Batman’s history on screen hasn’t been the easiest or the prettiest. In fact, it’s had some pretty low moments as well as some glorious highs. The caped crusader may well have had his onscreen debut in 1943 (in the low-budget production Batman) and suffered a film spinoff of the campy 1960s TV series Batman (released under the moniker Batman: The Movie in 1966) but his grand return to cinema was instigated by a then-little known director called Tim Burton in 1989.
Burton re-introduced the hero to modern Western audiences in 1989 with a considerably darker overtone more akin to the original Batman comics. Michael Keaton, then only really known as a comedic actor, was chosen to portray the Bat and Oscar winning actor Jack Nicholson won the part of Batman’s nemesis The Joker. Scepticism was high for the release of the film, with the producers requesting Burton tone down the violence and the general public still having the campy TV series in their minds as being authentic Batman. But not only did the film release to strong critical acclaim, it was financially successful, eventually becoming the second highest grossing film of the year (behind Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). Nicholson also received strong praise for his turn as the sadistic but comedic Joker. There was no doubt that Burton had hit the big time and obviously, Warner Bros. wanted a sequel.
Batman Returns (1992)
Expectations were high for Burton’s sequel and when it was announced that Keaton would be reprising his role, audiences and critics alike were delighted. Noting that Burton had not only cast an excellent Batman, there was great faith in who would become the film’s primary villains. Michelle Pfeiffer (Catwoman) and Danny DeVito (The Penguin) stepped in to join the franchise. Even Christopher Walken got a shout appearing as corrupt businessman Max Shreck. So, the result? It got an even better reception, with viewers quick to notice a darker tone than the previous entry and a strong emphasis on the lovelife of Bruce Wayne/Batman. But, commercially it didn’t prove as successful, only grossing half as much as it predecessor and DeVito’s performance was panned. Burton and Keaton, though, were adamant that they would both return for a third installment. These plans were dashed when producers decided to make the following Batman films family-friendly and place an emphasis on action rather than tone. Desperate to not let go of his legacy, Burton stayed on as a producer for the 1995 sequel.
Batman Forever (1995)
The result of Warner Bros. idea was Batman Forever. Knowing that audiences immediately linked Keaton to a darker Batman, producers went on a search for a new actor. Eventually, teen heartthrob Val Kilmer was chosen and Joel Schumacher was hired to direct. The producers also answered the problem of villains having a sensitive and disturbing backstory (both The Joker and The Penguin became outcasts of their society) and instead introduced two enemies of Batman’s catalogue that had a mixture of both comedy and villainy – The Riddler and Two-Face. Comedian Jim Carrey was chosen to portray Riddler in order to make the film seem family orientated. But, attempting to not let go of the image Burton had left behind, Schumacher turned to Tommy Lee Jones to provide Batman Forever with a decidedly troubled villain. In order to keep with Batman’s comic origins, Robin was introduced to the series (Chris O’Donnell). Fortunately, the mixture paid off for Warner Bros. The film was commercially successful, grossing nearly double that of Batman Returns but received mixed reviews, with many critics noting that the family tone didn’t suit the new Batman franchise. Despite this, Warner Bros. commissioned Schumacher to direct the 1997 sequel.
Batman & Robin (1997)
The final installment of the Burton/Schumacher franchise also arrived as the lowest point in the series. Kilmer refused to return, indicating a bad working relationship with Schumacher as the reason for leaving, and George Clooney was cast instead. This time the villains would be purely about tongue-in-cheek – Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) and Bane (Jeep Swenson). Schumacher also decided to introduce Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone) a relatively unpopular character with Batman fans. Warner Bros. were happy with the progress of the film and decided to continue, pushing Schumacher and the entire crew to produce the film as quickly as possible. This time round though, it didn’t work. Batman and Robin was a critical and commercial failure, becoming the lowest grossing of the entire series and negative reviews. Schumacher defended the film, criticising the speedy production rather than the quality of the film but some cast members (especially O’Donnell) understood that the film was never going to be a blockbuster. A fifth entry in the series was planned by Warner Bros. entitled Batman Triumphant, but it was cancelled. Several years later, however, interest in the hero was renewed when Christopher Nolan announced a reboot of the series.
Batman Begins (2005)
Understanding that Batman had now become a joke to Hollywood audiences, Nolan had one intention in mind – to make Batman the force he was originally meant to be reckoned with. With former child actor Christian Bale donning the cowl, it became clear that Batman was going to be of a darker tone, more akin to Burton’s original films. Even the villains reflected this tone – the spiritual martial arts teacher Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and the crazed psychologist Jonathan Crane a.k.a. The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy). With these characters in mind, Nolan pushed forward the theme of fear as being the backbone of the film, fear in both Bruce Wayne and Gotham City itself. The film was released to critical acclaim and substantial grosses at the box office, rivalling that of Burton’s original film. Bale was critically praised for playing Batman, with viewers and critics quick to notice that Bale played three parts – Batman, the real Bruce Wayne, and the arrogant Bruce Wayne. Many critics also praised the high-calibre ensemble cast including Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman. It became clear that Batman had returned to his original ways – dark, brooding, mysterious and dangerous. It was no surprise then that Nolan wanted to return for a sequel.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Audiences and critics couldn’t wait for Nolan to helm the next chapter of the Batman story. But controversy arose midway through production. Heath Ledger, the Aussie actor who had been chosen to portray The Joker, died of prescription overdose only just after completing his major scenes. This threw production of The Dark Knight into disarray – many believed that the film would be cancelled without its central villain. However, Nolan insisted that Ledger had done enough work for them to continue, though he also noted how difficult it was to carry on after losing a close friend. After this shocking development and several months of innovative marketing schemes, The Dark Knight was released to universal critical acclaim and set the record for a film to reach $1 billion in record time. Ledger’s performance was considered the highlight of the film earning him a posthumous Oscar for his work. This made Ledger the second actor to ever be given the award posthumously and the first to win for portraying a comic book character. Bale, once again, saw praise for taking his character to a new limit, effectively blurring the boundaries between his personas. Maggie Gyllenhaal also received attention, many critics noting that her portrayal of Wayne’s love interest Rachel Dawes was far superior to that of Katie Holmes in Batman Begins. The action pieces were praised and the script was seen as innovative, ingenious and thoughtful. Since The Dark Knight’s release, anticipation had been high for Nolan’s third installment.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Nolan announced long before the film’s release that TDKR was to be the final chapter in his story of Batman. Whilst this upset many fans, it was unanimously decided to be the wiser option. When it was announced that the chemically enhanced villain Bane would be Batman’s latest adversary, the ridiculous sidekick from Batman & Robin immediately sprang to mind in many Batman fans and doubt was cast over the entire film (despite some solace that he was to be portrayed more seriously by Tom Hardy). However, expectations for Nolan to break the curse of the trilogies were high and that new additions to the cast (Anne Hathaway, Hardy, Marion Cotillard and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) would refresh the series. However, controversy struck the series once again on the opening night of the film. On July 20th, a mass shooting occurred in a cinema in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 and injuring another 50 members of the audience. Not only did this affect the legacy of Nolan’s Batman series, it also saw similarities to Nolan’s own The Dark Knight. The shooting heavily affected the film’s overall box-office gross – it underperformed in the US (only earning $400 million) despite out grossing its predecessor worldwide (a further $600 million), going on to become the seventh-highest grossing film of all time. Critical reviews were highly positive but it was unanimously decided that TDKR wasn’t as impressive as its predecessor, with many noting flaws in the films plot and dark tone but praising the acting, action pieces and the satisfying ending to the trilogy.