Franchise Retrospective: How Batman Became DC’s Biggest Hero Pt. 1

“As a symbol…I can be everlasting” – Bruce Wayne, Batman Begins

In the pantheon of DC comics characters, there are many icons. Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, and Green Lantern are all household names, yet one name has gone to define the company and become the face of the publisher: Batman. While the Dark Knight has always been popular, in the 21st Century, there was a shift at DC and Warner Bros. where Bruce Wayne became THE hero of their company. The company made him the center of films, television series, video games, comics, and everything they could fit him into.

This makes a certain amount of sense. While Superman was the first superhero, Batman followed shortly after and the character has been published since 1939. In 1966, Batmania swept the nation due to the success of the Adam West series and was part of the three B’s of the 1960s along with Bond and the Beatles. Then a sequel to it hit in 1989, as the anticipation around the release of Tim Burton’s Batman set off a fever of marketing. The character was everywhere. This kickstarted a franchise empire that spanned the 1990’s where the films were some of the biggest blockbusters around. Batman: The Animated Series was a great success and to many is still the definitive version of Batman.

Yet after the release of Batman and Robin, the pop culture standing certainly took a hit. Warner Bros. spent almost a decade trying to revive its film franchise with various directors. Meanwhile, after DC dominated the good part of three decades as the titans of superhero movies with Superman and Batman film franchises, Marvel superhero burst onto the scene at the start of the millennium and kickstarted a new era of superhero fandom. Movies, animation, and video games became the name of the game, and DC was left trying to find a place.

While DC tried their best with many of their heroes, also trying to restart the Superman franchise while developing movies based on Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, it was the Dark Knight who became the poster child of DC towards the end of the 2000s. The following decade,  he was everywhere across various forms of media. With the release of a new Batman movie in the form of Matt Reeves’ The Batman, take a look back at the last 18 years worth of Bat-related media and how he became the poster boy for DC. How a few back-to-back hits would impact the company and every decision they would make for years to come.

The Batman, 2004-2008

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Hard to believe the new wave of Batmania started with this 2004 cartoon series. When it premiered, the canon of the DCAU was still going with Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, but with a new Batman movie on the horizon, Warner Bros. wanted to capitalize on it with a new animated series. However, so many Batman projects did cause a domino effect, as Batman’s rogue’s gallery became off-limits for Justice League Unlimited since they would be used in the series. However, The Batman was not able to use Scarecrow or Ra’s Al Ghul given they were set to appear in Batman Begins. This also is why the series does not use Two-Face as Harvey Dent was in the original script for Batman Begins, and the idea of a former friend of Bruce Wayne’s turned enemy is given to the character of Clayface.

While The Batman was in the shadow of the previous animated series, and at the time many saw it as more an attempt to sell toys (which in fairness it was – the series put a lot of emphasis on various new Bat gadgets for each episode) it was able to find an audience and a loyal fanbase to whom this was their first real exposure to Batman and his many different villains. In contrast to the gothic noir style of Batman: The Animated Series, The Batman has a sleeker design and is a more action-centric show which would go fittingly with the more ninja-style audiences would see in Batman Begins. It is a fun first introduction to Batman and a good starting place for an over-decade-spanning era of Batman.

Batman Begins, 2005

In the early part of the 2000s, Marvel Comics dominated the box office. DC’s film slate was adapting prestigious graphic novels like Road to Perdition or misfires like League of Extraordinary Gentleman and Catwoman. However, after years of development hell, DC finally had new Batman and Superman movies on the way.

Warner Bros. entrusted the film to director Christopher Nolan, who pitched them a more grounded take on the material and went back and told Batman’s origin. While the term reboot is now so commonplace publications will use it when they just mean sequel or relaunch, at the time it was a bold new concept to just toss aside the entire continuity of a franchise that had been known the world over. Even the title Batman Begins may have made a general audience member think it was a prequel, but by the time the film ends a new status quo is established. Batman Begins is without a doubt a great film. Nolan was heavily inspired by Superman: The Movie (even casting the film in a similar manner by filling out the cast with the best actors working) and followed Richard Donner’s creative ethos on that project: verisimilitude, which means the appearances of being true or real. The movie is not realistic but it finds a way to make the world all make sense and grounded. The film even acts less like the start of its own series, but like the larger Batman franchise as a whole. This easily could be the beginning of any number of Batman stories, as by the time it ends the larger Batman status quo is established, with the bat signal and his working relationship with the Gotham PD. The ending teases the wider array of Batman villains out there. Had this movie not gotten a sequel, it still would have worked because the origin is in place for not just this one incarnation but a wider myth.

Batman Begins was a box office hit, but not the massive juggernaut that later Batman films would be. It opened to $72 million over its five-day week and grossed a total of $205 million domestic and $371 million worldwide. It was the seventh highest-grossing film of 2005 at the domestic box office. The movie’s strong word of mouth from audiences and critics helped boost the film’s home video sales and secured its legacy.

The film might be one of the most influential movies of the 21st Century as many different properties wanted their own version of Batman Begins, telling a stripped-down origin story. Sometimes this worked with properties like Casino Royale and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Often times it did not work for films like 2010’s Robin Hood or 2015’s Pan. It also became the source of inspiration for many fantastical franchises that wanted to ground themselves being cited by Jon Favreau for Iron Man, Guy Ritchie for Sherlock Holmes, Marc Webb for The Amazing Spider-Man, and Garreth Edwards for Godzilla just to name a few. Thus Batman Begins had a hand in cementing the character’s larger legacy.

Grant Morrison’s Run, 2006 to 2013

There are certain comic book writers who have left a lasting impact on The Dark Knight, from Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams in the ’70s to Frank Miller in the 1980s. Arguably the biggest writer who has shaped Batman in the 21st century is Grant Morrison. The writer’s first Batman storyline, Arkham Asylum: A Serious Home for a Serious Earth was published in 1989 and became the template for the popular Arkham video games. Then their relaunch of JLA set the modern template for Justice League stories, focusing on the hyper-competent Batman. The writer took over the title in 2006 and stayed on as part of the team until 2013 into the New 52 with Batman: Incorporated.

Morrison’s run introduced a lot of key elements to Batman, like his son Damian Wayne as the new Robin. They killed Batman off for a time and allowed Dick Grayson aka Nightwing to assume the mantle of Batman. Morrison’s time on the storyline was important for making all elements of the character canon, from the early pulp stories of the 1930s and 40s to the strange alien encounters of the 50s, the globe traveling adventure hero of the 70s, and the 80’s dark avenger of the night. Everything counts, and instead of brushing away the sillier silver age aspects, they chose to embrace everything. This overriding thesis is something that Warner Bros. would keep in mind as they moved forward. While they did at times go possibly too far in one direction with Batman they still did find a way to be playful with the material and make different versions that could appeal to everyone.

Gotham Knight, 2008

To build anticipation for the release of The Dark Knight, Warner Bros. released Batman: Gotham Knight, which was a series of anime-styled shorts that were supposed to take place in the Nolan Batman universe between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. While this isn’t entirely out of the ordinary, as anime-styled prequel stories were a trend in the 2000s from The Animatrix to Van Helsing: The London Assignment, this was the first Bat-centric film from the DC Animated film slate. Unlike making a comic adaptation to be released alongside, like Superman: Doomsday following Superman Returns, this was very much building on the audience appreciation of this specific incarnation of Batman.

The Dark Knight, 2008

This is it, the big one. This is the moment when Batman became THE superhero of the early part of the 21st century. While Batman Begins was a modest hit, the strong word of mouth and home video sales and one of the all-time great ending teases set the stage for The Dark Knight to be a big event. After all the last time Batman and the Joker faced off in a live-action movie was Batman in 1989 and that was the biggest movie of the year. 19 years later The Dark Knight found itself in a similar situation, even down to the fact that an Indiana Jones movie was opening that same summer (Last Crusade in 1989 and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008). When Heath Ledger was first announced as the Joker, the obvious Brokeback Mountain jokes started rolling in, but once the first photo of Ledger’s Joker hit the web everything began to change and an ominous teaser trailer was released with The Simpsons Movie that didn’t show any footage but only audio. The buzz began to build. By winter 2007, the anticipation for the movie was starting to hit fever pitch as the movie’s viral marketing campaign was ramping up, Heath Ledger’s Joker was on the cover of Empire Magazine, the film’s trailer, and the opening bank heist being attached to the IMAX screenings of I Am Legend felt like going into 2008 it was going to be The Dark Knight’s year.

Then on January 22, 2008, Heath Ledger passed away at the age of 28 from an accidental overdose. This tragic loss of an actor who was about to have the biggest movie of his career altered the cultural understanding of the film. The marketing still had the Joker but it also played up Harvey Dent and now audiences were even more curious to see the final performance of Heath Ledger. The Dark Knight set the opening weekend record at the time with $158 million in its first three days. It remained number 1 at the box office for four weeks in a row and grossed $1.08 billion worldwide and at the time was the highest-grossing superhero movie. While now the novelty of a film making $1 billion is nothing, back in 2008 it was a big deal and The Dark Knight was only the fourth film to do so. The movie also received near-universal critical acclaim, making multiple Best of the 2008 year lists and also many Best of the Decade Lists. It received eight Academy Award nominations and won two, Best Sound Editing and a posthumous Best Supporting Actor for Heath Ledger. While the film did not receive a Best Picture nomination, the backlash from the snub of both it and WALL-E, likely led to the Academy expanding the number of nominated films the following year.

Similar to Batman Begins becoming the inspiration for many films following, The Dark Knight did as well and became the template for many years to come and one could still argue still is. The box office and critical reaction to the film would go on to inform how DC and Warner Bros. would approach their various superheroes, for better or for worse. While a lot has been mentioned about The Dark Knight as a cultural artifact, the film itself still holds up 14 years later. The movie works as both an effective crime drama and a Batman story, which shows how malleable Batman can be and that he and the Joker can be made to fit in a more grounded world while maintaining the spirit of the source material. The film has left a lasting impression as a high mark that not just all Batman stories will be judged against but all superhero stories.

Batman: The Brave and the Bold, 2008 to 2011

Warner Bros. gave a big toy marketing push for Batman Begins, but they toned it down for The Dark Knight given the film’s more mature subject matter. Yet they still wanted a toyline and a version of the character that could appeal to a younger audience, so a few months after The Dark Knight premiered, Batman: The Brave and the Bold aired on Cartoon Network (it premiered the same year as Star Wars: The Clone Wars giving Cartoon Network the best block of animation for a couple of years there).

The series was lighter in tone and would feature the Dark Knight teaming up with various DC superheroes, introducing an entirely new generation of kids to characters like Aquaman, Plastic Man, the Metal Men, and even more. The series draws heavily from the wild zany and colorful nature of the Silver Age and is just delightful. It is a fun joyous series with a real love for the rich history of Batman that often gets overlooked.

Batman: Arkham Asylum, 2009

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This one game changed the course of video games, movies, and Batman as audiences knew them. Originally Warner Bros. intended to release a video game tie-in to The Dark Knight as they had with Batman Begins. Movie-video game tie-ins were all the rage in the 2000s, but aside from Spider-Man 2 and surprisingly X-Men Origins: Wolverine these games were rarely ever good. They were quickly made to tie in with the movie, and due to the short time frame, the games are often glitchy and by the numbers.

Batman: Arkham Asylum feels like the perfect balance between The Dark Knight trilogy and the traditional comics. It maintains a sense of heightened reality and gothic architecture, but there is a real sense to the textures and grit and grime that makes it feel real. Bringing back Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Arleen Sorkin to voice Batman, Joker, and Harley Quinn respectively from Batman: The Animated Series felt like the ultimate love letter to the Batman franchise.

Batman: Arkham Asylum was released on August 25, 2009, and received universal acclaim upon its release, with many calling it the best superhero game at the time. The combined success of The Dark Knight as the highest-grossing superhero movie as well as the best-reviewed at the time with Batman: Arkham Asylum being regarded as the greatest superhero game essentially cemented Batman as the best superhero to the public. It marked a point where DC pivoted hard into their caped crusader in a way they never quite had before.

Batman: Under the Red Hood, 2010

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To kick off a new decade, DC Animation released Batman: Under the Red Hood, based on the 2005 to 2006 storyline ‘Under the Red Hood’ by Judd Winick (who wrote the film’s script). While one of three DC animated films released in 2010, Batman: Under the Red Hood is likely a big reason the character of Jason Todd/Red Hood has become such a bigger focus in Batman-related media. Since the adaptation of the story into an animated film, Jason Todd showed up in the game Batman: Arkham Knight, as a DLC fighter in Injustice 2, as a major character on the streaming series Titans, and became the star of his own comic series during the New 52 Red Hood and the Outlaws.

Likely due to the massive successes of The Dark Knight and Batman: Arkham Asylum, Batman: Under the Red Hood was a big hit on home video grossing over $12 million and is one of the highest-grossing DC Animated films.

New 52, 2011

The New 52 was a way for DC to captivate a new generation of readers who had been put off by years of DC Continuity and multiversal stories. The plan was to reboot their entire universe with brand new takes on the famous characters, even canceling and renumbering long-running series like Action Comics and Detective Comics which had kept their original numbering since 1930. The initiative launched on August 31, 2011, just a little over a year before the release of The Dark Knight Rises and just two months before the release of Batman: Arkham City and Batman: Year One on DVD.

Even the event that kicked off New 52, Flashpoint, found a way to make Batman a central part where an alternate take on the character who was in fact Thomas Wayne who witnessed his son Bruce die, under the cowl. Then the entire DC Universe continuity was reset and a whole new era could begin with no baggage from before…with a few exceptions. With how popular Batman was, all of his continuity was kept intact, meaning every Batman story DC published after Crisis on Infinite Earth including The Killing Joke, Knightfall, and all of the other stories still happened but now were said to have happened within a five-year gap. This made it a bit confusing for completely rebooted titles like Superman, Wonder Woman, and even Justice League for how this would all play out, and because DC never had a full outline for the DC New 52 plan, it was the source of many editorial headaches that would plague the title.

Batman was very much at the center of the relaunch as 11 of the 52 titles were Batman-related (Batman, Detective Comics, Catwoman, Nightwing, Batgirl, Batwoman, Birds of Prey, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Batwing, Batman: The Dark Knight, Batman and Robin) in addition to the Justice League title Batman was a part of. Harley Quinn, a major fan-favorite Batman villain, was put on the Suicide Squad in an attempt to generate interest in the title. Batman’s New 52 run was the beginning for writer Scott Snyder, whose time on the book introduced a number of key elements into the Batman mythos, the biggest being The Court of Owls which has been adapted into subsequent Batman media, and is arguably the biggest new Batman villain to the roster since Hush in 2004 and Bane in 1993. Snyder’s take on the character was critically acclaimed and the fact that it was one of the more positively reviewed books in the New 52 era only further cemented along with the great reviews for The Dark Knight and Batman: Arkham Asylum that Batman was the greatest hero.

Many of the issues from The New 52 stemmed from falling into a belief set off by a misreading of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, that the universe needed a gritty reboot and reimagined as a more adult place. The New 52 featured more sex, more violence, and took characters like Superman and Wonder Woman and imagined them in ways more akin to Batman. While comics had skirted with this idea in the ’90s and various versions of it popped up through the 2000s (look at Mark Millar’s work on the Ultimate Marvel comics line), this notion really impacted DC, and not only did Batman become the central focus but the company wanted more of their material to be like Batman.

In many ways, DC New 52 is the start of a new era, and its release signifies a moment of major change. The new comic line was set to help build anticipation for a new Batman movie and video game all within a year. Tune in next time to see how Warner Bros. rides the high into the first few years of the decade and bet it all on Batman.