The Batman franchise has been one of the most successful in history. The concept of Batman on film has gone through many incarnations. The most recent version included The Dark Knight, currently the third highest grossing film of all time. But before that, there have been many different versions of Batman on film. Here’s a look at the history of Batman on the big screen.
Batman first appeared in comic books in 1939. It took almost thirty years for him to appear in a full length movie. Batman: The Movie was released in 1966 after the success of a 1960’s TV series. Adam West was the first to portray the Caped Crusader on the big screen, as he had on the television series. Batman: The Movie saw Batman and his sidekick Robin taking on four of the most famous villains in Penguin, Joker, Catwoman, and the Riddler. The film is famous for its very campy nature. The movie takes place almost entirely in daylight, something that hasn’t happened in subsequent Batman movies. The funny dialogue, over the top acting, and sometimes absurd special effects cemented Batman: The Movie as a camp classic.
After the 1966 film, there wasn’t another Batman movie until 1989. Michael Keaton became the next actor to portray Batman on film that year, and the movie was simply titled Batman. Tim Burton directed, and the film took a radically dark tone. Jack Nicholson played the Joker. The music, design, and tone were drastically different from the 1960’s version. The 1989 film was a box office smash. Burton and Keaton returned with another Batman film in 1992. Danny DeVito played the Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer played Catwoman. The two villain concept worked for Batman Returns, but the film was even darker than the original. Though a success, Batman Returns was not as well regarded as the 1989 Batman film.
Tim Burton left directing to Joel Schumacher for the next two Batman films. Batman Forever was released in 1995, with Val Kilmer taking over the Batman/Bruce Wayne role. Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones portrayed the villains, with Nicole Kidman as Batman’s love interest. This film combined some of the dark tones of the Burton movies with some of the camp of the original series. Robin also returned in this movie. Batman Forever was a box office success, and received generally positive reviews. Schumacher returned to direct Batman and Robin in 1997. George Clooney took over the role of Batman on film for this movie. Arnold Schwarzenegger played Mr. Freeze, while Uma Thurman and Alicia Silverstone also joined the cast. Batman and Robin is generally regarded as one of the worst films of all time. The camp factor was over the top, and the actors look lost. It is regarded as the film that may have killed the franchise.
That all changed in 2005. After years of attempts to restore Batman to the big screen, Christopher Nolan came through with a radical new concept. Batman Begins was released in 2005. Christian Bale starred as Batman, and the stellar cast included Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Liam Neeson. Nolan shed the comic book tone, making Batman Begins appear as a normal and realistic crime film. The film showed the origins of Batman and his first efforts to rub out organized crime in Gotham City. Batman on film had changed a great deal, and the days of camp were over for the franchise.
Nolan released The Dark Knight in 2008. The film set a box office record for an opening weekend, and went on to gross over $500 million domestically. Heath Ledger took a radical approach to the Joker, creating one of the most iconic roles in film history. Ledger died before the film was released, but earned an Oscar for his performance. The Dark Knight again kept the realistic tone, ditching absurd concepts for realistic action and drama. The Dark Knight was released on IMAX, and is highly regarded for its realistic special effects. There are very few stretches in reality in Nolan’s films compared to the other Batman movies. Nolan’s third Batman film is scheduled for release in 2012. Details are scarce, but Nolan says it will conclude his trilogy of Batman on film. After that, there’s no telling where the franchise will go.