Batman has been hitting screens off and on since the 1940s. So, as a project, I hunted down all the Batman movies and watched them all. And now, here they are, in a completely arbitrary ranking of the worst to the best with some justification for you to argue over until The Dark Knight Rises officially hits screens tomorrow (OK, 12:01 am Friday, but close enough to Thursday for us).
Yes, there was a Batman and Robin before the Batman and Robin we all know and loathe. And it deserves our hate far, far more.
Even by the standards of serials, this is egregiously stupid and cheap. It's so inept it's not even campy; it's just annoying. Why audiences didn't burn Columbia to the ground over this remains a mystery. The preceding serial isn't much better, but at least the costume isn't godawful.
This serial actually introduced the concept of the Batcave. And since it was made in 1943, unfortunately it's got lots of racism towards the Japanese intentional and unintentional, right down to "Dr. Daka" being played by a white guy. Beyond that, you've barely heard of this and brother, there's a reason. It emphasizes that Batman and Robin may be bad, but a well-funded bad movie is at least more entertaining to watch that this relentlessly talky racist antique. It's narrowly better than the other Batman serial, but that's like saying being kicked in the left testicle is better than the right testicle, really.
Every now and then, I'll think, "Man, I used to love Batman Returns as a kid! I should watch it!" Then I watch it and remember how stupid kids generally are when it comes to choosing entertainment.
The parts of this movie just did not fit at the time and overall it just hasn't aged well. The cast all think they're in wildly different movies; Burton's production design is totally wrong for the character; the plot is shockingly stupid with big chunks of the script aimed squarely at generating toy revenue (like that stupid effing duck); and the blackly comedic tone Burton is shooting for tends to be hit or miss at best.
I rank it so low because it really did have the potential to be a great movie on par with its predecessor, and that was squandered. Instead it set the tone for the rest of the franchise. And that's a much worse sin than being doomed to be crappy from the get-go.
I've softened a lot about this movie over time, especially as it became clear what ruined it was not Joel Schumacher. Schumacher has actually been very gracious and clear-eyed about the movie, accepting blame where it was due and pointing out problems that restricted him. One thing that rapidly becomes clear is that this movie was doomed to turkeydom before a foot of film was shot.
That said, it is still awful; why Warners thought we needed a bloated throwback to the 1966 movie is a mystery for the ages. Still, it's not as bad as the serials.
After seeing a lot of accidentally bad movies, it's kind of fun to see a deliberately bad one.
The thing about this movie is that it chooses a tone, goofy, and sticks with it. The scene with Batman running down the street holding a gigantic bomb is infamous, but when you see it, it's actually really funny. Similarly, Adam West's winking portrayal of the staggeringly naive Bruce Wayne/Batman actually works; West plays it straight enough that he gets the jokes right.
It's not a great movie, but it's a funny one and it's surprisingly engaging.
Batman Begins is by no means a bad movie, but it's a compromised one. This is the Batman movie Warner Brothers thought it wanted.
The big offender here is David Goyer. Goyer has proven repeatedly that he's a clumsy screenwriter at best and his attempts to smash together Batman: Year One and Nolan's ideas while pleasing his studio masters are cringe inducing. There's a reason Goyer hasn't been allowed near the Nolan movies since.
Similarly, Nolan didn't know what he wanted out of the series. This is a paycheck job, a stepping stone, marking time until he got some creative control. It's watchable, but seeing it and The Dark Knight back to back really emphasizes just how much better the latter actually is on just about every level.
Yeah, I know, I know, Jim Carrey, Chris O'Donnell, Joel Schumacher, "holy rusted metal, Batman!"
This edges Batman Begins for me because it teeters right on the edge of self-parody but is saved by Val Kilmer, who seems enormously amused by just about everything. In its own way, it's the 1966 Batman movie all over again, but with a bigger budget, a better director, and a more charismatic cast. One wonders what would have happened if Joel Schumacher, a director who is at his best when he's fully engaged, could have done if he'd just be able to get out from under the marketing department and actually make the movie he wanted.
It's been a fad to beat on this movie ever since The Dark Knight came along, something I doubt Nolan enjoys.
But the truth is, without this, we don't just miss The Dark Knight, but Spider-Man and The Avengers. Before this movie, comic book adaptations were defined by the Superman series, which had coughed its last a few years before.
If you weren't around or weren't paying attention at the time, this was the movie that showed Hollywood you could make a serious comic book adaptation and people would not only like it, they'd show up in droves. It became one of the most successful movies ever made and, for better and for worse, defined the Hollywood blockbuster.
All that said, on its own merits it's also pretty damn good. Just watch the opening sequence of Batman expertly terrifying two muggers and try to argue this isn't a great Batman movie. Michael Keaton makes a great casting choice because he so perfectly sells what a rich jerk Wayne comes off as to the outside world. The black comedy here that doesn't work in Batman Returns is hilarious here. Anton Furst's production design evokes the Gothic without Burton's whimsy, something that was needed for the movie to work.
And Nicholson's Joker is great. Is Heath Ledger's better? Absolutely. But Heath Ledger was in grade school when this movie was made. Nicholson was the best possible choice, and especially for the time, he nails the character.
Another touch is that the characters are adults, something the series summarily dropped in later entries. Batman has a semi-drunken hookup in this movie, and Wayne's emotional damage is actually important to the script.
In all, it's surprising how good this movie still is. If you haven't seen it in a while, watch it: it's worth it.
If Warner Brothers hadn't screwed this one up, we might still be seeing movies from this series.
Batman: The Animated Series is probably one of the best versions of the character in any medium and giving the team involved license to go nuts was the best idea Warners ever had. Unfortunately it was paired with the worst: they had to turn around a full-length theatrical film in eight months. That's hard to do in live-action, and a nightmare in animation.
Nonetheless, they pulled it off, only to be greeted with the one-two punch of no marketing for the film and a release date, Christmas 1993, that put it up against several other heavily marketed movies.
It's a great movie, though, second only to one Batman movie.
If there's one movie that sums up and defines the first eight years of the twenty-first century for Americans, it's this one.
There have been plenty of asinine political arguments about this movie, all of which miss the point. The Joker is not Osama Bin Laden and Batman is not George W. Bush. This movie is more elegant than that.
It's not about politics, not directly. It's a movie about how terrorism scares us and the response to terrorism tends not to make us feel safe, but just scare us in another way entirely. And frankly it does a better and more thrilling job of addressing it than any of the protest movies Hollywood turned out post 9/11.
The Dark Knight is a great movie because it shows the flexibility of superheroes, how they naturally lend themselves to metaphors. This was what the critics angry over a guy in long johns making so much money didn't get. The movie struck a nerve because it was able to step away from angry political arguments and explore how the overall situation made us feel.
Well, that's my ranking. What's yours? And where do you think The Dark Knight Rises will fit in?