Batman Turns 80

Mar 29, 2019
Originally published on March 29, 2019 7:04 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

No matter what happens in this unsettling world, at least Batman is on the case.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BATMAN")

WILLIAM DOZIER: (As narrator) Fear not, America. They are still on duty, that legendary duo.

INSKEEP: The promo for Batman and Robin in a 1960s TV show applies today as Batman turns 80. NPR's Glen Weldon reports on a hero who's adapted to changing times.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Eighty years old and still kicking and punching - lots of punching. Punching is kind of his thing. We don't have to go over his origin story. You know the drill - dark alley, a mugger, dead parents. What you might not know is that when he began back in Detective Comics 27 in 1939, his co-creators, Bill Finger and Bob Kane, had him kill folk a lot. In his first year alone, he sent 24 criminals to their deaths, plus two vampires, a pack of werewolves and a handful of giant mutants because, you know, comics. And he always did it with a grim smile.

It didn't last. His publishers worried that parents would balk at all that violence. So just one year in, they course corrected by introducing his sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder, to lighten the tone. It worked.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BATMAN")

BURT WARD: (As Robin) Holy jack-in-the-box.

ADAM WEST: (As Batman) Exactly, Boy Wonder.

WELDON: Batman was the first comics hero to pivot like that, to be nimble enough to react to changes in his audience. It's one reason he took off right away in the 1940s, leaping from comic books to daily newspaper strips. He got a recurring stint on Superman's radio show and even a couple of movie serials to himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BATMAN: THE ELECTRICAL BRAIN")

KNOX MANNING: (As narrator) Yes, Batman, clad in the somber costume which has struck terror to the heart of many a swaggering denizen of the underworld.

WELDON: The lightness just kept increasing into the 1960s, when it came to a head on national TV. Here, at the height of the counterculture, Batman was a real square.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BATMAN")

WEST: (As Batman) Watch it, chump. Pedestrian safety.

WELDON: When that '60s "Batman" television series ended, the comics would course correct again. Batman ditched Robin and went back to being a lone avenger of the night because the fans wanted him to. The movies took their cue from the comics. But even there, the cycle kept turning. Director Tim Burton made a couple dark "Batman" movies in the '80s and '90s. Then Joel Schumacher made a couple - let's call them light - "Batman" movies. And more recently, Christopher Nolan came along to make Batman grim and gritty again with a "Dark Knight" trilogy.

You can find fans of every version of Batman in some surprising places, including the U.S. Congress. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, who's made cameo appearances in five "Batman" films, was born just a year after Batman was, and the Dark Knight got his hooks in early.

PATRICK LEAHY: Picked up my first "Batman" comic when I was 4 or 5 years old, and I loved it. I couldn't wait for the next one.

WELDON: It may seem odd that a lawmaker like Leahy finds such an affinity for a costumed law-breaker. But for him, it's what Batman stands for that matters.

LEAHY: He put other people first. He didn't live the comfortable life that he could with his wealth and everything else. Instead, he tried to help others - may or may not agree with his tactics every time, but he's trying to help others. That's not a bad motive to have in life.

WELDON: That motive is the one thing about him that doesn't change. So whether you like your Batman all gothic and whispery...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BATMAN")

MICHAEL KEATON: (As Batman) I want you to do me a favor. I want you to tell all your friends about me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What are you?

KEATON: (As Batman) I'm Batman.

WELDON: ...Or seriously aggro (ph)...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BATMAN BEGINS")

CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Batman) Where were the other drugs going?

MARK BOONE JUNIOR: (As Flass) I never knew. I don't know. I swear to God.

BALE: (As Batman) Swear to me.

WELDON: ...Or maybe you want to learn the Heimlich maneuver. There's a Batman for that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SUPER FRIENDS")

OLAN SOULE: (As Batman) You know, Robin, quite often, people choke on a piece of food they're eating.

CASEY KASEM: (As Robin) Right. What can you do for them?

SOULE: (As Batman) Well, if I were choking, you'd stand behind me, wrap your arms around my waist, then make a...

WELDON: Take your pick. Grim and gritty, light and campy or somewhere in between, they're all valid. They're all just a guy who wants to help. They're all Batman. Glen Weldon, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.