jekyll-and-Hyde thing with a bat-based potion intended to restore his hearing, this grotesque winged character alternated between lucidity, working as an ally to the Caped Crusader, to insanity, becoming a public threat that Batman had to control but didn't want to harm. Coolness: 7 Darkness: 6 1977 - Silver St. Cloud and “Strange Apparitions” Maybe she had a stupid name and her platinum hair just looked gray in comic book print, but Silver St. Cloud was Bruce Wayne's most serious girlfriend since the ’40s, and the first person ever to discover his secret identity just by studying Batman's chin. She was part of a year-long story arc that many Batfans consider one of the greatest. The series featured an introspective Batman (his most quoted line is the obvious “My world goes CRAZY sometimes”), along with very non-campy versions of classic Batvillians Penguin and Joker and the return of ’40s baddie Hugo Strange (who became the apparition of the title).  Coolness: 9 Darkness: 7 1982 - 1989 Robin II Dick Grayson finally outgrew his too-cute Robin costume and became Nightwing, prowling dark streets in a city downstate from Gotham. Batman worked solo for several issues until he discovered young Jason Todd trying to steal the tires from the Batmobile. He ended up adopting the delinquent, and made him into the New Robin but never controlling his reckless, self-destructive tendencies. In 1988, DC prepared a very special story for Robin II, and polled the readers about how it should end. By a narrow margin, the audience told the publishers to kill off Robin II, and they did. Bats ended up recruiting a third, better-adjusted Robin for further adventures. Coolness: 6 (not an overwhelming mandate) Darkness: 9 1986 - 1987 “The Dark Knight Returns”/“Year One” Frank Miller, who went on to mastermind both the comic and movie versions of “Sin City,” got his hands on the comic icon and came up with a glossy graphic novel in which an older Batman came out of retirement to save a future Gotham City, coining the new nickname “Dark Knight” and setting a darker moodier tone for all future Batworks, as well as bridging the gap between those upscale bookstore graphic novels and plain old newsstand comics.

A year later, Miller used four issues of the regular Batman monthly to flesh out the Caped Crusader's origins and pre-Robin era to almost unanimous praise (The makers of “Batman Begins” are basing their story on this version more than anything else in the Bat-Canon). Coolness: 9 Darkness: 10

1989 - “Batman (the Movie)” After years in development hell and with "Dark Knight" as precedent, the first Batman movie since the TV show finally got made under the supervision of uber-spooky director Tim Burton. There was much concern over the casting of usually comic actor Michael Keaton as Batman, but his emotionally minimalist performance succeeded just by getting out of the way of Jack Nicholson's over-the-top turn as the Joker. Some of the TV campiness creeped out but Burton did a generally excellent job of making Gotham City gothic. Bat-purists were disturbed by two liberties taken with the Joker, killing him off at the end and making him responsible for the death of Bruce Wayne's parents. Coolness: 8 Darkness: 9 1992 - 1995 “Batman Returns”/the Animated Series Burton's second Batmovie featured a sexy Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, a grotesque Danny DeVito as the Penguin and creepy-cool movie icon Christopher Walken, just for the hell of it. Conflicted critics considered this outing darker — but also campier, putting a lot of stress on the Cool-meter.

DC greenlighted a new Batman cartoon — excuse me, animated series — that featured a stylized dark Deco look, stories from veteran comics authors and former Jedi hero Mark Hamill voicing the villainous Joker. Between official big-screen Batmans, they made and released an animated feature, “Mask of the Phantasm,” that was as profitable (relative to budget) as any of the other Batman movies. Coolness: 7 Darkness: 8 1995 - “Batman Forever”/“Batman & Robin” Joel Schumacher, an action director known for explosions and car crashes more than characters, took over the movie franchise and drove it into the ground deeper than the Batcave. The studio celebrated that they had reduced the weight of the Batcostume from 70 pounds to 15, but what everybody noticed was that the anatomically sculptured suit had nipples! Neither Val Kilmer nor George Clooney could add anything positive to Keaton’s stripped-down performance. Jim Carrey recycled several wacked-out performances as the Riddler. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze made Otto Preminger look good and Chris O'Donnell's career is still recovering from his two appearances as Robin. Coolness: 4 Darkness: 5 1999 - 2001 “Batman Beyond” This animated version, set umpteen years in the future, featured a Bruce Wayne too old to come out of retirement and his new Batman-in-training, Terry McGinnis. Fortunately, after the Robin II and Az-Batman disasters, Wayne's recruiting had improved; while young and impulsive Terry makes a good Batman. Using yet another different visual style (dark high-tech?), “Beyond” stretched the world of Batman a little farther without breaking it. Coolness: 7 Darkness: 7

The same can't be said about Frank Miller's 2001 “The Dark Knight Strikes Again,” a three-part graphic novel series set after the successful “Dark Knight Returns” and dismissed by comic book aficionados for way too much cyberpunk sci-fi and overt political commentary and way too little superheroism. 2004 - 2005 “The Batman” Not just Batman, THE Batman. The latest Saturday Morning Bat-toon goes back to “Year One” for variations on the Batman backstory set in the current day, complete with new first encounters with many familiar villains. With Robin occupied on the current “Teen Titans” cartoon, the show will take a revisionist turn for its next season, introducing Batgirl (or The Batgirl) as sidekick. Coolness: 6 (4 for Bat-purists) Darkness: 7 So, will the latest addition to the Batman legacy, “Batman Begins,” be totally cool and dangerously dark, or luke warm and poorly lit?  If this movie can just help us to collectively forget Bat-Mite, the Holy Everythings or the nippled batsuits, then it really will be good to be Bat.

is the alias of an online writer in Southern California.