Franchise Evolution: The Battle of the Batmans! (part 1 of 3)

For this edition, we’ll be taking a look at the live-action Batman movies, specifically the men behind the mask. Since three of the movies have been covered in full here, and I’ve already discussed the DVD for Batman Forever, I want to be a little more focused, to say nothing of the fact that I’m essentially covering seven movies in one article, and damn it all, I don’t have all the space in the world here!

Hell, it’s not like my blog where I can simply give a ton of relatively brief yet entertaining reviews of tons of movies of varying genres, which you should all come and enjoy after reading this article, as well as sampling some of the other things on this website, such as world class video reviews by some of the brightest talents the web has to offer…

Ahem, now then!

The role of Batman is one that takes a surprising amount of deft acting ability, as an actor not only has to be believable in the suit, giving Batman an acceptable aura of authority/menace, but he also has to be able to pull off Bruce Wayne, arguably the more difficult role of the two.

Ideally, Bruce should come across as a likable, maybe a little dense/eccentric millionaire who nobody in their right mind would ever suspect of dressing as a bat and going out every night to fight crime.

Since 1966, five men have taken up the cape and cowl in live-action movies (not counting the serials, of course), and have been mostly successful.

Spoilers will abound here, so if you haven’t seen these movies… What’s the holdup? They’re easy to find! It’s not like they going out of print anytime soon! Geez!

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Ed Harris

A fan of less than great cinema since childhood, Ed divides his time between writing scripts, working an actual paying job and subjecting himself willingly to some of the worst films society has produced.

Multi-Part Article: Franchise Evolution: The Battle of the Batmans!
Tag: Franchise Evolution

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  • StevePotter

    Really? Nothing is wrong with “Batman Returns”? I know everyone has their own opinion, but man alive do I HATE that movie. 

    • Jill Bearup

      It grosses me right out, so I’m not a fan. :) Bleh, the Penguin. 

      • edharris1178

         Fair enough.

      • The_Stig

        I guess Burton thought that in a movie featuring a Catwoman with actual 9 lives, terrorist circus clowns, a scene with a DJ scratch on a CD and penguins with ACME rockets strapped to their backs as something capable of wiping Gotham City off the map, making the Penguin a short guy in a tux with an umbrella fetish would have been silly.

    • edharris1178

       It always worked just fine for me on all levels.  Great atmosphere, a wild blend of Burton and the comics, I’m just easy when it comes to certain superhero flicks I guess.

      • Cecil_Trachenburg

        I’m with you Ed, I was a big fan of Returns. I’ll even go so far as to say I liked it more than the first Burton Batman.

    • Xander

      Wow.  I hate to jump on the dogpile here, but I thought Batman Returns was horrible, as well.  People complaining about how goofy elements of Batman Forever and Batman and Robin were conveniently like to forget penguins strapped with ROCKET LAUNCHERS.

      DeVito could have made a great penguin, but the way he was written reminded me more of the Joker from the comics than any Penguin who’s appeared in any medium.

      Honestly, Keaton and Walken were the best things about the movie.  I guess was just too young when the movie came out to really appreciate Pfeiffer’s contributions to the film because she struck me as creepy and disturbing rather than seductive.

      (I will admit the change of the neon sign in her apartment was a nice touch.)

    • Thomas Stockel

       I hate Batman Returns, I just do not think it works.  At all.  The film rips off two Batman television series episodes (Penguin runs for mayor, Penguin frames Batman) and Christopher Walken-who is not playing an actual Batman villain-becomes instrumental in the origin of one Batman villain and manipulates the other.  As good an actor Walken is, he did not belong in this movie.

      • OddNumberedFilmFan

         THANK YOU!!!!!!!! I loathed Returns from the moment I saw it in the theater, partly for those two really lame ripoffs from tropes of the old show.

        My goth punk friends loved the whole dark atmosphere thing but all I could think about was….among all the other crap…was how horribly they messed up the Penguin. The point of the character is that as ugly as he may look, he’s refined and cultured. He was never a perverted letch and never would swear. I don’t mind if changes are made as long as they good changes, for example….making the Joker the killer of Bruce’s parents in BM ’89.

    • Good Shot Green

      Yes!  Second only to Batman and Robin as worst in the series.  I’ve seen it only once (probably when it first hit VHS) so I remember is the movie came to a point (some scene in Penguin’s icy cave dungeon thing) where I literally said to myself, WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON!!!!  The script is a total mess; it’s baffling that the writer of this article rates it the best. 

      Then again, my favorite is Batman Forever (saw it twice in the theater!), so what do I know?

  • Jmfabianorpl

    I have to watch ’89 Batman again…I was kind of put off in doing so for some time because of Tim Burton turning to ca-ca in the last decade and infuriation with people who still swear he’s a genius.  But your article has me interested again.  Compared to the comics, his Batman has flaws…as you say he ignores Bats’ “one rule” which I actually give Schumacher credit for restoring, and Nolan too of course.  (And I KNOW he used to kill villains in the comics, but that was then, this is…was then in 1989)  But Keaton did surprise us all and helped set the tone for the best Batman interpretations to come (TAS, and the Nolan movies for two)
    Speaking of TAS, Mask of the Phantasm WAS a movie…would Kevin Conroy be worth ranking?

    • edharris1178

       I wanted to focus on the live action films.  Conroy is fantastic, though. 

  • TheUnholyDragon

    This makes for a really interesting counterpoint to the Comicsalliance “Remedial Batmanology” feature. Lots of interesting arguments on all sides.

    So noted, I really can’t stand Batman 89 and Returns is…deeply flawed. The plot just doesn’t make much sense on the whole and there’s a point of the movie where they seem to go “Screw it! Rocket Penguins!” It’s a lot of fun, but GOOD? I dunno.

  • Cristiona

    I’m sure I’ve mentioned it somewhere, but a friend of mine came up with a great explanation for Bale’s horrible, horrible Batman voice.  He’s a spoiled, super-rich, brat.  Sure, he’s had the physical training, but he’s still terribly clueless about a great many things, including how to sound like a badass, so he just goes with “Tom Waits after gargling molten sand” and thinks it’s good enough.

    It’s a pretty meta explanation, but it allows me to listen to him without cringing every time, so I’ll take it.

    • edharris1178

       Makes sense to me, good theory.

    • StevePotter

      I believe the official explanation is that there’s something in the cowl that digitally garbles his voice. I actually quite like it, but to each their own.

      • Wasn’t it actually stated on-screen in the new Batman movies that Bruce Wayne uses a voice modulator to distort his voice when in Batman costume?? Up to this moment I was sure it was mentioned in there somewhere. huh. Now I have to dig out my DVDs and watch Batman Begins/Dark Knight again.

        Given that voice changers that you can wear over your larynx to lower and distort your voice actually exist in real life I always assumed that the FX crew gave Christian Bale one to wear. Because given how many takes actors have to do of every scene, if Bale did the deep, hoarse voice in all his scenes as Batman on purpose for hours on end every day during shooting, he would end up with painful laryngitis.Or maybe I’m just getting tired of people online complaining about Bale “sounding silly by lowering his voice”. Listen to it. No normal voice sounds like that, and no actor would be able to keep it up for dozens of takes every day. It *is* artificial. And that makes perfect sense in-character for Batman. Or maybe The Dark Knight is one of those movies where the German dub improves the movie compared to the original? Like Highlander. (No distracting accents in the Highlander dub.) They did lower the dubbing actor’s voice for the Batman-in-costume scenes in the German dub, too, made it growlier, but it never struck me as silly.

        • Sathine

          Hmm, that is an interesting thought. I’ve never minded Bale’s Batman voice, as I can understand it just fine, but to each their own. Good explanation for it, though, I have thought about how the hell Christisn Bale could possibly use that gravelly voice all day long, hehe.

    • Cecil_Trachenburg

      I blame the producers who insisted that he needed to sound “more angry” so they had the audio guys go a bit overboard with the modulation.

      Although on the grand scale, the movies are so good the voice doesn’t bother me. Honestly, I didn’t even notice it until everyone started making a big deal about it.

  • Brian Fowler

    My rankings

    1. Batman – Mask Of The Phantasm – I know you weren’t counting this, but it’s still the best Batman film ever made.

    2. The Dark Knight – Flawed, especially the last 20 minutes which are actively bad, but still a really good film.

    3. Batman (1989) – One the touchstones of my childhood

    4. Batman Begins – Really solid for the most part, some great acting. Has some serious plot holes, but there is enough good to put it in the upper half.

    5. Batman (1966) – Corny as hell, but oh so much fun.

    6. Batman & Robin – Massively underrated.  Has the most coherent plot of any of the 4 films from the 80s/90s series.  Beautiful set design, great Uma Thurman performance, Clooney is incredibly likable as Bruce.  A big budget tribute to the 60’s films.  O’Donnell is awful, Arnold is in his one-note bad pun worst mode, and the utter destruction of Bane’s character drag it all down some, but, then, John Glover gives an amazing performance for his two or three scenes.  Again, massively underrated.

    7. Batman Returns – If anyone can summarize what the hell is happening in this film, please, tell me.  Because it makes no sense, the plot doesn’t so much advance as hop around at random.  Devito (who I generally love) gives a serious candidate for career worst performance.  Michelle Pfiefer never goes past “looks hot”…  And why the hell is Max Schreck even existing in this movie?  I mean, Walken’s great, but the character is utterly pointless.

    8. Batman Forever – Seriously, I would 100% believe you if you told me that Val Kilmer’s entire performance in this film was captured while he was sleepwalking.  Tommy Lee Jones is a noted over-actor, but he goes so far above here that it’s just… ugh.  Jim Carey does exactly what the script calls for, which is be utterly annoying on every possible level.  O’Donnell is just as bad here as in the next film.  Just a horrible film.

  • Toby Clark

    I’d at least call Michael Gough a Pro for Batman and Robin. It’s not much, but it does raise my rating to a 2/10 instead of a 1/10 on IMDb.
    And I’d very much consider Aaron Eckhart a Pro for The Dark Knight.

    • edharris1178

      Definitely.  Eckhart is great and Gough was always good no matter what he was doing.

  • The_Stig

    The 60’s Batman show gets a lot of crap for being ‘campy’ and YEAH, but it was also as close to the spirit of the comics at the time as you could possibly get, minus all the homoeroticism between Batman and Robin (they had to wait until Joel Schumacher for that). But I’m grateful they never did an episode about the Joker’s boners.

    And no, I’m not joking. They actually did an entire comic revolving around the Joker committing “boners” to screw with Batman and there was way more sexual context in that sentence than I was hoping for.

    • edharris1178

       Absolutely.  If you were to rank the movies based on how faithful they were to their contemporary comics, it would be near the top.

      • The_Stig

        Yeah, sure they took liberties as adaptations often do, but nothing that happened in the series would have been out of place in the comics. Even the Batusi.

        I don’t know if that says anything about the series or the comics, really :-)

        I wonder if George Reeves hadn’t died, would we have seen a World’s Finest crossover?

        Speaking of crossovers, that reminds me of the story about Burt Ward being scared to death of Bruce Lee (the most awesome man who ever lived) on the set of the Batman/Green Hornet crossover.

  • Storyteller

    I always attributed the strange voice as a way to disguise it, he’s actively trying to alter his voice so that no one recognizes him.  Especially given that in the first movie he’s talk to people he knows well in his Batman garb, so it would be silly for someone to not recognize him if he talked normally.   So never bothered me, it’s less about trying to sound awesome more about disguising himself.

  • CBob

    I guess I’m probably the only person on the planet who just doesn’t see what’s wrong with Bale’s Batman voice. The only time it went wrong for me was at the very end of The Dark Knight when he’s trying to do the voice while acting hurt and winded, and the breathing pauses and big slurry sneer turn it all narmy. I keep reading how everyone thinks the voice is bad or goofy, but aside from that one scene, I just aint seeing/hearing it. I’m kinda suspect there’s a bit of bandwagoning going on.

    I actually really liked in Begins how you can see/hear him developing the voice over time, and how he even sometimes slips in an out of it when he’s distracted. Watch the scene when he saves Rachel from the subway goons: when he talks to her after, the voice gradually slips almost completely away until she says “Do I know you?”, at which point it suddenly returns full force. Though that was a nice bit of acting, myself.Had the same thing happen when people were all complaining about Bane’s voice in the first Dark Knight Rises trailer. All I could think was that they must be blaming their own shitty laptop speakers on the sound editing or something, because I had zero difficulty telling what he was saying. He sounded… like a big guy wearing a mask that muffled his voice in a cosmetic but not obscuring way, that’s it. Then the second trailer came out and it sounded like they just dropped the raw dubbing audio on top of the scene audio without processing/mixing it in, and I thought “Great, all those shitty laptop speaker people apparently whined loud enough, and now he sounds like a bad kung fu movie villain”. Hopefully that was just a quickie remix for the trailer and not the way it’ll be in the movie. I don’t care if he sounds different than he did in the first trailer, just as long as it isn’t as godawful ham-fisted cut-and-paste as it was in the second trailer.

    • Cristiona

      The voice is, frankly, silly.  He sounds like a rich pretty-boy trying to sound like a badass, and that never works.  It’s just too gravelly.  It worked okay in Begins because he rarely said too many words, but in Dark Knight, when he had longer speeches, it was just a fucking mess.  That whole doing the voice while hurt doesn’t come across that way to me.  To me, it sounds like his throat hurts and he’s gasping to get enough air to keep growling.

      And if this is bandwagon-jumping, then I guess I hopped on when I saw it in the theater.  On opening weekend.  Before I had read a single comment or review of the movie.

      • CBob

        Actually that’s how the hurt voice came across to me too, it’s just that the gasping and sneering that were part of that is what finally pushed it over the edge into goofy/narmy for me where it hadn’t been before.

        …Though I agree he was laying the gravel on too thickly. There’s trying to have a scary voice, and there’s trying to sound like you just escaped from an oncology ward and can barely breathe.

      • Jonathan

         Um…he IS a rich pretty boy.

        I like the voice. It’s exactly what I would expect would freak out a criminal. Not the bullsh*t voices we are spoonfed in movies.

        “oh the quiet whispery guy! He means business.”

        Yeah right. That only works when the whipsery guys guts someone…Batman wants to scare criminals so he doesnt have to gut anyone.

        • Cristiona

          Because the guy who sounds like Tom Wait’s raspier cousin is scary?

  • romanl123

    “Was that over the top? I can never tell!” That could have been a direct Schumacher quote!

  • T. Morrissey

    Man, the growly voice criticisms are so tired and quite silly when you think about it. If you’re trying to disguise your voice, what do you do? Deeper, higher or an accent.

    I think a falsetto Batman might be a bit less intimidating, and an Australian Batman would just be weird. And if there’s a need to shout, a Keaton whisper ain’t gonna work. I never had trouble understanding what Bale said and I feel like the criticisms are more from people who want to make “hilarious” jabs (like Bat-nipple jokes).

    • CaptainCalvinCat

      It’s okay to disguise your voice (even though Gotham’s full of idiots, who would not notice, if you’re using your normal voice ^^) – but does it need to be that growly, that you can’t take that guy seriously anymore?

  • MicHaeL

    Really? You chalked Batman’s voice in “Dark Knight” up to Bale putting it on?
    That’s a rather idiotic conclusion, because the issue actually lies in the sound-mixing. And no, I’m not saying it’s an “effect” or something, or that Bale didn’t put on a very gruff voice cause he did. But they mixed in a LOT of bass in his voice in this movie. They already did that a bit in the first one I believe, but in the next two it was just way over the top. And although it’s kind of “cinematic” and more “impressive” I guess, it’s also extremely unnatural and makes it harder to understand.
    If they would have left the audio more natural, it would’ve sounded more as a guy with a hoarse or gruff voice rather than rumbling mumbling dialogue. So it’s not anyone’s choice or thinking it sounded good at any point before(!) post-production.

    The same issue with “Bane” in the third movie; In the theater it felt like I had my head in a barrell every time he spoke. These movies have awesome audio-mixes, but the dialogue for the main characters are too overblown.
    They’ve basically created all the controversy through post-processing, and it’s very unfair to blame it on the performances. The words are there, it’s up to the audio-mix to make it clear, not only to make it “sound more impressive”.