7 Batmans, 11 films: the evolution of a dark superhero

Batman is king.
Fifty-six years after Batman first graced the silver screen, Joel Rasmussen recaps each depiction of the caped crusader. This is part of a series looking at Batman and his place in our lives.

The Caped Crusader. The Dark Knight. Vengeance. Whatever name he is known by, audiences all over the world are familiar with the masked vigilante known as Batman.

With over $9 billion in box office income, Batman is one of the most profitable film franchises in the world.

It has been 56 years since the world’s greatest detective first graced the silver screen in a feature-length film, and whether he is light-hearted and whacky or mysterious and brooding, every live action film depiction of Gotham’s protector brings something enjoyable to the screen.

From his debut in 1966 to his return in 2022, Batman has been a mainstay in popular culture.  

Listen to Switched On’s review of Vengeance

All the Batman films from the beginning

The Caped Crusader – Adam West, Batman (1966)

The honour of the first man to play Batman in a full-length film goes to Adam West, in the iconic role of his career. Although West’s Batman might be more remembered for the ‘60s television series, West did star in a film between the first and second seasons of the show.

This flick sees the team of Batman and Robin (Burt Ward) take on the United Underworld – the evil team of the most powerful supervillains in Gotham: The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Riddler (Frank Gorshin), The Penguin (Burgess Meredith) and Catwoman (Lee Meriwether).

This film is a classic, campy depiction of Batman.

7 Batmans, 11 films: the evolution of a dark superhero
Adam West is the original screen Batman in what is now a campy classic.

Gotham’s Protector – Michael Keaton, Batman (1989) & Batman Returns (1992)

A 23-year gap separates West’s and Michael Keaton’s Batman portrayals, along with a significant tonal shift.

Both Batman and Batman Returns have that gothic look that is a signature of director Tim Burton’s style. Keaton’s Batman battles against Jack Nicholson’s iconic depiction of The Joker, and Danny DeVito’s Penguin, and forms a love-hate relationship with Catwoman, played by Michelle Pfeiffer.

Although it is far from the grittiest depiction of Batman, Michael Keaton represents an exploration of a more serious hero in the cinema.

7 Batmans, 11 films: the evolution of a dark superhero
Tim Burton brought a gothic look to Gotham for Michael Keaton’s films.

The World’s Greatest Detective – Val Kilmer, Batman Forever (1995)

With a new director came a new Batman, and Val Kilmer donned the suit to bring Joel Schumacher’s vision to life in Batman Forever.

Kilmer takes on the team of Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and The Riddler (Jim Carrey) as they work to control the minds of the citizens of Gotham. Batman can’t face the duo alone, so he recruits the help of an orphaned trapeze artist Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell) as the boy wonder, in the first film depiction of Robin since 1966. Australia’s Nicole Kidman plays Kilmer’s love interest Dr Chase Meridian.

7 Batmans, 11 films: the evolution of a dark superhero
Val Kilmer and Chris O’Donnell – the first Robin since 1966.

The Billionaire – George Clooney, Batman & Robin (1997)

To wrap up Warner Bros’ original Batman films, George Clooney plays Gotham’s billionaire alongside Chris O’Donnell returning as Robin. Batman & Robin is a return to a goofy, ridiculous Batman, especially as the duo is up against the wise cracking, pun-filled team of Mr Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman) as they try to reverse the effects of global warming and cover Gotham in ice.

Batman & Robin sees the film debut of Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone), as she joins the dynamic crime fighting duo to help take down Mr Freeze with her technical prowess.

7 Batmans, 11 films: the evolution of a dark superhero
George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell & Alicia Silverstone forged a new crime-fighting team.

The Dark Knight – Christian Bale, Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) & The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

After an eight-year break, Batman returns in a gritty, realistic reboot. Gone are the puns, the colourful villains, and the goofy comedy.

Whether it’s the psychological torment of Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), the anarchy of The Joker (Heath Ledger), the emotional downfall of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) or the manic revolution of Bane (Tom Hardy), Christian Bale’s Batman trilogy is an excellent example of cinema and multi-film storytelling.

Bale’s portrayal of both Batman and Bruce Wayne brings the character to life. Acting alongside Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman and Michael Caine throughout the trilogy, these films serve as the iconic depiction of the Bat in cinema.

7 Batmans, 11 films: the evolution of a dark superhero
Christian Bale starred in the first of the films to take a darker view of the character.

The Bat – Ben Affleck, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Justice League (2017)

As DC tried to create their own cinematic universe to compete alongside Marvel’s MCU, Ben Affleck was given the role in this take on Batman. Affleck’s Batman is a dark, jaded version of the hero – a version that hadn’t been explored in film until this point.

While Bale’s Batman does become more cynical in The Dark Knight Rises, Affleck’s Batman starts as a bitter, violent vigilante. Affleck portrays a beaten down, disillusioned, veteran Batman, who has lost Robin to the Joker and has taken to branding criminals with a symbol of a bat, never letting them forget who they must fear.

7 Batmans, 11 films: the evolution of a dark superhero
Ben Affleck brought a dark and jaded energy to Batman.

Vengeance – Robert Pattinson, The Batman (2022)

Robert Pattinson’s Batman is a unique take on the character. In The Batman, our hero is a true outsider – not accepted by the police force, by the citizens of Gotham, or by the underbelly, who want nothing to do with him.

Batman must deal with psychotic serial killer The Riddler (Paul Dano). While plunging into crime-filled Gotham, Batman must also deal with The Penguin (Collin Farrell) and Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), while solving puzzles to prevent The Riddler from killing again.

While other actors have shown the double life Bruce Wayne lives between vigilante and playboy, Pattinson shows a more reclusive Bruce Wayne, who has clearly been affected by two years of experiencing the criminal underbelly of the city.

Pattinson plays a stoic and strong Batman, while also being a damaged and broken Bruce Wayne. Pattinson portrays a man who has completely lost himself within his mission to bring justice to the city of Gotham.

7 Batmans, 11 films: the evolution of a dark superhero
Robert Pattinson plays Batman as an outsider.