Looking for part one of our list looking back on the Caped Crusader’s career on the silver screen from ’66-97? Head over here. Otherwise, let’s continue this retrospective on Batman at the Movies, starting in 2005 with…
Batman Begins (2005)
As with Die Another Day in the Bond franchise, Batman and Robin had proven it was possible for a successful film to kill a franchise, or at least force a fundamental rethink. For the Bond series, we got Casino Royale, often dubbed ‘Bond Begins’. That moniker is due entirely to Batman Begins. Both films took as a starting point the beginning of the hero’s career, and opted for a practically-driven, real-world (as far as possible) take on events.
Director Christopher Nolan, fresh from remaking Norwegian thriller, Insomnia, took Christian Bale’s Batman, placed him in a corrupt Gotham, based on Chicago. He contextualised the parents’ death as part and parcel of the poverty of Gotham City, and he made Bruce’s formative years about learning the power of helping those less fortunate. Unlike the Burton-Schumacher series, villains for the films were not chosen in descending order of fame / public recognition. Nolan ensured the films were built around the themes he wanted to explore. As Batman Begins is about a young man mastering his fear, the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) made sense. Ra’s Al Ghul / Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) explored with Bruce the power both of deception, and of becoming a symbol that could transcend the person: something that the dual nature of the Ducard character, and the everlasting nature of the Ra’s Al Ghul persona was perfect for furthering.
Instead of endless neon, the batcave was a functional space taking advantage of the gap in the Wayne Manor foundations. The Batmobile, built from tech explored by Wayne Enterprises. For that matter, all of the tech used to make the batsuit came from the R&D division of Wayne Enterprises, with Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) serving very much as a version of Q. If there was a lot of Batman Begins in Casino Royale, then there was a lot of Bond in this incarnation of Batman.
Batman Begins changed the action movie landscape, at very least until Avengers Assemble came along. Suddenly, there was an understanding that these films could get top directors and great casts. Might Bond have ever tried to get Oscar-winner Sam Mendes, had Christopher Nolan not shown what a great director could do with genre fare? Would talent like Michael Douglas, Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett ever have appeared on Marvel’s radar, had the likes of Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and Tom Wilkinson not agreed to take part here? Suddenly, the comic book film could aspire to more than box office, it could court critical acclaim. Only 1978’s Superman: The Movie had ever got this close – and that was too long ago to have a direct influence on executives in the mid-2000s. Now, the sky was the limit.
The Dark Knight (2008)
What to say about The Dark Knight? Its snub at the 81st Academy Awards is the reason we have up to ten nominees for best picture these days: the fact that it didn’t get into the then-five being particularly controversial. It gave the world the performance that led to only the second ever posthumous acting award; with Heath Ledger’s Joker following Peter Finch’s Howard Beale in 1976’s Network. It looked like being the film that would define decades of superhero and action films. Whilst we did get such things as a darker Spider-Man in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, the long-term impact of this film has been somewhat curtailed by the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Teased at the end of the previous film, this entry begins with the Joker on the rampage. Shot in IMAX, the opening bank robbery being a thing of beauty. Ten months into his time as Batman, and now living in a city penthouse, whilst Wayne Manor is rebuilt, Bruce has driven the mob out into the open, as they are unable to meet at night, the time when Batman is roaming the streets. New District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is working to clean up the streets by getting the mob put away forever. The bravery he displays showing Bruce that there is a new hope for the city, one that may lead to his being able to retire Batman.
Whole books could be, will be, and almost certainly have been written on The Dark Knight. Due to greater location shooting than its predecessor, which had been very soundstage-based, and a new batsuit, the film does feel a big departure tonally from Batman Begins. It could almost be a different series. Though comparisons to Michael Mann’s 1995 film Heat have been overstated, this is a great film first, and a Batman film second, the first Nolan entry was probably the reverse. Although there would be no Ledger, and we’d have to wait four years (though we got the wonderful Inception out of that bargain), Nolan would return to round out a trilogy.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Four years was a long time, in many ways. Having captured the zeitgeist in 2008, it would have been fair to expect Rises to be the event of 2012. In the event, this film barely scraped past the Global box office returns of The Dark Knight (and fell far below it in the United States), and it was beaten comprehensively worldwide by Avengers Assemble. All things have their lifespan, and the world was ready for the lighter, more comic-faithful Marvel offering.
There were other factors at play too. This was sold as an ending to this incarnation of Batman, with pre-release talk openly allowing that Bruce Wayne would be somewhat past his peak years in this entry. The previous film had featured The Joker – the king of Batman’s Rogues Gallery – and this film would feature Bane. The Bane character was still somewhat associated with the oafish, intellectually-challenged version played by Jeep Swanson in Batman and Robin. The idea of an ageing Batman going up against a no-name character (in terms of general public recognition, that is) would not have stoked the same anticipation as a near-peak Batman vs The Joker.
In the event the film is a mixed bag. Nolan again tailors extremely well his choice of villain to the themes of the films, where The Dark Knight had been about the chaos of escalation – perfect for The Joker: this film was about the legend living on, but the flesh – the man – ageing: something reflected in Batman being a physically declining man having to go against a physical superior for the first time. A man with similar training, who had swallowed elements of that creed that Bruce had refused: namely the need to kill off the criminal, rather than spare the rod.
In some respects this is not the film many Batman fans wanted. Although it nailed its final reel, the implication of this film is that this Batman was really only ever active until the end of film two: around ten months in total. Although there is some ambiguity, given talk of ‘last confirmed sighting of the Batman’, Bruce’s isolation, and the severe knee damage we saw him take at the end of The Dark Knight, suggests that the whole hunt the Dark Knight scenario that fans were left dreaming of at the end of that film, actually became Bruce went home and had an early night. Batman’s true peak never happened, and that is a shame. Perhaps we would see it in the next version of the caped crusader.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
So, Batman as a comparatively old man? Okay. The casting of Ben Affleck as Batman, sometime in 2013, left the internet swimming in the now-predictable tide of poison from ‘fans’. Those of us who had lived through, Keaton, Ledger, Craig et al simply shrugged and waited for the final product. In the event, the film was garbage, the portrayal of Batman questionable, but Affleck’s performance terrific, and the batsuit the most comic-faithful we had ever had.
This Batman is wound up by Lex Luthor to the point of fury, then aimed at Superman. So he isn’t smart – given he is meant to be the World’s greatest detective. This Batman is a killer: clearly killing people in the warehouse raid, that was otherwise a beautiful evocation of the action style found in the usually excellent Arkham video games. Affleck is charming as Bruce Wayne, and he moves well as Batman, and they finally nailed the voice, by using a voice modulator. The Bale gruff voice lowering thing being the one of the worst character decisions ever made in the live action Batman series.
It was nice to see Batman in grey (though the ears are far too small on this version, and the musculature a little too bulky). The rise of greater adherence to comic book aesthetics is the single biggest factor that will date the Nolan era. In the event, BvS was a terrible film, but it left the majority aching to see Affleck in a solo Batman film. Surely, that would be along sometime soon?
Suicide Squad (2016)
The Affleck Batman is barely in Suicide Squad, save for a couple of short scenes to remind us that this is a shared universe, and that they were going to be attempting the Marvel model. In the event, this film has a million and one problems that would be the subject of another article, another time. It is fun enough, however.
The key takeaway from this film, however, was that the DC Universe looked like it had really nailed the hyper-stylised aesthetic of Batman: Arkham Asylum. This was a universe that you could believe was real, but equally believe in the existence of Poison Ivy, were she ever to be cast. Oh how we were ready for that solo Batman film.
Justice League (2017)
Batman was the worst affected, it would seem, by the production woes of Justice League. Originally a Zack Snyder film, Joss Whedon took over when Snyder left to deal with a family bereavement. It has since been revealed that Warner executives called the original Snyder cut ‘un-releasable’, and released him from his duties. The hiring of Whedon represented the worst instinct of trying to copy Marvel. In reality Whedon and Snyder have such differing sensibilities that it is tough to imagine disparate elements from the two ever fitting together.
With Justice League effectively reshot twice, a five-film arc that had been the pitch given to Affleck, at the outset of his time in the role, was jettisoned for a tonally confused film, inexplicably mandated not to exceed two hours (which it does slightly, with end credits added), in which Affleck looks bored as Bruce Wayne, and is confusingly chummy and jokey as Batman. There is little DNA shared with the Batman of the first Affleck entry, and his lack of superpowers leaves him just hanging out with the people that actually have a purpose to the story; before Superman comes in and proves he’s the only hero the story actually needs.
With the failure of Affleck and Chris Terrio to nail the script for a solo Batman film, the ‘Batfleck’ era was curtailed at three entries: one of them a cameo, and none of those pure Batman films. We look now to Matt Reeves (War for the Planet of the Apes, Cloverfield), as he prepares for the 2021 release of the next iteration of Batman at the movies. It’s thought that this will be moving back to earlier in the icon’s career. We can only hope this time we finally get stay with a version long enough to see the character at his peak, demonstrating why he is the World’s Greatest Detective. We look forward, positively, on the birthday of the world’s most popular superhero.