'Batman v. Superman': Revisiting the Cinematic History of DC's Dark Knight

Ahead of his return to the big screen this week, it's time to re-examine the long-lived crimefighting career of the Caped Crusader on film.

For a hero who likes to keep to the shadows, Batman has done a pretty poor job of staying away from the movie spotlight.

The DC Entertainment character has no less than nine full-length movies and two movie serials under his utility belt (and that's not counting the straight-to-DVD animated features he's anchored — there have been more than 20 of those to date — nor his appearance in 2014's The Lego Movie), turning his endless fight for justice into big-screen entertainment for audiences across the last seven decades.

With each new screen incarnation of the Dark Knight showing a different side of the man behind the cowl, it's worth revisiting the cinematic history of the hero ahead of his return in this week's Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Which, if any of the following, will Ben Affleck's Batman take after? (Please let it be Adam West. Please.)

Batman (1943)

"A hundred times more thrilling on the screen!" boasted the poster for this 15-part movie serial that took one look at the comic book superhero and thought, what if we inexplicably turn him into a government agent fighting foreign powers at the height of World War II? Yes, the Dark Knight (Lewis Wilson) has to hunt down a Japanese scientist who can turn people into quasi-zombies in this series, but it had its high points, including introducing the Batcave before it ever appeared in the comic books.

Batman and Robin (1949)

Things get back to comic book basics with this six-years-later second serial, which saw Robert Lowery take over as the Caped Crusader, who's thankfully back in Gotham and dealing with a bad guy called the Wizard who can control cars remotely. Also making their onscreen debuts in this go-around: Commissioner Gordon and Vicki Vale, who'd later resurface in Tim Burton's first Bat-outing. It'd be a step in the right direction, were it not a messy, unfocused piece of storytelling.

Batman: The Movie (1966)

The cinematic spinoff of the Adam West TV show — released between the first and second seasons of the small-screen series — has everything that makes the show a camp classic … including all the big-name villains, teaming up to cause trouble for the Dynamic Duo by dehydrating the United World Organization's Security Council and stealing their dust. Ridiculous, over-the-top and a world away from the dark roots of the original character, it was nonetheless the most enjoyable Batman to that point, and remains one of the most fun ever to escape the comic books.

Batman (1989)

By contrast, when Batman returned to theaters more than two decades later, it was in a mode that was so dark as to cross over into its own kind of camp aesthetic. Batman was a milestone in Bat-storytelling, featuring the first time that the movies showed the hero's origin — sorry, Thomas and Martha Wayne — and adopting the "Maybe there's something psychologically wrong with Bruce Wayne" concept that comics of the time were busily working around. Not that anyone remembers that, of course; instead, attention went to the more attention-grabbing aspects: Jack Nicholson's smug Joker, Kim Basinger's one-note Vicki Vale and the Prince soundtrack that barely makes an appearance beyond one memorable scene. Oh, and those amazing art deco/Gothic sets by Anton Furst, which became so popular that DC hired him to redesign the comic book Gotham City.

Batman Returns (1992)

The highlight of the 1980s/1990s Batman era was this movie, however; written by Heathers' Daniel Waters and directed by Burton, it's as camp in its own way as anything from the Adam West '60s era, but also obtuse and complicated, throwing out references to Nosferatu, Christian theology and feminist theory even as it lifts a plot from the '66 TV series ("Hizzoner the Penguin," from the show's second season) and brings Paul Reubens in to play the Penguin's father decades before he portrayed the same character on Fox's Gotham. Definitely the strangest Batman movie to date, and one that feels as much a contrarian response to the expectations surrounding the sequel to a massive franchise smash as anything else.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

For the second time in the character's history, a Batman TV show spinoff makes it into theaters, as this full-length story by the team behind the uber-successful Batman: The Animated Series brought what remains many fans' platonic ideal of the Dark Knight — serious, scary to the bad guys but quietly kind to others — to an audience that hadn't already become bewitched by the retro take on the mythos. Unfortunately, while Batman is up to his usual standards, the villain, a newcomer called the Phantasm, feels forced and inorganic in a way that the show's best episodes didn't.

Batman Forever (1995)

Many fans decry Joel Schumacher's first Batman movie, and there are certainly problems — the neon aesthetic that feels like a 1990s toyline, or the fact that Tommy Lee Jones (as Two-Face) and Jim Carrey (as the Riddler) seemed to be acting in a different movie from everyone else — but this isn't quite as much of a disaster as you might remember. Certainly, Val Kilmer's wooden Bruce Wayne/Batman comes across as far more charming, even when faced with the addition of a far-too-old Robin in the shape of Chris O'Donnell.

Batman & Robin (1997)

Of course, those looking for a disaster need look no further than this masterpiece, in which all that is good — Uma Thurman's arch Poison Ivy, a better-than-everyone-said George Clooney as Bruce Wayne/Batman — is buried under an avalanche of bad ideas, from the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze and Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl to a plot that involves a sick Alfred who just happens to have the same disease as Freeze's wife because coincidence. It was the movie that temporarily sank the franchise, and, if this was the best that could be expected, it kind of deserved to.

Batman Begins (2002)

After a number of failed attempts — including one by Frank Miller and Darren Aronofsky — it took Christopher Nolan to bring Batman back to the screen in a trilogy that veered away from the frenetic cartoon aesthetic of the Schumacher days and toward something far more pretentious and underlit. Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, but thankfully he still had the wherewithal to come up with a loophole that allowed him to kill his mentor-turned-nemesis Liam Neeson. Batman might not kill, but this new cinematic version had no problem being kill-adjacent, a decision that the audience apparently supported given the movie's success.

The Dark Knight (2008)

It was Nolan's second movie that won the hearts and minds of a generation, thanks in no small part to a compelling performance by the then-recently deceased Heath Ledger as a Joker who seemed terrifyingly real (and really terrifying). It was a performance so strong that it dulled the pain of a staggeringly unsubtle allegory for the dangers of Big Brother-esque oversight and the fact that the movie was clearly twice as long as it should have been. (Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent/Two-Face was fine, but, really, would anyone have complained if that story had been in its own movie altogether?)

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

After The Dark Knight, expectations were high for the final part of Nolan's trilogy, which promised to finish the story of Batman once and for all (except for any future movies, or the comic books, or television shows, but you know what they mean). Whether or not Rises met those expectations remains unclear; it lacks anything close to Ledger's Joker in terms of intensity — Tom Hardy's Bane being remembered as much for his indecipherable speech as anything else — but its story is more coherent and lacking the structural problems of its predecessor, so perhaps it's a wash? The highlight of the movie, without a doubt, is Anne Hathaway's Catwoman, a character that almost makes you wish the series could continue even as Bale's Batman seems tired enough to make you long for the end almost as much as he does.

comments powered by Disqus