We are living in a renaissance of superhero films. What was once a bygone era of big comic book adaptations arriving every decade or so (if we were lucky) has ballooned into a way of life for longtime fans. From heroes as beloved as the Flash and Wonder Woman to lesser-known characters such as Peacemaker and Blue Beetle, plenty of DC’s comic book pantheon has now been adapted for the big screen.
Before that, however, we were left to either the Superman film franchise or the Batman movie series, as well as the TV adaptations of Batman and Wonder Woman. All of these now-classic takes helped to bring in a new era of fans, introducing kids to iconic versions of superheroes who would stand the test of time for generations.
In fact, those TV shows and movies were so memorable that we’re starting to see comic books adapt the adaptations! From the Christopher Reeve Superman to the Michael Keaton Batman, both of whom have new series on stands right now, fans who’ve adored these past incarnations and spent years wondering how they might have continued can wonder no longer. What might one expect to find in these various comic book continuations? This guide is here to help you find out!
There was no clear guidebook on the right way to adapt a comic book series in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and superhero films and TV took liberal adaptations. While it’s hard to see fans tolerating some of this disregard for the comic book source material these days, it was a different time then. Today, these changes help these early live action takes stand out. Just think of Superman’s mysterious cellophane “S” shield from Superman II. It recently made a return in 2021’s Superman ’78 comic book series, as Superman battles some Brainiac robots.
Sometimes, these distinct touches show up as fun Easter eggs. In Batman: The Adventures Continue, the DC Animated Universe version of Batman and his allies from The New Batman Adventures continue to fight crime in Gotham. However, flashbacks from the earlier seasons of Batman: The Animated Series depict the characters in their earlier designs. In these moments, Batman is shown in his “Fox Kids”-era blue and yellow oval suit, while the stories taking place in the comic’s present depict the updated Batman, with a dull-gray belt and a single bat insignia on his chest.
Similarly, Wonder Woman ’77 references TV’s initial attempt to bring Princess Diana to the screen with the 1974 television pilot starring Cathy Lee Crosby. Her alternate version appears to a flummoxed Lynda Carter Diana in issue #4.
Adapting the Villains
These earlier adaptations on the big and small screen were limited by their budgets, as well as their technology. While normal, humanoid villains such as Lex Luthor, the Riddler and Paula von Gunther were simple enough, many of the classic DC rogues lean closer to the fantastical—making them hard to depict credibly. Brainiac, in fact, nearly made it into Superman III, but got excised at the final draft.
But in comics, anything can happen, including resurrecting the past! When Superman ’78 was announced, we learned that Christopher Reeves’ Man of Steel’s newest foe would be Brainiac himself. Rendered familiarly in his Silver and Bronze Age designs by artist Wilfredo Torres, he easily fell into place with the like-minded designs from the bygone era of the Donner Superman film series.
We saw something similar with the Wonder Woman TV series, with her most famous foes such as Cheetah and Doctor Psycho nowhere to be seen over the three seasons the show ran. But in the Wonder Woman ’77 comic series, the villains made their appearances along with Silver Swan—here depicted as the lead singer of a rock band.
Most remarkably of all, the Batman ’66 comic published a “lost episode” of the TV series that was written by legendary writer Harlan Ellison and that would have introduced audiences to the villain Two-Face, a classic baddie deemed too intense for 1960s audiences. This was accomplished by working directly from Ellison’s outline, which was adapted into a comic script by writer Len Wein and drawn by José Luis Garcia-López.
What Happened Next?
One of the trademarks of American superhero comics is that they offer a continuing narrative of adventures that have no end. Films and television work differently, however. There’s only so long they can run, and fans may find themselves wondering what might have happened if they’d continued a bit longer. Fortunately, comics continue to offer some answers.
The two biggest examples come in the form of the Dark Knight. In Batman ’89, much of what had been teased in the two Tim Burton Batman movies finally starts to get paid off—particularly with regard to Two-Face.
Harvey Dent, first embodied by actor Billy Dee Williams, was famously replaced in the role by Tommy Lee Jones for the first Joel Schumacher-directed Batman film, Batman Forever. But in Batman ’89, fans get to see him finally inhabit the role of Two-Face, in a storyline that established his dark side and bifurcated mind.
Fans also get to see a totally new version of Robin, taking inspiration from the initial casting of Marlon Wayans, who was set to appear as Robin under Burton. This version is not Dick Grayson, Jason Todd or Tim Drake—but Drake Winston, a mechanic who develops his own sense of justice and aids Batman in battling Two-Face.
Speaking of Robin, writers Paul Dini and Alan Burnett dropped a bomb on longtime fans of Batman: The Animated Series when they introduced their version of the second Boy Wonder, Jason Todd, in their continuation series, Batman: The Adventures Continue.
In the storyline, Batman is made aware of a masked man who had been spying on him throughout Gotham. He deduces that the identity belongs to his former young partner, a fact also unearthed by his current partner Tim Drake. Alfred tells Tim that Jason was the original second Robin, but quickly grew violent and reckless in the role. As is tradition with the character, a fateful encounter with the Joker left Jason injured and at death’s door. An explosion separated him from Batman, and the Caped Crusader feared his ward dead. Now, assuming the mantle of the Red Hood, Jason captures Batman, Joker and Tim Drake, putting them all in a death-trap and giving Batman the choice to kill the Joker once and for all.
Far be it from me to tell you how the story ends, but needless to say it’s a thrilling new chapter in the canon of the beloved animated series!
Superman ’78: The Metal Curtain #1 by Robert Venditti, Gavin Guidry and Jordie Bellaire and Batman ’89: Echoes #1 by Sam Hamm, Joe Quinones and Leonardo Ito are now available in print and as digital comic books.
Donovan Morgan Grant writes about comics, graphic novels and superhero history for DC.com. Follow him on Twitter at @donoDMG1.