Batman – Cinematic portrayals

Or how The Dark Knight has maintained his
comic-book hero franchise.
Mark Yon reviews the various cinematic
Batmans over the years


With the latest film in the collection just been to the cinema (eventually!) and now available on DVD, Bluray and on the usual platforms as The Batman, I thought I would look at the rather long and complicated past of Batman in the cinema (with a couple of nods to comics and television as well!)


Batman as a comic book hero
It is perhaps briefly worth pointing out that Bruce Wayne’s exploits as Detective Comics, published in the US on 30th March 1939, was the first magazine to have the Batman as a major feature. (There’s a digital copy available online HEREfor you to look at.)

Written by Bill Finger and drawn by Bob Kane, Batman was meant to be a direct response to the rather-popular Superman, who for context was first published in Action Comics in April 1938. (The link between Superman and Batman, as you will see, is an ongoing relationship throughout their histories.) Unlike Superman, however, much was made of the fact that Batman was not an alien with superpowers, but a mere human being (with athletic training, intelligence and a few million dollars to spare, admittedly). Whereas Superman was predominately a force of light and goodness, Bruce Wayne/Batman was darker, shadier, grittier perhaps – something that the films (we’ll get to those in a minute) emphasised. He was initially seen as a vengeful vigilante who was happy to maim or even kill criminals in the name of justice, although this changed as the character evolved.


Batman as a multi-media star

Success followed, often echoing the trajectory taken by Clark Kent and Superman. In 1940 Batman was popular enough to have his own comic magazine (Link to copies here: Batman (100-150) : Bob Kane and Bill Goldfinger : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive) Like Superman, Batman was made into a US television series, first in 1943 as a film serial. He was also a radio star with Superman in 1945 on The Adventures of Superman, as by this stage the two were often teamed up in the comics as well.


Batman on television (1966)
However, by the 1960’s the comic books generally were in a bit of a slump. The growth of television and the corresponding continued demise of the cinema meant that readers, particularly children, were not buying the magazines so much. Things had become so bad that DC Comics thought seriously about cancelling the Batman comic.

However, like Batman and his now prevalent side-kick Robin, to the rescue came the television series. Starring Adam West as Batman/Bruce Wayne and Burt Ward as Robin/Dick Grayson, the series played down the darker elements of the backstory to create a medium that reminded viewers of the comic book origins and utilised the colours of the relatively new invention of colour television.

Adam West as Batman/Bruce Wayne and Burt Ward as Robin/Dick Grayson

As a child of the 1960’s, here in the UK I remember the series being shown on the BBC, alongside other American imports such as Bewitched and The Banana Splits. Although I was not seeing it in colour – black and white TV was the thing for most families in those days – I remember the action, the fast pace and the characters – colourful in action and absurdity, even if not colourful on my television screen!

The series was so popular that a cinema film was made – Batman a.k.a The Batman Movie (1966) – starring the same characters and actors. Campy, colourful and very silly, this was the Batman of my youth – a nice guy wanting to do his best for others and with a loyal and enthusiastic sidekick, whose exploits against the villains were never dark, dangerous and threatening. There was never any point where Batman was seen as “bad”, but then the bad guys were never particularly sinister either. A safe entertainment for family viewing – the darkness would come later.


Batman – and Superman?
In the 1970s Batman, at least here in the UK, seemed to take a bit of a backseat against his more noticeable rival, Superman. Whilst both kept going, it was in the comics that the two continued. The enthusiasm of the Batman television series eventually abated, along with its audience viewing figures after three seasons and 120 half-hour episodes. There was some excitement over the news that a big budget film of Superman was on its way, and so it came to be in 1978. By comparison, Batman - as perhaps befits his personality – stayed in the shadows.

Superman (1978) was a critical and box-office success. (I enjoyed it a lot too.) There were sequels, albeit with diminishing returns, but as the Eighties progressed there was talk of whether Bruce Wayne could repeat that success and now make a reappearance.


Batman of the 1980’s (and '90’s)
For those who were not there at the time, the announcement that there would be a Batman film (presumably after the success of the Superman franchise) was initially a pleasant surprise. Much of the production was done in secrecy. What I remember most about it, at least at first, was the cries of horror and outrage, admittedly in a time before social networks, that Michael Keaton was to play Bruce Wayne. That’s Michael Keaton, who up to this point was mainly known as a stand-up comedian (although he had made the film Beetlejuice with Tim Burton the year before.) Fears that a new Batman was to be just a newer version of the comedic and campy Adam West television version were loudly and vigorously professed. Comic book fans sent an estimated 50,000 protest letters to Warner Bros. offices on hearing of the news.

The choice of Tim Burton as a director was a little more positive. Burton was fairly well known as a director with a love for the genre, whose left-of-field films to date included Frankenweenie (1984) and Beetlejuice (1988), which also happened to star a certain Michael Keaton. Beetlejuice was a family-friendly, manic take on the horror genre, which involved pop music and dance numbers – something which, if I remember right, many fans feared Batman would become.

However, the finished film, once released in 1989, proved most doubters wrong. The darker, violent Batman had to have a new cinema certificate invented for it – the 12A – to allow younger members of the family to see it but be aware of the violent content.

Michael Keaton as Batman (1989)

On the positives, Keaton was a revelation. Downplaying his comic roots, he was a brilliant portrayal of the tortured Bruce Wayne who out of a sense of revenge and duty would turn into a dark and moody Dark Knight. The sets were dazzling for their time, a combination of dark shadows and vivid 80’s neon – similar, yet very different to the 1960’s version.

To cap it all, Jack Nicholson playing the Joker was a masterstroke, managing to echo Keaton’s portrayal of moodiness and comedy. By turns nasty and comedic, the two together make a formidable combination that was difficult to beat in the later films of the 1980s and '90s.

On re-watching, I am still impressed by their performances. Whilst the effects have dated a little – no CGI, lots of matte paintings and backdrops – they are not too bad. The script is accessible and surprisingly complex. We’re not talking War and Peace here, but some of the points made in passing add a deeper resonance especially on re-watching. “Did you ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?

Other great casting included Kim Basinger as a feisty Vicky Vale, and Jack Palance as an appropriately heavy bad guy (albeit one usurped by Nicholson.) It should also be said that the Danny Elfman score, added to by the pop star icon known as Prince, also impresses.

Whilst the budget of US$48 million was unheard of at the time – much of this going on promotion and advertising - the film made over US$400 at the box office, and became the fastest film in history to this point to earn US$100 million, reaching it in 11 days. Batman was back – with a bang.

The franchise also returned to television with Batman: The Animated Series (1992-95) a superior animated series that still holds up pretty well today, especially when given the limits of its 22 minute episode length. Voice actor Kevin Conroy managed to convincingly use different voices to portray Bruce Wayne and Batman, and of particular note was Star Wars actor Mark Hamill giving a sterling (and unrecognisable!) turn as The Joker.

With such a rise in public awareness of the character, not to mention the enormous profits of the first film, 1992 also saw the return of Burton and Keaton in a film unsurprisingly called Batman Returns. This re-emphasised the darkness hinted at in the first film, but despite the stalwart efforts of Keaton, Danny DeVito as Oswald Cobblepot (the Penguin) and Keaton’s girlfriend at the time Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Christopher Walken as the villain Max Shreck, it seemed a little too weird, too bleak and too violent, even for me. The plot disappointed.

The film did very well at the box office, admittedly, with a profit of US$266 million against a much-increased budget of US$65-80 million, but many fans were less happy with this one and felt that the film had unrealised potential. There were also stories of difficulties on set too, and it was later told that Burton had been reluctant to return, but was eventually persuaded.

Batman & Robin, Batman Forever (1995)

Despite the lower returns, a third film was released, Batman Forever in 1995 and a fourth Batman and Robin in 1997. Burton and Keaton had now gone, although Burton was given a nominal producer credit in the third film starring Val Kilmer as Batman. The fourth starred George Clooney as Batman, fresh from his very popular role in the television series ER. Both films, directed by Joel_Schumacher, were highly energetic, fast-paced and in an attempt to hearken back to the 1960’s were lighter in tone - even campier - than Burton’s offering but, by the last, the interest had waned.

The third film, Batman Forever, had a bigger budget of US$100 million, but made $336 million, the fourth, Batman and Robin, a higher budget, somewhere between US$120 - $160 million, but made less profit - US$238 million. In the fourth Clooney was woefully miscast, whilst Kilmer in the third was just wrong, despite a number of star guests – Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face and Jim Carey as the Riddler – neither film did particularly well. The reviews were often depressingly awful. The New York Times referred to Batman Forever as “…the empty-calorie equivalent of a Happy Meal…so clearly a product that the question of its cinematic merit is strictly an afterthought.” whereas Batman and Robin was referred to by Slate as having “none of the minor virtues of Schumacher’s other films.”

Plans for a fifth film, possibly to be called Batman Unchained, were quickly dropped. The end of the 20th century saw Batman continue in animated form with Batman Beyond (1999-2001), and other animated films but no-live action production.

The story of Batman animations is perhaps something for another time, but kudos should be given to voice-actors Kevin Conroy (Batman Animated Series and many others), Diedrich Bader (The Brave and the Bold), Jensen Ackles (Batman: The Long Halloween), Will Arnett (Lego Batman Movie), and even Keanu Reeves (League of Super-Pets), among others, who have all provided voices in these films, and have continued the Batman legacy.


Batman in the 2000’s
After the critical outcry about Batman and Robin, things went very quiet in the films for the franchise. There was an aborted film (Batman: DarKnight) proposed in 1998 and hopes for a live-action version of Frank Miller’s graphic novel Batman: Year One in 2002 which never materialised. It was not until a young director took it on that we really saw the Bat return.

Batman Begins (2005) was the first of three films directed by Christopher Nolan. In it we discover the origin of Batman when, as Bruce Wayne, he fell into a well at Wayne Manor. Played rather low-key by Christian Bale, this film did OK, and made a profit of US$373 million against a budget of US$150 million, but from what I remember had a fairly muted response on its release.

It is only on re-watch that I think I really appreciated the film. Even now I’m not sure why I was less impressed the first time around. Was it because the bad guy was Liam Neeson, who plays a rather low-key baddie as Ra’s Al-Ghul? There were not many super-spectacular effects, although there were some, admittedly. The film emphasised a degree of realism not really shown in the Burton or Schumacher films. Instead, we have a film that deals with the psychology of the person portraying a bat and how Bruce Wayne became the darker character we recognise more today.

I feel that this version took much of its imagery from what we had seen in the comic books – or graphic novels as we were getting to know them now. In particular, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Batman: Year One (1987) not to mention Alan Moore’s analysis of The Joker in Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) seem to show this darker side of our hero, showing him as someone you’d be less likely to trust than in the Adam West era. He was certainly dark. Troubled. Broody. The film did not stint on the brutal aspect of the character, with blood and violence throughout. This more realistic Batman was understandably given a 12 certificate.

These themes were continued and extended in The Dark Knight (2008), the film which, for all intents and purposes, everything else Bat-related now seems to be measured against. Part of this is down to the astounding portrayal of the Joker by the late Heath Ledger, whose performance mesmerises every time I see it. By comparison, Christian Bale as Batman is subdued, although I rather suspect that this is deliberate. Batman’s whole character is designed to be in the background rather than in the limelight, and as you might therefore expect is generally low-key. In contrast, the psychopathic Joker craves attention – and gets it.

Dark Knight (2008)

The rest of the cast generally is great – with Aaron Eckhart as Two-Face, Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon, the return of Michael Caine as the butler Alfred and Morgan Freeman as weapons designer Lucius Fox. The only disappointment for me was the replacement of Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes with Maggie Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhall acquits herself well, admittedly, and may be considered a better actress by many fans, but I feel myself that for continuity Katie would have been better.

Perhaps propelled by Ledger’s astonishing performance, the film made significant profit of all of the films to date – allegedly over US$1 billion against the costs of US$158 million. Some did suggest (rather unfairly, I think) that this was partly due to the fact that this was Ledger’s last film – he died six months earlier when the film was in post-production – but I think that it is his performance that made people see it again and again. He certainly stands out amongst a generally great cast. It should also be mentioned here perhaps that these Batman films were some of the first to utilise the IMAX projection system, which no doubt encouraged cinemagoers to see the films more than once.

With such a success, Nolan completed the third of his Batman films with The Dark Knight Rises (2012). It was clearly Nolan’s last film in his series as things are drawn to a close in this film. Whilst it did very well, with Tom Hardy as villain Bane, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake and Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, as well as the cast of regulars, there is a definite ending.

Again, the box office profits were impressive – US$1 billion against a cost of about US$300 million – but the reviews, whilst good, were less stellar. In my opinion it is still worth watching, and stands up to a rewatch, but I did feel slightly disappointed by it myself when I first saw it. Time Out said, “As its running time suggests, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is a sprawling, epic feast of a movie, stuffed to the gills with side characters, subplots and diversions. So if the balance skews in favour of grandstanding action rather than emotional resonance, of statuesque icons rather than real people, we can let it slide. There’s nothing here to match the intensity of Heath Ledger’s Joker, and the movie feels weaker for it.”(LINK)

However, for me the three films together are some of Batman’s finest film moments to date. Dramatic realism, impressively big sets, intelligent scripts and a fine cast make these three films still seriously impressive – and make a great film night!


Post Nolan
In the decade since the Nolan films Batman’s main appearances in films have been the DC films starring Ben Affleck as Batman – Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017). The choice of Affleck was surprising, and like Keaton not always positively supported, and yet he seems to have been reasonably received in the role, even when the films themselves have been received much more critically. The New York Times said in its review, “It is about as diverting as having a porcelain sink broken over your head.” (LINK.) Difficulties in the making of Justice League eventually led to a change of director from Zack Snyder to Joss Whedonand the film being revised and re-released in a four-hour cut as Justice League: The Snyder Cut (2021).

Ben Affleck as Batman (2016)

Personally I have little to say on these films. They look great, even if they are CGI’ed (computer graphics images) to heaven, but some variable casting, pacing issues and some awful scripting (Martha!) leave the films with much to be improved in my opinion. In Batman vs. Superman what should have been an epic merging of the two franchises ended up being an almighty mess. The Snyder Cut of Justice League is better, but far, far too long at about four hours in length. It should also be said that Justice League is more of an ensemble piece, with Batman only one of many superheroes. Affleck at this time was struggling with alcohol-related issues and this may have affected his performance. Certainly, I felt that the films were more memorable for Wonder Woman (played by Gal Gadot) and Superman (played by Henry Cavill) than Batman.

On a more positive note, elsewhere the animated films have continued for streaming and as what used to be called “direct to video” releases. These have been somewhat mixed in their reception, but generally can be said to have the interest in the Caped Crusader going. The comics, often now graphic novels, have done the same.

Mention should also be made here of The Lego Batman Movie (2017) which was everything the po-faced live action films were not. Here the script was fast and actually funny, with many a nod given to Batman and other superhero characters. It also worked for a range of ages from young children to older fans. It is worth watching. The Washington Post said, “Like a miniature universe made entirely of millions of tiny plastic bricks, The Lego Batman Movie looks and feels like it could only have been put together by a roomful of mad geniuses, moving in a ballet of well-choreographed creativity: It’s simultaneously epic and humble.” (LINK.)

The Batman (2022)

In 2013 there were rumours that Warner Bros were interested in making another big film, with Affleck (as already mentioned in the Batman vs. Superman film, and later Justice League) not only acting but writing and directing. This didn’t happen, and in the end the mantle was passed to director Matt Reeves, who rewrote the script to make The Batman (2022).

And so we get to the latest offering. Heart on sleeve, I must admit that I’m not a huge fan of Robert Pattinson’s acting to date, and my first reaction to him playing Batman was an almighty “Meh”.

Perhaps more importantly, and like many others, I also wasn’t sure whether we needed another Batman film. The Affleck films suggested to me that we would struggle to get anything as good as the Nolan films in the future, although the idea of the character and the world he lives in was still interesting.

Nevertheless, I was prepared to give the film the benefit of the doubt.

Robert Pattinson as Batman (2022)

OK – script. The premise of this film is that we’re looking at Batman: Year Two, partly based on the comic novel of the same name, again by Frank Miller, when Batman is becoming established as a masked vigilante in Gotham. The film also begins on Halloween, which gives a nod to Batman: The Long Halloween graphic novel.

This seems to mimic the Batman-world of the Nolan films to some extent. Once again, there’s a little bit of the origin story of how Bruce became an orphan and then Batman, but the focus here is back to the detective drama, again perhaps hearkening back to the original Detective Stories idea of Batman being a solver of crime.

At times the grimness of the murders and their grubby settings is reminiscent of the film Se7en rather than a comic-hero story. Batman is asked to help by Jim Gordon in a number of murders of senior city officials. Batman’s involvement is regarded with suspicion and dislike by the majority of the Gotham police force, as he is seen as just another masked vigilante. However, in each case a card is left “To Batman” by the mysterious assailant.

The rest of the story deals with the consequences. The disappearance of a young girl seen with one of the murdered officials leads to Batman visiting local gangster Oswald Cobblepot, as Cobblepot may be involved since it affects his drug sales. He also meets the partner of the missing girl, Selina Kyle. Understandably, she also wants vengeance and agrees to help Batman, who then finds out that she is actually Catwoman.

The twisty-turny tale involves corrupt police involved with gangsters and the revelation that the person committing all of the crimes is The Riddler, determined to wreak vengeance on the corrupt elements of Gotham. We later learn that this includes the Wayne family.

In the final part of the film the Riddler is determined to wash Gotham clean of all of its allegorical dirt and attempts to flood the city by setting off a number of bombs around the city. Batman attempts to stop it.

Batmobile from Batman (1989)

The Dark Knight (2008) batmobile

The Batman (2022) batmobile

This is a reimagining of the Batman icon to some degree. The film attempts to reinforce an element of realism into the story. So gone are the sleek and flashy vehicles of the Burton years, and to some extent the rugged hi-tech of the Nolan trilogy. Instead, we have dirtied-down, grubby vehicles that are cobbled together - a Batmobile that looks like it was made in a garage which seems to be a Ford Mustang with a boosted engine on the back, for example. The Batcave looks like an old warehouse, albeit one in the basement of Wayne Manor. Where we once had the glamour of the Schumacher Batman, we now have gothic gloom, albeit great-looking.

Batcave from Batman (1989)

Batman Forever (2008) batcave

The Batman (2022) batcave

Initially Pattinson’s character is mostly silent. The main focus of the film seems to be one about identity, with Batman and Bruce Wayne at first unclear as to what his/their purpose in life is. At times this can make Wayne, although aged about 30 in the film, come across as little more than a moody teenager with an emo fixation - at one point Wayne actually says to his butler, Alfred ”Stop – you’re not my father.” - but the general moodiness and brooding anger seems to work when Pattinson is the Batman. The fight scenes, of which there are many, are very well done, with Pattinson clearly putting everything into the role. “This is emo-bats”, as a review in Empire magazine put it.

The cast is generally very good. As well as Pattinson, Paul Dano as the Riddler is a refined interpretation who is miles away from Jim Carey’s unsubtle version in Batman Forever. This Riddler is genuinely more menacing, a cerebral overthinker, a social vigilante who whilst determining what he sees as truth and justice, mistakenly believes that he and Batman are on the same side and can work together.

Jeffrey Wright provides a solid performance as the down-trodden Jim Gordon, clearly overwhelmed by the scale of events here.

Burgess Meredith's Penguin (1966)

Danny DeVito's Penguin (1992)

Colin Farrell's Penguin (2022)

But the biggest revelation for me here was Colin Farrell as Oswald Cobblepot, a Godfather-type gangster with an Al Capone manner whose makeup makes the actor unrecognisable. Whilst I’m not sure why the performance needed to be achieved under masses of makeup, it is undeniable that the portrayal is very good. He is undeniably less comic than Burgess Meredith’s 1960’s version and less freaky than Danny DeVito’s version from Batman Returns.

Vengeance will not always change the past. People need hope.

The film, despite a PG-13 certificate and a delayed release due to the CoVID-19 pandemic, did very well at the box office. Against a budget of US$200 million, the film made US$770 million, particularly good in a post-CoVID environment. It is at the time of typing the fourth-biggest grossing film of 2022.

Critics were generally favourable. And I, for one, was won over, though at nearly three hours I felt that it was too long, although I did hear that an early test-screen version was about four hours long. Despite this, the detail is impressive. It is a film that repays re-watching, and I must admit that Pattinson and all, it did improve the more I saw it. The first time I saw it I thought that it was OK. The second (and third!) time I noticed more nuances that I missed the first time around.


The Future for Batman
Batman is perhaps more noticeable today than at any other time in his history. Whilst his popularity in the comics of the 1940’s cannot be denied, this was predominantly a US fanbase with a much smaller market.

Today the Bat is truly global. The success of the Nolan films and the latest Matt Reeves film show that the Dark Knight is recognised and appreciated around the world.

The Batman is perhaps the darkest, grittiest and most violent the Dark Knight has ever been. Gone are the family-friendly Day-Glo spandex days of the 1960’s – instead, our current version is built upon a flawed and damaged character with issues. Whilst initially getting its tone from Frank Miller (Dark Knight), Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan, the template developed by Reeves seems to be the one to follow in the future. There are rumours of two more sequels and a television series for HBO Max.

However the recent cancelling of the Batgirl film, having spent an estimated US$90 million on it, would suggest that this darker version is here to stay. Suggestions have been made that this Batgirl version was lighter in tone and more limited in scale than the way Warner Bros want their antihero to go: although how much of this is true is unknown. (Rumours abound!) I should also perhaps mention here that although there is no Batman in the film the 2019 film Joker, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix, examines these darker topics of paranoia, alienation and even mental illness in a similar and often uncomfortable way to The Batman.

For someone who spends his time in the shadows, Batman is now more recognisable than ever. Evidence would suggest that the future of the Batman is dark.

Long may the Knight rule!

Mark Yon

Mark Yon is a member of the SF² Concatenation book review panel. He is also a lifetime member of the BSFA. He writes about the British SF magazines of the 1960s over at the Hugo-nominated Galactic Journey, and is also a reviewer and administrator at, one of the oldest genre websites that has been running since 1997.


Editorial addendum – So who is the best Batman? Well, who else to ask but a small group of scientists and engineers with Adam West providing peer review… (see the one minute video below or the link here).


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