Early reports suggest that The Dark Knight is the finest of Batman’s big screen adventures to date. We’re not seeing it for a day or two yet, so in the interim, let’s take a look at the film’s competition…
Batman: The Movie (1966)
Bringing the flamboyance and the over-the-top fun of the TV series to the big screen, the first Batman cinematic feature is content to throw a collection of Bob Kane’s creations at the screen, and let them have a ball. And they do, particularly Burgess Meredith’s Penguin and Cesar Romero’s Joker. With Adam West and Burt Ward as the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder respectively, it’s throwaway entertainment, certainly, but still good fun. And heck – here’s a plug for our Adam West interview while we’re here! Hurray!
Considering the enormous pressure on Tim Burton’s shoulders when he made the first Batman (and he only had two movies to his name at the time), it remains impressive just how well it turned out. The headline grabbers may by Jack Nicholson’s film-gobbling Joker, and Anton Furst’s stunning set design, but there are plenty of other merits to Batman, too. Michael Keaton, for instance, makes a fine Caped Crusader, and Burton proves himself adept at both big action sequences and welcome drops of comedy, too. Danny Elfman’s score is one of his finest, too. It’s not a perfect film, with both Batman and The Joker spending too much time away from the screen, but it holds up well, and remains a good way to start the modern day Batman franchise.
Batman Returns (1992)
Unless Christopher Nolan wandered along, this was the finest big screen Batman film to date. Tim Burton’s sequel removes virtually any humour, cranks up the darkness and starts to disassemble when it actually needs to focus on its story more in the second half, but when it works, it’s quite brilliant.
The first half of the film is a treasure, introducing a trio of villains who each get enough screen time to matter, albeit at the expense of Batman. Arguably the best, although least blockbuster-friendly, is Danny DeVito’s genuinely vile Penguin (a hugely underrated portrayal, and perhaps the best of the early Bat films), although Michelle Pfeiffer’s quite brilliant Catwoman can have all the screen time she wants as far as this writer is concerned. Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck is a little too obvious, but Walken himself is always good value. The downsizing of the Batman role is an obvious criticism, and the wobbly gravestone and teddy-bear penguins still raise a chuckle, but Batman Returns is one of the least studio-friendly superhero movies you’ll ever see, and all the better for it.
Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm (1993)
It’s often forgotten that the animated Mask Of The Phantasm did actually get a cinematic release in the States, which is what merits its inclusion on this list, and it’s easily an equal for the two Burton movies that preceded it. This animated adventure, co-directed by Bruce Timm, is really quite creepy and unnerving, and of course boasts Mark Hamill’s maniacal voice work as the Joker. Perhaps the last ten minutes lost the momentum a little, but this is some piece of work, and really shouldn’t be overlooked.
Batman Forever (1995)
Out went Michael Keaton (along with his proposed love interest in the film, Rene Russo), in came Val Kilmer, and Joel Schumacher stepped behind the camera for the start of the Bat’s darkest days. And not for the right reasons.
Batman Forever got decent reviews when it came out, and made more money than Batman Returns, but for this writer, it was just as much of a shambles as the film that followed. Val Kilmer’s “I’ll get drive through” line was as cringe-worthy as Batman & Robin’s credit card, while Tommy Lee Jones was near-incomprehensible (and again, not for the right reasons) as Two-Face. Jim Carrey’s Riddler was passable, but could and should have been played much darker, while Schumacher simply throws coloured paint across the screen with little cohesion. The less said about the clumsy, unnecessary introduction of Robin the better.
Batman & Robin (1997)
Aside from the usual criticisms of Batman & Robin, there’s the small matter of Uma Thurman that needs to be discussed. For Thurman here, for me, is even worse than Arnie’s Mr Freeze, pissing away a role that she had the genuine talent to make a lot more of. Much of the rest, of course, beggars belief, although the set design guys come out of this bombsite of a film with their heads held very much high. The best thing about Batman & Robin though is that arguably because it stank so much, it forced Warner Bros to radically alter is strategy where the Dark Knight was concerned. But there was still an unfortunate stop alone the way…
Not strictly a Batman film, but the only big screen Gotham City spin-off to date, and the one we had to content ourselves with while Nolan was working on his Bat reboot. Catwoman is wrong on so many levels, it seems unfair to cite individual examples. But hell, to not question why actresses of the proven talent of Halle Berry and Sharon Stone would lend their time to this piece of shit would be to overlook our duty as human beings. Appalling rubbish, and it leaves you wishing that the original planned Tim Burton-Michelle Pfeiffer version has actually happened.
Batman Begins (2005)
We had to wait for it, and we were teased with the idea of Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One in the process, but Christopher Nolan’s triumphant reboot of the Batman saga remains one of blockbuster cinema’s most impressive moments of the last two decades. So good that it almost makes Burton’s opening film redundant, this is a top to tale defining of the Bat, that finally manages to foothold a significant part of the film for its lead character. Christian Bale is an immense Batman, and the supporting cast around him ooze quality. For more of our thoughts on Batman Begins, click here, but the thought of what Nolan can do next is surely why so many of us have pre-booked our Dark Knight tickets already…
Leave your thoughts in the comments box, and you’ll find the rest of our ready reckoners by clicking that link just underneath…