Friday, April 1, 2022

Top Ten Things: Batman Theatrical Films, RANKED

Welcome to a special edition of Top Ten Things, here at Enuffa.com!


Now that the dust is starting to settle following the release of Matt Reeves' buzzworthy new take on the Caped Crusader it's time for fanboys like me to do what we do - place The Batman in an opinion-laced Top Ten list.  It's clear from the varied big-screen (and small-screen) adaptations, not to mention the gamut-running comic book takes on the character, that the Batman mythos is simply the most thematically and atmospherically rich superhero lore ever created.  Over 80 years after the vigilante in the cowl and cape first swung onto the pages of Detective Comics, fans and creators alike are still dissecting his dual personas and his unparalleled rogues gallery, and as The Batman's impressive box office receipts show, there's still a healthy public appetite for all things Gotham.  

So let's get after it, shall we?  I've ranked the fourteen theatrically-released Batman feature films but left out 2016's Suicide Squad since Bats only had a cameo in that one, and 2019's Joker since we only see Bruce Wayne as a boy.  Man, looking over this list and how different the various interpretations are it's hard to believe these are all about the same character....




14. Batman & Robin


Yup, 25 years later Joel Schumacher's second and (thankfully) final Batman film is still the worst of the bunch.  In fact it's possibly the worst movie I've ever seen.  Had it been written as a straight-up satire like its primary inspiration (Batman '66 and its companion TV series), it might've at least worked as a tongue-in-cheek sendup.  But tonally it couldn't decide whether it was trying to be that or an earnest summer blockbuster, and it failed to work as either one.  George Clooney (widely considered the worst-ever onscreen Batman) looks like he'd rather be working on any other project.  Arnold Schwarzenegger's dialogue consists almost entirely of bad puns.  Chris O'Donnell provides Exhibit A in the Why Robin Doesn't Work as a Film Character trial.  Alicia Silverstone gets shoehorned into this film, painfully morphing her Clueless character into an action heroine.  Only Uma Thurman's performance can be described as successful, as she somehow finds the balance between campy cartoon and femme fatale.  B&R nearly ended Batman as a cinematic property, underwhelming at the box office and drawing the ire of fans and critics to the point that its intended sequel was scrapped and Warner Brothers went eight years before releasing a new Bat-movie.  As my wife once described it while I was hate-watching Batman & Robin on TV one Saturday afternoon, "This is what a Batman movie would be like if a ten-year-old wrote it."  Absolute drivel, this film.




13. Justice League (Whedon cut)


Faring not much better is DC's half-assed answer to Marvel's massively successful Avengers saga, an intended tentpole film the studio rushed headlong to get to, despite having no real plan and certainly no real patience.  Man of Steel unwittingly served as DC's shared universe springboard, BvS hastily introduced the rest of the Justice League without giving people a reason to care about them, and Wonder Woman became the one truly successful piece of the DCEU.  But then came the main event, all but derailed when director Zack Snyder abruptly left the project after the death of his stepdaughter.  The studio, still desperate to deliver their Avengers counterpart for a November 2017 release, brought in the guy who'd helmed the first two actual Avengers films, even though tonally Joss Whedon and Zack Snyder could not be more different.  In answer to (very valid) criticisms that Batman v Superman was too dark and devoid of fun, Whedon was instructed to bring levity and a lighter color palette to Justice League, reshooting over half the existing footage (complete with the world's worst CG effect to cover Henry Cavill's moustache).  The result was a terribly uninteresting tonal smorgasbord with garishly fake-looking special effects, very poor performances, and amateurish color timing.  The theatrical cut of Justice League somehow managed to be the least successful DCEU entry in the entire series, despite its original purpose as the big team-up event picture.  See what happens when you don't plan these things out?  



12. Batman: The Movie


The first-ever feature-length Batman movie was conceived as a way to drum up interest in the TV series and was released in between the latter's first two seasons.  The filmmakers kept the TV show's campy, near-satirical tone and loaded up the film with Batman's four biggest enemies, The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin and Catwoman.  The cultural impact of this film and the series itself is of course nearly unparalleled in comic book lore; so many of its hallmarks still live in our lexicon.  But is the movie itself any good?  I guess as a bit of low-budget, silly fun it succeeds, but at the same time it doesn't hold my attention all that well.  It plays almost as a cartoonish answer to 60s James Bond films, with goofy gadgets, convoluted terrorist plots, and clunky action.  This film has aged similarly to some of the old Saturday morning cartoons - they were amusing at the time but watching them now is just kind of cringe-inducing.  Kind of appropriate I suppose, since 1960s Batman was intended to be a cartoon brought to life.  




11. Batman Forever


1992's Batman Returns brought in slightly disappointing box office revenues and its overly dark tone upset some parents at the time, so for the third entry in this series the studio opted for a lighter, more popcorny approach.  Tim Burton was replaced in the director's chair by Joel Schumacher, Michael Keaton's brooding take on the character was replaced by Val Kilmer's slightly less-brooding take, and Hollywood "it-guy" Jim Carrey provided zany comedy as the film's primary villain The Riddler.  Batman Forever also introduced a new big-screen version of Batman's sidekick Robin, recast Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey Dent (taking over for Billy Dee Williams in perhaps the first instance of cinematic white-RE-washing?), and put more emphasis on action set pieces to excite kids and sell more toys.  I must confess, as a 19-year-old seeing Batman Forever on opening night, I really enjoyed it.  The action sequences felt more kinetic and crisp than in the two Burton films, Jim Carrey was fun to watch, and I was excited to finally see a movie version of Two-Face.  Then I went to see it a second time and the cracks began to show.  The dialogue was even clunkier and more dumbed-down than in the first two films, Val Kilmer lacked Michael Keaton's natural sardonic charm, Tommy Lee Jones was essentially channeling Cesar Romero's Joker instead of playing Two-Face, and the film overcompensated in its tonal shift from Burton's Expressionist weirdness to the 1960s TV series.  Batman Forever is a classic example of a popcorn movie that should be viewed once and once only.  It's not good.
  



10. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice


For my full take on BvS, click HERE

Batman v Superman has to be considered the most controversial big-screen Batman film thus far.  On one side you have the Snyder Bros, who insist that it's some kind of artistic masterwork (Yes, a whole contingent of fans think a film ending with Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman vs. Giant Space Monster is art), and on the other you have everyone else, who see it for the joyless, ponderous, languid schlock-posing-as-art that it is.  For one thing, this should never have been a direct sequel to Man of Steel (which for the record I absolutely hated, but at least it was an honest, standalone Supes reboot born of a director's creative vision).  The studio was so desperate to match Marvel's success they rushed right to a team-up film instead of continuing to explore Zack Snyder's new take on Krypton's favorite son.  Nope, gotta add Batman because Batman = money, and let's toss Wonder Woman in there too even though the film audience has never been properly introduced to her.  And since The Dark Knight Returns and Superman: Doomsday are famous comic books, let's shove a ton of imagery from those into the picture as well.  The result was an overstuffed, meandering mope-fest of a film that, despite repeated fan claims, wasn't improved by adding thirty extra minutes to the "Ultimate Cut."  BvS was effectively DC's answer to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, in which our titular characters don't meet until two-thirds of the way in and their highly anticipated fight is over in scant minutes.  The film's editing lacks any narrative flow, its dual protagonists lack any pathos, and its actual villains are right out of 1950s B-movie sci-fi (Mad scientist combines his own blood with alien man to create giant alien monster who shoots lightning bubbles).  Ben Affleck as Batman is easily the best thing about BvS, and he still pales in comparison to Christian Bale and Michael Keaton (and now Robert Pattinson).  The Snyder fan outcry for a solo Batfleck film is simultaneously sad and funny.  Let's sum up BvS thusly: when the most memorable imagery in your movie was lifted from Frank Miller's artwork, you've made yourself a crappy movie.   




9. Batman Returns


Tim Burton's second Batman film can scarcely be called a Batman film at all.  Despite his top billing, Michael Keaton's only onscreen for about 25% of the movie's two hours, and it's clear Burton was far more interested in its two supervillains than in its protagonist.  One could make the case that the story's real arc belongs to Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman/Selina Kyle, and fortunately for this movie she's the best part of it.  As Selina she is mousey and awkward, and as her...I guess undead persona (Why Burton felt the need to literally give Catwoman nine lives is beyond me) Pfeiffer is sensual and strong, combining 1940s film noir vamp with assertive 90s heroine.  I suppose it makes sense that Pfeiffer got so much screen time and the most dynamic arc since the plan was to spin her off into her own film.  Sadly for Burton though, Batman Returns disappointed at the box office and WB execs and loads of parents were turned off by its dark eccentricity.  It does owe more to German Expressionism than to comic books; Christopher Walken's character is called Max Schreck (after Nosferatu) and has a shock of poofy gray hair, a la the mad scientist in Metropolis, while iconic comic book villain The Penguin was changed from a portly, slightly comedic character to a repulsive, aquatic bird-man whose look was clearly inspired by Dr. Caligari.  And that brings me to Danny Devito as Oswald Cobblepot - Devito does very well with what he's given.  Unfortunately he's given way too much.  The Penguin gets more screen time than any other character in this film, and instead of being compelling or very sympathetic, he's mostly just unpleasant.  When a plurality of your superhero film is spent on a character who's repulsive to be around, it kinda drags the whole film down.  I admire aspects of Batman Returns - the aforementioned Michelle Pfeiffer performance and the film's homage to German Expressionism (I'm a huge fan of the genre) - but overall it just doesn't come together as a good film, and certainly not as a good Batman film.

  


8. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm


I actually just watched this movie for the first time this week, and liked it pretty well.  I admired its 1940s film noir roots (as I do with the animated TV series) and its mystery storyline.  I liked that we got to see some flashbacks involving Bruce Wayne inventing his vigilante persona, and actually would've enjoyed seeing more of that.  I appreciated its influence on later films like Batman Begins (the little spiky grenade things Bruce uses for example).  I admired how they wove the Joker into the plot and gave him a tidbit of character backstory as a mob goon.  Where the movie didn't land for me was in the execution of the Phantasm character, who can appear and disappear seemingly at will in a cloud of smoke.  I get that it's a cartoon and the character is supposed to *appear* supernatural, but at the end of the day there needs to be some sort of worldly explanation; it is a Batman film after all.  But in the movie's finale the Phantasm (revealed to be Bruce's old flame Andrea Beaumont) incapacitates Joker and the two of them vanish in a puff of smoke before Batman can stop her.  Uhh, where'd they go?  Then in the epilogue Andrea is shown leaving Gotham.  Ok, what happened to Joker?  Did she kill him?  He did appear on the TV show after this, right?  I was with this movie until the climax, and then felt cheated.  That said, the overall storyline was smarter than any of the live-action Batman films up until Christopher Nolan arrived on the scene.  A decent little Bat-film for the most part.




7. Zack Snyder's Justice League


Full review HERE

Alright here's the surprise hit of the list for me.  As someone who hated (HATED) Man of Steel, pitied Batman v Superman, and was bored senseless by the shit show that was Joss-tice League, I had no interest whatsoever in seeing Zack Snyder's "original vision" for Justice League brought to life.  But I figured I should see what the fuss was about, and four hours later I was shocked how much I enjoyed it.  Unlike every other Snyder-helmed DCEU entry, this film made me care about these characters in a substantial way, particularly the newly introduced Justice League members, and somehow made Superman likable in his resurrected form.  The team's quest to bring him back to life was given weight and urgency here, and while the central plot about a supervillain collecting relics to take over the world is virtually a carbon copy of the Thanos arc, it's handled so much better here than in Joss Whedon's version.  The action sequences are fun to watch, unlike in MOS and BvS, and also unlike those two films this one finds a real tonal balance between heaviness and levity.  For a movie I had no interest in, ZSJL delivered quite well and served as a good payoff to a bad setup.  The multiple endings should've been scrapped though, since they aren't leading to anything.




6. The LEGO Batman Movie


What a fun love letter to the Batman universe.  2014's The LEGO Movie was an unexpected comedy/animation classic, in no small part thanks to the inclusion of the Caped Crusader as one of its main characters.  Voiced with tongue firmly in cheek by Will Arnett, this Batman thinks way too highly of himself and has way too much fun saving the day without help from anyone.  He so thoroughly stole the show in that film that the producers gave him a starring vehicle, exploring these character traits in much more depth.  After foiling The Joker for the thousandth time and insisting their yin-yang relationship means nothing to him (Joker is delightfully insecure and needy in this film), Batman is forced to confront his buried loneliness after adopting young Dick Grayson, while Joker lures Bats into sending him to the Phantom Zone so he can unleash all its prisoners on the city.  The LEGO Batman Movie takes the same satirical approach as its predecessor but with even more spectacular animated set pieces, making use of numerous other Warner Brothers properties like Voldemort, Sauron, King Kong, etc.  The result is a thrillingly entertaining animated Batman feature that kids the material while still capturing its spirit.




5. Batman (1989)


For my full take on Batman '89 click HERE

It's the big-screen Batman adaptation that changed superhero movies as we know them, Tim Burton's 1989 mega-blockbuster starring Jack Nicholson as The Joker and Michael Keaton as the world's unlikeliest Batman.  If you weren't around when this movie came out it's hard to describe just how huge a deal it was; Batmania swept the nation like never before, with diehard and casual comic book fans coming together to celebrate a brand new, much darker onscreen take than anyone was used to at the time.  Keep in mind all we had for superhero adaptations prior to this film were the campy 1960s Batman fare, the melodrama-heavy Incredible Hulk TV series, and the delightfully old-fashioned Superman film series.  For a superhero film to be this dark and noir-influenced was nigh unheard of.  Complicating matters was the unexpected, outside-the-box casting of slightly-built comic actor Michael Keaton in the title role, which initially drew widespread outrage.  But of course Keaton defied expectations and proved himself a very worthy Batman/Bruce Wayne, finding tortured complexity in both personas and creating a lasting template for the character.  And of course in 1989 no one would accept anyone BUT Nicholson as the Clown Prince of Crime; this was a true casting coup at the time.  This movie plays somewhat clunky by today's standards - action has never been Tim Burton's directorial strong suit and the dialogue is often unwieldy - but as a piece of late 80s nostalgia Batman '89 is still a fun watch and its significance as a pop culture phenomenon can't be overstated.




4. The Dark Knight Rises


The final installment in Christopher Nolan's vaunted Dark Knight trilogy is by pretty much all accounts its weakest - overly long, overfilled, and hampered by pacing issues.  But it's also a damn worthy conclusion to one of the great film trilogies, boasting excellent performances (except for Aidan Gillen's in the opening scene - sorry, that was cringe), thrilling action set pieces, and fine storytelling on a grand scale.  Christian Bale shines once again in the dual Bruce Wayne/Batman role in a film where the character must overcome his gravest mental and physical challenges, having finally met someone even more imposing than he is.  Tom Hardy shines in a purely physical performance, masked for the film's entire running time, yet conveying so much with his eyes, body language and voice.  Anne Hathaway makes a slinky, elegant Selina Kyle, providing a different kind of match for Bruce.  At 165 minutes, the film explores themes of income inequality, the toxicity of futile hope, and heroic sacrifice, playing out almost like a war epic.  Yes, TDKR has too many new characters and is too front-loaded, and yes the central conflict is too similar to that of Batman Begins, but as Return of the Jedi was to the Star Wars trilogy, TDKR is to this one - a satisfying, if messy conclusion.




3. Batman Begins


In 2005 the superhero film genre got a major shakeup, in the form of Christopher Nolan's bold, grounded new take on the Batman mythos, centered around a true origin story for its title character.  Where Tim Burton's film only hinted at what moved Bruce Wayne to don the cape and cowl and fight crime in the streets, Batman Begins gave Bruce a fully realized motivation and showed him inventing the Batman persona as he went along.  The film's setting was also completely reimagined; this iteration of Gotham is a living, breathing city, rife with corruption and crime at every level, under siege by both the mob and Bruce's former associates in the League of Shadows, the latter using the former as a reason to destroy Gotham from the inside out.  Christian Bale plays Bruce as a complex, three-dimensional figure, making us care just as much about his true identity as his masked alter-ego.  Thus Batman's exploits in this film take on much more gravitas than in previous versions.  Nolan bathes Gotham in an Earthy, sepia-toned palette and shows us the most viscerally fearsome Batman to date, a creature of the night who terrorizes criminals and comes and goes seemingly at will.  Gone were the cheeseball trappings of the Schumacher films and the Expressionistic strangeness of the Burton films; this was a sophisticated, real-world, grown-up Batman for a new era.

   


2. The Batman


For my full review click HERE

If Christopher Nolan's Batman films grounded its universe in realism, Matt Reeves' The Batman took that philosophy even further, presenting Gotham as the setting for a 1970s-style neo-noir murder mystery.  Taking inspiration from William Friedkin, Roman Polanski and especially David Fincher, Reeves places Batman at the center of a police procedural as the city's richest and most powerful figures are being offed by a serial killer calling himself The Riddler.  Throughout the film the crazed assassin leaves clues at his various crime scenes for Batman and his de facto partner Lt. Jim Gordon to solve, and we get to see Batman's detection skills front and center for the first time in a film adaptation.  Only two years into his one-man crusade against crime, Bruce Wayne is tortured, driven by vengeance, and addicted to the drug of being Batman to the point that he all but ignores his civic duties as one of Gotham's most privileged citizens.  Shot in oppressive rain and shadows on old-fashioned, shallow-focus anamorphic lenses, The Batman is without a doubt the most immersive, visually striking Bat-film to date.  The audience is thrust into the gritty, murky Gotham underworld as Batman begins to uncover the city's most scandalous secrets, some of which strike very close to home.  The acting is fantastic; Robert Pattinson perfectly captures the inner turmoil of the character, while Paul Dano is at his most gloriously unhinged as The Riddler and Zoe Kravitz gives us the most sultry, most fully-realized, best onscreen Catwoman we've ever seen.  The Batman is not only the first of an intended film trilogy but also a springboard for numerous HBO series exploring this deeply layered version of Gotham City.  With this latest Bat-film, Matt Reeves has fashioned a three-hour crime epic and a comic book-inspired masterwork.




1. The Dark Knight


But of course, no Batman film discussion would be complete without Christopher Nolan's near-perfect second Bat-film.  Released in 2008, The Dark Knight blew the doors off cinemas and became at the time the second-highest-grossing film in domestic box office history.  Another Batman adaptation that isn't so much a superhero movie but a crime epic (with Shakespearean overtones), The Dark Knight depicts Christian Bale's still-inexperienced vigilante being tested to his core by an agent of chaos, in the form of a clown-faced psychopath called The Joker.  Brought to startling life by the late, great Heath Ledger, this incarnation of The Joker is one of the all-time iconic screen villains, cackling and maniacal but somehow always one step ahead of our protagonists.  But the film's central arc belongs not to Batman or Joker, but recently-elected District Attorney Harvey Dent, Gotham City's first true ray of hope in decades.  Played by Aaron Eckhart in a wonderfully tragic performance, Dent becomes the stand-in for the entire city in Batman and Joker's Faustian conflict - Batman tries to encourage in Dent an adherence to his good side, while The Joker intends to prove even the best of humanity can be corrupted and pushed to the point of murder.  The Dark Knight cuts a ferocious pace from its first frame and never lets up, its storytelling mirroring the chaos Joker unleashes on the city, and culminating in both of Gotham's heroes being brought down.  Harvey Dent becomes a heartbreakingly tragic figure, scarred physically and psychologically, while Batman is forced to ruin his own reputation to save Harvey's.  This is not only the greatest Batman film, but the greatest comic book film, and one of the great crime dramas.  The Dark Knight stands head and shoulders above the rest (and likely always will).


And there's my Bat-list!  Comment below with your thoughts!  


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