The many faces of Batman: What to watch this weekend

In honor of Robert Pattinson's debut, we're revisiting some of the most different takes on the Caped Crusader
Robert Pattinson in "The Batman."
Robert Pattinson in "The Batman." Photo credit Warner Bros.

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — In 1939, a new costumed crime fighter debuted in the pages of Detective Comics #27. While there had been a few characters in that mold since the debut of Superman the previous year, none of them combined the illustrated heroics of the Man of Steel with the gritty noir feel of pulp detectives like the Shadow. Like Superman, The Batman took the world by storm.

More than 80 years later, Bob Kane and Bill Finger's Caped Crusader is deeply entrenched in the fabric of our culture like no other character. From radio shows to serials, Saturday morning cartoons to sitcoms and across multiple blockbuster film franchises, it seems the world can't get enough of the Dark Knight.

But even multimedia icons can be freshened up every once in a while. Just as Bruce Wayne has occasionally been retooled or even outright swapped out in comics, Batman has seen a variety of approaches on the big and small screens. The bulk of his modern outings may be dark and brooding affairs, but that isn't all there is to the Bat.

If you've seen the latest film, “The Batman,” and want more Batman, or are burned out on the doom and gloom of Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy, here are some varied takes on the character. No matter what mood you're in, there's a Batman for you.

The Batman (2022)

Let’s start with the moodiest of them all: Robert Pattinson’s Batman. Matt Reeves’ version is a much darker, grittier telling with a soundtrack centered around Nirvana and an MUA who seems to have a fondness for My Chemical Romance’s early 2000s looks.

Yes, it is incredibly long, but the recent benefit of being able to stream from home makes it go down easy. This saga’s villain is The Riddler, but a much more murderous and conniving one than we’re accustomed to — he’s more like a Qanon subredditter than the bright-green, onesie-wearing puzzler.

Paired with a “Taxi Driver”-esque cast of mobsters and the illustrious Zoë Kravitz, the two hours and 56 minutes are worth the watch.

“The Batman” is now streaming on HBO Max.

Batman (1966)

Decades after its original ABC run ended, the 1966 "Batman" TV series is still one of the most famous versions of the character. The late Adam West starred as Bruce Wayne and his cowled alter-ego, with Burt Ward as his sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder.

But it was also the most divisive iteration for many years, with fandom divided over how to remember it. Was "Batman '66" the disrespectful destruction of the character, as hardcore comics fans long argued? Or was it really an underrated comic delight, with its pop art-inspired production design, arch scripts and campy performances?

Fortunately, the discourse has mostly swung towards the latter of late, especially since the show finally debuted on home media in 2014. We're inclined to agree. West's brilliantly deadpan approach to Batman anchors the show's more outré elements. He's a square you can't help but love.

And it's easy to forget just how popular the show truly was in its day, not only among fans, but celebrities as well. The guest roster on "Batman" was one of the hottest tickets in Hollywood, with stars like Cesar Romero, Eartha Kitt and Vincent Price willing to appear for next to nothing just to be a part of the happening.

You can be a part of it too, for absolutely nothing! Both the series and its accompanying feature film — the first-ever "Batman" full-length movie — are available for free with ads. Start with the movie - while it's self-contained and wholly original, it also feels like a collection of the best parts of the show. If you like that, check out the rest: same Bat-time, slightly different Bat-channel.

Batman (1966) is streaming free with ads on Tubi. Batman: The Movie is currently streaming free with ads on YouTube.

Batman Returns (1992)

Tim Burton's debut Bat-flick was seen by many as a long-overdue course correction, a return to Batman's dark, dramatic roots. But Burton doesn't do anything if he can't make it at least a little weird.

Anton Furst's production design recalled German expressionist cinema. Jack Nicholson's performance, mind-bogglingly soundtracked by Prince, brought over-the-top fun to the whole enterprise. Michael Keaton was a controversial choice who gave us a slightly more neurotic Bruce Wayne than fans were accustomed. Of course, it was a huge hit.

So for the sequel, Warner Bros. let Burton double down and do everything he wanted to do. That's when he really got nuts.

"Batman Returns" feels like a Tim Burton movie in every conceivable way. In its unique fashion, the sequel is a monster movie in which almost every major character is a monster. Bruce Wayne is still isolated and focused on his mission. Oswald Cobblepot (Danny DeVito) is a deformed, penguin-like man whose rich parents discarded him as an infant, making him the funhouse mirror reflection of Wayne.

And then there's Selina Kyle. A mousy secretary magically turned feline femme fatale, she's more than memorably brought to life by Michelle Pfeiffer. Here, she's less cat burglar than chaotic avenger, playing both Batman and the Penguin against each other.

But a classical film noir this isn't. It's a dark fantasy masquerading as a superhero movie, with circus assassins, a woman with nine lives, an evil king of a sort in Christopher Walken's Max Schreck, and a creature of a man out to visit a literal Biblical plague upon Gotham City.

There might be better Batman movies, but there isn't a weirder one than "Batman Returns."

"Batman Returns" is currently streaming on Hulu.

Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)

Was director Zack Snyder's take on the DC Extended Universe actually good? That's one of the most loaded questions on the internet, a Twitter hand grenade if ever there was one.

Snyder's vision of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and their world reached its endpoint in his much-ballyhooed director's cut of "Justice League," one of the messiest productions of modern times.

"Zack Snyder's Justice League," his version of — and rebuke to — 2017's "Justice League," is four hours of slow motion, angst and explosions. It begins with an extended montage set to Superman’s dying scream, for goodness’ sake.

But it's also a much better version than the theatrical cut — which was shepherded to screen by Joss Whedon after a family tragedy forced Snyder off the project. (How we got from there to here could fill its own article).

With Superman (Henry Cavill) dead and an alien menace on its way, Batman (Ben Affleck) has to assemble a team of heroes to fight for Earth. While each hero — including Superman, in case you expect he would stay dead — gets their moment to shine, it's Batman and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) who get the most substantial emotional arcs.

Affleck's take on Batman, as the older, worn down hero of artist Frank Miller's influential "Dark Knight" comics, is a more nuanced rendition. It's not the most popular position, but he deserved a lot more praise as Batman than he actually received. He may have hung up his cowl (barring an appearance in the upcoming "The Flash" movie), but Batfleck is always welcome back to Gotham.

"Zack Snyder's Justice League" is currently streaming on HBO Max in color, and in black and white.

The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

"The Lego Movie" introduced a narcissistic, emotionally stunted version of Batman to the popular consciousness (though some fans might argue he's always had these qualities). His solo spinoff delves deeper into the character's internal trauma, while still delivering a laugh-filled adventure for the entire family.

When Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) thoughtlessly dismisses the Joker (Zack Galifianakis) as his arch-nemesis, the Crown Prince of Crime strikes back with a revenge plan the Caped Crusader can't stop alone. But Batman desperately wants to do it all by himself, spurning help from new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) and a spirited young orphan named Dick (Michael Cera).

Can Batman discover how to trust others? Can the new Commissioner Gordon learn how to trust Batman? Will Batman learn how to respect the feelings of others? "The Lego Batman" movie answers those questions with plenty of humor and heart, while cramming clever, loving tributes to the Batman mythos in every frame.

Besides, where else will you see Batman fight Voldemort?

"The Lego Batman Movie" is currently streaming on HBO Max.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

The question often arises on the internet: who's the best Batman? Is it Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, or Christian Bale? But for many fans, the best Batman isn't any of them. It's Kevin Conroy, from "Batman: The Animated Series."

Considered by some to be the definitive version of Batman, the 1992 animated series wasn't just aimed at kids, but their older siblings and parents too. It was an unqualified success, launching an entire animated universe over the next couple of decades.

But before the DC Animated Universe, there was "Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm," the franchise's first animated feature film. For critics, it was revelatory. Never had Batman been presented in such a refined noir style, with a focus on peeling back the layers of Bruce Wayne to figure out who he was and what he truly wanted. In other words, long before "The Batman," this was the Batman.

A new vigilante stalks Gotham, starting a spree of gangland murders that an eager prosecutor pins on Batman. Suddenly, the Dark Knight is hunted, both by the cops and the mob. Meanwhile, Bruce's old flame Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany) returns to Gotham, prompting the crimefighter to ponder whether he chose the right path.

With a mature, romantic storyline, excellent animation and a top-notch voice cast also featuring Abe Vigoda and Mark Hamill as the Joker, "Mask of the Phantasm" is certainly the most underrated Batman movie of all time. In our estimation, it's also one of the best.

"Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" is currently streaming on HBO Max.

Batman Beyond (1999-2001)

When we talk about different approaches to Batman, so many spring to mind. There's the lighthearted cartoon "The Brave and the Bold," with Diedrich Bader's Batman teaming with an array of lesser-known DC heroes like Blue Beetle, Plastic Man and Kamandi. There's the young Bruce Wayne before he was Batman on "Gotham." If you're in the mood for a comedic Batman podcast, there's even HBO Max's "Batman: The Audio Adventures," starring Jeffrey Wright as the detective.

But what's really different is someone else in the role. And no film or TV show tackled that subject until 1999's animated "Batman Beyond."

In a near-future Gotham, an elderly, ailing Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) has long retired from battling evil and lives as a recluse. But when he happens upon 16-year-old Terry McGinnis (Will Friedle of "Boy Meets World"), he finds a protégé seeking to avenge his own father's murder.

Wayne decides to take McGinnis under his wing, gives him a new high-tech Batsuit, and trains him as the new Batman. But the wise-cracking McGinnis is the opposite of the stoic Wayne, and he has to juggle school, his family and girlfriend with his new double identity.

Where "The Animated Series" had an art deco feel inspired by the Max Fleischer "Superman" cartoons, "Batman Beyond" has a cyberpunk aesthetic more in line with “Blade Runner.” Neo-Gotham has a darker, dingier edge. Crime and corruption have grown even more out of control, and a gang called the Jokerz rules the streets (while their namesake lurks in the background).

Terry and Bruce have their work cut out for them, but viewers will have a much easier time with "Batman Beyond." It's a great continuation of the Batman legend.

"Batman Beyond" is currently streaming on HBO Max.

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