To celebrate the release of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Musings… takes a look at Batman in the movies.
Due to his overwhelming presence across a variety of media, the Caped Crusader has become a pop culture icon and is known throughout the world, transcending his comic book origin. Said origin is simple but effective- a young boy named Bruce Wayne watches his rich parents murdered before his very eyes and decides to become a vigilante. As he grows up he trains both his body and mind to achieve his goals, eventually becoming Batman; a hero who uses his skills and resources, including a multitude of gadgets, to defeat every threat to his home city of Gotham. Created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, the character first appeared as ‘the Bat-man’ in issue number 27 of Detective Comics, released in 1939. Batman has appeared in multiple titles including team books since his inception and the tone of the character has varied from a camp aesthetic (as seen in the Batman television series from the 1960s) to a darker, brooding hero of the night. The character we know today is the same in principle as the one created almost 80 years ago however there have been multiple changes to his past and his supporting characters as the years have progressed and the comic books have been rebooted and/or retconned (a retrospective revision that alters a characters past for the purpose of modern day stories). One notable change to the original character is Batman’s complete distaste for firearms; originally Batman did use guns when needed and killed in the name of justice, however the version most familiar to fans (popularised by several movies) generally has a strict ‘no-guns’ rule.
A movie serial was a short film originally shown in movie theaters in conjunction with a longer, feature film and were extended motion pictures broken into a number of segments. Each chapter was screened for a week and ended with a cliffhanger in which characters found themselves in various situations with no apparent means of escape. Viewers would return each week for a resolution to the previous week’s cliffhanger and the continuation of the storyline. Batman was the subject of two serials in the 1940s, titled Batman and Batman and Robin with both lasting for 15 chapters and released by Columbia Pictures.
The first serial featured Lewis Wilson as the title character with Douglas Croft as Robin. Released during the second world war, Batman was a government agent and Dr. Daka, an original villain, represented the Japanese. The serial is most noteworthy for introducing the Batcave to the mythos of Batman and for the appearance of Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler- the comic book counterpart was an overweight and clean-shaven character however this was altered to match the appearance of the film’s Alfred, played by William Austin, who was slim and sported a small moustache. This version has remained in the comic books to this day. Check out the trailer below:
The second serial, released six years later in 1949, cast Robert Lowery and Johnny Duncan as Batman and Robin respectively, facing off against the mysterious Wizard. Notable characters from the comics included Commissioner Gordon and Vicki Vale.
Batman: The Movie (1966)
Based on the popular tv series and released two months after the first season ended, this movie capitalised on the success of Adam West and Burt Ward as the Caped Crusader and his young sidekick. The dynamic duo must face a gathering of four of their most deadly foes which consists of the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler and Catwoman. Most of the series cast returned for Batman’s first full length feature film with the exception of Julie Newmar (Catwoman), who had previous commitments and was replaced by Lee Meriwether.
The camp tone of the television series (and comics of that time) is carried over into the film in what is undoubtedly the most family-friendly and neutered version of Batman seen on the big screen. As with the show upon which it is based the movie shares similarities with the Batman serials mentioned above, notably in the last-minute escapes (often through luck) and stylised title cards. Despite positive reviews and a firm place in history the movie is famously (fondly) remembered for the shark attack scene- a scene that includes the use of Bat-Shark Repellent Spray with explosive consequences. Check it out below:
And here’s the original trailer:
Tim Burton and Michael Keaton’s Batman
1989 saw the release of Batman from director Tim Burton which catapulted the character back into the public consciousness and broke numerous box office records. The story portrayed the character of Batman as an urban legend while also showing us the origin of the Joker. Michael Keaton, generally seen at the time as a comedy actor, was controversially cast as our hero and Jack Nicholson took on the part of the Joker with the two pitting their wits against each other as the fate of Gotham City lies in their hands.
Tim Burton’s unique style is entrenched throughout the movie, particularly in the character of Gotham City itself, a dark and gothic place perfect for the night-time activities of the caped crusader. Keaton plays his Bruce Wayne as a somewhat awkward millionaire whose social skills are lacking while his Batman is stoic and direct, which works wonderfully against the over-the-top display Nicholson puts on as the clown prince of crime.
The movie was a huge success and helped make the Batman logo (a black bat on a oval yellow disk) culturally recognisable. The film is helped by the remarkable score put together by Danny Elfman and it is hardly surprising, giving the mix of the gothic appearance of the city and the Joker’s bright colour scheme (plus many other striking visuals including Batman’s costume), that the film won the Academy Award for Best Art Direction. Check out the trailer:
After the first movie, Burton and Keaton reunited three years later for Batman Returns. This film featured a new take on the character of the Penguin, played to great effect by Danny Devito while Michelle Pfeiffer appeared as Catwoman and Christopher Walken as corrupt businessman Max Schreck. Penguin would battle Batman both physically (through his ‘family’ of circus performers) and in the public eye as he ran for Mayor and convinced the citizens of Gotham that the dark knight was actually a menace.
Keaton excels again as both Wayne and Batman and his chemistry with Pfeiffer, in both their costumed and civilian identities, sparkles on the screen. Walken is reliable as ever, delivering an eerie villain in the guise of an entrepeneur of the people however it is Devito who steals the show. While Burton always provided more than enough for Keaton to do as Batman, his villains in both films stand out due to their contrast with the people and aesthetics around them. The Penguin may not have had the vivid colours of the Joker but his appearance and disgusting characteristics set him apart from everything else on screen and Devito relishes every tasty morsel of screen time; sometimes literally as his antagonist bites into raw fish or another character’s nose. Get a taste of the movie in the following trailer:
Director Tim Burton returned for this sequel only after he was afforded more creative control, due to his mixed feelings about the first movie which did not meet his expectations and high standards. The film was another critical and box office success however franchise owners Warner Bros. expected more and told Burton to only return for the next instalment as a producer. Keaton, disappointed with this financially-based decision and the direction of the series, opted not to return for another film.
Joel Schumacher’s Family-Friendly Hero
Two words that can explain what happened to the Batman franchise during the nineties- studio and interference. Despite strong reviews and a healthy box office performance, Warner Bros. wanted to take the Batman movies in a different direction and, after reducing Tim Burton to the role of producer, hired Joel Schumacher. Schumacher is a more than capable director, however his name will always be associated with an average Batman movie and the other one.
Batman Forever, released in 1995, starred Val Kilmer as our protagonist. This time Batman adopts a sidekick in Robin (Chris O’Donnell) and faces two villains- Jim Carrey’s Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face. The storyline involves the Riddler ‘feeding’ off people’s brains via a set-top box and Two-Face generally being evil and holding a grudge against Batman. Dick Grayson looks for revenge after Two-Face murders his family and dons the mantle of Robin, joining Batman in his fight and putting his acrobatic skills to good use. Finally we have Nicole Kidman as a psychiatrist, who plays Bruce Wayne’s love interest and has a certain affection for Batman.
Sticking to the mandate of a family-friendly movie, Schumacher presents a far different take on Batman. The brooding nature of the hero is still there but is surrounded by an array of colour, performances that are too over-the-top from Jones and Carrey, a lack of chemistry between Kilmer and Kidman, and some awful jokes that fail to land. The movie isn’t a total failure and certain aspects undoubtedly play better for a younger audience which was what the studio wanted however the reviews were mixed, particularly in comparison to the previous Burton films. Here’s the trailer:
Batman and Robin, fast-tracked by Warner Bros and released just two years later, killed the franchise in its existing form. George Clooney, undoubtedly believing the role would catapult him to Hollywood stardom, took over as Batman while O’Donnell returned as the Boy Wonder. They were joined by a version of Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone), Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) and Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Taking the more colourful version of Gotham found in Batman Forever and turning up the brightness, we are presented with a messy movie full of neon lighting, convoluted coincidence-heavy plot and far too many one-liners from every character, particularly Mr. Freeze.
It seems that nearly everyone involved in the production has tried to put the film behind them with Schumacher remarking that it wasn’t the film he wanted to make and George Clooney even stating ‘I always apologise for Batman and Robin.’ Box office takings were decent but after a critical mauling and fan backlash, Batman disappeared from the big screen for eight years. A trailer perhaps? Here you go (sorry):
Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale’s Dark Knight Trilogy
Several attempts at getting another Batman movie up and running came and went during the following years and it wasn’t until director Christopher Nolan got involved that a new version of Batman began production. Nolan decided to give audiences the origin of Batman. Although flashbacks in previous movies had showed us the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents that prompted his journey to become a vigilante, none had showed us the years between that moment and his donning of the cowl.
Batman Begins rectified that as we see a young Bruce Wayne learning how to fight and gradually creating his armour and building the legend of Batman. Christian Bale brings a quiet, sturdy intensity to the role and you believe his journey from young graduate to expert vigilante. The cast is generally strong with subtle supporting performances given by the likes of Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Rutger Hauer. The calibre of the supporting cast speaks volumes itself. Liam Neeson impresses as former mentor turned opponent Ras’s al Ghul with his soft spoken words at odds with the unrelenting meaning behind them while Cillian Murphy is suitably creepy as the Scarecrow.
Nolan brings a steady realism to his version of Gotham City and the world of Batman with every element carefully conceived of in a real-world way; the often sleek Batmobile is instead an armoured, tank-like powerhouse while even Batman’s ability to use his cape to glide is given a semi-realistic explanation. Nolan blended his realistic approach with the theme of fear to create a darker tone and audiences readily accepted this, washing away the taste of Batman and Robin with this critical and commercial hit. Here is the trailer that helped bring audiences back to Batman:
Nolan and Bale returned three years later for The Dark Knight, the first Batman film not to feature the character’s name in the title which proves how ingrained the character had become in the public conciousness. Most of the cast returned however Katie Holmes, who had played love interest Rachel in Batman Begins, was replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal as an empowered version of the damsel in distress character. Meanwhile Heath Ledger and Aaron Eckhart joined the series as The Joker and Harvey Dent/Two-Face. Eckhart’s tragic version of Two-Face resonated more with audiences than that seen previously in Batman Forever but the star of the film was Heath Ledger.
Ledger portrayed an unhinged, chaos-driven version of the Joker who expressed zero empathy and has a grunge inspired look complimented by a harrowing Glasgow smile. Ledger’s casting was met with cynicism by fans however his performance was met with critical acclaim. Sadly Ledger passed away before the films release and was posthumously awarded an Oscar for his outstanding portrayal of the clown prince of crime. Catch a few Joker moments in the trailer:
In 2012 the final part of the Nolan/Bale trilogy was released, titled The Dark Knight Rises. A weary and injured Bruce Wayne comes out of retirement to battle Bane (Tom Hardy) in a movie that features a happy and final ending for our protagonist. The movie comes full circle with Batman Begins, re-examining the ideals of Ra’s al Ghul in what became a mirror to the real world, providing a sombre recognition of the state of America while also adding elements of hope for a better future. Anne Hathaway joined the cast as Selina Kyle, providing a new version of Catwoman within Nolan’s realistic aesthetic and Joseph Gordon-Levitt played John Blake, a junior police officer who has worked out the identity of Batman. Oldman, Caine and Freeman all returned for their respective roles in the proceedings.
Positive reviews and the fantastic reaction from audiences to the previous instalments helped The Dark Knight Rises gross over $1 billion at the box office despite some complaints about Tom Hardy’s difficult to understand villain. Hardy’s Bane lost the drug-fuelled strength he was known for in the comics but the spirit of the character was perfectly captured on film with his intelligence, arrogance, ruthlessness and uncompromising self-belief all present and correct. Trailer time:
Although there are critics to some aspects of the movies, including Bale’s increasingly ridiculous Batman voice, Nolan and Bale have been rightfully applauded for their version of Batman, who exists within a real-world setting and traverses a story which naturally continues and flows throughout the trilogy. Many would cite these movies as the definitive version of the Caped Crusader on screen yet the fact that Nolan and co. worked so hard to maintain a real-world aesthetic prevents the character from ever interacting with his more fantastical DC colleagues. This is no bad thing since the trilogy proudly stands on its own and has set a very high standard to follow.
A new version of Batman, portrayed by Ben Affleck, is about to arrive in cinemas in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and will also appear in other movies (including Justice League Parts 1 and 2 and a possible solo outing) set within a shared cinematic universe. Reviews have now appeared for BvS and, while far from the positive response everyone would have been hoping for, there is little doubt that the movie will be a huge blockbuster. Affleck has come across well in most reviews and his take on the Dark Knight (that of an embittered, older character fearful of the fantastic) provides another new version for fans to devour.
There are plenty of animated movies starring Batman as the lead character available for fans to watch. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is one of the best examples of Batman on any screen and is set within the continuity of the animated series from the early nineties. Several standalone movies, based on famous comic book storylines, have also been adapted for the direct-to-DVD/download market. Batman: Year One provides the origin of Batman while The Dark Knight Returns (available in two parts) is a pretty accurate version of the famous Frank Miller story. Dismissing these films due to their animated nature would be a mistake as the art, storytelling and voice acting are top notch. The trailers are below: