Batman and Superman - A history of two iconic screen heroes

24 Mar 2016 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

8 mins
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Following a brief animated appearance together in The LEGO® Movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice brings together these two titans of the DC universe for their first live-action big screen head-to-head. The first in a series of planned films with an increasingly vast number of characters, Batman v Superman is inspired by a series of graphic novels produced by legendary writer and artist Frank Miller.

What about Wonder Woman?

Batman v Superman introduces several new characters, most notably Wonder Woman, who is astonishingly only now making her first appearance on the big screen - 80 years after the character's introduction! There have been several attempts to produce Wonder Woman films in the past, with figures such as Joss Whedon and Nicolas Winding Refn attached to direct at various stages, and actors including Beyonce, Angelina Jolie and Sandra Bullock mooted for the lead role, but none of them came to fruition, and so filmmakers are now looking to make up for lost time. The Wonder Woman seen here, played by Gal Gadot, will have her own big-screen outing in 2017, hopefully encouraging more studios to place women at the centre of their biggest films. All three characters are scheduled to return in 2018 for the first instalment of The Justice League.

The Bat is back

The dual identity of Bruce Wayne/Batman first appeared in comic form in 1939. With his athletic ability, detective skills, scientific knowledge, and wealth allowing him to create a vast arsenal of gadgets to help him fight crime along the way - Batman unusually does not possess any superhero abilities, and is known more for his tortured, conflicted personality. Partly due to his reputation as a vigilante figure, people on various sides of the political spectrum have attempted to interpret Batman on their own terms. In truth, the character straightforwardly evolves with the political and social climates of the times, allowing different directors to present his character in ways that they see fit.

Amusingly, one of Ben Afflecks most underrated films is crime drama Hollywoodland, where he plays George Reeves, an actor famous in the 1950s for playing Superman on television. Affleck is now the sixth big screen Batman. Adam West starred in a spin-off of the campy cult television show in 1966, its psychedelic tone reflecting the free-spirited era. Finding this image difficult to shake off, the character did not return to cinemas until 1989, when Michael Keaton teamed up with Tim Burton for Batman and Batman Returns, two darker and wildly successful films notable for their brilliant villains, including Jack Nicholson's Joker and Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman.

Val Kilmer was next to play the role in Batman Forever, followed by George Clooney in Batman & Robin. However the latter was received so badly that it appeared to kill the character off for good. That all changed in 2005 when Christopher Nolan revived the Caped Crusader with Christian Bale in the role. The resulting Dark Knight trilogy became one of the biggest commercial phenomenons of the 21st century, introducing a more serious tone which has proved massively influential. Nolan drew on film noirs such as The Asphalt Jungle, and the murky urban worlds of Blade Runner and Metropolis, as well as the paranoia and corruption associated with 70s films like Dog Day Afternoon to create his distinctive Gotham City.

Superman - the definitive superhero? 

Clark Kent/Superman began life about the same time as Batman, in 1938. With his Kansas upbringing, famous red cape, and red-and-yellow emblem across his blue chest, Superman has long been associated with a particularly American idealism. Possessed with seemingly limitless powers, unlike Batman - who often appears unhinged and disturbed - Superman has traditionally been seen in a very wholesome, even messianic light, and many fans find the character a bit square.

For many, the 1978 Superman film - where he was played by Christopher Reeve - remains the definitive comic-book film. With its legendary John Williams score and warm humour, the film - which spawned three sequels - ingrained itself into the public consciousness with its 'You'll believe a man can fly' tagline. Reeve was so loved in the role that it was not until 2006 that the character reappeared, with little-known actor Brandon Routh starring in the breezy Superman Returns. Moderately successful, but not on the scale expected of such an important franchise, a sequel never materialised. 2013's Man of Steel cast British actor Henry Cavill as Kent, and was notable for its somber, brooding tone, influenced by Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. With both directed by Zack Snyder, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is effectively a sequel to Man of Steel.

Birthing the Blockbuster

Superman was the first real comic-book movie and, together with Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ushered in an age of large budget science-fiction films. Alongside Jaws, these films changed Hollywood forever, introducing an array of mass-appeal, family-friendly franchises with seemingly endless spin-off possibilities. Before them, summer was regarded as a quiet time in the movie-going calendar. Afterwards, it became the most crucial commercial period, particularly catering to young people on long holidays from school and college. Artistically, Christopher Nolan has also stated that the immersive, recognisable yet slightly fantastic world of Superman had a big influence on his Dark Knight trilogy.

With the revival of the Caped Crusader in 1989, the blockbuster as we know it today was really born. Batman began its unprecedented marketing campaign many months in advance of release and spawned a huge array of merchandising, from t-shirts to action figures, fast-food meals to soundtrack albums, and was a crucial title in the then relatively new home entertainment market. Engaging with audiences in new ways, Tim Burton's film changed the way blockbusters are made, marketed and distributed forever. Even its poster - a simple, sleek, redesigned Bat-symbol and nothing else - had a massive cultural impact. 

Whether or not Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has the impact of some of the characters earlier screen incarnations remains to be seen, but the studio will certainly be hoping so. Immersing itself in the trend for shared universes that dominate the blockbuster landscape today, there is a lot riding on the success of the film. It is up to audiences to decide whether they like the latest versions of these beloved characters, but either way, its safe to say that they'll be back. 

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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