In March 2022 we see the hotly anticipated next instalment in a standalone Batman series of films hitting the big screen. Directed by Matt Reeves (Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes / Cloverfield) and with Robert Pattinson (Twilight) starring as the Dark Knight, time will tell how the movie compares and stands up to previous versions, however one things for sure, the much loved DC comics character has been big business in the cinema for over three decades, and looks set to continue to be so for many years to come.
In the late 1980’s, following the success and conclusion of a 10 year run of the Christopher Reeve starring Superman series of films, it was time for Warner Brothers to look to the next biggest star of the DC comic books phenomenon, as the modern era of the superhero movie blockbuster, really started to gain traction. ‘Batman’ (1989) was trusted into the hands of visionary director Tim Burton, hot off the heels of creating the excellent dark fantasy comedy ‘Beetlejuice’, and bringing its star Michael Keaton with him, to play the lead role.
However, Keaton was largely to play second fiddle to Jack Nicholson in the film, who made the first iconic cinematic appearance of The Joker his own, while clearly also paying homage to Cesar Romero’s original screen character from the 1960’s TV show. The film under Burton’s vision, took a darker tone than the light hearted TV version had, and was a huge success, paving the way for the studio bank rollers to lick their lips at the prospect of making a series of films they felt would take the 90’s by storm.
‘Batman Returns’ (1992) soon followed, with Tim Burton and Michael Keaton creating a follow up which was an alluring gothic comic book adaptation, a bizarre ‘Christmas’ film which holds up as the most satisfying from the 1990’s run of movies. Burton clearly had a lot of fun making the film, bringing Christopher Walken onboard as Gotham’s shady tycoon Max Shrek, while casting Danny Devito in a truly repulsive turn as The Penguin. A sultry performance from Michelle Pffeifer as Catwoman steals the show though, as she purrs her way through the film and into the heart of Keaton’s Bruce Wayne.
From here the 90’s films really split into two parts, the two Tim Burton films having being shot with dark lights and gothic undertones, followed by two Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys) directed films, which were splashed with colour, reverting somewhat back to the slapstick tone of the 60’s TV series. First of the Schumacher era came ‘Batman Forever’ (1995). Perhaps having read the script Michael Keaton decided against reprising his role, and Val Kilmer came in as a handsome but somewhat more wooden Bruce Wayne, and a Batman famously with added ‘nipples’ to his rubber suit. Delivering lines such as ‘It’s the car right … chicks love the car’, which would have seemed wildly out of place coming from the lips of Keaton’s far moodier version of the hero.
The film also introduced the character of Robin played by Chris O Donnell (remember him!?) and a sultry psychologist played by Nicole Kidman, providing Bruce Wayne’s new love interest. However the film quickly descends into being an over the top zaney Jim Carrey fest, as his Riddler character takes centre stage. The marmite Carrey persona takes over the film, blending together a mix of facial expressions and mannerisms straight out of Ace Ventura Pet Detective and The Mask, while his on screen relationship with co-starring villain Harvey ‘Two Face’ Dent (played by Tommy Lee Jones) really is just a case of Dumb & Dumber, with the two actors famously feuding on set as they fought for attention.
The series then descended further into pantomime territory, with the release of ‘Batman & Robin’ (1997) pushing the the nail firmly into the coffin, with George Clooney’s one and only ill fated turn as the caped crusader. The film is hideously stolen by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who by far delivers the most bizarre performance of his career, firing off one ice cold pun after another as Mr Freeze, and earning himself a ‘cool’ $25m in the process, reportedly $1m for every day he spent on set.
Supporting cast included Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl, and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy the films deadly femme fatale, providing the opportunity for Schwarzenegger to deliver the films finest none ice related pun, when she explains how they will wipe out humanity leaving them as the last two remaining people … to which he replies ‘we’ll be Adam … and Eeeviiil’. With special effects that at times look as if they have been lifted straight out of a late 90’s computer game, the film is a badly acted mess by all … the audience had clearly moved on and the two Schumacher films were universally panned.
At the beginning of the 2000’s it was time for Warner Brothers to completely rethink where they were to take their flagship DC franchise next. It was time to strip back, return to the dark tones that were now at the forefront of the DC graphic novels, and come up with a plan that would rival the emerging threat of Marvel’s new found success, led by the X Men franchise. It was time to go back to the beginning …
Completely disregarding the four previous films, hugely talented director Christopher Nolan (Memento) was given the task of providing a dark and gritty origin story, focusing on Bruce Wayne himself and the events leading up to his creation of Batman. ‘Batman Begins’ (2005) starred Christopher Bale (American Psycho) cast perfectly in the lead role, and with a superb supporting cast inc Liam Neesson as villain Ra’s Al Ghul, Cillian Murphy as Dr Jonathan Crane (aka The Scarecrow), Gary Oldman as Detective Jim Gordon, as well as Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Katie Holmes.
Opening in a prison setting somewhere deep in Tibet, we see Bruce’s journey as he strives to learn the motivation of the criminal mind, before embarking on Ninja training with the mysterious League Of Shadows, ultimately betraying their mysterious leader Ra’s Al Ghul, who then returns for revenge in the films final act. Early flashbacks showed glimpses of his childhood, the symbolism of his fear of bats, and the murder of his parents … his ultimate motivation for a life of fighting crime. The movie had a gritty air of realism, showing the subject matter in a way never seen before, and was a breath of fresh air for the rebooted franchise.
The story featured heavily on the mob and corruption in Gotham City, this being the first fight that Bruce Wayne aims to take on as he begins his journey as Batman. The subject matter had been well covered in the graphic novels of the 1980’s and 90’s in which many ideas this story was based, but largely ignored in place of the over the top pantomine villains in the proceeding movies. Batman does not appear until roughly half way through the film, but the realism in showing how Bruce Wayne accumulates his skills and equipment, brought the character into the modern age, while superbly merging elements of a modern superhero movie with that of a gangster epic, a martial arts film and with elements of horror (provided by the character of The Scarecrow).
The film was a critical success, erasing the memory of Jim Carrey and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s impact on the series in the 1990’s … while the ending of the film teased that perhaps the best was yet to come. In the final scene as Batman and Detective Jim Gordon meet on a roof top to discuss the new breed of criminal in Gotham, Gordon remarks ‘take this guy … armed robbery, double homicide and a taste for the theatrical, like you … leaves a calling card’ (uncovers a Joker playing Card). Batman replies … ‘I’ll look into it!’
Enter the acclaimed and much loved second movie in what would become a trio of films written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Picking up where ‘Batman Begins’ left off, we see ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008) working with the commissioner to tackle the mobs money source, with the help of new district attorney Harvey Dent played by Aaron Ekhart. However the real star turn and focus of the movie sits with cinema’s second version of The Joker, this time played in a sinister and completely different way to Jack Nicholson, by the late Heath Ledger (RIP), who rains down chaos, disorder and anarchy in Gotham.
The iconic role was surrounded in mysticism, as Heath Ledger passed away after completing filming, but prior to the films release. Ledger will forever be linked with the character after producing a breath taking performance of method acting. The film was an absolute smash hit, blending a superhero movie with the darkest and grittiest story yet, ending on a particularly bleak note (as all good middle trilogy films should, thanks to ‘The Empire Strikes Back’) as Batman sacrifices his legacy and goes into hiding to take the fall for Harvey ‘Two Face’ Dent, who had embarked on a murderous rampage of revenge following the death of his love, and his hideous disfigurement at the hands of The Joker.
Harvey Dent had been a figure of hope for the people of Gotham, and the sacrifice Batman makes ensured that hope remained in the city, following the end of the Jokers tyrannical revolution. The third instalment from Christopher Nolan came with ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012), taking place 8 years on, and finding a reclusive Bruce Wayne forced back into the rubber suit as Gotham faced its greatest threat at the hands of mercenary terrorist Bane (played by Tom Hardy). Anne Hathaway’s appearance as Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman), provided a further air of intoxicating mystery for the main protagonist.
The films see’s Bane break Batman’s back during an impressive fight sequence, banishing him to a prison far away known as ‘Hell On Earth’, before bringing the city of Gotham to its knees in one hell of a thrilling action film,that completes the trilogy with a masterful conclusion. The story brought Batman’s journey full circle, with the hero once again fighting back against the League Of Shadows. Following completion of Nolan’s trilogy, the question on everyone’s lips would be where on Earth were Warner Brothers going to take the character next, following the near perfect decade long masterpiece telling of the story?
At this point the studio had the desire to grow a DC universe that could rival that of the colossal impact Marvel were having on the box office, with their own universe full of characters such as Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and Hulk entwining as ‘The Avengers’. DC’s own cast of characters in addition to Batman and Superman included the likes of Wonder Woman, Aquaman and The Flash … and it was felt the right time to unleash them all as the ‘Justice League’.
First of all in DC’s master plan came in a reboot/origin story of Superman in ‘Man of Steel’ (2013), released hot on the heels of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ and written/produced by Christopher Nolan, with Zack Snyder (300 / Watchmen) directing. However the film was considered by many as over long, self indulgent and sorely lacking the humour that made the Christopher Reeve version so beloved. The movie culminates in an extended finalé where Superman and villain General Zod battle their way through the town of Smallville and city of Metropolis, causing destruction and devastation as they fling themselves through building after building.
Superman of course ultimately ends up victorious, and the film set up the sequel and the return of Gotham’s hero (as well as director Zack Snyder) in ‘Batman v Superman : Dawn Of Justice’ (2016), this time with Ben Affleck stepping into the mighty black boots, virtually on a hiding to nothing as he followed the captivating performance of Christopher Bale, who expertly owned the role during his time in the proceeding trilogy.
In the opening credits we see a third movie perspective of the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne (which by now we know all too well is the motivation for son Bruce’s pull to the dark side of his personality). We then see Affleck’s Bruce Wayne on the streets of Metropolis, surveying the collateral damage in the thick of the disaster area as Superman and General Zod do battle, laying the foundation for his suspicious view on the arrival of the alien/s on Earth. Affleck plays the character as an older, wiser more grizzled version, disregarding past storylines and slotting him into DC’s more fantasy set film, 20 years into his crime fighting career.
While the main story naturally focuses on the relationship between the two comic book titans as they were joined together on film for the very first time, the film distinctly suffers from a totally miscast Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) as villain Lex Luthor, who has a part to play into pitting the two heroes against each other into battle. And if anyone ever wondered who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman the answer was obvious, with Superman easily getting the better during the films mid point battle. However, ever the wiley old foe, Batman happens to have some Kryptonite up his sleeve, turning the tide in his favour, before all is eventually forgiven and they join forces as the best of frenemies.
The film also took the opportunity to introduce the rest of the Justice League, with Gail Gadot’s Wonder Woman joining the hero’s for the movies final showdown, but it is fair to say the narrative jumps around too often and many consider the film to be somewhat of a mess and with a depressive tone. Certainly it was still advantage Marvel, who by this point were riding high with the expansion of their Avengers universe, superior box office takings and IMDB ratings.
The movie ended with Superman’s death and Lex Luther’s incarceration, setting up the next instalment of a now Zack Snyder trilogy ‘Justice League’ (2017), as Bruce Wayne and Wonder Woman look to bring together a band of ‘Meta Humans’ to fight the new threat of super villain Steppenwolf, who first attacks Wonder Woman’s homeland, followed by the underwater kingdom of Atlantis (home to Jason Momoa’s Aquaman) in order to retrieve the 3 ‘Mother Boxes’, which will give him ultimate power over Earth.
As Batman and Wonder Woman travel around on their recruiting mission before planning the resurrection of Superman, the film unfortunately starts to jump around somewhat incoherently, as per its predecessor. Suffering in the cinematic cut, by Warner Brothers reshooting much of Zack Snyder’s work, tonally injecting some Marvel colour (on the back of a dismal reception to ‘Batman v Superman’) while also drastically cutting the run time down in order to appeal to the masses. The film clearly revelled in the big battle set pieces, but fell flat when it came to the all important character development.
The studio tampering had a huge impact on Snyder’s vision, who eventually was then given the opportunity to release his Directors cut of the movie in 2021, extending the run time by nearly 2 hours, and providing what he feels is the definitive version of the film. Certainly each character story benefits from the extended run time, and the story becomes more coherent, and much closer to the original plan, which was to shoot enough footage to release two ‘Justice League’ movies.
During this modern generation of DC films, Ben Affleck’s Batman has also had a cameo role in ‘Suicide Squad’ (2016) while Bruce Wayne also pops up in a brief appearance as a child in ‘Joker’ (2019) where his father Thomas Wayne features prominently in an origin story of the character, starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. Affleck’s Batman will also appear in ‘The Flash’, coming to screens in 2022.
But with Warner Brothers and DC still looking upwards at the success of the now Disney owned Marvel universe, they look to focus on a new standalone Batman series of films, set some way before Ben Affleck’s version and completely separate to the ‘Justice League’ storyline. If they can match the feel of Christopher Nolan’s earlier trilogy, and get it right with the exploration of the many characters they are reintroducing, which include Colin Farrell’s Penguin, Paul Dano’s Riddler and Zöe Kravitz’s Catwoman, then they may just have one hell of a new franchise on their hands.
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