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Article – The Evolution of Robin in Cinema: Charting the Brief History of the Boy Wonder

 

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Posted July 22, 2018 by

 
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The Evolution of Robin in Cinema

A new Robin is headed to our screens, this time as leader of a group of superhero youngsters in DC’s Titans television show. Brenton Thwaites, aka the son of Will Turner in Pirates of the Carribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, will be bringing Dick Grayson back to live-action for the first time since the ill-fated 1997 franchise-killer, Batman and Robin.

The series is highly anticipated, but not without a fair share of trepidation. Dick Grayson is a much-loved character, even more so in the 21st century. Following many superb comic book runs, Grayson’s evolution into Blüdhaven-based solo hero Nightwing and appearances in many animated films and shows have made the character popular across the board.

Now, the first complete trailer for the show has been released, and fans are… confused? This is not the Robin of yesteryears. While we don’t get much of an inkling of the character of Dick Grayson, it appears he’s no longer a ‘Boy’ Wonder. Probably the biggest takeaway from the trailer (and to some, the greatest disservice) is when Robin turns to the bad guys and retorts, ‘F*** Batman’. So, it looks like he has a strained relationship with his mentor, and the apple has fallen far from the tree. This is a ruthless, brutal Robin, which is unlike most renditions of the character, in comics or otherwise. The show is obviously DC’s attempt at capitalising on the success of R-rated cinematic fare like Logan and Deadpool. I am not averse to Robin beating up thugs (they probably deserve it), but if this Robin is far removed from his humanity and morality, then that’s an inherent misreading of who Robin is.

Dick Grayson was introduced in Detective Comics #38 (1940), only a few issues after Batman’s comic book debut. Three years later, the Dynamic Duo were on screen for the first time in film serials, played by Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft as Batman and Robin. I wouldn’t recommend watching the film as it is culturally insensitive, but Croft, who was only sixteen at the time, played his version of the character as a true Boy Wonder. His Robin was appropriately youthful and naïve, easily bested by the villains, but in a fight, he spent more time rescuing Batman than vice versa!

The Evolution of Robin in Cinema

Publicity image from ‘Batman’ 1943 (Credit: Columbia Pictures)

Despite an early start, the Boy Wonder’s film career never quite took off. Following the end of the Second World War, the Caped Crusader and his sidekick returned in 1949’s Batman and Robin film serials, this time with Robert Lowery and Johnny Duncan donning the capes and cowls. Unlike the ’43 version, this Robin was given less screen time, and Dick Grayson almost never contributed to Bruce Wayne’s plans and actions. The stodgy pacing of the film and abundance of characters didn’t allow Robin to shine through, except in the fight scenes, which were in keeping with the style of the ’43 films.

We wouldn’t see another on-screen caper featuring either character till the 1966 television show. The brighter, campier take was more in accordance with the comic books of that period and allowed 20th Century Fox (the studio behind the show) to reel in younger audiences. Of course, no matter how silly or over-the-top the show and subsequent film may seem now, it made Adam West and Burt Ward synonymous with the characters. The show is fairly cringeworthy to watch, but one whiff of nostalgia and you will be hooked. ‘Holy childhood memories, Batman!’

robin tv series

The now iconic Dynamic Duo from the 1960s (Credit: 20th Century Fox)

By this point, superheroes were back in favour. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman all featured on television from the 1950s through to the 1970s – George Reeves as the Kryptonian hero in Adventures of Superman, the Adam West show in the 1960s and Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman in the mid to late 70s. Then Superman happened. Richard Donner’s film, starring Christopher Reeve, was a massive hit and rejuvenated Hollywood’s interest in making superhero feature films.

However, this was easier said than done. The Superman films were steadily getting worse, and the 1984 Supergirl film was a massive flop (and did the character no justice). The Batman world suffered even worse – potential films all ended up in developmental hell. It wasn’t until 1989, with Michael Keaton donning the cowl, that Batman returned to the big screen. His trusty sidekick Robin, however, was a no-show in live-action form till the next decade.

There were several abandoned attempts at bringing the Boy Wonder to screen during the ‘80s. In 1980, a Batman film was announced and director Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) and writer Tom Mankiewicz (Superman) developed a script that eventually influenced most of the subsequent Batman films we’ve seen. Their casting for the Duo was, apparently, Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy. Looking back, I doubt they would have fit with the somber tone of the script, but perhaps both actors’ careers would have taken a very different turn had this film come to fruition.

evolution of robin

Batman and Robin? (Credit: NBC)

Robin was most famously cut from Tim Burton’s Batman, as the director felt the film was overstuffed. The 1989 film was the culmination of nearly a decade of behind-the-scenes efforts to bring the Dark Knight back on screen, and Warner Bros was keen to introduce Batman’s sidekick in the film. They had settled on casting child actor Ricky Addison Reed (Return to Salem’s Lot) in the role, before the character was scrapped. Burton’s potential third franchise film was to star Marlon Wayans in the role, opposite Billy Dee Williams as Two-Face. Unfortunately, the studio got cold feet at the thought of the film’s darker tone, leading both director and lead actor to exit. Joel Schumacher took the reigns, and the rest is history. I find it interesting that two different African-American actors were the front-runners to play Robin, a historically white character, for nearly a decade. Seeing the outrage regarding the casting of Anna Diop as Starfire in the Titans show makes me wonder what would have happened had Greg Berlanti decided to cast someone other than safe-bet Thwaites as Grayson.

From 1995 to 1997, Chris O’Donnell took on the mantle in the Schumacher films. Contrary to popular perception, Batman Forever was considered a surprise hit when it raked in the box office moolah. This was also the first time the live-action films introduced us to Dick Grayson of the Flying Graysons, rather than as Bruce Wayne’s ward/foster son/ partner, and we were witness to his comic book origins, but with Two-Face being the cause of his family’s death, instead of Mafia Boss, Tony Zucco.

Dick Grayson in action (Credit: Warner Bros)

O’Donnell became a popular figure thanks to the film and effectively caused the change in the 1997 film’s title to Batman and Robin. Unfortunately, the sequel was a critical failure. Probably the most infamous example of studio interference, the film script changed Robin from an angry, young man with a hero complex to a rebellious sidekick sparring with Batman over every little thing. The film is an absolute mess, but O’Donnell must have enjoyed playing the role, because he revealed in an interview that a solo Robin film was in the works before the studio dumped the idea. The studio had also greenlit Joel Schumacher’s second sequel named Batman: Triumphant (incidentally, this was the original title for Batman and Robin) or Batman: Unchained, which would have starred the Dynamic Duo in a very depressing setting (think Batman: Arkham Knight level dark). Well, none of that came to fruition.

After that, Dick Grayson was again relegated to only animated shows and films, not that it’s a bad thing – some of DC’s best films are animated! Audiences got a Robin in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy (because rumours have it that Christian Bale refused to play Batman if he got a Robin sidekick), but not one we were familiar with. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Robin John Blake is a rookie cop in Gotham, who aids Bruce and Commissioner Gordon in saving Gotham from Bane. He is one of those wonderfully blank-slate characters who deserved more screen time and perhaps a sequel, but neither Nolan nor Bale wanted to continue the franchise, and a Robin/Nightwing solo was probably never really on the cards. So, we got stuck with Batfleck and an inkling of the fate of another Robin in Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. There is speculation as to how these dead Robins fit in with the Titans universe, but only time will tell.

Rumours of a solo Nightwing film also continue and, most recently, Lewis Tan (Shatterstar in Deadpool 2) was attached to the title role. He has since dispelled the reports, but there is no reason to believe we won’t have another Dick Grayson on screen at the same time as Titans, seeing that we already have two Barry Allens and will soon have two Jokers, as well.

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Fans have been craving the return of Dick Grayson for years and there is optimism regarding Berlanti Productions being at the helm of the Titans show. The ‘Arrowverse’ television shows continue to be hits, pushing boundaries and exploring character arcs in a way that the DC films (barring Wonder Woman) have not been able to accomplish. Maybe a win for DC, even at television level, might boost the quality of the upcoming films in the DC Expanded Universe. Holy hoping, Batman!

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Lestat de Lioncourt
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