Why Batman Is Cinema’s Greatest Superhero


by Jordan King |
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The Caped Crusader. The Dark Knight. The World’s Greatest Detective. The Bat. He is vengeance. He is the night. He is, of course, Bruce Wayne – aka Batman. And for 84 years and counting, ever since his introduction in Detective Comics #27 on 30 March 1939, Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s Guardian of Gotham City continues to dominate popular culture.

A superhero with no actual superpowers (except for fat stacks of Benjamins), Bats is – in essence – just a man trying to turn his pain into something positive; a vigilante in a cowl and cape who’s capable of evolving with the times to be whatever kind of hero the moment asks for. It’s no wonder such a dynamic array of filmmakers – from Leslie H. Martinson to Tim Burton, Bruce Timm to Joel Schumacher, and Christopher Nolan to Zack Snyder among many, many others – have been inspired to send up the Bat-signal on the big screen in live-action and animation over the years.

From the high camp comic thrills of Adam West’s Batsy in 60s’ caper Batman: The Movie, all the way to R-Battz’ brooding, bruising take on the character in Matt Reeves’ The Batman – the film that puts the ‘Goth’ in Gotham – there’s a Batman out there for everyone. And so, as we gear up for Batman Day this weekend, Team Empire have descended into the Batcave, cracked open our Bat-tops, and decided it’s high time to write the definitive Bat-icle on why Batman is cinema’s greatest superhero. Holy hot take, Batman!

Batman's Beginning

A little boy and his parents leave the theatre together and take a turn onto Crime Alley. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, Thomas and Martha Wayne are shot down by a mugger before their son Bruce’s very eyes – and in that moment, the terrified kid makes a vow of vengeance against Gotham’s criminals. In Tim Burton’s Gothic epic Batman, the mugger turns out to be Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and there’s a moment where young Master Wayne contemplates killing the pseudonymous Joe Chill in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy opener Batman Begins. But, with very little variation otherwise, this simply is Batman’s origin.

Batman’s heroism is defined by his determination, commitment, and resourcefulness.

The ‘Dead Parents’ trope is nothing new in storytelling, true, but – in comic book terms at least – Batman did it first, and best. The traumatic circumstances surrounding the death of Bruce’s parents sympathetically grounds the character, helping us to understand (if not justify) his nocturnal vigilantism. And these humble, haunted origins have led to some of comic book cinema’s most memorable scenes. Without them, there’s no “Martha!” moment in Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice – a beat as meaningful as it is memeable. And without them, we wouldn’t get the iconic graveside sequence in Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm (aka the best Batman movie), in which Bruce – voiced by the inimitable Kevin Conroy – pleads with his parents to release him from his vow. His emotionally-delivered “I never counted on being happy” gets right to the tragic heart of the Bruce Wayne/Batman dichotomy, and beautifully highlights the humanity in him we gravitate towards. Which leads us nicely on to another reason why Batman bests the rest…

He’s Just A Hero Who Is Super

Yes, Bruce Wayne is a billionaire playboy, and wealth in many ways is the ultimate superpower in a capitalist society, but no amount of money - or nipply batsuits (we see you, Mr. Clooney) - can change the fact that he’s only human. He does bleed. With no Bifrost to summon, no lasers to fire from his eyes, and no radioactive bats about to give him super-hearing, Batman’s heroism is defined by his determination, commitment, and resourcefulness.

At the sillier end of the scale, we see this in Bats’ seemingly inexhaustible array of gadgets. It’s why we get Bat-Skates in Joel Schumacher’s so-bad-it’s-good Batman & Robin, and Bat-Spray in the just plain mad Batman: The Movie. Yet in the same breath, Bruce’s combined wealth and intelligence also give us Batman’s iconic – not to mention badass – Batarangs, Batmobiles, and whatever the heck that sweet EMP rifle in The Dark Knight Rises was. And let us not forget, all these gizmos are kept in the GOAT of superhero secret lairs, the Batcave, which got its own well-deserved hero moment (and Danny Elfman fanfare) a few months back in Andy Muschietti’s multiversal mindfuck The Flash.

Even without his toys though, Bruce Wayne/Batman is more than a match for his superpowered peers and foes. In Batman Begins’ stunning opening act, we see how Christian Bale’s Bruce – after seven years spent honing his vigilantist prowess – moulded into a multi-disciplinarian warrior in body and mind by Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul and his ‘League of Shadows’. And though mileage may vary with the force used (many would argue another key part of Bats’ appeal is his strictly non-lethal moral code), you see the brute strength of the dark knight exemplified as Ben Affleck does some serious vengeance-ing in the rollicking warehouse sequence from Snyder’s Dawn Of Justice.

Most recently however, 2022’s The Batman reminded fans why one of the character’s many monikers is The World’s Greatest Detective. In Reeves’ film, a movie made in the noirish mould of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's seminal The Long Halloween graphic novel, Robert Pattinson’s rough-round-the-edges Batman relies on his forensic mind rather than straight-up fighting prowess to outfox and eventually track down Paul Dano’s evil intellectual, The Riddler. (There is, in fairness, a decent amount of baddie bone-breaking though, just for good measure!) As we say, his is a heroism defined by how determined, committed, and resourceful he is – the guy’s practically a human Swiss Army knife .

The Batman

A (Bat)Man For All Seasons

Another huge part of our enduring fascination with Batman, Bruce Wayne, and the dichotomy that exists between the two comes from the actors who have embodied the role - and the distinctive films they’ve found themselves in. It speaks to the evolutionary propensity of the character and the solid foundations he’s built upon that you can watch Adam West prancing around in tights with a cartoony bomb above his head in Batman: The Movie and an intense Robert Pattinson applying heavy eye make-up in the decrepit, Gormenghastian Wayne Manor in The Batman, and still see the Bruce Wayne in both of them. (If we had to put a finger on the mid-point between the two, the casting of comic actor Michael Keaton – and his immortal “Let’s get nuts!” – in Burton’s hard-edged yet pulpy Batman (1989) may well be it).

Over the decades, we’ve had some better Bruces than Bats (Val Kilmer in Batman Forever, Bale in the Dark Knight Trilogy, Affleck in the Snyderverse), some better Bats than Bruces (Michael Keaton in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns, Pattinson in The Batman), and just one Kevin Conroy – the best Batman and the best Bruce Wayne of the bunch. But crucially, they all manage to feel distinct from one another, and each iteration of the character exists in a tonally and aesthetically distinct world, illuminating different facets of Bruce Wayne’s fractured psyche. Seriously, who’d have thought that one of the most profound explorations of said fractured psyche to date would come in the form of The LEGO Batman Movie, a meta animated romp in which Will Arnett gets to grips with the all-consuming loneliness of being a billionaire with no friends, and a hero who’s always been used to going it alone?

Batman’s arch-nemesis – like the Bat himself – has proven endlessly ripe for cinematic reinvention.

What we’re trying to say is, whether you like your Caped Crusader darker (Burton’s Batman duology and Snyder’s DCEU outings), lighter (Batman: The Movie, Schumacher’s duology, The LEGO Batman Movie), or just auteurist enough so that you don’t fear losing your cinephile credentials (Nolan’s trilogy, Reeves’ The Batman), there really is a Batman – and a Batman film – for everyone.

The Rogues’ Gallery

A hero is ultimately, however, only as good as the villains he faces – and over the years the Caped Crusader has collected an unparalleled rogues gallery on the big screen. Of course, most minds will immediately head straight to Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime, The Joker, whose storied screen appearances account for some of the most iconic performances in film history. From Cesar Romero’s cackling, painted-moustached maniac in Batman: The Movie, to Jack Nicholson’s grinning gangster in Batman (1989), to Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix’s psychologically complex, Oscar-winning turns in The Dark Knight and standalone DC spin-off Joker respectively, Batman’s arch-nemesis – like the Bat himself – has proven endlessly ripe for cinematic reinvention. Special mentions also go out to Mark Hamill and Zach Galifianakis’ takes on the agent of chaos in the DC Animated Universe and The LEGO Batman Movie. (We don’t talk about Leto.)

But as great as Joker is, he’s just the, ahem, tip of the iceberg. And speaking of, say what you will about Joel Schumacher’s much-maligned Batman Forever and & Robin duology, but you cannot deny they gave us some truly iconic villain performances. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr Freeze dropping puns left, right, and centre (“Alright, everyone! Chill!”); Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones playing delirious dress-up as Riddler and Two-Face; and Uma Thurman putting the ‘toxic’ in intoxicating as Poison Ivy. Those films boast a veritable who’s who of wild, OTT, unforgettable performances.

Elsewhere, the sheer volume (and quality) of Arkham-bound baddies we’ve seen to date is just jaw-slackening. Danny DeVito and Colin Farrell have both given great Penguin in Batman Returns and The Batman, whilst Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy’s Scarecrow and Bane – not to mention Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent – pushed Batman’s body, mind, and moral code to their outer limits in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. We’re also still not over Paul Dano’s Zodiac Killer-inspired Riddler in The Batman yet either, or just how incredible a villain The Phantasm – who holds up a dark mirror to Bats and the abyss Bruce Wayne stares into every time he dons the cowl – is in the aptly named Mask Of The Phantasm. With an abundance of other villains we haven’t mentioned in the locker too, as well as many we still long to see on the big screen (cast Clayface for The Batman 2, you cowards!) it’s safe to say there are plenty more wrong’uns for Batman to bring to justice in the future.

The Brave And The Bold And Beyond…

Batman: The Brave And The Bold

And thinking about the future, that leads us to the new frontier for Batman on the big screen we find ourselves at. The dust is finally starting to settle on the DCEU, with Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom readying itself to bring the curtain down. Matt Reeves’ follow-up to The Batman and his Penguin spin-off series are well on their way, whilst elsewhere Todd Phillips’ crazy sounding musical Joker: Folie a Deux – starring a returning Joaquin Phoenix and actual Lady Gaga – gets closer by the day. And the era of James Gunn’s all-new DCU is upon us, with plans already firmly in place to put Batman – and the extended Bat-Family – front and centre as he sets about adapting Grant Morrison’s wildly popular Batman: The Brave And The Bold run of comics. 84 years since the world first met Bruce Wayne, the future has never looked brighter for the Dark Knight – cinema’s greatest superhero.

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