Batman turns 80 today. He's still fighting crime and delivering at the box-office

Key Points
  • Iconic DC superhero Batman turns 80 on Saturday, March 30.
  • Visionaries such as Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan have created box-office smashes starring the iconic comic book character.
  • Matt Reeves, director of 2014's "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" and 2017's "War for the Planet of the Apes" is directing the 2021 Batman film.
Batman franchise
Source: Warner Bros.

Saturday, March 30, is a milestone for Bruce Wayne, who also goes by Batman. It's his 80th birthday.

The beloved DC and Warner Bros. character was never a typical superhero — a billionaire capitalist who can't fly, does not have super-strength and cannot stick to walls. But Wayne Enterprises' riches funded an arsenal of tools, machines and weaponry for crime fighting that has allowed Batman to stand toe-to-toe with Marvel Comics heroes and DC coverboy Superman. He has managed to stay not only relevant but a multibillion-dollar winner at the box office.

"Batman isn't a Superman. He's just a man," said Mike Avila, SYFY WIRE senior producer and the host of "Behind the Panel."

"Even though he drives a super-cool Batmobile and hangs out in a teched-out cave … Batman is still someone many of us can relate to. The thirst for justice borne from personal tragedy is something we can all relate to."

Batman's moods not always so dark

Throughout the past eight decades, the iconic character created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger has faced his ups and downs, which is perhaps why he is so relatable.

The 1950s and early 1960s were defined by an era of a lighthearted science fiction, having "The Bat" fight space aliens and monsters. There was also the introduction of more family-oriented characters, like Robin, The Boy Wonder, and Ace the Bat Hound. With Marvel Comics starting to knock on DC's door with its arrival in 1961, introducing characters like Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four and Marvel's own crime-fighting, gadget-laden capitalist, Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), Batman started to see a decline in comic sales.

Longtime DC comic book editor Julius Schwartz, who oversaw Batman for 14 years, kept the print emphasis on Batman's detective skills in the mid-1960s and removed some of the lighter elements that had come to define the character. But the "Batman" television show (1967–69) starring Adam West and Burt Ward was written as a family-oriented show with a comedic tone. Although the show and its featured film, titled "The Batman" (1966) kept the the comics from going out of print, it wasn't until 1970 that Batman's true presence was returned to form.

"Once the TV show went off the air, it was Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams who finally, permanently returned Batman to the shadows. Adams' art, combined with O'Neil's sharply written scripts, brought the air of menace and mystery back to Gotham," Avila said. "They established the template that scores of creators, from Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers to [the concepts that] Frank Miller and Scott Snyder have been inspired by and built on."

A new Batman boom in the 1980s

In 1986 Frank Miller wrote the graphic novel "The Dark Knight Returns," and in 1987 he wrote "Batman: Year One," two of the more iconic narratives for the Caped Crusader. In 1989 Tim Burton directed "The Batman," starring Michael Keaton as the title character and Jack Nicholson as the killer clown Joker. Burton's film would go on to gross more than $411 million worldwide on a $35 million budget, according to Box Office Mojo, and would kickstart a new era of Batman filmography.

"Tim Burton's movie was a cultural landmark," Avila said. "Not just in regards to superhero films but all modern blockbusters. The way that movie was marketed and promoted, with tons of tie-ins from cereals to shirts and toys … created a new blueprint in movie marketing. Whether you like it or not, everything you see in today's promotions of Marvel and DC films began with Batman '89."

Several other features with different A-list stars playing the masked vigilante followed. Most notable, though, is Christian Bale, who played Batman for Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 18: Christian Bale attends the European premiere of The Dark Knight Rises at The BFI IMAX on July 18, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)
Dave Hogan | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

"Nolan's interpretation went beyond the surface to get to the heart of this deeply troubled, wildly heroic and often misunderstood and misrepresented character to go on a psychological journey inside the heart and soul of one of the most interesting and ultimately human characters in the world of film," said Paul Dergarabedian, a box-office analyst for Comscore.

"That absence of the supernatural is an aspect that the Nolan films utilize to great effect, bringing a kind of realism sorely lacking in every other superhero franchise recently brought to the screen," added Kia Afra, a Chapman University professor and the author of "The Hollywood Trust: Trade Associations and the Rise of Studio System."

"It gives Batman a dramatic presence that is unmatched by those other film franchises," he said.

The sequel to 2005's "Batman Begins," 2008's "The Dark Knight" grossed over $1 billion worldwide and ended up immortalizing the late Heath Ledger, who won Best Supporting Actor at the 2009 Oscars for his performance as the sociopathic Joker. In 2012 Nolan released the follow-up to his smash hit, another $1 billion film, titled "The Dark Knight Rises."

There's always talk of how Batman/Bruce Wayne is this generation's Hamlet. ... If any actor can inhabit the role, then it runs the risk of becoming generic. And Batman is a lot of things, but he's not generic.
Mike Avila
SYFY WIRE senior producer and the host of "Behind the Panel."

Even with all of the success in movie theatres, one notable consumer segment that has not benefited is comic book sales. In 2018 the comic book industry grossed around $516.59 million, down 1.1 percent year-over-year, which is part of a longer-term declining trend, according to Comichron. But "Batman: New Wedding" was among the most-ordered issues, according to an industry publication.

In 2013 Warner Bros. and DC announced that Batman would be joining Henry Cavill's Superman in a sequel to "Man of Steel," the Superman movie from earlier that year. Ben Affleck was casted to play the role and would reprise the Dark Knight in 2016's "Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice," " Suicide Squad" and then 2017's "Justice League."

Poor reviews for all three films and an underwhelming box-office performance for "Justice League" led to Affleck's stepping away from the role earlier this year.

"I tried to direct a version of it [2021's Batman movie] and worked with a really good screenwriter but just couldn't come up with a version. I couldn't crack it," Affleck said on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" "And so it was time to let someone take a shot at it."

Justice League
Warner Bros. Pictures

Matt Reeves, director of 2014's "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" and 2017's "War for the Planet of the Apes" is taking control of the ship, directing the 2021 Batman film, currently being dubbed "The Batman." Reeves has not named an actor who will take on the role.

"There's always talk of how Batman/Bruce Wayne is this generation's Hamlet, that audiences will accept anyone in the role. But I think WB has taken that for granted," Avila said. "If any actor can inhabit the role, then it runs the risk of becoming generic. And Batman is a lot of things, but he's not generic."

Although it is uncertain who will play the character in 2021 and beyond, one thing is certain: the first 80 years have seen multiple Batman reinventions.

"Eighty years of stories, and writers and artists still find new ways to uncover new facets to his personality," Avila said. "That's a tribute obviously to those creators, but also to a character who has survived and thrived all this time."

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Disclosure: SYFY is owned by NBC Universal, CNBC's parent company.