With my recent article on the Syfy channel’s upcoming Superman related Krypton, I got to thinking about the movie history of DC comics’ other superhero ‘Batman.’ Batman has always been a personal favorite. I even have several related tattoos and had a rather large comic book collection once-upon-a-time. I’ve also seen the mass majority of the movies on their opening weekends and I own them all on blu-ray and watch them regularly.
So that got me thinking about his transformation over time and wondering, “Who is the best Batman of all time?” And as I strolled down memory lane, taking a fresh look at the available choices out there, I thought it might make an interesting refresher that others would enjoy.
Let’s Take a Look at the Transformation of the Dark Knight
In May of 1939, Bob Kane and Bill Finger collaborated on creating one of the most iconic superheroes of all time, though it would be decades before Finger got his due credit. Batman made his debut in Detective Comics #27 and the following spring he got his very own publication with Batman #1, which introduced us to Catwoman and everyone’s favorite psychopath, Joker.
Tinseltown didn’t take long at all to realize the potential of the Caped Crusader and in 1943, Columbia Pictures released The Batman as a 15 chapter theatrical serial that showed a new episode each week. The episodes usually ended with the ages old cliffhanger, which sometimes left the hero actually hanging off a cliff, hence the name.
This first theatrical outing starred Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as the faithful sidekick Robin, but the studio took many liberties with the Duo’s origins and mythos. Bats is a secret agent for the U.S. government who is out to stop a nefarious Japanese secret agent know as Dr. Daka, who just happens to have set up operations in Gotham.
I actually own this on DVD and while it is campy and full of anti-Japanese jabs, if you keep in mind the fact that this was released at the height of WWII and is the grandfather of all Batman movies to come, it can make for a fun watch even with its very low-budget feel. We get our first Bat Cave and its iconic secret entrance via the grandfather clock but Bats gets around via a limousine instead of the much-revered Batmobile.
Kids ate it up and flocked to theaters each week to see the next installment and The Batman’s serial success gave rise to Batman and Robin, another 15 chapter serial adventure from Columbia which was released in 1949. Different actors took over the Bat Cave, with Robert Lowery as Batman and co-starring Johnny Duncan as Robin, and we got our first on-screen portrayals of Vicki Vale and Commissioner Gordon. This time out the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder take on a mysterious villain known as The Wizard, played by veteran serial actor Leonard Penn.
The costumes are almost laughable on this one and at times the plot-holes and the “hey wait a minute” moments are almost unbearable, but it’s still worth a view. The Dark Knight gets a vehicle upgrade, though it’s still no Batmobile, and we get the Bat-Signal. These episodes have been restored and released several times over the years and have even been shown in order on Turner Classic Movies. Batman’s serial outings are even available together on DVD and you can pick them up cheap enough to make it worthwhile.
Holy Campy Movie Batman!
In 1966 Adam West and Burt Ward took their campy portrayal of the Dynamic Duo to the big screen just two months after the first season of their television series wrapped up.
Batman’s villainous rogue’s gallery of Joker, Catwoman, Penguin, and Riddler team up against our Duo and the campiness is prevalent from start to finish. You just can’t help but love Adam West’s ownership of the role and even with writing that brought us the Bat-Shark repellant and a suicidal porpoise, the supporting cast sets the bar fairly high for future portrayals.
Burgess Meredith (Penguin), Frank Gorshin (Riddler), Ceaser Romero (Joker), and Lee Meriwether (Catwoman) were all well-known actors at the time but the series made them household names for decades to come. With some not-so-subtle political jabs peppered throughout the film and the POW/ZONK/BAM comic book references we all grew so fond of, we also got our first look at Batman’s other vehicles: the Batcopter, Batcycle, and Batboat. While the campiness of the movie puts it in a class all its own, it was the first exposure to Batman for many kids and therefore holds a special place on the Batwall of fame.
“Have You Ever Danced with the Devil in the Pale Moonlight?”
Jack Nicholson’s iconic rendition of Joker gave us countless quotes and memes and would stand tall as the Joker for over 2 decades. Tim Burton’s dark angle on his 1989 Batman movie gave us the Batman many of us had been waiting for and Michael Keaton showed us our first look at Bruce Wayne in a way that revealed which was the mask, and which was the real man. The all-star supporting cast, super-high for the time budget of $48 million, and Burton’s keen eye crafted a new Batman that would pave the way for multiple sequels.
In 1992 Batman Returns once again teamed up Keaton and Burton who were joined by Danny DeVito as the Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer as the sultry Catwoman. With an $80 million budget and leaving the romance angle to just sparks between Catwoman and Batman, it received positive reviews and was a box office success. Christopher Walken brings his unique style to the film and steals almost every scene he is in but Catwoman’s new origin and transformation was just a bit too out there. Even for a hardcore Batman fan like myself.
Keaton once again captures the essence of Bruce Wayne almost perfectly. His Batman is a little stiff when it comes to fighting but it’s those moments in the Batcave and interactions with Alfred that really seal this performance for me. After all, is it Bruce Wayne or the Batman that is truly the secret identity?
Well, at Least We Got Two-Face
In 1995, Tim Burton took on a producer role and Joel Schumacher came on to direct Val Kilmer in Batman Forever. Robin makes his debut with a career-crushing portrayal by Chris O’Donnell and Jim Carrey pretty much plays himself in a Riddler costume but, for me at least, it was the Harvey Dent/Two-Face played by Tommy Lee Jones that stood above the rest. Don’t get me wrong, Kilmer did a decent job under the cape and cowl, he just couldn’t pull off a convincing Bruce Wayne for me.
Two years later, Warner Bros. tried again and subjected us to Batman & Robin, replacing Kilmer and handing the keys to the Batcave over to then-megastar George Clooney. Even this all-star cast of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Uma Thurman, Chris O’Donnell, and Alicia Silverstone couldn’t overcome the terrible dialogue, cringe-worthy script, or infamous Batnipples, and has gone down as one of the worst films of all time. Successfully crushing a winning franchise is no small feat, but in all seriousness, this one can’t fall on the shoulders of the actors. Warner Bros. was in a hellfire hurry to get this sequel out and made decisions that doomed this one from the second the light turned green. Out of the two movies after Keaton, I guess it’s appropriate that Two-Face be the one that wins the coin toss for standout performance.
The Nolan/Bale Era
Ten years after Batman Forever, we got a reboot with Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Retelling the origin of Batman and giving us an even more in-depth view into Wayne’s world (pun intended). For the first time we get to see, at least partially, how Bruce trains and transforms into the Dark Knight. Christian Bale plays Wayne as emotionally dark and driven by only one thing, and in this movie it works well. From his confrontation with mob boss Carmine Falcone, the courtroom assassination plan, and even the ‘street rat’ moments when he is actually stealing Wayne Enterprise property in an apparent attempt to survive, we can see the drive in his eyes and know that he is Batman. Or soon will be at least.
This one launched a trilogy where we saw Scarecrow brought to life with creepy accuracy and a Joker by the late Heath Ledger that far outshines all other Batvillain performances. The League of Shadows, Bane, Ra’s al Ghul, and Talia’s origin rewrites were ‘meh’ in my opinion but Bat’s supporting cast of Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine were definitely spot-on.
Many parodies have spewed forth that poke a big stick at Bale’s gravely Batvoice and his dry delivery, but it’s the transition to Bruce Wayne that falls short for me. The billionaire playboy mask is just too transparent for me and it seems like half the city would have figured out Batman’s secret identity. It’s only his interactions with Lucias Fox that even comes close to the Bruce Wayne I expect, but throughout the trilogy there are several moments with Alfred that a real Bruce peeks out – but they are few and far between.
The Dark Knight Rises… Again
After the booming success of the trilogy and what can be assumed to be a fairly hectic filming schedule, Nolan and Bale took the Batplane off into the sunset, handing off the Cape and Cowl to whoever Warner Bros. deemed worthy. And we got Ben Affleck in 2016 as he took on the Man of Steel in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Henry Cavill reprises his role as Superman, Gal Gadot debuts as Diana/Wonder Woman, and Jesse Eisenberg portrays Lex Luthor.
I was initially very excited for this one. I knew Affleck had wanted the Batcave for years and I held out hope that he knew what was needed to make this work, plus I’d had the Batman/Superman logo amalgamation as a tattoo for years because the comic storyline was epic. Not to mention the two logos together looked freakin awesome! But alas, dreams were made to be broken. Or something like that.
The use of guns on the Batmobile are just the tip of the iceberg of what’s wrong with this Batman. Unfortunately they carried many of those issues into Suicide Squad and Justice League and while Affleck does deliver a few good lines between the three so far, it is apparent that the new team hasn’t paid much attention to the history of Batman, or the formulas that have been so successful in the films. This makes it somewhat depressing to see Affleck slated for at least two more appearances as our Caped Crusader.
If You Had to Pick One…
From campy to dark and back again, we have seen 8 brave men become the “world’s greatest detective” and with Batman’s popularity we are likely to continue seeing him on the big screen. But who is the best?
Well, I think it’s probably clear what my thoughts are but here it is anyway: Michael Keaton as the super-rich, bumbling, and uncomfortable-in-his-own-skin Bruce Wayne, and the dark and gritty Christian Bale’s Batman. Okay yes, I know that’s cheating but it’s my article so I can cheat however I want. I guess if I have to pick one performance overall it would have to be Keaton but that may be mainly due to nostalgia, along with that dead-on Bruce Wayne.
I wish WB would take a big step back (or would it be forward at this point since it kind of seems like we already went backwards) and consider bringing in some writers that actually know Batman and some of the great storylines that are available out there. Giving the Batman a gun in any fashion is akin to having Superman use Kryptonite suppositories. It just ain’t gonna happen!
I have no input on who I think should be the next Bat but if they are determined to make Justice League 2 and The Batman, then maybe the success of the prior films along with the current field-day Marvel is having at the box office will finally result in a new Batman that we can all be proud of.
Who is your favorite Batman? Got any ideas on who should take over the mantle next? Leave a comment below and let us know.