Through The Bat Past, Darkly: Batman On Film & TV

October 6, 2017
From clunky black & white serials to pop-art TV shows, from low-budget animated adventures to multi-million-dollar blockbusters, we trace the sixty-plus year history of The Caped Crusader on screen.

BATMAN (1943) Produced at the height of World War II, this 15-chapter serial is filled with unbelievable racial slurs, as Batman (Lewis Wilson) and Robin (Douglas Croft) try to stop the evil Japanese mastermind Dr. Daka from helping the “New Order” establish dominance in America.

BATMAN & ROBIN (1949) Another cliffhanger serial, this time with Robert Lowery and John Duncan. The Bat-Signal was introduced on film for the first time in this enjoyable adventure.

BATMAN (1966-1968) For many of the baby boomer generation, Adam West’s interpretation of a campy Batman will always be the definitive portrayal of the character. With Burt Ward as Robin, and a roster of top-flight guest stars – Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero, Frank Gorshin, George Sanders, John Astin, and three equally sexy Catwomen (Eartha Kitt, Lee Meriwether and Julie Newmar) – the Batman series perfectly captured the pop-culture climate of its time, and came along when sales of the Batman comics were slumping. The phenomenal success of the TV series gave the comic book industry a booming shot in the arm and even made the cover of Life magazine. West and Ward also played themselves in Return To The Batcave (2003), a very cheesy but entertaining reunion film, and returned to voice the delightfully retro-kitsch animated movie, Batman: Return Of The Caped Crusaders (2016).

THE ADVENTURES OF BATMAN (1969) Low-budget animated series, produced by Hal Sutherland, that helped prolong Batman’s television career after the cancellation of the live-action show. The Dynamic Duo also guest starred in two episodes of The New Scooby Doo Movies in 1972-73.

BATMAN (1989) Batmania reached fever pitch as The Dark Knight finally hit the screen in a big way, guided by 29 year-old director Tim Burton. Jack Nicholson chewed up most of the magnificent gothic sets with his darkly comic performance as The Joker, while Michael Keaton went against type and silenced many critics by delivering a brooding Batman who was clearly harbouring some psychological hang-ups. Danny Elfman’s superb score and the stunning production design of Anton Furst more than make up for a bland Kim Basinger and a screenplay that really takes a nose dive during the final act.

BATMAN RETURNS (1992) Some fans consider this the best Batman film to date, while others despise it for not only reducing the hero to the level of supporting character and changing the origins of the villains, but also for depicting a Batman who was a remorseless killer (the comic book Batman vowed to never take a life). Danny De Vito plays a truly grotesque Penguin, while Michelle Pfeiffer makes a tragic and sexually aggressive Catwoman. Tim Burton once again creates a magnificently expressionistic tableau, with the sets given a lurid edge by having them covered with snow and gaudy Christmas lights.

BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM (1993) An offshoot of the popular Batman: The Animated Series (1992-95), many fans place this film above any of the recent live-action epics, and with good reason. Boasting a clever, tight screenplay and stunning visuals, the film weaves between flashbacks to Batman’s origin and early career, and his attempts to solve a series of mob boss murders which he himself is accused of committing. This can also be seen as a direct precedent to DC’s recent run of animated Batman movies, with the darkly impressive likes of Batman: Gotham Night, Batman: Under The Red Hood, Batman: Year One, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: The Killing Joke, and more.

BATMAN FOREVER (1995) Joel Schumacher stepped in to replace Tim Burton at the helm of the big screen Batman movies, and things went downhill at a record pace. Keaton wisely bailed out and was replaced by a seemingly bored Val Kilmer, who duked it out with Jim Carrey’s woeful Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face. The introduction of Chris O’Donnell’s Robin only made things worse.

BATMAN & ROBIN (1997) Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze and nipples on George Clooney’s Batsuit proved the final nails in the coffin for the once-promising film series. Alicia Silverstone made a woeful Batgirl, equally awful was Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy, and it didn’t help that the screenplay was by serial offender, Akiva Goldsman.

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN’S BATMAN TRILOGY (2005-2012) With the game-shifting Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) clinically expunged the campiness that poisoned Joel Schumacher’s previous entries. Nolan’s film took it right back to the start, as we first meet an adult Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) seeking metaphorical vengeance for the murder of his billionaire parents years before. Wayne eventually returns to Gotham City to embark on a one-man sortie against the criminal underworld, embracing his phobias and becoming a masked vigilante called Batman. As opposed to Schumacher’s colourful fantasias, Nolan’s style is classical and potent, and his film reaffirms Batman as the most existential of all superheroes – a man whose powers are forged in the cauldron of his own fears. His follow-up films, The Dark Knight (with the late Heath Ledger absolutely extraordinary as The Joker) and The Dark Knight Rises (featuring Tom Hardy as back-breaking baddie, Bane) beautifully continued Nolan’s gritty but operatic (and much loved) approach to the character.

BATMAN VS SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) Much maligned amongst hardcore fans, Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice was, nonetheless, the film to resuscitate The Dark Knight once again for the big screen. Beginning during the end moments of 2013’s Superman reboot, Man Of Steel, we witness the rage of Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), as the battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) destroys most of Metropolis, levelling buildings and killing innocents. Weary from dispensing justice to well deserving criminals for over twenty years, the jaded Batman sees Superman as a different kind of threat, and sets about bringing him down. Though the debate continued through Affleck’s appearance in the equally maligned Suicide Squad, and will certainly continue into this year’s Justice League, the suggested lengthy history of this version of the caped crusader (heavily influenced by Frank Miller’s epochal 1986 graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns) makes him noteworthy amongst the big and small screen iterations of Batman.

The Batman/Superman Anthology Blu-Ray 9-Film Set is available now.

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