The History of Batman on Film
The Caped Crusader. The Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne’s alter ego. The goddamn Batman. No matter what you call him, there’s no denying that he’s an iconic American superhero. He is, first and foremost, a comic book character, but comic books couldn’t contain him. He began appearing on film less than five years after he was created and he hasn’t stopped since. You probably have a rigidly-held opinion about which actor is the definitive Batman, but you may not know the history of (live-action) Batman on film. So here it is.
(For the full effect, I recommend you listen to Prince’s “Batdance,” as I am.) (Editor’s note: Partyman is that really real ish.)
Batman Begins in Black and White
Batman has the distinction of being the second superhero to appear on film. (The first, by the way, was Captain Marvel. No, not that one–the original one, the one who became Shazam.) The first actor to play Batman was Lewis Wilson in an eponymous 1943 weekly serial that ran in movie theaters. As it was 1943, and the United States was in the thick of World War II, the serial was heavily war-themed. By that, I mean that Batman, who’s a secret government agent, and Robin (Douglas Croft) spend their time battling henchmen of the Japanese saboteur Dr. Daka. I also mean that it was wildly racist. Daka is played by the Irish-American actor J. Carrol Naish, for instance, whose stereotypical Asian accent fades in and out.
That kind of thing wasn’t unusual at the time–look up literally any anti-Japanese WWII propaganda–but it’s still jarring. So while the serial is notable for being the first Batman portrayal and for introducing parts of the mythos, like the Batcave, it’s necessary only for completists. It’s essentially Batman and Robin in saggy costumes tooling around Los Angeles in an Alfred-driven Cadillac. Ever so often, there’s a cliffhanger, and then Batman says a racial slur. It was pretty successful at the time, though, so they made another serial in 1949.
Batman Returns (Also in Black and White)
(Image via Columbia, appliqued Bat symbol via my heart)
New Adventures of Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder or as it’s more commonly known, Batman and Robin, is ostensibly a sequel. You know, a sequel, where none of the actors are the same and we don’t acknowledge the first one at all. This time, Robert Lowery steps into the Bat boots, while Johnny Duncan is young Robin. There’s still no Batmobile–they cruise Los Gothames in a ’49 Mercury–and these episodes share the same low-rent quality as their predecessors, but Lowery and Duncan took their work seriously. And at least they’re not fighting a racist cartoon. In this series, their enemy is The Wizard, who wears a black hooded and caped costume that makes him look like a flamboyant serial killer. Or a secret Dracula. Anyway, he has a device that controls cars. Shockingly, he does not use it for good.
Like the 1943 serial, this serial isn’t absolutely essential. I mean, Bruce keeps the Batmercury parked outside his suburban house, for goodness’ sake! However, if you want a taste of early Batman, this is a much more palatable choice than the original. And there’s always the Rifftrax version.
Batman the TV Star
After the early success, it’s a little surprising that Batman didn’t appear in TV or movies again until the ’60s. But he quickly made up for the absence, as Batman the TV series is one of the most iconic portrayals. It is, after all, the origin of the famous theme song, as well as many of the other things we associate with Batman and Robin. These include adding the word “Bat” to anything and everything (I’m typing this on my Bat-computer) and Robin’s many “Holy” sayings (“Holy whiskers, Batman!”), for example.
Batman, starring Adam West as the title character, and Burt Ward as Robin, would air for only 3 seasons, but its legacy would linger for decades. It was a campfest, whose villains, like Cesar Romero’s Joker or Burgess Meredith’s Penguin, were just as memorable as its stars. And do not even get me started on the various Catwomen. Over the years, the show that typecast West and Ward would be reassessed several times, ending up with an overwhelmingly positive image.
Other Batmans in Other Times
(Image via Fox Broadcasting Company)
But Batman wasn’t the only TV appearance for the Dark Knight. He would appear in a torrent of animated series, whether ensemble shows or his own, for example. Numerous actors would voice him over the years, including, most frequently, Kevin Conroy. And Batman still wasn’t through on TV. From 2014-2019, David Mazouz would portray the young Bruce Wayne on Fox’s Gotham. In case you missed it, the show traces the rise of Batman, as well as his foes, so Mazouz doesn’t actually spend a lot of time as Batman. In fact, the only time we see him as the Batman, it’s only his face and voice. Stunt actor Mikhail Mudrik plays the body.
On that note, we should also mention Iain Glen, who’s played/playing Bruce Wayne on DC Universe’s Titans series, as well as Maxim Savaria and Alain Moussi, who donned the mask for the season 1 finale. This wasn’t the actual Batman, however, but a hallucination induced in the mind of the former Robin Dick Grayson by an all-powerful demon. Comic book stories!
Batman on Film Forever
While the 1966 Batman: The Movie, spun off from the series, is as much campy fun as the show, it’s not really what we talk about when we talk about Batman movies. For that, we have to go all the back to 1989. Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker, who owned the film rights to Batman, had been trying to get a darker Batman movie made for 10 years. Finally, all the planets aligned when they met Tim Burton, and he shared his vision of a Bruce Wayne-focused take on the Bat story. It would star an obvious choice, comedy star Michael Keaton.
I’m kidding. No one outside of the movie thought that Keaton was the right person to play Batman. A movie from the guy who made Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, starring the guy from Beetlejuice? There was an immediate backlash. At least one petition was circulated and thousands of letters were sent to Warner Brothers in protest. This was pre-internet, mind you, so that took some doing. In an effort to calm down fans, Warner Bros went on offense, dispatching Batman creator (and newly hired movie consultant) Bob Kane to San Diego Comic-Con. Still, fans couldn’t be soothed, at least not until they saw the first footage. (And that’s incredible, because that teaser is a mess.)
Batman could have been a disaster, too. Instead, it was revelatory, even if Jack Nicholson leaves no scenery unchewed as the Joker. It would be surpassed by its sequel, Batman Returns, which finds the man in Bat fighting the Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). The sequel is, in fact, not only the greatest Batman on film, but the last Batman movie ever produced.
The Schumacher Years
Okay, fine. Actually, not everyone felt the way I do about Batman Returns, especially at the time. It was seen as too violent and too dark. I know that’s hard to picture these days, when every other superhero vehicle is a grimdark sludge, but this was the 80s, man. So, Warner Bros gently pushed out Tim Burton and brought on Joel Schumacher, known for light-hearted romps like Dying Young and Flatliners.
Michael Keaton was still slated to play Batman, but he eventually left for a couple of major reasons. He was already upset that Burton had been dropped, but the storyline was the last straw. Instead of keeping the focus on Bruce Wayne, the sequel would feature more of the villains. So Val Kilmer stepped in for Batman Forever, which sees Batman (and Chris O’Donnell’s Robin) fighting Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and the Riddler (Jim Carrey). Kilmer would then leave the franchise to make The Island of Dr. Moreau–such was the pull of Marlon Brando–so George Clooney became the new new Batman in Batman & Robin.
(Image via Warner Brothers)
His Batman would take on Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman). He also brought on a Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone), so the studio could squeeze even more money out of their audience by appealing to young girls. As a result of these kinds of calculations, these movies are most charitably described as having been made. They are loud, garish spectacles that are remembered best for briefly adding nipples to the Batsuit and for prompting Tommy Lee Jones to tell Jim Carrey, “I cannot sanction your buffoonery.” Years later, even Schumacher would acknowledge he missed the mark.
Batman Forever did well at the box office, but its follow-up bombed, scaring anyone out of making another Batman movie until almost a full decade later. Well, that’s not entirely true–Warner Bros actually made a few attempts, but nothing stuck until they hired Christopher Nolan.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins
Nolan decided to do what no one had done yet on film: make a Batman origin story and make one that was heavier on substance than style. To do so, he grounded his Batman stories, beginning in 2005 with Batman Begins, in realism. This meant that he shot real city exteriors, for example, instead of just building sets like Burton’s and Schumacher’s productions. (The city sets, meanwhile, were based on real communities, like New York, Tokyo, and Kowloon.) Like Michael Keaton’s version, Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne was a Batman with angst. We watch his rise from an orphaned boy to a grown man coming into his own as a businessman and as a vigilante.
Batman Begins earned generally positive reviews and did pretty well at the box office–it is currently the fourth highest-grossing Batman film. It would be eclipsed in that regard by its own sequels. The first, of course, is The Dark Knight. Based on the positive reaction to Batman Begins, you’d think that fans would be excited about The Dark Knight. And perhaps they were, but that quickly changed once news broke that Heath Ledger would be the Joker.
The Dark Knight
The early reaction was nasty. Some of it, based on Ledger’s roles in films like 10 Things I Hate About You or A Knight’s Tale, was dismissive because of the idea that he was a teenybopper or “pretty boy” actor. Other reactions were just vile. The year before, we had seen Ledger in Brokeback Mountain. His performance was delicate and moving, garnering praise from critics and audiences alike. But to the naysayers, it meant that the guy from the gay cowboy movie was going to mess up their manly superhero flick. Even Jack Nicholson decried the casting, telling MTV News later that he was “furious” he hadn’t been contacted about the role.
And then the first scene, the bank robbery, was screened and we knew it was something special. Ledger wasn’t just playing the Joker–he seemed to actually become him, and the air rippled around him. When the movie itself hit theaters, it was clear the first scene wasn’t a fluke. Ledger’s performance was all-encompassing–as over-the-top and campy as Nicholson’s, but also with a depth to it. Of course, that could have just been us imbuing his performance with our feelings, because he didn’t make it. Ledger died six months before Warner Bros released The Dark Knight. He would then go on to become the second person to win a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
The Dark Knight Rises from the Ashes
Filming began in 2011 for the third part of Nolan’s trilogy, which would be called The Dark Knight Rises. The films finds a somber Batman meeting Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) and facing off against Bane (Tom Hardy). Although Ledger’s Joker called their match “…what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object,” that phrasing seems better suited to the battle between Batman and Bane. Bane wants to destroy Gotham, and he has the righteousness of true belief spurring him forward.
Like its predecessors, The Dark Knight Rises was a critical and a commercial hit. In fact, it’s the highest grossing movie in Nolan’s trilogy. However, it’s safe to say that the general consensus these days is that The Dark Knight is the best of the three. Many people would probably say that it’s the best of all time.
The Older, Wiser Batman on Film
This guy botherin’ you? (Image via DC Comics and Warner Bros)
Not to be outdone, though, the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) threw Ben Affleck into the mix, beginning with 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Although there was the usual grumbling expected when a new actor steps in, Affleck’s performance went over better than many people predicted. The “Batfleck” was world-weary, believably touched by loss and afraid of what the alien Superman represents.
However, not everyone loved this Batman, especially since he was a killer. Zack Snyder, the director, unsurprisingly defended this choice. He told fans at a Watchmen screening in March 2019, “It’s a cool point of view to be like, ‘My heroes are still innocent…My heroes didn’t commit any atrocities.’” However, he said, this viewpoint was akin to living in a “dream world.” This debate–whether or not Batman should kill–is certainly not a new one in the comic world and as such, several comic creators disagreed with Snyder. Comic author Gail Simone, for example, said, “It changes Batman if he is actually going out at night with the potential to kill people. One thing is crime prevention, saving innocents, the next is executions without trial.”
The Future of Batman on Film
As it turns out, though, DCEU was outdone, and while the first week at the box office was good, the movie had an “historic” drop the second week. The reviews weren’t much better. Nevertheless, he batsisted, returning for a cameo in Suicide Squad (stop) and a longer arc in Justice League. Affleck also spent some time writing his own standalone movie. However, earlier this year, Warner Bros announced a Matt Reeves-directed Batman trilogy, effectively scuttling Affleck’s plans.
The new Batman is, of course, Robert Pattinson. Although he’s perhaps best known for jump-starting a bunch of millennials into puberty as Edward Cullen, he’s spent recent years in much more interesting roles. He’s played a lot of oddballs, which is honestly great. Batman is a billionaire who dresses up in a bat costume so he can perform vigilantism. So, he’s not exactly run-of-the-mill. And the best Batmen have always been the weirdest choices.
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.