Since the early ’40s we have seen many actors come and go as the caped crusader. From the fan favorite Adam West to the divisive Ben Affleck we’ve all know what a good cinematic Batman looks like, and what a not so great one looks like. That being said, many people truly believe we have not seen a comic accurate Batman on screen yet. Good ones, yes; but not a satisfying translation from comics to live action. There are certain characteristics that Batman should have in an on screen presence. An ideal cinematic Batman must be a stoic defender of justice, a morally precise hero, an intelligent detective, and a true beacon of hope to those that he protects. Since Ben Affleck is on the outs, here is a good opportunity to look at the cinematic history of the Caped Crusader, and see what characteristics could be included in further adaptations of the character.
A Brief Cinematic History
As early as 1943, Batman has been represented in live-action in varying capacities. In 1966 the world saw it’s first feature length Batman film. Adam West was cast as a campy yet still pretty comic book accurate representation of Batman (for the time). Since then we’ve seen 10 movies featuring the Dark Knight, with five actors portraying him, all to varying degrees of quality and precision from the source material. 1989 saw Michael Keaton playing a more deadly Batman who was still a little campy. In 1995 Val Kilmer sunk deeper into the campiness, and then in 1997 George Clooney begrudgingly took the role to new levels with Bat-Nipples and a cartoonishly bizarre premise. In 2005 we saw the renaissance of Batman with Christian Bale playing a gritty and realistic approach to the character. Finally in 2016 we saw Ben Affleck take the reigns of a severely mis-charactarized Batman, with redeeming qualities in his acting and visual design. Now the world waits to see who will take the mantle in 2021 with The Batman and how he will be written as a character and directed by Matt Reeves.
Comic Book Batman
It’s important to note that despite who portrays Batman, it is ultimately up to the director, producers, and writers to make sure that we see a good characterization of the Caped Crusader. One who reflects the comic book character well. Not every aspect translates directly from comic to live-action well. If we went full on comic book nonsense, the character would be hard to keep up with. That being said, it’s okay to lean into aspects of Batman that initially seem a little hokey, after all, he is man who decides to dress as a Bat and punch people.
There are a few things that are simple enough to build into a character that filmmakers routinely miss with the Batman. Comic book Batman, though a tragic character, has devoted his life to protecting the people of Gotham and doing so in a way that emboldens the citizens of his city and strikes fear into the hearts of the criminals who defy justice. He lives by a moral code: “no guns, no killing”. He is a “silent guardian. . .a watchful protector”. Under the guise of billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne is a calculating, smart, and long-suffering man who brilliantly solves the mystery of crime in Gotham with the fierceness and tenacity to enforce the law when others cannot. We have yet to see a live action Batman display ALL of these qualities, and it would be a breath of fresh air to see them put to good use.
A Stoic Defender
When I think of Batman, I think of a quiet and stern man. A man of little words, and little jokes. One who dissects a person mentally when he meets them and is kind of unpleasant to talk to. Yet he still knows when to say something truly inspirational or act sensitively when needed. Batman does not regularly quip, and should not be portrayed with any slapstick humor, or be a like-able character to those around him. This is something I feel the 2017 Justice League movie missed about his character. That’s not to say that there aren’t humorous moments to be had with Batman. In conversation with other comical heroes, Batman is the straight man that jokes often play off of. Another humorous device that can be applied to Batman is situational humor. The Christopher Nolan films have a great balance of situational humor associated with Batman while he also maintains his dignity as a character. Bruce acknowledges that he’s getting torn up by dogs on the streets, will share a little anecdote with Alfred, or acknowledges how droll it sounds to someone when he asks for everything to come in black. Yet he knows when to be noble and stern when he needs to be. Batman should be 95% serious, 5% amusing.
Every interpretation of Batman is different. How he adheres to his moral code is likewise different. However, audiences start to wonder about this character when the director decides to let Batman, the man in the comics with an unflinching code against guns and killing, decide to litter criminals with bullets, stuff a bomb down a man’s pants, torch him with the rocket thrusters of the Batmobile, blow up a temple full of ninjas, or batter criminals with a car being towed by the Batmobile. All of those examples are from every movie (except for the ’60s, bless your campy heart Adam West Batman). Even the justification of “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you” wouldn’t fly with comic book Batman. One of the most interesting things about Batman is that even though he should, and wants to, he will not kill. It’s his tragic flaw. In previous films where he is more privy to kill (especially Batman v. Superman), I have to ask: what is to stop him from just snapping the Joker’s neck? What actually separates him from the criminals? What separates him from the people who killed his parents? Is it because their mom’s name is Martha? Because if it isn’t, Batman is just a serial killer vigilante (if I want that then I’ll just watch The Punisher). No guns, no killing.
Something that we haven’t really truly seen in any of the movies is Batman being an actual detective. We come close in a few movies with some digital analysis of a bullet and the like. But I’m talking about some actual detecting. Taking prints, setting up a crime scene, deduction, and finding a killer. Some real Sherlock Holmes stuff. But mostly we just get Batman punching people, or emailing Wonder Woman asking “who are you?” Batman is the worlds greatest detective and it’s about time that we see him do some actual detecting. Write stories that challenge Batman’s intellect, that showcase his intelligence, and give the viewers a mystery to unravel for themselves. Some of the best Batman comics have Batman fighting one criminal after another while trying to figure out the mystery behind who seems to be organizing all the crime (comics like Hush and Batman: Eternal). The entire reason that Batman is on the Justice League is because of his brilliant analytic mind, his strategic abilities and his skill as a detective. Without those you might wonder why he’s on the league. Luckily, Matt Reeves has said this about his upcoming The Batman movie:
“It’s very much a point of view-driven, noir Batman tale. It’s told very squarely on his shoulders, and I hope it’s going to be a story that will be thrilling but also emotional. It’s more Batman in his detective mode than we’ve seen in the films. The comics have a history of that. He’s supposed to be the world’s greatest detective, and that’s not necessarily been a part of what the movies have been. I’d love this to be one where when we go on that journey of tracking down the criminals and trying to solve a crime, it’s going to allow his character to have an arc so that he can go through a transformation.”The Hollywood Reporter
A Beacon Of Hope
With most of the Batman films we’ve seen I’ve never really got the sense that Batman inspired any real hope in anyone or left a legacy. In The Dark Knight Rises he inspired Robin John Blake to supposedly take up the mantle, and he got a statue dedicated to him. But in all reality he probably spent about 8 months time as Batman. In all of the other movies he seems more like a madman than anything else. Batman is supposed to give a sense of honor and confidence to the people of Gotham. He is meant to embolden the police and root out the corruption within them. Ultimately he is there to rid Gotham of the evil that plagues it. Even though it’s mostly a never-ending battle I’ve read comic after comic that ends with Batman rallying the people of Gotham to take back the city. It might be on fire, left powerless from a nationwide EMP, overflowing with Scarecrow toxin, addled by criminals or utterly broken by terrorists, but in the end, Batman leads the charge to save the city. We need a cinematic adaptation of Batman who can do this. Who is just as entertaining to see on a normal night out fighting crime, as he is when Gotham is at the brink of destruction. We need a Batman that inspires us to be better people. I leave a Captain America movie and want to be a better person, more patriotic and optimistic. I should feel similar after leaving a Batman movie. Driven to be a better friend, to stand up for the weak, to leave a legacy, to be brave and to be bold.
Batman is one of the most popular characters in comics and fiction. We’ve seen some amazing adaptations of the character. But in a world that is now filled with comic book movies of varying quality it’s time that we see a truly great Batman film with an astoundingly accurate portrayal of this beloved character. One who is the heroic sentinel of justice. One who can take the moral high ground in his battle against crime. A truly intelligent and well thought out character who will stop at nothing to make the world a better place and affect real change in those who witness his good deeds. This is the hero that Gotham needs AND deserves. He is vengeance, he is the Knight, he is The Batman.