What Makes A Good On-Screen Batman?

From KAPOW to Martha.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has entered its second week, and while its record 81% Friday-to-Friday drop means audience response has been divisive, two elements of the film have garnered almost universal praise: Gal Gadot’s brief but thrilling appearance as Wonder Woman, and Ben Affleck’s paranoid, unhinged and sadistic Batman. Even detractors such as myself will tell you that while the caped crusader’s arc doesn’t quite work, Affleck’s portrayal offers up exciting possibilities for the future of the character, one unlike anything we’ve seen to date. With that in mind, if Affleck is a good Batman in a bad Batman story, what is it that makes a good big-screen Batman, and how have his predecessors fared? Let’s take a peek beneath the cowl, shall we?

In his seventy-seven-year history, the Dark Knight has seen countless comicbook iterations, two live-action serials, a handful of TV shows, plenty of animated series, and just as many direct-to-video features. We’ll focus on the real mainstream conversation starter, his cinematic canon. That includes all his live-action appearances on the silver screen from Adam West onwards, as well as the theatrically released Batman: The Animated Series spin-off, Mask of the Phantasm. When it comes to a character like Batman, whose modern lore only began to be established a year after he’d been in print, the general understanding of him comes largely from writers and artists who had no hand in his creation. Some of it even comes from non comicbook sources (Alfred was rather heavy-set until his first serial appearance, and both Harley Quinn and Batgirl debuted on television), but the character’s authenticity, so to speak, is tied to a handful of central concepts without which he wouldn’t be Batman. Chief among them are the fact that he’s a rich guy who puts on a bat-like costume to fight crime – hence the name! – and the catalyst for his vigilantism: the murder of his parents.

Whether the Wayne murders are a primary focus or merely mentioned in the background, every version of Batman has covered them. You’d have to go well out of your way to get that part of the character wrong, so it’s safe to say that every incarnation has, at the very least, been recognizably Batman. But if that’s the bare minimum for a character to be called Batman, what makes any one of them better or worse than the others? That’s somewhat complicated given the vast array of Bat-tales at our disposal, but as long as the basics of the story are in place, it’s Batman’s relationship to those individual elements that define each new interpretation.

Thomas and Martha Wayne are dead, but what’s Bruce’s relationship to their murder all these years later? And how does it factor into his crusade against criminality? For Adam West’s Batman, the answer is not all that much, but one has to ask if further exploration would’ve even been warranted. The series’ intentional camp and child-friendliness means the 1966 film doesn’t even make mention of it, though that leaves us caught between a rock and a hard place. The idea of the murders being watered down allows Batman’s crusade to be a more black and white endeavor, something kids can easily absorb, and Batman even aligns himself with the Gotham City Police Department. In some way, there’s a sense of purity to this Batman, who exists primarily as a suave crime-fighter whose dual personas are indistinguishable, save for his wacky outfit, so for a movie that doesn’t feel the need to touch on that fateful night in Crime Alley, it becomes sort of a moot point. Conceptually, Adam West’s Batman simply is, and he feels like the kind of hero who would’ve taken up the mantle even if his parents had lived. That’s fine for any film with shark-repellant bat-spray.

The world wouldn’t see Bruce Wayne return to the big screen for over thirty years, but Tim Burton’s Batman, a gothic cinematic reclamation following works like The Dark Knight Returns, boasts a more serious caped crusader, at least in comparison. While Michael Keaton’s Batman ritualistically places flowers at the spot of his parents’ murders, their deaths don’t seem to be driving him. Not directly, at least. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and we do get to re-live the event alongside him, though his actions seem to come from a slightly healthier place than we’re used to. Well, as healthy as Batman’s actions can be. He’s not obsessed or caught in any kind of loop, and the one thing still tying him to the event is the presence of Jack Nicholson’s Joker, who as it turns out, was the guy who pulled the trigger. If anything, the Joker’s death ought to give Bruce enough reason to hang up the cape and cowl! Maybe that’s a downside, but in dealing with a Batman who’s already taken the time to move past the trauma of the event, it helps set up an interesting exploration in the films that followed.

Val Kilmer tends to be the least talked about movie Batman, though that’s largely because of how much everyone hated the George Clooney film, including Clooney himself. The thing that makes Batman Forever work in terms of its approach to the murders is that while we re-live it yet again, along with a young Bruce encountering a bat not long after (Schumacher channeling Frank Miller is a strangely perfect fit), this Batman is the next logical step to Michael Keaton’s. Even though it maintains his overall trajectory as righteous, it doesn’t make excuses for the rich playboy’s fetish for donning black rubber and smashing heads. In fact, out of all the live-action films, it probably comes the closest to articulating the power fantasy element of both Batman and Bruce Wayne once they’re no longer trapped by gunshots and falling pearls. “You see, I am both Bruce Wayne and Batman. Not because I have to be, but because I choose to be.”

While George Clooney’s Bruce Wayne is meant to be the same guy as Kilmer’s and Keaton’s, Batman & Robin has little interest in delving into the character. Perhaps it’s not worth mentioning then, but regardless of intent, it also feels like the next logical step in the series. Batman and Bruce Wayne become indistinguishable, as Clooney plays them with the same unburdened charisma, but that’s really the extent of it. Clooney isn’t exactly Batman-esque in the cowl, and rather than that being about his voice or posture, the real failure is that it no longer feels like he has any drive to be Batman.

The first live-action film that explores Bruce’s relationship with the murders in-depth is Batman Begins. By tying the event into his fear of bats (oh, and by giving him a fear of bats!), the film makes Bruce feel complicit, giving him a survivor’s guilt that he can only assuage through revenge. He misses his opportunity, since Joe Chill is gunned down right in front of him, and he travels East in search of a new purpose before finally returning to fight for what his parents stood for. The big difference between this Batman and previous live-action incarnations however, is that while he wants Batman’s overall mission to continue – the elimination of crime in Gotham City – he knows his methods aren’t a long-term solution.

Mask of the Phantasm takes Kevin Conroy’s Batman on a similar route as he wrestles with giving up the cowl, though it ties back in very directly to Crime Alley. Andrea Beaumont is the first woman with whom he feels a real connection, but he’s so “controlled by his parents” (as she later puts it) that the mere idea of happiness is torture to him. This Batman is driven by a promise to his parents, and the prospect of breaking said promise leads him to tearfully plead at Thomas and Martha’s graves, because he “didn’t count on being happy.” As put together as Conroy's Batman and playboy Bruce are, the real Bruce Wayne beneath the masks is damaged beyond repair

Batman v Superman tries to maintain a constant connection to the Wayne murders, ultimately portraying the event as having left Batman with PTSD, although the execution makes it feel like it revolves around his mother’s name, as opposed to the shooting itself. So many good ideas end up lost in a mess of a film, like dreams and visions that seem to hint at a monstrous Batman who attributes his parents’ death with his creation. I hope that’s still the case going forward, since him moving past it all during his battle with Superman doesn’t feel the least bit convincing. There’s a whole bunch of potential for a Batfleck solo film, especially since he has no qualms about calling himself a criminal, though it’s hard to imagine how they’ll tackle stories involving The Joker or The Red Hood if this Batman is okay with killing. The only live-action Bat-film to really deal with his moral code is The Dark Knight (Batman Begins walks an iffy line, The Dark Knight Rises only mentions his hatred of firearms), and all other live-action versions of him seem to have no issues with him murdering people, despite how they each explicitly harp on the Wayne murders as a catalyst. Well, all others except Adam West, who makes sure to avoid even ducks as collateral damage.

The other factors that tend to define Batman’s portrayal are the costume he wears, the city he inhabits, and his relationship with Alfred Pennyworth. Alfred is both his butler and his only living parent figure, and there’s a sweetness to their dynamic that pretty much every Bruce/Alfred combination has gotten right. Beneath the façade of the billionaire playboy is a Bruce Wayne who cares deeply for the man who raised him. Their camaraderie usually shows up in the form of mutual banter (or in the case of Batfleck, something as simple as handing Jeremy Irons a cup of coffee), but blasphemous as it might sound, I still cite Batman & Robin as being a shining example of this! It already has the advantage of featuring Michael Gough’s fourth appearance, and the plot practically revolves around George Clooney trying to save his life. Besides that, it also features one of the better scenes of Alfred’s take on Batman, where he calls it Bruce Wayne’s “attempt to control death.”

Where Batman & Robin falters most however, is the in the costume department. And no, I’m not aboard the bat-nipple hate train. In fact I fully support Schumacher making the bat-suit seem like the statue of a Roman God, for better or worse. The nipples also show up in Batman Forever, but I digress. The low-point of live-action Batman outfits is undoubtedly the blue and grey snow-suit designed solely to sell toys (not that far off from the whole film), and while the bluish-silver suit Clooney wears elsewhere isn’t particularly great, it’s not too far off from Kilmer’s either. Neither of them really mesh with Schumacher’s LSD-fueled Gotham, which feels like Burton’s incomparable gothic setting somewhat became a giant red light district, and Burton’s bat-suits were serviceable for the time period. Adam West gets a pass as usual since it was the ‘60s and pretty much every character wore pajamas, but where the intersection of suit and city really sing is in Nolan’s The Dark Knight. It might not be the most aesthetically pleasing bat-suit, but it’s highly militaristic in a way that feels necessary to combat a militaristic Joker in a realistic post-9/11 world.

It’s harder to talk about Zack Snyder’s Gotham since we don’t get much more than empty buildings, but purely in terms of suit aesthetic, it’s probably the best live-action Batman there is. Conroy’s Batman seems superior to all others in pretty much every way, but it’s unfair to compare a hand-drawn costume to one that’s meant to move in live-action. And boy does it move! Affleck’s fight-suit is a bit clunky, and its cowl looks an awful lot like LEGO Batman (I fully expect Will Arnett to top this list in a year’s time), but Affleck’s regular outfit, from the worn, grey cloth, to the sparks that fly off the cowl when slashed, is a pretty marvelous sight.

If I had to pick a winner, Kevin Conroy in Mask of the Phantasm is the clear choice, embodying the most psychologically messed up parts of Batman while still managing to provide levity and optimism, but when it comes to live-action, things are a bit more complicated. Affleck’s Batman has the look, not to mention an especially slimy public persona, whereas Kilmer’s nails the ethos of a Batman late in his career. Both Adam West and Michael Keaton bring their own kind of mischief to the character, and George Clooney, God bless him for trying, is at least charming as Bruce Wayne. If I’m being honest though, my heart’s set on Christian Bale. His public Bruce is just sophomoric enough to be convincing, but as Batman, he’s brooding without ever being a real downer, thanks in part to Michael Caine’s Alfred. Most importantly though, he gets an entire film that challenges his heroism. He ends up killing, but only after being pushed to his very limit. More than anything, it’s the twisted morality of Batman that I find so fascinating, in that he’s willing to cripple mob bosses to get information, but he draws a strict line at taking a life.

Affleck’s Batman has the potential for an equally interesting moral paradox, what with his flesh-branding and getting criminals to kill each other, but I honestly fear that him being a-okay with murder himself might get in the way of that exploration. I guess it remains to be seen! For now, Kevin Conroy and Christian Bale are my definitive movie Batmen, though I’m pretty sure everyone has their own opinion on this. What do you folks think?

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