Though Batman is a character that dominates a massive share of the pop culture space, that doesn’t stop DC Comics from giving the brooding Dark Knight his own day of celebration every year. The superhero has spawned a treasure trove of engaging media across every medium he’s featured in, with movies and TV being the biggest highlights outside of the comic book source material.
- The Batman (2022)
- The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012)
- Batman and Batman Returns (1989, 1992)
- The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures (1992-1995, 1997-1999)
- Batman Beyond (1999-2001)
- Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
- Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000)
- The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 and 2 (2012, 2013)
- Under the Red Hood (2010)
And even though Warner Bros. seems to be at its most volatile state in recent memory following the scorched-earth-esque merger with Discovery, fans can typically find most of the character’s best stories in one place. If fans want to celebrate the occasion, then delving into the various live-action and animated Batman movies and TV shows on HBO Max seems like a fitting way to do so.
The first movie in a projected reboot trilogy of Dark Knight movies, The Batman is a gripping crime-noir rendition of the hero in live-action. Its biggest accomplishment is finally giving Batman proper focus to his World’s Greatest Detective epithet that’s been surprisingly sidelined in even the best of the character’s prior movies. The atmosphere is suitably moody and drenched in a perpetual rain that makes this take on the hero and his world irresistibly stylish in a grimy way.
Matt Reeves’ use of Year One and The Long Halloween are readily apparent, and it effectively manages to be a movie that’s an homage to the source material and an exciting new interpretation. Robert Pattinson pours himself into this gloomily reclusive take on Bruce Wayne/Batman, with Zoë Kravitz Selina Kyle/Catwoman providing an electric dynamic.
There’s not much about Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy that hasn’t been said already, but its impact can’t be understated. These movies were the saving grace for Batman in the live-action theatrical space following the maligned Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. With the glorified zany toy commercial approach thoroughly beaten into the ground, Batman Begins brought the hero back to his gritty roots while simultaneously embracing that sense of comic book wonder.
The Dark Knight came out and proved to be a juggernaut for the superhero genre in movies as a whole, taking a page from comics like The Killing Joke, The Long Halloween, and director Michael Mann’s thriller Heat to put to screen a crime-drama epic with the most riveting live-action take on the Batman/Joker dynamic through Christian Bale and Heath Ledger. And, as a sort of Return of the Jedi of the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises is an admirable close to Bruce Wayne’s arc that earns its victory lap.
While they’re certainly not movies for the comic book enthusiasts to pour over for allusions, at least they don’t pretend to and Batman and Batman Returns are engaging and nostalgic take in their own rights. In a way, Tim Burton’s duology (since DC has understandably ignored the two that followed them from continuity in retrospect) was another much-needed revitalization of the character in live-action.
Gone were the days of ‘the 60s-era camp and in came a brand of gothic style that only Burton could pull off. Michael Keaton’s iteration of the Dark Knight and Jack Nicholson’s Joker were exciting to see and timeless in their own way, and likewise for Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman and Danny Devito’s macabre Penguin. For anyone looking for the late ’80s and early ’90s superhero throwback, these two are still fun romps.
For many fans, and reasonably so, co-creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series, The New Batman Adventures, and all the off-shoots/sequels that they paved the way for are the truest representation of the character’s best qualities. With the exception of Timm’s uncomfortable fixation on the Batman/Batgirl dynamic, these shows were loving depictions of the source materials’ tone since the late Dennis O’Neil resuscitated the hero’s comics in the early ’70s.
Just as impressively, BTAS and TNBA became some of the most timeless pieces of superhero media to this day, with the “dark deco” art direction and masterful balance of comic book whimsy and nuanced crime-noir themes. It’s beloved by audiences of all ages, with the TV show’s serialized format doing justice to the depth of Batman’s supporting cast.
The cult-classic Batman Beyond TV series was, at the time, the incarnation of the character that no one knew they wanted. It was a bold premise, as the show took Bruce Wayne out of the mantle of the Batman and instead made him a supporting character to Gotham’s new watchful knight. Even bolder, the new Batman was a teenager named Terry McGinnis.
However, the combination of Blade Runner and Spider-Man proved to be the perfect cocktail for a refreshing new Dark Knight tale. Bruce and Terry’s dynamic was engaging to see develop, and the neo-noir cyberpunk aesthetic was enticingly stylish. This neon take on Batman’s world proudly stands among the character’s rich mythos.
What applies to the aforementioned The Animated Series applies to Mask of the Phantasm, and it arguably cemented itself as the best theatrical Batman movie of the ’90s — animated or live-action. Some veteran fans even maintain that it’s the Caped Crusader’s best movie adaptation overall, with all the nuance, comic book influence, and artistic direction translating seamlessly onto the big screen from the TV cartoon.
Set against a ’40s-inspired backdrop, Mask of the Phantasm is the perfect encapsulation of Batman as a character from his traumatized psyche, his indomitable inner drive, as well as an air of tragic romance. It’s equal parts somber and beautiful, and it’s another Batman story that will undoubtedly stand the test of time.
Animation has been kind overall to DC Comics’ characters, and Batman Beyond spawned perhaps one of the best animated Dark Knight movies in the form of Return of the Joker. Even in the distant neo-noir future of the DC Animated Universe, the likes of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm brought back the greatest hits of The Animated Series without feeling cheap in the slightest.
Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill’s iconic renditions of Batman and Joker were on-screen once again, but it still didn’t steal the thunder of Gotham’s new neon Knight. Seeing Will Friedle’s Batman/Terry tackle the Joker in ways that Bruce Wayne couldn’t have imagined was engrossing to see play out.
Outside of original works, DC’s animated adaptations of the comic book source material have largely worked in the studio’s favor. Comic writer Frank Miller was part of the ’80s crescendo of Batman’s renaissance that started with O’Neil in the ’70s, and The Dark Knight Returns was part of that resurgence. The story is an excellent “Elseworlds” take on the titular hero, putting an aging version of Bruce Wayne in an alternate political dystopia where the federal government uses Superman as a lapdog for imperialism and leaves Gotham City to rot once again.
This Batman has grown more cynical and jaded, and he feels compelled to don the cape and cowl again to pull the city back from the depths. The two-part animated movie adaptation did great justice to Miller’s work, down to his signature art style. For a gritty alternate history interpretation of the character, there’s little better than The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1 and 2.
In a rare instance where a movie adaptation was received as being even better than the source material, Under the Red Hood is an excellent portrayal of Batman’s characteristics. The movie adapts a major milestone arc in the hero’s continuity, with the plot revolving around the resurrection of the troubled second Robin — Jason Todd — now donning the identity of the Red Hood.
While the mystery isn’t the point of the story, it’s the heartbreaking dynamic between Batman (played by Bruce Greenwood) and Redd Hood (played by Jensen Ackles) that makes Under the Red Hood so engrossing. John DiMaggio’s voice for the Joker is also impressive, with their chaotic relationships becoming a showcase for the philosophy and psychology that makes Batman so compelling.
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