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The Men Who Became Batman

Since Batman is one of the most popular superheroes, if not THE most popular, he is also the hardest to get “right” when transferred from the paper page to the big screen. Just as his personality has changed over the years, so does the audience’s expectations. Those who grew up with the Batman TV series expect “their” Batman to resemble Adam West while others born a decade later expect Batman to look more like Michael Keaton. So, it goes without saying that Robert Pattinson, who will play the caped crusader in the upcoming film, The Batman in 2022, has some big boots to fill.

Lewis Wilson

Batman (1943)

Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman first appeared in Detective Comics in March of 1939. By 1943, Columbia Pictures created a 15-chapter serial called The Batman which starred Lewis Wilson alongside Douglas Croft who played Robin. Promoted as “A hundred times more thrilling on the screen”, each chapter (which ran between 16 and 26.9 minutes in length) was released in movie theaters once a week from July 16 through October 22 taking three months to see the entire story.

Unlike the Batman featured in the comic books, this Batman wasn’t an independent vigilante. He served as a secret agent for the U.S. government. The film series gave the first appearance of the Batcave and showed the hero getting there by sneaking through a grandfather clock located in Wayne Manor. As Bruce Wayne, he was cocky and would give off a vibe that he was a wealthy playboy who didn’t do a day’s hard work. Willaim Austin played Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred, whose thin and fit physic didn’t match the comic book’s version of the character who portrayed him as an overweight man. There was not Batmobile; the heroes drove a convertible Cadillac

Robert Lowery

The New Adventures of Batman and Robin (1949)

The first serial proved to be so popular, Columbia produced a second serial, but it is unclear why the studio chose different actors to portray the dynamic duo, other than the fact that Croft looked way too old to be considered “the boy wonder.” This time around, a blander Robert Lowery played Batman and Johnny Duncan played Robin for the 15-chapter series. Though still popular with kids, critics noted that overall the series looked “cheap” with poorly fitted costumes and mistakes shown like the police lighting up the Batsignal in broad daylight. This time the duo drove a Mercury.

Adam West

Batman: The Movie (1966)
Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016)
Batman vs. Two-Face (2017)

It’s hard to believe that the very next Batman to darken the door of the theater was the Adam West version 17 years after the last serial. West had already donned the suit and cowl along with Burt Ward playing Dick Grayson/Robin, in 20th Century Fox’s Batman TV series for ABC. The first full-length movie about the Dark Knight came to theaters two months after the end of the show’s first season. Ironically, William Dozier who created both projects, wanted the movie to come out first to generate interest in his new TV series, not the other way around. It said that it only took Lorenzo Semple Jr. ten days to write the screenplay for the film which was shot in just 30 days. Batman was also the first film to show off the Batmobile, Batcycle, Batboat and Batcopter.

Compared to the earlier films, this one was more of a parody of the comic book. The costumes were lighter and brighter, Batman was amazingly courteous and the comedy was played with ultra-seriousness. This Bruce Wayne/Batman combo was kind, honest and a perfect role model.

West continued to play Batman in various forms before his death in 2017 including voicing the role for 1977 animated series, The New Adventures of Batman and Super Friends, appearing in the two-part TV special, Legends of the Superheroes, appearing in the made-for-TV movie, Back to the Batcave and lending his voice for two animated movies based on the 1966 series.

Michael Keaton

Batman (1989)
Batman Returns (1992)
The Flash (2022)
Batgirl (2022)

Again, it took a long leap of time before another Batman movie came to movie theaters. This time it was Tim Burton’s turn at the story for Warner Brothers. At the time, Keaton, known mostly for comedy work, thought that the new movie would have the same tone as Adam West’s version of the hero, but soon realized that the new movie was going to have a must darker tone. At first, fans of the comic were not excited to see Keaton in this role, but it turned out that he could play a dashing millionaire and a wise-cracking superhero that worked. Despite Keaton playing the main role, Jack Nicholson (who played the Joker) demanded top billing.

This movie was the first without a Robin character. It also changed the Batsuit into a solid black. It was a huge success becoming the fifth-highest grossing film of the year. It was followed by the sequel, Batman Returns which came out three years later. The sequel featured two villains (The Penguin and Catwoman) and was a lot darker in tone which threw off a lot of fans. In fact, a lot of parents were outraged by the antics featured in the PG-13 film. McDonalds, which offered Batman Returns Happy Meals, quickly shut down its promotion. Still, the film did very well in the box office.

In 2022, Keaton will be reprising his role for two Warner Bros. projects – The Flash and Batgirl. It is unclear if the roles will just be cameo parts something larger.

Val Kilmer

Batman Forever (1995)

Though Batman Returns was a success overall, Warner Bros. wasn’t comfortable with the backlash the studio received due to its tone. Keaton was not a fan of the new script and bowed out. Burton was asked to serv as a producer for the new film. The result was a film with a lighter tone and an all-new cast and director. Joel Schumacher took the director’s seat with Val Kilmer stepping in as Batman. Robin came back and was played by up-and-coming star Chris O’Donnell.

The film had a rough go at the theaters with critics complaining of Kilmer’s lack of emotion, the strange costume upgrades (including nipples) and the frenzied pacing of the movie. It was as if Schumacher was trying to create a hybrid version of comedy and serious superhero stuff. Still, the movie did very well with the box office and Warner Bros. quickly signed on for yet another film.

George Clooney

Batman and Robin (1997)

Despite the backlash Schumacher received with Batman Forever, he was back to direct this fourth outing for Batman. In many ways, Batman and Robin sounded like a great idea. It brought in George Clooney to replace Kilmer (who apparently was working on a different movie project at the time). Chris O’Donnell reprised his role as Robin and the film also introduced Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone) to the big screen.

Uma Thurman and Arnold Schwarzenegger played villains Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze. In the end though, the film was a box office disappointment and considered by some critics as one of the worst comic book movies ever made. Even Clooney, who served as a pretty good Batman, couldn’t save the film. Because of this, Warner Bros. cancelled plans for the next film, Batman Unchained.

Christian Bale

Batman Begins (2005)
The Dark Knight (2008)
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

One of the most successful trio of films of all time belong to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy. Written and directed by Nolan, all three films starred Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman. The goal of the films was to present another dark version of the superhero, but also a more realistic version as well and one that could be enjoyed by children along with their parents. He wanted to tell an origin story of Bruce Wayne that was grounded in reality somewhat. I mean, you can only go so far with that argument when you main character walks around in a bat costume.

Compared to the Batman and Robin’s 12% Rotten Tomatoes score, Batman Begins won an approval rating of 84%. For many viewers, Bale became their favorite man to wear the cowl. Even Tim Burton was a fan. Following up, The Dark Knight became the highest grossing film of 2008 and is considered by many as one of the best superhero films ever made. Its Rotten Tomato approval rating was even higher with 94%.

The Dark Knight finished up the trilogy in fine style despite a number of accidents that a happened on the set. Ticket sales were hurt as well due to mass shooting at a midnight screening of the film in North Carolina. The critics were divided with some saying that this was the best Batman movie ever made while others thought that was Nolan’s worst film. But all in all, Bale was praised for his portrayal at both Bruce Wayne and The Dark Knight (the word “Batman” was never used in these films).

Ben Affleck

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Suicide Squad (2016)
Justice League (2017)
The Flash (2022)

When Warner Bros. started announcing that the studio was in talks to reboot the Batman franchise, fans had assumed that the studio’s plans would include Bale. This time around, they wanted a differently type of Batman. Instead of appearing in a solo hero movie, Ben Affleck appeared as an older Batman (who had been serving the city of Gotham for at least 20 years). This Batman was angry and pretty much lost his way. The film was humorless and lacked heart. The citizens were still unsure of this Superman and was often seen was as a threat to the city. Batman was up to do whatever it took to get the Man of Steel out of town.

This could have been a great movie with two powerful entities working together instead of battling against to each other. While ticket sales were good for the first week of the film’s release, the sales dropped over 80% the following week. Although hardcore fans loved the movie, the general audience didn’t want dark, brooding characters to serve as their heroes. They wanted heroes more like the ones featured in the Marvel movies.

Although Affleck has announced that he has hung up his cape, he continues to appear as Batman. He showed up briefly in a few scenes (that were created after the film was initially finished) for 2016’s Suicide Squad and had a much bigger role in Justice League. He will also appear in 2022’s The Flash alongside Keaton’s Batman character.

Robert Pattinson

The Batman (2022)

This brings us to a whole new Bat-francise which goes back to Batman’s second year of crime-fighting. As he fights the Riddler, Bruce learns that his own family is somehow linked to some corruption and must work with the Riddler to clear the Wayne name.

Originally, Ben Affleck was to direct, produce, co-write and even star in The Batman, but dropped out of the project in 2017. Matt Reeves has since took on writing and directing duties of the new film that will feature more of Batman’s detective side, something that has been missing from the previous films. Warner Bros. hopes that the film will do well enough to launch to spin-off TV series for HBO Max.

As with just about every other Batman franchise, this changing of the superhero stars has been met with criticism with Batfans creating a petition on to remove Pattinson from the project. Christian Bale however told Pattinson to make “make [the role] his own” and try to ignore the critics.

Jeffrey Totey View All

I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.

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