DC Films

’Batman’ Returns the Caped Crusader to His Origins

Matt Reeves' 'Batman' is an astonishingly grim take on the long-running character. How does this newest portrayal stack up to the Dark Knight of the comics?
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Batman has been around for over 80 years, and he’s been portrayed as everything from a hard-boiled detective to a campy superhero. At times, he’s even battled against alien threats like Darkseid and his Parademon army. Some fans love the lighthearted and goofy aesthetic of the character’s 50s comics and the Adam West TV series. Others prefer the darker tone of Batman’s early appearances in Detective Comics

The Batman Image
Warner Bros Pictures

Across all these portrayals, the Caped Crusader has remained one of DC’s most popular heroes. His comics consistently top the best-sellers chart and he’s a box office powerhouse. The latest film featuring the Dark Knight, Matt Reeves’ The Batman, stars Robert Pattinson as a particularly grim version of the masked vigilante.

Fans and critics alike have raved about the film, noting that it returns Batman to his origins as an unparalleled detective and an unorthodox ally for Gotham’s overwhelmed police department. But to appreciate how Reeves’ film differs from its predecessors, we need to look at Batman’s earlier portrayals. What does it mean to wear the cape and cowl?

Detective Comics

Detective Comics 27
DC Comics

DC Comics is known for publishing titles starring iconic heroes like Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern. Most of the company’s heroes are mythical figures, not flawed mortals. However, some modern fans might not realize DC’s origins are rooted in more mundane fare–the publisher’s name is short for Detective Comics, after all.

Most modern readers know that Batman first appeared in the pages of the long-running Detective Comics monthly magazine. As the book’s name might suggest, it wasn’t Batman’s solo magazine. Detective Comics was an anthology series that featured gumshoe stories and hardboiled private investigators. Bruce Wayne was just one of many detectives who worked on the periphery of the law to bring justice to evildoers. 

His creators, Bill Finger and Bob Kane, wanted Batman to act as a bridge between earlier detective stories and the popular new superhero genre that was quickly emerging due to the success of Superman. Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1 a year before rocked the comics industry, introducing readers to a new type of hero. The character’s bright outfit and superpowered adventures resonated with the public, and other writers sought to capitalize on the character’s success. 

Golden Age Batman
DC Comics

Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 quickly became one of National Comics Publications’ best-selling magazines. National Comics, the direct predecessor to the modern-day DC Comics, was a lesser-known brand before Superman and Batman revitalized struggling sales numbers. 

Batman’s comics carried a distinct tone from other Golden Age superheroes. While Superman and contemporaries like Captain Marvel (known today as Shazam) and The Flash battled colorful villains and paraded through sun-soaked streets, Batman stuck to the dark alleys of the fictional city of Gotham. 

The character’s adventures were so popular that the publisher gave him his own series in 1940, the still-running Batman magazine. This allowed newsstands to double-dip on Batman’s popularity, as Detective Comics had shifted to feature only stories about the Dark Knight. To this day, both Batman and Detective Comics chronicle the Caped Crusader’s neverending fight against crime, so fans always have plenty of Batman books to dive into each month.

Pulp Origins

Batman Number 1
DC Comics

The earliest Batman stories portray the character as a merciless hero who feels no sympathy for criminals. He guns down his opponents in cold blood, a trait shared by other 30s pulp heroes like The Shadow and Dick Tracy. Writers softened the character’s harshest tendencies over the early entries, eventually settling on a strict moral code that saw Batman swearing off guns and refusing to kill his enemies.

In 1940, Bob Kane introduced Batman’s sidekick, Robin. At the time, Kane noted that Batman needed a companion to bounce ideas off of. This served a dual purpose. For one thing, it allowed writers to explain complicated detective stories to the audience by having Batman break his methods down for his young sidekick. For another, many young readers felt a strong connection to Robin, as they were closer in age to the Boy Wonder. 

Batman’s sales doubled after Robin’s first appearance, leading to numerous copycat characters in other comics. Writers deepened the character’s rogues gallery throughout the 40s, creating iconic villains like Catwoman, the Joker, the Penguin, and Two-Face. The character solved crimes using his wits, earning the in-universe nickname “World’s Greatest Detective.” This early version of Batman had more in common with Sherlock Holmes than Superman.

Silver Age and Changes

Silver Age Batman
DC Comics

After the end of World War II, superheroes declined in popularity. DC struggled to keep the Batman character relevant, though crossovers with Superman helped both brands hit respectable sales figures. Through the 1950s, writers pushed Bruce Wayne into more outlandish sci-fi-themed stories, introducing bizarre new characters like Bat-Mite and Ace the Bat-Hound.

This “sunnier” depiction of the character was partly a response to declining sales figures but was also a direct answer to critics who argued that comics were corrupting youngsters into committing crimes. Fredric Wertham’s 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent explicitly named Batman comics as the main culprit behind what he viewed as an epidemic of juvenile delinquency.

Throughout the late 50s and early 60s, the character shifted to a more kid-friendly, cheerful demeanor. Writers downplayed his grim war on crime and focused instead on wacky adventures with the ever-expanding Bat-Family. This culminated with the 1966 Adam West TV series, a campy superhero show that briefly exploded in popularity. 

The short-lived success of the West version of the character revitalized interest in the comic series. DC ordered writers to incorporate elements from the show into the book, resulting in a dramatic tonal shift for the long-running series. Eventually, audiences grew tired of the camp and Batman fell into deep unpopularity. The silly, over-the-top image stuck with the character for years.

The Dark Knight Returns

Dark Knight Returns.jpg
DC Comics

Most comics historians consider Frank Miller’s 1986 storyline The Dark Knight Returns the beginning of the modern era of Batman storytelling. The grim tale imagines a future where Batman returns from a long retirement to bring his particular brand of justice back to a Gotham that has lost its way. The Dark Knight Returns is often cited as one of the best comics ever printed and it’s served as the blueprint for most modern Batman tales.

The storyline was extremely popular at the time and resulted in DC tapping Miller to write more Batman stories throughout the late 80s. These included Batman: Year One, a touchstone story arc that further reinforced Batman’s pulpy roots. 

Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film helped propel this renaissance, depicting Gotham as a baroque, dreamlike city full of menacing but colorful characters. Michael Keaton’s oddball take on Bruce Wayne bridged the period of Adam West camp and the modern comics’ depiction of the grizzled crime fighter.

Writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale furthered the modern-day reimagining of Batman with a series of influential mystery stories. The first of these, Batman: The Long Halloween, is a major inspiration for Matt Reeves’ 2022 film. Loeb and Sale also collaborated on Batman: Dark Victory and the mainline story Batman: Hush, further cementing the modern-day Bruce Wayne as a detective who prefers to use his brains over his brawn. 

Recent Depictions

Batman is a complicated character in modern comics and films. He’s had such a long career as a headlining star and movie icon that fans have a lot of opinions about how writers should depict him. In the mid-90s, Joel Schumacher’s pair of Batman films embraced a colorful and chaotic vision of Batman that resonated with audiences but not critics. Later. Christopher Nolan took a grim approach to the character in 2005’s somewhat grounded Batman Begins

Across these disparate retellings of the character’s story, the only common element is his origin story. As a young boy, Bruce Wayne witnesses his father Thomas and his mother Martha brutally murdered at the hands of a mugger outside a theater. As the sole heir to the Wayne fortune, he’s a wealthy playboy by day and a dark-clad vigilante by night. He uses his parents’ considerable fortune to fund his crime-fighting and acts as a force of grim justice that operates outside the law.

How Does ‘The Batman’ Fit in?

Matt Reeves’ Batman is a detective movie that embraces the character’s darkest attributes. His Bruce Wayne is a brooding young man who is barely keeping it together under the iconic cowl. Viewers hardly see the title character doff his outfit–he’s Batman first, Bruce Wayne is just a mask he wears when he needs to make a public appearance. 

Reeves’ movie is easily the darkest cinematic version of Batman to hit the silver screen. At times, it’s more of a horror story than a superhero movie. It bears more resemblance to Seven or Zodiac than Shazam or Man of Steel.

In some ways, that makes it the most comics-accurate version of the character to ever grace the cinema. Despite decades of lighthearted portrayals and campy vignettes, Batman started as a grim figure who stalks criminals in the night. Robert Pattinson’s iteration of the character says it best in the film’s opening moments: Batman is vengeance. 

But Reeves’ vision of Gotham’s protector isn’t completely bleak. By the time the credits roll, this edgier young Batman embraces his softer side. He realizes he needs to be more than a symbol that criminals fear. He wants to inspire the people of Gotham and stand as a beacon of hope. This makes him arguably the definitive version of the character, as he embodies everything that worked about earlier portrayals of the character while jettisoning what didn’t.  

In short, The Batman earns the definitive article. This is the Batman, and fans can’t wait to see more. “Vengeance won’t change the past,” Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne intones late in the film. “People need hope.”