I think its safe to assume that most people hold a special place in their heart for the highly revered, iconic, and timeless superhero Batman. What’s not to like about a tortured soul who dons black leather boots, bat ears (which, in my youth, I referred to as “Horns”) and a cape so he can covertly stalk villianous men and women in the dark? Though the origins of Batman’s tale is immensely compelling in its own right, the most interesting thing about him is the simple fact that he has zero superpowers. Sure, he may be a financial superpower and therefore has access to high-tech “toys”, but these are mere instruments that a man must wield. This man, Bruce Wayne, becomes Batman when he puts on the suit. The suit is just a shell of the man beneath it. Therefore, what makes for a good Batman must start with the man behind the mask.
In 1966, Batman swung from the comic book medium into the living rooms of America with the release of ABC’s television series BATMAN, starring Adam West. Later that year (between season 1 and 2), ABC released theatrically the first Batman film. Staying true to Bob Kane’s (creator of Batman) form, the tv series and film were both campy and delightfully energetic. These were never taken seriously, though Adam West now claims that the nature of the program was originally conceived as a parody (yeah right). Logistics now withstanding, West made for a fun and breezy Batman. He fit perfectly into the mold of the character at the time, a light and fantastical character easily accessible by the American audience. It wasn’t until comic-book scribe Frank Miller re-invented Batman in the mid 80’s that the story’s dark roots became apparent, and all for the better.
Tim Burton took a nod to Frank Miller’s vision with the seminal 1989 film BATMAN, which reintroduced audiences to the character in a much darker and more violent light than they had seen in the past. The film was a massive box-office sucess due to Burton’s assured direction, impeccably sinister set design, and a brilliant turn by Michael Keaton. Keaton truly captured the haunted persona of Bruce Wayne, channeling this harrowing energy into a character that shattered audiences perceptions of what Batman could be. He was a violent, ingenious, yet collected hero who lived only to eviscerate the plague of Gotham City: Crime.
BATMAN RETURNS, aptly named, was more of the same. Slightly darker in tone but no less electrifying, Burton and Keaton’s second romp was as good as the first. No mere cash in, Keaton lent the character considerable more depth than in the original. He had to deal with a city on the brink of implosion while still juggling his “Civic Duties” and dualing identities. He played a motivated, yet morally conflicted “Batman” that relied as much on his wit as his grappling hook to survive. It allowed the audience to suspend disbelief in favor of sympathy for the shadowy hero.
Enter Joel Schumacher, the man who nearly annihilated the entire franchise. While I will go on the record and say that I liked Val Kilmer as Batman in BATMAN FOREVER, George Clooney was so bad in BATMAN AND ROBIN that it was scary. How did he ever get this role? And on top of that, how did Akiva Goldsman’s script ever get greenlit? Sure, BATMAN AND ROBIN was a homage of sorts to West’s “Batman”, but Clooney couldn’t even nail that simple task. He delivered his lines flatly and without a trace of personality, entirely outshone by the pitifully cartoonish sets that surrounded him. Further still, the script didn’t allow much room for character development, forgoing the core of what makes Batman films so great. Gadgets and explosions are all fine and dandy, but a human element is necessary to make any story truly interesting. Kilmer, though nowhere near as good as Keaton, at least physically looked the part and actually added some nuance and inflection to his speech patterns. Additionally, he played off quite convincingly the moral conundrum at the center of BATMAN FOREVER: Will Batman expose himself when faced with the death of an innocent, or will he continue to hide amongst the shadows? Featuring a slightly smarter script (note: slightly), less outrageous set design, and characters with actual arcs, Schumacher and Kilmer’s FOREVER made for a far superior team than Clooney and co.
With the Batman franchise at an all time low, Warner Brothers needed to take it in an innovative new direction to maintain its integrity. With Christopher Nolan at the helm, the series was injected with a much needed breath of fresh air. BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT were both stupendous Batman stories that favored story over action. The action that was present was appropriately gritty and supplementary to the modern take on the story. Most important, though, was Christian Bale’s interpretation of the Hero. He plays a perfect Bruce Wayne, balancing a constructed “Rich Guy” ambivalence with an isolating arrogance that acts as the perfect cover for his secret identity. With no one to bother him, he doesn’t have trouble leading a double life. Bale adds a note of sadness to his Bruce Wayne too, evident in the flashbacks of his murdered parents and his longing for Rachel Dawes (one of the few people close to both Bruce and Batman). Bale only falters when he speaks as Batman, conjuring a voice so gruff that it becomes interminable over time. To this day, I don’t understand half of what Bale says behind the mask.
It is quite telling that an actor, writer, and director all have the potential to recreate the image and story of Batman. My favorite “Movie Batman” is Michael Keaton because he introduced me to the mystery and madness of the character while keeping it grounded in some semblance of reality. Which is your favorite, and why?