Perhaps the greatest critical evaluation of present-day Batman unintentionally occurs while a villain is kicking his ass. In 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, Tom Hardy’s Bane can’t help but chuckle as Batman catches the terrorist’s fade. On the verge of defeat, Christian Bale’s Batman turns off the lights as if this will be the gambit that saves him. Naturally, this fails, inspiring one of the greatest villain monologues of all time: “You think darkness is your ally,” Hardy croaks. “You merely adopted the dark. I was born in it, molded by it.”
In retrospect, the dialogue feels oddly meta. In 2005, Christopher Nolan’s aggressively realistic and murky Batman Begins resurrected the franchise after Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin sent her to IP purgatory eight years earlier. Over the next two installments, Nolan would wring every last bit of camp and wonder from the Caped Crusader—and while that resulted in one of the best superhero movies of all time in The Dark Knight, it ignored the lighthearted parts of the franchise that had been a hallmark for decades. Nolan is no longer in charge, but his successor, Matt Reeves, is picking up where he left off: This weekend, the director’s The Batman arrives in theaters, and it stars Robert Pattinson as what’s been dubbed “Emo Batman.”
The reason we’re on the precipice of a fourth moody Batman movie within the span of 17 years—sixth if you count Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman and Justice League—is because the modern incarnation of the character embraced a level of grittiness that felt in direct opposition to what had come before in Adam West’s Batman, Tim Burton’s two films, and Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Bane’s speech might as well be Nolan’s pitch on how a new generation of creatives would rehabilitate Batman for the big screen. To cinematically fix Batman he couldn’t merely adopt the dark, but had to be molded by it. But Batman’s history is the story of this tension and how far one children’s character can be pushed into the realm of maturity and realism before he’s broken.
From the beginning, Batman was more of a greatest-hits compilation than a fully formed character. In 1939, Bill Finger and Bob Kane based the vigilante on an amalgamation of sources—including Sherlock Holmes, Douglas Fairbanks’s Zorro, the Three Musketeers, and a 1934 pulp hero called the Bat—unknowingly giving the character a malleability that’d ensure 80 years of relevance. If Batman is a little bit of everything, he could in theory be anything.
In the 2011 book Supergods, comic book writer and frequent Batman scribe Grant Morrison emphasized Batman’s psychedelic origins to prove a similar point. “His early career had barely begun before he was heroically inhaling countless bizarre chemical concoctions cooked up by mad black market alchemists,” Morrison wrote. “Convention has it that Batman’s adventures work best when they’re rooted in a basically realistic world of gritty crime violence and back-street reprisals, but from the very start of his career, he was drawn into demented episodes of the supernatural, uncanny, and inexplicable.”
As twisted and pulp as Batman was created to be, the powers that be quickly realized that the character needed a silly and juvenile foil to appeal to younger readers. Over the phone Andrew Farago, the author of Batman: The Definitive History of the Dark Knight in Comics, Film, and Beyond, explained that Batman’s most iconic partner was created to add a jovial perspective to the morose hero.
“Batman started out as a very dark, pulp-influenced character, but right away they made an effort to lighten him up by introducing a sidekick,” Farago says. “So Robin showed up the year after Batman and it was a pretty kid-friendly, bright, fun kind of a comic book for years after that. That really continued all the way, I would say, until the late 1960s, once the Adam West Batman TV show had come and gone.”
From the beginning, Robin was Batman’s literary vaccine, inoculating the character against the disease of self-seriousness. The first writers to adapt Robin for modern movies were husband-and-wife team Lee Batchler and Janet Scott Batchler, in 1995’s Batman Forever. Years earlier, Burton and screenwriter Sam Hamm, “couldn’t crack the code” on how to transition the Boy Wonder from comic books to big-budget filmmaking, according to Farago. So it was left to the Batchlers to figure out how to make a kid sidekick work in a live-action setting. “There’s various versions of Batman and Robin. We chose the one that was most in the world that Joel wanted to portray,” Lee says. As much as Batman Forever is about Val Kilmer’s Bruce Wayne battling the Riddler and Two-Face, it’s also a story about one orphan shepherding another through the loss of their parents. “What we tried to do in our film was to angle [Batman’s] relationship with Robin as, ‘OK, I’m going to be his guide. I have to steer him away from the path that I took.’ So it’s a little deeper. It’s probably the deepest aspect to a movie that is very light and funny on many levels.”
But even mentioning the Boy Wonder in any Batman capacity outside comics is often a fraught topic. “People are so scared of [Robin],” Pattinson said in February when asked about the possibility of the character showing up in potential sequels to the new movie. “But it’s kind of exciting.” But to Farago the difficulties of mounting a believable Robin are immense, “If you have somebody who’s 10 years old running into action against guys who are armed with machine guns, and you have a little kid with a batarang, you’re worried about that kid. You’re not thinking about, ‘Oh, this is going to be a fun superhero battle. This is going to be a romp.’ You’re genuinely concerned about his safety.”
The last time Robin was given a headlining role in a big-budget movie—the weird Joseph Gordon-Levitt scene in The Dark Knight Rises notwithstanding—it didn’t go so well. Released in 1997 as a follow-up to Schumacher’s Batman Forever, Batman & Robin was meant to capitalize on the surprise success of its predecessor, which grossed $336.5 million globally and broke the record for the opening-weekend box office. Batman & Robin is a relic of another time. As over the top as Batman Forever is, it was partially still playing in the sandbox that Burton had built. By the time Batman & Robin was made, Schumacher—buoyed by the commercial success of the previous film—was able to push the Batverse into territory it would take years to bounce back from. The movie, for all of its charm, is as corny as you remember. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze got top billing over George Clooney’s Batman, fans harped on the rubber bat nipples, and there’s an extended scene when Batman and Robin fight over who will purchase a night (and presumbably sex) with Poison Ivy.
Expectedly, the reviewers went scorched earth. Desson Howe lobbied to “discontinue” the Batman movies in his review for The Washington Post, while Kenneth Turan wrote that the franchise is “no more” for the Los Angeles Times. The creatives responsible for the film would eventually atone for it. “I always apologize for Batman & Robin, I actually thought I destroyed the franchise,” Clooney said in 2015 on The Graham Norton Show. “I want to apologize to every fan that was disappointed because I think I owe them that,” Schumacher told Vice in 2017. When it was all said and done, Batman & Robin brought in $100 million less than its predecessor.
Despite this, Schumacher’s Batman & Robin is arguably the most influential Batman movie of all time thanks to this critical and commercial evisceration. It set forth a blueprint of everything a Batman movie would no longer be allowed to be. Plus, entering the new millennium, the world demanded a world-weary and beleaguered Batman to match the national mood. In subsequent films, Batman became a prism through which the American public could deal with Occupy Wall Street, the surveillance state, and the rise of internet incels. But what’s often lost to time are the market and corporate forces that broke the Dark Knight long before Batman & Robin hit the screen.
Despite its current perch near the top of the Caped Crusader’s filmography, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns wasn’t always beloved for its auteurish and singular vision. The movie made $145 million less than 1989’s Batman, while its gloomy aesthetic and overtly sexual overtones both angered parents and McDonald’s executives (the latter even shut down a Happy Meal tie-in). “With the first Batman, you’d never heard the word franchise,” Burton told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017. “On the second one, we started to get comments from McDonald’s like, ‘What’s all that black stuff coming out of the Penguin’s mouth?’ So, people were just starting to think of these films in terms of marketing.”
A producer on Batman Forever, Burton acknowledged that the studio was less than enthused to be working with him in the wake of his sequel. Schumacher was brought in to lighten up the franchise (and likely to sell more toys). Lee and Janet still recall the environment they walked into once they were approached to work on Batman Forever.
“I think the people’s reaction to Batman Returns, even the studio’s, was a little mixed because everybody loved Michelle Pfeiffer’s portrayal of Catwoman,” Lee says over the phone. “I think that they felt that the film was a commercial success, but half-succeeded artistically. They wanted to capture the best of the previous one without going a little as gritty as some of the Penguin story line went.”
“[Joel] had a very distinctive visual take on the character and on the movie and what he wanted it to look and feel like,” Janet adds. “He talked a lot about how he wanted to make a living comic book and he wanted it to be more colorful and more vibrant than the Tim Burton movies.”
For all their aesthetic differences, Schumacher and Burton’s Batman films are far more similar to each other than they are to recent incarnations. It’s obvious that Burton’s gloomy and gothic sensibilities are more in Batman’s wheelhouse than the visual bombast of Schumacher, but they both retain a whimsy and goofiness spiritually inherited from the 1960s Batman TV series starring Adam West. Its difficult to imagine Nolan, Snyder, or Reeves having the courage to feature Joker dancing to a Prince song, Oswald Cobblepot enlisting penguin terrorists to destroy Gotham, or the Riddler brainwashing a city with a very expensive satellite TV. Similarly, both movies are far less prudish than the modern Batman’s often-sexless crusade. Whether it was Catwoman’s BDSM costume or Schumacher’s reverent framing of Batman’s buttocks, it’s clear in both cases that the Dark Knight was far hornier in the 20th century than he’d inevitably become.
If anything, Burton and Schumacher were threading the same needle. Batman is by nature created to appeal to children, but the very things that make the character unique—the realism, psychological villains, arrested development—are often what inspires devotion from mature audiences. In the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s, Burton and Schumacher were solving the same problem in different ways: How do you make a Batman movie that simultaneously appeals to ever-shifting family values, while also honoring the grim and morose aspects of the character?
“What’s interesting to me is if you see Tim and my version, you can see how innocent viewers were back then,” Schumacher told Vice a few years before his death in 2020. “If you see Tim’s and my [films], you’d understand how innocent the audience was back then when it demanded to have more of a family-friendly Batman. Then when you see Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, the last one especially where he’s dealing with real class and economic problems, you see how the audience has changed in the fact that they can accept and want darker and darker subject matter.”
The Batchlers themselves saw the appeal of the classic Batman runs that have been the basis for Nolan, Snyder, and Reeves’s films. For a moment in the early ’90s, the writing duo was interested in honoring the more serious roots of Batman, even if that wasn’t the vision they were tasked with creating. Almost 30 years later, they’re taken aback at what audiences are willing to accept from a Batman film.
“We even thought about going the Frank Miller route because he reinvented Batman in the comics with the graphic novels, but that wasn’t where Joel was,” Lee says. “I think that a mixed orchestration is a better way to go, but I really understand the influences of, well, ‘We’ve done the light-and-colorful version of Batman, and we’re going to do it again. We have to do it differently.’ So I can understand why people chose the darker approach.”
“I think it’s remarkable that you could take a character like Batman and have it span everything from the absolute silliness of the Adam West TV Batman to the darkness of Christian Bale’s Batman,” Janet adds. “It really is a testament to the durability of the character.”
What’s most relatable about Batman is what makes him most tragic. The character, like all heroes, is born to fail. That’s the story of this year’s The Batman. Behind the Riddler-led, whodunit plot is a vigilante coming to grips with his own powerlessness as he tries to fix a city stuck in a cycle of systematic corruption. But maybe that’s the most comforting part of Batman. Night after night, he keeps doing the same thing praying for a different result, because often that’s all you can do.
That’s why every few years we line up to watch a new Batman on screen. The actors behind the cowl change, and so do the villains. Our suspension of disbelief dwindles as the world of Gotham and Batman’s problems more resemble our own. But amid the darkness (and often the camp) is a hero hellbent on bringing order to a world without it. There’s nothing more Batman than that.