Ever since Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 released in 1939, Batman has taken the world by storm in comic books, TV shows, movies, and more.
Show the bat symbol to almost anyone in the world and they know exactly who Batman is and what he stands for. In addition to being a recognizable character, the actors who have played Bruce Wayne/Batman, have become iconic in their own ways.
In celebration of the Caped Crusader’s live action appearances, we’re breaking down his history from the black and white entry to the recent 2022 release.
THE BATMAN (1943)
Directed by Lambert Hillyer with Lewis Wilson as Batman, Douglas Croft as Dick Grayson/Robin, this serial is very much a product of its time. With transatlantic accents, and a problematic villain (“Japanese” Dr. Daka portrayed by J. Carrol Naish), there’s a lot to this film that doesn’t hold up well. Think Mickey Rooney playing Mr. Yunioshi type issues.
Despite the obvious flaws, this serial took the production value seriously with intricate locations, designs to the Batcave. There are definitely ways in which corners were cut—Batman’s suit is in a file cabinet for one—but the popularity of the character warranted a live screen adaptation, and this was the first attempt.
BATMAN AND ROBIN (1949)
It took more than five years, and the actors were different, however, Batman and Robin returned to the big screen in Batman and Robin–a sequel to the 1943 serial. Complete with 15 chapters, costs were cut, and the goal was to make content rather than focus on quality. In turn this meant low-end costumes and a hodgepodge of stories that emphasized adventure.
Robert Lowery played Bruce Wayne/Batman and Johnny Duncan played Dick Grayson/Robin. Where the previous serial had Captain Arnold, this serial included Lyle Talbot as Commissioner Jim Gordon–a first live appearance for the character.
The silver age of comics is considered to span from 1956 to 1970 and to many it is where comics are less serious in their approach. Where once Batman was tackling criminal rings and investigating murders (he still does, just less so), there was a response from the Comic Code Authority that shifted storytelling to be lighter and more “fun.”
A direct reflection of this tone is none other than Batman 1966 (the film and show) with Adam West as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Burt Ward as Dick Grayson/Robin. For much of the cast, the actors remained the same. Alan Napier (Alfred), Neil Hamilton (Jim Gordon), Burgess Meredith (Penguin), and the iconic Cesar Romero played the Joker.
There were also new additions from the film to the series. Barbara Gordon/Batgirl joined by Yvonne Craig, and Selena Kyle/Catwoman went from Lee Meriwether to Julie Newmar for Seasons 1 – 2 to Eartha Kitt in Season 3.
Season 1 of Batman 1966 included a film, then the Batman narrative went back to television on the ABC network. The film and show had it all–a proper Batmobile, a theme song, and a recurring host of villains that made for fun crime fighting complete with Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na…Batman! And POW! BLAM!
By the end of Season 3, the series dropped in ratings and inevitably was canceled. Sadly West, Ward, and Craig, all found it difficult to land other roles as they were typecast.
The show and film were iconic in that–for many–this was their first introduction of the Batfamily. When the last episode aired it would be decades before the cape and cowl would be seen.
More than 30 years since the 1966 Batman, there was speculation when this film was going to be made. Directed by Tim Burton, the decision to cast Michael Keaton was criticized and threatened the success of the film. However, audiences loved the dark direction and how the film took the character very seriously. Michael Keaton maneuvered the Billionaire playboy and the Dark Knight well and his persona positively is beloved by fans to this day.
From the gothic architecture, moody atmosphere, and a fan favorite design of the Batmobile and Batplane–there are so many aspects that resonate with fans today. While Batman doesn’t have a Robin, he certainly has a Joker.
This film cast Jack Nicholson to play the makeup-covered clown prince of crime, and this set a standard for villains in comic book movies and beyond. The laugh, outrageous arsenal of weapons, and overall gravitas made for a portrayal of the character in a way that is still compared when another actor takes on the role.
The movie shattered financial expectations and reignited the passion and love of Batman and Gotham City. Keaton became a lot of people’s version of Batman and even the motion picture score from Danny Elfman is recognizable.
BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
Tim Burton and Michael Keaton join forces again for another entry in the Batman catalog of films—this time with Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, Danny Devito as the Penguin, and Christopher Walken as Mayor Max Shreck.
Despite its best efforts this film struggled to keep the momentum of the 1989 prequel making for a jarring and underwhelming experience compared to its predecessor.
Where this film excelled was in the production of the sets and the costume designs. Catwoman and the Penguin had exceptional costume designs that matched the energy of the characters. While a script for a third film was rumored to have been completed, Burton and Keaton did not return—shifting the Batman films.
BATMAN FOREVER (1995)
Val Kilmer stepped into the role of the Dark Knight in an unfortunately forgettable film. The theme went from dark and nearly demented to zany. This time Batman faced Two Face (played by Tommy Lee Jones) and the Riddler (played by Jim Carrey.)
The script held back what could’ve been a decent addition to the film roster, but instead viewers received an outlandish experience. Director Joel Schumacher took the style from Burton and fused it with tacky lights and silly set pieces.
Despite the critics planning the film, it made enough money to warrant a sequel.
BATMAN & ROBIN (1997)
Directed by Joel Schumacher, this film is in many ways like Batman 1966. The tone is silly and characters act over the top makes for a wild ride filled with puns and gadgets to inflate the toy lines at the time.
The film had an array of cast members: George Clooney (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Chris O’Donnell (Dick Grayson/Robin), Alicia Silverstone (Batgirl), Uma Thurman (Poison Ivy), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Mr. Freeze), and Michael Gough (Alfred Pennyworth). (On a side note, Michael Gough played Alfred from Batman ‘89 to Batman & Robin.)
As a film it really doesn’t hold up well. It’s riddled with bad jokes, 90s action set pieces, and the infamous “bat nipple” costume that has been a running joke for more than 25 years at this point.
The film’s failure had several consequences. It signaled the exhaustion movie goers had from Batman on the big screen—at least in this tone, it turned a character rooted in being detective into a parody of what he is meant to be, and it gave executives a sharp reminder that films designed to push toys will likely bomb if there is there is no other intent behind it.
BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
Directed by Christopher Nolan, this film kicked off what many call one of the best movie trilogies of all time. Starring Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Michael Caine as Alfred, this film refocused the cinematic direction of the character from the cartoon-ish Batman & Robin to a realistic movie.
The origins of Batman are well-known, and this film takes its time in showing the traumatic events that will shape the mission of Batman. The primary antagonists are The League of Shadows led by Liam Neeson and Scarecrow (played by Cillian Murphy). These portrayals of classic rogues to Batman showed how comic book films can be serious and respect a character and their history while having a story that is dramatic and exciting.
While it may have kicked off a trilogy, this film was meant to only be a complete story without an intention of continuing. The film received critical and commercial success, had an amazing score done by Hans Zimmer, and all of this prompted a sequel to be greenlit rather quickly.
THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
Christopher Nolan’s second entry into the Batman story, this film is considered by many to be one of the greatest comic book films of all time. Christian Bale (Bruce Wayne/Batman), Michael Caine (Alfred), Gary Oldman (Jim Gordon), and Morgan Freeman (Lucius Fox), all returned for a crime film that fused commentary on the war on terror with one of the best acting in a comic book film from Heath Ledger’s portrayal of Joker.
The film earned more than 1 billion dollars in the box office—shattering expectations. The conflict between Batman and Joker is one that has existed for decades by this point, but this film made the two formidable opponents whose presence on screen demanded to be taken seriously.
Additionally, what makes this film one of the strongest Batman entries is that it works as a standalone film. If it existed entirely by itself, it could still be appreciated for its production value, acting, and storytelling. What elevates it further is that Batman Begins set laid the framework for a grounded story and the Dark Knight moved the threshold for not only what could make a good Batman film, but a good film in general.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
While this film is arguably the weakest of the Nolan Batman Trilogy, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good Batman film. Nolan returned as director, and Bale, Oldman, Caine, and Freeman, all returned for their respective roles. While Heath Ledger tragically passed away prior to the Dark Knight’s release, there was never an intent at continuing Joker as the main antagonist and so this opened up options for villains. Cillian Murphy returned as Scarecrow, and Tom Hardy joined the cast as Bane.
Where the Dark Knight had a tight script and a somewhat feasible plot, The Dark Knight Rises leaned a bit more into audiences having to suspend their disbelief for some of the plot holes. Additionally, Hardy’s voice as Bane can be said to be iconic but it is also the source of mockery in a sense. The mumbling accent made it hard for audiences to hear Bane in the trailer and so Hardy had to re-record lines that were then overlaid onto the film. It could have been the industrial mask, or it could have been the accent, but either way for some the voice was a jarring experience.
Anne Hathaway joined as Selena Kyle/Catwoman and Marion Cotillard as Talia Al Ghul—comic book love interests of Batman. Their role into the plot fit well, however, much of the reason why some didn’t like this film as much is that it wasn’t The Dark Knight. Because the second film had set such a high standard for comic book movies, this third entry was judged harshly and so the weaker plot is much more evident.
Regardless, it had a fitting end to the character and the entire ensemble made for an epic experience. Joseph Gordon-Levitt played his role as Detective Blake well and his part in the ending left the door open for Blake to continue Batman’s work—although it is unlikely Blake will return to the big screen.
BATMAN v SUPERMAN (2016)
A lot can happen in four years. While the Nolan trilogy was providing three strong entries into Batman’s film catalog, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was kicking off with Iron Man and by 2016 already had an Avengers film. The world building was the awe and source of jealousy from executives who wanted DC Comics to have its own film universe. This meant fast tracking a film that would introduce the trinity of the DC Comics universe.
Enter Batman v Superman, a Zack Snyder film. In many ways this film was imperfect, however, because it managed to introduce a new Batman (Ben Affleck), use Man of Steel’s Superman (Henry Cavill), and bring Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to the big screen it received a bit of a pass.
It tried to do a lot with a little and this meant a convoluted plot involving Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) that used Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) as tools to get leverage on Superman ultimately making him face off against Batman.
While the plot isn’t the worst, it brought in Doomsday as a villain and was a muddied mess of a story as it was trying to do too much. For many, Batman acted out of character—he kills people in the movie—and it felt like a movie that was trying to catch up to the MCU by cutting in line rather than take a focused approach to build out a world that movie goers could relate to.
Despite it having mixed reviews performing okay in the box office, Batman would be in another film in one of the most (suspectedly) tweeted movie: Justice League.
JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)
This controversial film was kicked off by Zack Snyder and completed by Joss Whedon. For the sake of this film breakdown see Zack Snyder’s Justice League for more of Batman’s on-screen portrayals.
ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE (2021)
Despite being worked on in 2016, the director’s view of this film wouldn’t reach audiences until years later. Enter: Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
This would be Ben Affleck’s second time playing the Dark Knight and for many this film holds a special place in their hearts. As a DC fan myself, a major celebration of this film isn’t just Zack Snyder getting to fulfill his vision, but also being able to see the Justice League on screen for the first time.
This is not to say the film doesn’t have its imperfections—and there are plenty—but it cannot be denied there was an energy surrounding this film considering it was unprecedented for such a large entertainment company (Warner Bros.) to go back and let a director complete their vision.
While getting the true version of the film was considered a success, this doesn’t forgive some of the flaws of the film. Once again, it felt as though DC was trying to catch up to the MCU and so this meant rushing to world-build and do whatever it took to have a bombastic film—even if it didn’t quite earn it the way the MCU had.
THE BATMAN (2022)
Directed by Matt Reeves with Robert Pattinson (Bruce Wayne/Batman) and Zoe Kravitz (Selena Kyle/Catwoman), this film is the biggest love letter to the characters and more than 80 years of history.
This film did several things: it focused on the detective side of Batman, was heavily grounded, and placed a strong emphasis on its cinematography.
With a nearly three-hour runtime, this film took its time in making Gotham City a character of its own. No time was lost on Batman’s origins but him being in the second year in crime fighting meant there was room to learn and to lose. In a way this film is a noir/arthouse version of Batman.
The success of this film critically and commercially allowed Reeves to expand this version of Batman into two following movies and currently two planned spinoffs–the first being The Penguin played by Colin Farrell.
THE FLASH (2023)
To say this film has controversy would be an understatement, however, its goal in bringing Keaton and Affleck back to play Batman in the same film is a milestone in and of itself.
It’s not uncommon for fans of Batman to default to Keaton, while younger generations may resonate with Affleck from his multiple appearances.
If this film is any indication of Batman at the movies, is that audiences can’t get enough and don’t mind multiple appearing within the same film.
The Flash released on June 16. Be sure to check Comic Watch for our review of the film!
OTHER APPEARANCES: Older and younger versions of Bruce Wayne have appeared in the following shows…
Focusing on the early career of Commissioner Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and showing the beginnings of several Batman villains, the series also gave us the early teen-age adventures of Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz). In an uncredited performance, Mikhail Mudrik played the grown Batman in the series finale.
CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS (2019)
An ambitious cross-over between The CW’s Arrowverse shows featured Batman: The Animated Series voice actor Kevin Conroy as an alternate version of Batman/Bruce Wayne.
Iain Glen plays a much older version of Bruce Wayne in the final season of the series.
GOTHAM KNIGHTS (2023)
David Miller appears as Dead Batman.
Editing by Rickey Price Illustrations by Dylan Davison & Rickey Price
Encyclopedia of Superheroes: Batman
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