Batman on film began in serial style in 1943 (in The Batman). Wilson was the first actor to don the cape fighting Dr. Daka (J Carrol Naish) with the help of Robin (Douglas Croft) in an adventure that includes a death ray and some zombies. Humble beginnings for the Dark Knight.
The very first shot of Batman shows him sitting at his desk, leaning his chin on his hands in the Batcave and waiting to go into action. He leaves through the secret entrance via the grandfather's clock inside Wayne Manor, a tradition that would be part of all subsequent movie versions.
Alfred Pennyworth was portrayed in the comic books at the time as overweight but is tall, thin and has a mustache in the serials. The comic books adopted the changes forever transforming Alfred in print and on screen.
As directed by Lambert Hillyer, the first Batman movie has decent action scenes for its time. Sure, Batman has to use some kind of public phone to call the Commissioner, all in broad daylight, but the 15-part serial is entertaining in its own goofy way.
A second serial was released in 1949 with Robert Lowery taking over as Batman and John Duncan as Robin battling the Wizard (Leonard Penn), a villain who can become invisible. Among the interesting anecdotes from Batman and Robin are the appearances of Vicki Vale (Jane Adams) and the Bat-Signal in broad daylight.
These two serial movies may be not hold well but they reflect the times during which they were made and remain an interesting look at the beginnings of Batman on the big screen.
When Batman finally returned to the screen, it would be far removed from his original concept. Played for laughs, the Batman of the 1966 movie and the subsequent TV series (1966-68) was overweight, slow and smiled a lot. It was sometimes difficult to see a difference between the laughing Joker and the smiling Batman. Adam West obviously had fun in the title role alongside many great character actors playing the various villains. The TV series was shown twice a week with the first episode ending on a cliffhanger.
It would take another two decades for a more definitive Batman movie to be made. During the 1960's through the 1980's, Batman appeared in animation on television from Batman/Superman Hour (1968-69) to SuperFriends (1972-1986). The shows were obviously aimed at young kids and featured silly plots. Heck, Batman even solved mysteries with Scooby-Doo (1972). It would all change, live action and animation beginning in 1989.
When Tim Burton's Batman opened in June of '89, the first images were of two thugs encountering a giant bat creature on a rooftop. As they look up, huge wings opened wide and there stood the Batman. "What are you?" "I'm Batman." It was unlike anything seen before in the world of the Dark Knight.
The movie has some flaws but it did bring darkness to Gotham City. The atmosphere created by Burton and Anton Furst, production designer, redefined what Batman could be on the screen.
The lead character as played by Michael Keaton is treated seriously instead of played for laughs. He's even a little loopy. "C'mon, you wanna get nuts, let's get nuts," screams Bruce Wayne to Jack Napier, aka The Joker. In fact, it remains arguably the craziest scene involving Bruce Wayne to this day.
Jack Nicholson plays the Joker to the hilt and overshadows the hero; therein lies some of the problems with the original movie. The villain takes over the movie, occupying much of the screen time, and is too potent for the hero. The story is quite basic with some of the decisions looking bad in retrospect, especially the idea that one stupid gun could take down the Batplane. Kim Basinger screaming and screaming doesn't help either. There are too many scenes that stop the movie dead, particularly the long parade involving the Joker.
Yet, the '89 Batman remains a good movie overall with a nice mix of character moments and action. Given the technology at the time, some action sequences were well done such as Batman flying through the museum. The fight sequence between Batman and Joker's thugs following the escape from the museum is still pretty good. Keaton and Michael Gough as Alfred create a believable relationship. We see a little detective work when Wayne reads over Napier's file and puts together that the Joker knows much about chemistry and is behind the plot against Gotham City. And there is a great sequence in which Batman drives back to the Batcave with Vicky Vale to the rousing score of Danny Elfman, excellent from beginning to end.
The first Burton movie sets the stage for further adventures of the Dark Knight beginning with Batman Returns in 1992. This second movie brought the franchise to an area best called the Twilight Zone. Burton and Keaton returned and added Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman and Danny DeVito as Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin. Batman Returns is a weird hybrid film, more a Tim Burton movie than a Batman one.
What really works in Batman Returns is the exploration of duality, especially between the Bat and the Cat. Every scene between those two characters sparkles with chemistry and danger much like the source material. As Bruce Wayne tells Selina Kyle at the end of the movie, "We're the same, split down the middle." Their relationship is complex and riveting in a Burton kind of way.
Batman Returns features two of the best brief Dark Knight moments ever, and that includes the recent Christopher Nolan movies. The close up of Batman's eyes when he confronts the Penguin near the end of the movie is pretty cool on a big screen. But the best Batman moment, what it would feel like to be the Dark Knight, comes about halfway through the movie when he is on his way to checking up on the Penguin at night. The perfect little musical notes from Elfman and the brooding face of Keaton as he drives alone in the Batmobile create a quiet and effective Batman scene.
The flip side of the movie features the Penguin and most of it doesn't work well. Through no fault of his own, DeVito is saddled with a depressed and often repulsive character. The fact that he and his team of circus thugs easily get control of the Batmobile is reminiscent of the Joker's silly gun taking down the Batplane in the previous movie. The sequence of the Penguin controlling the Batmobile plays closer to the old TV show than expected. Most of the other characters, especially Commissioner Gordon, come off as too goofy.
Tim Burton brought the Dark Knight back into the shadows in his two films. It helped bring some respect to the Batman and the world of Gotham City. Along the way, however, there are lapses of reasoning that are more obvious today. It seems like Bruce Wayne doesn't respect his one rule not to kill judging by the big circus thug in the back alley in Batman Returns that he blows up. The villains are more potent or bizarre than the Dark Knight and the characterization either takes a back seat to silliness or gets lost in weirdness.
With the giant success of Batman on the big screen, Warner Brothers wisely decided it was time to reanimate the character on television. Hiring a talented crew of writers and animators, such as Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and Alan Burnett, to create a definitive version of Batman in animation turned out to be a critical and ratings success. Many of the episodes of Batman: The Animated Series (1992-94) which became The Adventures of Batman & Robin (1994-95) and The New Batman Adventures (1997-1999) have become classics featuring some of the best stories of the Dark Knight in any form, live action or animated. The animation spawned a new technique using black backgrounds, later called "Dark Deco."
The popular animated series convinced the studio to create several direct-to-video features, including Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993 - also released briefly into theatres) that may be the best Dark Knight movie ever made, or on par with the later Christopher Nolan live action trilogy. The movie digs deep into Bruce Wayne's psyche and features a terrific Joker as well (Mark Hamill, in perfect form).
Meanwhile, on the big screen, all of Tim Burton's darker and weirder elements from his two live-action movies vanished in a hurry once Joel Schumacher took over the franchise, beginning with Batman Forever in 1995. Batman became much more normal and less dark knight in the next two movies. Val Kilmer broods quite well but his Bruce Wayne is non-expressive even if he does smile goofily at the end of one scene. Chase Meridian (a sexy Nicole Kidman) tries to analyze Batman but only in an artificial manner.
Batman Forever has some solid fighting scenes and good pace overall. Richard Grayson/Robin is introduced and fairly well handled by the script and as played by Chris O'Donnell. At least until the nod to the TV show with the obligatory corny lines by the end of the movie. Jim Carrey brings a lot of energy to his role of the Riddler, perhaps too much so, but his riddles force the Batman to be more of a detective. A bit more.
It's unfortunate that what works in some areas is undone by the loud, neon lights of Gotham City and the relentless tackiness that takes over the franchise. Starting the movie by having Batman say, "I'll get drive-thru" is a bad omen. Okay, it was aimed at a younger crowd, got it. Ummmm, but nipples on the Batsuit? The cartoonish yet violent tone and the allure of Dr. Meridian doesn't come across as kids stuff.
Tommy Lee Jones really overplays Two-Face (and that is saying a lot) as if feeling the need to upstage Carrey's Riddler. There's the Batmobile going up on the side of a building... cool, sure, but a bit too much. Speaking of the Batmobile, why is it so easy for Richard Grayson to take it for a spin? No safety precautions from Bruce Wayne? It is these kinds of sequences that prevent Batman Forever from being a dynamite Dark Knight movie.
It would only get worse, much worse in the abominable Batman & Robin two years later. When the only true real character is a supporting one, an old butler, you've got a problem. George Clooney takes over as Bruce Wayne/Batman, third actor in three movies, and he fails as either one. But watch Clooney in Michael Clayton and you get the feeling that, with the right script and director, he could have made a great Batman. But here, he is saddled with an atrocious script (wait, there was one?) and lines like "We'll have to kill her later" referring to Batgirl. Seriously?
O'Donnell returns as Robin but goes from interesting young sidekick to whiny little brat. Oh, go away already! Alicia Silverstone is introduced as Barbara Wilson/Batgirl and adds to the mess of the movie. Her character is not even faithful to the comic books where she is Commissioner Gordon's daughter. What a waste of this character. And the villains? Where do you start? Arnold Schwarzenegger as Victor Fries/Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman as Dr. Pamela Isley/Poison Ivy have a ton of brutal corny lines while playing the characters very far removed from the source material. And the icing on the cake is Jeep Swenson as a moronic Bane, a far cry from Tom Hardy's interpretation in The Dark Knight Rises 15 years later.
Batman & Robin features Batman flying on some kind of surfboard in outer space, playing hockey and appearing live on stage in front of hundreds of people in broad daylight while showing a credit card. Its remarkable how dreadful this movie turned out to be and how it killed the franchise for almost a decade. Various incarnations were attempted from a Batman: Year One adaptation to a Batman vs. Superman idea.
But frustrated fans were able to enjoy an animated Dark Knight on television with Batman: The Animated Series continuing its run until 1999. Warner Brothers followed with Batman Beyond (1999-2001), a surprisingly effective futuristic take on the Dark Knight. In this version, Bruce Wayne is an old man who helps young Terry McGinnis in continuing the legend of the Batman. Even at his age, Wayne is quite spry in fending the odd thug and becomes the conduit in the Batcave for the new Dark Knight. An excellent direct-to-video Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker cleverly brought the Joker back from the dead, so to speak, and brought many elements from the classic Batman tales.
Batman was also featured in the Justice League (2001-2004) and the follow up series Justice League Unlimited (2004-2006) as well as a new animated version simply called The Batman (2004-2008) which borrowed an anime style. Finally, Cartoon Network's Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2009- ) is an old-fashioned fun series that is a great entry to introduce Batman to young fans.
Back on the big screen, almost a decade following the debacle of Batman & Robin, a new live action Dark Knight movie brought a new vision of Gotham City unlike ever seen before.
Batman Begins is an apt title and a huge breath of fresh air completely divorced from every version before it. When released in 2005, the movie proved you could make a Batman movie based in reality without sacrificing the drama and entertainment. What is striking is how the characters are treated with respect and feel real. It's just that the lead character wears a cape and cowl.
The casting is spot on starting with Christian Bale taking over as Bruce Wayne/Batman. There's soulfulness to his performance that had only been glimpsed before. His Bruce Wayne is a little vain in public but intense in private. His Dark Knight is actually intimidating, striking from the shadows or growling to a corrupt cop on a rooftop. The lead character is actually interesting for a change and time is spent delving on his development as the Caped Crusader. This Batman feels real, almost as if he could exist in our world.
Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox bring levity and weight to their roles while Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon couldn't be more perfect, straight out of the graphic novel pages. The villains are down to earth (even if their plans are gigantic) particularly Liam Neeson as Henri Ducard, a mentor to Wayne who turns out to be more than he lets on. Even Tom Wilkinson as Carmine Falcone electrifies in his few scenes.
Finally with Batman Begins we see some true iconic images of the Batman with great shots of him on rooftops. This is the first version of Batman that does not feel like it was mostly filmed on stages.
Batman Begins is not without its flaws, particularly involving the character of Rachel Dawes, as played by Katie Holmes. The role is not potent enough to match up to the other characters. The fighting scenes leave a bit to be desired. Yes, he is a creature of the shadows but we want to see him kick ass too. It's difficult to see how Batman defeats his opponents. And for all the time Bruce Wayne spends abroad before returning to Gotham City, it would have been nice to see a bit more training worldwide (as oppose to just the League of Shadows), including learning about science and other detective tricks.
Nolan raised the bar in the cinematic world of Batman (and influenced other franchise such as James Bond in Casino Royale). Hard to imagine he could do as well in his next outing. But The Dark Knight proved that Batman Begins was no fluke. Despite its length, The Dark Knight never feels long as themes like duality and morality are explored by various characters. Christian Bale again reprises the lead role in an understated performance. The story forces him to make difficult choices. You can feel the weight on Bruce Wayne's shoulders as he ponders the effect his alter ego has on Gotham society.
The Joker, played in an Oscar-winning performance by Heath Ledger, is an agent of chaos pitting characters against each other and imposing his will on an entire city. He simply doesn't care, wants to "watch the world burn" as Alfred (Michael Caine, once again) points out. Ledger disappears into the role, all the while not overplaying it like his predecessors. The Dark Knight features a pitch-perfect cast, including Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent/Two Face. This is the toughest role in the movie but Eckhart delivers a soulful and intense performance.
The Dark Knight has, perhaps, too many characters not allowing ample time to the transformation of Harvey Dent into Two Face. The movie also briefly shows Batman doing a bit of detective work but not enough (some of the best stories in the comic books features the Dark Knight solving problems using his mind). In fact, Bruce Wayne/Batman gets diminished quite a bit in this movie. The respect between Batman and Commissioner Gordon has grown but, here too, you wish there was more scenes with these two characters.
The Dark Knight features arguably the best Batman scene ever filmed: the Dark Knight and the Joker in an interrogation room at a police station. It brings up everything the Joker stands for, chaos, against everything Batman believes in, not taking a life. How far can the Batman go before breaking his one rule in order to save other lives? It represents Batman on many levels, perfectly captured by Nolan.
The Academy didn't nominate The Dark Knight for Best Picture because it's a comic book movie, right? But Nolan's approach seems to be more along the lines of Heat (with an homage at the beginning of the movie) that it just happens the lead character dresses up as a giant bat but otherwise things are rooted in reality to a large extent. Yes, it's not real per se but feels almost like it could happen.
How does Nolan complete his trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises? The teaser trailers hint at the emotional and physical impact of being the Batman and the continuation of themes introduced in the first two films. In complete reversal of the portrayal in Batman & Robin, Bane (Tom Hardy) is expected to be a formidable opponent for the Dark Knight, physically and mentally. Add a pinch of Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) and a mysterious French lady (Marion Cotillard) and The Dark Knight Rises promises to be a fascinating end to the current Batman on screen. One way or another, Bruce Wayne as a legend will end likely in his real death (inspiring the people of Gotham City to rise up and reclaim their city as hinted in the previous two films) or in his fake death (allowing him to retire but letting the inspiration and image of Batman to live on, symbolically and through someone else).
Where does the Dark Knight go from here? He is far too complex and popular a character in a fascinating world for Warner Bros not to revisit sooner rather than later. Hopefully, the studio has learned that putting this great franchise in the hands of real talent like Christopher Nolan rewards the fans, the moviegoers, the filmmakers and the studio. A new version of Superman will be released next year (Man of Steel) and rumors are that the WB is inching closer to a team-up of the top DC Comics characters, a la Avengers. Or, at least, a World's Finest team-up between Batman and Superman.
The world of Batman on screen has gone through various incarnations in the past 70 years of cinematic adventures. Each movie is a product of its time, for better or worse. Being able to watch each of them on Blu-ray or DVD allows you the opportunity to revisit Gotham City, imperfection and all. In the end, it is the characters and the stories that transcend time and Batman has met a number of challenges over the years. On Blu-ray, you can escape to Gotham City whether in bright daylight (the TV series), gothic (Tim Burton's), bright neon (Joel Schumacher's) or based in reality (Christopher Nolan's). There is nothing like sliding into the world of Bruce Wayne and Gotham City on home video.
- Mario Boucher
Most of the various Batman incarnations mentioned in the preceding article are available on Blu-ray and/or DVD. You can order them on Amazon.com now by clicking on the following links (BD is linked where available). They include but are not limited to:
- The Batman (1943 serial)
- Batman and Robin (1949 serial)
- Batman (1966 movie - the TV series is unavailable on disc pending a rights dispute between Fox and Warner)
- Batman: The Motion Picture Anthology (1989-1997)
- Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1994)
- Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
- The Adventures of Batman & Robin (1994-1995)
- The New Batman Adventures (1997-1999)
- Batman Beyond (1999-2001)
- Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000)
- The Batman (2004-2008)
- Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008-2011)
- Batman Begins (2005)
- The Dark Knight (2008)