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A Batman for all seasons: A look at the vastly different big-screen versions of Batman

Posted February 9

This week’s release of “The Lego Batman Movie” — an animated comedy featuring the voice of Will Arnett as the Caped Crusader (reprising his role from 2014’s “The Lego Movie”) — is just the most recent version of a character who has been depicted in almost every way imaginable over the nearly 80 years since he was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

This includes dozens of actors who have taken on the role in movies, TV and video games, which, all told, add up to hundreds of adaptations.

While Batmen come and go, every time the character has appeared on the big screen, he has in some way left his mark on pop culture.

With that in mind, here’s a rundown of the ever-changing ways Batman has been portrayed in movies:

Secret agent Batman

The Caped Crusader’s very first onscreen appearance was in the form of a 15-part black and white serial starring Lewis Wilson as Batman/Bruce Wayne and Douglas Croft as Robin/Dick Grayson, according to tor.com. Produced during the height of World War II, this version tweaked the traditional comic book canon to make its heroes secret agents working for the U.S. government to combat Axis enemies.

In this case, that meant a made-up “Japanese” villain with a very un-Japanese-sounding name, Dr. Tito Daka, played by a very un-Japanese actor, J. Carrol Naish. (Naish became known in the industry as “the one-man U.N.” for frequently playing ethnicities other than his own, according to chiseler.org.)

Dressed up in what looks like a department store Halloween costume, Wilson as Batman established a precedent that has plagued the character throughout his onscreen career — namely, being outshined by his more colorful, scenery-chewing villains.

The 1943 “Batman” was successful enough during its own lifetime to spawn a sequel, 1949’s “Batman and Robin.” Produced after the war, this follow-up shed the overt propaganda (as well as the ethnic slurs) and recast its two leads, but it also lost some of its gonzo charm.

Comedy Batman

For a lot of fans (including Christian Bale, according to everythingzoomer.com), no one has ever managed to top the Adam West Batman from the mid-1960s — the “Bright Knight,” as West himself refers to this era’s campy version of the character.

West donned the classic purplish-blue and gray costume for three glorious seasons of TV, beginning in 1966, as well as for Batman’s first feature-length movie, also in 1966.

From the get-go, this Batman was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Wearing a mask with pencil-thin eyebrows that seemed to register something halfway between perplexity and mild frustration, episode after episode, Batman and his gung-ho sidekick Robin faced down a world full of madcap rogues and only the smallest shreds of logic. In just the first episode, Batman gets drunk on spiked orange juice at a nightclub (while the underage Robin waits in the Batmobile, naturally), dances the “Batusi” and has to defend himself against a lawsuit by the Riddler.

When the show was nominated for an Emmy that year, it was in the category of outstanding comedy series.

Gothic Batman

Beginning in the late ’70s, producer Michael Uslan set out to “make the definitive, dark, serious version of Batman,” as he told fan site Batman-on-Film. “The way Bob Kane and Bill Finger had envisioned him back in 1939. A creature of the night, stalking criminals in the shadows.”

After roughly a decade, the result was 1989’s “Batman,” a movie radically unlike the character’s previous big-screen outings — despite recycling the title for the third time. Directed by a young Tim Burton, who cast his “Beetlejuice” star, Michael Keaton, in the title role, the 1989 movie as well as its 1992 sequel, “Batman Returns,” portray Bruce Wayne as a brooding, obsessive, borderline psychotic outcast tortured by the death of his parents.

But in this iteration, Batman wasn’t the only thing taken to a much darker extreme. Gotham itself became an ultra-stylized Gothic city, mixing elements from German Expressionism with 1930s gangster movies. (Production designer Anton Furst ended up winning an Oscar for his work.)

In this heightened universe constantly bathed in shadow, Keaton’s Dark Knight seemed almost like a natural byproduct.

Burton’s take on the character proved that a pitch-black superhero could work. “Batman” broke records, kickstarted a merchandising phenomenon referred to as “Bat-mania” (before it was even released) and became what Scott Mendelson of Forbes calls “the first modern Hollywood blockbuster."

Rock ’n’ roll Batman

When explaining why he skipped out on a third Batman movie, Michael Keaton (via the L.A. Times) said, “I knew we were in trouble in talks for the third one when certain people started the conversation with ‘Why does it have to be so dark?’ ‘Why does he have to be so depressed?’ ‘Shouldn't there be more color in this thing?’"

Joel Schumacher’s turns directing the Batman franchise, 1995’s “Batman Forever” and 1997’s “Batman & Robin,” answer all of those questions. No less stylized than Burton’s vision for Gotham, they opted instead for what cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt described to The Hollywood Reporter as a “rock ’n’ roll comic book look,” which wasn’t just words; he actually hired a lighting crew that did rock concerts.

Batman, meanwhile — as portrayed first by Val Kilmer and then George Clooney — became more overtly sexual than ever before, donning an anatomically correct bat suit.

In a 1995 interview with Premiere magazine, Schumacher said, "I wanted a very sexy, very sensual, very body-hugging suit. It's my Gotham City, and if I want Batman to have nipples, he's going to have nipples!" And apparently, he did want Batman to have nipples.

Speaking with Barbara Walters in 2006, Clooney claimed that, in his mind, at least, he was playing the character as if he were gay the whole time.

Gritty Batman

After scrapping a different project about an eccentric billionaire — a Howard Hughes biopic, according to firstshowing.net — writer-director-producer Christopher Nolan rebooted the whole Batman franchise with 2005’s “Batman Begins,” taking an approach that, over the course of the Dark Knight trilogy, drew comparisons to movies such as “Blade Runner,” “Heat” and "The Godfather."

Notably different from earlier versions, Nolan's take on the character was meant to exist in the real world (or close to it), not some heightened comic book Gotham, and Batman and his antagonists had to follow real-world logic (or close to it).

As Nolan put it on several occasions (abcnews.go.com), Batman is an angry guy who has done a lot of pushups to be able to be Batman.

Part of the grounded, more serious approach to the character also involved giving explanations for other things usually glossed over in previous adaptations: every piece of the bat suit, the Batmobile (aka Tumbler) and, of course, Batman’s ninja training.

Stepping into the lead role, Christian Bale played the character with what Nolan described as an “animal-like” intensity, according to hour.ca. His Bruce Wayne, on the other hand, took a cue from the Scarlet Pimpernel, purposefully acting like a self-centered playboy to avoid anyone ever connecting him to his mysterious alter ego.

Psycho killer Batman

Arguably no version of the character has been more divisive than the current one played by Ben Affleck. Debuting in Zack Snyder’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Batfleck,” as he has been lovingly dubbed by the internet, surprised fans for a few reasons, not least of which being his propensity for murdering and maiming thugs — an unambiguous violation of Batman’s longstanding no-kill rule from the comics.

Snyder has defended the creative decision for a few reasons, including distinguishing what Batman does as killing “by proxy,” according to collider.com.

This version of the character is undeniably dark — and oh-so-gritty — although not altogether grounded in reality. But what Affleck manages to do is take all the brooding darkness plumbed by previous Batmen and add to it a heretofore-unseen physicality — with a heaping dose of video game physics, according to Forbes. At 6-foot-4-inches and nearly 230 pounds and sporting a bat suit ripped straight out of Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns,” Affleck’s Batman cuts an imposing figure — even next to Superman.

Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. Along with the Deseret News, he also contributes to the film discussion website TheMovieScrutineer.com.

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