I didn’t do an official count, but I am going to go out on a limb and say that Batman has had more movies made featuring him than any other comic book superhero. Over the years he’s been featured in both live action and animated films, wide release and direct to home video. Some of these films have been among the handful of movies I’ve enjoyed above all others, while others have been truly dreadful. When a character has been around as long as Batman, that’s bound to happen. He’s not only had great and terrible films made about him, but he’s also had great comic book stories and poor ones, fantastic television moments and truly embarrassing ones.
Recently though, it’s been mostly good films that have found their way to audiences worldwide. And I’m not just talking about the much praised Christopher Nolan directed projects, but also some of the smaller ones that never made it to theaters. Today we are on the eve of the release for the third and final film in the Nolan trilogy. You may have heard of it, it’s called The Dark Knight Rises and it figures to take in money hand over fist for the next several weeks and make the executives at Warner Bros. very happy, and even more wealthy than they already are. It probably doesn’t even have to be a good movie for it to be a cash cow, just look at the much maligned Spider-Man 3, which made more money than either of its two superior predecessors. Hype is a powerful thing.
As most are looking forward to The Dark Knight Rises I am looking back. I started to reflect on the films that came before it to feature Batman and decided it would be fun to make a top 10 list. For some only familiar with the live-action stuff, it may be surprising to know that there have been more than 10 Batman films made, but that man gets around. Truth be told, there are even a couple I haven’t seen such as the Batman Vs Dracula one that was taken from the The Batman universe. I just never got into that show as it was geared towards a younger audience but if someone thinks I’m really missing out on something special feel free to let me know in the comments section. Otherwise, let’s take a look at number 10…
10. Batman: The Movie
It was actually a tough call between this and Batman Forever. Batman Forever tends to get lumped in with Batman & Robin since they both share the same director. While Batman & Robin is one of the worst movies I’ve had the misfortune of seeing, Batman Forever is merely average. It’s quite different in tone from the Burton directed pictures, and whether that’s a good thing or not is a matter of taste. I’m not really a fan and I don’t think anyone who skips Batman Forever is really missing out, but it does contain an entertaining performance from Jim Carrey as The Riddler, even if he’s just playing the same screwball he was playing in every other movie at the time.
Batman The Movie, on the other hand, is a truly unique entry among the Batman films. Based on the television series starring Adam West, it’s basically the definition of camp. It exists purely to entertain movie-goers of all ages and never takes itself all that seriously (with the exception of Burt Ward’s rather intense portrayal of Robin, which is kind of an in-joke in and of itself). For fans of the show, this was like the ultimate as the best of Batman’s rogue’s galleries team up to take down the caped crusader. The plot is rather hokey, but the film isn’t short on laughs. Fans who take their Batman stories very seriously probably find this one off-putting, but this was more or less Batman in the 1960’s. The comics were geared towards six-year-olds and at least the television show made an attempt to appeal to adults as well which actually helped keep Batman relevant. This one’s a guilty pleasure and is placed here for nostalgic value, if nothing else.
9. Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman
Mystery of the Batwoman is the third feature length film based on Batman: The Animated Series and the second that was direct-to-video. It was the only one based on the relaunched version of the animated series which featured new character designs and improved animation. I prefer the style of the first three seasons as opposed to this one, but it’s not too off-putting. Mystery of the Batwoman is exactly what the title implies; a mystery story. There’s a new vigilante in town and Batman has to deduce the identity of this female who has borrowed his image. The film features a few “names” in prominent roles such as Kelly Ripa and Kyra Sedgwick while the usual cast is excellent, as always. The villains featured in the film include The Penguin and Bane and this mysterious Batwoman apparently has a bone to pick with them, among others. Not surprisingly, her methods are more ruthless than Batman’s which is what drives Batman to try and figure out her identity and put a stop to her activity. The film’s mystery proves to be pretty satisfying, and as a whole it’s an entertaining story. The minimalist production values tend to make it feel more like an extended episode of the show though which is why it doesn’t place higher.
8. Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero
SubZero is the second film based on The Animated Series and was the first to go direct-to-video. Unlike Mystery of the Batwoman, it’s production values are more on par with Mask of the Phantasm, the only animated Batman film to receive a true theatrical release. Mr. Freeze was a surprise star in the television show and it was clear that the writers really enjoyed working with him so it’s no surprise to see him receive the movie treatment. As was the case in the excellent episode “Heart of Ice,” Freeze is driven to crime in an effort to save his beloved wife, Nora, whom he has cryogenically frozen until he can find a way to cure her of the illness that threatens her life. Once again, the writing crew prove they’re up to the task of creating a worthwhile Mr. Freeze story but unfortunately the film sort of feels like an extended version of the “Heart of Ice” episode, and an inferior take. Despite feeling like a retread, it’s still an engaging film and I’d love to see more from Freeze in a future feature film.
7. Batman Returns
Tim Burton’s Batman was a huge success with movie goers when it was released in 1989, so a sequel was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Burton’s Batman brought the caped crusader back to his roots. The work of writers such as Neal Adams started to bring some semblance of maturity back to the character in the 70’s, while the work of Frank Miller in the 80’s really drove it home. This Batman, portrayed by popular comic actor Michael Keaton, was the strong silent type not interested in bantering with his foes. The first film featured an iconic performance from Jack Nicholson as The Joker, and the feeling going into Returns must have been more is better as the sequel featured three prominent villains. Fans were used to both The Penguin and Catwoman, but created for the film was Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck who is perhaps the film’s true villain. In keeping with the style of the first film, both Catwoman and Penguin feature unique designs that represented quite the departure from what fans were used to. Catwoman comes across as a cat-obsessed dominatrix while The Penguin is a truly hideous creature.
Perhaps Burton felt like the Batman character was explored and developed enough in the first film, because he’s kind of brushed aside here. The focus of the film is placed squarely on the villains as we learn what brought them to this state. Burton is also more comfortable here interjecting his brand of humor into the franchise, more so than he did with the first. Both The Penguin and Catwoman are pretty ridiculous, but the film plays them straight. It starts to fail though in the final act as even the most forgiving members of the audience will find it hard to accept an army of penguins packing serious heat. DeVitio (who actually received an undeserved Razzie nomination) and Pfeiffer are both memorable in their roles, but even they can’t carry a Batman movie that’s light on Batman. A fun, but ultimately flawed experience.
6. Batman: Under the Red Hood
I was pretty surprised to see Warner Bros. was releasing an animated Batman film that did not feature Kevin Conroy in the leading role, or would include The Joker but no Mark Hamill. To me, so long as neither actor is demanding an absurd wage for their services, Conroy and Hamill should be the voice of Batman and Joker, respectively, until they can no longer do it. That said, both Bruce Greenwood and John DiMaggio do an acceptable job as Batman and The Joker in Under the Red Hood, an animated film that adapts parts of popular comic plots such as “A Death in the Family,” “Hush,” and “Under the Hood.”
It’s that first story that attracted me to this direct-to-video feature and the one that made it most interesting. For those not in the know, “A Death in the Family” is the iconic story where Robin is murdered by The Joker. It was one of those rare stories where comics crossed over into the mainstream as it was a pretty big deal to see Robin go down. Under the Red Hood starts off like a mystery, but it’s one that is solved almost immediately. Batman and Nightwing (Neil Patrick Harris) both encounter the new vigilante/villain Red Hood and are unsure of his motives. He appears to be positioning himself as an adversary for crime boss Black Mask, and doing a good job of it. As I said, the mystery is revealed fairly early in the film, and the second act deals with Batman confronting this new foe. The animation is fluid and quite enjoyable to behold, and the opening scene featuring the murder of Robin is appropriately disturbing and graphic. The film’s signature scene though is not the death of the boy wonder, but the climax which features Batman, Red Hood, and The Joker in a memorable stand-off. The true motivation for the Red Hood is revealed and it serves as a believable and some-what heartbreaking reveal. It’s really that climax that pushes this one up to the position of number 6 on this list.
5. Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker
I’ve mentioned before how I wasn’t a believer when I first heard about Batman Beyond. It seemed too gimmicky and totally unnecessary; a cheap way to go after the younger crowd. Were there really no stories left to tell for Bruce Wayne? I was proven wrong though and Batman Beyond, while not as good as the series it followed, proved to be a worthwhile entry into the Batman canon. The Return of the Joker though, ended up being one of the best Batman stories every brought to animation which is something I don’t think anyone could have predicted.
One of Batman Beyond’s major weaknesses as a series was the absence the classic rogue’s gallery. A few good villains would be created to battle this new Batman, and even Mr. Freeze would make an appearance, but few could hold a candle to some of Batman’s most memorable foes. One who was missed perhaps the most was The Joker. How can you have Batman without The Joker? I think most fans suspected his presence would one day be felt, but as the actual Joker who terrorized Bruce Wayne’s Batman so long ago? That seemed crazy, but The Return of the Joker proved it could be done. Sure there was a sci-fi explanation for how The Joker could still be around and the film took some liberties in getting the audience to buy into the explanation, but at the end of the day, we were willing to believe anything if it meant the return of perhaps Batman’s greatest foe. And this Joker, once again played by Mark Hamill, is an even darker take on the character. He’s even more sadistic than before and kind of pissed off to boot. The production values are no better than an episode of the television series, but no one cares when the plot is this well executed. If I have one complaint with the film it’s that the final encounter between Batman and The Joker isn’t quite as satisfying as it probably should have been, but the film makes up for it by showing us the final confrontation between the original Batman and Joker which was just as excellent as it should have been.
4. Batman (1989)
I’ve already done a full review for this one, so I won’t get into too much detail here. Simply stated, this was the film that proved Batman could be a box office juggernaut and appeal to both kids and adults. Perhaps more so adults with this dark and gritty take on the caped crusader. The choice of Michael Keaton as Batman was much maligned at the time, but he easily won crowds over. The look of the film was particularly striking and would go on to influence The Animated Series in a major way. Jack Nicholson’s Joker was so good that, as hard as it may be to believe now, many people felt like no one could ever come close to matching it. This one may not hold up as well today when compared with the Nolan films, but this Batman is still pretty unique and the one most like the Dark Knight featured in Frank Miller’s work.
3. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Last year I dubbed Mask of the Phantasm as the definitive take on the character to make it to film. I also said that is not to be confused with best film to feature Batman. Mask of the Phantasm, quite simply, fully captures the essence of the character in a way that not even Christopher Nolan’s works can match. The film focuses on the early challenges faced by Bruce Wayne as he struggles with keeping to the promise he made to his deceased parents and the graveyard scene is the most memorable scene, for me, from any Batman film. I love this movie, so much that I made a full entry on it last year shortly after my verdict on the definitive Batman film. If you like Batman, you absolutely owe it to yourself to track this one down.
2. The Dark Knight
Considering the work done by the other directors and actors featured on this list, it’s pretty high praise to award the top two spots (yeah, that’s right, hope I didn’t ruin the surprise) to the team of Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale. Of course, The Dark Knight owes a great deal of its success to the late Heath Ledger who’s turn as The Joker is already one of the most memorable performances in a comic book movie to date. Batman Begins was a successful movie, but it wasn’t the massive hit The Dark Knight turned out to be. A great deal of that probably is due to the aura the film garnered after Ledger’s demise and word of mouth of the actor’s fantastic performance. It cannot be understated; Heath Ledger’s Joker is phenomenol!
That said, The Dark Knight is not a perfect movie. It’s certainly very good, excellent even, but Batman has seen better. Part of that is due to the same thing that harmed Batman Returns, which is a de-emphasis of the Batman character. Nolan explored Batman in great depth in Batman Begins, so he probably felt like that afforded him a lot of freedom with this picture. Nolan also approached this one as a crime drama and often cited the popular heist film Heat when discussing the picture. Batman still has a strong presence, as both himself and his alter ego Bruce Wayne, but the scenes with The Joker are just so good, so memorable, that they over-shadow the rest of the film.
I do find Bale’s performance to be noticeably worse in this one than the previous film. Some of that is some quentionable dialogue in the script, but a big piece of it is the dreaded bat voice. In Batman Begins, Bale uses a lower and slightly throaty voice when speaking as Batman. In The Dark Knight, the voice is almost distorted and Batman sounds like he’s auditioning for a death metal band. It doesn’t work, especially when Batman is asked to have full conversations with characters, and really detracts from many of the film’s most critical scenes. I also feel like the Two-Face part of the story was rushed and the resolution still leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
Criticisms aside, you can’t be number 2 on this list and be a bad film. The Dark Knight is an engrossing crime flick and is tremendously entertaining. Its faults are forgivable, and its biggest fault is that it’s just not as good as the number one film on this list.
1. Batman Begins
When Christopher Nolan was brought on to reboot the Batman franchise many people had no idea what to expect. Nolan, at that time, was best known for Memento, a really cool and engaging film but not one that could easily be applied to the Batman franchise. The often rumored to be in development Batman 5 never got off the ground, and Warner Bros. wisely decided to distance itself from the catastrophe that was Batman & Robin.
A fresh start is really what the doctor ordered, and by doing so it gave Nolan a chance to do what no director had really done before: tell a complete origin story. Batman Begins is exactly what Batman needed. The film goes into meticulous detail to explain to the audience how Batman came to be and what truly motivates him. His morals and methods are fully defined for the first time and the film is focused fully on Batman with no villain to steal the spotlight. Nolan’s universe is grounded and absent of most of the characters we’re used to seeing which gives the film it’s own sense of authenticity. Christian Bale proves to be worthy of dawning the cape and cowl, but some of the supporting cast really steal the show. Michael Caine is perfectly cast as Alfred, the closest thing to a maternal figure Bruce has, and Gary Oldman is easily my favorite actor to portray Jim Gordon. Rachel Dawes, an assistant to Gotham’s D.A. and childhood friend to Bruce, is created to help the Bruce Wayne character feel more real. Played by Katie Holmes, she’s a strong female type that actually works pretty well in that role. My only major complaint with the film is when they try to force a romantic undertone to Rachel and Bruce’s relationship which just lacks any chemistry and feels unnecessary.
Batman Begins is the best Batman film created thus far. It just hits all of the right notes and I still get chills when I watch the film’s final scene. Will it remain the best? As I sit and type this up we are just over 3 hours away from the release of The Dark Knight Rises. I have intentionally avoided all press related to the film. I do not know how it has been received by critics, I do not intend to speak to anyone tomorrow about it as I want to experience it in a pure way to form my own opinions. I’ve never taken a film this serious, and I’m not sure why I am now. I think it’s because I just haven’t been excited by the few trailers I’ve seen or the concepts I’ve heard that the film is supposed to contain. I fear I’m already approaching it with too much of an opinion, and I want to distance myself from that. I have tickets to see it in IMAX this Sunday, and I’ll try to post a review that night for anyone who is interested. Regardless, I fully expect this trilogy of Batman movies to be among the best trilogies comic book fans, or movie fans in general, have ever received. I doubt very much it will top Batman Begins as a stand-alone experience, but so long as it’s on par that’s all anyone can ask for.