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Cinema Smackdown!: Batman (1966) vs. Batman (1989) vs. Batman Begins

Welcome again, Film Yap Smackdown! fans! This week we have a three-way dance between the big-screen’s Caped Crusaders, counting only the first films of the different big-screen incarnations of the character: the 1966 “Batman” based on the TV show starring Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin, 1989′s “Batman,” directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton in the title role, and 2005′s “Batman Begins,” starring Christian Bale and directed by Christopher Nolan.

Which of this triple threat of cowled crusaders of justice will emerge victorious? Let’s find out:

Plot

Nolan’s film explored the psyche of Bruce Wayne, explored the notion of justice vs. revenge and whether a person’s actions or their thoughts define who they are, plus a well-defined villain with a motivation we haven’t seen in a major motion picture in quite some time. Burton altered the Batman mythos to connect the Batman and Joker characters, but is otherwise a standard good vs. evil story, while the ’66 narrative about dehydrating the United Nations; representatives is just an excuse to get the “BAM”s and “POW”s on the big screen.

Advantage: Nolan

Man Behind the Mask


In ’66 we got the campy debonair Adam West.  Michael Keaton’s oddball Wayne put a little madness behind the bat and for the first time we saw that perhaps Master Wayne was a tad unhinged. Nolan cast the steel-jawed Christian Bale as a champion of social justice and offers the most fully-rounded Bruce Wayne we’ve ever seen.  Bale edges out Keaton for the nod.

Advantage: Nolan

Costume

I think we can agree Adam West’s tights are no match for his opponents in either form or function. Burton’s Batman suit was leather-and-body-armor chic, while Nolan’s first go-round featured plenty of function, with an emphasis on continual tweaking and improvements. It’s close, but we’re going by the first Burton suit, by, er, an ear.

Advantage: Burton

Car

It wasn’t until Val Kilmer in “Batman Forever” that we learned that chicks dig the car, but we always suspected it. The ’66 version again is a classic, but doesn’t hold up to the thoroughbreds of the later incarnations. Burton’s car has bat-class and bat-style in spades, but the “Begins” batmobile has its own name: the Tumbler, a “bridging vehicle” designed to jump rivers for military use. It’s a tank-like monstrosity, no less impressive than the Burton Batman’s ride. But Burton’s Batmobile is a converted corvette with machine guns, bombs, and the sweetest jet engine you’ll see in a land-based vehicle. Nolan’s car has the form and function, though, which gives it a leg up.

Advantage: Nolan

Gadgets

Both Keaton and Bale had their gas-powered grappling guns, while West had to rely on the hand-thrown hook. Bale had a high-tech cowl with a listening device, and both of the later Batmen had sword-proof gauntlets. In true 60s style, West had a pill for every situation.  But this argument begins and ends with four little words: Bat Shark-Repellent Spray.

Advantage: ’66

Villain(s)

Batman ’66 goes quantity over quality, as the Joker (Ceasar Romero), Riddler (Frank Gorshin), Penguin (Burgess Meredith), and Catwoman (Lee Meriweather) step all over each other in the film (remember: we’re not counting TV). Nolan had Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanable/Liam Neeson) and the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), while Burton has Jack Nicholson’s iconic performance as The Joker. Not much of a contest, even.

Advantage: Burton

Damsel

Unless you count Catwoman/Kitka, ’66 has no real love interest for Batman. Burton brought in the photojournalist Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), while Nolan has the idealistic assistant DA Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). Dawes is undoubtedly the best character of the three, but her weak portrayal by Holmes in the first film gives the smokin’ hot Basinger the edge.

Advantage: Burton

Alfred

Alan Napier is virtually a background character in ’66; In Burton’s Michael Gough is a doting grandfather type who offers tidbits of sage advice. In “Begins,” Bruce’s relationship to Alfred is integral to the film, and Caine actively helps develop Batman as a persona as well as providing Bruce Wayne’s moral compass.

Advantage: Nolan

Sequel(s)

None for ’66, unless you count the TV show. Burton directed “Batman Returns,” an up-and-down film, then bowed out for Joel Schumacher’s increasingly disastrous third and fourth films. Nolan’s followup, 2008′s “The Dark Knight” set a new standard for superhero films,  is widely regarded as the best superhero film ever made, and is arguably the best film of that entire year.

Advantage: Nolan

Winner

The 1966 Batman is a fun long-form episode of the old TV show, but we’re getting serious with our superheroes, here. Nolan’s “Batman Begins” relaunched Batman to heights most never dreamed of after the disastrous failure of “Batman and Robin.” Not only did Nolan improve on Burton’s original darker vision of Batman, he raised the bar for all superhero movies to come. “Batman Begins,” then, is THE new champion of Batman franchise starters.

Previous Cinema Smackdowns

Kingpin vs. The Big Lebowski

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11 Responses to “Cinema Smackdown!: Batman (1966) vs. Batman (1989) vs. Batman Begins”

  1. Tim Ezra says:

    Are you crazy?!? How can you possibly NOT pick ’66 as the clear winner? Lets dig a little deeper in your categories for some ’66 support, shall we?

    Plot – ’66 dehydrated members of the UN. DEHYDRATED THEM! C’mon! The other two just shot and ‘sploded everything.

    Man Behind the Mask – If Bats has two sides, Bale only had one: Batman. Much as I would like to give this to Mr. West…Keaton has this wrapped.

    Costume – Keaton was tooo stiff, and Bale was too techy….West’s was just right. A classic through and through. Gadgets go on the belt, not the suit.

    Car – 4 words, "Atomic batteries to power." ATOMIC! C’mon!

    Gadgets – Shark Repellent, you got that right!

    Villans – Classic Penguin, Joker, AND Riddler? Hands down, plus, they dehydrated there own henchmen. DEHYDRATED THEM!

    Damsel – Ok, fine.

    Alfred – He pretended to BE the Batman when Bruce Wayne needed to be in the same room as Bats…though that might be from the show…Nevertheless, he did it without shaving. I’ll take a mulligan on this one.

    Sequel – Did you not see the TV movie, Return to the Batcave? I was just sorry it never got nominated for any awards. Not only did Adam West and Burt Ward explain everthing you ever wanted to know, they did it while under attack from a delusional Frank Gorshin.

    Clearly, you are wrong and ’66 should stand proud as the winner! Thanks for the article, I really enjoyed reading it and taking a stand for old ’66. :)

  2. Brenda Paz says:

    As a little girl growning up my brother and I always enjoyed the original batman series with Adam West as I had a crush on him. My favorite villan was catwoman and i like the batman comparison you have on this page. Thanku for reading this

  3. ERIN says:

    I loved reading this article. It was fun to think about how batman has changed over the years. I have to agree that batman begins should be the winner. Maybe that is because it is the film I know the most about but oh well. Great article.

  4. jorge duran says:

    I have been a big fan of the Dark Knight character since I was 5 and to see this comic book hero come to life in 3 different movie eras now that I’m 32 is simply magnificent! As an amateur artist who drew Batman & other related characters in his story when I was a child, my imagination ran wild when it came to life in the 1966, 1989 & 2005 films! The 1966 film starring Adam West portrayed a more comical approach with sound effects blurted out as words on the screen. But for sure back then, it was spectacular. It was based on how the comics was made at that time. The 1989 one starring Michael Keaton & Jack Nicholson was the bomb, being a teenager growing up then knowing that it was one of the films that defined my time. Simply spectacular – the suit, how the mask well fitted Keaton’s raised eyebrows, the car, the darkness of the joker… it all worked perfect! That’s why as an adult when the 2005 version came starring Christian Bale, I was s biggest critic that I didnt watch till… admittingly, just last weekend! I questioned why they had to make another one when the Keaton series to me was the best. But when i listened to talks about the sequel The Dark Knight being a blockbuster, I watched it first last year and I was convinced I needed to watch the first one. It portrayed a grander scale of Gotham City touching current crime issues and living up to the BIG BANG scenes of today’s action films. I just dont like Batman’s voice (overly husky) & the tanklike vehicle. I will always be a big fan of the Caped Crusader… cant wait for the 3rd one!

  5. Casey Strawsma says:

    Agree, however Nolan should have taken gadgets as well!

  6. Alyssa says:

    Great article, Joe! I would disagree and say that Adam West is by far the best Batman, but maybe that is simply for nostalgic reasons. Batman has become much darker (in comics and films) since the late 80s, which is a welcome change. The 1966 has a feel good quality to it though which is probably why it’s my favorite.

  7. Chris Rodgers says:

    I still have a special place as well for the 89 batman. I know Heath ledger did an unbelievable job as the joker but you have to give credit to jack Nicholson who did a fantastic job as well. Also I don’t know why everyones so upset with the raspy voice of the new batman. If I was a hero trying to hide my identity I would change my voice too. Don’t question Nolan on this, I think he’s got a pretty good track record.

  8. Heather says:

    This was a lot of fun, and I have to agree with you on the winner. Although, I have to say Val Kilmer wins for Hottest Batman, hands down.

  9. i easily prefer the newest BATMANs over the former, despite the raspy "I AM BATMAN" voice :)

  10. Sam Watermeier says:

    Nice analysis, Joe. This was a fun read.

    Although I have a special place in my heart for Tim Burton and Michael Keaton’s approach to the character, Nolan and Bale’s interpretation of Batman is slightly more accurate to the comic books. Bruce Wayne and Batman always shared the same demeanor in Burton’s films. Both were mysterious and overtly sad. What Nolan and Bale get right is the idea that only Batman is real and Wayne is his “mask,” not vice versa. In the Nolan films, I like how Wayne acts arrogantly in public, showing off his wealth and girlfriends to hide the fact that he is a conflicted man and battered warrior. Nolan and Bale also progress from Burton’s overriding moral of revenge. The crimefighting is less about revenge for Nolan’s Batman and more about responsibility.

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