As the culmination of unparalleled expectation approaches, Christopher Nolan is set to demolish all sorts of unprecedented box office records. Now often considered to be the definitive Batman film series, there’s an ingredient of subjectivity that comes along with comparing and contrasting one artist to the next. After all, Nolan didn’t so much make Batman as much as Batman made Nolan, no one artistic representation outliving the caricature itself. So to celebrate the enduring livelihood of the Dark Knight, alongside his latest cinematic expose, here’s a retrospective look at each and every theatrical variation leading into the Dark Knight trilogy.
Batman: The Serials – One of the greatest misconceptions spouted around Batman lore is that the Tim Burton driven 1989 motion picture was the original big-screen adventure. For those a little more versed, it’s incorrectly credited as belonging to the live-action television series spin-off. Escalating into hardcore nerd trivia territory, diehards will identify Adam West as the oldest of the memorable movie Batmen…but not the original. In fact, he’s not even the second.
Starring in serial adventures decades before Adam was begging Julie Newmar to ride down his bat pole, Lewis Wilson (1943) and Robert Lowery (1949) had the honor of portraying the pointy-eared protagonist. Granted they’re famous in that cast of “Dancing with the Stars” way, but do you really expect this to be fondly cherished?
Presented in episodic format, each theatrical installment was composed of shifty-eyed racial slurs and barrel-chested pajama-wearing cliffhangers to stoke the WWII era morale. Ignored are the likes of the clown prince of crime, Batman and Robin are now government agents sponsored to tame the Axes. In a giant middle finger to Bob Kane, there’s no indication of their tragically orphaned background. With their psychological trauma omitted, their primary motivation (as any good Christian American at the time) is placed upon mere patriotism. Their new democracy-destroying villain archive included the likes of Japanese mad scientists (subtly portrayed by white actors) bent upon obtaining world domination via real world nationalistic issues of the time. You know, like death rays and mind-controlled zombies.
Riddled with more shameless and blatant propaganda spin than a Rush Limbaugh production, these serials felt more like brainwashing B-movies than the brooding guardian of Gotham we know and love. Yet for all their absurdist Reefer Madness-like exploitation qualities, they’re surprisingly responsible for the induction of two of the most pivotal load-bearing girders in the mythos. You can thank the serials for the iconic Wayne butler, prior an overweight, bumbling, and sleuthing Sherlock wannabe by the name of Alfred Beagle, and the batcave, something that only vaguely existed beforehand as an ever inconspicuous…ah…barn.
Batman (1966) – In the wake of fashionable pseudo-realism, it seems the campy era of the caped crusader has been mostly thrown to the wayside. Televisions first syndicated live-action Batman may have aged about as gracefully as Burt Ward’s career, but one thing remains undeniable. The 1960’s Batman really put the “POW!” into our childhoods. For all the distaste it left in the mouths of the grit-loving aficionados, all too often do we forget that the series was responsible for a surge in popularity that rescued the comic from certain cancellation. Holy close call, Batman!
Popularity led to demand, demand led to a motion picture, and the motion picture led to many groans. Batman (1966) brought together the likes of the dynamic duo’s most iconic rogues. Joker, Catwoman, Riddler, and Penguin were united in an attempt to eliminate the world’s water supply, a plot pivoting upon their newly invented dehydrator machine. What commenced is almost two full hours of more shenanigans than ever legitimate drama, mischievousness over sincere maliciousness, and a handy repellant for any sort of antagonistic scuffle, offering a quick scape-goat out of a bat-bind.
While it may not be the preference of many bat-fanatics today, Batman (1966) and the corresponding series have undeniably carved themselves a relevant statue worthy of displaying in any batcave. Faithfully representing the comics of its generation, our youths ensure that this interpretation will forever remain unforgettable…despite sometimes (admittedly) wanting to forget. In the immortal words of Adam West, “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.” Watching it may feel like a trial in masochism, but this bomb is sure to exploding with pun-filled blasts of guilty pleasures and nostalgia nonetheless.
Batman (1989) and Batman Returns – By the early 1970’s, DC writer Dennis O’Neil had reestablished the Batman as the psychologically complex and atmospherically gloomy story it originally was. This however was predominately unknown to the general public; Adam West’s satirical interpretation still reigned as the generational first association. Tim Burton became responsible for socially removing the corn. By initiating the more faithful and Gothic version into the public consciousness, he introducing casual audiences to what comic readers were already blatantly aware of. Batman was never conceptually intended to be nor was no longer going to be mere kids stuff.
Batman (1989) met early outrage. Primarily viewed as a comedy actor, Michael Keaton’s casting mislead fans into believe that the film would ape the tacky nature of the television show. Upon the release of the trailer, opinions drastically changed. Heavily deriving from his first year of publication, the Keaton iteration was more the ominous urban myth that perched like a shadowy rooftop gargoyle than any happy-go-lucky public personality. Like the 1939 original, this adaptation even occasionally had homicidal tendencies, unlike that self-made code of ethics he’s now infamously known to rigidly follow. Paralleling this performance was his joint role as Bruce Wayne, strangely misplayed as a reclusive eccentric far more than the millionaire playboy.
Oddly billed before the titular hero himself, the Harlequin of Hate was the obligatory choice for the first big budget-caliber movie. Pulling from 70’s comic based depictions, DC’s Joker had amalgamated the original 40’s straight-up serial killer and the foolishly gimmicky clown criminal of the 50’s and 60’s into one gravitational entity. Not to be overshadowed, Jack Nicholson pulls out all stops with his legendary perversion of the prior Cesar Romero. He’s flamboyantly funny while sardonically murdering time and again on seemingly nothing but whim. He delivers no less than one of the all-time great performances in villainy. Due to this exceptional presentation, perhaps too good, the audience ends up vicariously rooting for the bad guy, directly resulting in a continuing trend seen in the original blockbuster series. Villains became debatably more emphasized than Batman himself, the title role making only comings and goings throughout the narratives and never having any elaborate firsthand account of the origin story.
Erupting into some of the first templates for the event blockbuster as we’ve come to know it, the summer of 1989 in particular became dubbed as the summer of Batman. Granting an overwhelming visceral experience that beautifully styles after German expressionistic noir, Batman (1989) has, perhaps more than any other of his live-action adaptations, the genuine thrill of a classic DC comic book uplifted from the ink. This makes it, more often than not, easy to forgive its sporadic flaws. Regardless of the warts, Tim Burton’s most significant importance to the canon at large was in being the first great motivational force behind getting culture to finally accept Batman as once again serious, paving the way for the continuation (albeit shaken a few times) of its intellectual and artistic future.
Reaping the benefits of success, Tim Burton negotiated near complete artistic control on the inevitable sequel. Batman Returns may offer a bit too much Goth and not enough Gotham…but heralds the return nevertheless. Founding the superhero movie plague of over-saturated super villains, the script is swamped with one too many enemies for our now tagged-on hero to do much more than just simply react to. Batman is, once again, tossed to the wayside.
De Vito’s Penguin is, by his own rights, at least an intriguing grotesque, but from the tainted point-of-view of a comic fan, is almost unforgivably mutated (figuratively and literally) into something barely resembling the page. When once he was known for verbosely sophisticated soliloquies, our regal gentleman’s crook is now a crude and disgusting distortion. Side-kicked by a gang of circus freaks, seemingly just an uninspired left-over from the better achievement of Nicholson’s Joker; he’s also paired with the made-for-convenience industrialist Max Shreck. In many ways, Shreck feels more richly wicked than any other antagonist, offering a resonating real-world corporate evil to counterbalance the exaggerated.
Last but certainly not least, Michelle Pfeiffer is crowned this films scene-stealer. With her not especially explored origin status in the comics causing slightly awkward issues for the script, she’s given a contrasting homebody secretary bio to strongly oppose her eventual broken psyche. Despite this mismatch with nonsensically abrupt Olympic gymnast talents, we could look past her plot-handy shortcomings and have a provocatively good time watching this Selina Kyle whip her way to revenge. Suffice it to say, the pure aesthetics of Catwoman were certainly to blame for many teenage boys…ah…spilled milk. While the anti-hero femme fatale was first intended to be given her own individual spin-off film, explaining the somewhat open-ended climax for the character, Warner Brothers opted out, instead years later resulting in the abomination featuring Halle Berry…which I personally apologize for mentioning at all.
Ultimately Batman Returns didn’t garner remotely as much box office success (financially or critically) as its predecessor, disappointingly being filmed with a budget nearly twice as much. In part this was due to ignorant parents still hold onto the prejudiced that comic book superheroes are inherently juvenile. Upon taking their children to the theater, they were livid with how apparently nightmarish the final product was, an offense so severe that it actually resulted in McDonalds pulling the tie-in Happy Meal toys from their restaurants. In turn this trickled down to Warner Brothers opting to go a more family-friendly route with the presumed third installment, the studio perhaps overly-panicking at the mediocre turnout of its second Bat undertaking as it politely asked Burton to step down to producer. Yet for being a relatively mixed bag of emotions that resulted in the nail hammered into the temporary coffin of more adult interpretations, Batman Returns does offer goodies, particularly in the haunting Danny Elfman score, the imagery, and with, once again, the domineering performance of Pfeiffer.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm – Likely due to not being live-action, oftentimes omitted from lists is arguably the most true to the spirit of Bob Kane and Bill Finger iteration. With the financial success of the Burton franchise helping to green light what would eventually be one of the most acclaimed cartoons of all-time, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series ventured to the popcorn venue. Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill once again etch themselves as being synonymous with and the default voices for their roles, now the go-to vocalization for an entire generation of comic book readers. Swaddled by the genius that is Shirley Walker’s choir-fused score, the plot is guided by the spectral-like Phantasm, scourge to the Gotham underworld. While being a made-up role only having allusions to Batman: Year Two’s Reaper, it so tuned into the wavelengths of the 1939 comic atmosphere that the ghastly entity feels comfortably at home. Carrying a resonating maturity and stylization that echoed the 20’s and 30’s retro-noir pulps that inspired his creators, Mask of the Phantasm is nothing short of a criminally underrated art deco masterpiece.
Batman Forever and Batman and Robin – In the post Burton city of Gotham, WB felt obligated to lighten the material. Picked to captain the ship destined to hit icebergs, Joel Schumacher began writing his notoriously sub-par chapter of the Batman legend. Due to the controversy sparked by the macabre elements of Batman Returns, parental assumption deeming it inappropriate for children viewers; it was elected to go far more dynamic duo and far less dark knight. So came to be how Gotham was drown in more black lights than Cheech and Chong’s college dorm and the bat-suit now bore Romanesque bat-nipples.
In sincere fairness, the Schumacher era does reflect a time of the comics that isn’t so much inaccurate as it is just willfully forgotten. Of course, that’s not to say this is my defense. It’s certainly with its fair share of departures. Reflecting the classic live-action television series right down to cinematography, kid-friendliness was wing-manned by so-called “toyetics,” meaning what you create offers itself to marketable toys. This was prioritized above literary responsibilities, directly resulting in essentially glorified commercials. Mirroring the fluctuating instability of the characters history in print, Batman once again regressed. In fact, it’s notable that Schumacher often encouraged his actors and crew to remember they’re making nothing but what he considered to be a cartoon…ironic that the animation of the time presented far more depth.
Batman himself is, now expectedly, swept under the rug in favor of literally everyone else. Val Kilmer now replaces Keaton, the short-lived one-and-done actor. Staggeringly flat, he delivers wooden scene after scene in either ego or alter ego, possibly a result of the conflicts he had with the direction. With competitive blandness is his successor, George Clooney, playing Batman with such monotonous casualty that it’s almost as if he’s entirely unaware of being in a skin-tight rubber body suit.
Now inducted into the hall of shame, Robin was translated to the modern in very questionable ways. While Chris O’Donnell’s boy wonder may be older than the original Dick Grayson, the character has always been problematic when viewed from a real world context. The partnership shared between Bruce and his numerous wards is one of presumptuous content, offering more in-the-closet snickers than serious material to contemporary viewers. He doesn’t seem to have aged especially well, which is exactly how Batman Forever presents him. He’s this one-noted ball of feisty teenage angst, shoe-horned in for classic appeasement and glorified convenience than ever any real necessity. Any salvation in the eyes of Robin detractors registered nonexistent for the foreseeable future.
Weighed down by yet more over-the-top portrayals of seemingly less truthful and more just two-bit Joker Xerox copies, the 90’s film era of super-criminals gifted the coup de grace to the franchise at large. Biting off the shtick established by Nicholson became the de facto tradition. That’s not to say even that’s necessarily imprecise, particularly in the regard of the freakishly Gorshin-like channeling of Jim Carry’s caffeinated Riddler, so much as it just feels stale. Replacing the long-forgotten Billy Dee William’s, Tommy Lee Jones exposed a far less gruesome Two-Face, hamming up the split-persona with only sporadic obedience toward his fateful coin. Possibly the best of the bottom of the barrel, Uma Thurman at least attempts redemption in her role as Poison Ivy, though hard to recognize when constantly counteracted by a downright humiliating script and her partner, a degraded meat-head misinterpretation of Bane. Reaching the foremost notoriety, the Arnold Schwarzenegger jape of Mr. Freeze seems to, summed up, only really contribute puns that would make the 60’s Batman blush. Character development was given…the cold shoulder.
Joel Schumacher imbued the Batman franchise with a kind of marketable Hollywood shamelessness, largely in part due to studio guidance. Despite mediocre to abysmal reviews, both films still rode off the brand name to become acceptably financially successful despite their shortcomings. Hypocritical though it may be to appreciate the satirical simplicity of Batman (1966), it’s judged by the criteria of its time. So in a more enlightened day, there seems to be an unsaid responsibility that idealistically believes we should know better. That we are better. That we deserve better. Schumacher apparently didn’t know better. He apparently wasn’t better. He even retrospectively feels we deserved better, resulting in a very public apology on the Batman and Robin DVD. Hard to believe, the studio pressured another film set to star the rumored Steve Buscemi as Scarecrow, a hold over for the revamp. Thankfully the reception obliterated that surefire flop. Consequently Schumacher took comic book cinema two steps backward on the spectrum of academic respectability, being held accountable for the suicide of the original series, now forever an embarrassment that dangerously approaches offensive.
Batman Begins and The Dark Knight – Reboot has become a relatively controversial term, especially in the nerd community. They’re accused of being everywhere from unoriginal to premature, unnecessary to impossibly successful. Yet with what remained, if anything whatsoever, of the Batman franchise, I don’t think anyone was opposed to starting afresh. The bat was out of the belfry.
The Christopher Nolan world of so-called realism is a somewhat faux misnomer. When last I looked, men don’t wear pointy-eared suits and jump off rooftops, encounter dozens of opponents and somehow live to tell the tale, and stop fiends with burlap sacks on their heads. If this is a daily occurrence in your city, please…I’d like citizenship. No, instead I label it heightened reality, where it’s still predominately fantasy, just underlined with a sense of practicality. Try to think of the mindset as applying a grounded standard to the fantastical, not pragmatism itself.
The overwhelming novelty of Batman Begins is that, for the very first time, the film actually focuses and stars Bruce Wayne, flash-backing his history and training with the now adapted Ra’s al Ghul, a modification that feels so natural it might as well have always been. Apart from the now infamous throat cancer growl, what Christian Bale gave us approached universal praise for its humanization, exploring each archetypal characteristic with real-world basics. We’re finally given an on-film answer to where he gets all his wonderful toys, how he’s so deviously capable in battle and an inkling of his detective brilliance and now far more identifiable motivation. Batman doesn’t feel like a vessel, here he feels like a person who’s masked by a facade Billionaire buffoon. At long last, Batman himself is in the spotlight, feeling far more the genuine man than he ever does out of costume.
Expanding the character base, both Alfred and Gordon become less throwaway and now evolve into fleshed out story arc roles themselves. Masterfully crafted by Gary Oldman, the sympathetic Lieutenant promotes into the brazened Commissioner as the trilogy progresses; always racing to catch up and control a world he doesn’t quite recognize anymore. Balance by the home presence of the beloved butler, Michael Caine’s grandfatherly surrogate figure pulls at heartstrings instead of being shuffled off as just mere employee. Emphasize is the importance of the usually ignored Wayne Enterprises, now overlooked by the secretly aiding Lucius Fox. Gotham was now gifted a livelihood beyond cardboard cutout GCPD and mobsters.
With the sleeper hit that was Begins, a humble little follow-up was released. You just may have heard of it. The Dark Knight, sometimes unfairly dismissed as just leeching off of the premature death of Heath Ledger, became a powerhouse phenomenon for the record books that bent the lines segregating blockbuster from art. The on-screen return of the clown prince of crime was fated to be triumphant, displaying the cultural significance of what may be the greatest villain in the history of literary fiction. Beginning with large amounts of criticism, most fans were dubious about the now make-up wearing Joker. Yet upon seeing this version firsthand, the actor was honored with numerous postmortem awards.
Like Nicholson of his day, the clown theatrically owns every scene he’s present in. Deriving more from the 1940 debut, this Harlequin is a terroristic homicidal maniac of mockery more than ever gag-dependent prankster. Well…pencil aside. Though not offering global threats like the League of Shadows, the jester terrifies on a far more personal level. Paralleled by his ace in the hole, Harvey Dent takes the every-man role as it’s guided into his foreseeable dual tragedy and horror. Uncomfortably commentating on a post 911 world, the modern era of film foes exploits our phobic and paranoid instability in remarkably reflective ways, speaking to a much broader demographic.
As the lifelong Batman fan I am, there’s a level of disheartening that came along with Christopher Nolan’s masterpieces. And make no mistake; they are Batman’s magnum opus. This did however breed a new sort of fandom that in some regards missed the overwhelming theme of the modern trilogy. There’s a kind of fanatical insanity (resulting in death threats to all naysayers) this series brought about through the phenomenon. Now sparked is this sort of holier than thou egotism in the community. It’s as if this is now considered the only relevant and intellectual interpretation and the character should forever onward be retired from film. At the risk of subjecting myself to hate mail…there’s a blinding delusion of grandeur. I hate to break it to some of you, but they’re not perfect.
The Achilles heel of these films is that they sometimes come off somewhat pandering and pretentious, stoking this arrogant fan mentality. The Joker character is quite literally spoon feeding the audience every moral and theme he represents – beating us over the head time and time again as if we’re incapable of recognizing it for ourselves. I’m left waiting for Batman to spout “Joker, you’re such an ironic foe, taking the archetype of the fool and perverting it into a homicidal maniac!” Then everyone praises it for the supposed unique depth it carries, not because it’s actually all that poignant and exclusive…but because they’re simply told it is. For all the genius included within the Nolan logo, the Dark Knight universe being definitive is just a regurgitation of popular opinion and personal preference more than it’s ever been an undeniable fact.
With the trilogy coming to a close as of today, I think it’s vital that we recognize that Nolan may very well have delivered us the default version as of now…but that one of the resounding themes of the latest franchise breaks into our universe. Batman will live on. As history shows, the caped crusader will, of course, come to again be rebooted steadily through the barreling future. If not sooner, certainly later, and that’s no sacrilegious offense. That’s the natural progression of icons, adapting and re-adapting to the topical surroundings of the present, ingraining within them an applicability to secure their mythological undying. Batman has risen above being any one narrow interpretation. He’s a symbol, an idea that will immortally outlive any one artist or writer. He’s destined to endure onward. This melancholic goodbye is merely temporary. The Dark Knight will everlastingly ride on.