What the Batman live-action movies could learn from the animated films

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Out of all the comic book superheroes, Batman has appeared on cinema screens more than any other, beating Superman, Wolverine and Spider-Man to the top spot. The Caped Crusader's first big screen outing came in the 1943 serial The Batman, when Lewis Wilson donned the cowl. Most recently, Ben Affleck played the character in Justice League.

Over the last 75 years, Batman's live-action celluloid endeavours have earned mixed reviews: Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s offerings have been widely praised, while Joel Schumacher and Zack Snyder’s movies failed to impress critics. Still, Warner Bros. has no plans to retire the character, having greenlit yet another solo movie for Bruce Wayne. Dawn of (and War for) the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves will helm The Batman, with Robert Pattinson taking over as the Dark Knight in what promises to be  a more grounded story that will focus on the character's skills as a detective.

“He’s supposed to be the world’s greatest detective, and that’s not necessarily been a part of what the movies have been,” Reeves told The Hollywood Reporter. “I’d love this to be one where when we go on that journey of tracking down the criminals and trying to solve a crime.”

That’s certainly a promising concept that will help to distinguish itself from the previous Batman outings in the DC Extended Universe (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, The Suicide Squad and Justice League) which erred on the side of bizarro. But rather than dwell on the missteps of past live-action movies, let’s focus on the frequent, positive leaps made in the highly underrated animated movies.

There have been 35 animated films released under the DC Universe Animated Original Movies' banner, with Superman: Doomsday kick-starting the series in 2007. Fans have heaped praise on these movies for being both faithful adaptations of the comics – Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part I & II and Batman: Year One in particular – and for their style, voicework and the imagination the filmmakers brought to the table.

Bring in the Bat-gang

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

Batman: Hush marks the latest animated adventure for the beloved Bats. Based on Jeph Loeb's critically-acclaimed graphic novel of the same name, the movie – directed by Justin Copeland – follows Batman’s attempts to stop a new villain called Hush, who knows about the billionaire's superhero alter-ego and manipulates Gotham’s rogues' gallery into destroying the vigilante’s life. 

Included among those terrorising Bruce Wayne are Joker, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow and Bane, who pop up in small but spicy scenes, paying fan service without making Ernie Altbacker’s script overly convoluted. Rarely have so many villains appeared in a live-action movie (minus Suicide Squad, for obvious reasons) and it makes for a thrilling watch. 

The animated movie also has two central narratives working in conjunction: the overarching threat of Hush and the underlying romance between Batman and Catwoman. Romance has certainly been missing from live-action Batman’s life of late (apart from a flirtation with Wonder Woman) and Batman: Hush exemplifies why his complicated relationship with Selina Kyle has been so enduring in the comic books. The animation shows just how much of a powerful and agile fighter Selina is, one who does more than her fair share of rescuing.

Batman Ninja, released in 2018, also flirted with this dynamic. The film transported the eponymous hero back in time to Feudal Japan. However, Batman was not the only one sent back: Catwoman, a shed load of villains, and some of his sidekicks went with him, including Dick Grayson's Nightwing, Damian Wayne's Robin, Jason Todd's Red Hood, and Tim Drake's Red Robin. Not since Batman & Robin have the live-action films welcomed so many of members of the Bat-Family. Meanwhile, in Batman: Hush, there’s Nightwing, Damian and Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl for Batman to turn to, and often these interactions provide the biggest laughs.

That humour has been almost entirely missing from the live-action movies, which have lacked comic-relief side-kicks. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but seeing Batman deal with his son asking about him dating Catwoman is one of the funniest scenes in a superhero movie in recent history.

Why so serious?

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

Then there's the overall seriousness of Christian Bale and Affleck's Batman movies. We’ve seen dark and broody Bats dealing with sinister villains in dark and wet Gotham City for so long, a pair of sunglasses is needed to take in the dazzling chaos and colourful aesthetic of Batman Ninja. Kazuki Nakashima's script doesn’t try to make any sort of logical narrative sense, and it doesn’t need to because it’s all about feeding the audience a visual feast of epic proportions.

An unconventional approach worked for 2008’s Batman: Gotham Knight, too. The anthology film was made up of six shorts, produced by by Japanese animation studios Studio 4°C, Madhouse, Bee Train and Production I.G. The first chapter, “Have I Got a Story for You,” is the most intriguing, with the narrative playing out from the unreliable perspectives of four kids, a plot device taken from Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, who offer up descriptions of Batman that pay homage to Vampire Batman and Man-Bat. 

Love them or hate them, these are risk-taking additions to the Batman filmography that forgo convention in order to bring something new to the table. Batman Ninja and Batman: Gotham Knight show that the Bats is a hero that can work in abundance outside of the typically dark Gotham aesthetic, while Batman: Hush effectively delivers love, action, villains and sidekicks. 

With so many superhero movies coming, fatigue for the genre could set in, so it’s essential that every reboot feels fresh. Batman is headed towards his ninth live-action incarnation and the filmmakers could do a lot worse than to look to the DC Universe Animated Original Movies for inspiration.

Freelance writer

Hanna Flint is a freelance film and TV critic who has bylines at GamesRadar+, Total Film magazine, Variety, BBC Culture, The Guardian, British GQ, IGN, Yahoo Movies, and so many other publications. Hanna has also appeared as a critic and commentator on Sky News, Sky Cinema, BBC World Service, and BBC Radio 5 Live, and can be frequently found as a Q&A host at MTV UK, BFI, and BAFTA. When Hanna isn't writing reviews, interviews, and long-form features about the latest film and TV releases, she specializes in topics concerning representation and diversity.