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Batman: the everlasting appeal of the Dark Knight

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Brooding: Christian Bale in probably the best Batman film, 2008's The Dark Knight

Brooding: Christian Bale in probably the best Batman film, 2008's The Dark Knight

The next Bartman: Robert Pattinson

The next Bartman: Robert Pattinson

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Brooding: Christian Bale in probably the best Batman film, 2008's The Dark Knight

Among the many productions scuppered by Covid-19 was Matt Reeves' superhero reboot The Batman. Just before the lockdown, Robert Pattinson could be seen in the shadows of a Glasgow backstreet decked out in the crimefighter's sombre regalia. His casting was praised by such distinguished Batman alumni as Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale. Writer-director Reeves had promised to reinvigorate the franchise by focusing on a younger, less experienced Bruce Wayne.

Reeves' track record is encouraging, and frankly anything will be better than the Ben Affleck Batman, a dour and portly incarnation who scowled his way through two dire ensemble productions (Batman v Superman and Justice League) before handing in his cape. He was originally supposed to direct and star in this one but quit, he claims, because of his "lack of interest in comic book stories". He may have been pushed.

But the show goes on, and production on The Batman is about to resume: it's due to appear in November next year. The casting, direction and premise of Reeves' film suggest it may be one of the more interesting instalments in the franchise, but the burning question is - why the rush to make another Batman film at all?

After all, it's only eight years since Christopher Nolan concluded his epic trilogy starring Christian Bale, generally regarded as the definitive screen Batman, and just three years since Ben Affleck appeared in Justice League. Couldn't the Batman do with a rest?

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The next Bartman: Robert Pattinson

The next Bartman: Robert Pattinson

The next Bartman: Robert Pattinson

His enduring popularity is impressive, and even his nearest rival, Superman, has fronted up significantly fewer feature films. And while the first Batman movie treated him as a camp joke, later films have focused on his existential angst, turning him into a kind of superhero Hamlet.

Of course, he's not a superhero at all, which perhaps in part explains his deep appeal. He can't fly or bend steel or breathe fire: he's just a rich guy with lots of cool gizmos who refuses to stand by and watch his city go down the toilet. His motivations for this are deeply personal: in a tragic scene replayed from all angles in numerous TV shows and films, the boy Bruce Wayne saw both his parents shot dead in front of him on a Gotham street.

As a consequence, he has rage issues - a psychological itch he can't scratch. Bruce might be rich but he's not happy, and when he stands on top of skyscrapers at night striking moody poses, he might as well be one of those doomed existential muddlers in a play by Beckett or Ionesco. He's a winner and a loser all at once: the smug assurance of Thor or Superman ring hollow by comparison.

He came from the world of dime store comics, and was invented in 1939 by Bill Finger and Bob Kane, two artists at National Comics (the future DC Comics). The early Batman was a tough nut, who showed little compunction or remorse over killing or maiming criminals. In 1940, DC Comics cleaned him up and gave him Robin, a keen teenage protégé who would be his Watson in a series of less violent, more respectable mysteries. Robin would always be a problem for filmmakers, and has been mainly excised from the movie franchise since.

The Batman himself was intensely cinematic, and by 1943 had his own adventure serial, a series of short, cliff-hanging episodes that played in cinemas before the main feature.

By the 1960s, however, sales of Batman comics had plummeted, and DC comics give him another makeover. The result was a brighter, lighter, cleaner Batman who found his way into a popular TV series and a 1966 film, Batman. In a camp caper that embraced its silliness, Cesar Romero introduced the since strictly adhered-to rule that if you're going to play the Joker, you must wildly overact. As Batman and Robin, Adam West and Burt Ward seemed rather ineffectual and, well, deeply in love.

It was great fun, but also a dead end, and by the time the accompanying TV show ended in 1968, Batman was a running joke. And so he might have remained if it hadn't been for Frank Miller, the artist and graphic novelist who in 1986 created a brilliant comic mini-series called The Dark Knight Returns. In it, Batman was reimagined as a grizzled, middle-aged warrior who ruthlessly combats an ultraviolent new generation of criminals.

Orchestrating them all was the Joker, who in 1988 was given his own rich backstory by Alan Moore in the graphic novel, The Killing Joke. Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan would both credit Moore's book as a major inspiration.

Burton established the Batman franchise in style in his 1989 film Batman. This was big-budget stuff, with huge sets, a score by Prince and Jack Nicholson netting as much as $50m for his hammy interpretation of the Joker. Though his prancing around caught most of the attention, Burton's Gothic design was gorgeous, and his controversial casting of Michael Keaton as Batman was inspired.

Keaton, best known at that point for broadly comic turns, grounded the film and its 1992 sequel Batman Returns with an earthy portrayal of the troubled hero that emphasised his vulnerability. But after Keaton and Burton quit the franchise, it began to fray at the edges.

Batman Forever (1995) was bad enough, but Joel Schumacher's 1997 sequel Batman & Robin was the series' nadir, with George Clooney the unfortunate inhabitant of the Bat costume, which here became the cowl of shame.

A long hiatus followed, and the modern superhero era was kicking off by the time Christopher Nolan turned up with Batman Begins (2005). Nolan's sombre film was a conscious attempt to deconstruct Batman, rebuild him from scratch. Christian Bale was Bruce Wayne, an angry and dissolute young man who disappears to Asia to centre himself before returning to Gotham to create a frightening urban legend.

The Dark Knight (2008) is by some distance the best Batman film of them all, a brooding, brilliantly orchestrated feature that builds towards an ugly showdown with The Joker, played with unhinged menace by Heath Ledger. With apologies to Joaquin Phoenix, Ledger's portrayal of the Joker is unlikely ever to be equalled, and Nolan's Dark Knight Rises (2005), lacked to its detriment that raw demonic focus.

One thing Todd Phillips and Phoenix's critically acclaimed 2019 film Joker has done however is up the ante for Robert Pattinson, Matt Reeves and The Batman. Because if you're going to throw yet another Batman movie into the mix, it had better be a good one.

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