Batman: Behind the Mask

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Written by Lily Davis.

batman-begins

Who is the Batman? For the fictional citizens of Gotham City the answer is tantalising yet unknown. He remains a masked vigilante, The Dark Knight, The Caped Crusader. However for us Batman has had various very well known faces.

It is the recent casting decision of Ben Affleck as the newest Batman that has prompted controversy and caused us to revisit what it means to be the man behind the mask.

Ben Affleck has recently been riding a wave of success generated by his Academy Award winning film Argo. However this Ben-Affleck-batmancertainly hasn’t shielded him from public criticism. The prospect of Affleck as Batman has sent fans reeling, and they don’t seem to mind being vocal about it. Twitter hatred has been particularly harsh, albeit admittedly funny. It is even rumoured that the very same week Affleck was cast in the upcoming film, Christopher Nolan removed his name from the list of executive producers. Ouch.

However once we revisit the list of who has played Batman, it seems failure and criticism may have in fact been a longstanding trend. Perhaps the triumph of the latest Christopher Nolan trilogy has caused us to forget this. These films were highly critically acclaimed and loved by the public. But aside from this exception, the role of Batman seems to be somewhat cursed, destined to attract criticism. Is Affleck merely following a tradition of disappointment?

The iconic superhero was originally a DC Comic creation. Bob Kane and Bill Finger first conceived the character in 1940. While Batman would have a long history appearing on television and in comics, the first feature film cast the face of Lewis G Wilson. This young, thespian actor would not assume the mask more than once. He was attacked for his Boston accent, for his high voice and his unfortunate physique. He clearly didn’t fit the brief. The second attempt at bringing this comic to the screen in 1949 would star Robert Lowrey. His performance, while improved, was equally forgettable.

adam-west-batmanAdam West would prove to be the first longstanding Batman with a career spanning two decades. However, even his portrayal of Batman would often be classed as ‘goofy’ or ‘camp’. West acted in little else; perhaps this in some ways limited his career.

When Michael Keaton was cast as the leading man in Tim Burton’s Batman, the public were so taken aback that Warner Brothers received 50,000 letters of protest. In response they hired Bob Kane (the original co-creator of the comic) as a creative consultant to curb some of the backlash. Perhaps this was a successful move as the film proved a box office hit and received good reviews. Keaton would even go on to perform in a second Batman feature in 1992. However it’s hard to forget the initial public reaction, with 50,000 people so enraged they wrote letters about it.

Unfortunately, the next two Batman films were no great improvement. Val Kilmer was cast in the 1995 Joel Schumacher film Batman Forever. However the two clashed on set, in fact the word ‘clashed’ is an understatement. There was deep animosity between the two and Kilmer would reject the next Batman project. Although it wasn’t perfect, Bob Kane believed this was the best portrayal of Batman thus far, and Schumacher’s film ranked higher at the box office than Burton’s.

If depictions of Batman were ever in a downward spiral it would be the Clooney performance that really set things flailing. batman_and_robin_movieTwo words for you: bat nipples. George Clooney’s depiction of Batman has often been deemed laughable and the whole film treated as a big joke. Today it frequently ranks amongst the worst films of all time. Clooney often joins in on bagging out the feature, and acknowledges its failure.

It was when Christopher Nolan took the reins for Batman Begins in 2005 that things took a turn for the better. This is when Batman became a whole lot darker and grittier. The new directions were extremely well received and audiences became deeply engrossed in the story. At the centre of all this was Christian Bale. Nolan has stated; “…he was exactly the balance of darkness and light we were looking for.” His performance matched the new depth of the films; however even Bale was not exempt from judgement. Perhaps one of the only criticisms is his voice work, which many people found difficult to take seriously.

christian-bale-as-batmanAs the latest Batman films withstood much of the criticism otherwise attracted over the years, it has made it a tough act for Affleck to follow. The yet to be titled production will begin in 2014. Director Zack Snyder, notably Man of Steel and Watchmen, is confirmed to direct the Batman vs. Superman film. Maybe let’s not be too hasty to write this off. If we look back over the various screen depictions since 1943, have we ever been truly impressed by Batman himself? Maybe there are other factors that thrill and draw audiences. For instance perhaps it is the outstanding villains that often steal the show. Think of Two-Face, The Riddler or Bane. One can hardly forget Heath Ledger’s mesmerising performance as The Joker.

Will Batman himself ever be what truly engrosses us? Does the role simply hold failure and disappointment? And is Ben Affleck condemned to such a fate? How about we pause the Twitter rage and withhold judgement for a while.

 – L.D. 

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