Celebrating 50 Years of Batman in Film!

The Batman franchise has been a 50 year roller coaster ride for fans and movie-makers alike. The five different directors and six different actors have brought out innumerable qualities and characteristics to the caped crusader. However, the three characteristics that remain constant are that Batman is a wealthy, intelligent, mysterious vigilante. Whether or not he is incredibly sexy, stoically funny, intensely serious, intimidatingly confident, or internally tormented, has all depended on the actor/director team during his 50 years of on-screen representation. 

The beauty of the franchise is that Batman not only evolves, but transforms, like any myth, depending on the storyteller, or the actor/director team. Each team reveals a side of Batman that makes him an eclectic and complex character. With so many personality traits, it is no wonder he's such an iconic character in American culture. He offers a vast array of lessons for all of his fans.


Batman: The Movie (1966)


Actor: Adam West

Director: Leslie H. Martinson

50 years ago, the first Batman movie framed the caped crusader in a campy attitude of humor and lightheartedness. Nevertheless, actor Adam West stated that he knew the character needed to be seriously portrayed. Therefore, he never laughed during the TV series (which he also starred in during the same time) or in the movie, no matter how hilariously absurd the logic of the scenes were. For example, the beginning of the movie sets up the disappearance of a yacht while Batman gets attacked by a stuffed shark that he defeats with Shark Repellant he just happens to have in his Bat Copter. (HA!) When the heroes are trying to figure out who the villains are, the logic really becomes laughably ridiculous, giving the whole movie it's campy feel. Robin says that the yacht disappeared in the "Sea...C...Catwoman!" - and Commissioner Gordon says, "Yes what an interesting riddle...The Riddler!" Two other silly statements confirm for our heroes that The Joker and The Penguin are also involved. Both Martinson and West wanted the audience to laugh and be entertained, and the team succeeded. Flash forward 23 years and Warner Brothers decide, with some trepidation, to reincarnate Batman, and start a new movie franchise with mixed results.


Batman (1989)

Actor: Michael Keaton

Director: Tim Burton

Michael Keaton was originally a comedian, and fans were shocked that Tim Burton chose him to play the first Batman since the 1966 version. However, he performed well as Batman, embodying a mysterious, contemplative bachelor. While his character remained more serious, The Joker was framed more as a prankster instead of the intelligent mad man we see 19 years later in The Dark Knight. Jack Nicholson’s characterization of The Joker helped keep the movie lively while Batman’s character was more realistic and solemn than the 1966 version. Burton succeeded in making a family-friendly film in Batman, but he didn’t succeed in that regard in its sequel, Batman Returns.


Batman Returns (1992) 

Actor: Michael Keaton

Director: Tim Burton

Themes that are common to the Batman franchise (and mythology in general) are reflected in Batman Returns. The Penguin was born into a wealthy family, just like Batman. The difference was that The Penguin’s family cast him out because of an act of violence toward a cat, and Batman’s parents died tragically by being shot by a mugger. The pain of abandonment is felt by both characters, even though the results of their tragedies are different. The Penguin seeks revenge for his years of ostracism by trying to kill all of the first-born children in Gotham, while Batman fights to avenge his parents by becoming a vigilante to fight for justice in his city. This theme clearly reflects that people can experience similar tragedies in life, many of which are inevitable, and use them to do good or to do evil. Burton shaped this film with a darker tone, and its violence shocked the audience because they had been expecting something more similar to the first movie. To make matters worse, McDonald’s offered toys in their happy meals based on the films. And while that may not seem problematic, many parents at the time were enraged that toys from such a violent film would be offered to their children.  They used the most effective medium of their era (snail mail) to express their outrage, and their protests eventually led to Tim Burton never directing another Batman film.


Batman Forever (1995)

Actor: Val Kilmer

Director: Joel Schumacher

New director Joel Schumacher followed Warner Brothers orders to make the next Batman movie less violent and more family friendly. Val Kilmer provided a more sensual Batman than Michael Keaton had, and that sensuality extended to his costume design. This film was the first to add nipples onto the batman breastplate, which was very controversial at the time. However, even I as a lesbian can appreciate a good hard Batman nipple, Rrraarr.

While reviews for this installment are mixed, it was popular in the box office (in part because of Schumacher’s casting of Jim Cary as the Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones as Two Face), and grossed more than $336 million worldwide. However, despite the fact that audiences enjoyed Kilmer’s sexy characterization of Batman, his relationship with the director was full of conflict, and that caused Schumacher to cast a different actor for his next Batman film.


Batman and Robin (1997)

Actor: George Clooney

Director: Joel Schumacher

Unfortunately, Batman and Robin was a huge blow to the franchise. The nipples that had been so (controversially) satisfying for American audiences, did not work for George Clooney. He even humbly acknowledged not having been great in the role of Batman. To make matters worse, Arnold Scwarzenegger played the role of Mr. Freeze with too much enthusiasm to satisfy audiences at the time. While Schumacher tried to give a campier feel to the movie that reflected the original 1966 film, 1997 America was over it. Personally, I enjoyed this movie solely for the introduction and gorgeous representation of Poison Ivy, played by Uma Therman. I may or may not have had a mild awakening during this movie because of her character. Either way, because the film bombed and won satirical awards (such as the Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actress: Alicia Silverstone, Worst Director: Joel Schumacher, and Worst Screen Couple: George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell), the franchise took a back seat until the epic revitalization of the Dark Knight Trilogy eight years later.


Batman Begins (2005)

Actor: Christian Bale

Director: Christopher Nolan

Batman Begins is the first installment of what would later be known as The Dark Knight Trilogy because of the overwhelming success of the second film by the same name. As the title suggests, Batman Begins explores Batman’s origin story. The inner struggle he faces is his own fear, and he would later use fear to intimidate and outwit the criminals of Gotham.  He recognized – and for some time ran away from – the injustice he felt in the city he was born in and loved. Most of those that made up the justice system were bribed to allow crime to be swept under the rug instead of being prosecuted. What makes this film – and the whole trilogy – so beautiful is its complexity and exploration of humanity. His mentor Ra’s al Ghul, who later becomes an enemy, teaches him how to overcome his fear so he can bring justice to Gotham. The dynamic between Batman and Ra’s al Ghul creates the perfect conflict. The inner struggle of knowing where to draw the line when fighting for justice, and of whether or not it’s morally acceptable to take a life for the sake of the greater good is Batman’s greatest struggle in this story. When Batman refuses to kill a man to become part of the elusive, secret society called the League of Shadows, he splits with his mentor, and accepts his fate of becoming the sole vigilante for Gotham. Inspired by one of the lessons from his mentor, Bruce Wayne uses a symbol that is eternal, even as he knows that morality is subjective and seemingly futile. And Batman is born.


The Dark Knight (2008)

Actor: Christian Bale

Director: Christopher Nolan

The beauty of The Dark Knight is revealed in its depth of exploring the darkness, as well as the lightness, that is capable within humanity. Batman is the representation of Order, while Joker is the representation of Chaos. This is a persistent archetype in a lot of mythology, and is brilliantly depicted in this film. This film dualistically explores the depth of human nature and the capacity each of us has to choose good or evil depending on our natures, or how we perceive trauma. The Joker states “Everyone is only one push from madness,” to prove to Batman that no matter your intentions or background, everyone is capable of experiencing trauma and choosing evil instead of good. While Harvey Dent is persuaded by Joker to seek revenge, Batman is steadfastly good, going so far as to sacrifice himself to become a scapegoat for Gotham. He allows the people of Gotham to hold onto their totem of hope that was Harvey Dent, before he was transformed into Two Face. This film is so successful because it is so emotionally moving, and it leads directly to the way in which Batman will take up the helm of hero again in The Dark Knight Rises.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Actor: Christian Bale

Director: Christopher Nolan

In The Dark Knight Rises, it has been eight years since Batman took the fall for Harvey Dent so Gotham could feel some sense of order in the aftermath of the chaos created by The Joker in The Dark Knight. Bane is introduced and wreaks havoc on Gotham at a pace that is too much for the police to handle. Batman, with the help of Catwoman (despite the fact he can’t quite tell where her loyalties lie), fights against Bane and his cronies. In the end, Batman redeems himself by creating the illusion that he sacrificed himself for Gotham by flying a nuclear bomb away from Gotham, and seemingly being destroyed by it.  But in the end, he is seen at a café in Florence with Catwoman, safe and sound, putting his Batman days behind him. This film, while good, was not as creatively or commercially successful as The Dark Knight. But never fear! Warner Brothers has initiated a new series that includes the famous DC Trinity of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman.


Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) 

Actor: Ben Affleck

Director: Zach Snyder

When Zach Snyder chose Ben Affleck to play Batman, the response by fans was much like the original response to Michael Keaton. Affleck had played superheroes in the past, and the movies had not been well received. Affleck plays Batman in this film as an older hero, who is tired, but still wants to fight for justice. He is very close to giving up because his is a thankless job. Wonder Woman dealt with this as well, which is why she was off the grid for years. Batman Vs. Superman received mixed reviews, and for me, it was poor in scene transitions, and that made it too choppy to be enjoyable. However, its redeeming quality was (of course) the introduction of Wonder Woman in all her glory, and the general themes the movie explored. Batman is infuriated that Superman and his extraterrestrial problems are affecting his fellow human beings. Lex Luthor kidnaps Superman’s adopted mother and threaten to kill her unless he brings him Batman’s head. Lex Luthor effectively sets up the biggest conflict Gotham and Metropolis has ever seen, with what he phrases as “God Vs. Man.” What I love about this movie is that once Batman and Superman find a personal connection – the fact that their mothers have the same name – and they find a greater enemy than their conflict, they come together to save the world. The beauty of the juxtaposition of chaos and order, which seems to be a theme in many of the darker Batman films, is that each character (just like us in the audience) has the capacity to choose good or evil, and act on that choice. Also, when chaos is macrocosmic in nature, people tend to come together to fight for order. They let go of their concerns about their differences, or what has separated them, and build a team. Solidarity certainly creates a beautiful, cohesive experience when a group of people choose to do good while dealing with crisis. While Batman Vs. Superman did a mediocre job of introducing the new series of this franchise, fans are still excited to see Batman on the screen, and we look forward to future installments, which promise to incorporate the much-loved original three in The Justice League.

Batman is indeed a very complex hero, and has been a very eclectic character on-screen. Over the course of 50 years, he has been shaped into a dazzling array of personalities that audiences have been able to identify with, be seduced by, be inspired by, and learn from. The caped crusader changes, depending on the Actor/Director team representing him. But no matter what, he remains one of the most significant figures in American Culture. He is someone to look up to, and admire. He reminds us to always choose the higher path, despite the difficulties we might face. His symbol remains timeless, and fans everywhere are looking forward to what side of him we will see next.

We want to hear from you! What Batman film is your favorite and why? Comment below!


Trish McNeely's picture
on June 7, 2016

Southern Appalachian Lesbian. Writer. Feminist. Avid Reader. Geek. Pokémon Fan. Sailor Moon Fan. Cowboy Bebop Fan. Strong Female Character Fan. Plaid and Argyle Anything Fan.