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A Brief History of Batman on the Small Screen

A Brief History of Batman on the Small Screen

By Kelly Knox Friday, September 3rd, 2021

The Caped Crusader’s long TV legacy is a rich mix of colorful days and very dark nights.

Batman has been swooshing across our television sets for over fifty years. It all started with Bruce Wayne taking center stage with a bang (and a POW!) in 1966, and his iconic alter ego is still gracing our small screens today. In fact, if you consider how ubiquitous television is throughout the world, it’s likely that for many, their first exposure to the Caped Crusader came as a result of flipping through the channels on a lazy afternoon until at last landing on one of the many Bat-shows we’ve seen over the years.

Let’s take a quick look at Batman in live action TV and animation over the years, from the effervescent days of Adam West to the dodgy Gotham streets in Titans. Whether campy and corny or gritty and graphic, each appearance is a step forward in the story of the Dark Knight, shaping Batman’s legacy in the comics and beyond.

Batman in Prime Time

Bruce Wayne’s first foray into television as the series star was in the classic 1960s-era Batman. The colorful show depicts quite a different Gotham City than modern Bat-fans might be used to.

“The city seems to be carefree and serene, doesn’t it?” says the jovial narrator in “Fine Feathered Finks.”

One hundred and twenty episodes from 1966 to 1968 followed handsome playboy Bruce Wayne and his young ward Dick Grayson on their many adventures under the sunny Gotham sky. (It feels weird even saying that!) They took on the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler and even more bombastic villains using both brains and brawn. Some rogues, like Egghead and King Tut, debuted in the classic TV series and later appeared in comic books.

No matter the wackiness of the crime, Batman and Robin took it very seriously and endeared themselves to viewers of all ages who needed an escape into the funny pages. The unforgettable series ended in 1968. (Adam West and Burt Ward returned to voice their iconic characters in the 1977 cartoon series The New Adventures of Batman and, much later, in the animated movies Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders and Batman vs. Two-Face.) It would be a very long time before Bruce Wayne returned to live action on TV.

Cartoon Capers

The bright energy of Batman followed the Caped Crusader into the landmark animated series Super Friends. In the 1970s-1980s cartoon, Batman and Robin stood alongside fellow legendary superheroes Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman. Teenaged detectives Wendy and Marvin and later the Wonder Twins often came along for the ride. Their mission “to right that which is wrong” led your favorite superheroes into battles against monsters, aliens, mad scientists and the Legion of Doom.

After the end of The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians (the final iteration of the Super Friends series) in 1986, we would have to wait six years until Batman returned in a major way to animation. Yes, we’re talking about the character-defining Batman: The Animated Series.

Debuting in 1992 after Tim Burton’s darker take on the Dark Knight took movie theaters by storm, the colors and corniness of Batman’s earlier small screen excursions were replaced by rainy nights and a pensive, experienced Batman.

The animated series was incredibly influential on the Dark Knight in all media. It introduced major new characters like Harley Quinn and Renee Montoya. It set the standard for series that would later take place in the same universe. And for many Bat-fans, Kevin Conroy’s take on Bruce Wayne is Batman.

“They really got into the psychology of Batman,” recalled Conroy in a 2014 interview. “(Batman: The Animated Series) became a real psychodrama. There are some episodes like ‘Perchance to Dream’ where you really get into the mind of Bruce Wayne, and it’s wonderful for an actor to get that kind of challenge in a role.”

Dream Team-Ups

After Batman: The Animated Series ended, Bruce Wayne went to Metropolis in the second season of Superman: The Animated Series. That meeting of the World’s Finest was one of their most memorable (and just plain fun, let’s be honest). After that, it was back to Gotham for The New Batman Adventures, and then into the future for the game-changing Batman Beyond in 1999.

These animated outings re-established Batman’s status as a team player and the father figure of his own Bat-family. He continued to be an indispensable teammate throughout the early 2000s in Justice League and Justice League Unlimited.

Bruce Wayne’s crimefighting career was reset in 2004’s The Batman, which followed the Dark Knight early in his career as a crimefighter. In 2008, Batman embraced collaboration once again, and Batman: The Brave and the Bold teamed him up with a series of new and unusual allies. Then it was back to darker solo adventures in 2013’s CGI Beware the Batman before he rejoined his colleagues in 2016’s Justice League Action.

And that’s to say nothing about all of his guest appearances and cameos in animated series ranging from Static Shock to Teen Titans GO! Whew. That’s a lot of Batman. For decades Batman has been an animated powerhouse (in more ways than one), but more recent years finally brought him back to live action…in a sense.

The Dark Knight Returns

It was 2014’s Gotham that returned Bruce Wayne to primetime television, but as a 12-year-old who had just lost his parents. While Batman himself didn’t appear in the cowl until the series’ final episode, the emotional story explored Bruce’s childhood unlike any before. It also brought never villains like the Court of Owls from the comics to a mainstream audience.

On the other end of the age spectrum, the “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover event in 2019 gave Arrowverse fans their first look at an older, disillusioned Bruce Wayne. This trend has been continued recently in Titans, with Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen portraying Bruce Wayne as a grizzled veteran who has seen Dick Grayson move away to form his own team. This season, the death of Jason Todd has taken Nightwing back to Gotham and reunited him with some of Batman’s old allies and enemies. The result has been arguably the best and most comics-accurate Batman story we’ve gotten in live action TV so far…only minus the Batman.

These wide-ranging takes continue to enrich the story and character of the Dark Knight, taking him from his formative years to some possible futures. Best of all, there’s more to come. Batman: Caped Crusader, the Dark Knight’s newest animated adventure, will be a part of DC FanDome on October 16.

With such a legacy in TV, maybe a “Bat-Channel” isn’t quite so crazy an idea after all.
 

Titans, Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League, Batman Beyond, Super Friends and more can be streamed right now on HBO Max. Not yet a subscriber? Sign up today to enjoy the best of DC movies and TV.

Kelly Knox writes about all-ages comics and animation for DCComics.com and her writing can also be seen on IGN, Nerdist and more. Follow her on Twitter at @kelly_knox to talk superheroes, comics and pop culture.