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Batman: The Animated Series – “Beware the Gray Ghost”

Beware-the-gray-ghostEpisode Number:  18

Original Air Date:  November 4, 1992

Directed by:  Boyd Kirkland

Written by:  Dennis O’Flaherty, Tom Ruegger

First Appearance(s):  The Gray Ghost, The Mad Bomber

I’m on record as saying “Heart of Ice” is the best episode of Batman: The Animated Series, but “Beware the Gray Ghost” is its most charming. It was presumably a lot of fun to write and produce this one and it’s definitely a ton of fun to watch. Before Tim Burton and before this series, most people knew Batman through syndicated runs of the 1960s television series, Batman. That show, and it’s accompanying movie, is how many fans fell in love with the character and presumably how a lot of the folks who worked on this show fell in love with Batman. This episode is all about meeting your caped crusader idol, and for most people watching in 1992 that was Adam West who returns to the Batman franchise for this episode as the voice of Simon Trent, better known as the Gray Ghost.

When Bruce Wayne was a kid, his favorite show was The Gray Ghost. The Gray Ghost was a vigilante character who resembled The Shadow, and naturally Batman shares a lot in common with him as well. We see young Bruce watching an episode unfold on television while his father looks on. Quick cuts jump us to the present where Batman is watching a bombing take place, the action and setup for each shot mirroring that of the episode of The Gray Ghost taking place in the past. It’s a fun piece of editing and the setup for the episode.

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Young Bruce and his dad taking in an episode of The Gray Ghost.

Several bombings have taken place in and around Gotham lately, and before each one a tell-tale buzzing noise can be heard. Batman recognizes it, but he’s not sure where from. Eventually he realizes it’s from an episode of his beloved Gray Ghost program, and it just so happens the actor who used to play that role, Simon Trent, lives in Gotham. Unfortunately for Trent, playing the Gray Ghost lead to decades of type-casting following the show’s cancellation. He’s broke and can’t find work as a result and has resorted to selling off anything related to the show he once owned to a local toy and collectible shop run by a fellow named Ted Dymer (voiced by and drawn to resemble Bruce Timm). As Bruce Wayne, Batman is unable to locate any old tapes of The Gray Ghost and turns to Trent for help. He visits Trent as Batman, which naturally freaks him out. He wants nothing to do with the character or Batman, but he gives him a film reel of the episode in question which Batman happily takes home and enjoys.

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Simon Trent is a bit down on his luck following his typecasting after Gray Ghost ended production years earlier.

Batman is able to see how the bombings are being carried out by watching the show:  tiny RC cars armed with explosives drive into the target and detonate. Trent, having sold all of his merchandise, doesn’t want to help further, but Batman is seemingly reluctant to let his image of the Gray Ghost as a hero vanish completely and he goes so far as to re-purchase the old costume (among other things he sold off) and gift it to Trent. It’s enough to inspire him to put the old costume back on and he joins Batman on a stake-out of the next bombing target, which The Mad Bomber was happy to share with both Batman and the Gotham PD.

Through the Batman and Gray Ghost team-up, we learn almost everything associated with Batman was inspired by the Gray Ghost. Even the layout of the Batcave is supposedly the same as the lair of the Gray Ghost that was depicted on television. Trent is amazed to see it all, and Batman is more than willing to show it off like a proud child bringing home an A+ report card to his father. They’re also able to foil the bombing and even capture one of the cars. Batman analyzes it for prints and finds the only ones on it belong to Simon Trent. When it looks like Batman is going to have to arrest his hero, Trent realizes who the real bomber must be.

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Batman seems to delight in showing off all of the Gray Ghost-inspired gadgets in his inventory.

The episode wraps rather predictably with Batman and the Gray Ghost saving the day. The mystery of the bomber is not at all hard to figure out, but I’ll withhold it nonetheless for anyone who has yet to see this episode. The final scene of the episode is also great and even a little touching. Trent is seemingly back on his feet after the real-life exploits of the Gray Ghost made the character popular once more and is signing copies of his new autobiography in costume. Bruce attends the signing and tells Trent how the Gray Ghost was his hero and that he used to watch it with his dad all of the time. The words he uses are the exact same he used as Batman when he told the same story to the Gray Ghost. Trent gives a little knowing smile, and the episode comes to a close.

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Toy collector and enthusiast Ted Dymer is essentially Bruce Timm, and is voiced by him too.

Having Adam West gust star on Batman: The Animated Series is a true delight. It was a lot of fun for me as a child because I actually picked up on who the guest star was. I would often hear my parents remark that a character sounded like a certain actor, always noticing before I ever made the connection. To me, the voice simply belonged to the character onscreen. Not so with Simon Trent though as Adam West was a big part of my childhood as Batman and his voice was unmistakable. His little arc through-out the episode is fun, and even a bit emotional. It in some way mirrored the real-life struggles of West and other actors typecast following a big role like Batman and I wonder if it was cathartic in a way for West to play the part. He’s great as Trent, so he’s not just a novelty here, and brings a lot to the character. As a kid I always wanted to see more of the Gray Ghost in a future episode, but I think as an adult I’m happy he was a one and done thing. This episode is a love letter to the old Batman show and a big “thank you” to West and the other actors, writers, and directors who made that show so memorable. In a time when people were starting to thumb their nose at the old, campy show it was nice to be gifted an episode like this one. Batman can be a lot of things to a lot of people, but throughout every age he’s always a hero.

R.I.P. Adam West (1928-2017)

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Dec. 22 – Johnny Bravo: ‘Twas the Night

TwasTheNight-JBThis thing kicked off this year with the What A Cartoon! original George & Junior’s Christmas Spectacular. The comedic bear duo failed to make a lasting impression and faded away from sight. Johnny Bravo, on the other hand, debuted via the same show, but to a much warmer reception earning him his own series. The character was created by Van Partible and some guy named Seth MacFarlane was a writer for the show. Johnny Bravo was essentially a modern guy with the personality of a 50s greaser who talked like Elvis. He wants to help the ladies and be kind of a stereotypical macho man. I guess he’s kind of like Uncle Jesse from Full House, except he thinks he’s as strong as a super hero and probably not as bright as the frontman for the Rippers. It honestly wasn’t a character that resonated with me right off the bat. I guess I just preferred child protagonists or animals in my cartoons, but it was a success and I think it was voted the #2 cartoon of the year by viewers of the What A Cartoon! show, behind only Dexter’s Laboratory which also got its own series.

“‘Twas the Night” is a cartoon from the show’s fifth episode. It, for some reason, premiered on August 4th, 1997 as the third segment in the half hour show. Why they chose to a premiere a Christmas episode in August is possibly due to many delays the show supposedly had in production. It’s possible it was meant to air closer to Christmas, or maybe even earlier for Cartoon Network’s then annual Christmas in July, but was ready when others were not. Or maybe they just didn’t care, since the broadcast lists online don’t appear to contain many gaps during the first season.

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I can’t tell if Johnny is supposed to be sitting on the roof or standing awkwardly.

The episode opens on a scenic look of a bridge and a city. There’s a narrator spinning a rendition of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” but with different words, and in a familiar voice. It’s Adam West! Oh, how we miss you Adam. He would guest star as himself on a later episode. The scene takes us to Johnny’s house where he’s preparing for bed and needs to silence his mama’s snoring. While laying in bed he hears a sound outside, he heads for the roof and spies a burglar. No, Johnny! It’s Santa! We cry out, but the thick-headed blond can’t hear us through the television and takes the poor bastard out. Santa has a busted arm as a result, and he’s pretty ticked, but also understanding, since he knows Johnny is an idiot. That and this Santa only has six reindeer, so Johnny was justified in thinking he was a fake. The problem is now he can’t fulfill his obligation to the children of the world, so Johnny is going to have to take his place.

Johnny hopes for cash and chicks in return for doing Santa’s job, but Santa threatens him with violence so he puts on the coat and the hat and takes off through the night. He screws up the names of the reindeer, then questions where the freak with the red nose is. We get a sort-of cut-away depicting laser wielding bad guys that look like Cobra rejects doing battle with a laser-nosed reindeer at the North Pole. The blasts even reach Johnny in the sky, but he pays them no mind. He whips out the list of gifts and it contains nothing but Senators all scheduled to receive coal. Johnny Bravo getting political! Their names are also almost all references to Hanna-Barbera and Warner properties so it’s worth a pause or two to read them. One senator is actually receiving a gift:  Senator Puffnstuff.

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At least the suit fits.

Johnny sets to delivering the gifts. The mayor is the first to receive his, new underwear, and he prances around happily in his living-room until his wife knocks him out with a rolling pin, “You promised me no cavorting!” He next visits little Suzie and squeezes down her chimney. He eats the cookies and drinks the milk while little Suzie is sleeping peacefully in an easy chair, “She’s kind of cute when her mouth isn’t flapping.” He then visits Jungle Boy in the jungle and delivers a new loin cloth and makeup for the gorilla girls. The gorilla king gets coal and Johnny calls him Magilla, and he’s right to take that as an insult. He then visits a hibernating Cronos the bear and gives him an alarm clock, which goes off almost immediately forcing Johnny to scramble out fast. Then he pops in on Scooby-Doo and gives him a slip of paper for speech therapy with Cindy Brady. I always thought he spoke pretty well considering he’s a dog and all.

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And he can also squeeze down a chimney. 

Johnny continues on through the night, and has a near miss with a space shuttle that’s woefully animated as it kind of bends in flight. He leaves gifts for a sleeping pair of twins, Tim and Tom. He’s depicted going all over the world causing him to question how Santa stays fat considering the work is hard. I guess working hard for one night can’t make up for all of the milk cookies throughout the year, Johnny. As Johnny gets to the bottom of the list he realizes he has one gift left to deliver:  Bunny Bravo, also known as mama. The problem is he has no gifts left – he must have delivered her gift to the wrong house. We then cut back to the mayor and his wife finding some woman’s garment and she accuses him of cavorting with some woman named Bunny. He tries to tell her he’s not, but gets another rolling pin to the noggin for his honesty. She’s rather abusive.

Johnny returns home, sad to not have a gift for his precious mama. As he sits sheepishly on the roof, he hears his mother cry out with joy from inside the house. He dives down the chimney and sees she’s sporting a new diamond ring. It says it’s from Santa, but she thinks it’s from Johnny. What a weird thing to give your mama. There’s also another gift and it’s for Johnny – a new pair of boxing gloves and mouthpiece. As Johnny admires his gift, Santa appears in the window to angrily remind him he didn’t forget how the night began, “Merry Christmas, you pinhead. Round two is next year!”

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These Hanna-Barbera folks love cameos.

“‘Twas the Night” is a pretty simple little cartoon short that goes the predictable route of casting its protagonist as Santa. Really, that feels like the number 3 Christmas cartoon cliche at this point behind parodies/adaptations of A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. The narration is carried throughout the short and Adam West delivers all of his lines with great timing. He sounds sincere, even when he’s saying something funny, “And mama was sleeping, you can tell by the snoring. After four times today, Jimmy Stewart gets boring,” and It’s a Wonderful Life’s title card is depicted on the television set to complete the joke. Because of the narration, Johnny is sort of just there and he gets in a line every so often, but aside from the “Magilla” comment I didn’t find them memorable. I did like how Santa was depicted as professional and understanding of what happened. He can’t just blow-up at Johnny because he needs to focus on the task at hand, but he’s also pretty pissed and he isn’t just going to forget that Johnny Bravo broke his arm on Christmas. The animation is kind of cheap and minimalist. Johnny moves with quick actions that don’t require a lot of frames, but that’s a stylistic choice. The backgrounds though are quite static and droll. The best I can say for the show is it’s bright and colorful, and the Rudolph bit was funny.

If you like Johnny Bravo then you probably like this short well enough, even if it feels like a novelty due to the inserting of the poem. I love Adam West, so I’m inclined to at least give this one a passing grade. It may show up on Boomerang this year, but it also may not. I’d be surprised if Cartoon Network bothered to air it as they don’t do much with their legacy programs. Season one was released on DVD in 2010, and so far it’s the only season to receive a Region 1 release on DVD and it’s actually still easily obtainable so I guess they still print the things. For whatever reason, probably poor sales of season one, none of the other seasons have been released or even scheduled for release. If you like Johnny Bravo then you probably already have it at this point, and if you don’t well then I guess you stopped reading about a thousand words ago.

 


Batman: The Movie

Batman:  The Movie (1966)

Batman: The Movie (1966)

The Batman character certainly has changed a lot over the past 50 years. Sure, under the mask he’s still Bruce Wayne, his parents are still dead, and he can usually be found prowling the streets of Gotham City by night accompanied by a juvenile in a red and yellow costume. Many things have changed though. For one, Bruce Wayne is no longer content to be a millionaire so he’s jumped into the billionaire ranks. The blue and gray spandex Batman used to wear is now often black and gray and even armor-plated, depending on the artist. Robin, thankfully, isn’t parading around in tights either or a bright yellow cape (no wonder why he’s usually the one getting picked off as opposed to Batman) and sometimes he even gets to be an adult. Mostly though, the tone of the work has changed. A lot of writers have received credit for turning Batman into a more serious and mature character during the 70’s and 80’s with most of it going to Frank Miller, but the change was actually rather gradual. In order for a character to survive decades upon decades and remain relevant, he has to change with the times as the general tastes of the public are always evolving.

In 1965, Batman was faced with becoming irrelevant. His comic book sales were down and he hadn’t appeared in a film reel in decades. Television was still pretty new, and pretty limited, but the idea to give the caped crusader a shot at television came up and by 1966 Batman was more than relevant once again; he was a star! Starring Adam West and Burt Ward as the dynamic duo, Batman appeared twice a week (a rarity at the time) on television in a serialized nature, often with the first night’s program continuing into the second’s. The show was a hit with children mostly, but also adults who grew up reading the Batman comics. Color TV was new at the time, and Batman was presented in eye-popping color for those fortunate enough to have a color set. The jazz-infused soundtrack was catchy, and the wild cast of villains gave the show a new flavor each week. Stars were born, of course, with classic comic villains such as The Joker and The Penguin seeing their star burn even brighter while villains mostly abandoned by the books, such as Catwoman and The Riddler, found a new lease on life. The show was basically a farce, with Batman and Robin presented in an ever serious manner oblivious to the ridiculous circumstances they would find themselves in week after week. The supporting cast of Commissioner Gordon (Neil Hamilton) and Chief O’Hara (Stafford Repp) were equally oblivious while the villains came across as the only ones in on the joke. Batman and Robin would find themselves in dire situations often, but would always get out of it either thru ingenuity, sheer coincidence, or via an oddly situation specific “Bat” gadget. This was Batman in the 60’s and it’s what people wanted.

Look out, caped crusaders! The Joker, Catwoman, Penguin, and Riddler have joined forces!

Look out, caped crusaders! The Joker, Catwoman, Penguin, and Riddler have joined forces!

When the show was first conceived, it was decided that a movie would be created to help launch the program. Plans changed, however, when the network involved surprisingly picked up the show with production needing to start immediately to meet a January air date. The movie was back-burnered for awhile in order to focus on the television show, but filming resumed in the early spring to make a summer release possible. This ended up being a boon for the show, and the film as well, as Batman took off and created great anticipation for the film. The increased budget for a feature also meant that new gadgets and vehicles, such as the Batcopter and Batcycle, could be created for the film and then used again for the television show. In order to make the film feel bigger than the show, four villains were present instead of the usual one: Joker, Penguin, Riddler, and Catwoman. The only complication was Julie Newmar, Catwoman on the show, was unavailable so the part had to be recast and went to Lee Meriwether. Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, and Frank Gorshin were able to play their roles as Joker, Penguin, and Riddler, respectively, and the rest of the television cast was available for the film as well.

The style of the television show was incorporated into the film. The art direction is distinctly pop for the era. There’s an abundance of bright, primary colors. When the characters are put into a more realistic setting, such as Batman during the infamous bomb segment, they stand-out against the background and appear as out of place as a man in a batsuit should (though the extras in the shots carry on as if this is business as usual). The action sequences are surprisingly kept to a minimum, but when a fight breaks out expect many haymakers and somersaults (the editors saved the famous “pow” animations for the film’s climactic battle). The Batman theme is present but in small doses. The film’s main theme is perhaps relied upon a bit too heavily as it’s used for every long shot of Batman and Robin in their various vehicles used throughout the film.

Still the coolest Batmobile ever created.

Still the coolest Batmobile ever created.

The plot from the film is rather rudimentary. The four villains have teamed up to kidnap the world leaders using a bizarre dehydrating ray that reduces any human it touches into a pile of dust to be rehydrated later. The protagonists deduce their foes’ motives thru absurd means presented as deductive reasoning but are either lazy writing or an attempt at humor. Batman is the straight man while Robin is more of a hot-head (and possibly a sociopath who wants to murder alcoholics). The villains are as over-the-top as their TV personalities. Gorshin and Romero present their characters as cackling madmen with The Riddler having the added flaw of feeling compelled to leave Batman and Robin clues in the form of riddles. The film actually draws attention to how similar the two villains became once they hit television, but both actors perform so well in their roles it’s mostly forgiven. Meredith is a delight as The Penguin. He waddles everywhere and gets so much personality out of that long cigarette holder always stuck between his teeth. Meriwether’s Catwoman is basically the same as Newmar’s with her always feeling compelled to use the word “perfect” when describing something she approves of, but drawing it out into a long “purrrrrfect” because she is, after all, a crazy cat-person. Catwoman also gets to have an alter-ego in the form of Miss Kitka, who seduces Bruce Wayne to lure him into a trap so that he may be used as bait for Batman. As a kid, I found it odd how easily Batman is able to see thru a disguise The Penguin uses later in the film, but he’s blind to Catwoman’s. Apparently, even Batman sometimes ends up thinking with the wrong head from time to time.

The special effects in the film will impress no one accustomed to the movies of today. When Batman is attacked by a shark early in the film it’s clearly made of rubber and its teeth leave no imprint on Batman or draw blood. A scene of some ducks in the water are obviously decoys, and every character who throws a punch whiffs by about six inches on their target. And who could forget the climbing scenes? Scene thru the lens of today, these shortcomings just add to the campy charm. The comical bomb Batman is forced to dispose of is cheeky and the ray-gun effects are delightfully cliche.

Some days, you just can't get rid of a bomb (I had to do it!).

Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb (I had to do it!).

The film is a farce, an exercise in the absurd, and it is entertaining. I grew up watching the television show in syndication during the 80’s. I suspect my generation may be the last who can say that as I assume most kids today have never seen Adam West as Batman and I wonder if they would appreciate it. Perhaps if this is the fist Batman they’re exposed to they’ll see what the kids of the 60’s saw, or maybe they’ll just see a very ordinary looking man in gray and blue spandex. Batman was fun for me as a kid with all of the different villains and bat-gadgets and as an adult I find it funny and charming. It’s not really clever comedy, but I wouldn’t call it stupid either. The Batman premise is one that’s far-fetched and unrealistic, and the writers approach the character as such. While writers and filmmakers today are more interested in a realistic portrayal of a masked vigilante, it’s kind of fun to see the character portrayed in the only manner he could actually exist. The entire 1960’s television series is finally set for release this holiday season in a massive, and expensive, box set. That might be overload but for anyone seeking out just a taste of the Batman from 1966, the movie represents a good, and cheap, snap-shot. The blu ray from which this review is for, looks great considering the film’s age. The colors pop as they should, the picture is sharp, and there’s quite a bit of extra content. The film doesn’t look as old as it really is, which is often the best compliment one can give to such an old movie. This was my first Batman on television and I would go on to enjoy Tim Burton’s take on the character and fall in love with The Animated Series. I never lost my affection for this Batman though, and even though I view it in a different way than I did as a five year old, I am still charmed by it. Hopefully, I’m not the only one.


Batman’s Top 10 Feature Length Films

No other super hero has taken to the big screen as well as The Dark Knight.

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…

Batman: The Movie (1966)

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.

I’m still amazed at how awesome (cool?) Bruce Timm and Co. were able to make Mr. Freeze.

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.

This one’s not for the kids.

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.

Now there’s a dynamic duo.

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.

Well done, Mr. Ledger.

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.

There’s just no topping this.

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.


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