Film discussion

Justice League: A History of Batman at the Movies

For someone who is arguably the biggest comic book character in the world, Batman has, strangely enough, always been in the shadow of Superman in certain regards. The Last Son of Krypton came first on the page, and the same goes for making the move into film, with Batman’s first foray as a big budget blockbuster coming eleven years after Superman, and only after having spent several years in development hell.

Like the Man of Steel, the Dark Knight first made his mark on live action through the popularity of live action serials. Produced by Columbia Studios and starring Lewis Wilson, the father of future James Bond producer Michael G Wilson, and then Robert Lowery, the serials were produced in 1943 and with Lowery in 1949.

The 1943 production had a sizeable impact on the character. It featured the first ever appearance of the Batcave, while prior to its release, Alfred the Butler was a somewhat overweight character in the comic books. The Batman serial featured the actor William Austin portraying the character, who was thin and sported a thin moustache. Austin’s look was parlayed into the comic books and has remained so until this day.

Amazingly it would be seventeen years before the Dynamic Duo would return to the cinema screen, this time with one of the most defining and famous interpretations of the character.

Released in 1966, and spinning off from the popular television series,  Batman: The Movie starred Adam West and Burt Ward as the dynamic duo and featured some of the most (in)famous sequences involving the character, namely its popular use of shark repellant, as well as portraying the difficulties in trying to get rid of an explosive device (something that would come up again in 2012). Filmed in between the first and second seasons of the television show, for years it became a defining visual representation of the character, for better and worse. Its campy humour, over the top action and colourful set design, as well as famous uses of big name guest stars as the villains, was, for the first season at least, phenomenally popular enough to warrant a big screen movie, but ratings dwindled during its second year and eventually the series was cancelled after its third.

For years the series became a watchword in how not to do the character and certainly the comic books themselves would turn ever darker as the seventies gave way to the eighties, not least when Frank Miller got his hands on the character, but things can look better as the years go on and eventually the series came to be re-evaluated. Although it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see Batman and his world portrayed like this again in live action, the series is now regarded favourably and has seen a resurgence in popularity through re-runs, a well-regarded Blu-Ray release, a Batman ’66 comic book, as well as an animated version, Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders, with a sequel on the way, Batman vs Two-Face.

The recent death of Adam West was no doubt sad, but thankfully he lived long enough to see his arch, but charming and dead-pan interpretation become more respected and popular than ever. It was not for nothing that Nicholas Cage paid tribute with his own impression of the performance in Kick-Ass, whilst Batman: The Animated Series cast West in one of its finest episodes, “Beware The Grey Ghost”, tipping its hat to West’s brilliance and charm, as well as influence.

With the comic books taking a darker turn under the eyes of Neal Adams and Denny O’Neill, and later Frank Miller, coupled with the success of Superman: The Movie, Warner Bros. decided in 1979 that the time was ripe for a big budget Batman movie. It would take ten years to become a reality.

In the end it was the director/actor team behind Beetlejuice that would bring Batman to the screen. The choice of Michael Keaton as star was particularly controversial, both for not actually looking like Bruce Wayne, as well as being better known as a comedy actor, negating the fact that he had shown considerable dramatic chops in Clean and Sober.

Hyped to the hilt, Batman was the biggest blockbuster of 1989 and managed to be both a commercial and artistic success. Although a little dated around the edges nowadays, what with having a Prince soundtrack as well as a female lead who has to be saved constantly throughout the film, it still works thanks to its gothic atmosphere, definitive Danny Elfman score and Anton Furst’s production design.

Jack Nicholson’s Joker steals the film, but amazingly Keaton never allows himself to be overshadowed. His Bruce Wayne, more of a Jay Gatsby figure than anything else, blending into his parties and seemingly being the most famous person in the world that nobody knows what he looks like, erases all memories of Mr Mom and Beetlejuice with a haunted persona and a quirky charm.

The success of the film meant a sequel was inevitable and it followed in 1992. Given even more creative freedom by the studio after the success of Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns has more of a Tim Burton flavour, but its darkly fantastic atmosphere and dreamy Danny Elfman score make it strangely sublime. Keaton is great as well, but he frequently gets pushed to the sidelines in favour of Michelle Pfieffer’s wonderful Catwoman and Danny DeVito’s freakish Penguin.

The film was not without controversy. Given a PG-13 rating in the US, an attempted promotion with Burger King was quickly cut by the fast food chain due to a screening that left kids traumatised by the somewhat freaky nature of its villain, as well as parents being shocked by the sexuality of Catwoman.

This controversy meant that when Batman Forever opened in theatres in the summer of 1995, things would be very different. Tim Burton did not return to direct, although is still credited as producer, and even Batman himself had changed from Michael Keaton to Val Kilmer. Keaton was offered $15 million to reprise the role but turned it down due to not liking the script. Things were going in a different direction under the eye of Joel Schumacher.

In between the second and third Batman movies, a big screen version of the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series made its way to cinemas. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm brought the beautiful art deco stylings of the series to a bigger canvas, complete with masterful vocal performances from Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill and Dana Delaney. Initially conceived as a straight-to-video release, it instead went to theatres, but unfortunately didn’t take off the way Warner Bros. believed it would. The years have been more than kind to it, its brilliantly complex plotting and darkly emotional portrayal of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego still stand today as one of the greatest interpretations of the character ever put to screen.

As for Batman Forever, although not as gaudy or as terrible as the film that would follow it, many of the problems were set in stone for what would become one of the worst films ever made. Once again, it felt like the villains were front and centre, although there were attempts made to delve into Batman’s psychology with haunted flashbacks to his parents murder and funeral, but it’s not helped by Kilmer’s somewhat bland performance and would have been much better if performed by Keaton.

The film did finally introduce Robin to the series, with Chris O’Donnell taking on the role after making a mark in Scent of a Woman and Circle of Friends.  Attempts were made to do so in the scripts to the first two instalments of the franchise, but these were eventually jettisoned due to length.

Amazingly it became one of the biggest hits of 1995, the biggest hit of the summer no less, although like a bad one night stand, one can only look back at it with regret these days.

Batman and Robin followed a mere two years later and was a disaster right from the off. Schumacher and Kilmer famously never got on during filming the third movie and with Kilmer deciding to film The Saint instead, another new Batman made his debut in the shape of George Clooney who filmed the movie the same time as he was shooting his iconic role of Doug Ross in ER.

Critically slammed and underperforming at the box office, the film put the Batman movie franchise into an enforced hiatus that would last for eight years. A sequel had been in the planning stages just prior to the release of the fourth film, allegedly entitled Batman: Triumphant, it was set to feature Harley Quinn and The Scarecrow as villains, while legend has it that Jack Nicholson was being courted to come back for a Crane-toxin induced nightmare sequence.

Also in various stages of development were Batman: Year One under the eyes of Darren Aaronofsky, Batman vs Superman, scripted by Andrew Kevin Walker with director Wolfgang Petersen attached, as well as a live action Batman Beyond.

In the end it would be Christopher Nolan who made Batman relevant again. Casting Christian Bale in the lead role, Batman Begins is arguably one of the best comic book movies ever made. Intelligent, being both serious and fun, with some incredible action and brilliant plot structure, the film was not a massive box office success, although it did gross a respectable $372 million. It found a larger audience on DVD, and a sequel was commissioned.

Released in the summer of 2008, The Dark Knight was a massive success at the box office and with critics. Following through on the hint at the end of the first film, The Dark Knight featured a now iconic performance from Heath Ledger as The Joker, dominating the film with arguably the greatest antagonist to ever appear in a comic book movie. As great as Ledger is, it’s easy to forget that Aaron Eckart as Harvey Dent and Gary Oldman as James Gordon are also fantastic. The film was intelligent, thematic and brilliantly constructed, mixing superb plotting, characterisation and action to create a truly iconic action thriller that owed more to Michael Mann than it did to Tim Burton.

Four years later we got the eagerly awaited follow-up, and it would prove to be the most mixed in terms of reaction. Critically acclaimed by mainstream critics, and grossing over $1 billion at the worldwide box office, comic book fans and nerd flavoured critics were a touch more negative. This reviewer has no problem in proclaiming that the film is another masterpiece. Although it could probably do with ten or fifteen minutes cut to tighten it up, it is an incredibly satisfying film, even it does owe more to Charles Dickens than it does to Denny O’Neill.

Bringing back most of the main players from the first two movies and adding in Tom Hardy as an incredibly threatening Bane and a lovely turn from Joseph Gordon Levitt, the film is a brilliant ensemble piece that showed that The Dark Knight Trilogy was as much a Dickensian-story of Gotham as much as it was Batman. Its twists and turns play fast and loose with the comics, true, but the film works so well throughout and builds to an incredibly intense climax that takes the bomb “disposal” sequence from Batman:The Movie to a whole new level.

With Nolan and Bale bringing their trilogy to a satisfying conclusion, Warner Bros were left to hit the reboot button. With Man of Steel launching a shared universe of DC Comics characters, it was perhaps inevitable that a new Batman would be launched, and, in a mirror of the Michael Keaton controversy, Ben Affleck was announced and unsurprisingly won everyone over with a brutal portrayal that owed a lot to Frank Miller and The Dark Knight Returns.

The film itself was met with a mixed reaction, but one thing everyone agreed on was that Affleck was one of the best things about it. A haunted look in the eye, not to mention actually looking somewhat like the Bruce Wayne of the comics, he would portray the character again that year in an extended cameo in Suicide Squad, and is set to return this year in Justice League.

Rumour surrounds his continued involvement, but even if he doesn’t come back for Matt Reeves stand alone Batman movie in the next year or two, he is part of a cycle of Batmen who has truly made the part his own.

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