The current storyline in Batman comics has Bruce Wayne returning from the grave (or wherever he was) to reclaim the mantle of the Batman and start franchising his role as Darknight Detective. So rather than going by the tried-and-true theory of “anyone can wear the costume but there’s only one Batman,” fans will be able to debate the merits of a slew of Batman and come to their own conclusions on who best represents the winged emblem and scalloped cape. More than just being a dude in a fancy suit, Batman represents an idea than can be interpreted a number of different ways.
Similarly, there’s been a host of Batmen on film, and the debate still rages over which Caped Crusader best answered the clarion call of the Bat-Signal. Today, we’re going to settle that dispute once and for all… or at least, for now
Though two different men portrayed Batman in the 1940’s, we’re following the same pattern as the serials of the day and cutting corners by combining them into one entry.
Lewis Wilson was the first man to play the Dark Knight on the big screen in 1940’s 15-chapter epic titled Batman. Thick around the middle and sporting a high-pitched Boston accent, Wilson did his best to bring sincerity to the role despite his less-than-heroic costume or physique. The film is notable for the introduction of “The Bat’s Cave” as well as the depiction of a thin Alfred. It is also notable for its incredibly racist point-of-view. Turns out a lot of Americans weren’t too fond of Japanese folks during World War II and they weren’t afraid to say it. Even Batman.
Next up was Douglas Lowry in 1949’s Batman and Robin. More of the same: chubby guy, bad suit. Let’s end the pain and stop talking about these two.
The original Batman serial found its way to the Playboy Club in Chicago in the early 1960’s where hip partiers appreciated it for its camp value. It wound up inspiring a television series and a whole new wave of Batmania.
The 1960’s Batman show featured cliffhanger endings and comedic style: only this time, it was intentional. Comic book fans have long hated this campy version of the Dark Knight but the fact of the matter is that it was actually a fairly honest translation of the comics of the era. And even though the show was played for laughs, Adam West’s version of Batman hits all the right notes: millionaire playboy, dedicated crimefighter, genius-level intellect and Olympic-level physique… well, maybe not the last one.
But the point is, while the show was a comedy, it actually stayed pretty true to the tone of Batman at the time. The beauty of this version of Batman is that the style works on two levels. Adam West (along with the rest of the cast) played his role deadly seriously: so as a kid, you likely didn’t realize it was a comedy and just loved it because you got to see real-life depictions of superheroes and villains! And as an adult, you began to pick up on the double entendre and appreciate it for completely different reasons. Either way, Adam West’s interpretation of Batman, while decidedly less dark, ranks among our favorite live-action superheroes and remains a cultural landmark of the 1960’s.
The Burton Years
Imagine if the Internet had existed when Michael Keaton was cast as Batman. Public opinion was decidedly against the actor, previously known for comedic roles, in the role of the Dark Knight, but once fans got to see the movie, most enjoyed not only Keaton’s version of Batman but also Tim Burton’s gothic tone. Batmania was born anew and the “Pow! Wham!” clichés that always seemed to go hand-in-hand with comic books were finally swept away.
The movies took plenty of liberties with the character and his backstory and enormous leaps in logic when it came to the plot of the first film. While Keaton brought some complexity the role of Batman, his Bruce Wayne came off as more of a distracted nerd than a playboy (though he did manage to get Vicki Vale in bed on their first date). Still, he gave us a Batman who wore the guise of Bruce Wayne as a mask and didn’t dance a Batusi or clearly label every device in his arsenal. And he also gave us rubber muscles.
The Schumacher Fiasco
Bless his hear: Joel Schumacher tried. He really did. His version of Batman, first starring Val Kilmer in Batman Forever and then George Clooney in Batman and Robin, aspired to be a more family friendly and mainstream version of the Dark Knight. If Burton’s Batman was 1939, this was the Batman of the 1940’s and ‘50s – the Dick Sprang one with giant pennies and enormous typewriters. And nipples.
While Batman’s creator, Bob Kane, felt that Val Kilmer was the best Batman of the bunch, we’re not as easily convinced. For that matter, we’re not so sure just how much of a hand Bob Kane had in creating Batman, so maybe his opinion is better left off the record. Kilmer sleepwalked through the role and though we’re a bit more forgiving when it comes to George Clooney (hey, you can’t say his Bruce Wayne isn’t charming), his Batman made Adam West look like Frank Miller’s Dark Knight. These films basically acted as feature length toy commercials and the less said about them, the better.
Nolan Makes Some Noise
Chris Nolan brought a real world sensibility to the Batman mythos and with Christian Bale in the batsuit, gave us a psychologically tormented Batman that viewers could empathize with. This was a Caped Crusader that explored themes of justice, revenge, identity, ethics and fear while embodying the archetype of the Batman. Though his voice may have been a bit too gruff to take seriously, Christian Bale brought a level of intensity to Batman that fans hadn’t seen before but welcomed with open arms. Finally, Bat-fans got a truly Dark Knight.
The Final Analysis
We have to be perfectly honest. If this battle royale allowed animated adventurers, then Bruce Timm’s version of Batman (voiced by Kevin Conroy) would wipe up the mat with all of them. As far as we’re concerned, that’s the perfect adaptation of Batman: but the steel cage only allows flesh and bone so we’re sticking with the live-action versions.
We’ve already expressed our contempt for Val Kilmer and George Clooney (though to be fair, the lion’s share of the blame falls on director Joel Schumacher’s shoulders: those guys were just doing their job), so they’re eliminated early. Similarly, the Batmen from the 1940’s serials can’t hold a candle to the modern interpretations of the character. Only their girth kept them from being tossed over the top rope first.
Michael Keaton was intense. He also showed us that Bruce Wayne was unhinged and that his reasons for wearing the Batsuit, however altruistic, might not have been exactly healthy. But every time we try to take the guy seriously, we see him holding a fireplace poker screaming “You wanna get nuts? Come on, let’s get nuts!” And that’s just what his Batman was: nuts. It was interesting, it was dark, but it was it the best interpretation? Was it true to the Batman of the comics? Not quite. He’s out.
That leaves us with Adam West vs. Christian Bale. Both actors were perfect in their respective roles: one as a court jester making merry mirth, the other a knight of the realm slaying dragons. While we will always love the 1960’s version of Batman, we can’t deny the majesty of Chris Nolan’s films and Christian Bale’s performance. Where Keaton was dark and nutty, he lacked the subtlety of Bale’s complex and tormented interpretation. Bale and Nolan actually gave us a movie that focused on and explored Batman rather than his villains. And hey, when Denny O’Neil says that “the filmmakers really understood the character they were translating,” we’re inclined to listen. Adam West, we love your beer gut and satin cowl, but we’ll take a Nomex Batsuit and memory cloth cape any day.