‘Dark Knight’ Returns Campy Batman To His Haunted Former Self

We follow the 69-year-old superhero's journey from brooding to silly and back.

He’s one of the greatest and most popular comic book characters of all time, an archetype of vengeance for the modern age, a vigilante, a cowboy, a creature of the night who roams the streets of Gotham City striking fear in the hearts of the wicked and inspiring hope in the hearts of the just. Or he’s a guy in a blue spandex suit who likes to, you know, hang out with a boy with no pants. (Pow! Smash!)

So just who is this Batman character anyway? We took a look at his various incarnations throughout history — up to and including his appearance in “The Dark Knight” — to find out. (You can read up on the evolution of the Joker here. )

Beginnings

Created by Bob Kane in 1939 for “Detective Comics 27,” Batman was at first a hero very much modeled on the pulp stories of the day, from “Zorro to the Shadow,” “Batman: The Animated Series” producer and co-creator Bruce Timm explained. While he wouldn’t get an origin story until much later, from the very start Batman was a hero unlike most other comic characters — a hero without superpowers or otherworldly abilities, someone who was just like us, a human being with very human qualities.

“I’ve always found that extremely tragic. Batman made a promise on the grave of his parents to rid the city of the evil that took their lives. That’s an impossible mission. No one can do that. Even God can’t do that. So it doesn’t matter what he does,” comic legend Jeph Loeb told MTV News. “At the end of every mission, there’s another mission. So he will never stop being able to live up to this promise that he made his parents. That’s a very human condition.”

In his first few appearances, Batman carried a gun and killed villains, which were remarkable actions considering where the character would soon go.

The ’50s And ’60s

Batman as a character did almost a complete 180-degree turn from his origins as a gun-toting hero following the creation of the Comics Code Authority, which started setting industry standards for violence and sexual content in 1954. In comics, Batman began battling aliens and creatures from other dimensions. His past was less tortured, his costume and outlook brighter. Popularized in the eponymous TV show starring Adam West, the character switched from the Caped Crusader to the Camp Crusader, a goody-goody who was always ready with a silly pun or a pedantic lesson.

“I don’t want to put down [other Batman] movies because for what they intend to do, I’m sure they’re pretty much on target. But they’re dark and gothic,” West recently told MTV News. “And when I said that they have their dark knight, but I’m the bright knight … you know, there’s a little meaning there, I think.”

It was during this camp period that Batman sales would reach an all-time low. A resurrection was needed.

The ’80s And ’90s

A troubled, brooding, misanthropic and sometimes angry Batman was reintroduced to a large audience thanks mostly to a series of near-consecutive occurrences: the Frank Miller-penned “The Dark Knight Returns,” Tim Burton’s live-action film starring Michael Keaton, and Timm’s “Batman: The Animated Series.” Each took a darker, more cynical approach to the tortured character.

“A big influence on our original version of Batman in the animated series was Bob Kane’s original inspiration — the pulp characters the Shadow and Zorro,” Timm recalled. “A big part of it for me was to kind of downplay the larger-than-life aspect of Batman in terms of making him this space-going superhero guy who hangs out with demigods. I really wanted to keep him like a human guy who wears a really cool, spooky, mysterious outfit and who is both the savior of the citizens of Gotham City but also the guy who kind of scares them a bit. To me, that’s kind of what Batman’s all about.”

In each of these three classic works, Batman became a character of great tragedy, a hero whose fights with villains were never as painful as his fights with his inner demons — a Shakespearean protagonist like Hamlet or Othello who, even in victory, could never truly claim happiness.

Perhaps because the mythology went too far in that dark direction, “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin” director Joel Schumacher made his lead more along the lines of West, a campy hero of little substance. It would be another decade before the character could recover.

The 21st Century

It took Christian Bale and director Christopher Nolan to resuscitate the Dark Knight, making him relevant for the new millennium by making him real, by removing decades of fantastical, improbable invention from the character. Their Batman was the most complex rendering of the character yet, a Batman who had to make tough moral choices against impossible odds.

Although he doesn’t kill, Bale’s Batman may be among the most ferocious yet.

“It’s actually all about using your adrenaline, using your instincts and going ape,” Bale said of his fighting style in the films. “We had to tone it down, though, because Batman does not kill, and this style is very much — you rip out a throat, you rip out a cheek, you rip out, you know, eyes.”

For nearly 70 years Batman has been a lot of things to a lot of different writers, actors and artists. Isn’t there anything they can agree on?

“Batman is just cool,” Timm said. “I don’t know why, he just is.”

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Dark Knight.”

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