Along with Bill Finger, comic book artist and writer Bob Kane created “the Bat-man” in 1939. Kane modeled Batman after silent film star Douglas Fairbanks, who was known for his dashing looks, physique, and athleticism. Fifty years later, Kane consulted on Tim Burton’s Batman, which opened today in 1989. Its Bruce Wayne was Michael Keaton, who seemed a far cry from Fairbanks...
So what changed? Mostly, the times. Despite some refashioning and rebooting of the Caped Crusader over the decades, he's managed to retain many of his mysterious attributes. The first attempt to bring him to the screen was through a 15-movie episode serial in 1943. Pitted against Japanese spies and ushering in the Batcave for the first time, the superhero was played by actor Lewis Wilson, who just happened to be the father of James Bond producer and screenwriter Michael G. Wilson. A followup serial, 1949’s Batman and Robin, ensued and put Robert Lowery behind the wheel of the Batmobile.
Another DC Comics superhero, Superman, grabbed the spotlight at the movies and on TV in the 1950s. But the Batman serials endured in its popularity—so much so that the Chicago’s Playboy Club sparked the return of the character on the small screen in January 1966, in living color—and with a whole new attitude to match. Tongue firmly in cheek, Adam West played Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter ego for campy laughs, in cahoots with a roster of guest villains who were also in on the joke. For as phenomenally successful as the series was when it first began airing (quickly spawning a feature film version in July 1966), the “POW!” and “ZONK!” of its reception proved difficult to sustain, and after 120 bat-episodes over three seasons, it was, as Robin might have said, “Holy cancellation, Batman!” in March 1968. But Kane noted that the show revived Batman comics, whose sales had slowed.
In 1978, Superman again took off at the movies, but it wasn’t until a decade later that the Bat-signal summoned Bruce Wayne. Inspired by darker portrayals of the character in graphic novels by Alan Moore and Frank Miller, Burton brought his pop-Gothic sensibility on the film, the No. 1 boxoffice hit of its year, which was in no small part due to Jack Nicholson’s fiendish Joker and an avalanche of merchandising that included the hot-selling tie-in of a Prince soundtrack.
Before production began, however, Warner Bros. was besieged by outraged mail, asking how Keaton had nabbed a role presumably better suited to Mel Gibson, Pierce Brosnan, or Kevin Costner. Producer Jon Peters pointed to the actor’s “edgy, tormented quality,” which Burton would probe in Batman Returns (1992). Second-guessed the first time by a wary studio, Burton (who later said he found Batman “mainly boring” and dictated by marketing considerations) lavished the sequel with stylized grotesquerie, this time distressing parents who were hoping for more of a family film. “He’s kind of psychotic,” Keaton remarked. “At first, I wasn’t willing to take it that far, but Tim was more than willing to take it that far. I read the script thinking, ‘This guy’s really angry and depressed and dark.’”
The studio, which was unwilling to take it any farther, bumped Burton to executive producer status and Keaton, now accepted by audiences, sat out two further adventures, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997). (In this fall’s Birdman, Keaton plays a failing actor, forever associated with playing a famous superhero, who attempts a Broadway comeback.) Director Joel Schumacher added nipples and a codpiece to the Batsuit and played up the more flamboyant aspects of Batman, resulting in a footnote to the career of Forever star Val Kilmer and a punchline to George Clooney’s, who said of the much ridiculed Robin, “it was weak and I was weak in it. It was a difficult film to be good in.”
So who is the best Batman? The answer may be the one you grew up with. Viewers approaching the age of Alfred the butler may fondly recall West and will get a chance to revisit him when the series makes its belated debut on home video this year. Animated TV series released in the wake of Burton’s movies, where Kevin Conroy voiced Batman, have their adherents. For Christian Bale, who was 15 when Burton’s Batman was released, it was Keaton. For today’s audiences, Bale, who assumed the cowl for Batman Begins in 2005, is the clear favorite, and maybe the only one in contention.
Eschewing camp and superhero clichés, director Christopher Nolan returned the character to hard-edged vigilante and in that film, The Dark Knight (2008’s top grosser), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) fully explored the inner torment of the damaged, conflicted Bruce Wayne. With timely references to terrorism, oppressive surveillance, and economic recession, Batman truly came of age. “He’s not a healthy individual,” Bale remarked. “This is somebody that is doing good, but he’s right on the verge of doing bad. He’s got that killer within him that he’s desperately trying to not let off his leash.”
Will Ben Affleck bring that same killer instinct to the DC mashup Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016? In a replay of the Keaton rumpus, this time conducted over the web, Bat-fans howled in protest at the casting, but he has played superheroes before, Daredevil, in 2003 and, in 2006’s Hollywoodland, as actor George Reeves, who portrayed Superman on TV. However that shakes out, Bale and the other Batmen received unexpected competition—from Lego Batman, one of the stars of this year’s current boxoffice champ, The Lego Movie. “I only work in black and sometimes very, very dark grey,” intoned Will Arnett, to the delight of a generation that was just in pull-ups when Bale began as Batman.