The superhero movie genre has shifted focus in recent years, moving away from large budgets and special effects-driven action sequences in favor of grander narratives and more character-driven stories. This shift has resonated with moviegoers, leading to a decline in revenue for the big-budget superhero films, and a rise in support for independent and lower-budget films. The impact of this change is still being felt, even in the mainstream movies, as the recent success of films like ‘Black Widow’ and ‘Deadpool’ have shown. This wave of small-budget, character-focused films presents a unique challenge to the actor portraying the iconic superhero Batman, as he has to navigate the often-gruelling physical demands of the role while still staying true to the idiosyncrasies and nuances of the character.
The talented actors who have taken up the mantle of Batman over the years have, in many cases, proven just how difficult this can be by successfully transitioning to the role while maintaining their other acting commitments. But while the character itself may be familiar to audiences, the nuances and variations of Batman as portrayed by different actors is something new, presenting a challenge that continues to evolve as new actors take the role on.
While there is certainly no question that the physical demands of the role of Batman have changed in recent years, the actor who has embodied the character arguably the most over the past few years has been none other than the British-born, now Australian-resident actor Robert Pattinson. Since first donning the cowl in mid 2014’s ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, Pattinson has continued to appear in subsequent Batmans, with the latest entry ‘Batsuit’ being released in December 2018 and being the final installment of the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy, which began with ‘The Dark Knight’ in 2008 and continued with ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ a year later. In addition to playing Batman, Pattinson has also taken on the supporting roles of Harvey Dent and Dick Grayson in some of the ‘Dark Knight’ films, with the trilogy also serving as a coming-of-age story for Pattinson as he matured as an actor.
The ‘Twilight’ star has, for the past few years, juggled the demanding schedules of a movie star with those of an acting teacher, regularly devoting up to ten hours a day to his craft. And yet, even with this extraordinary level of dedication, Pattinson has had to drop countless acting projects to focus on Batman, with many citing the lack of available dates as a major reason behind his decision. In spite of this, Pattinson has never shied away from the character, commenting in a 2017 interview that he has “always felt more comfortable” playing Batman, and that “the suit provides a formality, which is good because what I usually do is I improvise as much as I can, so it’s good to have something to fall back on.”
The first of the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy was, of course, intended to be a self-contained story, with the film noir plot thread unfolding across two separate timelines. However, the character of Bruce Wayne, played by Michael Caine, had already been introduced to audiences in 1969’s ‘Batman’ starring Adam West. So, while the original film focused on the early days of the superhero, ‘The Dark Knight’ presented a more contemporary story about the early days of Bruce Wayne’s career as a crime reporter for the Gotham Gazette. Unsurprisingly, given that the story is set in the present day, the main adversary for Bruce Wayne is not some fantastical creature, but rather the many faces of organized crime, and its leader, Carmine Falcone (played by John Travolta), who is terrorizing Gotham City.
While it was initially unclear who exactly Bruce Wayne was based on, with the character being inspired by both British author and playwright, Arthur Conan Doyle’s short-lived adventures of his character Sherlock Holmes, and disgraced American film star and politician Bette Davis’s turn at portraying the character in the 1942 film ‘They Asked for Heidelberg’, fans of the popular DC Comics character soon discovered that there was more than one way to “be” the Dark Knight. With each new iteration of the character, the filmmakers have been keen to experiment with different personas and approaches, and the results have been interesting, to say the least.
Appearing as a villain in three out of the four ‘Dark Knight’ installments, though the role of James Gordon in 2004’s ‘Batman Begins’ marked a notable departure from the usual portrayal of the character as a police officer, actor Peter MacLeman’s portrayal of Gordon is arguably one of the best in the entire series. A composite character based on real-life police officers who worked with and were inspired by the character, MacLeman’s Gordon is an effective father figure to both Batman and Bruce Wayne, and provides the film with its title. What’s more is MacLeman managed to capture the essence of each of the officers he patterned his character after, and imbued him with a personality that is both heroic and relatable.
Portraying a character that is the complete opposite of everything that Batman stands for, though one that he’s faced with more than once in the series, actor and comedian Bill Murray’s portrayal of the aged Benjamin Button is both poignant and hilarious. The character was inspired by novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ (1913), which examines the way a person’s physical appearance can change over the years, and the concomitant emotional changes that come with it. Murray’s great performance as Button, who struggles with his agelessness and is tormented by his inability to feel joy or sorrow, won him both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor, making him the first comedian to win an acting award.
A role that is often seen as a predecessor to the character of Harvey Dent in ‘Batman Begins’, actor and former NFL great Jackie Robinson broke new ground in 1947 when he became the first African-American to play a lead role in a Hollywood movie. While Robinson’s character, Roy Hamilton, appears in just a single scene in this movie, it is evident that this would be one of the monumental events in the evolution of film. This was, in fact, part of a wider trend of significant African-American roles in films in the 1940s and ‘50s, with Robinson’s successor as lead actor in ‘Batman Begins’ being another example of this trend. Despite the groundbreaking role he played in this movie, Robinson would not appear in another film for almost twenty years.
A deeply flawed yet heroic character who stands in stark contrast to the iconic Batman, actor and filmmaker Alan Moore’s take on Harvey Dent (played by Cory Michael Craig) is one of the more memorable villains from the ‘Dark Knight’ series. The character was inspired by the real-life corrupt politician Harvey Dent, who was the original protagonist in Alan Moore’s ‘Batman: The Killing Joke’ (1987) and its prequel, ‘Batman: The Origins of Death Dealers’ (2006). Craig’s portrayal of the character was, in fact, the last link to the ‘Dark Knight’ series before the release of ‘The Batman’ (2002) and ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2011), with the character making a brief appearance in Matt Reeves’ ‘The Batman’ (2019).
As with all the previous adaptations of Moore and Kevin Smith’s ‘The Death-Dealer’, ‘The Killing Joke’ and its prequel are not considered part of the official ‘Dark Knight’ canon, but rather part of the larger ‘The Big Screen’s Adventures with Batman’ collection of Alan Moore films. Indeed, many fans of the series cite ‘The Killing Joke’ as the true beginning of the modern iteration of the character, with the film presenting a more personal villainous nemesis for Batman, and a deeper dive into the psyche of the Clown Prince of Crime.
The various iterations of Batman that have graced our screens over the years, though varying in quality, have provided something new for audiences, expanding the character’s mythos and challenging established notions of what the character is and isn’t capable of. ‘The Dark Knight’ arguably began this process, and while the series may be in its twilight, these are important first steps that will no doubt continue to evolve and challenge future portrayals of the character, as long as there are new minds passionate about cinema and the art of storytelling.