Back in the '90s I was briefly a moderator for a computer bulletin board for a Comics, Manga and Anime forum. Most of the moderation I did involved pie fights between the X-MEN fans and fans of DC's Vertigo line. Both sides wanted their own forum and hated having to share space with the other; (and both largely ignored the dorky Anime/Manga fans). My job was to tell them that under the board's then administration, that wasn't going to happen. The Neil Gaiman fans felt -- with some justification -- that their comics were more grown-up and serious than Marvel's multitudious mutant books, and tended to look down on the Marvel Zombies.
Looking at the images and the stories coming out of this years San Diego Comicon, has reminded me of the gripe I have with DC's recent attempts to bring their characters to the Big Screen. They'd love to imitate Marvel's box office success; but they want to make movies that are Grown-Up and Serious. They're afraid people will make fun of Superman if they see him with his underwear worn over his tights.
And the more I think about it, the more I realize that the origins of this gripe go back a long, long way.
Back in the '60s, the TV Batman rode the camp craze, largely ignited it, and also beat it to death. For decades afterwards, comics fans have labored under a public perception of the genre based on "ZAP! POW!"
So in the '70s, DC made a concerted effort to expunge Adam West from the Bat-Verse. Batman became grimmer, more serious. The first BATMAN comic I got as a kid featured a Batman who frowned so hard it looked like his face was going to break off; (it was the concluding chapter of Goodwin and Simonson's Manhunter epic). One of the back-up stories in the book was a reprint from a Golden Age tale in which Batman actually grinned and traded puns with Robin as they punched out crooks. The dissimilarity between these two almost gave my brain whiplash.
What perhaps should have been the apex of the Grim 'n' gritty Batman was Frank Miller's DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, originally published in installments, then combined into a single volume. This book portrayed Gotham City as a corrupt hell-hole, and Batman as a bitter, obsessed psycho. And the fans loved it.
The thing was, in Miller's story, Gotham had become a hell-hole because Batman had retired, and Bruce was a bitter psycho because he was a cranky old man who has been stewing for the past several years. But the post-Miller writers took both these elements of Future Batman and grafted them into the Present-Day Batman. And one of these was Miller himself. He was commissioned to write a new origin story titled BATMAN: YEAR ONE, which established the seeds of Gotham's corruption much earlier (and established Catwoman as a prostitute, because Frank himself observed, cartoonists write about the things they want to draw).
DARK KNIGHT RETURNS was part of a wave of "Grim 'n' Gritty" comics that started in the mid '80s. Alan Moore's brilliant deconstruction of the Costumed Superhero, WATCHMEN was a big part of it, (although Moore later lamented that all the people imitating him were missing his point). Over at Marvel, Wolverine became a superstar in this era, as did the PUNISHER, originally a doofy one-off villain in a SPIDER-MAN comic, given an extra dose of Charles Bronson and Mack Bolan. Grittiness was the New Realism, they said.
One notable exception was Keith Giffen's JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL. Giffen realized that in Real Life, stupid stuff happens too; and so he and his scripter J.M DeMatthies infused JLI with a wacky humor that annoyed a lot of the G'n'G fans. He brought back an old villain named Lobo and re-tooled him into a Wolverine parody who became enormously popular. Go figure.
Tim Burton's Batman followed the new tradition, (although you can make a good case that he was really going back to the Batman's roots), of making Batman dark, creepy and scary. And it worked. And it made a lot of money.
Shortly afterwards, CBS made a TV series based on THE FLASH, and you could tell that it's makers took Tim Burton's lessons to heart. Whether they learned the right lessons is a matter of opinion. But for better or worse, they made Flash as Batman-like as possible. They made his costume, bright red in the comics, a dark, brick-color; and had all his adventures take place at night. In the TV show, the Flash wasn't an established hero, he was an "urban legend" whose existence the police officially denied, (a tack that the BATMAN comic tried for a time, in the name of greater realism; since Bats was a long-time member of the Justice League, though, the "urban legend" thing was actually less believable). The TV Flash had some good things in it, but when you get a scene in it's pilot where a bolt of electricity arcs in front of a street lamp, visually echoing the Flash's logo; the way we had the Batplane silhouetted against the moon imitating Batman's logo in Burton's Batman, it's pretty obvious that the show crossing from hommage to the Sincerest Form of Flattery.
The later Batman movies became sillier without managing to be fun and Batman went into an eclipse on film until Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. Once again, it was very dark, very grim, and very popular. For the most part, I liked it and thought it worked. I have not watched the later Nolan Batman films, though; what I've heard about them do not appeal to me. Perhaps I'm doing them injustice; perhaps I will watch them one of these days.
But the success of Nolan's Batman gave the producers at Warner Bros. a problem. They wanted to create a successful film franchise based on DC's stable of superheroes, the way Marvel was starting to do. But the Marvel heroes all pretty much lived in the same Universe; and at a certain point, the folks making the Marvel movies worked to make sure that each movie could exist in the same universe as the others.
Batman Begins was pretty much a stand-alone. A good stand-alone, yes; but a lot of its verisimilitude depended on it's atmosphere of darkness. There is no room in Gotham for the kind of four-color heroics found in other comic books. They could have added a throw-away reference comparing the Batman to "that guy in Metropolis", or perhaps Lucius Fox asking Bruce about a business deal with Lexcorp; fans like me would have drooled over touches like that, and would have made the films easier to integrate into a greater DC Movieverse; but they would have weakened, in my opinion, the setting Nolan was trying to create.
So what we seem to have now is Warner trying to mold their new super movies to fit in with the Nolan's Batman films, rather than create a DCU setting of its own. That, I think, is part of why Man of Steel wound up looking the way it did, with Superman's costume dulled down to shades of bluish-grey and reddish-grey; with Jonathan Kent telling young Clark to never use his powers to help people; to have Superman forced to kill his enemy before it's even established that Superman doesn't kill people. (Granted, I have not seen Man of Steel and am going by clips and second-hand reports; my impressions may be unjustified).
The one clip from the movie I saw that really seemed to say "Superman" to me was one of the more ridiculed one: in which Superman tells Lois that the symbol on his chest is the Kryptonian symbol for "Hope". To me, that rang true to the character, but from what I've heard of the movie, everything else in it seemed determined to suck the hope out of the movie.
When DARK KNIGHT RETURNS was first reprinted as a graphic novel, Max Allan Collins was approached to write an introduction to it. The reasoning was that Collins was not only a comics writer, (he scripted the Dick Tracy comic strip and had a long running comic book titled MS TREE) but was a well-established mystery writer and so his name might draw patrons at the bookstores where the graphic novel would be sold. Collins later said that his introduction was rejected because in it he said that both Miller's incarnation of the Bat-Man and Adam West's were equally valid interpretations of the character.
There was a time where Batman smiled; a time when he enjoyed his work. I don't mind it so much that Batman has a stick up his butt these days. I just wish they'd let the rest of the Universe have some joy.