Holy remakes!!! How many ways can Hollywood portray "Batman"?
From the campy '60s Adam West version to the equally campy George Clooney outing, five films have brought the beloved Bob Kane DC comic to life -- five different visions, of varying quality, that have delighted, disappointed and ignited arguments among Batman aficionados everywhere. Now comes Number 6: the eagerly awaited, promisingly dark "Batman Begins."
Why all the attention? Batman has long been the favorite superhero of comic-book/graphic-novel fandom, offering a wealth of rich, dark material for a filmmaker to mine. We are inspired/fascinated by traumatized rich boy Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego Batman because he doesn't possess any superpowers -- just a super brain, super gadgets, super car, super rage and a super, devoted butler. He's the brooding film noir-esque anti-hero whose hometown of Gotham City is so filled with corruption and evil that it has stained his soul. Batman is so deeply troubled and so deeply violent, you're not sure just which side of good or evil he's on.
This is just one reason we're especially excited for Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins," starring the wonderfully twisted and intense Christian Bale ("American Psycho," "The Machinist") in the title role. They appear the perfect pair to take Batman back to the dark side. Will it be the definitive portrayal of the Caped Crusader? We've seen it, and we'll give you our verdict below. But before we get to Bale's bat-ting average, we thought we'd fly down memory lane to take a look at the previous Bat-visions that graced or disgraced our big screens.
'Batman: The Movie' (1966)
Bat facts: Taken from the campy and colorful TV show, Leslie H. Martinson's "Batman: The Movie" has long been regarded as a gleefully guilty pleasure. The story has Gotham City's four greatest criminals joining forces to, yes, take over the world. How will the dynamic duo, Batman and Robin, stop them? With a lot of POW! KABLAM! and BOOM!
The man behind the mask: Adam West
Friends: Robin (Burt Ward) and Alfred (Alan Napier)
Foes: Joker (Cesar Romero), Penguin (Burgess Meredith), Riddler (Frank Gorshin) and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether)
Geek critique: Though most fans like the camp factor of the movie and, of course, the cool catchy theme song, some expressed anger over problems ranging from not taking Kane's source material seriously to West's slightly flabby physique. Also, kitty-licious Julie Newmar's TV Catwoman was replaced by the too-cute Meriwether.
Bottom line: No, this isn't heavy viewing. And it's perhaps one reason why the comic-book genre has been regarded by civilians as, well, kid's stuff, but it's pretty lovable. With the film's hilarious gadgets (our favorite: shark repellent), the stiff delivery of West countered by Ward's hyper proclamations like "Holy horseshoe!" and the cheesy comic antics of Romero, Meredith and Gorshin (R.I.P., gentlemen), it's a batty good time.
Bat facts: For those who only remembered Batman as a leotard-wearing, '60s phenomena, 28-year-old visionary Tim Burton gamely stepped in and created an appropriately darker franchise, and one closer to Frank Miller's popular "Dark Knight" graphic novels. This one features the Joker as arch villain and murderer of Bruce Wayne's parents, setting off the Caped Crusader's rage and revenge.
The man behind the mask: Michael Keaton
Geek critique: Many were split on the casting of Michael "Mr. Mom" Keaton (to us, he's always "Beetlejuice") as the Caped Crusader, but the biggest criticism came from Burton's poetic licensing of Batman's superhero inspiration. Burton had the Joker kill Bruce Wayne's parents (in the comic, an unknown thug committed the act), and comic-book fans felt cheated: The original wrath that fueled Batman was directed not simply at the Joker but at faceless crime in general.
Bottom line: A gorgeously filmed Burton tale with a nicely dry Keaton and a perfectly cast Nicholson, "Batman" was slow moving but visually inventive, recalling another era and the dark landscape of DC Comics. To enjoy this "Batman" you have to allow yourself into Burton's world and not just Kane's.
'Batman Returns' (1992)
Bat facts: Burton took another stab, this time with an even dimmer view of society and media: The dastardly Penguin (AKA Oswald Cobblepot) runs for mayor!
The man behind the mask: Michael Keaton.
Geek critique: Despite phenomenal casting with Pfeiffer, DeVito and Walken, hard-core Bat-philes continued to dislike Burton's vision overriding creator Kane's, while merely dipping into the darker waters of the comic's brilliant second-coming creator, Frank Miller.
Bottom line: This has long been our favorite "Batman," flaws and all. The beautiful look evokes a noirish, even German expressionistic underground, and the themes -- especially the origin of the Penguin (a deformed baby dropped in the river by his parents) -- were extra dark and brooding (not to mention that Burton set it during Christmas!). And Pfeiffer in that catsuit? Forget Halle Berry: Pfeiffer was pussy-purrrfect.
'Batman Forever' (1995)
Bat facts: Joel "St. Elmo's Fire" Schumacher took over the reins in Batman's third comeback. Here, Batman's got two villains to contend with: Two-Face, who blames Batman for his disfigurement, and the Riddler, a jealous employee of Wayne Enterprises. We also get the introduction of Robin, the young, rebellious sidekick.
The man behind the mask: Val Kilmer
Geek critique: Kilmer could have made a good Batman, but fans found this all so silly and much too light, making most appreciate the Burton films before it. And, after this, they all but gave up on the franchise. Nice work, Schumacher!
Bottom line: OK, the only thing truly interesting in Schumacher's "Batman" is his obvious fetishistic love for the man in black ... and tights ... and, uh ... chest gear. Kilmer's got the lips (but then, was Batman known for his pouty kisser?) and he's certainly a talented actor, but a guy who can channel Jim Morrison isn't exactly the Batman we want. But then again, this was a "Batman" of a different persuasion. Just watch how Batman suits up and you get more than a hint of homoerotic subtext simmering underneath that nipple-enhanced armor. It's Leather-Bar Batman!
'Batman & Robin' (1997)
Bat facts: Joel "Flatliners" Schumacher returns to camp things up with the dynamic duo battling Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze, who -- you guessed it -- are intent on freezing the world. Meanwhile, Alfred is sick, leaving Batman, Robin and (yep) Batgirl searching for a cure to save him.
The man behind the mask: George Clooney
Geek critique: Did they even show up for this one?
Bottom line: Even campier than Schumacher's first one, this one manages to be even lamer -- more in tune with the Adam West "Batman" TV show and movie but not nearly as likable and funny. Poor Clooney (who's got the perfect Bat-chin and Bat-i-tude) is lost in a stupid story devoid of heart ... even with Alfred dying. This also marked the downfall of Silverstone. You missed it? Check local network TV at around 2:30 p.m. on a Sunday. It's probably on.
'Batman Begins' (2005)
Bat facts: Christopher Nolan, the man behind menacing stuff like "Memento" and "Insomnia," crafts a "Batman" closer to its source material than any other film. Bruce Wayne witnesses his parents' murder, then grows up traumatized. As a young man, he runs off to train with the ninja cult leader known as Ra's Al Ghul. When he returns to Gotham City, it's more corrupt than ever, leading him to create his cave, suit and gadgets (with the help of Lucius Fox), culminating in his alter ego of Batman. Mafia don Falcone and the evil doctor Jonathan "The Scarecrow" Crane must be taken down.
The man behind the mask: Christian Bale
Geek critique: We can only speculate at this time, but this is likely to be the geek favorite among all the "Batman" films. We've already heard of purists blanching over Bruce Wayne's origins -- once again, they're not true to Kane's vision (Batman's training with Ducard has caused some grumblings). But the inclusion of one of the comic book's scariest villains, Scarecrow, is greatly anticipated.
Bottom line: This is the best "Batman" by far. Though we love the sinister set design and gloomy outlook of Burton's pictures, Nolan goes one step further in making Batman what he should rightfully be -- a wee bit insane (though we wished he was even nuttier, like Patrick "American Psycho" Bateman nuts). Bale is a terrific balance of good-looking and unnerving freak. He's a social misfit who faces his fears by embracing them and then projecting them onto the world he mistrusts. The message of fear is so disturbing in Nolan's film; there are a few scenes, particularly with Scarecrow, that'll terrify even adults. And we can't think of a film in the Batman series (or any movie, for that matter) in which the term "Jungian archetypes" is uttered in a sentence. Batman begins, indeed.
Kim Morgan is a film critic for the LA Weekly, DVD Talk and Reel.com. She was a film critic for The Oregonian and has written about movies for various print and Web media.