Vehicles don’t come much more iconic than The Batmobile. Batman’s lightning fast Swiss Army Knife of a vehicle is less of a singular concept than that of an idea, much like The Caped Crusader himself. And while The Batmobile has had literally hundreds of incarnations in comic books, it is the film and television versions that have made it such a classic.
In this two-part look at the Batmobiles featured on the big and small screens, I look at what makes each incarnation of this classic vehicle unique for both better and worse.
1943 and 1949 Serial Batmobiles
Easily the least iconic of any live action Batmobile. But these were just like the comic book versions at the time – just like any other vehicle on the road during the ‘40s. The 1943 serial used a 1939 Cadillac, while the 1949 serial used a ’49 Mercury. As indiscriminate and forgettable as the serials themselves, these souped-up convertible jalopies served as both Batman and Bruce Wayne’s vehicles. Top up, it’s the Batmobile. Top down, it’s Bruce Wayne’s car. I guess people were less observant back then.
Best Features: Certainly not the added features. These were just methods of transportation for an awkward looking Batman to get to the bad guys. But they have a classic charm like any vehicle from that age.
This is where it gets good. Bill Dosier and Dean Jeffries’ red-trimmed dual cockpit Batmobile for the Adam West-led Batman television series, and movie, is still one of the best vehicles around. The fiberglass body was built on the Lincoln Futura concept car, with lots of both fake and practical bells and whistles added for The Caped Crusader to use. It’s a bold piece of machinery that apparently still runs like a dream. Mixed with West’s fun and campy take on Batman, it has left a lasting impression on the world. Recently, the original model was sold for $4.6 million at an auction. That’s Bruce Wayne-level money.
Best Features: Besides that classic bat fin design, there are so many great gadgets. The flame-spewing “rocket exhaust” has been featured in nearly every Batmobile since and adds a real sense of power. The bright orange Bat-Turn Lever activates a parachute for fast turns, the Bat-Ray is an unexplained solution to any problem, and the Batphone is the most classically out-of-date form of communication in any vehicle.
Burton Films Batmobile
Anton Furst’s Art Deco Batmobile has a blend of retro, futuristic, and organic that makes it instantly recognizable. There is not a Batmobile that has been able to successfully follow in its tradition since, no matter how many times it has been tried. This Batmobile is low, sleek, and incredibly long. It’s slide-open hatch and sloping bat fins give it a sense of being all one piece. While the extra-long bonnet make it look like a wholly original vehicle, although the model was built on a Chevy Impala chassis. Altogether, this thing is 21 feet long. It’s not the largest Batmobile on screen, but its exaggerated design made a lasting impression on the films to follow.
Best Features: This car is loaded with features that seem to pop up to suit whatever story development occurs. Being voice command controlled, this Batmobile can travel wherever The Bat wants it to go, raise scalloping impenetrable shields, and activate its many weapons, no matter where it is. And there are tons of weapons, such as dual machineguns (deadly weapons?), grappling hooks to assist in sharp turns, spherical bombs that fall off the tires (even deadlier??), and a breakaway “Batmissile” escape pod. In the end, its appearance is its strongest suit.
Batman: The Animated Series Batmobile
My personal favorite, this is a Batmobile that works best in cartoon form. It’s directly inspired by the Burton films, but does not try to copy that vehicle. This is an extremely Art Deco design, with clean lines, strong angles, and exaggerated features informing every piece. This Batmobile’s hood is even longer than the others, with larger fine shooting from the back for an even lengthier appearance. Combined with a blunt nose, giant chrome grill, and an even more powerful jet exhaust, this is a Batmobile for the ages. Like the look of Batman: The Animated Series as a whole, this is a somewhat exaggerated and darker version of what could be found in real life, with a retro feel informing everything. While this was redesigned in continuations of the series, it never got better than this.
Best Features: There are very few bells and whistles on this Batmobile compared to others. The car can shoot out oil, smoke, and tear gas, fire missiles, eject its seats, and slash tires. Most of all, its power comes from the dashboard computer for investigation and communication during transit and the sheer power of the engine. So many great scenes begin with Batman arriving on the scene, rushing into action after leaping from the cockpit of this iconic vehicle.
Batman Forever Batmobile
What a strange mix between Furst’s Batmobile and some sort of organic H.R. Geiger-like design. This vehicle is filled with cutaways exposing the inner workings (not smart for fighting criminals) and humongous fins that can press together into one or separate (for high speed mode, naturally). It is also chock full of decorative lighting. It makes no sense for a covert vigilante to announce his presence from miles away, but it fits in well with director Joel Schumacher’s neon-lit, Bat-nipple-punctuated disasters.
Best Features: It’s one of the most strangely agile Batmobiles on film. The grappling hook can help it drive straight up walls and this obviously stage-only vehicle can leap between freeways and the gigantic statues that were suddenly everywhere in Gotham’s landscape. Despite its exaggerated design, now 26 feet in length, the complicated neon design is still pretty fun and it has a comic book-like quality to it. And, of course, “chicks love the car.”
Batman & Robin Batmobile
This is where things went wrong. In so many ways. This Batmobile is an absolute, nonsensical mess. Why is it a one-seater? Why is the cockpit open for petty crooks to shoot Batman in the head? Why is this so unconceivably long (33 feet)? Why is the engine exposed in the front of the car? The answer: nothing about this movie has any sort of grounding in reality or common sense. Despite looking like it couldn’t drive on a real road to save its life, the film has it leap from building to building in pursuit of Mr. Freeze’s even stranger ice tank. In an effort to euthanize any remaining sense of subtlety, the tire treads are mini bat symbols.
Best Features: There really aren’t any redeeming qualities about this Batmobile. It’s unconvincing on screen, with everything looking like a soundstage. It never seems to actually go faster than 20 miles per hours (except for those bad CGI scenes). It’s actually designed to be aesthetically repulsive with its pulsating orange, blue, yellow, and red lights. And it has little purpose in the story, being frozen and smashed by Mr. Freeze during an early chase. This is one of the many reasons why a reboot was needed.