The Many Masks of Batman

Batman’s film history is long and varied, from campy to dark and gritty and everywhere in between.

Batman’s career in film is one of the most remarkable journeys ever taken by a fictional character. The amount of movies isn’t entirely impressive, nine feature films with a tenth coming next summer. James Bond has doubled that number and Godzilla crushes both of them combined. What’s fascinating about Batman is his effect on the world of popular culture, and film in particular.

His first major success on the silver screen came in 1966. Although he had appeared in several popular serials in the 1920’s, 1966 was his first major theatrical release. The film was based on the popular ABC show staring Adam West and Burt Ward. Campy, over the top, and ridiculous are all very good descriptions of the show and the movie that was spawned from it. The whole film screams comedy and light-hearted fun and it’s this image of Batman that stuck with the American psyche up until Tim Burton came along.

Michael Keaton as Batman (1989)
Michael Keaton as Batman (1989)

Tim Burton’s take on Batman in 1989 changed how the character would be seen forever. And it changed how studios made large scale adaptations. The Superman franchise was just winding down with an underwhelming fourth installment, and it seemed that the man of steel was going to take all comic book films down with him. The Superman franchise relied heavily on good feelings and light hearted humor. Christopher Reeves was a perfectly happy actor who always fought for the good of the world, no exceptions. Then Batman came along. Tim Burton’s film showed that comic books could lean toward the dark side of the film. Corruption and moral ambiguity, although not obvious, existed in the film and became a hit with audiences. In the course of a single movie, Batman went from a clown, to the dark knight.

Tim Burton’s next installment would push the envelope even further and move it and all other comic book films in the 90’s to a more dark and corrupted world. Heroes were no longer fighting one man bent on world conquest, but now they could fight entire corrupt regimes. Eventually though, all good franchises must come to an end, and thus was the fate of the 90’s era Batman. Joel Schumacher would make to more films that left a bad taste in a lot of fans mouths. But in 2005 DC would take another gamble with another relatively unknown director and change the way Comic book movies are made.

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Christian Bale in Batman Begins (2005)
Christian Bale in Batman Begins (2005)

Batman Begins is the start of a movement often referred to as ‘the dark and gritty reboot.’ It has become a cliché now, but at the time it was jaw dropping. Placing Batman in the most realistic scenarios, and showing what he was really capable of completely changed the way that comic book movies were done. In the course of a single film entire franchises dropped their cheerful cover in an attempt to mimic Batman’s success. This push toward dark realism was accelerated with the release of Nolan’s second Batman film.

The Dark Knight changed the world of film. It went beyond just an adaptation and was itself a great film. With a brilliant screenplay, phenomenal atmosphere and Oscar level acting the movie destroyed box office records. And every production company took notice. Comic book films were no longer childish movies that occasionally aimed at more adult fans. High profile actors are now proud to wear the tight spandex of superheroes. Ever sense comic book films have been held to a higher standard.

When Batman first appeared he changed the face of comic books. Now, almost a century later, his stories have changed film and popular culture at large. No matter the actor, no matter the time era, the Caped Crusader always has another trick in his utility belt that is capable of captivating audiences.

John Kniles

John Kniles is a film fanatic and an avid fiction writer.


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