Batman Films - Best to Worst
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Batman: The Movie (1966)
Holy bad movie, Batman! Those other films must really suck for us to get the lead!
Almost, but not quite true, Robin. I do consider this 1960s spin-off from the TV show to be the best film on this list. Does it represent Batman as a character very well? It portrays what Batman was in the 50s and 60s to painful degrees, so yes, of course. It also helps that this happens to be one of the top-10 comedies of the 60s, a decade filled with great ones. This is because there are three kinds of humor in this movie: There's the stuff that's supposed to be funny (the hammy-as-fuck jokes), the stuff that is so bad that they intentionally kept it in because it's amusing (NO ONE could look at that plastic shark and go "this is not funny") and then, most of all, there's the ambiguous line where you just don't know whether they thought that the stuff would be funny or not but it's so hilarious expressly because of it (the costumes, the acting all-around, the riddles).
It's a fantastic mix of constantly moving campy action and humor that defies all reason. The way Robin can deduct some of the Riddler's riddles is awe-inspiring. And speaking of villains, this movie has more of them than basically any other movie on this list and yet it remains the second most balanced one. All the villains get their due share of screen-time and their introduction using personalized bookshelfs is just so funny and ingenious at the same time. I would also argue that Adam West is perhaps the most effective of all Batman-actors in showcasing what Batman is supposed to be in the context of when the film was made - goofy, silly, but still incredibly stern and serious in all of his scenes. It's true Bats, some days you just can't get rid of a bomb.
Batman Begins (2005)
To become a ninja, Bruce, you must learn to trim your beard with these!
A funny thing about the Nolan Batman-movies is that I've almost gone a full circle with the first two. Upon first seeing The Dark Knight, I thought it was great and worse than Begins. Upon rewatches though that opinion has slowly reversed, and now I think this prevails as the superior film. It isn't without it's flaws, sure, but the obviously hyper-careful and detailed plotting behind creating this vision and storyline for a new kind of Batman is extremely admirable. The whole thing, despite crossing the two-hour mark and containing enough plot elements for three Batman-movies, carries itself extremely well.
Most of the problems come from a technical side. Ken Watanabe is proposed as nothing more than a red herring, a boring one at that. Most people take issue with how the action scenes are edited, but I'd argue that they should've just moved the camera back a few inches to make up for the editing and everything would be cool. There are some scenes that are slightly off-putting even though the structure is intact, such as Bruce partying it out in a hotel decorative pool with models. All the scenes with Katie Holmes's Rachel Dawes and Bruce are a bit ham-fisted before Bruce reveals his secret. But these are small things. I think this is the most sound, firm and intact Batman-movie of them all. That being said, it's just that. You don't get that by taking chances, and not too many are taken here. One can't help but wonder what may have been if Darren Aronofsky had taken over this project as intended. His early treatments sure promised us something different.
Just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in.
This is possibly the most successful direct adaptation of a superhero comic book story I've seen. Unfortunately, only for the first part, but we'll get to the second one in a while. Part 1 of The Dark Knight Returns admirably changes the tone of the comic to something of it's own decree. It's a film oodled with melancholy. The melancholy is definitely there in the comic, but it never bursts through to the surface. The reason behind this, probably, is that there's really no time for it to do so in Miller's extremely energetic and frantically paced work.
Here though, director Jay Oliva spends a more than sufficient amount of time just showing us what Bruce Wayne's life is like after Batman, and how depressed he is as a person. With this, when he eventually dons the cowl again, it feels emotional. Effective. You can feel his heart rate rising as he jumps from rooftop to rooftop hunting gangbangers. And most of this emotion is delivered not through some bullshit internal monologue but through visuals, through, quite literally, animation. It's a visceral, enjoyable trip to take. And it's distinctive. I can't press enough how glade it makes me that this movie is so strongly a creation of it's own rather than some straight cash-grab of an adaptation.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
This asphyxiating mask is the smallest of my problems when I have to squeeze into this aspect ratio!
Mask of the Phantasm is a distant cousin to the 60s Bat-film in the sense that it also is a perfect display of what Batman was in popular culture at the time. All there was was the animated series, one of the best there ever was. And this is as good a movie as could probably be made of it. It's also the only Batman-movie to really dig deep into the noir-aesthethic so often on display in the comics, or at least to do so successfully (more on that Burton-shit later).
The storyline is complete and utter melodrama, but I don't mind. I mean our lead character is a billionaire playboy who dresses up as a bat to fight crime, I don't think realism belongs with that concept all too much despite all Chris Nolan accomplished, at least not in animated form. But even though it's melodrama, it's also relatively broody and heavy melodrama, as we delve deeper into Bruce's psychological issues, at least with all that the brief runtime allows. But the real treat in Mask of the Phantasm is the incredible atmosphere. Combining the noir-influences, the moody music and the occasionally authentically frightening visuals creates a real feeling of dread, but with a somewhat sombre pace. It's a mood flick and you can really take it all in when you watch it. I guess you could call it artistically accomplished if you were inclined to use such clinical terms.
Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
So, Deadhood or Redpool? It's such a bitch to decide... Oh, wait, whoops. Wrong universe!
I once reviewed Punisher: War Zone, calling Dominic West's portrayal of Jigsaw in it as the sort of polar opposite of what Heath Ledger did with The Joker in The Dark Knight. West drew out all available mannerisms to a degree where he was basically The Joker on crack, killing people left and right and cackling maniacally to comical degrees while doing so. In Batman: Under the Red Hood, we reach a full circle as The Joker in this movie, voiced by John DiMaggio of all people, is basically Jigsaw on crack, killing people left and right with the most brutal of methods while cackling maniacally.
But it never goes to comedic lengths. It's a film so up it's own ass in terms of how serious it is that it actually works. It doesn't feel forced or awkward when The Joker kills ten people in a room of twelve in an animated movie, it feels... serious, I guess. So yeah, this movie is another mood piece, but the mood is more that of a macabre notion of death and violence being omni-present to the point where every character might as well just be drenched in blood and guts in every scene and it would be all the same. The action is intense when it happens, while retaining a level of it's comic roots you could call out a lot of these other movies missing. It's an impressive feat, the existence of this movie.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Be serious for a while and just tell me what brand of make-up you use to cover those eye holes?
Well yeah, seriously. It isn't. But it's good. Not as good as those other five, but still pretty good. There's a lot to enjoy in The Dark Knight. There are a lot of individual scenes and most of all set-ups that really pay off. The two boats in the end create a grand Hitchcock-esque scenario, the interrogation-scene, despite starting the awful trend of villains getting captured as part of their plan, is intense to the unbearable degree. Speaking of which, so is most of this movie. The Dark Knight grabs your balls and never really lets go, instead just squeezing them and squeezing them until you feel they break, then they break, and it squeezes whatever is left until all you can do is pray for it to end. Seriously, the tone and atmosphere of this movie is ridiculous. It's asphyxiating. The fantastic music keeps blaring, making sure you never take your eyes of the screen. It's a harrowing experience. One of immense power.
But to what end? We see dozens of people murdered, assaulted and psychologically scarred by the actions of this fantastically portrayed malevolent character, but where does that really lead us? To the conclusion that good overcomes evil even in the most dire of circumstances. Well, gee, thanks Nolan. It's pretty darn cool you told me that because I had never heard of it in another film. And that's what grinds my gears. All the characters in this movie get put through personal hells, some of which are crafted with precision and some of which aren't, but in the end you realize that what you have left of all this torment and torture is absolutely worth shit. It's a dud. It's a completely magnificent, spectacular and horror-like dud, but it's a dud no less. When I take this little literal enjoyment in watching a film because it is so intense and borderline torturous to endure, I'd sure wish to be left with something to grasp on to. But nope. That's an unfortunately large caveat to an otherwise superbly made film.
Wait, shouldn't that picture be in The Dark Knight Rises?
This is a film some people have unhealthy amounts of nostalgia for. Now I know I just called The Dark Knight a dud, but holy crap, is this movie is a dud as well. So here's the entire story of Batman: The Joker does something, Batman goes "huh" and maybe punches someone. The Joker does something else, Batman goes "Hmm" and maybe punches someone. Repeat these two until in the end The Joker does something and Batman actually fucking shows up to punch him. For all that is good in it, from Jack Nicholson playing Jack Nicholson to Michael Keaton being as quiet and non-Keaton as possible to the poorly aged wardrobe, the film really just steps on a nail and never gets it out of it's heel with the script.
And I mean, seriously. Burton is not the guy you want making an action movie, and as a result, despite having a great many action scenes, Batman is not an action movie. All the action feels so weirdly soft and lacking in energy or movement that it's like watching, well, a poorly made Saturday morning cartoon. I find it very difficult to produce a decent amount of text out of a film that is as dull as this is. I enjoy it for being 80s-goofy with Prince songs and Jack Nicholson wanking about but nothing really pans out. Also, the romances in all four of these Burton-era movies are fucking awful and I wish not disclose it much more.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Whhho ish this Shean Chonnerhy you spheaak offf?
So here's one big mess of a movie. It sure is grand in scale. A whole city becomes the battleground for Batman and Bane. There are jets and shit flying around. Joseph-Gordon Levitt is like "Oooh I'm pretty" and then he saves some kids because, you know, kids matter. And all that is fine. Whenever The Dark Knight Rises explicitly showcases the rebellion of the lower classes of Gotham against their masters or just has Tom Hardy's Bane doing great speeches in his wonky Sean Connery -voice, it's downright enjoyable. And, as with The Dark Knight, there are individual scenes of splendor. The sewer fight, the jail break, that final fight even though it's really stupid how no one ever uses those guns they carry...
But then, when you take a step back from it, and look at the movie itself, it's weird. The first hour has this really smooth, sombre pace to it, and it's obviously easing you in to this new, Batman-less Gotham. But then the Bat is back and holy shit does it go into turbo-mode at that point. When Christian Bale throws the Bat-butt into those Bat-pants Chrissy Nolie seems to have completely forgotten how carefully he had constructed the plots of the prior two films, instead throwing us action scene after action scene without any logical explanation or reasoning behind them. Bane wants tons of money, so he walks into a building and suddenly it's been taken over. He wants to trap Gotham's police force into the sewers so they go into the sewers. He wants to... well, you get the point. It's all built on such ridiculous contrivances that it gets all too much after a point.
The score isn't helping with the messy feel, because when compared to The Dark Knight, the score in it's follow-up is basically akin to someone trying to do their best impression of what it was like last time around, except with a chant instead of that awful string chord. Then we get this really stupid twist in the end that basically nullifies Bane as a villain, who is throughout the film just changing as we see the same damn flashback with more and more modifications in it. Hardy does a terrific job especially when you take notion of the fact that he basically has no character because in every scene his background has changed and he acts accordingly. It's just a silly movie, and I kind of resent the Fight Club -esque implications it puts forth of all the "lower classes" as in fucking cleaners being ready to murder everyone who has more money the second someone hands them a gun.
Batman Returns (1992)
It's always sunny in Gotham!
Oh man, Tim Burton. This is also a complete mess, but I think it's a pretty entertaining, albeit completely brainless one. Danny DeVito plays The Penguin, and he is the very last person on earth I ever imagined would play a Batman-villain. But here he is, going as over the top as Jack Nicholson did, but this time with an actual character. I really sort of almost appreciate the lengths to which they really do have a character arc for not only The Penguin but also Michelle Pfeiffer's ridiculous Catwoman, but in the greater context of all the stupid shit that goes on in Batman Returns, it really doesn't work.
Because man, there is so much dumb in this movie I can't begin counting it. For one, the plot of The Penguin eventually becomes sending dynamite-ladden penguins to haunt the residents of Gotham. It's sort of a real stark contrast with how dark the movie is supposed to be when dealing with his character. The same could be said when he runs for mayor with the help of Christopher Walken and bites someone's nose off as a real weird form of comic relief. There's also a ton of scenes where Batman kills off bad guys while laughing about it, or bizzarely moody moments when clowns hang out in the snowy streets. This is a really messy movie, but it is that almost to the point where I can enjoy it.
Batman Forever (1995)
Get me Gary Busey!
Everyone knows this and Schumacher's other movie are complete shit-shows, so I don't feel the need to too harshly deconstruct them. That being said, I think there's actually a surprising amount of stupid fun to be had with Batman Forever. Primarily with Tommy Lee Jones and his portrayal of Two-Face, and the way he is written, that is. He is nothing. He is a single-note Machiavellian criminal who wants to get money while causing property damage. The movie starts with an absolutely hilarious scene where Jones, dangling from a helicopter, plans to rip out a vault from inside a bank and then transport it to a safe location, all the while maniacally laughing at the top of the vault. It's soooo stupid.
I also kind of like how they basically spit in the face of everything Two-Face is supposed to be, as every single time he flips the coin, if he doesn't get the result he wants, he just flips again. The Two-Faceyness of his being is strictly cosmetic. It almost feels like Schumacher and his production team just straight up wanted to give the middle finger to Bat-fans, but since Batman&Robin was clearly that, I don't know what they were thinking with this. Oh, this movie also has Robin. He sucks. But it's alright, because even Chris O'Donnell can out-act Val Kilmer, who appears to be in nothing short of a drunken stupor for the entire duration of this movie, as always.
Couldn't we get to Letterman?
I know I have used the word like fifty times by now in this list, but this is another messy Batman-movie. The melancholy of Part 1 has been disbanded as Jay Oliva seems eager to just get to the end of the book as soon as possible, adapting an even faster rhythm to his film than was present in the book. Everything happens at such a speed that Part 2 of The Dark Knight Returns feels like an all-too different continuation. Sure, when The Joker goes nuts and kills people, there's some impact due to the sheer random brutality he applies to the job, but that is literally it.
Jim Gordon's fate, all that goes down before and after The Joker, it's all bullshit. None of it seems to bear relevance and feels like it's there just because it was in the book. This especially holds true for everything involving Superman, who comes in basically out of nowhere and leaves about as abruptly. It's just such a disappointment, and leaves the feeling that all that care placed into Part 1 was everything they had on the preparation-side, and they just had to animate and produce this as quickly as possible to get it out there. This way we have one good Batman-animation and one bad Batman-animation. On one hand, that might be better than a single mediocre one.
Batman & Robin (1997)
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