One of the things that proves interesting about the early live-action history of Superman and Batman-- that is, everything from the 1940s to the 1960s-- is the apparent symmetry.
Superman received exactly two multi-chapter serials, 1948's SUPERMAN and 1950's ATOM MAN VS. SUPERMAN. Batman also got two, BATMAN (1943) and BATMAN AND ROBIN (1949). Superman's first live-action teleseries (the radio serials being outside my consideration) appeared from 1952 to 1958. Batman's first live-action teleseries followed eight years later, from 1966 to 1968.
Yet in terms of reception, not all of them were symmetrical in terms of reception. All four serials and the 1950s Superman serials were entirely constructed as children's entertainment, in keeping with the established cultural belief that superheroes were only for kids. The 1966 Bat-series, however, was something of a game-changer, in that producer William Dozier chose a two-tiered approach (quote from this blog-source);
“After the meeting,” Dozier recalls, “I scurried around and bought maybe seven or eight different vintage copies of the Batman comic books, and felt like a fool doing it. I read them -- if that is the word -- and asked myself ‘What do I do with this?’ I thought they were crazy. I really thought they were crazy if they were going to try to put this on television. Then I had the simple idea of overdoing it, of making it so square and so serious that adults would find it amusing. I knew kids would go for the derring-do, the adventure, but the trick would be to find adults who would either watch it with their kids -- or to hell with the kids, and watch it anyway.”
Clearly Dozier approached the genre of the superhero in the mood of "jesting Pilate." He could hardly have guessed, though, that he would prove influential in making mainstream converts to the "superhero religion." Comics-fans of the 1960s were at best ambivalent about the teleseries, for reasons I've explored here, Yet for years after the series' cancellation, reruns of BATMAN had a major effect upon mainstream audiences. To be sure, many adults didn't watch BATMAN in reruns, any more than they had during its original broadcasts. But others did watch the reruns, and remembered the show fondly, both for its comedy and for its "derring-do." It's my contention that in this way the Bat-series broke down the previously impenetrable cultural barrier between "adult stuff" and "kid stuff."
In the heyday of film-serials, Alex Raymond's comic-strip hero Flash Gordon outdid both Batman and Superman, garnering a hefty three serial outings as opposed to the two allotted to the caped crimefighters. That history was roughly repeated in 1977, when a distant relation of Gordon arguably became the first superheroic film-fantasy to captive adult audiences by playing the fantasy straight; the very antithesis of the Dozier strategy. The unexpected mega-success of STAR WARS did not engender Richard Donner's ambitious adaption of SUPERMAN in 1978, for according to Larry Tye that project had its genesis back in the spring of 1974. Yet the George Lucas film may have "primed the pump" for the Superman project, with "trusting in the force" paving the way for "believing that a man could fly." Yet despite the public's unprecedented acceptance of the Superman saga, of seeing a kiddie-comics hero given the "Hollywood Epic" treatment usually reserved for Bible stories and apocalyptic SF-tales, the Superman series was not a tide that raised all boats. Productions for Popeye, the Lone Ranger, and even a refurbished Flash Gordon remained no more than curiosities to the mainstream audience.
Tim Burton's 1989 BATMAN was in its way as much a game-changer as Dozier's 1966 teleseries. Some trenchant wit, whose name I've forgotten, pointed out that Burton like Lucas played straight the very elements that Dozier played with touches of ironic distancing-- though of course Burton injected more "adult" psychodrama than had been evident in any previous superhero adaptation (Burton memorably called his story-line a "duel of the freaks.") Comics-fans of the 1960s disparaged the BATMAN teleseries for not taking the character "seriously," but I don't think that any of them really wanted some dead-serious disquisition on superhero mythology. What they wanted, in my opinion, were adaptations that respected the source material. Despite any and all failings of Richard Donner's 1978 film and Burton's 1989 movie, and the great gulf between the themes of the two stories, both showed some degree of respect for some aspects of the original material, thus pleasing some if not all hardcore superhero-fans as well as mainstream audiences. From the success of Burton's BATMAN flowed a sometimes inconstant stream of generally big-budget adaptations in the 1990s, a stream that became more of an inundation in the 2000s with the successes of franchises for X-MEN. SPIDER-MAN and IRON MAN.
The fate of Superman and Batman in the 2000s was more of a mixed bag. Bryan Singer's 2006 SUPERMAN RETURNS failed to launch the character as a viable continuing franchise, for reasons I won't seek to explore here. In contrast, Christopher Nolan delivered literally what some comics-fans claimed to have wanted: a "dead-serious disquisition on superhero mythology," though Nolan's story-lines tended to reject superhero mythology in favor of the content of high-octane crime-thrillers. It's axiomatic to state, then, that Nolan's snowballing success with the Bat-franchise in 2005, 2008 and 2012 led to the "Nolan-izing" of the Superman franchise in 2013's MAN OF STEEL, as I discussed in this review. In that review, I expressed the hope that Zack Snyder's rebranding of Superman-- which I associated with an "impoverished aesthetic" would fail to become the dominant iteration of Superman.
I didn't really expect that my wish would come true in the near future. However, despite Snyder's directorial helming of BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN, and despite Christopher Nolan's perhaps-not-too-influential production-role, I have seen a modest improvement in the first live-action crossover of DC's archetypal protagonists.
More on that on the film-blog, hopefully this week.