1995 saw Joel Schumacher take the directing reins with Batman Forever. Recasting Batman, with the younger and more athletic Val Kilmer - this version of Batman was more child-friendly and commercial, right down to Jim Carrey's casting as The Riddler. An introduction of Robin also helped to lighten the character and Tommy Lee Jone's Two-Face was a half-lightened version of his comic character. Financially more successful than Batman Returns it appeared Schumacher's neon lit Gotham City was what enthusiasts of the franchise desired.
Then he delivered Batman and Robin.
With Kilmer filming The Saint (much to Schumacher's annoyance) George Clooney was brought on board for a third incarnation of Batman. Batman was now once again a guest star, this time in his own movie, due to the influx of villains such as Bat-Girl, Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr Freeze and Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy. Effectively a plot-point-by-plot-point reworking of Batman Forever, Batman and Robin returned Batman to the camp caped-crusader of the 1960's television series. The film was critically mauled and the low box office led to the franchise being left dormant.
However, that is not to say that Warner were in complete despair about the franchise. Wolfgang Peterson had a Superman VS Batman script in development and Requiem For A Dream helmer, Darren Aronsosky, even tackled a Batman origin story. It was Christopher Nolan's take, along with David Goyer that was the first project to appear like a success. Casting fan favourite Christian Bale as Batman, Nolan decided on a much more pragmatic take, transporting the Dark Knight to the real world.
Hauling characters such as Ras Al Ghoul and The Scarecrow into the narrative enhanced the psychological ante of the film and Nolan was able to display a diverse side to Batman and for the first time, gave the hero centre stage in his own film. The critical and commercial success of Batman Begins led to Nolan having creative control over the follow up, though unlike Burton and Schumacher, this would not be his undoing.
The Dark Knight, now free from the shackles of an origin story, is the Batman film that fans have been waiting for. Delivering a Joker that harkens back not only tonally to that of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, but also to that of Denny O'Neil from the 1970's, it displays a character of malicious immorality, (not the giddy clown, Prince of Crime, associated with the 60's series.)
The comics were able to illustrate that the Joker and Batman demand co-existence, and until now, no form of moving image was ever able to truly capture this. Heath Ledger's Joker lacks an origin story and rightly so. At a time when Hollywood is trying to demystify it's villains it is delightful to observe a character that goes against the grain. After all that is what the Joker does. Ledger's Joker is winning shining reviews and also murmurs of an Oscar nomination. Whilst it is a tremendous performance, I feel that many have over looked Aaron Ekhart's charismatic portrayal of Harvey Dent; no-one before had shown the complexities of the character who started out as an ally of Batman only to become one of his adversaries.
Nolan's recent film expands on the Batman mythos, while also delivering a film that is faithful to the comic book. Where the franchise goes from here is anybody's guess. It sets up a sequel flawlessly and again it should demonstrate Batman as a tortured soul who does what he does, not because he wants to, but because he has to.
Batman and his enemies exist in a strange world, and in effect, Batman is as insane as the villains that he is fighting. He is caught in a battle night after night to exorcise his own inner demons, with his sanity (his true mask) positioned on the surface. However, Batman and the Joker are a necessity for each other, more than any other hero-villain combination in comic books. It is a battle that has been in existence for the last 70 years and it will persist long after we are gone.