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August 2008

Different Bat-Men, Different Bat-Movies

A journey through the cinematic excursions of America’s favorite superhero

Batman: The Movie (1966)
Though a few Batman serials were made in the 1940s, Adam West was the first Bruce Wayne most of the world saw onscreen. His stint as the caped crusader spanned only two years, but that was enough to log 120 episodes of the camp classic TV series and Batman: The Movie, which was originally intended to launch the show but ended up on the backburner when ABC rushed the series to air in early 1966 in the wake of a disastrous fall ’65 season. Despite its reputation for cheesiness today, the West-starring adaptation of Batman did exactly what it intended to do: provide a funny, colorful show for young boys. The innovative costumes and top-notch cast of comedic actors provided the definitive screen versions of many characters from the Batman rogue’s gallery even today, particularly Burgess Meredith’s Penguin and Frank Gorshin’s Riddler. Though it’s passé these days to treat comic book stories as anything less than Greek tragedies, West and producer William Dozier didn’t take a guy who ran around a major American city in tights fighting criminals who assumed theatrical identities based on animals or clowns too seriously. Go figure.

Batman (1989)/Batman Returns (1992)
In the twenty-three years between Batman: The Movie and Batman, the character faced a steep decline in popularity. Several attempts at using him to replicate the success of 1978’s Superman: The Movie were made and thankfully failed (including a disco era monstrosity called Batman in Outer Space). A young hotshot named Tim Burton was hired to helm a TBD Batman movie in 1986 after the surprising success of his debut Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but he didn’t like any of the scripts floating around and the studio was reluctant to finance an unproven superhero movie directed by a guy known solely for his work with Pee-wee Herman. Then suddenly the planets aligned perfectly: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke revitalized the character in comics, and Burton became a hot property overnight when the film he directed during the downtime, Beetlejuice, became a huge hit. Warner Bros. immediately greenlit Batman, which eventually made over $400 million at the box office and a billion in home video sales and merchandising, which adjusted for inflation would equal roughly a gugillion dollars today. Burton’s Batman and its darker sequel Batman Returns are fondly remembered by most, but the director’s baroque style and apparent affinity for complicated villains over his largely underdeveloped hero resulted in mixed reviews from critics and comic book fans during their initial releases. Still, it’s hard to find anything to fault with these films knowing in retrospect what happened once Burton left the franchise.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Cartoon spinoffs of hit movies were part of the blockbuster package in the late 80s and early 90s (Saturday morning versions of Beetlejuice and Ghostbusters were particularly memorable), but none approached the truly majestic Batman: The Animated Series, which ran on FOX from 1992–1995. The show featured some of the most complex storytelling ever intended for a children’s show, giving characters like Two Face and Mr. Freeze a dramatic heft previously unseen in comic book adaptations on screens big or small. Though conceived as a straight-to-video release, Warner gave the feature length Mask of the Phantasm a theatrical run when they saw the quality of the finished product. It didn’t end up making much money, but received more critical praise than its live-action predecessors and even won over well-known Batman hater Roger Ebert.

Batman Forever (1995)/Batman and Robin (1997)
When Joel Schumacher took over the reins of the franchise, he had a few pop-goth pieces to justify his employment—The Lost Boys and Flatliners among them. Unfortunately, his airheaded flashiness—combined with studio demands for a more kid-friendly sequel after the downright scary Batman Returns—resulted in the outright demolition of the franchise. Contrary to conventional wisdom, both of his Batman films raked in the cash, and in retrospect Jim Carrey turned in an inspired take as The Riddler and Uma Thurman was a fine choice for Poison Ivy. But the films themselves were so vapid and shortchanged the characters so terribly that they’re universally reviled today. Schumacher literally apologized for making them on his commentary for Batman and Robin.

Batman Begins (2005)/The Dark Knight (2008)
Most predicted the Batman franchise was over and done with in the new millennium. How could we as a nation ever overcome Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance in Batman and Robin as Mr. Freeze, whose every line was a cold pun (“Cheel out!” “Freeze!” “The Iceman cometh!”)? But the massive success of films like Spider-Man made his cinematic resuscitation a necessity, and in the hands of the brilliant Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Prestige) the masterful reboot Batman Begins became far and away the best onscreen version of the character ever. It was both a nuanced, carefully plotted sketch of the philosophies that drive Bruce Wayne, and a rip-roaring piece of action filmmaking with impressive stunt sequences and style to spare. Its follow-up The Dark Knight continues in that high-minded vein, comparing Batman’s reasoned law and order with The Joker’s nihilistic anarchy. There’s no telling how long Nolan plans to continue working with the character, but for the first time in a long time it seems the sky’s the limit.


  © copyright scott howard