What kind of man dresses up like a bat?! More to the point, what kind of director puts nipples on that man’s bat costume?
Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in 1939. Since then he has been called The Bat-Man, the Caped Crusader, the World’s Greatest Detective and the Dark Knight, amongst other names. He is a character that has been lent to as many interpretations as nicknames (more, actually) over the years and has graced the silver screen no less than eight times, not including the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises (2012), but certainly including the only animated theatrical release, Mask of the Phantasm (1993). In those eight films, Batman has fallen under the direction of Leslie H. Martinson, Tim Burton, Eric Radonski and Bruce Timm, Joel Schumacher, and Christopher Nolan, each adding their own interpretations to the Batman mythos, and with varying degrees of success.
Leslie H. Martinson, for example, brought us Batman: the Movie (1966) (BAM!) a camp-schlock extravaganza (POW!) starring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin (KERFUFFLE?). The film, which grew out of the 60’s TV series, concerns Batman’s primary rogues gallery (the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin and Catwoman) joining forces in a fiendish plot to. . . dehydrate people. Yes, fiendish. It contains some truly brilliant moments, including Batman fending off a shark attack with his handy bat-shark-repellent and a delightful little game of free association culminating in Batman, Robin, and the Commissioner miraculously (and hilariously) uncovering just who is behind this fiendish (soooo fiendish) plot to give everyone cotton mouth. The only thing more fun than watching this nonsense is listening to the DVD commentary provided by the dynamic duo of delusion, West and Ward themselves! (KAPLOOEY!)
Tim Burton stepped up to the plate with his own darker version of the Batman in 1989’s lazily titled Batman, with an unlikely Michael Keaton pulling on the cowl in the title role. Keaton, while a bit older and more quirky than the Bruce Wayne we’ve come to expect, manages to fit pretty nicely into Burton’s more stylized, film noir Gotham City. And although Burton has done away with much of the campiness of the 60’s series, Batman‘s often over-the-top dialog and repeated use of Dutch camera angles definitely hints at a certain fondness for the bat-camp of the past. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is certainly more Cesar Romero than Heath Ledger (More to come on that).
As is often the case when a director is allowed to do more than one entry into a series, Burton’s second dance with the devil in the pale moonlight was a bit too much of a good thing. Batman Returns, released in 1992, featured some even sillier dialog, a lamer villain (the Penguin, eh? Oh, and he controls real penguins? AND he’s played by Danny Devito?!), a slightly cooler villain (Christopher Walken, simultaneously adding and subtracting from the film with his weirdness), a purrrfectly over-the-top Catwoman (I don’t care what anyone says, I don’t like this character and Michelle Pfieffer did little to change that) and even Dutchier Dutch camera angles! Keaton is given little to do but wade through the weird.
In 1993 directors Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm brought an animated Batman to the silver screen for the first time with Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Drawing from the phenomenal animated series, Mask was a fine entry into the filmography, but was largely ignored by moviegoers outside of the series’ fans. Mark Hamill (Yes, THAT Mark Hamill) always seems to be having a great time as the voice of the Joker and I’ve long held the opinion that Kevin Conroy’s Batman voice should totally be overdubbed into Christian Bale’s lozenge craving throat.
Speaking of too much of a good thing, that’s exactly how Joel Schumacher started his bat-reign with 1995’s Batman Forever. Taking the baby-step backwards that would lead to the giant leap (see below), Forever built upon Burton’s silliness while disregarding most of the noir element that helped make the silliness more palatable. The shadows were replaced with brightly colored gel lighting and the villains became larger than life. It’s not a terrible film, but it’s certainly not a good one either. Val Kilmer is, in my opinion, the most bland and forgettable of all the Batmen, and we are finally (and regrettably) introduced to Robin, played with unfortunate zeal by Chris O’Donnell.
Schumacher followed it up by throwing a rock into the bat signal with Batman and Robin (1997), a ridiculous spectacle that would play quite nicely as a sequel to Martinson’s ’66 film. Remember when I mentioned Val Kilmer being the most bland and forgettable Batman? George Clooney should be so lucky. He’s officially the worst Batman of the bunch, although, to his credit he is quite aware of that fact as he has publicly blamed himself for “single-handedly destroying the franchise.” Bless his heart. Because I think Clooney’s too classy to, I’ll plop some blame for his unfortunate portrayal into Schumacher’s lap as well. Couple that with another dose of Robin’s inanity, the introduction of Batgirl, Uma Thurman’s ham sandwich performance as Poison Ivy and Schwartzenegger’s nightmare puns as Mr. Freeze (Everybody chill!) and you’ve got Batman on Broadway with the Andrew Lloyd Weber tunes traded for a few bat-nipples.
Then, in 2005, Christopher Nolan brought us Batman Begins. Dark, realistic and intelligent, the film takes Batman to places not yet explored outside of the comic book sphere. It is the first of the films to really take any time with Bruce Wayne, here portrayed by Christian Bale as a determined, haunted man. The loss of his parents and, in particular, his father has led him to confront his fears and eventually embody them. And even though the handling of the villains is superb in Begins (Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow is killer), they really take a backseat to Bruce’s story. I believe that it is in Batman Begins that Bruce becomes more comfortable in the cowl than outside of it. His mansion, his cars, his fancy suits are the real disguise. This is Batman’s inception (See what I did there?).
If the villains took a backseat in Nolan’s first bat-flick, then they take the driver’s seat (and probably stole it) in The Dark Knight (2008). It’s safe to say that crazy attracts crazy, and Bruce begins to see some of the ramifications for his particular brand of street justice when the Joker decides to use Gotham as his personal psych project. I will not spend time praising Heath Ledger’s Joker performance (Okay, maybe a little: It’s phenomenal!), it’s been praised to death. What I will praise is the Nolan brothers’ screenplay, which focuses more on the big picture this time around. Batman/Bruce is forced to confront himself in the face of a villain whose motivations are far less black-and-white than his own. And even as he turns to Harvey Dent to be the “white knight” he cannot, his hopes are crushed by tragedy, Dent becoming another victim of the system, anarchy’s cold indifference and the Batman himself. It may not be the perfect Batman film (Begins is actually a lot closer to my ideal Batman, despite being a lesser overall film), but it’s a near perfect crime saga.