78 Years of Batman On-Screen: How the Caped Crusader Has Evolved Through the Years
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Can you believe audiences have been heading to theaters for Batman films for 78 years?
It’s true. Though we’re accustomed to the gruff, suave superhero of Batman films and TV series released in the past few decades, his first big-screen appearance dates all the way back to 1943 — four years after he first appeared on the page in 1939’s Detective Comics #27 — and he’d be almost unrecognizable if not for that trademark cowl.
But as far as the litany of Batman films and TV series are concerned, how did we get from a goofy man in tights in the ’40s to the electric fun of Adam West to the dark films of Tim Burton to a beloved animated series and the grounded-in-reality films of Christopher Nolan?
Let’s take a look at our favorite caped crusader through the lens of Batman films and TV series.
Batman’s film career starts in 1943 with a 15-chapter serial — called Batman — that appeared alongside other movies. It doesn’t age well. Loaded with racist caricatures of Japan, it would more likely be met with horror today. But the film did establish some tropes that still survive, including hidden cave hideout The Batcave, a secret entrance hidden inside a grandfather clock and the thin mustache of Bruce Wayne’s trusted butler, Alfred.
Told in short pieces, these serial Batman films of the ’40s were pretty successful. The first spawned a second serial called Batman and Robin, and the original was also shown as one long film during Saturday matinee time slots.
The success of those serial Batman films was ultimately what led to the wacky TV adaptation starring Adam West and Burt Ward, which ran for two years starting in 1966. Colorful and studded with aging Hollywood stars (Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero, Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt among them), the show endures as a weird artifact of the time and a reminder that Batman’s at his best when you don’t take the man in the rodent costume entirely seriously.
Also in 1966, the first full-length film adaptation of Batman was released by 20th Century Fox, basically a film version of the Adam West TV series, titled, simply enough, Batman: The Movie.
But the 1960s series and film led to a clash over the tone of Batman. Throughout the ’70s, there was a tug of war between producers who enjoyed the campy ’60s vision and those who wanted to try something darker. New ideas for Batman films languished as one production company and studio after another churned through various scripts without producing anything concrete.
At various points in the ’80s, Batman films sought celebrities including Eddie Murphy and Michael J. Fox for the leading role. 1986 was when Tim Burton joined the project, lending it a decidedly darker tone than the franchise had seen before, guided in part by the successful serious reboot of Superman on film a few years before.
While the first of Tim Burton’s Batman films, in 1989, was a financial hit, Batman Returns — adding Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman and Danny Devito’s Penguin to the mix — was ultimately met with less enthusiasm (though we find it to be the perfect gay Christmas film), and Burton was unfortunately replaced by Joel Schumacher before the third project in this era of Batman films.
In the meantime, Gotham’s caped crusader and boy wonder Robin headed to TV in the form of Batman: The Animated Series. Based on the comics and featuring all of the title’s most beloved villains, the cartoon ran from 1992–1995. Those who are fans of both Batman and Star Wars may have recognized Mark Hamill — Luke Skywalker himself — as the voice of the series’ ultimate villain, The Joker.
Back in the film world, Schumacher switched to a far more colorful and campy tone in his Batman films, but as camp can never be achieved intentionally, there’s an uneasy awkwardness to Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997).
From there, the franchise once again fell into turmoil. Schumacher was hired to direct a third film, but there was indecision at Warner Brothers as to whether it should be a sequel or a reboot, or possibly even a weird side-story featuring a character named “Man-Bat.”
Years of development hell followed, with Frank Miller, Darren Aronofsky, Joss Whedon and the Wachowskis each involved in Batman films at various points. The only Batman project to actually make it to screens was a series of TV commercials for OnStar. (Watch them all in the video above.)
Eventually Warner Bros. found a strong voice for the franchise with Christopher Nolan. He plunged the character into an even darker universe than before, with a sinister tone that wiped away all the camp of previous incarnations. Batman Begins was released in 2005, followed by two more financially successful films — The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) — all of which explored the dark recesses of the psyche, more in keeping with the vision for Batman originally established in the late 1930s.
Now it seems Batman has plunged back into another fallow period, with various attempts to find his next incarnation. Reactions have been mixed, at best, to his recent portrayals alongside Superman and the rest of the Justice League.
As for the next of the Batman films, Zach Snyder and Ben Affleck were each attached to direct at various points, but Matt Reeves will be writing and directing The Batman, hitting theaters in March 2022, featuring Robert Pattinson’s take on a brooding Bruce Wayne.
It’s always hard to predict what form Batman’s next appearance might take, but if history is any guide, the character thrives in extremes, either high outrageous camp or in the darkest of noir.
Which of the Batman films is your favorite?
This article was originally published on Feb. 21, 2019. It has since been updated.