From Michael Keaton to Ben Affleck, Batman’s legacy at the box office means big bucks

Michael Keaton on the set of “Batman”.

Getty Images (L) | Warner Bros. (R)

On Friday, Batman returns to the box office.

With Robert Pattinson donning the cowl, Warner Bros.’ “The Batman” is expected to exceed $100 million in ticket sales during its domestic debut and north of $225 million globally. (The movie already racked up $21.6 million from Thursday night previews in North America.)

“If anyone thought the success of ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ was an anomaly, then ‘The Batman’ looks to show that success for movie theaters is indeed a trend built on the appeal of blockbuster-style films,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

The Covid-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the box office, as audiences outside of the 18 to 35 demographic have been slow to return. Franchise-based films, particularly those about comic book characters, have been some of the few to break through and generate significant gains at the box office.

Batman has been a staple at the box office since 1989, when director Tim Burton brought the caped crusader to the big screen. Over the last three decades, six actors have taken on the dual role of Bruce Wayne and the masked vigilante. These films have collectively generated more than $4.5 billion globally in the last 33 years.

Between 1989 and 2005, Batman films averaged between $250 million and $400 million in ticket sales at the global box office. With 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” Batman was solidified as a box office titan, generating more than $1 billion worldwide, according to data from Comscore.

Of course, Adam West was the first to bring Batman to the big screen in 1966’s spin-off of the campy television show. However, data on how that film performed during its run in theaters is not available. At the time, box office results were not reported as publicly as they are today.

Also not included in CNBC’s list of Batman films is Zack Snyder’s “Justice League,” in which Batman was part of an ensemble cast, as well as a handful of animated films that were released theatrically.

There was a 23-year gap between West’s portrayal and Michael Keaton’s in Burton’s “Batman.” Since then, there has not been a gap longer than eight years between Batman flicks, with the average being around four years.

“There was a time when the big screen comic book presence could be summed up by two names: Batman and Superman,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at “It wasn’t until the dawn of the 2000s that Marvel franchises like X-Men and Spider-Man began to change that narrative.”

While 1997’s “Batman and Robin” starring George Clooney was not particularly well-received by critics or audiences — it holds a 12% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was the lowest-grossing Batman film of the bunch — a trilogy of films from Christopher Nolan revitalized the Batman name and the character’s status as a box office giant. 

Christian Bale’s turn as Batman, which spanned three films, led to box office ticket sales in excess of $2.4 billion, the most of any actor who donned the cowl on the big screen.

“Thanks to the wealth of talent and time poured into comic book movies over the last two decades, they’ve become embraced by a much larger audience than just die-hard fandom,” Robbins said.

Disney and Sony’s co-production “Spider-Man: No Way Home” recently topped James Cameron’s “Avatar” to become the third-highest-grossing domestic release in history, with more than $760 million in ticket sales. Globally, the latest Spidey film is the sixth-highest grossing movie of all time, with $1.8 billion in ticket sales.

Robert Pattinson dons the cowl in Matt Reeves’ “The Batman.”

Warner Bros.

“Enthusiasm for this new iteration of [Batman] that has consistently delivered giant returns for decades looks to help generate the best box office debut North America has seen during the pandemic outside of ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home,'” Robbins said. “With potentially strong appeal to both young audiences and adults, there isn’t a better opening act for Warner Bros.’ 2022 slate.”

“The momentum this film can provide will also benefit the greater box office ecosphere as studios ramp up for what looks to be a near-normal tentpole movie slate from April through summer and beyond,” he said.

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal owns Rotten Tomatoes.

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From Michael Keaton to Ben Affleck, Batman’s legacy at the box office means big bucks