From the camp pastiche of Batman: The Movie to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Batman’s cinematic output has varied so much it’s hard to pin down any consistent characteristics over his near 75 years on the silver screen. The Lego Movie seemed to boil Batman down to his very essence in a song Batman writes called ‘Untitled Self-Portrait’ where the lyrics, repeated over and over are simply: Darkness…No Parents!
Yet the character has endeared mainly due to his malleability, adapting to the cultural shifts of the times more than any other character.
He first made it into cinemas in 1943, as part of a 15-chapter black and white serial. Leaping onto screens in the middle of World War 2 meant a number of key departures for the character. His nemesis was not the Joker or Penguin, but instead a sinister Japanese character called Dr Daka (the shows racist depiction of the character dating it badly). Instead of operating outside the law as a vigilante, Batman works as a government agent, a trait made necessary by the censors not allowing the series to depict a hero operating outside of the law.
The series is very much a product of its time, and its low-budget is apparent in every frame, yet it was the popularity of this serial, after a re-run in the early 1960s, which helped get one of the most enduringly iconic depictions of Batman onto television screens – the Adam West starring Batman.
Batman proved so popular that a movie was produced in 1966. Batman: The Movie retained the camp fun of the series, but, as well as gently mocking Batman and his variety of villains, the film also took some satirical pot shots at broader issues outside of the comics. The film sees Batman’s first foray into the Cold War, with a power-hungry would-be President, submarines, and Polaris missiles all playing a key role in the plot. The movie, just as much as the WW2 serials that came before it, was deeply rooted not just in comic-book lore, but the 1960s itself.
The show and film’s success also proved to be a curse, with Batman now residing in the zeitgeist as a campy and comedic figure. It took until 1989 for the character to return to screens in Tim Burton’s dark, gothic Batman. Although elements of camp still occasionally bubble to the surface (Jack Nicholson’s performance seems to be riffing on the 60s Batman series), Batman is portrayed as a violent, brooding presence, and Nicholson’s Joker an unpredictable and violent psychopath.
This film in particular seems to not only reflect the time it is made, but directly influence it. Batman was one of the most anticipated blockbusters of all time, and was subject to fervent speculation and controversy (fans raged at the casting of typically comedic actor Michael Keaton in the title role).
Taking advantage of this, studios released a number of promotional tie-ins for the film on a scale never realised before. Pin-badges, lunch boxes and action figures were all huge sellers. In many ways Batman followed Jaws in shaping the modern blockbuster we know today.
The 90s very much proved to be the most prolific but erratic era for the Dark Knight on screen. Appearing first is the sequel to Tim Burton’s Batman – Batman Returns. The success of Batman saw Burton gifted with more creative freedom, and the film strays into even darker territory. Playing more like a gothic fairytale than an adaptation of the Batman character, the film was so gruesome that McDonalds cancelled an existing agreement for a Happy Meal tie in with the film.
A separate animated film – Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, opened to strong reviews but poor box office, and with the studio put out by the loss of merchandising opportunities Burton’s darker take on the material seemed to yield, the studio hired Joel Schumacher for their next two live action big screen efforts.
Batman Forever starring Val Kilmer as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jim Carrey as The Riddler, attempted to balance the darkness of Burton’s previous films with camper and more light-hearted elements, with mixed results. The film received a relatively muted critical reaction, but was a huge hit at the box office, breaking the record for the highest grossing weekend of all time.
Impressed with the box office receipts, Warner Bros. gave Joel Schumacher free reign on his next Batman film in 1997 – Batman and Robin. Maligned as one of the worst comic-book films of all time, the film often feels more like a toy commercial than a cohesive film. The film received a kicking from critics, but more crucially for the studio underperformed at the box office. In only five years, the franchise had veered from brutally dark to camp farce. Even the ever malleable Batman struggled to recover, and the franchise took an 8 year hiatus.
Christopher Nolan’s subsequent Dark Knight Trilogy, beginning in 2005, brought the credibility back to the franchise, whilst crucially also proving huge box office numbers. The franchise took a relatively grounded approach (there were no freeze rays or people brought to life by cats), but also made sure to keep the studios happy with plenty of marketable merchandise (Batman gets a new vehicle in each instalment in the trilogy).
Nolan’s franchise also moved the franchise back into darker territory, with The Dark Knight garnering complaints over its 12A rating; with many feeling it should have been a 15. The darkness in tone continued once Nolan had left the franchise, with the character rebooted in 2016 with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice played by Ben Affleck. The film was so dark and violent its DVD release garnered a 15 certificate.
Yet running parallel to Batman’s increasingly dark live-action adventures, The Lego Movie in 2014 saw a new iteration of the character. Self-obsessed and with a fondness of rap-metal and bat-puns, the character stole the show as one of the films many supporting characters.
This year sees the release of not only Lego Movie spin-off The Lego Batman Movie, but also Justice League, a live-action superhero team-up which sees the return of Affleck’s Batman. With two Batman movies released in 2017, one a kid-friendly animated comedy another a dark iteration of the character in live action, perhaps there is no better time to highlight the characters adaptability and popularity. Whether you’re looking for laughter, or perhaps something a little more mature, Batman seems to be one of the few cinematic icons who really can do anything.