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Dark Knights: Batman Through the Pages

By Kevin Nelson · March 7, 2022

Batman is a pop-culture icon recognized the world over. Everyone knows that infamous cowl.

He’s a mere human, yet is still considered a superhero — proving that being born super-rich is akin to inheriting the ability to fly. 

So, why do people consider Batman to be their favorite character?

Maybe it’s the duality of the hero’s personalities. He’s in disguise when he doesn’t have his mask on. He’s a representation of the day and night found in our own psyches. 

After the success of the Superman comics, which were first published in 1938, Action Comics (later to become DC Comics) requested more superhero characters. Bob Kane had an idea for “the Bat-Man,” and he showed some crude sketches to collaborator Bill Finger. The two worked together to create the classic image we associate with Batman today.

The first adaptation of Batman from the pages to the screen occurred in 1943 with a 15 part serial movie called Batman that was followed up by the 1949 serial Batman and Robin. These first two adaptations helped make Batman a household name to many who never would’ve thought about picking up a comic book.

When televisions found their way into family homes in the late 1940s and early 1950s, many of these serials were adapted into television shows. Bruce Wayne remained hiding in his bat cave as the sales of Batman comics dropped significantly. DC even considered killing the character off. It wasn’t until William Dozier’s 1960s campy, pop-art TV show that the Batman character cemented itself as an enduring icon.

And though the series may not have lasted long, but its influence has. The Batman television series launched a merchandising gold mine and renewed interest in the character. In true comic spirit, there have been many different creators who have each added their own unique visions to Batman’s legacy, all seemingly finding influence from the last — building a history that’s ever-evolving. 

Here are the bat signals (screenplays) that brought our dear Dark Knight out of retirement and back to our screens.

Scripts from this Article

Batman: The Movie (1966)

Written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., the Batman movie featuring Adam West was released two months after the finale of the first season for the television show so it had plenty of momentum. 

The script features all the stylistic writing trademarks of the show: onomatopoeias, bat-gadgets, “gorgeous gals in bikinis” playing volleyball on the rooftop fawning over Batman who flashes a smile while hovering above them in the BATCOPTER, oh and Batman fighting a shark while dangling from said Batcopter’s rope ladder.

The script’s absurd slapstick campiness reaches the point of being surreal and it is just as hilarious to read on the page as it is to see on the screen.

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Batman (1989)

After the television series, Batman’s popularity waned again in the 1970s. 

In 1979, producers Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker bought the rights for Batman from DC Comics. They wanted to return the character to his darker roots and make a film closer to how creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane originally envisioned. A dark shadow stalking the night. Most studios turned down the project because they wanted to continue the campy style from the television show. 

Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz wrote the original script based on Steve Englehart’s limited series Batman: Strange Apparitions. Nine different writers were brought on to rewrite the script, but it floundered until Tim Burton was hired on as director and the project finally got a new life. 

Feeling Mankiewicz’s script was too campy, Burton’s girlfriend at the time Julie Hickson wrote out a 30-page treatment based on Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. Burton never read comics because he never knew what to read first, so he hired comic book fan Sam Hamm to write the screenplay.

The project stalled so Hamm’s script was bootlegged and distributed in comic book shops. The script features darker themes and a gritty Gotham city that reflects American cities in the late 80s. Batman’s introduction in the script is a return to his original thematic elements of horror and mystery, a ruthless shadow lurking the night looking for a fight.

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Batman Returns (1992)

Tim Burton originally didn’t want to return for a sequel unless he was given more creative control. By the time Burton was able to negotiate an executive producer credit, Sam Hamm had already delivered two drafts. Apparently, Penguin and Catwoman were to seek hidden treasure. 

Daniel Waters worked on Beetlejuice with Burton after the director liked Waters’s writing on Heathers. Waters was then brought on to rewrite Hamm’s script. He found inspiration for the Penguin’s character arc of running for mayor from two specific episodes of the 1960s show, Hizzoner the Penguin and Dizzoner the Penguin. Waters wrote five drafts total.

Wesley Strick was hired to do uncredited rewrites in order to build up the Penguin’s master plan. Warner Bros. wanted a snowy Gotham City to allude to the future villain Mr. Freeze. Various well-known characters such as Robin were again cut out of this story. No fear, Robin would soon be here. Strick remained as the on-set writer.

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Batman Forever (1995)

When Joel Schumacher took over the Batman franchise from Tim Burton, he starkly departed from the dark atmosphere of Gotham’s German Expressionist influences to deliver more stylized entertainment aligned with the campy 60s series and the Dick Sprang comics. After Batman Returns was deemed too dark for children and even some major sponsors such as McDonald’s pulled their product tie-ins, Warner Bros. wanted to make a film for the MTV generation with full merchandising capabilities. Meaning, enough of the dark stuff.

Married writing partners Lee Batchler and Janet Scott-Batchler were the first hired to write the script and even their portrayal of the Riddler needed to be toned down. Akiva Goldsman had recently worked with Schumacher on The Client and was hired for the rewrite. Scarecrow and Catwoman were cut from the script. Keaton was interested in reprising his role but didn’t like the direction the script was heading and wanted more challenging roles, so he walked away from $15 million.

The live-action Batman films would breathe what seemed to be their last breaths with Batman & Robin, with Bruce Wayne’s legacy carried on through animation until the right hero came along to don the cape and cowl. A fifth installment was in the works but three false starts later and it never materialized — because the hero we didn’t know we needed came along to reimagine the superhero genre and completely blow our minds.

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Batman Begins (2005)

Christopher Nolan sought to bring the character back to life with Batman Begins. The character was left for dead with a broken back. Everyone thought he was gone. After all, Batman doesn’t have superpowers. He’s very much a human fueled by rage and the need to avenge the death of his parents. Nolan wanted to ground his film in reality, turning Gotham into a city much like the one we may live in with dangers that we may ourselves face.

Nolan brainstormed in his garage with screenwriter David S. Goyer for weeks. Goyer launched the superhero genre with Blade. They were joined by production designer Nathan Crowley, and the three took inspiration from comics runs like The Man Who Falls about Bruce Wayne’s formative years traveling after his parents’ deaths, and Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One

The three worked together because Nolan wanted to present the script and designs at the same time to maintain creative control over the project. They wanted to tell an origin story that explores the duality of the titular character. In the years following his parents’ death, Bruce Wayne embarks on a journey around the world. Nolan wanted the film to feel geographically epic.

In the book The Nolan Variations: The Movies, Mysteries, and Marvels of Christopher Nolan by Tom Shone, Nolan said, “Batman Begins has everything to do with his transition into a superhero, and that’s a big chunk of the film in the beginning. I felt very strongly that if we wanted to make a film that could be considered outside that specific genre—if Batman weren’t just Batman but this figure that Bruce Wayne becomes—you would have to put all that work in just to make the audience believe it. So we wanted to do all that work. That was maybe the difference between what we were doing and what had come before us. It’s the duality that is interesting.”

Nolan and Goyer were able to capture the mythos while delivering a superhero origin film that felt completely original.

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The Dark Knight (2008)

After Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan was given the reins of the Batman franchise and he knew he could run with it for as long as he wanted. The question was, how many films would be required to complete his story? Written by Christopher and his brother Jonathan Nolan, with story by David S. Goyer, The Dark Knight is often considered one of the greatest films of all time — regardless of genre. 

Nolan took a lot of inspiration from Heat, which was very much a wall-to-wall city story. The brothers did a great job of seamlessly sequencing multiple storylines to bottleneck climax points and leading the reader/viewer by giving little bits of the larger picture at a time. A good example of this is on the two ferries when the lights go out. Both crews go and check the electrical room to find a present from The Joker. The presents are found, brought back to the captain, opened, and revealed. The writers interweave the action with lyrical rhythms, revealing a piece of information one short scene at a time to piece together the whole narrative. 

Nolan also brought a book of paintings by British painter Francis Bacon to actor Heath Ledger and makeup artist John Caglione to talk about the Joker’s makeup. After the death of his lover, Bacon’s work took on a macabre and depressive state where portraits would be smeared. The artist lived in a small and notoriously messy apartment. 

In Shone’s book, Nolan reflects on Bacon:

“To me, it’s this idea of barely contained horror, this idea of the primal barely held in by the structure of society. Whatever happened in that room of paintings echoes the way in which they were made—very instinctive, very primal in his process, but he exercised absolute control…There’s often this geometric mirror; it’s a thing that’s in a lot of his paintings, this little circle. It’s ordered chaos.

In the same way, Shone writes about Nolan’s creation of the ultimate villain in his iteration of Joker, “Nolan saw instead an anarchist, moving through the story like the shark in Jaws or a serial killer, a force of nature driving the film from beginning to end without letup or explanation, motivated solely by the desire to sow chaos.”

Nolan is a master of designing complex narrative techniques seemingly through his subconscious. 

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The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

When Jonathan Nolan handed Christopher Nolan the first draft of The Dark Knight Rises, he told his brother to think of The Tale of Two Cities. They were both wary of making a third film. Nolan contends that there are very few good third installments in a trilogy, Rocky III being an exception. His instinct was to change genres yet again. 

Whereas Batman Begins is an origin epic centered around facing your fears, and The Dark Knight is a crime drama like Heat with an anarchist villain, then The Dark Knight Rises would have to be the historical epic featuring the classic movie monster. It’s about the fight for Gotham’s soul. Urban warfare and class upheaval led by a charismatic and brutal leader.

Nolan says in Shone’s book:

The Dark Knight is about anarchy, and The Dark Knight Rises is about demagoguery. It’s about the upending of society.”

The Dark Knight Rises continues to resonate with its themes of class disparity and struggle. In a way, the city of Gotham is a macrocosm to Bruce Wayne’s microcosm. In order to win, Bruce Wayne has to lose everything and recover from a broken back, finally finding the peace he’s been looking for all along.

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer were set to follow up Man of Steel with a sequel. In story meetings, the question over who Superman should fight next after Zod, an alien being equal to Superman? Snyder thought it’d be cool to fight Batman. He kept coming up. 

Goyer left the project after being hired for the television series The Sandman, and Chris Terrio was hired to rewrite the script. Terrio was influenced by Nolan’s films, Umberto Eco’s essay The Myth of Superman, and the poem by W.H. Auden Musée des Beaux Arts, which contrasts the epic fights of mythological heroes with the small molehills faced by normal folks like us.

Terrio told The Wall Street Journal:

“In superhero stories, Batman is Pluto, god of the underworld, and Superman is Apollo, god of the sky. That began to be really interesting to me — that their conflict is not just due to manipulation, but their very existence.”

If only they knew that their grandfathers were both named Cronus.

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Joker (2019)

Although set in 1981, Joker felt very much of the time in which it was made. Although it did reflect the energy of 2019, it was never meant to be a political film. Moreover, it was supposed to explore mental health issues. Written by Scott Silver and director Todd Phillips, the duo wanted to create a more grounded character study of the infamous villain. Both Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix turned down opportunities to enter the world of superheroes prior. With the character of Joker, Phillips could explore the character deeper while appealing to wider audiences.

Throughout 2017, Phillips and Silver worked on the script, running into constant roadblocks due to the nature of the content. The two drew inspiration from Taxi DriverThe King of ComedyOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestThe Man Who Laughs, and more.

Being that it’s told from the point of view of an unreliable, mentally ill narrator with entire sequences that are glimpses into his delusional mind, in the end, the two crafted a screenplay up for interpretation that struck at the heart of the zeitgeist of that time. 

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Director Matt Reeves has promised to deliver a dark vision of Bruce Wayne in the latest addition to the franchise, The Batman — one that explores his detective skills as he takes on a brilliant foe in The Riddler, who aesthetically seems to be a cross between the brutality of The Zodiac Killer and the misguided brilliance of Ted Kaczynski. 

Much like his presence in the night, the future of Batman is up in the air. You never know when or where another movie or television show will flutter out of the shadows. Much like famous tall tales, the stories of the hero might differ depending on who tells ‘em, but he’ll always be our silent guardian, our watchful protector…our dark knight.

Scripts from this Article