History of the Batman Portrayals - Part 2

Tue, September 4th, 2012 at 5:58am PDT

TV/Film
Alan Kistler, Guest Contributor

With the "The Dark Knight Rises" concluding director Christopher Nolan's Batman film trilogy, many are debating what direction DC Entertainment's next Batman films should take and whether a whole new take or reboot should be employed.

To help put such discussions in context, CBR News presents the first of a two-part feature that reexamines the history of the many actors who've portrayed Batman/Bruce Wayne across film, television and radio. In Part 1, we looked back on the early movie serials and radio broadcasts, along with cartoons and the famous live-action performances of Adam West and Michael Keaton. Now we begin with how the first film franchise started by director Tim Burton continued with a new director and new men wearing the cowl.

Story continues below

VAL KILMER

Val Kilmer as Batman in "Batman Forever"

"Batman Returns" was a box office success, but Warner Bros. felt it should have been an even bigger one. The problem, they felt, was that the movie was not "mainstream" enough and that its PG-13 rating limited the potential audience. After Tim Burton left as director of the first Batman film franchise (though he stayed on as a producer), Joel Schumacher was hired with Burton's approval and tasked with delivering a Batman film that would appeal to fans of all ages.

According to Schumacher, he initially wanted to do a prequel or reboot by adapting Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's "Batman: Year One" story, with Bruce just beginning his vigilante career after years of training abroad. The studio evidently rejected this take, deciding the new film would be a sequel and not a prequel. Schumacher conceded, but decided his sequel would not bare any resemblance to the previous two films. Gotham City would be more colorful, somewhat reminiscent of the 1940s comics where the city included oversized landmarks. A lighter version of Batman would inhabit this exaggerated reality, joined by acrobat-turned-hero Robin as his sidekick.

Ethan Hawke was offered the role of Bruce Wayne but turned it down, a decision he later said he regretted. Days after Michael Keaton stated he would not be returning, actor Val Kilmer was literally in a bat cave (while filming in the area for "The Ghost and the Darkness") when he received a phone call from producers asking him to be the new Batman. Kilmer accepted without asking who the director was or seeing the script.

Schumacher decided the hero should "get over" the trauma of his parents' murder and become a well-adjusted, "more heroic" figure. While Keaton's Bruce Wayne (and the mainstream comic book version) remembered the death of his parents quite clearly, Kilmer's incarnation had repressed memories of the event and was subconsciously driven by guilt he didn't fully understand. The movie showed him confronting these memories, finally deciding that he was Batman not because he felt he had to be but because he chose to be. In some ways, this represented him moving past the death of his parents as the primary reason for his vigilante life.

Kilmer's Batman was less ruthless than Keaton's. He knocked out thugs and tasered them rather than dropping bombs in front of them or letting them fall several stories. He even made rare attempts at humor, such as when confronted by the forward Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) and remarked, "It's the car, right? Chicks dig the car."

This Batman was also more vocal with Alfred, and later Robin (Chris O'Donnell), about his thoughts. He openly admitted that killing the Joker had been a mistake and that he had allowed vengeance to become his life, so much so that he no longer knew why or how to stop. This experience drove him to warn Robin not to try killing his parents' murderer, though Batman himself would later cause the man's death.

Kilmer's Bruce Wayne was very much a recognizable celebrity, similar to the comic book counterpart and very different from the recluse of Burton's movies. On the other hand, this Bruce Wayne seemed more akin to Marvel's Tony Stark. He displayed a keen grasp of science before people, friends and journalists and was evidently considered a highly intelligent man by many, rather than a bored playboy. He also took an obvious interest in his company's day-to-day activities and seemed to keep on top of things rather than trusting others to run the company so he could sleep in.

GEORGE CLOONEY

George Clooney as Batman in Joel Schumacher's "Batman & Robin"

Schumacher reported many problems working with Kilmer on set, calling the actor childish and rude. He also complained about Tommy Lee Jones, who played Two Face, and later stated he hoped not to work with either of them again. Development on the sequel, "Batman & Robin," began immediately after "Batman Forever" and Kilmer decided not to return. George Clooney was cast to replace him.

Production was rushed in order to ensure a summer release date. Schumacher was no longer interested in referencing Batman's dark past and increased the camp atmosphere he'd established in "Batman Forever," hoping to emulate the 1960s live-action TV series starring Adam West. According to people involved, he repeatedly reminded the actors, "This is a cartoon." According to Chris O'Donnell, "Batman & Robin" felt more like filming a toy commercial than a movie.

Clooney's Bruce Wayne followed the same vein as Kilmer's. His Batman was even more light-hearted than Kilmer's version. This resulted in heavy criticism from audiences that also didn't care for the increased campy atmosphere and heavily stylized costumes -- complete with highlighted codpieces and rubber nipples. The fifth planned Batman installment, "Batman Triumphant," was cancelled. Clooney openly criticized the production in later interviews and said he had been unaware of the film's intended direction when he joined. At the same time, he added, "I can't say it didn't work and then not take some blame for that."

KEVIN CONROY

Kevin Conroy first voice Batman in "Batman: The Animated Series" and continues playing the role even today

For many Batman fans, one of the most influential adaptations was "Batman: The Animated Series," which aired from 1992 to 1995, retitled "The Adventures of Batman & Robin" later in its run. During 1996, this version of Batman appeared in "Superman: The Animated Series." "The New Batman Adventures" continued the continuity of "Batman: TAS" from 1997 to 1999, with the series taking place a couple of years later and with a new animation style that more closely resembled Superman's cartoon. Then, from 1999 to 2001, "Batman Beyond" showed the future of this DC Animated Universe (or DCAU) several decades later, as a retired Bruce Wayne mentored Terry McGinnis, the new Batman. Meanwhile, the main Batman and Superman cartoons were repackaged into "The New Batman/Superman Adventures," finally ending in 2000.

Behind all these shows were producers Paul Dini, Alan Burnett and Bruce Timm, with Glen Murakami joining them on "Batman Beyond" and Eric Radomski working with them on "Batman: TAS." The initial cartoon series that began in 1992 was inspired Tim Burton's Batman films and the Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons from the 1940s. Though it was a kids' show, stories were written to appeal to older audiences as well. Gore was not featured, but firearms, death, drug use and minor bloodshed were all present. The series would receive critical praise, four Emmy Awards and nine Emmy nominations. It even spawned an animated theatrical film, "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm." And unlike some animated productions, voice director Andrea Romano recorded with multiple actors together in the studio rather than have them perform separately.

Conroy's portrayal featured different vocal qualities for Bruce Wayne and Batman

Kevin Conroy had appeared in several stage productions and television shows. He auditioned for the role of Joe Hackett on the sitcom "Wings," but lost it to Tim Daly, whom he would later work together with on several DC Comics animated projects. Finally, Conroy decided to try his hand at vocal work. "Batman: The Animated Series" was his first audition for an animated project and he beat out 150 other actors for the role.

Conroy was not terribly familiar with the Batman mythos but was interested in the serious, noir approach the series was taking. He became heavily interested in the character as a result of his work on the role. A trained singer, Conroy came up with the idea that Bruce Wayne and Batman would have distinctive voices, which he achieved by changing his octave. This same trick had been done decades earlier when Bob Collyer voiced Superman in radio plays.

Conroy's habit of changing his voice in this way continued throughout his animated performances (though he lessened it slightly in later years) and influenced the comic books. After "Batman: TAS" began airing, the comic books agreed that the hero changed his voice to be lighter as Bruce Wayne and would use his natural, gravelly tone when he donned his mask. Years later, director Christopher Nolan followed this idea but reversed it, having Bruce Wayne use his natural voice while Batman's voice was digitally altered to disguise his identity.

Many stories in the show were inspired or influenced by Batman comics from the 1970s, particularly certain stories by Denny O'Neil and Steve Englehart. Thus, Conroy's Batman was very close to that incarnation, one who was serious and terrifying to criminals but could seem human and friendly to people he helped or approached civilly. He also wasn't above some sarcastic wit now and again.

Conroy's Bruce Wayne was a bit different from the traditional comics. Rather than a charming yet self-absorbed playboy, this Bruce was earnest, somewhat naïve at times, and a bit clumsy but also cared about his company and Gotham City. He was assertive with employees who engaged in practices he morally disagreed with and was known to have an interest in athletics and martial arts even if he wasn't terribly good (seemingly) in a fight.

Conroy as Batman in the "Batman: Arkham Asylum" video game

For a generation of fans, Kevin Conroy became the definitive voice of Batman. In the episode "Beware the Gray Ghost," he got to share an adventure with Adam West, who voiced Simon Trent, an actor who had starred in an adventure/detective show for children called "The Gray Ghost," only to end up typecast. Conroy's Batman stated that the Gray Ghost had been his hero and that he had even modeled the Batcave after the character's own lair.

Even after the final episodes of these Batman cartoon shows, Conroy continued the role in "The Zeta Project," "Justice League," "Static Shock," and "Justice League Unlimited." He voiced Batman in the video games "Batman: Vengeance," "Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu," "DC Universe Online," "Batman: Arkham Asylum," and "Batman: Arkham City," and in various animated films to this day. He made a cameo as John Grayson, Dick Grayson's father, in "The Batman," a newer animated series. He voiced the alien hero known as the Batman of Zur En Arrh in "Batman: The Brave and the Bold," and also voiced the Phantom Stranger on that same series, regularly encountering Diedrich Bader's interpretation of the Dark Knight.

At this time, Conroy's now twenty-year run as Gotham City's dark hero has no end in sight.

RINO ROMANO

Rino Romano as the Dark Knight in "The Batman"

Airing from 2004 to 2008, "The Batman" was geared for a somewhat younger audience than "Batman: The Animated Series" and the other shows that took place in its continuity. At the beginning of "Batman: TAS," Bruce had been operating as a vigilante for years and was very comfortable in his experience and abilities. In "The Batman," Bruce was younger and had just begun his vigilante career three years earlier. Having finally brought street crime in Gotham to an all-time low, Batman was surprised by the rise of the city's first super villains.

The series was supervised by Michael Goguen and Duane Capizzi, with Rino Romano playing the role. No stranger to famous super heroes, Romano previously voiced Spider-Man in the animated "Spider-Man Unlimited." This show emphasized Bruce's youth and how the new appearance of pop criminals and super-powered menaces were things he hadn't unprepared for. He expressed doubt and uncertainty far more readily than Conroy, but he was still the Dark Knight, all business when it came to hunting down criminals. Similar to Conroy, there was an earnestness in this Bruce Wayne, and he was someone who obviously cared about his city and company.

As time went on, Batman became more confident. He gained allies in the police force. Batgirl became his first apprentice (Robin wasn't legally allowed to appear, as he was starring in the "Teen Titans" cartoon at the time) and he joined the Justice League, learning how to be a team player and forcing him into thinking as a leader/mentor. After a few seasons, he was a more formidable and confident hero. It was also at that time that he finally met Dick Grayson and took the boy under his wing.

Kevin Conroy had a recurring role on the show as Dick Grayson's father, John, and Adam West also appeared as Mayor Grange.

DIEDRICH BADER

Diedrich Bader played a zanier version of Batman in "Batman: The Brave and the Bold"

From 2008 until 2011, a whole new take on Batman's animated adventures was presented in the series "Batman: The Brave and the Bold," produced by James Tucker and Michael Jelenic. Like the old comic book series "The Brave and the Bold," this show focused on team-ups with many different characters. In fact, the show usually featured two adventures with Batman joining forces with another hero: one in the cold open, and then one for the main episode.

Similar to "The Batman," this show aimed for a younger audience. Unlike the last couple of animated interpretations of Batman, this emphasized high-flying fun and embraced the absurdity of comic book tales, often modernizing stories from the '40s, '50s and '60s that modern-day comic fans sometimes felt were too "silly" to use.

Diedrich Bader's Batman was a halfway point between Kevin Conroy and Adam West. He was a serious crime-fighter and had little patience for criminals and even some other super heroes. However, he regularly engaged in spouting short speeches during his altercations that involved alliteration and descriptive metaphors. He was also quite friendly with certain heroes. He and Ted Kord AKA Blue Beetle would compare and discuss weaponry while battling criminals. He and escape artist Mr. Miracle would comment on each other's methods while freeing themselves from a deadly trap. This hero took a certain enjoyment in his work and even, without irony, nicknamed his very fists "the hammers of justice."

Bruce Wayne was barely seen in this show, as the focus was on Batman and his memorably zany capers, adventures that involved giant Batman robots, trips to other planets, energy swords, musical numbers, and Ace the Bat-Hound. But it wasn't all fun and games. Some adventures did delve into darkness and openly confronted death. In a couple of episodes, viewers saw heroes sacrifice themselves to save others or learned about heroes and criminals who were killed. The episode entitled "Chill of the Night" involved Batman finally finding the killer of his parents and wrestling with the idea of taking revenge. That same episode featured Mark Hamill as the mystical Spectre, goading Bruce to kill Joe Chill, while Kevin Conroy played the cosmic Phantom Stranger, who reminded Batman that his cause was justice, not revenge.

Adam West made appearances on the show in dual roles: Thomas Wayne and Proto, the prototype Batman robot.

This series was a strange but very fun compromise of many different versions of Batman, celebrating the character's many eras in one way or another.

CHRISTIAN BALE

Christian Bale suited up for "Batman Begins"

In 2003, director Christopher Nolan ("Inception," "Memento") and writer David S. Goyer ("Blade," "Dark City") began development of a new Batman film. This movie would reboot the franchise from scratch and aim for a darker tone than "Batman & Robin," but more grounded in realism and Batman's emotional journey than Tim Burton's films. One of the major goals was that the audience care about Bruce Wayne and see him as the same character as Batman rather than waiting for him to put on the mask. It would also focus on Bruce's travels abroad, where he got his equipment, his training, and why he chose a bat as his totem, all points that hadn't been explored in previous films.

29-year-old actor Christian Bale was hired to portray Bruce Wayne, beating out actor Jake Gyllenhaal (whose sister Maggie would later portray Bruce's love interest in "The Dark Knight"). Bale had expressed interest in playing Batman a few years back when director Darren Aronofsky had been discussing possibly doing a reboot of the franchise. Like Nolan, Bale believed the previous films focused too much on the origins and motivations on the villains rather than on the hero himself, making him less interesting than his enemies. To help gain a greater understanding of the character and his body language, Bale studied several comic books.

Bale believed there were four basic versions of Bruce Wayne in the film, three of whom co-existed. The first was Bruce as an angry, vengeful young man traveling the world, knowing he wanted to fight evil but not yet sure how he would accomplish this. After training, Bruce would become a man who tempered much of his anger and now acted with purpose in all things. He didn't muse on his motivations or discuss doubts openly with Alfred, he stated his purpose simply, sometimes needing to be reminded to face some basic truths he might forget in the pursuit of his crusade. This evolved version of Bruce Wayne was only seen by those he trusted, whereas the rest of the world saw one of two facades: the bored, shallow playboy or the dark, demonic avenger.

Bale leaves big shoes to fill following the conclusion of Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy

Bale and Nolan also wanted very much to focus on Batman's morality. Like the comics, he was opposed to killing. A few comic stories stated that Batman feared his own capacity for violence at times and believed that if he deliberately killed one enemy he wouldn't be able to stop. Bale followed this idea, later stating, "Batman is [Bruce Wayne's] hidden, demonic rage-filled side. The creature Batman creates is an absolutely sincere creature and one that he has to control but does so in a very haphazard way. He's capable of enacting violence -- and to kill -- so he's constantly having to rein himself in."

Bale often found the costume uncomfortable but, like Keaton, felt that this helped him get into Batman's frame of mind. "You become a beast in the suit, as Batman should be -- Not a man in a suit, but a different creature."

Bale's portrayal met with mixed reviews, often drawing comparisons with Michael Keaton, though was largely praised. "Batman Begins" was released in 2005 and was a great financial success. Some critics argued it set a new standard for how superhero films were done, paving the way for other reboots and features that focused on a character's secret identity and motivations such as "Iron Man." Bale returned to the role of Bruce Wayne for the successful sequel "The Dark Knight" in 2008 and then for "The Dark Knight Rises" in 2012, the final Batman film in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy.

WHAT IS YET TO COME

"Beware the Batman" is a new animated take starring Anthony Ruivivar in 2013

Though the hero's movie future remains uncertain, fans will get a new helping of Batman in the form of the new animated series "Beware the Batman" in 2013. The show will be entirely computer animated and will be much darker than the previous cartoon, "Batman: The Brave and the Bold."

The show has been directed to use lesser-known villains from the comics and avoid the Joker. Rather than working with Robin or Batgirl, the Dark Knight will be partnered with Katana, the sword-wielding comic book hero who can be found in the series "Birds of Prey" and the upcoming "Justice League of America," and who has worked with Bruce in the "Outsiders" series. Alfred will also be depicted not simply as a butler who was once a spy but as someone who still calls on his experience and training by fighting evil with handguns. Since the recent tragedy of the Aurora shooting at a screening of "The Dark Knight Rises," the creative team has announced that the firearms will be altered in the show to look less realistic.

The show is supervised by Mitch Watson and "Batman Beyond" producer Glen Murakami. Anthony Ruivivar portrays the titular hero. The new series features an experienced Batman who has been fighting crime for "five to six years" and is in his early 30s. Similar to Christian Bale's incarnation, this hero has three sides to his persona: the Dark Knight, the public face of Bruce Wayne as an altruistic businessman (modeled after Richard Branson), and the introspective person in-between each façade whom only trusted friends such as Alfred get to see. What else we can expect from this series and how it will reinterpret other aspects of Batman's world remains to be seen.

It has also been rumored that the expected "Justice League" movie set for release in 2015 will introduce the next film version of Batman, though details about the project are sketchy at best right now. Given the success of Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, Warner Bros and DC Entertainment would be smart get Batman back on the screen as quickly as passible.

Alan Kistler is an actor and author who hops between New York City and Los Angeles. He is the author of "The Unofficial Batman Trivia Challenge."

TAGS:  dc comics, batman, batman forever, batman and robin, batman the animated series, the batman, batman begins, the dark knight, the dark knight rises, val kilmer, george clooney, kevin conroy, rino romano, diedrich bader, christian bale, anthony ruivivar, beware the batman

 
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