Second Screenings

By Patricia McIvor

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will premiere this month, so let’s look at the history of Batman on the silver screen. Throughout his various cinematic iterations, Batman’s origin story has remained more or less the same. After his parents are murdered in a back-alley mugging, millionaire Bruce Wayne takes it upon himself to fight crime in Gotham City. He studies martial arts, develops specialized gadgets, and adopts the persona of Batman in order to instill fear in Gotham’s very active criminal underground.

Created in the late 1930’s as a costumed crime-fighting detective, Batman has endured surprisingly well for a comic book hero with no super powers. This may be due to Batman’s ability to change with the times; much like fellow cinematic icon James Bond, Batman has evolved over the years as different actors have taken on the role.

Any discussion of Batman must begin with Adam West, who played the Caped Crusader in Batman: the Movie (1966) as well as the iconic television series. Both the movie and the series take their cues from the original comics, right down to the eyebrows drawn on Batman’s mask, so West sets himself apart from his cartoonish costars by keeping Batman calm, cool, and collected. Batman is traditionally the straight foil for his colorfully unhinged enemies (particularly his archenemy, the Joker) and West’s Batman is, in a word, unflappable, leaving the hyperbole to his excitable sidekick, Robin (Holy Burt Ward!). West’s one dramatic conceit is his penchant for small dramatic (dare I say, Shatnerian?) pauses in his speech, which attempt to add gravity to some frankly ridiculous situations.

Batman takes a turn for the serious in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), with Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight. Burton’s Gotham was revolutionarily dark, eschewing the West-era’s camp for a shadowy gothic motif and turning the Joker into a purple-suited psychopath (played by none other than Hollywood’s favorite madman, Jack Nicholson). Keaton is appropriately stoic and mysterious as Batman, but does his best work as Bruce Wayne, Batman’s civilian alter-ego. Instead of the typical millionaire playboy stereotype, Keaton’s Wayne is shy, awkward, and clearly suffering personal consequences for his costumed vigilantism.

Val Kilmer took over the role for Batman Forever (1995) but was largely upstaged by Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey as villains Two-Face and the Riddler, respectively. In the much-maligned follow-up Batman and Robin (1997), George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell play the title roles opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. While Clooney was an inspired choice to play Bruce Wayne (up until his marriage to Amal, Clooney actually was a millionaire playboy), his languid Batman leaves something to be desired. Panned by fans and critics alike, this version of Batman tries to mix the comics-inspired hijinks of the West years with the darkness of the more recent Burton films. The result is a neon-colored mess, which likely prompted the grimmer and grittier reboot ten years later.

Love them or hate them, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films—Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012)—changed the superhero movie landscape at the turn of the millennium. While the previous Batman films had been set in a highly stylized alternate reality, the Dark Knight trilogy attempted to make Gotham City and its Caped Crusader as realistic as possible, explaining Batman’s gadgets as military prototypes and presenting the villains as fanatical terrorists. Christian Bale’s performance as Batman expands on Keaton’s interpretation, exposing a lonely hero increasingly tortured, both physically and psychologically, by his obsessive quest for justice.

Who’s your favorite Batman, and how do you think Ben Affleck will fit into the Bat-canon? Email me your thoughts at