“Now then sir, how would you like your Batman? With extra cheese, served on a bed of Kilmer, West and Clooney? Maybe you’d like a helping of classic Conroy instead? Or maybe some frosty gothic dressing, with a side of Keaton, or how about hard boiled, with Bale sauce and some Affleck to follow?”
If you were to ask for an order of Batman, you could get any one of those, but the great part about that is none of them are the dish of the day, or the leftovers, each one, to each person, is their favourite, and that’s the beauty of the character. With this being DC Comics’ Batman Week, we take a look at the similarities, and differences, between the character on the printed page, and on the big and small screens.
When Batman debuted in 1939, the creation of, as Warner Brothers now call it, Bob Kane “with” Bill Finger, he was, inevitably, much different to the one we now consider the “true” definition of The Dark Knight. Then, Batman didn’t think twice about killing his enemies, and quite happily used guns (sound familiar?) to off people he didn’t like. The Batman motif wasn’t clearly established at the beginning, so he was neither camp crusader, or dark vigliante. Instead, he was more of a pulp detective – think Philip Marlowe – rather than the personas we’ve become used to. It was probably fitting that he first appeared in Detective Comics, under the pen of the likes of Jerry Robinson and Dick Sprang.
It wasn’t until the early 1940s that the Batman we know began to take form – and in the earliest incarnation, he reflected more the Adam West version, become a champion of good in a colourful and frenetic world filled with garish criminals. During this time, serialised adventures playing in matinees at movie theatres featuring the likes of Lewis Wilson and Robert Lowery made Batman a household name. Following a brief obsession with science fiction themed stories in the late 50s, the 60s heralded the biggest leap Batman would make from printed page to screen.
Batman was in trouble in 1964. Declining sales meant the character was in danger of being killed off, so a more darker take on the character was established, but while this reinvigorated version stablised, it wasn’t until the advent of the same Bat-time, same Bat-channel every week that things took off.
Adam West’s 1966 portrayal of Batman has lasted the test of time, not because it’s the quintessential characterisation, but because it’s terminology and look became iconic. The “pow”, “blam” and “kapowee” action bubbles were one thing, but seeing Batman run around with a bomb and be forced to turn tale because of an inopportune confrontation with a nun made it the epitome of camp. Sales of the Batman comic rose to almost a million for each book from 66 until 68, when the show was cancelled, and the popularity of the character only declined when people just grew tired of the increasingly bizarre storylines both on the page and on TV. That said, while it was on air, the lighter, colourful portrayal made Batman a zeitgeist of the optimism and freedom that abounded at the time.
Inevitably, themes would so go in a different direction. In 1969, writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams consciously took Batman away from the camp tone, re-establishing him as a darker, more vengeful character, and the sharp contrast with the previous incarnation was what piqued interest once again – but not enough. The 70’s, while a critical renaissance for Batman, wasn’t reflected in sales, as there wasn’t enough new and unique about Batman to make him successful once more. That would change though, as the mid 80’s approached, and an even darker take on the Batman mythos emerged.
Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns turned Batman away from the campness that had continued to cling to him in pop culture. While O’Neil and Adams (plus other writers and artists) had done what they could to turn Batman into a more fearsome character than before, they still were dogged by the halfway house of people still identifying Batman with the more colourful world of yesteryear. You couldn’t make Batman darker easily because he’d gone so far the other way.
Miller changed that, making Bruce Wayne’s alter ego and embittered, violent man, dragging his aging body out of retirement into a new world full of vicious dangers and fighting them head on. Miller words reinvented Batman from a quipping parody into a threatening crusader. The leader of the mutant gang (younger, quicker and stronger than the 60+ Bruce Wayne), is systematically dismantled in front of his baying supporters, reaffirming Batman as truly dangerous. His showdowns with a psychotic Joker and government controlled Superman only enhance that, outsmarting his foes, but at the same time physically pummelling them to within an inch of their lives. That made Batman dangerous again, and would form the basis for Ben Affleck’s brutal Dark Knight we would eventually see in Batman v Superman more than 30 years later. We’ll focus on that shortly.
Miller’s story, added to a new writing team that was spearheaded by O’Neil, explored Batman’s backstory, making him a more rounded character, but also explaining his motivations, his drive and tenacity, but also showing the circumstances that changed him from Bruce Wayne into The Batman, and why he pushes relationships away when so many near him get hurt. Miller’s Year One, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke and storylines like Death in the Family (chronicling the demise of Jason Todd’s Robin), and Knightfall (where a fatigued Batman is overwhelmed and broken by Bane, leading to a journey of him reclaiming the right to wear the cowl after he asks ally Azrael to stand in for him with dire consequences), made Batman not only more intimidating and interesting, but successful. People wanted more of this new version, and in 1989, they got it.
The first big screen adaptation of Batman was reflective of the comics at the time. O’Neil’s work, coupled with his contemporaries, had created a Dark Knight who was now mysterious and alluring. This Batman was more elemental than those that had come before him, playing as much on the legend as his fighting and detective skills. Michael Keaton’s casting caused outrage (in much the same way Ben Affleck did), but Tim Burton got crucially right something that no one else has really considered at that point, and that Keaton fulfilled in abundance: Bruce Wayne isn’t all there – after all, anyone who dresses in a Bat costume and spends his evenings driving round in a virtual tank and punching scumbags isn’t playing with a full deck.
Keaton embodied that well. His Batman was a silent, brooding creature of the night, in some ways almost vampiric in his hiding in the shadows and penchant for darkness. His Bruce Wayne though, was even better. He got across the social awkwardness of the Wayne at the time, putting forward the theme that Batman was actually the real person, and Bruce Wayne was just a mask. In this incarnation, Wayne wore the mask poorly, not knowing how to interact with people, considering Batman to be the part of him that was real. He was helped by a scenery-chewing Jack Nicholson as the Joker, providing just as unhinged a counterpoint to Keaton’s unbalanced Dark Knight.
That Keaton would return to the character in 1992 for Batman Returns showed that despite his stock being high, he was still first choice to embody the complex character. The role of Batman as a protector of Gotham City, now acknowledged by both the police and public as a force for good was a fitting avenue for the movie to explore what it meant to be “different”. Keaton’s Wayne, now more confident but still being more at home in cave than castle, was undermined by Danny Devito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, turning people against in in the belief he’d betrayed them. Because he was different, people were willing to accept him as a malevolent force. In the same way, Devito’s Penguin gains acceptance by wearing a tuxedo, and social outcast Selina Kyle becomes what she considers acceptable by unleashing her inner passion.
More than that though, the idea of batman being a gothic, frightening figure is highlighted here, especially scenes where he glides over a crowd with metallic wings. That was explored by another Batman – this one with a lot more freedom to marry comics and real life. Batman: The Animated Series gave Batman mob bosses and evil businessmen to fight, but also introduced more fantastical elements like Killer Croc, Clayface and Poison Ivy into the mix. The key part of this Batman was continuing to be the mythical figure that terrified everyone – good and bad – but also being completely unfazed by the enemies he would face. The stoic Kevin Conroy was the perfect choice.
Conroy is considered by some the embodiment of what Batman should be – despite never actually putting on a Batsuit himself. His voice acting in giving Bruce Wayne life in animated series like the above, as well as Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, and the Arkham series of games, gave many people a reason not just to like Batman, but to love Batman. He brought to Batman something that had only been hinted at in the big screen adaptations, but was common knowledge in the books – his intelligence. Batman’s skills as a detective and skill in outthinking his adversaries was now up there for even the casual fan to see, making Batman as much a cerebral character as a physical one. Conroy’s portrayal in Batman: The Animated Series was so powerful, that his voice became to some almost how they imagined Batman to sound in their head, and that’s why it resonated so much.
The Dark Knight of animation though was soon to find a contrast on the big screen again, and this is where things tend to diverge from the comics somewhat. While storylines like Cataclysm, Contagion and No Man’s Land permeated the books, Warner Bros. believed a different direction was needed for the Caped Crusader on the big screen. When Batman Returns failed to outgross it’s predecessor, mainly due to it’s darker tone, the studio thought a more family friendly approach was needed for Batman Forever. Tim Burton wasn’t involved, and because of that, Michael Keaton declined the opportunity to reprise the role. Joel Schumacher was hired as director, with Val Kilmer playing a very different Batman to the one in the books at the time.
Schumacher eschewed the dark, dystopian atmosphere of Burton’s films by drawing inspiration from the Batman comic book of the Dick Sprang era, as well as the 1960s television series. The film garnered mixed reviews, but was a financial success. It grossed over $336 million worldwide, but didn’t hit the $411m of Burton’s original, but flattened the $266m of the previous installment.
While Batman was having his back broken in the comics, Warner Bros. took Batman Forever’s financial success as the green light to produce another family friendly picture – but probably wished at that point they’d stuck to the books. Batman and Robin was released in 1997 to critical and financial disaster. Expecting an improvement on Batman Forever’s return, this film grossed just $238m – against a budget of $140m. Not only that, while the names were the same, things couldn’t have been further from the original vision Burton had for the character when his first movie came out in 1989.
Schumacher himself admitted that he had no qualms about making the movie even more light hearted than the last one, citing the need to get away from a “depressing” Batman. Had this been the first of a series of movies, directly after the 1960s version, it may not have been so bad, but with Keaton’s cold psychopath in many people’s minds, moviegoers didn’t take to George Clooney’s quipping Batman, nor did they like Akiva Goldsman’s script (which featured the infamous “Bat Credit Card”). Schumacher though, has fiercely defended his creation, mainly because he’s passionate about that version of Batman, but the cast and critics weren’t kind, with Clooney himself saying that it “killed the Batman franchise”.
And he was right. Warner Bros. cancelled the planned follow up, “Batman Unchained”, which, amongst other things, would have featured Scarecrow and Harley Quinn (as Jack Nicholson’s Joker’s daughter), and involved the return of Clooney and Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl, who was introduced in the previous movie. With Batman and Robin’s failure, the studio shelved this idea, and despite pitches for a Batman Beyond movie, the one that held the most ground was an adaptation of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One comic. It’d take nearly nine years for that to surface though, and in the meantime, Batman on the printed page was to undergo further changes.
In the early 2000s, Bruce Wayne was framed for the murder of on-off girlfriend Vesper Fairchild, driving him deeper into darkness, then had a long term mystery on his hands when the villain Hush attempted to destroy his friends, family and secret identity, before the Gotham underworld rose up against him in the War Games storyline. All of those things made Batman a more experienced and formidable opponent for his foes – but on the big screen, he was about to go back to basics.
Christopher Nolan was the man to reignite the Batman franchise. Aborted reboots had come via Darren Aronofsky and Joss Whedon, as well as a bizarre Batman v Superman proposal from Andrew Kevin Walker that sounded even more hard to stomach than the one that eventually reared it’s head in 2016 (the link is attached in the comments section). Nolan pitched the complete opposite of what had come before – grounding Batman in realism and scrapping all but the most essential CGI, relying on real stunts and scale models. 2005’s Batman Begins was the critical success Warner Bros. were hoping for, translating the darker tone that the comics had used in the past few years successfully to the big screen. Christian Bale, who had been attached to the rumoured Year One adaptation, now took on the cowl. His Bruce Wayne, while inexperienced, showed the drive and single-mindedness that had been missing from the Kilmer and Clooney versions. Focusing on the theme of fear, and simultaneously drawing Batman as an elemental spirit and armoured vigilante, Nolan put the danger back into the character. Key to that was taking the more fantastical facets of Batman stories away. No Joker here to laugh in Batman’s face, instead, a refined and brutal Ra’s al Ghul, along with the League of Shadows, tested Batman’s mettle and examined the meaning of justice and the abuse of power.
Batman stories in the books were focusing on the opposite end of the Dark Knight’s life, but were purely secondary at the time to the hotly anticipated sequel to Nolan’s movie. While the storylines of Batman RIP, and Final Crisis seemingly spelled an end to Bruce Wayne’s crime fighting career, Nolan was only just beginning to explore his Batman’s psyche, abilities and flaws.
2008’s The Dark Knight is rightly considered by many not just one of the greatest comic book movies of all time, but also one of the greatest movies of all time. It’s fashionable now to hate on it – especially with Marvel’s success – but let’s not forget that this was the first comic book movie to break the $1bn gross mark. Nolan this time made Batman a more confident crimefighter, but in doing so, dealt with the expanded mythos of the character. He posited the question of whether Batman’s increased notoriety attracted even more psychopathic personalities to try and destroy him and his city. Heath Ledger’s grunge-terrorist Joker was the first, virally infecting Gotham with his attempts to convince people that they were just as brutal as him, and that people would shun Batman once they began to consider him more of an outsider than a protector. Bale, Ledger and Nolan garnered huge praise for turning what was in danger of turning into a self parodying comedy series into a gritty crime drama. Nolan had once again made Batman a fearsome opponent, and one that was once again bankable.
A further sequel was almost inevitable, and conversely, while his Batman was reaching an end on the screen, the comic incarnation was starting out on a new life. DC Comics’ New 52 reboot in 2011 hit a huge reset button for many of their character, and Batman got stuck somewhere in between – lots of the already established lore (like there being multiple Robins, recovering from the broken back inflicted by Bane), remained, but other parts were rebooted, with this Batman, helmed by the critically acclaimed Scott Snyder, being active for only around 5 years.
This Batman was running across some villains for the first time, even if he already seemed to know his Jokers and Riddlers, the likes of the dangerous Court of Owls (soon to be introduced in the TV series Gotham) were new adversaries that bewildered an inexperienced and unsure Batman. While the New 52 reboot as a whole wasn’t considered a great success, the Batman stories certainly were. Snyder’s take on Batman as a detective was something that Nolan hadn’t really managed to capture – and his final Batman movie was to be one where brawn took over from brain.
2012’s The Dark Knight Rises made over $1bn again, but was not as well received as its forerunner. With Heath Ledger’s death, any follow up would have his shadow cast over it, and even Tom Hardy’s Bane couldn’t recapture the anarchic menace The Joker had brought to the second installment of Nolan’s trilogy. Some of the plot didn’t make sense, and Nolan openly says he wasn’t 100% sure of the validity of a third film in the series. Even while he was making it. As a result, it’s not what it could have been. The acting performances are what save it. Hardy’s Bane, while in the end being far less of a threat than he could be, still brought viciousness and brutality to the character. Bale’s Batman is sufficiently world weary enough to be believable, and he tells well the story of The Dark Knight being physically inferior to his opponent and found himself being overtaken by events he can’t control. Ironically, the heart of the entire series shines through in this movie more than any other. Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon, through the whole trilogy, is us. He’s the normal guy, wanting to do the right thing but having to compromise. He’s in awe of the people around him who are seemingly much more powerful, but does the best he can. At the end, when other characters have moved on, Gordon is still left to carry on with his life in Gotham. We go on the journey with him, and in the end, maybe he is the key to why Nolan’s trilogy is such a success.
Back on the printed page, Snyder’s Batman took many twists and turns, clashing with The Joker on numerous occasions, including the storyline that lead to Bruce Wayne’s supposed “death”. But Superman has also emerged as a sometimes-ally, sometimes-enemy. The popularity of the Injustice: Gods Among Us comics and games made the concept of a rivalry between the two both available and interesting to a new generation, who had seen numerous fights between the two in the books, most notably the grinding brawl in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns.
That fight was the premise, and direct inspiration for the look of, Snyder’s namesake’s Zack introduction of a new Batman – namely Ben Affleck. When, in 2014, Batman was announced as a major player and co-star in the DC Extended Universe’s next feature after Man of Steel, excitement reached fever pitch. Affleck’s Batman, gradually revealed through social media, was criticised for looking too grim, and the armoured version was lifted straight from Miller’s book. When Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was eventually released this year, reaction again was mixed – but Affleck’s Batman drew praise. Snyder’s puzzling decision to have his incarnation murder people is the only criticism that many fans drew – and it’s pretty valid. Snyder hasn’t attempted to defend it, but his supporters point to a more grizzled, emotionally worn down Dark Knight who has no qualms about breaking his only rule. That argument aside, Affleck’s realisation of Bruce Wayne is pretty accurate. He gets the suaveness of the man outside the suit, and the savvy and intelligence of Wayne’s alter ego. It also helps that Affleck has worked hard on bulking up, taking the now more organic looking Batsuit and making it look like the man inside is the monster, and not the suit itself.
DC’s books have also put Wayne back in the spotlight, after a brief flirtation with Commissioner Gordon being in a mecha-suit and fighting crime (badly). A key part of DC’s Rebirth storyline, Batman is now at the heart of a mystery involving the organisation’s long and storied history, using his detective skills to find out the links between the gaps in many characters’ knowledge and different continuities.
With all that in mind, after trying to reflect the books somewhat, Warner Bros. now seems more confident in sending it’s live action Batman in one direction, and comfortable in letting the comic book version explore his own universe. One thing’s for sure: All the facets of Batman that have featured in the books haven’t really come together in many versions of his on the big, small, or computer screen – and that might be why, for many, the definitive version of Batman (if there really is one) is yet to be found.