No other superhero has changed faces or directions more, for better or worse, than the Caped Crusader. Batman’s long strange trip through film is a tale of success, followed by a hellacious fall. But as Alfred would remind us, “Why do we fall,sir? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” So, in anticipation of the Dark Knight here’s a history of Batman in movies. (Note: I will start with the first full-length rendition, 1966’s Batman: The Movie. You can check out the serialized big screen origins of Batman in this week’s Old Ass Movies.)
Batman:The Movie (1966) rode the wave of success the Batman TV Show had and parodied the convenient fortune of superheroes who always seem to have an escape route or the perfect solution to save the day. It also had the cult classic acting of Adam West, who may or may not have taught William Shatner every acting technique he ever knew.
The dynamic duo of Batman and Robin try to stop “the fearsome foursome” of The Joker, The Penguin, Catwoman, and The Riddler’s efforts at world domination. The villains look to achieve this by using a superweapon that can turn people to dust, leaving Batman and Robin on a buoy to be eaten by a shark. Luckily, Batman had his trusty utility belt, which thankfully came with the now infamous bat-shark repellant. Once again, the heroes escaped and emerged triumphant. And if shark repellant wasn’t enough to force the baddies into submission, we got to see Bruce Wayne do the Batoosie.
When taken in context it’s a classic tongue-in-cheek take on the culture that surrounded it. To this day, if you ask the average moviegoer to spout off famous Batman lines you will hear the Pows! and Zooms! that came with Adam West’s version.
“Why so serious?”
It took 10 years of fighting with studio heads and 9 writers to get a serious Batman on screen, but it was well worth it. Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) currently stands as the highest grossing movie featuring a DC Comics character ever (271 million domestically) and features Gotham’s savior attempting to stop the rise of The Joker, while still finding time to romance photo-journalist Vicki Vale.
After agonizing over a who’s who of 80s icons (Mel Gibson,Kevin Costner, and Bill Murray?) Burton went to a familiar face in Michael Keaton, much to the chagrin of fans. In the end it was the right choice. Keaton brought a more cerebral version of Bruce Wayne, just what the franchise was looking for. But the character that would steal the show (hmm, sound familiar?) was The Joker, played brilliantly by Jack Nicholson. Nicholson had the star power and over-the-top performance quality that fit what Burton needed in Batman’s most popular villain.
What makes Batman stand out is the merchandising, where the real money was made. The film took in a whopping 750 million dollars in this regard, something that the film industry hadn’t seen since Star Wars.
Batman, to this day, ranks as the best installment to many fans. Keaton and Nicholson had great chemistry. It had awesome action sequences, a Bat-Mobile that I swore I would own someday, and was a vast improvement over any of the previous efforts at telling the live-action Batman story. Most importantly it offered the comic book fans what they had been dying to see, a serious effort at showing the winged vigilante – something creator Bob Kane had wanted from the beginning in 1939.
“Ah, the direct approach. I admire that in a man with a mask.”
Burton and Keaton returned to Gotham in the 1992 Batman Returns, this time in a showdown against the Penguin and Catwoman. Batman had his hands full trying to stop the Penguin’s attempts to corrupt the city from within as would-be mayor, not to mention trying to play both lover and fighter to Selina Kyle/Catwoman. The multiple villain platform set a precedent for the following two films, much to the dismay of fans.
Michelle Pfeiffer’s turn as Catwoman was the highlight (if for the suit alone), ironic considering she was nearly cast as Vicki Vale in the original film. Danny Devito came off as a bit too perverted in his attempt at the Penguin, one of the film’s big misses. It also offered the sometimes laughable, acting of Christopher Walken. Walken and his hair took a jab at Donald Trump in his role as Max Shreck, a crooked businessman who gets duped into helping the Penguin run for Mayor.
The film was far darker than the original, this time with Burton’s twisted signature all over it. It made 163 million dollars domestically but left fans and critics angry and confused as to where the franchise was heading. Returns fell somewhere in film limbo, too dark and perverse for child viewers and too unfocused for fans of the original Batman story. Burton and Warner Bros. mutually agreed to part ways after.
Warner Bros. decided to shake things up in a big way for 1995’s Batman Forever, hiring Joel Schumacher to create a more mainstream version. In that context, it was a success as it made 21 million dollars more than Burton’s predecessor. But it was very clear the Batman franchise was beginning to lose any sense of familiarity with the fans. And it wasn’t just Schumacher’s “paint everything neon” sense of directing.
Val Kilmer took on the role of Bruce Wayne and battles Two-Face and The Riddler. Along the way, he meets up with Dr. Chase Meridian, played by Nicole Kidman (who must have put Marilyn Monroe’s film clips on repeat in her trailer). Jim Carrey’s Riddler was spot on, and Tommy Lee Jones gave a decent performance as Two-Face. But one of the single worst performances of all-time comes from Chris O’Donnell as the bratty boy wonder, Robin. As Jane’s Addiction guitarist, Dave Navarro, once stated “the only wonder is how O’Donnell got the part.” Schumacher very clearly was looking for hot actors at the time, and O’Donnell fit that bill.
Forever was a popcorn film in the truest sense of the word. It filled you up while you watched it, but by the end you were ready to get the taste out of your mouth. Sadly, this is due to half of an hour’s worth of footage being cut in order to make the film more viewer friendly. It ended up making the film forgettable.
“This Town Needs an Enema!”
Four words can best sum up Batman and Robin. A Batsuit with nipples. Some people blame the rise of internet critics, who generated negative buzz before the film came out. Others, including George Clooney himself, blame the awful dialogue and arrogant delivery the actors gave. Whatever the reason, Batman and Robin serves as The Phantom Menace of the Batman franchise. It’s an awful film any way you look at it.
The film introduced Alicia Silverstone as Bat-Girl, a decision that tabloids unfairly attacked Silverstone for due to her weight. This time the hero triumvirate would square off against Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy, comic book favorite, Bane, and Mr. Freeze, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in a performance that still makes me cringe. Patrick Stewart was considered for the role and would have brought an air of, let’s say, talent to the part. Add in Elle Macpherson as Wayne’s love interest, and there was just too much content to fit in one film.
Batman and Robin very nearly killed the franchise. When Judgment Day comes all the members involved with this film will probably face a reckoning.
“When you told me your grand plan for saving Gotham, the only thing that stopped me from calling in the men with the white coats was when you said that it wasn’t about thrill-seeking!”
After the failure of Batman and Robin it seemed that the Batman franchise was a dead issue. Countless scripts were thrown around, from a futuristic Batman Beyond to a treatment that had Clint Eastwood as an aging Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Returns. Darren Aronofsky and the Wachowski Brothers were rumored to have been contacted, but it would be Memento director Christopher Nolan who would resurrect the winged warrior in Batman Begins. Nolan envisioned a re-imagining of Batman that would have the audience care for Bruce Wayne. (Imagine that!)
Begins chronicles the origins of Batman and how Bruce Wayne ultimately decided to serve as a force against the dark agents of Gotham. Along the way Wayne faces the emotionally devoid Ra’s Al Ghul in an effort to save Gotham City from extinction.
Nolan also brought together the most solid acting ensemble a Batman film had seen with fan-favorite Christian Bale as an emotionally conflicted Bruce Wayne, Michael Caine as an Alfred for the ages, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Liam Neeson as the ever elusive Henri Ducard/Ra’s Al Ghul, Gary Oldman as the blue collar Sergeant Gordon, and the underrated Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow. Katie Holmes served her purpose as attorney Rachel Dawes but was replaced for the Dark Knight by Maggie Gyllenhaal.
From the darkness within a hero emerges. It’s easily the most complex Batman film to date that leaves us with Batman as a rising heroic figure, Jim Gordon as a Lieutenant, finally setting the stage for a reunion with Bat-fans’ favorite villain, The Joker.
“Let’s put a smile on that face!”
The Batman franchise is not without its faults, but neither is the character himself. It’s a franchise that, like Wayne, is constantly fighting the urge to self-destruct. To think that the hero came so close to his film demise only makes the success that Nolan, Bale, and the late Heath Ledger will certainly have in The Dark Knight more commendable. Where Nolan will take the Batman saga after the next film is uncertain, but at this moment it looks like the story of the caped crusader has never been in better hands.
What is your favorite Batman movie?