When it comes to comic-book characters, Batman holds the distinction of being the one with most adaptations. It appears as though there is one Batman for every generation. This DC Comics character has been played by Hollywood superstars like Michael Keaton, George Clooney, Christian Bale, and most recently, Ben Affleck. And it seems we are done with even Batfleck, and a newer, younger actor might don the cape again. Today is Batman Day, and on the occasion, let us have a brief look at the Dark Knight’s complicated journey through live-action television and cinema.
The first major adaptation of the character was the Batman TV series in the 1960s, which starred the legendary Adam West as the cowled crimefighter. Even now, more than half a century later, the series remains funny and colourful, although Batman’s onscreen image has transformed rather drastically. West’s Batman was not afraid to laugh, crack jokes and make puns, and together with his ward/sidekick Robin, he fought crime. To a modern Batman fan, this series would seem like a parody, and in a way, it was. The suit was ill-fitting, and Adam West would not be anybody’s idea of a ripped Caped Crusader.
There was a movie on Batman too in that era, but it was just like an overlong episode of the TV series. Entertaining and funny certainly it was, but it added little to what the TV series had already done. The next major adaptation of the character came in Tim Burton’s movies. Michael Keaton was cast in the role in a choice that surprised many. In 1989, came Batman, and the character became the one we know. All you fans of the Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, you have Burton to thank.
While Batman was always a dark, complex character with more depth than your typical comic-book superhero, it was with Frank Miller’s seminal 1986 comic-book story The Dark Knight Returns that the Gotham City’s protector became the man we know – dark, brooding, tactically brilliant and, when needed, utterly ruthless. While Burton’s Batman did not have an old, jaded Batman like in Miller’s story, it was influenced by it.
Burton followed Batman with a stellar sequel in 1992, called Batman Returns, which also received positive reviews and commercial success. What happened afterwards, however, is shameful. Warner Bros, the studio that owns DC, decided that while Burton’s Batman movies were a success, they did not make enough money. Joel Schumacher was brought in to direct the follow-ups to Burton’s films but Keaton dropped out, not liking the direction Batman movies were going. While Batman Forever (1995) was a success, it received mixed reviews. Its sequel, Batman and Robin, starring George Clooney, after Kilmer’s exit, was a straight disaster, and is still considered the worst superhero movie of all time. And that is saying something about a genre that has had Daredevil and Catwoman.
A certain young filmmaker Christopher Nolan, then known for his low-budget indie film Memento, pitched his take on Batman in 2003, and Batman Begins was scheduled for release in 2005. Starring Christian Bale in the titular role, the film introduced an origin story of the character, something that was not done in film before. The fans saw how the man we call Batman came to be. With an unusually strong supporting cast for a superhero movie, Batman Begins was commercial comic-book filmmaking wedded with solid screenplay and direction.
Batman Begins was an out-and-out success, but its last scene teased the future appearance of Batman’s archvillain, the Joker. Fans were eager to see what Nolan’s Joker would look like. Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Burton’s movies was still the gold standard back then.
The Dark Knight came in 2008 and changed superhero movies forever. Heath Ledger’s casting in Joker’s role had been controversial. The film released, and nobody complained. Ledger infused the role with a deadly charisma and eerie mannerisms that, Nolan later admitted, were devised by the actor himself. This was no goofy prankster. This was a malevolent, murderous agent of chaos. Batman, that world’s greatest detective, struggled to understand the enigma of the Joker. He sought a rationale, and was horrified to discover that there is none.
The conclusion The Dark Knight Rises, featuring Tom Hardy’s hulking Bane as the Big Bad, was even more successful, commercially speaking, though less so critically. By then, DC was building its own cinematic universe à la Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nolan and Christian Bale left DC. Ben Affleck was cast in the role for 2016’s Batman v Superman, as a grizzled, Frank Miller-esque Batman. Even though the movie divided critics, Affleck’s take on the character was praised almost universally. However, some fans took exception to his trigger-happy ways. Batman in comics and everywhere else generally abstains from killing people. Batfleck had no such misgivings. Affleck reprised the role in last year’s Justice League.
Matt Reeves, known for directing Andy Serkis starrer Planet of the Apes series, is making a Batman movie. All we know about it is that the film would be based on a younger Batman. Currently, the film is in the pre-production stage, and Reeves is penning the script. Affleck is most likely out of DC film universe, and we will soon get to see yet another actor transforming into the Dark Knight. One thing is certain – there is nothing like too much Batman.