Instead of just one movie, I thought I would do an “observation” on a character, and with the recent unveiling of a new trailer at San Diego Comic Con, I thought Batman would be a good place to start.
I’ve been a fan of Batman since I was a small child. Back then, it was re-runs of the Adam West show and the Saturday morning “Super Friends” cartoon that brought me the adventures of the Caped Crusader. As I got older, I learned there were comic books of Batman, but they all seemed so dark and it was hard to follow the stories, and there were “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe” comics to buy, so I never got really into the comics.
In the 1966 “Batman” TV series, Adam West portrayed the titular character to full campy satisfaction. The colors were bright, the dialogue snappy, the villains often overshadowed the leads, and it was good clean fun. The bumbling police always called upon Batman and Robin and they typically had to solve the clues to find the bad guys, have a well-staged fight, fall into the villains’ trap, the viewers would get told to tune in again, “same bat time, same bat channel” next week, and then we’d see how the Dynamic Duo outsmart the villains, create their own trap, another fight, and then win the day. The addition of Batgirl in the last season was a nice touch, even if, watching it now as an adult, she always seems to get sidelined in the simplest of ways. The classic series is, like “Star Trek” from the same time period, if you can get past the bright 1960’s trappings, an enjoyable viewing experience.
I don’t remember a whole lot about the cartoon version of Batman from my youth, except that he and Robin were part of the Justice League team, along with Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and others. We’ll forget those weird twins happened, as well as some of the other stereotyped characters which are viewed as politically incorrect these days. Still, the show was bright, loud, and fun for a young boy. I remember having several Batman action figures and vehicles and there was an old Batcave playset made of flimsy plastic my dad filled with concrete and mounted to a thick slab of wood. No villains were getting into the Batcave via those walls lol.
Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” film brought a new take on the character. Gone were the bright colors, the “ka-pows” on the screen, and most of all, Robin. This Batman was definitely a “Dark Knight” and a loner, brought to life on screen by Michael Keaton, as unlikely a lead as ever, but he pulled it off really well. In a flashback of sorts to the West series, Keaton’s Batman was overshadowed by Nicholson’s over-the-top performance as the Joker. There was much speculation at the time if the new film’s take on the classic hero would be successful and if anyone could take over for West, as many only knew his live action portrayal of the caped crime fighter.
The sequel, 1992’s “Batman Returns” is an underrated film that brought us the Penguin and Catwoman, but is pretty much only remembered for Michele Pfeiffer’s Catwoman suit, although Keaton seemed more comfortable in the Batsuit and DeVito’s Penguin was a vast step apart from the 1960’s version. The studio wanted to go another way after that film produced less than stellar results. The result was 1995’s “Batman Forever”, which gave us Val Kilmer (“Top Gun’s” Iceman) in the cape and cowl, Two-Face and the Riddler, and finally, Robin. The film was less dark, gothic, and gritty than the Burton outings, with the comedy amped up several notches, putting it right below the West version in slapstick, silly humor, and puns. It wasn’t a bad film and showed Batman move from loner to mentor, which was a nice take on the character.
Sadly, the film was considered successful enough to make a sequel, which then turned out to be the universally panned and totally awful “Batman and Robin”. Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Bane, and Batgirl join the titular heroes in this outing and George Clooney, fresh from the operating rooms of “ER” took on the Batsuit. This movie turned the silliness to 12, and is remembered only for every line of dialogue being a cheesy one-liner and adding “nipples” to the costumes. After this debacle, the live action franchise was put to pasture until 2005.
In the meantime, Batman took on a new life in animated form, with WB’s “Batman: The Animated Series”, loosely based on the Burton movies and using the Elfman theme. At the time, this wasn’t a show I watched, but I wish now that I had. This series, which ran from 1992 – 1995, took Batman back to the blue cape and gray suit, and most famously Kevin Conroy as Batman, a role he is STILL performing to this day in various forms. The series also saw Mark Hamill, of “Star Wars” fame, take on the role of Joker, which many fans consider the best interpretation of the character.
1999 debuted “Batman Beyond”, probably the most stylistic take on the hero since West’s series. In this show, Bruce Wayne is elderly and unable to be the Batman. In the pilot episode, he tries to take down some criminals and has a heart attack and is nearly killed. A young man, named Terry McGinnis, a high school student seeking to avenge the loss of his father, takes on the role of Batman. The series is set in “the future” and the Batsuit is a high-tech marvel, the “Batmobile” is able to change from a car to a plane and even underwater vehicle as needed. Conroy’s Wayne shifts to observer and mentor and the series ran for three seasons. As Batman, McGinnis is pretty much a loner, although Wayne is plugged into his ear through the suit. As a high school student, McGinnis has friends, a mom, a brother, and a girlfriend. Even though the series ended, it got a few mentions in the following “Justice League” animated show and even basically a proper series finale during the run of the “JL” series. It even is popular enough that when DC Comics had people make videos for Batman’s 75th anniversary in 2014, a “Batman Beyond” video was included and there is now a monthly comic book series for the title.
2005 saw Batman return to the live action realm with “Batman Begins”, the first of three movies by filmmaker Christopher Nolan, with Christian Bale donning the cape and cowl in a return to the darker and grittier Batman. This one tells us the origin of the hero by taking us along as Bruce Wayne trains in martial arts with the League of Assassins and Ra’s Al Ghul. Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine star alongside Bale, and the film does a good job of showing the origins of Batman in a way that is contemporary for modern audiences. Unlike previous live action films, this one uses realistic locations for the Gotham City shots and other locales. No weird, gigantic gothic towers in this one. Probably the most memorable thing about this movie is that no one can understand a word that Batman says; it sounds like a Darth Vader voice changer running low on battery power after it gets run over by a car and chewed on by a dog.
2008’s “The Dark Knight” is considered by many to be THE defining Batman film. This middle entry of the trilogy featured the late Heath Ledger as the Joker alongside Harvey Dent/Two-Face. Many wondered if Ledger could surpass Nicholson’s Joker, but in my opinion, there’s no good way to compare them as they are playing the character very differently in their respective films. Nicholson’s is kind of a late 1980’s “greed is good” type mixed with petty criminal that gets sloshed around in some kind of acid or whatnot and comes out a crazy sauce villain that has his own trademark brand of humor while working his scheme to get revenge on Batman. Ledger’s Joker is pure anarchist; just bat-shit crazy who, as Caine’s Alfred says, “just wants to watch the world burn.” It is tour de force performance from Ledger, who perished before the final product debuted and I think that lends some of the “feelings” people have for this movie and why they hold it in such high regard. Bale’s Batman is featured a bit more in this one than the previous one, but he is still overshadowed by the villains and no one still really knows what he says. This film shows Batman at possibly his darkest. It’s a very enjoyable film, but it is a long watch and while it moves along well with Ledger’s Joker breaking up the scenery, it does have some down parts. The Two-Face plot pays off at the end of the film, but one wonders if it was really a necessary component of the film or if it might have been a tighter effort with just Batman squaring off against the Joker as the main thrust of the film.
Sadly, as happened before, the final film in the series is a bit lackluster. “The Dark Knight Rises” from 2012 ended with Batman facing off against Bane, Ra’s Al Ghul’s daughter, and Catwoman. This time around, Bane’s Batman has been “retired” for a number of years since the events of the previous movie and injuries sustained during the previous films (we are left to assume). They recreate the famous back-breaking scene from the comics, but then as Bane tries to destroy the city, Batman comes back into the picture to stop him, having had just enough time to heal up. Catwoman switches sides and the villains are defeated while Batman flies off with the bomb, exploding it safely offshore and away from the city (sometimes, you just can’t get rid of a bomb!). The movie ends with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake character finding the Batcave (and his middle name is Robin) and the scene at the French café. Bale’s Batman in this film is pretty lackluster and not even around for a large part of the film. As an ending to the trilogy, it leaves something to be desired. Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is quite good, although Julie Newmar from the 1960’s show will always be the quintessential Catwoman to me, and Bane gets better represented this time around, but the film is bloated, long, and is without Batman for most of it.
While the live action stuff has been happening, there have been a number of animated movies, such as “Batman: Year One” and “Batman: Under the Red Hood” as well as a series of popular video games under the “Arkham” umbrella and a series of LEGO video games featuring Batman, his allies, and his rogues gallery. There have also been a number of other animated weekly series. Even “The LEGO Movie” used Batman as a featured character in the movie, voiced by Will Arnett. This Batman is due for a movie all his own in 2017, that’s how popular was Arnett’s performance, especially since he got many of the film’s best comedy bits. All of these offer different versions of the Caped Crusader character, from the dark and serious to the fun and somewhat silly.
Now we have the forthcoming “Batman vs. Superman” coming in 2016. Many, myself included, were skeptical with the announcement of Ben Affleck as Batman opposite the Henry Cavill Superman. The first pictures from the sets fueled the controversy and the first trailer left viewers wondering why the two were fighting, although it did answer some questions about the Batsuit and what kind of Batman we could expect from this film. The newest trailer that bowed at Comic Con, in my opinion, finally sold me on the film and that Affleck could pull off this Batman. This looks like another dark take on the hero, but maybe not as dark as the middle Nolan film, maybe more akin to the Burton representation.
The one thing I noticed with this new “Batfleck” is that it is clearly based on Frank Miller’s work from the 1980s. Nolan also borrowed liberally from the Miller Batmen, and as a fan of the character, I wonder if there’s a way to reinvent the character in a way that is not a copy of Miller’s work. I understand that his work is considered quintessential by many fans, but I enjoy the fact that there are many versions of Batman, each telling the stories and bringing the character to life in a way that resonates with various fans and making new fans.
In the end, Batman is a character that has resonance with many people for a variety of reasons. For me, I have always liked that Batman doesn’t have super powers, he’s not an alien, he has a distinct, traumatic backstory, and he generally is able to take down the villains without killing them. Batman is a defender of the people, a hero that turns up where he is needed most, and I sometimes wish he could be a real person because our world needs a hero. Some versions have Batman work well with others, particularly his sidekick Robin, while others work alone, but for the most part Batman is known for his gadgets, his vehicles, and his ability to take down Gotham City’s worst villains. I’m excited for this next new version of the character and hope that it will lead to future films. I know I’d be interested to see a film where Affleck takes on a more supporting role while a Terry McGinnis type of character steps into the Batman role; it might be an evolution of this new character that could happen down the road. Regardless, the character has been garnering fans for over 75 years and will likely still be popular in whatever version at his 100th anniversary.
For those reading this far, what is your favorite version of Batman or what draws you to the character?