Though director Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster Batman, starring Michael Keaton, is generally regarded as the first theatrical outing for the Caped Crusader, the DC Comics superhero first appeared on the big screen in the 1940s in a pair of 15-chapter serials: Batman (1943) and Batman and Robin (1949). That was followed nearly two decades later by 1966’s Batman, a feature-length continuation of the campy TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.
By all accounts, those previous theatrical iterations of the Caped Crusader were commercial successes. But with box office data being spotty during those earlier decades, we’ll be kicking off this history with Burton’s game-changing mega-hit, which was supercharged by a tidal wave of fanfare in the months leading up to its release—a phenomenon that became known as “Batmania”—and preceded by a merchandising blitz that encompassed everything from Batman watches to Batman action figures to Batman bicycle shorts. As director Kevin Smith once put it, “That summer was huge. You couldn’t turn around without seeing the Bat-Signal somewhere. People were cutting it into their fucking heads. It was just the summer of Batman and if you were a comic book fan it was pretty hot.”
When it finally debuted on June 23, Batman crushed the opening weekend record set by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade only a month earlier, grossing a whopping $40.4 million from 2,194 theaters over the three-day frame. By the end of its run, the film (whose budget reportedly swelled from $35 to $48 million) had brought in a gargantuan $251.1 million in North America and $411.3 million worldwide, minting a hugely lucrative new franchise for Warner Bros.
Burton would return to the series with the 1992 follow-up Batman Returns, which—while certainly no failure—failed to match the box office returns of its predecessor. Though it debuted to a then-record $45.6 million opening weekend that June, there was criticism in some quarters over the film’s darker, more sexualized tone. The $80 million title dropped more precipitously than the first entry on subsequent weekends and ultimately landed with just $162.8 million in North America and $266.8 million worldwide—nearly $150 million less than its predecessor.
In between live-action adaptations, the Batman series received its first animated entry on the big screen with Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which debuted over Christmas 1993 to positive reviews but poor box office, bringing in just $1.1 million on around 1,500 screens in its opening weekend and only $5.6 million in North America by the end of its run. Notably, Mask of the Phantasm has achieved cult status in the years since its release, with many critics and fans deeming it one of the best (if not the best) big-screen adaptations of the comic.
In response to the perception that Burton’s increasingly dark vision had led to Batman Returns’ underperformance, Warner Bros. pivoted in a more family-friendly direction with the film’s 1995 follow-up, Batman Forever. Bringing on director Joel Schumacher and replacing Michael Keaton with Val Kilmer, the third film in the series brought a campier, more colorful tone to the franchise that was closer in spirit to the 1960s TV series than Burton’s two theatrical installments. The approach paid off; just like the previous two entries, Batman Forever set an opening weekend record with $52.7 million and went on to improve upon Returns’ overall box office with $184 million in North America and $336.5 million worldwide off a $100 budget. Though its performance ultimately fell far short of Burton’s original movie, it at least appeared to make up some of the ground that Returns had lost.
Hopes were high for Schumacher’s 1997 follow-up Batman & Robin, which swapped out Kilmer for George Clooney and took the camp quotient even higher. But the film opened to scathing reviews and was widely mocked by audiences. After opening to a disappointing $42.8 million that June (about $10 million less than Batman Forever), the film dropped precipitously in subsequent weekends and finished its run with a franchise-low $107.3 million domestically and $238.2 million worldwide off a reported $125 million budget, making it the first bona fide flop in the series.
Following Batman & Robin’s underperformance, the franchise went on an extended hiatus. Schumacher’s proposed follow-up, Batman Unchained, was put on the shelf, and the series wouldn’t return until the 2005 reboot Batman Begins, directed by Christopher Nolan. Bringing a darker, grittier and more psychologically complex tone to the big-screen franchise, the film was praised by critics and earned an “A” Cinemascore with audiences. After debuting to $48.7 million, the film legged its way to a strong $205.3 million in North America and $371.8 million worldwide off a $150 million reported budget. While not the kind of mammoth superhero movie numbers we’re used to seeing in the post-MCU world, it was a major improvement over the performance of Batman & Robin and a corrective to the increasingly toy-centric prior installments.
Batman Begins was a hit, but Nolan’s 2008 sequel The Dark Knight rocketed the franchise into the stratosphere. Powered by an avalanche of hype—much of it centered around Heath Ledger’s gritty performance as The Joker—the film debuted to a then-record $158.4 million in July 2008, a performance that still ranks in the Top 20 opening weekends of all time. Buffeted by critical raves and strong word of mouth, the $185 million film kept up its momentum and ultimately took in $535.2 million in North America and over $1 billion globally, far surpassing the performance of any other Batman movie up to that point and even netting eight Oscar nominations (it took home two, including a posthumous win for Ledger in the Best Supporting Actor category).
Nolan followed up that career-defining triumph with The Dark Knight Rises, another overwhelming success that debuted to $160.8 million in July 2012. Though not as leggy as its predecessor—perhaps owing to the lack of Ledger’s instantly-iconic Joker – the $250 million budgeted film finished its domestic run with $448.1 million and brought in $1.08 billion globally, making it the highest-grossing film of the series worldwide.
Once Nolan exited the franchise, Batman wouldn’t make another big-screen appearance until the hugely anticipated Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Starring Ben Affleck as the Caped Crusader, the $250 million title—the second installment in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU)—set yet another opening weekend record for the superhero when it debuted to a massive $166 million over Easter weekend 2016, which also ranked as the highest March opening of all time (a total surpassed by Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast just one year later). Aside from Mask of the Phantasm, it was also the first big-screen Batman adaptation to debut outside the traditional summer corridor and, judging from its debut numbers, the approach paid off. But the film was beset by scathing reviews and a poor reception by fans, and it plummeted 69% in its second weekend and dropped precipitously from there, failing to even double its opening weekend total when it landed with a final domestic gross of $330.3 million. While it made up some of that shortfall overseas, where it grossed an additional $543.2 million (for a worldwide total of $873.6 million), Batman v Superman was widely viewed as falling short of its commercial potential.
Affleck’s Batman would make two further appearances in DCEU installments, with a cameo in Suicide Squad in August 2016 and a full-fledged role in the team-up film Justice League in November 2017, though neither of those films were traditional Batman vehicles. The most recent standalone Batman film, The LEGO Batman Movie, debuted to $53 million in February 2017 and finished with $175.7 million domestic and $311.9 million worldwide off a reported $80 million budget, marking the first successful animated outing for the superhero on the big screen.
Though the Batman franchise has seen its share of ups and downs over the last three decades, it is, in the end, far more notable for its successes than its failures. After Superman, the Dark Knight was the first superhero to enjoy a commercially successful, live-action theatrical franchise in the modern era and helped set the template for future entries in the genre. Perhaps more than any other superhero movie franchise, it has also engaged in a near-constant process of reinvention. Indeed, despite a largely disappointing reception for the so-called “Batfleck” series of films, the franchise will soon reboot with Matt Reeves’ The Batman starring Robert Pattinson, which is currently slated for release on October 1, 2021.
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