The Batman Films – A Look Back Over the Decades

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Christian Bale as Batman in The Dark Knight Rises

Christian Bale as Batman in 'The Dark Knight Rises' - Photo © Warner Bros Pictures

By Kevin Finnerty

BATMAN: LEGEND OF THE DARK KNIGHT ON THE SILVER SCREEN

“I’m Batman” – that line has been delivered by many different actors over the years as they’ve donnned the famous dark cowl and fought the criminals of Gotham City up on the big screen. Now with Christopher Nolan’s last installment of his take on the Batman story, let’s take a look back at all the big screen incarnations of the Caped Crusader and his battle with crime.

THE BATMAN – 1943
This 15 chapter serial released by Columbia studios was the very first big screen take on the comic book hero. Actor Lewis Wilson portrayed both Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne as a secret agent fighting the Japanese during WW2. It was also the first time the Batcave was introduced. The costumes were truly horrible with Wilson looking like he was wearing a bad Halloween costume.

GRADE: D

BATMAN AND ROBIN – 1949
Once again Columbia Studio brings the Caped Crusader back to the theater in another 15 chapter serial, this time fighting the notorious ‘Wizard’. The studio spent even less on this serial and the result was even worse costumes and a loose fitting cowl for actor Robert Lowery. The dialogue was extremely cheesy and the action just plain awful.

GRADE: F

BATMAN: THE MOVIE – 1966
Based on the popular television series, this is the first time Batman is featured in a full-length motion picture. All the trademarks from the small screen are present, from the classic Batmobile to the Batcave. Most of the cast from the TV show appeared in the film including Adam West as Batman, Burt Ward as his loyal sidekick Robin, Cesar Romero as the killer clown The Joker and Burgess Meredith as Penguin. One notable actress missing is Julie Newmar as Catwoman who left the movie just before filming began. Just like the television show, the film had bright colors, campy dialogue, and silly overacting.

GRADE: C-

BATMAN – 1989
“Ever dance with the Devil in the pale moon light?,” asks The Joker (Jack Nicholson) to some of his victims right before he shoots them in Tim Burton’s dark film noir vision of the story of Batman and his fight to save Gotham City from the clown prince of crime. Originally, the casting of Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight caused loyal comic book/ Batman fans to send over 50,000 letters voicing their disapproval to Warner Brothers. But Keaton proved them wrong with his performance as the winged vigilante by night and eccentric playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne who behind closed doors is a lonely, smart and determined man bent on ridding his city of crime. Jack Nicholson received top billing for his performance as The Joker and also netted some of the gross of the box-office. His Joker is an over-the-top killing clown who only wants to destroy Gotham City, murder all its citizens, and leave their corpse with a killer smile.

GRADE: B

BATMAN RETURNS – 1992
“I am Catwoman. Hear me roar,” says Michelle Pfeiffer in her tight latex catsuit with her bullwhip in hand as the sexy feline and sometimes foe of the Caped Crusader in Tim Burton’s second and final time directing a Batman film. The studio executives were so eager for Burton to make the sequel to the first film, which grossed a then record-making $411 million worldwide, that they gave him creative control. The result led to our hero -once again played by Michael Keaton – slipping into the background and being upstaged by the two main villains in the film: The Penguin (Danny DeVito) who is shown to be an evil, disfigured half man/half bird entity, and Catwoman who instead of being a smart and cunning burglar is hell bent on ruining Batman and getting back at her boss who tried to kill her. This was a much darker film with a feel of the macabre and unimpressive special effects (in particular, Penguin’s sewer lair looked fake and silly).

GRADE: C-

BATMAN FOREVER – 1995

“Was that over the top?” asks the Riddler (Jim Carrey) in Joel Schumacher’s take on Batman’s continuing adventures which cast Val Kilmer as the caped vigilante, this time wearing an outfit given perhaps the worst addition to ever be put on the Batsuit … nipples. Chris O’Donnell joins the cast as the young Robin looking to avenge his parents’ death at the hands of the villain Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), all while Riddler puts a plan in motion to learn all of Batman’s secrets with a mind-reading machine. Goofy, silly, and a return to camp, Batman Forever steered too far from the Burton vision and added nothing memorable or original to the franchise.

GRADE: D

BATMAN & ROBIN – 1997

“Hold it Freeze. I’m Batman,” says George Clooney wearing the cowl and cape in what is considered by most the absolute worst Batman film ever made and one of the worst films of 1997, Batman & Robin. There isn’t one decent thing about the film. From the acting, to the campy horrible outfits, to the ridiculous sets, it’s almost as though Schumacher seemed to think he was making a live-action Saturday morning cartoon special.

GRADE: F

BATMAN BEGINS – 2005
“Do I look like a cop?,” growls Christian Bale as the Dark Knight in director Christopher Nolan’s first film of his Batman trilogy. Here Nolan sets out to tell the origin story of Batman, detailing how young Bruce Wayne, who looked up to and felt particularly close to his father, was taught as a child to stand up to his fears and always try to give something back – especially to those less fortunate. When Bruce witnesses his parents’ street mugging and murder, the scars and pain go deep and right into his soul. Thus the Batman is slowly being born.

Nolan does something with this film that no one had ever thought of or even dared attempt before, to take these classic comic book characters and put them into the real world. The result is a romanticized crime-fighting adventure with top notch performances and excellent production value.

GRADE: B+

THE DARK KNIGHT – 2008

“Why so serious?,” asks the late Heath Ledger in the role he made iconic and truly terrifying, The Joker, in Christopher Nolan’s second film about the winged vigilante and his fight to save his beloved Gotham city from organized crime. While Batman, once again played by Christian Bale, Lt. Gordon (Gary Oldman) and new D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) focus on the mob and try to put most of the gangsters behind bars, they fail to see the growing threat of a madman. On the loose and terrorizing the city is a sadistic man who wears clown makeup and has some horrible scars across his face which seem to give him an unnatural and permanent smile. He wants nothing more than to create absolute chaos for Gotham City and its citizens.

Darker than Batman Begins and more of a gritty crime thriller, The Dark Knight surpasses all other Batman films before it with its wonderful production design, stunning action scenes, and stellar performances from its A-list cast. But it’s really the late Heath Ledger’s performance as the creepy, scary, maniacal, psychopathic killer The Joker that raises this film to an even higher level.

GRADE: A-

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES – 2012

Is it the perfect ending to Christopher Nolan’s trilogy? Read our review for the answer: The Dark Knight Rises film review

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A look back at the Batmobiles: Batmobile Photo Gallery

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