Batman in Film

Unless you hate fun (or the U.S., commie), you know The Dark Knight Rises marks the culmination of Christopher Nolan’s Batman film trilogy. In my opinion, there’s not enough written about Batman on the Internet. So I decided to take a look back at the history of Batman in film.

Batman (1989)

Every comic-book film now pulling in millions at the box office owes a debt to Batman. It showed Hollywood that a superhero could be taken seriously and be commercially viable.

In stark contrast to the campy 1960s TV series and film starring Adam West, Tim Burton’s take on Batman was much darker. Visually, Burton created a bleak metropolis filled with Gothic and art deco influences.

He also cast Michael Keaton in the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman instead of a more conventional action star. Without context it seems odd, but Keaton proved he could deliver a pretty unhinged performance in his previous Burton project, Beetlejuice.

In Burton’s Gotham City, Batman must stop the underworld’s newest crime boss, the Joker (Jack Nicholson), after he poisons everyday hygiene products in the city. I think most people have the perception, looking back, that Nicholson’s performance was too campy. However, it still holds up as a really strange, unsettling performance.

Also, how awesome is it that Lando Calrissian  is Harvey Dent?

Batman Returns (1992)

Burton followed the critically and commercially successful Batman with Batman Returns. He upped the stakes with the additions of the Penguin (Danny DeVito), Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer).

Really is there anyone more suited to play the Penguin than DeVito? And I’m pretty sure Pfeiffer in that leather Catsuit made me a man. Oh, and Christopher freaking Walken! As far as I’m concerned, he should be in all the movies.

Anyway, Batman Returns weaves three sub-plots into the main story, which climaxes with the kidnapping of the queen of Gotham’s winter festival. It blends themes of tragedy, loss and revenge with Burton’s patented playfulness for a very unique experience.

As one critic put it, Burton “may have created the first blockbuster art film.” Unfortunately, it would be Burton’s last Batman film. The franchise would soon go off the rails.

Batman Forever (1995)

Batman Forever started a period that most Batman fans would like to forget. Warner Brothers became concerned with the the darker tones of Burton’s films and moved toward a family-friendly envisioning of Batman.

Joel Schumaker takes a lot of heat for his Batman movies. I hate to dog pile, but I’m about to… Shumaker took over and promptly ran the franchise into the ground.

Thankfully, Keaton didn’t like the direction the series was headed and got off the sinking ship. Val Kilmer took his place as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones also joined the cast as the villains Riddler and Two-Face respectively.

Basically, Carrey just played the Mask, and I don’t know what the hell was going on with Two-Face. It really says something when the depiction of Two-Face in Batman: The Animated Series is more realistic. Something bad.

Essentially, the film had more in common with the campy 1960s TV show than Burton’s previous efforts, which is to say the plot isn’t particularly important because it’s overshadowed by over-the-top acting and excessively busy set pieces.

Batman & Robin (1997)

Schumaker followed Batman Forever with Batman & Robin in what appeared to be an attempt to never have another Batman film made again. It really was a special confluence of terrible choices. Schumaker and George Clooney have since apologized for their parts in the film.

Clooney took over as Bruce Wayne/Batman, because why not? Chris O’Donnell filled the role of Robin. Several members of Batman’s rogues gallery including Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Bane (Robert Swenson) were added to the film as well.

I don’t even know where to start with how bad Batman & Robin  is. First of all, the plot seems to consist of neon colors and bad puns by Mr. Freeze (“Ice to see you!”). Schumaker undid all the work Batman: The Animated Series did to make Mr. Freeze a tragic character.

Sure, his ill wife was still in the plot (vaguely), but that kind of goes out the window when you make him a musclebound buffoon who says things like “In this universe, there’s only one absolute… everything freezes!” I mean, I  recognize all those words, just not in the order they were arranged. Also, Bane, a highly self-educated criminal mastermind in Batman comics, is relegated to the role of a roided-up goon.

Of course, there’s also the issue of the Batsuit. I guess it needed molded rubber nipples? God knows, someone dressed as a giant flying rodent could use a little panache.  I imagine they were on Wayne’s check list just after cape and Batarangs.

Batman Begins (2005)

After Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, starting from scratch was the only option. Christopher Nolan took over as director and steered the franchise toward its darker roots.

Nolan drew upon Batman comics of the 1980s such as Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, Jeph Loeb’s  BatmanThe Long Halloween and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, as well as Burton’s films.

He created an unseemly, yet surprisingly grounded, world in Batman Begins. Essentially, it’s an origin story that is clearly setting the stage for what would become The Dark Knight. 

Christian Bale perfectly inhabited the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman as he takes down the Falcone crime family, the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) and Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson). The Scarecrow is admittedly a goofy villain that worked better in other mediums (video games and TV), but Murphy’s performance more than made up for that.

Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox and Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon were also inspired casting choices. Katie Holmes seems unsure about 90 percent of her lines and the end of the film gets a bit out-of-hand, but that’s okay. It showed potential for what a superhero movie could be.

The Dark Knight (2008)

Let’s get this out of the way: The Dark Knight is the best superhero film ever made. Batman Begins is a good film, but The Dark Knight far surpassed everyone’s expectations.

The Dark Knight is one of the best cat-and-mouse stories to be told in recent memory. It weaves elements of thriller, noir and action films in a way, frankly, that hasn’t been equaled.

But more than that, The Dark Knight is really an examination of Batman and what it means to be truly “good” or “bad” as he embraces his role as Gotham City’s protector. He must work to end the Joker’s (Heath Ledger) reign of terror while also working to provide the citizens of Gotham with hope.

Of course, it goes without saying (but I will anyway) that Ledger’s performance as the Joker made the film. Aaron Eckhart’s performance as Harvey Dent/Two-Face was also vital. The audience perfectly understands each villain’s motivation without getting bogged down in tedious back stories.

And, yeah, the Joker’s plan makes no sense, but that’s precisely the point. He is the physical manifestation of chaos. He has no end game in mind; his only over-arching goal is to create chaos. Taking that into account, every scheme, ploy and stunt in the film works.

The performances, cinematography and intrigue make The Dark Knight not only the best comic-book film to date, but also one of the best films in the last two decades.

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10 thoughts on “Batman in Film

  1. I agree with you wholeheartedly on everything. I have loved Burton’s version of Batman, but I think Nolan’s is now what I prefer. And, like you, there are the two in the middle that I’d rather forget… I’d love to hear your take on the newest of Nolan’s Batman films.

  2. This is a great timeline of the peaks and valleys of Batman films to date, and I am very excited to hear your thoughts on The Dark Knight Rises! I have a true appreciation for the dark, yet very realistic, elements Burton and Nolan brought to their film renditions of the comic books. Nice work!

  3. Jamie says:

    I see that you have held off on Dark Knight Rises to give everyone a chance to see it, but I am very anxious to hear your review of it. I love your reviews here, and enjoyed this film a lot.

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