The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

July 22, 2012

BILL EGGERT | Out of the Batcave: The evolution of Batman

Bill Eggert
For The Tribune-Democrat

— He made his debut back in 1939.

  A year later, he added a junior partner. The young boy, who like his mentor lost his parents when they were murdered by criminals, became the ward to the mysterious billionaire who lived just outside Gotham City.

The masked duo became the scourge of criminals in their native city and around the world. Thus began the fabled origin of arguably the most famous crime-fighting duo in fiction of the 20th century (and beyond): Batman and Robin.

This weekend, director Christopher Nolan unveiled his latest (and his last) Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Anticipation was running high everywhere, especially in the local region. Much of the film was shot in Pittsburgh, doubling for the fictitious Gotham City. Several Pittsburgh figures (including former Steeler Hines Ward and teammates) are making their film debut.

The Oakland section of Pittsburgh, as well as the city proper (including Heinz Field) show up in the film.

The film marks the latest in a long line of Batman movies.

Originally there were two 15-part black-and-white serials: “Batman” (1943) and “Batman and Robin” (1949). Batman made his color debut in “Batman,” a 1966 movie version of the popular television program starring Adam West and Burt Ward as the Dynamic Duo.

The campy tone of the film (and television show) almost spoofed the serious source material of the comic books into oblivion. The movie franchise lay dormant until “Batman” (1989), when director Tim Burton brought back the serious Batman with the unlikely choice of Pittsburgh native Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker.

The mega-success of that movie spawned three more sequels starring Keaton, then Val Kilmer (the best) and George Clooney (the worst) as Batman. Clooney bragged about killing the franchise, which was true, until Nolan took over the helm with “Batman Begins” (2005) and its sequel “The Dark Knight” (2008), both starring Christian Bale as Batman. He reprises the title role in the new film.

Of course, the films, like many others based on fictional characters (both from DC with Batman, Superman, etc. and Marvel with Spider-Man, the Avengers, etc.) rarely stay true to the original source material, the comic books.

For example, the original Robin is now a young man called Nightwing. There have been three other Robins as his successors.

The first successor to the original Robin was killed off (the verdict voted on by readers) by the Joker but subsequently revived as a rogue vigilante. Robin No. 3 is a teenager called Red Robin and sports a pair of functional wings. The most recent Robin is the 10-year-old son of Batman and the daughter of his arch-enemy Ra’s al Ghul.

Two other institutions of the Bat-mythos have also undergone changes over the past 73 years.

The Batmobile has undergone several changes in size and style (none have included the ugly Tumbler in the Nolan movies).

Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s butler/confidant/

surrogate father, has likewise been “modified” over the ensuing decades, now having a past life as a young man that included stints as an actor/spy/mil­itary medic. Alfred also now sports a very dry sense of humor.

The enduring popularity of Batman can be attributed to the character’s costume, rogues’ gallery and quest for justice, all the while changing a bit with the times.

My dad read Batman comics as a kid, as did I and my nephew Timmy. Timmy and I plan to see the new Batman movie this weekend, and relive those “... thrilling days of yesteryear.”

Bill Eggert is a Johnstown native. You can read his blog at

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