Editor’s note: What is it about Batman that makes him so enduring, returning again and again in comics, TVs and film and, now, in interlocking bricks? In honor of the Friday, April 15, Hop screening of The Lego Batman Movie, Sebastian Wurzrainer ’20, who previously shared the intricacies of the fantasy film genre, offers an in-depth survey of Batman movies…to date
By Sebastian Wurzrainer ’20
Making his first comic book appearance in 1939, Batman is one of the oldest superheroes (in the modern sense of that term). Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman debuted a year after Superman, which is noteworthy because in many respects the two allies are also opposites. Batman, consciously or not, seems to be a direct response to Superman’s most un-relatable qualities. Superman is Christ-like, all-powerful and alien. He is an ideal far more than he is an actual person. Batman, on the other hand, is deeply human, wounded and scarred by a traumatic childhood, and now obsessive in his attempts to purge crime in the cesspool that is Gotham City. And perhaps this speaks to why both characters have endured for such a long time. Superman is who we want to be, but Batman is much closer to who we actually are. Because, at the end of the day, most people aren’t flying saviors from another planet, yet we all have experienced tragedy or trauma like Batman. More importantly, we have all asked the question that defines his life: Now what do I do?
The newest cinematic depiction of the Dark Knight, The Lego Batman Movie, is most interesting to me because it attempts to examine different ways the core motivation of the character have been represented on film. In doing so, it points out that Bruce Wayne is essentially just an emo rich white guy who dresses up as a bat. Like so many of his superhero counterparts, he is not particularly representative of today’s diverse world. And yet, as has been noted above, his problems do seem to connect with people of all genders, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, etc. Superhero films have dominated the cinematic landscape for the past few years, so it makes sense to examine their cultural relevance. But we can’t nor shouldn’t deny that we love them also because they are fun. And Batman seems to be particularly fun. He has an iconic look, a backstory remembered by everyone, and perhaps the greatest rogue’s gallery of any superhero. Nonetheless, as The Lego Batman Movie so astutely notes, the character has evolved a great deal over the course of his 75-plus years. So perhaps now is the time to further one of the central conceits of The Lego Batman Movie and examine how the character has grown through his many cinematic adaptations. If nothing else, it will help you better appreciated some of the jokes in The Lego Batman Movie. This retrospective is not comprehensive; it simply aims to make a few fun, insightful and interesting comments about each cinematic version of the Dark Knight.
It seems only fitting to start with Batman: The Movie (1966). If The Lego Batman Movie owes a debt to any movie than it is to this film. Both are the most purely and intentionally comedic on-screen depictions of the character. Yet I prefer Batman: The Movie because I think it does a better job of questioning the mere concept of a superhero. For example, the decision to precede most nouns with “bat-” mocks the utter stupidity that often defined comic books of the time. At the height of the live-action Batman TV series’ popularity in the 1960s, producers decided to capitalize on their success by creating this, the first proper Batman film. Despite being made for the big screen, however, Batman: The Movie is essentially just an extra-extra-long episode of the TV show, featuring a delightful ensemble of villains in the form of a team-up of Penguin, Riddler, Joker and Catwoman. Adam West and Burt Ward are just as zany and unhinged as the Dynamic Duo as ever before. And the story allows for just as many priceless comedic moments, including the much-loved Bat-Shark-Repellent scene. In fact, this is one of the scenes that The Lego Batman Movie riffs on directly and it’s all the better for it.
Because of their decidedly comedic tone, both this film and the TV series had a huge impact on all future Batman film adaptations. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman is a very obvious reflection of the backlash that the TV series and its movie received; many felt that they had forever tarnished Batman’s name, transforming him from dark and comedic to campy and ridiculous. Likewise, many criticized Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin for essentially being an homage to the ’60s TV series. Nonetheless, the TV series (and, by extension, the movie that came from it) are now widely loved by a great many Batman fans. If this had been the only version of the character we ever saw on screen, we might be less forgiving. But because there have been so many other films, we can appreciate the ’60s version of Batman for what it was: a parody of superheroes in general. It was never really about Batman, it was about the genre.
When I was younger, I loved Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. Having recently re-watched it, I can safely say it is both better and worse than I remember. As mentioned above, this film was first and foremost a response to the camp of the 1960s TV show. Yet the film was also a response to the most popular Batman comics of the time, like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, and Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke. Because it drew so heavily from these sources, Batman (1989) was easily the darkest adaptation of a comic book anyone had seen at the time. The decision to hire Tim Burton as the director remains an unusual one and is likely what makes or breaks the movie for most viewers. Batman is probably Burton’s director’s most restrained work, yet I think you can only restrain him so much. Burton may nowadays find this film “boring,” but his anachronistic, gothic and quirky fingerprints are all over the final product. This manifests itself most obviously in his obsession with Jack Nicholson’s mercurial portrayal of the Joker. Batman may be the title character, yet Joker is certainly the focal point, and the screenplay seems to reflect the fractured nature of the character’s mind; the structure of the screenplay is a total mess when you really analyze it.
Yet Burton’s proclivities can still be seen, to some extent, in his treatment of Batman the character. The director fought hard to cast Michael Keaton, who had starred in his Beetlejuice (1988) film, in the role. This led to a number of infamous protests from Batman fans – who were quickly silenced when they saw the film. In the comics, Batman is almost always seen as a brutish, muscled street-fighter. Yet Keaton is a small man, almost mousy, and his portrayal of Bruce Wayne has a lot in common with Burton’s usual dark-haired loners like Edward Scissorhands. And yet, against all odds, it all works. Keaton may barely be in the film, but he is easily the most compelling thing about it. Don’t get me wrong, Nicholson is great, but Keaton’s performance is transfixing, even if it wasn’t the performance that the director focused most on. Keaton imagines Bruce Wayne not as a confident playboy but instead as a neurotic, uncomfortable man whose social skills are extraordinarily awkward. And his Batman relies far less on brute strength and far more on clever intimidation tactics. This interpretation is simultaneously starkly different from any other version of the character and extraordinarily influential on all subsequent iterations. From his depiction of Bruce Wayne as a man plagued by insecurities, to his decision to lower his voice while in the Batman costume, Keaton understandably remains the definitive on-screen Batman for many. Despite all of Batman’s flaws, it holds up surprisingly well in no small part because of him.
Batman Returns is kind of like a better version of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which I will discuss later. Its pieces work well separately but collapse when combined in a single story. Batman (1989) would have been a completely different film if Burton had been allowed total creative control; because it was successful, Warner Bros. granted Burton far more creative control for the sequel. His only restraint for this film was as follows: make a Batman film. And yet that still seems surprisingly difficult for him. Batman Returns is filled with distinctly Burton-esque ideas shoe-horned into a story that is (ostensibly) about Batman.
Batman Returns is almost more villain-centric than the first film, this time creating an uneasy and often lopsided balancing act between the Penguin and Catwoman. Both iconic villains are dramatically reinterpreted to fit Burton’s vision, and both are pieces in a story that makes even less sense than the story for the first film. Character motivation is established, forgotten, remembered and discarded throughout the screenplay because, frankly, this isn’t a movie about characters or a story. It’s a movie about Tim Burton’s wild imagination. Sometimes that imagination manages to function quite effectively within the Batman mythology and sometimes it doesn’t. Consider two memorable moments from the film: 1. Penguin bites a person’s nose off; and 2. Catwoman straddles Batman on a rooftop and, instead of kissing him, gives him a highly sexual cat-like lick. The first scene is one of many moments where the film feels grotesque for the sake of being grotesque. Yet the second scene, as uncomfortable and bizarre as it is, actually works. It takes the pre-established relationship between Batman and Catwoman and explores it in a new and interesting way that is still fully in line with Burton’s vision.
Batman Returns contains a number of highly enjoyable elements. Keaton is, once again, fantastic and is at least allowed to play a somewhat larger role. Michelle Pfeiffer is likewise wonderful as Catwoman in what may be the definitive on-screen interpretation of the character. And the film’s visual style is wonderfully inventive, as you would expect from the man behind Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. But this style also proves to be a problem because Batman Returns isn’t Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands, despite what Burton might desperately wish.
After Tim Burton’s Batman was a smash success, TV’s Batman: The Animated Series was given the go-ahead and became a massive hit in its own right, and gave birth to the feature film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993). I sometimes wonder if this film is primarily a response to Burton’s Batman. While I will always have a greater nostalgic love for Burton’s film, there’s no denying that Mask of the Phantasm is simultaneously a more cohesive film and a more faithful adaptation of the source material. Nonetheless, like Burton, the creators still invent elements for the sake of the story, including the character of the villainous Phantasm. They also deepen Bruce Wayne’s backstory, adding never-before-seen pieces that help form a more three-dimensional character. In fact, parts of this film play like a proto-Batman Begins. I think the reason that the additions to the source material often work better here than they do in Burton’s films is because here they seem more respectful. The creators appear to be genuinely reverent of the source material. They aren’t interesting in changing it but, instead, enhancing it.
Kevin Conroy and Mark Hammill have together become the two voices most associated with Batman and the Joker. For some fans, it isn’t a Batman story unless those two actors are involved. It’s not hard to see why. Their dynamic is crucial to the TV show and is beautifully translated into this film. But, thankfully, unlike Batman: The Movie (1966), Mask of the Phantasm doesn’t feel like an extended episode of the TV series. It is distinctly cinematic with a story that feels suitably epic. That probably explains why many agree it is not just the best animated Batman film but one of the best Batman films in general.
After parents reacted negatively to the moral murkiness of Batman Returns, Warner Bros. sought out a different director to helm the third film, Batman Forever (1995). Although some claim Burton chose to depart the franchise, many suspect the studio played a significant role in transitioning to Joel Schumacher. Schumacher was asked to make a more kid-friendly film, something that might placate those angered parents. Yet the studio still wanted a sequel to Batman Returns, which went contrary to Schumacher’s desire to reboot the franchise and adapt Frank Miller’s origin story Batman: Year One. Therefore, it is no surprise that Batman Forever is one of the biggest tonal shifts in film franchise history because everyone involved wanted things to change. Whereas Burton imagined Gotham city as gnarled, growing out of the asphalt like a tumor, Schumacher imagines it as colorful and neon-lit.
The film’s two villains are the Riddler (Jim Carrey) and Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), and neither character properly serviced by the screenplay. The creators of Batman: The Animated Series acknowledged that they rarely used the Riddler simply because he was such a difficult character to write for. I suspect that, despite fan expectations, Christopher Nolan chose not to use that character for The Dark Knight Rises for similar reasons. In Batman Forever, the riddles are childishly simple, just like the characterization. The Riddler isn’t the Riddler, he’s Jim Carrey dressed in a green spandex outfit with question marks on it. Likewise, Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face is a joke. Billy Dee Williams, who played Harvey Dent in Batman (1989), admitted that he only took the role so he could eventually transform into Two-Face. But the producers of Batman Forever decided they’d prefer Jones for the role; Jones is a great actor but he clearly has no understanding of his character. In fact, neither does the screenplay.
Once Tim Burton left, it only seemed natural that Michael Keaton would also step down as Batman, thus opening the door for hundreds of potential candidates (apparently, Johnny Depp was considered, which would have been interesting). The eventual replacement was Val Kilmer, hot off the heels of Tombstone (1993) and True Romance (1993). Interestingly enough, Batman creator Bob Kane admitted that Kilmer’s portrayal was his favorite on-screen version of the character. And, to some extent, it makes sense. Kilmer’s Batman may be brooding, but he is also distinctly more heroic than Keaton’s Batman. Whether or not that’s an improvement, though, is a matter of personal taste.
One of the things that Batman Forever did do well is for the first time incorporate Robin (the Dick Grayson version) into a film. His origin story isn’t identical to the comics’, but it bears much of the same emotional weight. In fact, a lot of Batman Forever hints at the potential for more depth. And that’s probably because there was more depth. Schumacher and his screenwriters have confessed that a significant subplot involving Bruce Wayne rediscovering his past after amnesia was excised from the final cut. Watching those deleted scenes isn’t particularly easy, but from what little I’ve seen, it certainly seems as though the best part of the film was left on the cutting room floor. Batman Forever is, therefore, enjoyable yet, unsurprisingly, it feels rather neutered.
Batman and Robin (1997) kills Batman. It stabs the Caped Crusader in the back and then rips his heart out. When seen from that perspective, it’s hard not to think of the film as anything other than cinematic excrement. But from a completely different perspective, Batman and Robin might tie with The Room (2003) for the title of “best” worst film ever made. It is a case study in how not to adapt a beloved character. The choices made here are so utterly bewildering that it continues to astonish me that some studio executive didn’t pull the plug on this film half-way through production. Batman and Robin has become a cinematic punchline, but I actually think that may have significantly helped its reputation. It is so terrible that at least people remember it.
After the incredible success of Batman Forever, Joel Schumacher was retained as the director but was saddled with studio demands to involve toy companies in the production for maximum profit. So was anyone really surprised that the film ultimately had the aesthetic and maturity of a children’s toy commercial? I think this ultimately gets to the heart of why the film feels so rank and awful. Many have compared it to the Adam West Batman TV series, yet that raises the following question: If people generally like the Adam West series, then why do they hate Batman and Robin? I think it’s because, while both are campy and silly, the TV series uses its humor cleverly, often satirizing the superhero genre, whereas Batman and Robin’s “humor” is lacks that subtlety.
As such, trying to make insightful comments on how this film adapts the Batman character is nearly impossible. But try I shall. After rumors of a tension-filled working relationship, Joel Schumacher decided not to recast Val Kilmer (or Val Kilmer decided not to return; the story differs depending on whose telling it), and thus George Clooney stepped in. Clooney is an excellent actor and his portrayal of the playboy Bruce Wayne isn’t half bad. Sadly, it’s the only character he plays in the film, whereas the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman is actually three characters: the false suave playboy Bruce Wayne, the turmoil-filled Bruce Wayne seen only by those close to him, and the raging beast that is Batman. Clooney admits that he dismissed Batman’s darker side when he took the part, arguing that the character’s depths had already been done to death in previous installments. He plays all three facets of the character as one: smug, cocksure and insincere. The overall film is actually quite similar: It only knows how to function as a smug and insincere guilty pleasure because the rest of its brainpower is focused on counting the box-office revenue and thus too busy to care about the Batman mythology.
After the abject failure of Batman and Robin, Warner Bros. needed a really brilliant idea if they wanted to save Batman from irrelevance. Of course, many not-so-brilliant ideas were tossed around, including making a fifth Batman film with Joel Schumacher, adapting Batman: Year One, and doing a Batman and Superman movie.
But what was the actual brilliant idea that not only saved the Batman franchise but helped elevate comic book films to a whole new status? Rather than hire a proven director of blockbusters, to hire a 33-year-old British-American filmmaker known for independent psychological thrillers who had just finished his third and most expensive film, with a budget of $46 million; and to give him more than three times that amount to revive one of American culture’s most iconic characters to make him relevant to modern audiences and also turn a profit. On paper, this pitch sounds absurd, or at the very least unreasonably risky. It also proved to be the saving grace of the Batman franchise.
Many, myself included, consider Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy to be the definitive cinematic interpretation of the Batman character, and for good reason: they are all great films. And, fundamentally, that is because they are great stories. A big-budget blockbuster director could have made a good new Batman film, but it would have been more of the same. Nolan clearly loves the Batman character, but he also understood there is more than one way to tell a superhero’s story on film. His first major innovation: focus on the “hero” before the “super.” All previous Batman films suffer from this problem: the scripts and filmmakers often struggle to care about Bruce Wayne when he’s out of costume. A great actor like Michael Keaton can elevate the material and still create a fascinating and three-dimensional character, but it’s still clear that developing Bruce Wayne as fully rounded was never the intention of Tim Burton and his screenwriters. It is however, Nolan’s first, second and third intention in Batman Begins. The film runs for over an hour before Batman makes an appearance in costume, yet it is one of the most compelling hours in any superhero film.
The story details Bruce Wayne’s complex development from frightened child to angry young man to the Batman. This opening act proved to be so successful that many, many films, superhero or otherwise, imitated it after the release of Batman Begins, failing to understand why it worked. Nolan’s carefully planned evolution of Bruce Wayne into Batman is engaging not just because it cleverly tells us Batman’s origins, but because it allows us to care about Bruce Wayne. Christian Bale remains, as far as I am concerned, the definitive Batman, and I will fight anyone who disagrees with me on that point. Bale works as the character in no small part because his extensive range as an actor allows him to fully capture every side to Bruce Wayne’s personality. His playboy Bruce Wayne is even more of an egotistical fop than before, his “private-life” Bruce Wayne is even more conflicted than before, and his depiction of Batman is the most frightening on-screen portrayal of the character in film. During his audition, Bale took Keaton’s idea that Batman would speak in a lower register to a whole new level. His Batman speaks with an infamous growl meant to intimidate those around him as well as fully divide the character’s identities. Many think the growl is silly. It is. Also brilliant.
Batman Begins really introduced the idea of hyperreal comic book adaptations to mainstream audiences, even though in retrospect it is probably far less gritty and real than its immediate sequel, at least in terms of cinematography. Nonetheless, like all of Nolan’s films, it contains a sort of emotional realism that had never really been seen before – and rarely since, I would argue – in a superhero film. Bruce Wayne, Ra’s-al-Ghul, Jim Gordon, Rachel Dawes, Jonathan Crane, Alfred aren’t just pieces on a chess board maneuvering their way towards a bombastic climax. They feel like real human beings with real motivations. And thus a film about a man who dresses like a flying rat is able to feel as emotionally real as any other.
What is the greatest comic book film of all time? The answer: The Dark Knight (2008). I will argue that point for as long as I live (or at least until someone makes a better comic book film, which seems unlikely). There is a phrase that is often bandied about when a film reaches an unexpected audience: “It is a (such and such) film for people who don’t like (such and such) films.” Indeed, The Dark Knight has been referred to by many as “a superhero film for people who don’t like superhero films.” Batman Begins is a great film, but I doubt it has the potential to appeal to people who don’t already like superhero films; that’s because it works hard to redefine the potential of that genre within the restraints of the genre. While The Dark Knight is most definitely a superhero film, it is also so much more. Even my Mother, who did not care for Batman Begins or The Dark Knight Rises, acknowledged that there was something about The Dark Knight that made it uniquely special.
It’s commonly assumed that The Dark Knight felt fresh because it was so dark. I don’t think that’s what it is; we’ve seen dark before in the likes of Burton’s Batman. Dark isn’t so fresh in this day and age. No, what made The Dark Knight special was that it took the conflict of Batman and the Joker and used it to ask intense and often uncomfortable moral questions. If a loved one’s life was in danger, would you kill an innocent man? If you had to choose between your life and the lives of hundreds of convicted criminals, how would you choose? If you had to choose between the lives of two dear friends, who would you choose? And yet the brilliance of The Dark Knight is that it doesn’t just play like some college student’s philosophy essay adapted into a screenplay. It places these complex ethical questions in the midst of a story where they work. Batman believes that there is value in upholding conventional morality, whereas the Joker laughs at that notion. So, which one of them is right? The movie spends its entire run time asking that question, but, wisely, it never answers.
Much of the praise for this film has been rightfully attributed to Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker. The Joker may be my favorite fictional villain of all time, and Ledger’s portrayal is certainly my favorite version. Ledger imagines the Joker as an elemental force of chaos, a demon with a clown’s face – yet his Joker is so frightening in part because he often has a valid point. Society can fall prey to apathy and people will often abandon their moral codes when it suits them. Moreover, we all have a small pieces of the Joker in us. We are all capable of being suspicious of other people’s moral codes, and sometimes we too just want to watch the world burn. Thus, the Joker is terrifying in no small part because he isn’t psychologically un-relatable. Instead, he is an extreme, a warped monster whose nihilism exaggerates the worst qualities that we all try to keep hidden. He is also often extraordinarily funny. Ledger manages to make to a murderous clown chilling and yet also magnetically engaging; that is no small feat. In addition, Christian Bale is, once again, fantastic, as is the rest of the cast. Aaron Eckhart is especially good as Harvey Dent, the District Attorney who is transformed into Two-Face in the film’s most tragic character arc. Speaking of arcs, I love that the film doesn’t really follow the traditional three-act structure of its predecessor and sequel. Instead it, rather like Burton’s Batman, reflects the Joker’s mindset with an unusual story. Unlike Burton’s film, though, the story here has a very real goal; it aims to be a great modern tragedy. With superheroes. That sounds impossible, but it works, and then some.
Like its predecessors, The Dark Knight Rises (2012) was widely praised upon its release. Yet there remains a small but vocal minority of viewers who thoroughly despise the film, arguing that it detracts considerably from the overall quality of The Dark Knight Trilogy. And I have to admit, as much as I love this film, it is easily the weakest of Nolan’s Batman films. Its most basic problem is story-related: the screenplay feels like a second or third draft, not a final shooting script. The villain’s plan makes absolutely no sense when you think about it: Bane (Tom Hardy) wants to hold Gotham hostage, incite a revolution and yet also blow it up? And somehow this will avenge the death of Ra’s-al-Ghul from the first film while also playing into the theme of the haves vs. the have-nots. Like I said, it makes no sense. The pacing is also choppy, resulting in some sequences that are extended for far too long and some sequences that need more time and attention. The film also contains barely any Batman and a number of muddled subplots.
Yet there is no denying that The Dark Knight Rises is still magnificent filmmaking. Rises was Nolan’s most ambitious film up to that point, and I only have admiration for his attempts to create an epic reminiscent of the kind of film that might have come out 50 years ago. However, like all of Nolan’s films, Rises also pursues a more modern desire for complex and intricate storytelling. Thus, the screenplay draws from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and touches on terrorism, class warfare, the Occupy Wall Street movement and more. Often its reach exceeds its grasp, but that truly is an impressive reach. It wants to be a great moral play, political and social commentary and also an epic finale for a behemoth comic-book franchise – goals it goes far toward achieving. The film is always entertaining and is filled with memorable characters, including the homicidal, knitting, strong-man villain Bane and the ever duplicitous Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) – less villainous than Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, but no less intriguing.
The film draws heavily from a number of classic Batman stories, including Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. As in that story, here Bruce Wayne is old and retired, hobbling around on a cane, unable to fully move on from the legacy of Batman. The film follows his eventual return to the cape and cowl before fully relinquishing the Batman persona and passing it on to a younger generation. I think this is why, despite all its flaws, The Dark Knight Rises still works for so many people: It fulfills a promise that audiences didn’t even realize was being made in Batman Begins. In Batman Begins, Nolan allowed us to understand how Batman became Batman. We never realized that one day he would show us how Batman ended. More importantly, I don’t think most people realized how satisfying it would be to see such a complete character arc play our over three film. That is just one of the many reasons why The Dark Knight Trilogy is the greatest comic book film series of all time.
Just as The Dark Knight Rises draws from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, so too does Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The difference is that Rises effectively uses that source material as the template for a satisfying conclusion to a grand character arc. Batman v. Superman uses a completely different part of The Dark Knight Returns as the template for the film’s central conflict, but it fails to do anything satisfying with it. Batman v. Superman is filled with scenes and ideas that have potential but, quite frankly, do not even remotely belong in the same movie together. I think this problem can best be seen in a character who is neither Batman nor Superman: Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Wonder Woman is easily the best thing about Batman v. Superman, yet for the sake of story cohesion she probably shouldn’t even be in the film. Batman v. Superman is ostensibly a sequel to Man of Steel, but really it’s Batman .5, Wonder Woman .3, Man of Steel 1.5, and Justice League .1.
Ben Affleck’s casting as the Caped Crusader was met with much derision, which is unsurprising given how poorly he did in a previous superhero outing, Marvel’s Daredevil (2003). However, he ultimately proved to be one of the film’s strongest features; Affleck actually seems to care about his character, in contrast to the likes of Henry Cavill and Amy Adams ,who appear to be phoning in their performances. Affleck’s commitment also stood in stark contrast to Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor who…honestly, I have no idea what he was doing in this movie. While The Dark Knight Rises may have done a much better job of adapting The Dark Knight Returns, Affleck’s Batman was, nonetheless, much closer to Miller’s characterization of the brooding vigilante. His Batman is brutal and extreme, almost like a rabid, methodical bulldog let off its leash.
The extremity of the character was somewhat controversial among fans. Batman in Batman v. Superman clearly kills some individuals, which caused an uproar. But Batman killed, or at least was clearly willing to kill, in Burton’s first Batman. So, what gives? Why have attitudes about this aspect of the character changed? I think it speaks to the impact of Nolan’s films. The Dark Knight Trilogy makes Batman’s “no killing” rule a huge plot point, and this clearly impacted the way audiences perceived Batman v. Superman. This problem was furthered by the screenplay’s characterization problem. Affleck’s performance may be good, but he plays a character with little thought-out motivation. While watching the film, I oscillated between finding Batman’s fear of Superman justified and horrifically xenophobic. Eventually I realized that it was probably neither, and that the director and the writers hadn’t bothered to fully understand their character’s actions. They weren’t trying to create a character and a story that was “open-ended,” they just didn’t care. Thus, the film regresses back to the pre-Nolan days in that the filmmakers and the film itself struggle to care about Bruce Wayne when he is out of the cowl. Like many of its predecessors, the most recent film version of Batman is filled with potential but frequently doesn’t get a chance to shine.
Joel Schumacher, the man widely considered to have killed Batman for a few years, made one of the most insightful comments about the character during the “Making of” documentary for Batman and Robin. He tells a story about Jerry Weintraub introducing him to Colonel Tom Parker, who discovered and managed Elvis. Apparently, Elvis was so beloved and famous that when he died Parker was able to send Elvis’s suit around the country and make a fortune. As Schumacher puts it, “Batman is like Elvis.” And he’s absolutely right. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Adam West or Kevin Conroy or Michael Keaton or Val Kilmer or George Clooney or Christian Bale or Ben Affleck who dons the cape and cowl and announces, “I’m Batman.” They are all Batman and yet none of them are Batman. Batman is Batman. He will astound and terrify in better adaptations and he will dutifully weather the worse ones. But fundamentally he will never really change. Perhaps that’s not for the worse. After all, he is Batman.
Sebastian is a first year from Coupeville, WA. He intends to major in film studies and minor in psychology. He is currently a film critic for The Dartmouth.