As I’ve mentioned, there’s a movie coming out on March 25 that will be the first of its kind in one particular respect. Two characters will share the screen in a live-action film nearly seventy-seven years after they started sharing space on the comic-book stand. The Man of Steel and the Dark Knight have teamed up in various media since the 1950s, but a blockbuster film still carries the allure of the only showcase big enough for them. To prepare for the release of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I thought it would be fun to take a chronological journey through the previous appearances of these preeminent superheroes.
Talk about clickbait, right? My last two retrospectives, on foreign films, didn’t exactly earn me fame and fortune, so why not aim right down the center of internet geek culture? What was once marginalized is now mainstream, and it’s a little late to jump on the bandwagon. That isn’t what I’m doing, though. Superhero fiction was one of my favorite things when I was a kid. It stunted my growth a bit when it came to reading other forms of literature. I didn’t even read that many comic books. What fascinated me was visual media, from the animated series of the 90s to the feature films made between 1978 and 1997. These were the first films to bring Superman and Batman to life in the blockbuster era, and for a long time I thought of them as the “originals” — which, admittedly, is like saying that Super Bowl I was the first NFL championship game. Regardless, they were foundational texts for my approach to these characters. Batman Forever may have been the first movie I consciously thought of as my favorite. As recently as 2011, “the next Batman movie” excited me enough to top a list of most anticipated movies. This stuff is my beat.
The history of Batman and Superman in live-action cinema extends from 1943 to 2013, starting with four serials released by Columbia Pictures and followed by a total of fifteen feature-length films, the first two of which were meant to promote new television shows featuring the heroes. Along with animation, I’m setting television aside for now, although there’s certainly fascinating material to explore there. This retrospective will have a more leisurely gait than usual, covering about half the material in about twice the time. I won’t have to essentially shut down the blog while I’m doing it, in other words, but there will be a few posts about the movies I cover, as well as general thoughts on Hollywood’s current capes-and-tights phenomenon and how my feelings about it have evolved.
Below are the films, listed with the year of release and the actor taking on the lead role. I won’t use bold font this time, because the demarcation is simple: I’ve seen everything from 1978 on, but everything made before then will be new to me.
Batman [15-episode serial] (1943) – Lewis Wilson
Superman [15-episode serial] (1948) – Kirk Alyn
Batman and Robin [15-episode serial] (1949) – Robert Lowery
Atom Man vs. Superman [15-episode serial] (1950) – Kirk Alyn
Superman and the Mole Men (1951) – George Reeves
Batman (1966) – Adam West
Superman (1978) – Christopher Reeve
Superman II (1980) – Christopher Reeve
Superman III (1983) – Christopher Reeve
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) – Christopher Reeve
Batman (1989) – Michael Keaton
Batman Returns (1992) – Michael Keaton
Batman Forever (1995) – Val Kilmer
Batman & Robin (1997) – George Clooney
Batman Begins (2005) – Christian Bale
Superman Returns (2006) – Brandon Routh
The Dark Knight (2008) – Christian Bale
The Dark Knight Rises (2012) – Christian Bale
Man of Steel (2013) – Henry Cavill