Happy Batman Day! The caped crusader is a pop culture icon who has reached far beyond the realm of comics, probably more than any other comic book character, ever. The Batman mythos is cherished by many and has inspired countless artists and creators to offer their own interpretation of the dark knight to many different forms of media. If we look at animated films only (centering on just Batman) there are 20 movies alone! Batman mythos has dipped into animated TV shows, films, video-games, and more! So today I want to break down my favorite versions of Bruce Wayne depicted on both the big and small screen. Let’s start with live-action movies!
The Best Live-Action Batman Interpretations
- Batman Returns (1992)
The sequel to Tim Burton’s blockbuster classic Batman brought about a more… unhinged Burton, to say the least. After the success of the 1989 film, Tim Burton did claim that he would only return for a sequel if it were “exciting and different.” I think it’s safe to say it’s different, in a way where we see more Burton-like characteristics. It’s often darker, and campier than the original movie, with a bit more of a cartoonish aesthetic to it. Danny DeVito’s Penguin is not as menacing as Nicholson’s Joker, although he’s definitely close in having an equally tragic backstory. The movie is often criticized for being too dark, I mean, Penguin’s birth itself is pretty harrowing stuff. With that being said, I think these characters are quite representative of the type of storytelling we typically only see in comic books! It would be a major disservice to not mention Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic Catwoman, who I think absolutely steals any scene she’s in. I think Burton’s Gotham in this film especially reels in all the dark underbelly that is Batman’s home and offers the sort of characters only Gotham can shape.
- Batman (1989)
Tim Burton’s Batman may not have seemed destined for the level of iconography it holds upon announcement, but thanks to this entry Batman’s cinematic potential caught the eyes of many. I myself have my issues with this film and I don’t think it’s the most Batman live-action interpretation we’ve seen, but I cannot deny its impact. My favorite aspect of this movie definitely has to be the production design. Tim Burton’s dark, colorful Gotham is a major highlight that I think contributes to the overall escapism and grandeur of Batman stories. Jack Nicholson’s Joker is pretty great, although I don’t buy the “he’s the best Joker” argument some people sometimes throw around. Despite my gripes with the movie, it does capture a lot of the necessities of what makes a Batman story: Gotham, mystery, a formidable foe, and a damn good Batman theme to weave it all together. In retrospect, a lot of this movie is pretty hilarious in what I assume is unintentional, but sometimes we need to be honest about the silliness that comic book stories can be.
- The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is a cinematic triumph that left a huge imprint on cinema and blockbuster history. While I think this is the weakest of his trilogy, I believe it to have the best set pieces of any of the three. I think this is ultimately a story about Batman’s failures, and how although we love to glamorize him as an almost god-like figure incapable of losing, he’s just human. I don’t want to get into a conversation of this movie’s issues because that can often be a polarizing conversation, but I think this holds some of the most touching moments in Batman history, ever. The movie is often too grand in scale for its own good, but I think at the time of release where we were all still reeling off the masterpiece that is The Dark Knight and the loss of Heath Ledger, this epic and gigantic conclusion helped us all close this chapter.
- Batman Begins (2005)
I think, more than any other live-action adaptation, this movie captures Batman being Batman the best. The origin story we get this time around is refreshing as we get to actually see Bruce become an isolated, broken man who eventually ends up in the hands of the “League of Shadows.” Christopher Nolan’s decision to capture the mythos in realism lends itself quite nicely, as I think many of us could imagine this story being at least possible in our world. I find Nolan’s cinematic eye in this movie to be quite beautiful and with a real level of respect for how serious Batman stories can be. From the build-up to Batman’s detective work, and his infiltration techniques displayed in the film, this is the first time I felt the Caped Crusader to be captured in real-life. I no longer wished to see, “what would Batman look like in our world?”
- The Dark Knight (2008)
I mean, what needs to be said about this? The best storytelling we will probably ever see in a Batman movie with one of the greatest supporting role performances of all-time by the late Heath Ledger. There’s an unlimited amount of Batman noir-stories in the history of the character but I’m not sure of one with as much freedom as this. Nolan did not limit himself creatively with this film and strayed a bit from the quintessentials of Batman that he presented in Batman Begins, but the payoff was definitely worth it. Conversations about this movie not being Batman enough can be quite tiring, considering all that Bruce Wayne sacrifices through the course of this movie, I think it definitely tells us who Batman is! The final scene says it all for this lifelong entry. I think this movie is a perfect example of staying true to a character while also allowing yourself to open new doors creatively.
Best Animated Batman Adaptations
- Batman: Year One
Let me present a slight bias here, but Batman: Year One is one of my favorite Batman comics, ever. Frank Miller’s cherished first-year tale of the Caped Crusader was quite influential for what would follow after this legacy and started to seep Batman in even more darker areas than prior iterations. With that being said, I don’t think it pushes any boundaries too far in the same vein that The Dark Knight Returns stories sometimes did. This story is not only a great origin tale for Batman but perhaps an even better origin to Jim Gordon’s role in Gotham. I think the relationship between Bruce and Jim builds up in a way that perfectly sums up their different-side-of-the-same-coin partnership. However, with all this praise I have for the comic book source material, I think the adaptation can be quite lazy and a bit too by-the-book. It’s also really hard to take Ben McKenzie seriously in the role of Batman here, but props to Bryan Cranston’s awesome Jim Gordon!
- Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker
I grew up watching the Batman Beyond cartoon every morning and I wish it got more praise than what I see! Terry McGinnis was a refreshing protagonist and I always loved seeing how Bruce Timm and co. utilize the history of Gotham to tell Beyond’s stories. Return of the Joker is one of the more entertaining ones! The twist is pretty exciting and downright tragic. No spoilers for those who don’t know, but I think it brings about a real fear to the Joker as he makes his return to Gotham. The Joker is always one step ahead of Batman and finding new ways to ruin his life, and this is one of his more tortured forms of punishment to Bruce Wayne (and others). If you’re looking for something new in the Batman universe and you haven’t experienced this cyber-punk goodness please check it out!
- Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
I know, these movies are often very ugly and I think Frank Miller has no idea who Superman actually is. I get people’s gripes with these entries. However, this story might be the most influential Batman comic to exist. Crazy, right? An old, hateful Batman who slips in between the cracks of “villain” and hero even more so to the public eye than ever. I think what’s mostly great to see from these stories is just how far Batman can go if need be, and I think this allowed other writers to gauge how far they personally believe Batman should extend his violence and heroics. Also, I can’t lie, I get an extreme amount of satisfaction from the Batman and Superman fight. It’s just thoroughly entertaining.
- Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
I love it when Batman movies have an original tale that’s actually good, and this is one of my favorite Batman stories to date. It’s also pretty cool that although it includes another Batman origin narrative, it didn’t strike me as repetitive or annoying, but fits in nicely with all the new material presented in this movie. Bruce Wayne’s romance stories, in my opinion, are often very cliche and annoying (save Catwoman), but this time around I thought it was superb. The animation and score also lend itself to make this movie feel like a proper cinematic entry. Although the box office was a failure for this film, I’m sure the lucky few who have seen this on the big screen got a really nice treat out of it. This is the best Batman animated film, hands down.
- Batman: The Animated Series
I guess it makes sense now why I say Mask of the Phantasm is the best Batman animated film, right? But isn’t this cheating? There’s so much material to build off of, right? Well, that’s why I think it deserves the number one spot! The Animated Series is a Batman bible. The Animated Series is perhaps the second most respected Batman source material after the comics, and with good reason. Over its long life-span it truly defines who Batman is and for a lot of people, Kevin Conroy’s iconic Batman is the version they see in their head when the dark knight comes to mind. Sometimes the series even contributed to Batman canon in ways the comics never did. A nice example would be the creation of Harley Quinn. For those who didn’t know, she got her debut here, and now she’s a fan favorite of the DC universe. If you have the extra cash for the Batman Animated Blu-Rays releasing soon, it’s absolutely worth it. Get yourself a good supply of Batman content for years!
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2015):
I know that there’s probably plenty of people who will be angry with my inclusion of this but hear me out. There are a ton of aspects about Ben’s portrayal in Batman v Superman that I think many batfans were always dying to see. This Batman is a gruesome tactical fighter, swift on his feet, displays tons of espionage skills, and gadgets for days. We see him work through his process as Batman throughout the movie, yes, I mean the infamous “prep time.” So many of Batfleck’s moments in the movie felt extremely Batman to me, and if it weren’t so much of a polarizing movie I probably would’ve included this over Batman Returns. I also understand how for many this interpretation doesn’t feel like Batman at all, but I felt inclined to show it some love. I honestly believe Zack Snyder was developing an arc for this Batman to return to form as the hero we’ve always known, and due to tragic circumstances, we did not get to see his vision fully come to fruition. That being said, I dig so much about this Batman, like look at that damn suit! The best live-action suit, maybe? I say absolutely.
Batman Arkham Asylum, Batman Arkham City, Batman Arkham Knight:
I’m not sure if these counts as animated, but hey, have you ever felt like you were experiencing what it’s like to be Batman more so than playing these games? My personal favorite has to be Arkham Asylum, but with each entry, you get a healthy amount of references to Gotham’s lore, fan-service to make you geek, and an awesome combat system that is now even being used for characters like Spider-Man! These games each have a pretty great Batman story in some shape or form and as a life-long fan, I could not ask for anything more out of these games. I highly recommend playing these three if you haven’t yet!