Which side do you come down on? Are you a purist, pushing for a version of the comic book hero yet unseen by audience eyes? Do you prefer the animated efforts, highly praised takes on the character and his caped crusade? Perhaps you enjoy the clean camp comedy of the ‘60s incarnation, or the gleeful Goth gloom of one Tim Burton. No matter who you celebrate—Schumacher or Nolan—the Batman franchise has been fascinating to watch. While many are unaware of the seminal serial version of the character from a time when movie used to pack in the added value, almost everyone remembers Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, and now Christian Bale. These are the Batmen within our frame of reference, Bruce Wayne as a tightly wound tycoon using his money and influence to fight crime (and later on, more than a few inner demons).
But where, exactly, do you come down on the whole cinematic interpretations debate? Are you in the late ‘80s camp, or the actual Peace Decade literalization of same? Is the grounded, more realistic Bat your bag, or do you long for the days when Adam West would don the cowl and do the Batusi? With time, the attempts at bringing this otherwise ordinary man with a boatload of cash and a vendetta the size of Saturn has been both supremely satisfying and awkwardly unrewarding. With the last installment of Nolan’s Knight about to hit theaters, let’s assess the delights… and the damage, shall we. Let’s rank the main Batman movies (sorry, no serials or cartoon adaptations will be addressed) to see just how these divergent offerings stand up. A few choices may surprise you, while the usual suspects slink toward the bottom, beginning with the obvious:
Even the dapper George Clooney looks embarrassed. After Val Kilmer bailed on a follow-up to the fine if flawed Batman Forever, the latest hunk of the moment was made foolish by Schumacher’s desire to drown in overkill. With too many villains (Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy? Really?) and too many sidekicks (Robin and Batgirl?) and a stilted narrative, the only answer was a reboot. Indeed, few filmmakers have so thoroughly screwed the cinematic pooch as Schumacher. He was handed a healthy franchise. In two films, he more or less killed it.
Not as bad as Batman and Robin, but surely showing signs of a real lack of vision. Placing Joel Schumacher in charge of the Batman Returns follow-up must have seemed like a great idea at the time (though what St. Elmo’s Fire and The Lost Boys had to do with superhero films is anyone’s guess. Trading Burton’s Goth for something more garish, we get Val Kilmer doing his best under the mask lip reading, with various superstar co-horts taking up space. Of the three main A-listers—Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, and Nicole Kidman—only the middle cast member comes away unscathed.
When he took over control of the fledgling first film in the Batman series, Tim Burton was under heavy studio scrutiny to bring home a bonanza. When he did, he got to make the Dark Knight film he really wanted. Over time, there’s a dreary, dated quality that can’t quite match the magic of the first film. In fact, one could argue that Burton’s later flights of fancy irrevocably alter your ability to appreciate his work here. Still, with Michelle Pfeiffer legging it legitimately as Catwoman and Danny Devito turning Penguin into a pariah, this is some very good stuff.
For most of us, this is the Batman we remember, nay, embrace whole heartedly. Adam West, now raking in the F-you money with Seth MacFarlane and the gang, remains iconic as the dour, deadpan avenger, his monotone take on his often ridiculous lines a true revelation for a mere pre-adolescent. This attempt to cash in on the dying craze, made in hopes to generate some interest internationally, contains one of the greatest collections of villains ever. Though Julie Newmar was sidelined with an injury, Cesar Romero (Joker), Burgess Meredith (Penguin) and the spellbinding Frank Gorshin (Riddler) turn this into a major must see.
It started a phenomenon that will end in less than a week. It set the bar so high that only its creator could circumvent and then surpass it. It’s been studied, deconstructed, and when it came time to offer up awards, stiffed. But there is no denying that director Christopher Nolan brings to this material. He’s the first filmmaker to try and make the comic book ethos work within the confines of the real world. There are still the action beats and F/X flights that the genre requires. As the shape of things to come, it’s a definite game changer.
This one is close. Really close. Thought it seems artificial and almost an antique now, this was a major league breakthrough in comic book moviemaking. Before Burton’s Batman, few thought the subgenre could produce a substantive hit. Superman had worked, but quickly died under its own uneven designs. This was a chance to add real vision to the subject matter, and Burton delivered in spades. Argue all you want over the Prince soundtrack or casting of Keaton, but outside of Nolan (and whoever should step in to try and reboot the character again) this is the definitive Dark Knight.
It’s epic. It’s ethereal. It’s emotional and it’s undoubtedly the best example of how this kind of movie can work… and work effortlessly. All alliteration aside, The Dark Knight represents the Batman universe at its most authentic and real. It’s operatic and open ended, masterful in how it manipulates expectations to turn a simple case of good vs. evil into a story for the ages. Nolan knows he’s onto something mythic with the late, great Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker, and he lets the actor set the tone. The rest is a revelation.