I’ve been taking part over the past day or so in some interesting discussions on a couple of different FB sites regarding the nature of the Batman character, initiated by an article in which Michael Keaton - in my mind still the BEST cinematic Batman, and that is not a subject which I care to debate - decided he did not want to return for a second sequel after the franchise was turned over to Joel Schumacher. At some point I decided perhaps I might distill my thoughts in those conversations into a single post to share here.

So here goes…

Of course, I have long been on record - in print, online and in face-to-face discussions - as saying that Adam West has always been and will always be my favorite screen incarnation of Batman. The reason is simple: he was my introduction to the character. My love for West’s interpretation has never prevented me from also enjoying some of the more serious versions that came in the wake of Batmania’s inevitable demise.  

Batman, by his general nature, has always been dark. There was even a wee touch of darkness in some of the earliest episodes of the Adam West series; how vividly I recall as a child seeing that barely subdued look of anguish on Bruce Wayne’s face in the very first episode, when he recalls how his parents were murdered “by dastardly criminals.” For all its campiness, Batman the TV series was (at least in its first season) still grounded by the tragedy that led Bruce to take up his mission in the first place.  

My objection to recent incarnations of the character - starting with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns - has been the tendency to make the character so dark that you can no longer tell if he's the hero or a deranged villain in his own right. Full disclosure (and one I’ve made a few times in the past): I kinda liked the original Dark Knight mini-series when it originally came out, because I thought it was an interesting take on the character - AND because, it my mind, it played like one of DC’s "Elseworlds" stories or such earlier tales as “The Last Batman Story -?” from Batman No. 300. 

But Miller’s story quickly became so popular that, before long, everybody was trying to outdark Dark Knight and make it more or less canon - and that got real wearisome real quick. The crimefighter who had been my hero since I was 3 years old, sitting on my daddy’s knee while watching Adam West, was now seemingly as warped as the criminals he pursued. 

As a child of the 1960s and ‘70s who grew up with Adam West and Denny O'Neil, that version simply does not jibe with my vision of who the character is and how he came to be.

The earliest stories by Bob Kane and the early 1970s tales of the O'Neal era got the balance right - as did the two Keaton movies, although the second one did obviously veer a little more dark, enough so that McDonald’s was forced to cancel its Batman Returns Happy Meal special after some parents complained.  (For some reason that story still amuses me.) Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series also nailed it, in my opinion - not surprising, given that it took at least some of its cues from the Burton-Keaton films, as well as the old Fleischer Superman animated shorts. Pretty good pedigree, if you ask me…

I've read a great many articles that discuss how the first Keaton movie took some of its inspiration from The Dark Knight Returns, and there's no denying that influence is there on the screen. There’s also little argument that the success of Miller’s mini-series played a role in finally getting the movie green-lit after a couple of decades of failed efforts. The mistake that Schumacher made in his two films was that he tried to take the character back a little bit toward the lighter territory of the Adam West series - without fully understanding what it was specifically about the '60s show that made it so wildly popular for a time. 

That, in my opinion, is why Schumacher’s films don't hold up as well as Tim Burton’s - or the TV series. 

However - and here’s where we get to the “unpopular opinion” portion of the program - I still contend that George Clooney was a better Batman than he gets credit for, even from himself, and that the "deathbed" scene between Bruce and Alfred in his film is one of the most moving moments in any Batman film. There’s some genuine love between the two men there, a father-son type of bond that really hit home for me. 

Yes, Batman And Robin has its problems, to be sure - not the least of which, in my opinion, was the casting of Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy, a topic I suppose is best left for another time. But that one poignant scene, between Bruce Wayne and his faithful but ailing butler, at least for me, was worth the price of admission.

Given a better script, and a director with a better understanding of both the character and the delicate balance between the dark and light aspects of the Bat-Universe, Clooney could have been great. Too bad even he doesn’t seem to realize that.

I was not a fan of the Christian Bale Dark Knight trilogy which those films were initially released - and, I’m sorry, but I’ll never be a fan of Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker, no matter how many posthumous awards they throw his way. (For the record: I greatly enjoyed most of Ledger’s other work, but the only reason his Joker is not my least favorite is because Jared Leto and Joaquin Phoenix came along and were even worse… again, a topic for another day.) Over the last couple of years, however, I will admit that I have reassessed my original opinion of those films and have come to appreciate them somewhat more than I did at first.

Part of this, to be sure, is that I have come to admire some of the other films that Christopher Nolan has directed - especially Interstellar and Dunkirk - and part of it is that I so loathe the majority of the so-called “Snyderverse” films that even the things I disliked in the Bale films are preferable by comparsion. 

(Now that I think of it, perhaps THAT is the “unpopular opinion” portion of the program. But I said it and I’m not sorry.)

Anyway, that’s my two cents’ worth. Not that anyone cares…

(Copyright © 2022 by John Allen Small)