A Look Back on Batman Movies

This is an article I wrote back in 2012 for the release of The Dark Knight Rises. I have edited it, and added my thoughts on Rises. Spoilers may follow.

When Batman v Superman was released this year, many were disappointed. A cinematic meeting between two of the greatest heroes in history should have been more spectacular than it was; the final film was riddled with plot holes, a confusing story and an attempt to catch up with Marvel. However, most people did find redeeming qualities to it; many liked Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, though she appeared very little, and they liked Ben Affleck’s performance as Batman. Though him killing criminals was a departure for the character, Affleck’s acting as a darker, nastier Batman was a pleasant surprise. That movie is far from the first time the Dark Knight has graced the silver screen, however. Batman is such a fascinating figure that many have been tempted to tell tales about him and his exploits, as well as those of his varied and colourful rogues’ gallery.

Batman has featured in a multitude of movies, from serials in the 1940s to direct-to-video cartoons, but there have been seven theatrical films that can be called ‘major’: the tie-in to the infamous 60’s series, the quadrilogy that started magnificently only to end with a titter, and the revered Chris Nolan movies. This article will look at each of those movies and give them their own brief review.

Batman: The Movie (1966): The Batman television show of the 1960s, starring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin, may be seen by many as the type of cartoonish superheroics that modern films should be trying to distance themselves from, but it still plays a significant role in Batman’s history. It kept comic sales alive due to its popularity, and still manages to be a delight to watch even today, if only because it is a hilarious contrast to the modern-day, darker Batman movies.

Comic books today are in some ways as ridiculous as they were yesteryear; there are still talking monkeys and space aliens and a man in blue pyjamas who can fly and shoot eye-lasers. The Brave and the Bold cartoon prided itself on exploring and celebrating the hilariously surreal world of the funny pages, but the Batman TV show and the subsequent movie did so first (even though it was apparently campy because the man behind it hated comics). One of its prominent traits is common to nearly every Batman adaptation: the villains are more worthy of screentime than Batman himself.

To a child playing with his action figures, the ultimate battle for any hero would be if a selection of villains teamed up to take over the world. Batman the Movie utilised this line of thought, as the main draw to that movie was to see the series’ biggest four villains joining forces: Joker (Cesar Romero), Penguin (Burgess Meredith), Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and Catwoman (Lee Meriweather, substituting for Julie Newmar). Their plan in the movie is to seize a ray that can dehydrate people into dust and use it on the United Nations. They are equipped with other interesting devices such as flying umbrellas and a penguin-shaped submarine. Along the way, they even manage to have some amusing interactions with each other (‘We’re about as united as the United World Organisation!’)

As with all good comic book villains, the fearsome foursome steal the show, but the real main draw to the movie is seeing West and Ward’s reactions to the situation. These days, Batman may be regarded as a serious detective, but the way the dynamic duo deduce the perpetrators of the plot (‘They were at sea! C for Catwoman!) is hysterical. The centrepiece of the entire movie is the iconic moment where Batman attempts to dispose of a spherical bomb.

There is no deeper meanings to the 60s Batman movie. It plays out like an extended episode of the series, onomatopoeia fights and all. Yet it remains a very guilty pleasure.

Batman (1989): When the 1960s TV series was cancelled, the Batman comics began to tell darker stories. However, while DC published stories like The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge and The Killing Joke, the general public still had some trouble shaking the image of Adam West’s Batman. In 1989, however, a new take on the caped crusader emerged, re-imagining Batman as a dark, tormented figure for pop culture consumption.

Batman was directed by Tim Burton and starred Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, with the latter taking top billing over the former. Gone was the sunny, optimistic Gotham of the TV series, replaced with an amalgamation of architectural styles blended together in a nightmarishly claustrophobic city. Like most Burton movies, Batman succeeds mainly at being a visual feast, with the Joker’s flamboyant costume striking against the murky backdrops and the criminal underworld existing in what looks like an urban Tartarus.

There may have been some trepidation regarding Keaton’s casting as Batman, but though his performance as Bruce Wayne is lacking, he makes a fine Batman indeed. He truly comes off as an antihero consumed by his inner demons, though at times it seems he is rather too good in that department. This is a more ruthless Batman, killing people left and right, ultimately resulting in the demise of the Joker and not even playing nicely with the police.

Jack Nicholson may simultaneously be the best and the worst thing about the movie. His Joker costume, with its plaid trousers and smart blazer is marvellously appropriate for his character, and he is a lot of fun to watch, but one can never shake the feeling that it is just Jack playing himself. There are too many scenes where he is sans his clown-white skin, all to show off Nicholson’s face, and there is little to distinguish the Joker from someone like Randall McMurphy. He is a character who demands attention, but takes too much of it away from Keaton’s Batman, who seems a more interesting character.

Despite some minor quibbles, Batman is still successful in what it set out to do, and because of its success, it spawned three sequels of varying quality.

Batman Returns (1992): Batman Returns is probably the strongest of the quadrilogy, despite the fact that it feels more like a Burton movie than a Batman movie. The themes of being an outcast and the cruelty of the world are carried from Edward Scissorhands, as is the tone of the music and the sets. In fact, it might be because it feels like a Burton movie that Returns is the strongest; one can tell he was having more fun with it than he was with its predecessor.

While 1989’s Joker was Nicholson through and through, one can watch Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny Devito and actually feel like they’re watching Catwoman and the Penguin, albeit slightly different from the comic characters. In previous Batman stories, the Penguin was a sophisticated criminal genius, but here, he is a sewer-dwelling monstrosity, wishing revenge upon the world that abandoned him. DeVito does a commendable job at playing a more tragic villain, though this type of character would be done better in The Dark Knight with Two-Face. Sadly sometimes DeVito lapses into cartoonish super-villainy. The silly plot devices of the 60’s weren’t completely dead, if the missile-toting penguins were any indication.

Michelle Pfeiffer was the film’s strongest point, and may have even turned in the strongest performance of all four films in the franchise. Her Catwoman was demented and broken, but still oozes a sultrily sinister personality. The first film may have been pitted a dark soul against a cheerful lunatic, but the hero and his villains here are all tormented in their own way, their pain cemented through Elfman’s sullen tunes, more beautiful than his work for the previous movie.

The Batman in Batman Returns is even more dangerous and fearsome than he was in Batman, continuing his murderous rampage against criminals. In fact, he even straps a bomb to a goon and smiles maliciously about it. This could potentially turn off new viewers expecting a more heroic Batman, but Keaton continues his marvellous work with the character, especially when acting against Pfeiffer.

Batman Forever (1995): Batman Returns was not for everybody, however, so the third film had to take on a lighter tone. Not only that, but Burton and Keaton left the series, leaving Joel Schumacher as the new director and Val Kilmer as the new Batman.

Batman Forever feels like a film full of missed opportunities. It features the big-screen debut of Two-Face, one of Batman’s more complex and sympathetic foes, who is turned into a second-rate copy of the Joker with a coin gimmick. Tommy Lee Jones could have realised the character well, but the writing reduces him to a giggling, dancing imbecile. The film tells the origin of Batman’s famous sidekick Robin, and was supposed to delve more into Batman’s psychology than the previous two movies, but sadly, this too was botched up. Chris O’Donnell’s Robin was in his twenties, meaning the traditional father-son dynamic between Batman and Robin felt strange, and many of the scenes expanding on Batman ended up on the cutting room floor.

It did not help that Kilmer’s Batman and Bruce Wayne felt rather flat and lifeless, as did O’Donnell’s Robin. The only performance that’s really entertaining is Jim Carrey as the Riddler; like Nicholson’s Joker, he is more like his actor than his comic-book inspiration but still a joy to view. Nowhere near as good a Riddler as Frank Gorshin in 1966, but still enjoyable.

The less said about Batman and Robin, the better.

Batman Begins (2005): It took eight years for a new Batman film to grace the screens, but Batman Begins was truly something special. It showed a new step in the evolution of live-action Batman, as the series now promised to be more realistic and introspective. The movie was in more-than-able hands: Chris Nolan, a master of the psychological thriller, was director, and Christian Bale, who had previously played the main roles of The Machinist and American Psycho with fantastic vigour, was in the role of Batman. Even the mere inclusion of Michael Caine (Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred) and Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox, who invents Batman’s gadgets) signified a new prestige in the series.

Batman Begins was the first Batman movie where Batman truly was the main character (unless one counts the theatrically-released animated movie Mask of the Phantasm), and what a Batman this is. As opposed to Michael Keaton, Bale is better as Bruce Wayne than he is as Batman. His Batman has a voice that has been ridiculed to kingdom come, but his Bruce Wayne, when pretending to be a lazy good-for-nothing millionaire, is actually convincing and his private, reflective brooding is similarly genuine.

Another thing Batman Begins has that its forbears lacked is a strong supporting cast. The late Michael Gough was a brilliant Alfred for all four of the original movies (even appearing in a radio play based on the Knightfall comic) but Michael Caine is the perfect father figure to Bruce – constantly keeping his inner demons in check. Commissioner Gordon is usually an overlooked character in Batman adaptations, but as played by Gary Oldman, he is given a character arc of his own, and feels a true friend to Batman.

Even a character as underutilized by Batman stories as Lucius Fox is given a chance to shine, as Morgan Freeman brings forth his trademark warmth and manages to get in some amusing lines. Sadly, the supporting cast do bring flaws of their own; the likes of Alfred and Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) deliver speeches that spell out the themes of the movie rather than let the audience figure it out for themselves, and some offer some groan-worthy comic relief (‘I’ve gotta get me one of those’, says Gordon about the Batmobile). It is the interactions between Batman and his friends that keep the movie interesting.

The villains of this piece are the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) and Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson). They are villains from the comics, but not well-known to the general public. Their obscurity shows how far the Batman franchise has come; they are there not to tickle the fancy of nerds, but because they best serve the story. Batman Begins is about Batman trying to strike fear into the criminal mind, so what a fitting counterpart the Scarecrow makes. Ra’s Al Ghul is there to challenge Batman’s ideals and save Gotham in his own way. Neither villain is characterised deeply, but they don’t need to be.

The Dark Knight (2008): The golden rule of the 60s TV series – the villain is more interesting than Batman – struck back when The Dark Knight came around. The focus swerved away from Bale’s Batman and towards the Joker as portrayed by the late Heath Ledger, and Two-Face as portrayed by Aaron Eckhart. Indeed, The Dark Knight is said to also refer to Harvey Dent, Gotham’s ‘White Knight’ fallen from grace.

Jack Nicholson’s Joker was just Nicholson being himself; there was nothing about him, except for maybe him killing the Waynes, that convinced anyone that he was the greatest villain Batman had ever faced. DeVito’s Penguin was a lot more sinister. Ledger’s Joker, however, is something unique.

Not only does he earn his position as Batman’s most terrifying foe by his nihilistic philosophy and apathy towards murder, it is hard to believe that he is even human. He is Satan given makeup-smeared flesh, tempting the once-noble Harvey Dent into a life of madness and trying to warp Batman’s mind through a twisted admiration. He pays homage to the Jokers of old – he has the multiple-past device of The Killing Joke, the calling card of the Joker’s first appearance – but Ledger and Nolan have made their Joker their own.

The other villain, Two-Face, is played with similar vigour by Aaron Eckhart. In his first moments, Eckhart succeeds at creating nobility that contrasts with his fate, but doesn’t forget to give the character a dark side even if he does descend into melodrama (‘You can’t give in!’)

Batman and the rest of the supporting cast is as strong as ever, even if they still have the tendency to launch into speeches about the general themes of the films, but at least those speeches are well-delivered. Christian Bale’s Batman is now as fascinating to watch as his Bruce Wayne, especially in his moments of frustration and anguish at what the Joker has done. One stand-out performance in particular is Gary Oldman’s Gordon, as he makes the character even more three-dimensional and likeable than he probably has ever been before. Once more, he makes the ending worth watching.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012): The Dark Knight was a tough act to follow, but while The Dark Knight Rises wasn’t as good as its predecessor, it was still a solid conclusion to Chris Nolan’s trilogy.

Bale, Oldman and the other heroes were still on top form, and the newcomers – Tom Hardy as Bane and Anne Hathaway as Catwoman – were equally impressive. Bane had some similarities to the Joker – he does try to bring anarchy to the city – yet never came off as a poor man’s version of the character. Tom Hardy gives the character a powerful, regal air, striding proudly towards his foe. Anne Hathaway is a welcome addition as well, creating a playful and enjoyable character.

It is a shame then, that the plot revolves around a ticking time-bomb capable of destroying the entire city. More or less every reviewer made a joke about how “some days you can’t get rid of a bomb”, and truly, it does feel too much of a cartoon for a series of this calibre. The film still does boast some fine action and great performances, it just feels there is something missing.

This wasn’t the end of Batman on film, for not only have we had Batman v Superman, Batman is set to appear in the upcoming Suicide Squad film and that same Batman will even be having his own solo film in the future.

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Author: jabberw

A writer of short stories and reviews, who likes to dabble in other creative media as well.

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