The Masked Manhunter. The Caped Crusader. Bats. You know who we’re talking about, film fans, and this Saturday, September 17, marks the momentous occasion officially known as Batman Day. In honor of this celebration, we decided to refresh our (mostly) fond look back at the Bat in all of his cinematic guises. With the Bat-signal blazing, it’s time for Total Recall!
For a Batman interpretation frequently derided for its campiness, Batman: The Movie has a surprisingly high number of quotable lines and memorable scenes. Remember how the dynamic duo deduce that all their archenemies — Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, and the Joker — are working together to take over the world? Or the insane logic Robin consistently applies to Riddler’s questions, only to be right every time? But the best bit has to be the one involving bat ladders, shark repellent Bat-spray, and a high seas encounter with an exploding Megalodon. “Holy Cornball Camp, Batman!” exclaims Scott Weinberg of eFilmCritic.com, “This movie’s a hoot!”
One of the most hyped movies in Hollywood history, and one of the finest examples of movie tie-ins and cross-promotion (so successful it made t-shirt bootleggers filthy rich), Batman is also one of the weirdest event pictures of all time. Director Tim Burton jettisoned the plots (if not the dark tone) of Bob Kane’s original comics, and came up with set designs reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and freakish, brooding characters similar to… well, a Tim Burton movie. Particularly compelling is Jack Nicholson as the Joker, who gleefully relishes his plan to kill the citizens of Gotham City with lethal gas. Michael Keaton makes for a subdued Dark Knight, a hero who dispenses vigilante justice while living a morose existence in Wayne Manor. A precursor to more complex comic book adaptations, Batman made piles of money, and the bat-logo was ubiquitous in the summer of 1989. “Burton brings back film noir elements to the new Batman, elevating it to a dark, demented opera,” wrote Jeffrey Anderson of Combustible Celluloid.
Tim Burton has said he always sympathized with monsters, and so, for his sequel to Batman, he gave audiences not one, but two empathetic, pitiable villains. The Penguin (Danny DeVito) is a deformed orphan who leads an army of aquatic, flightless birds from the bowels of Gotham City. The Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a frumpy secretary who is killed by her boss (Christopher Walken) after she learns of his evil schemes but is brought back to life by a group of cats. Teaming up against Batman, the pair plan an assault on the city above. Batman Returns is so cold and dark it makes the first installment look like Amelie by comparison, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it still made a killing at the box office, and was Burton’s favorite of the two Batman movies he helmed. “Of all the Batman pictures, this is the most striking, atmospheric and effective,” wrote David Keyes of Cinemaphile.org.
Before the Nolan Batman movies, Mask of the Phantasm offered the most articulate exploration of the Bruce Wayne character. While the movie takes the action that made The Animated Series such great afternoon fun and expands it (but avoiding cheap, empty thrills that having a big budget can afford you), it also showers loving detail on a pivotal romance in Bruce’s life and an affecting scene of Bruce begging for release at his parents’ gravestone. It’s the rare movie that shows its protagonist for what he is: essentially insane. “[Mask of the Phantasm] managed to soar above the theatrical Batman adaptation,” states Kevin Carr of 7M Pictures, “And would remain the best Bat Movie to hit the big screens until Batman Begins shook things up in 2005.”
One can draw a fairly direct line from the 1966 Batman to Joel Schumacher’s mid-series reboot: Garish colors. Some tongue-in-cheek dialogue. The presence of Robin to draw in the young’uns. This may not be a great Batman movie, but it is a successful one — drawing in a legion of new viewers while shifting the series away from the twisted mindscape of Tim Burton (whose movies weren’t totally representative of the comics anyway). And if you were at the right age, there was nothing more fun in 1995 than this (except perhaps getting a PlayStation). It’s “a free-form playground for its various masquerading stars,” wrote Janet Maslin for The New York Times.
One of the least-loved blockbusters of recent years, Batman & Robin brought the Batman 1.0 franchise to a screeching halt. Unlike the earlier installments, which returned the Caped Crusader to his brooding noir roots, Batman & Robin was a veritable camp-o-rama, closer in spirit to the 1960s TV series. Utilizing punny dialogue to a jaw-dropping degree were villains Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze (“Ice to see you!”) and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy (“My garden needs tending”). Even George Clooney made little impression as Batman, and his sidekicks (Chris O’Donnell as Robin, Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl) failed to drum up much audience or critical enthusiasm. As a result, a planned fifth sequel, Batman Triumphant, which would have pitted our heroes against the Scarecrow, never materialized, so it was left to Christopher Nolan to resurrect the series. “Fans of the movie series will be shocked at the shortage of original thought put into this project,” wrote John Paul Powell of Jam! Movies.
With his lack of superpowers and a vast fortune at his disposal, Batman was always the most plausible of heroes. With Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan shucked off the direction of the previous big-screen incarnations and boiled the Batman mythos down to its essence, resulting in one of the most realistic superhero movies ever. Thankfully, Nolan didn’t skimp on action-packed pyrotechnics, and as the suitably suave and tortured Bruce Wayne, Christian Bale added a greater emotional heft to the Caped Crusader (he was also ably abetted by the likes of Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Cillian Murphy, and Gary Oldman). Batman Begins signaled a bold new beginning for the franchise, and was a huge hit with audiences and pundits alike. “It’s a wake-up call to the people who keep giving us cute capers about men in tights,” wrote Kyle Smith of the New York Post. “It wipes the smirk off the face of the superhero movie.”
Having already brought an end to the candy-colored, Schumacher-wrought nightmare that gripped the Batman franchise in the late 1990s, Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale had fans primed for a successful second act — but even after the smashing success of Batman Begins, few could have guessed just how popular The Dark Knight would be in the summer of 2008. A sprawling superhero epic that somehow managed to make room for jaw-dropping visuals, a compelling storyline, and stellar performances, Knight climbed out from under months of intense speculation — not to mention the shadow cast by Heath Ledger’s shocking death — with a worldwide gross in excess of $1 billion, a towering stack of positive reviews, and a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Ledger. Richard Roeper joined the chorus of near-universal critical praise, calling it “a rich, complex, visually thrilling piece of pop entertainment, as strong as any superhero epic we’ve ever seen.”
After two critically acclaimed and commercially successful Batman films, it was up to Christopher Nolan to deliver the final chapter in similarly rousing fashion. And while it would have been difficult for anyone to replicate the phenomenal success of 2008’s The Dark Knight, Nolan came pretty close, picking up eight years after TDK and focusing on a half-broken Bruce Wayne who sees a chance for redemption when a new evil disrupts the economy and takes the entire city hostage. Reliable supporting players Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman reprised their roles, while Nolan filled out the rest of the cast with similarly high profile talent like Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Anne Hathaway, who slipped into Catwoman’s black leather as Selina Kyle. Thoughtful, explosive, and grounded in Nolan’s dark Gotham reality, the resulting film served as a satisfying conclusion to one of the most successful blockbuster franchises in recent memory. As the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr enthused, “This is what a superhero movie is supposed to look like.”
The established rules of superhero films require at least one blockbuster battle by the final act — the catastrophic damage from which is typically largely forgotten by the time the curtain rises on the inevitable sequel. Credit Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, then, for trying to take a more thoughtful approach, and using the aftershocks from Man of Steel‘s climactic orgy of violence to establish the titular conflict between two iconic superheroes. Unfortunately, director Zack Snyder was also tasked with setting up a slew of future films in the burgeoning DC Extended Universe, and the result was a sequel that juggles an unwieldy array of characters and storylines while trying to grapple with serious questions — and in spite of Batman v Superman‘s super-sized running time, many critics felt the whole thing was even more of a muddled mess than the much-maligned Man of Steel. Still, the CG-enhanced action was enough for some scribes, including Andrew O’Hehir of Salon, who admitted the movie was “kind of dopey” but shrugged, “It largely kept me entertained for two and a half hours, which is not nothing.”