“Nice outfit,” said an approving Jack Nicholson to the caped crusader in Tim Burton’s 1989 movie version of Batman, resplendent in menacing black rubber with bulging pecs, a six pack and very pointy ears.
This is the first of Batman’s many batsuits that visitors see upon entering the Gold Coast equivalent to Bruce Wayne’s bat cave, Movie World’s showcase exhibition Batman Legacy. The Dark Knight mannequin stands resolutely, fists coiled by his side, posed ready to leap into one of the nearby batmobiles.
The exhibition is billed by the theme park as the “largest official Batman exhibition in the Southern Hemisphere”, encompassing multiple bat suits, vehicles, movie props and costumes from the cinematic Batman franchise from 1989 to 2017.
Having been first introduced to readers through comic books in 1939, there would be very few of us around who wouldn’t remember a time when this superhero was a massive part of popular culture — and as the years have gone by, the caped crusader has adapted to suit the era he is in. This is exemplified through the changing nature of his costumes — from grim-dark leather, to bat-nipples to bespoke-emo.
Simple fabric and pantomine aesthetic
Batman made his debut on March 29 in issue 27 of Detective Comics and his immediate popularity saw his first cinematic depiction in a low-budget serial in 1943, followed by a longer series in 1949. In these early depictions Batman’s suit was a simple fabric costume with a pantomime aesthetic filled by burly actors, ill-fitting for the most part.
This remained the case through to Adam West’s caped crusader in the 1960s, when the character was portrayed on screen in full colour for the first time. This depiction of Batman in light grey and blue was very true to the batsuit as seen in the parallel comic series of the era, including the chest-mounted bat-symbol enclosed in a yellow ellipse, which was heavily armoured and sought to act as a target for gunfire (rather than the superhero’s head).
For several generations of fans, West became the established look of the caped crusader.
The dark knight
When Tim Burton’s Batman emerged blacker-than-black in 1989, the aesthetic reflected the darker direction of The Dark Knight Returns comic series earlier that decade.
The casting of Michael Keaton as the titular Batman raised some controversy at the time, as the comedic actor’s slight build didn’t reflect the established muscular look of Bruce Wayne/Batman.
This was resolved with Keaton’s bravura performance and his bat suit (and all subsequent suits) which had external stylised muscles incorporated into it — transforming Keaton into a much more formidable figure. The actor had to endure adding 40 rubbery kilograms to his overall body weight, the cape alone weighing in at 18kg.
Although his initial film did well at the box office, Tim Burton’s grim Batman Returns (1993) did not reach the same heights, leading to Joel Schumacher taking charge as director.
Batman Forever (1995) had a more colourful and lighter touch, reflected in Jim Carrey’s sparkly Riddler onesy style jumpsuit, and Tommy Lee-Jones Two-Face fuschia dominated outfit.
Batman Forever also saw the introduction of Robin, with both he and Batman (now played by Val Kilmer) sporting highly stylised suits that further accentuated musculature, with the added addition of external nipples.
The infamous bat-nipples even led to accusations that the openly gay Schumacher was furnishing the superheroes with homoerotic motifs. The director rejected this, stating he was trying to bring the feeling of classical antiquity to the costumes. Co-creator of Batman, Bob Kane was also unimpressed, as Jim Carey recalled hearing him say “I never put nipples on a Batsuit. Whoever heard of nipples on the Batsuit?”.
The final film of the series was Batman and Robin (1997), which was panned by contemporary critics (particularly for multiple glistening chest and butt close-ups in the film) as was the performance of new Batman actor George Clooney, who was later to say that he “killed the franchise”.
By now Batman and Robin superhero’s suits had evolved to resemble life-sized over-stylised glossy plastic action figures, and much of the criticism levelled at the film dealt with the aggressive marketing of the toys associated with it.
Muscles and reboot
The 2005 rebooted series directed by Christopher Nolan saw method-driven actor Christian Bale physically transform himself into a bulked up Bruce Wayne, reflecting the original comic look of the muscled millionaire — but also mirroring the swathe of men’s health magazines and websites that promoted male body-building in the new century.
In parallel franchises of the 2000’s, Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig and Robert Downey Jr. all similarly buffed up to portray their respective characters Wolverine, James Bond and Ironman.
The heavily fabricated Batsuit reached something of an apotheosis in Batman vs. Superman (2016) and Justice League (2017) where Ben Affleck’s Batman’s popping veins and bulging sinews strain against the fabric. Described as “monstrous”the suit is heavy, menacing, and unforgiving — with Batman’s maxed-out physical perfection closely resembling his appearance in the 2010’s Arkham series of video games.
While not featured in the Batman Legacy exhibition, Robert Pattinson’s new iteration of the caped crusader in The Batman (2022) sees a less bulky muscle tone.
The suit is simplified to angular motifs, the mask and cowl sporting a certain hand-stitched bespoke look, while both the Riddler’s army surplus garb and the Penguin’s gangster chic are much understated, marking a full departure from the Burton/Schumacher films.
Alasdair Macintyre is an associate lecturer in visual arts, artist and PhD candidate at the Australian Catholic University. This piece first appeared on The Conversation.