The Definitive Batman Film

It's taken awhile, but on October 18th the greatest Batman story ever told makes its way to animation.

On the eve of the latest Batman film release (and video game), I thought it would be fun to look back at the films that have already been released.  After all, it wouldn’t be much fun to try and determine what the best Batman video game is considering most have been subpar.  It would be Arkham Asylum with a runner up of….?  I guess there were some okay 16 bit games, but nothing mind blowing.  It sounds like the soon to be released Arkham City is just as good so at least Asylum will have some company on the rather short good Batman video game list.

Arkham City will be the Batman related item that moves the most units tomorrow, but not to be forgotten is the direct to DVD feature film Batman: Year One.  Year One is of course an adaptation of the popular comic seres by Frank Miller that ran in the late 80’s.  Year One is perhaps the most celebrated Batman mini series, and certainly is the definitive take on the caped crusader’s origin.  Many elements from the plot of the book was incorporated into Batman Begins and, to a lesser extent, the animated series.  I’m curious how well it will hold up considering Batman’s origin has become a well told tale over the years.  As great as the book was, do we really need another origin story?  That fact alone will likely make it problematic to review as it will be hard to judge the film on its own merits.

Regardless, Batman has had his origin told many times to varying degrees of success over the years.  Plenty of other stories have also made it to film in either a live action medium or an animated one.  There’s been some great Batman movies, and there’s also been some stinkers, but which one is the definitive Batman movie?  There are quite a few contenders, so lets start whittling them down.

Let’s start with the first, often referred to as Batman: The Movie based on the television series staring Adam West in the titular role.  As entertaining as the movie can be, lets throw it out right away as the definitive Batman flick because it is not at all representative of the character.  Charming, but no Batman.

Yeah it's not Bruce Wayne in the costume, but this movie is not one to be missed.

Animation should not be discounted just because it’s not live action, which seems to command more respect in the US, and Batman has had some great animated portrayals.  One of those excellent features is Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker.  What could have easily been written off as a marketing gimmick turned out to be a nice series and the direct to video film was the high point for the Batman Beyond franchise.  As good as it is, it’s not a true portrayal of the Bruce Wayne character, so it’s out of the running.  If you haven’t seen it though, check it out.  It can likely be had for a few bucks on the second-hand market.

Two other animated features that skipped theaters include SubZero and Mystery of the Batwoman.  SubZero focuses on the villain Mr. Freeze, a villain failed by the comic books until Bruce Timm and Paul Dini got a hold of him and made him a truly tragic villain.  The film is a good one, but is over-shadowed by the stand-alone episode from the animated series “Heart of Ice.”  Mystery of the Batwoman puts Batman into the role of detective, something the films have a tendency to gloss over at times.  It’s a fun little title, but not really noteworthy.  It’s out.

Lastly, two other films can be written off right away, and I’m talking about the two Joel Schumacher directed features Batman Forever and Batman and Robin.  Batman and Robin was a mess with a bloated cast and oppressive visual style.  It’s a wretched abortion of a film and one of the worst pieces of crap I’ve ever had the misfortune of watching.  Batman Forever is merely subpar.  By comparison with its sequel, it’s positively exquisite.  It did have some fans, notably Roger Ebert who didn’t enjoy any of the other Tim Burton produced/directed films, but I hesitate to say it’s good.  It certainly isn’t memorable, and was another Burton helmed project that put most of the focus on the villains and not on the Batman character.

If you’re keeping count, that leaves us with six feature films to choose from:  Batman, Batman Returns, Mask of the Phantasm, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and Under the Red Hood.  This is where things get tricky.

Michael Keaton - still my favorite Batman.

First of all, to be the definitive Batman film it has to focus a lot of its attention on the Batman character.  Three of the above mentioned films are origin stories, so Batman, Batman Begins, and Mask of the Phantasm are all up for consideration.  The Dark Knight spends a lot of time on the Joker, but unlike Burton’s Batman, the character doesn’t dominate the screen.  He’s actually not on screen as much as you probably remember, but his presence is felt all throughout the film.  While it’s not an origin tale, TDK does deal with an important part of the Batman character, namely the issue of escalation and how to deal with it.  Under the Red Hood is similar in that it focuses on an important aspect of Batman, how he deals with his greatest failure, the death of Robin.  The film that doesn’t really tell us much about Batman is the second Burton directed picture, Batman Returns.  In that, the villains dominate the landscape and while we learn Bruce is a bit lonely, there’s not a whole lot there.  The lack of acting for the character is what drove Michael Keaton away from the role.  The film is still entertaining, but the definitive Batman?  No way.

The next one to fall out of contention is Under the Red Hood.  While it does a good job of combining aspects of classic tales like A Death in the Family and The Killing Joke, it doesn’t quite hit it out of the park.  The mystery of the film is solved pretty quickly by anyone with half a brain, but the climax of the film is pretty spectacular, it’s the getting to that point that is less so.  The film kind of meanders a bit and stalls out before recovering.  I also felt that there could have been even more exposition on the part of Batman and insight into how he coped with Robin’s death.  It’s a good film, and wonderfully animated, and it was also nice to see some new voice actors take on Batman and the Joker.  It is not, however, the definitive Batman movie.

And then there were four…

I did a rather exhaustive review on Batman several months ago.  To summarize, I found it to be a good film that had an interesting take on the character.  This Batman was more vengeful and less honorable than other portrayals.  And while the Joker may have dominated a large chunk of the movie, Batman’s origin story was presented well, though with the odd twist that the Joker was the man responsible for the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne.  The film is also noteworthy for setting a few trends for later movies, namely the black armored costume worn by Batman.  The more realistic take would be used in every live-action film to follow, as would Batman’s arsenal of “wonderful toys.”

The only Batman film to receive two thumbs up by At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert. Surprised?

Mask of the Phantasm may be the most criminally under-appreciated Batman movie of all time.  For a long time, the hardcore crowd would cite this as their favorite Batman movie and it also received a two thumbs up approval from critics Siskel and Ebert.  It was released on the big screen, and had modest success.  It told another version of Batman’s origin, and even showed us how close Bruce came to giving up the cape and cowl in a truly great scene where he falls to his knees at his parents’ grave begging for forgiveness.  His motivation is for love, as he tells his parents he never expected to be happy again when he made the promise to avenge their deaths.  Unfortunately for Bruce, as is often the case, things don’t work out with his love interest.  All of these details are presented through flashbacks as Batman tries to figure out the identity of a new villain, the mysterious Phantasm.  I have some complaints with the film, but they’re mostly superficial.  One is the Phantasm doesn’t have a very strong presence in the film, but that’s mostly due to time constraints.  Another is that the animators take a lot of liberties in how the Phantasm is portrayed in order to protect the character’s identity.  The reveal scene comes across a little funny as a result.  Mostly though, the film just plain works and Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are forever etched into my brain as the voice of Batman and Joker.  There’s also a different take on the Joker’s origin shown which is kind of cool.  Or at least, it shows the Joker before he became the Joker.

Batman Begins is the much celebrated beginning of the Christopher Nolan trilogy set to conclude with The Dark Knight Rises next summer.  If Burton’s Batman could be criticized for focusing too much on the Joker, Nolan’s could be criticized for not establishing a truly compelling villain for Batman to battle.  The origin presented is exhaustive and focuses on all of the aspects the other films ignored.  This mostly included Bruce’s training in the far east under Ra’s al Ghul and his early exploits in the Batman costume.  We get to see everything that lead to Batman’s creation with an incredible attention to detail.  Nolan covers everything, and Christian Bale helps erase the stain of George Clooney (though I still prefer Keaton).  As I mentioned though, the villains come up a bit short and I’ve never really been sold on the Tumbler as the new Batmobile.  As an origin tale though, it is perhaps unrivaled.

"Bat voice" aside, Bale has proven himself a capable Dark Knight.

The Dark Knight is without question Batman’s greatest box office triumph.  Most of the films based on Batman have done well, but nothing like The Dark Knight.  A lot of that success is due to Heath Ledger’s Joker, a truly charismatic and effective portrayal of the clown prince of crime that delighted seemingly everyone.  It’s hard to imagine that people were wondering if he could top Nicholson’s Joker, but Ledger practically erased that character from existence.  The movie is big, and the plot remains interesting through to the end.  There are some minor quibbles to be had though.  One, Bale’s “bat voice” seems worse this time around compared with Begins.  It’s distracting and should be axed for the new movie.  Another is the rush-job placed on Two Face.  Such a great villain really deserved his own film.  The portrayal wasn’t bad, but felt wasted.  As a Batman character study, we see just how far the character will go and what ends justify the means.  It raises good questions about just how intimidating Batman can be when he’s not willing to really bust up the bad guys.

Another worthy debate, best Joker: Nicholson, Ledger, or Hamill?

Four great films, and not just great Batman films at that.  How do I narrow it down from here?  It won’t be easy as an argument can really be made for each, but one to me clearly has the weakest argument of the four.  Three of these films deal with Batman’s origin story, and the one that comes up short is the inaugural Batman from 1989.  This origin story was unique, for sure, but the changes made don’t really suit the character.  I’m talking mostly about the whole Joker as the killer angle.  It helped add more emotion to the main conflict of the film, but forced the film into killing off Batman’s greatest villain!  A true shame as the sequels could have used him, though Warner Brothers likely had zero interest in paying Nicholson for a sequel.  It was a good movie for the time and integral in moving Batman away from his more kid-friendly persona established by the television series, but it’s been topped.

As great as The Dark Knight is, I’m afraid it too has to go.  If we’re looking to establish what is the definitive Batman film, I feel an origin story is always going to have a leg-up on anything else.  Something emotionally heavy like the death of Robin could perhaps have trumped it, but not the death of Rachel Dawes.  A fantastic film and one of my all-time favorites, but it’s not the definitive Batman film.

So that leaves two.  The animated and surprisingly emotive Mask of the Phantasm and the fantastic rebirth of the character in Batman Begins.  Mask of the Phantasm has the whole animation stigma working against it.  I personally view both mediums with equal weight, but it can’t be ignored that the animation isn’t particularly jaw-dropping.  What works for TV is a little less impressive on the big screen.  Still, the animators do a great job of portraying emotion and the quality of the voice acting is phenomenal.  Begins has a strong cast, and features great direction.  The origin of Batman is extremely well told, as is the origin for soon to be Commissioner Gordon.  It’s unfortunate how The Dark Knight kind of overshadows it now, as I’ve rarely had a better movie going experience than when I watched this one for the first time.

I suppose the easy way out would be to say there are two definitive Batman movies, one live action and one animated.  There’s no conclusion in that though, and I hate cop-outs.  Maybe it’s the contrarian in me, but I feel the definitive Batman film is…

Mask of the Phantasm.

The origin story is perfectly told, not in terms of specificity but in how it shapes the Batman character.  It is the only Batman movie to effectively use a romantic interest for Bruce that enhances the picture, and doesn’t feel like something that was included because a director felt Batman needed a love interest.  And as much as I like Begins, I’m not sure I ever truly buy into the fact that I’m watching Batman.  When I watch Mask of the Phantasm though, I know I’m watching Batman.  Animated or not, this is Batman how he’s supposed to be and if you’ve ignored this movie or forgotten about it, you’re missing out.

5 responses to “The Definitive Batman Film

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