It speaks to the richness of the character that there are so many different interpretations of Batman, which continue to explore different shades and elements of his legend. But for all we have seen of him, there is much that is left to be explored.
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“I am vengeance,” snarls the man behind the iconic mask with a quiet fury, in the trailer of Hollywood’s latest iteration of one the most iconic fictional figures of all time. We are days away from discovering what Matt Reeves and Robert Pattinson [Battinson?] do with the Dark Knight. What better time then, to revisit the various on-screen incarnations of the Caped Crusader, and how he has evolved over the years.
While many may feel the understandable ‘oh god not another one’ sentiment, I maintain a new Batman movie remains an incredibly exciting prospect. Not just because he is one of my favourite characters, but also because he is an objectively fascinating figure with so many depths and dimensions to dive into and explore. There is a reason Bats lends himself to so many interpretations.
Because, who is Batman really? The genius? The rich boy? The playboy? The world’s greatest detective? A scared, scarred little boy with too much money and an overactive imagination? A Rorschach-like, violently unstable, paranoid dude sulking in a cave with his butler? The brutally badass vigilante who is willing to go to any lengths to put the mission above himself and everyone around him? Pure weaponised vengeance and impossible pain channeled into something… greater? And, by extension, what then makes a ‘good Batman movie?’ Flamboyant superhero fable or a tragic human story? The Bat or the man?
But before we get lost in discussion and debate about Keaton vs Bale vs Batfleck and beyond to examine what they each did for the character, let it be known that the ‘best Batman’ remains Kevin Conroy. Conroy famously voiced the Caped Crusader through most of the animated series and movies — which remain the richest, most mature, and nuanced examinations of Batman seen on screen. Be it the now-iconic Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League Unlimited, Young Justice, or the slew of excellent DC animated films [which offers some of the finest superhero storytelling of the last decade].
That disclaimer aside, let us take a look at what the live-action iterations have done for the Bat and more intriguingly, for Bruce Wayne.
Adam West – Batman The Lovable Goofball
Not including the 1943 series starring Lewis Wilson, for many of us, the first time we encountered the main man on-screen was through the 1960s show starring Adam West. Like most early examples of superheroes on TV, the Adam West-led series can only be described as Holy campy crayon-fest Batman! Unapologetically aimed at kids, and full of goofy dialogue and absurd scenarios, the series served its purpose and, even at its silliest, was always full of heart. Not to mention a Joker that was more mischievous than villainous [he seemed like the kind of guy whose grand plan would include pulling your chair out from under you or leaving the salt shaker slightly unscrewed or secretly replacing all the Diet Coke with actual Coke].
Michael Keaton’s Batman – The Secluded Recluse
Jump ahead two decades, and we got our first big-screen Batman with Tim Burton’s game-changing 1989 movie, and its even better 1992 follow-up Batman Returns, both starring Michael Keaton — who many argue remains the greatest of the Batmen. Burton’s movies took themselves more seriously, and sowed the seeds of the darker, gloomier hero of the night that we know today, Bat-signalling a change of how he would be seen for the decades to come.
Unlike the Bruce Waynes we have seen since, Keaton’s Wayne was a secluded recluse who, for the most part, kept to himself within the confines of Wayne Manor. While Burton’s movies did not delve into his darkness all that much, his Bruce Wayne lived in his trauma and solitude, and felt detached from the world around him, with the gentle, fatherly Alfred to care for him [a wonderful Michael Gough who played Alfred across four movies].
The 1989 Batman was an interesting if uneven movie, despite a scenery-chewing Jack Nicholson as the Joker. But it was Burton’s sequel Batman Returns where he upped the ante giving us what remains one of the most well-crafted Batman movies ever made. Batman Returns gave us the origin stories of both Catwoman [an excellent Michelle Pfeiffer] and Penguin [a genuinely unsettling, unrecognisable Danny DeVito in what remains one of his finest performances]. Burton’s gothic approach to Gotham allowed for a maturity amidst the theatricality with actual violence and blood [there is a scene where the Penguin legit bites a dude’s nose clean off].
One of my favourite Keaton moments is from Batman Returns, when we see Bruce sitting alone in Wayne Manor, staring into the distance and lost in his head. Until he sees the Bat-Signal in the sky, and suddenly springs to life. As if Bruce Wayne is the act to wait through, and Batman, his reality.
Val Kilmer And Geroge Clooney – Gadgets And Toys
Three years later, it was Joel Schumacher who would take over the reins of Gotham’s defender with the 1995 Batman Forever with Val Kilmer, along with its sequel, the widely-panned 1997 Batman And Robin, which saw George Clooney don the cape and cowl.
With his two Batman movies, Schumacker backtracked on Burton’s moody atmosphere and specificity in favour of hollower, flashier popcorn fare with an almost action figure-like aesthetic. Though I will admit, I will never not find the metallic body armour Batsuits cool as hell, even if it does award the actor wearing it all the mobility of a pinecone.
Schumacher’s near refusal to take the character seriously was perfectly captured by the excess of the almost animated villains across both films who came armed with harebrained schemes typically involving vats of boiling acid [Jim Carrey as the Riddler, Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face, followed by Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr Freeze, and Urma Thurman as Poison Ivy].
I am also just going to say it: Let it be known that, as a kid, Clooney’s Batman and Robin was the single greatest movie I had ever seen anywhere ever. Those were simpler times, before our brains were cursed by the demands of great storytelling and aggressive diktats of film Twitter. Okay now, let us be adults about this and move on.
Despite giving us a Batman-Robin-Batgirl team up, Clooney’s Batman achieved next to nothing for the character. But in Val Kilmer, there was a glimmer of promise, giving us an intriguing Bruce Wayne. Batman Forever touched on interesting ideas of Bruce’s psychosis even if it did not delve into them. As Nicole Kidman’s uncomfortably eye-candy psychologist Dr Chase says, “I think he’s fascinating, clinically. Why does a man do this? It’s as if he’s cursed to pay some great penance. What great crime could he have committed to endure such nightly torture?” Though objectively charming, Kilmer gave us a more introverted Bruce, who did not overplay the playboy persona, bringing a lingering intensity and quiet sadness in the few rare moments of calm the film awarded him.
Of course, the action of the four ’90s Batman movies has aged terribly. But despite the restrictions of the time, in costume, Keaton had what his successors Kilmer and Clooney never did — a haunting presence. It is an idea that was doubled down on decades later, by one Christopher Nolan.
Christopher Nolan And Christian Bale Demanded We Take Batman Seriously
Nolan gave us a grittier, grounded Batman, asking the question — what if Batman existed in a world like ours? While many consider his mostly excellent, landscape-altering trilogy to be the definitive Batman, I would argue they offer but one excellently crafted interpretation of him. As a masterful crime drama, while The Dark Knight is widely crowned the highlight of the trilogy, for me, the film did more for what a superhero movie could be than for the character itself. [What it did for capturing the chaos and spirit of the Joker, of course, is immeasurable].
The Dark Knight may be one of the greatest movies centered on a superhero, but Batman Begins remains the greatest Batman movie ever made.
With Batman Begins, Nolan gave us our first true blue Batman origin story, allowing us the time and space to dive into the psychology of the man more than any movie before it. No film has explored the very idea of Batman, his unshakeable mission, and what it means to be him quite like Batman Begins. “If you become more than a man… an ideal… you become something else entirely, and even they can’t stop you… A legend.” says Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul.
By giving us an emotionally complex Bruce Wayne, Nolan not only forced us to take him seriously, and made the idea of a man dressed as a bat feel honest, he also offered the rare [perfect] combination of human and badass. The Bat and man perfectly balanced. As Ra’s tells Wayne, “You must become more than a man in the mind of your enemies.” With Batman Begins, Nolan ensured Batman became more than a silly costumed hero in the mind of an audience.
Tying off the trilogy was the strictly serviceable The Dark Knight Rises, which holds the crown for the most overrated Batman movie. Sure it gave Bruce a touching happy ending and us a memorable Bane [Tom Hardy], but beyond that, it showcased the worst of a superhero movie focused on big ideas in place of fun thrills [Nolan’s trilogy famously offering surprisingly poor action sequences]. In short, The Dark Knight Rises was not the movie we needed, but the one we deserved… or something.
Ben Affleck’s Batman – Dark And Dejected
And most recently, there was Batfleck, with director Zack Snyder offering arguably the most specific interpretation of Batman we have seen thus far. While Snyder’s Batman Vs Superman does not always work, I maintain it offers one of the bravest, most interesting perspectives we have seen in a modern superhero movie.
Snyder’s Batman was an older, more jaded Dark Knight who has been in the vigilante game for 20 years. He is a man who has lost his way, who sees Superman’s sheer power and destructive capability as a threat. A Batman in a world of gods and monsters, grappling with their very existence.
Batman v Superman got so lost in its complex ideas, headiness, and building up the legacy of Batman that it forgot to deliver on the bare Batman basics — we rarely get to see him in action [though that ending warehouse assault sequence remains arguably the greatest Batman-in-action set pieces in film].
But despite its unevenness, Snyder offered Batman an intriguing arc from Batman v Superman through to the triumph of Zack Snyder’s Justice League [no, we are not ever going to talk about the other one]. If Batman v Superman is about Wayne rediscovering his humanity and finding his place within a new world, Justice League is about him learning to play well with others and forging connection. We will get to see Batfleck one last time, with both Ben Affleck and Michael Keaton reprising their Bruce Waynes at the end of this year in the much-awaited Flash movie. Damn, what a year to be a Batfan!
There have, of course, been other takes on the Bat — whether it is the Will Arnett-voiced Lego Batman, which explored the more ridiculous shades of the character, the Gotham TV series, which featured a young Bruce Wayne, or even his multiple appearances in DC’s Titans, played by an absurdly miscast Iain Glen.
I think it speaks to the richness of the character that there are so many different interpretations of Gotham’s knight, which continue to explore different shades and elements of his legend. But for all we have seen of him, there is much that is left to be explored. Which brings us to the now. To this, the eve of Battinson. Time for something new. Time for something different. Time… for vengeance.
The Batman is slated to release in cinemas this Friday on 4 March.
Suchin Mehrotra is a film journalist and movie junkie who sincerely believes movies can change the world. You can find him on Twitter at @suchin545.
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