Before Marvel teamed with Disney to take over the world with their Cinematic Universe, DC Comics’ Batman and Superman were indisputably the most iconic superhero characters ever. Long before Iron Man or Spider-Man made their Hollywood debut, The Caped Crusader and The Man of Steel had already starred in nearly a dozen feature length blockbusters, not to mention countless cartoons, TV shows, comics, and video games. Now, for the first time ever, these two larger-than-life characters are set to appear together and square-off on the big screen. In a way, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice is a film that has been decades in the making.
Not counting serials or shorts, Superman first appeared in 1951 in Superman and the Mole Men, a small-budget and low key affair that failed to prophesy the character’s potential. Batman made his debut in theaters nationwide with 1966’s Batman, a film adaptation of the popular television series starring Adam West known for its cheesy dry humor, vibrant colors, and “Bat-everything” gadgets. The fifties and sixties were a time of humble origins for superheroes in cinema and it’s hard to imagine that anyone back then could begin to guess the heights the genre would reach.
Batman would lay dormant for more than twenty years, as Superman took the spotlight with a series of films starring Christopher Reeve. The first film in 1978, which was just titled Superman, is still considered a classic today (93% on Rotten Tomatoes) and defined the character for a generation. By most measures, Superman was the first superhero film to take the box office by storm and heralded the coming age of comic book blockbusters. The second film, Superman II, was considered a worthy successor but the third and fourth were so abysmal that they retired The Man of Tomorrow from the big screen for the next two decades.
Meanwhile, Batman roared back into mainstream culture in a big way with 1989’s Batman by director Tim Burton. The dark aesthetichs and grim presentation of the material was more in line with the tone of the books and was a far cry from the zany and goofy Adam West Batman of the sixties. Michael Keaton played a mysterious and eccentric Bruce Wayne while Jack Nicholson’s performance as The Joker seemed to cement the archetype of that character (until the blueprint would be rewritten nearly twenty years later). Batman was more successful than anyone would have ever dreamed and practically guaranteed the ascent of a new genre of masked heroes.
Burton and Keaton reunited in Batman Returns (1992), which was generally successful and well-received but didn’t quite live up to the gold standard set by the first film. The reigns of the franchise then switched hands to director Joel Schumacher, who plunged the series into mediocrity with Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997), two films so maligned as to now almost be considered parody. Val Kilmer starred as the titular character in the former, with George Clooney donning the suit for the latter. All star casts of Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, and Arnold Schwarzenegger only contributed to the films’ infamy, leaving some to wonder if the brand had been irreparably damaged. At the end of the 20th century, both Batman and Superman seemed to have run out of steam, with cancelled and abandoned projects muddling through the years and a bad taste left from the deflating end of the previous series.
Posted by Terry Pierson, Programming Technician