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Ranked - The Batman Films


Back in 1939, two gentlemen by the names of Bob Kane and Bill Finger introduced a character to the world that would go on to be one of the most iconic figures in pop culture today. For decades since, one man has instilled fear into the hearts of criminals and villains time and time again merely through the uttering of those two immortal words...


“I’m Batman”


From the camp frivolities of the 60s Adam West era, to the pulpier, more comic-booky fares of Tim Burton, through to the darker side of Gotham with Christopher Nolan all the way to the even darker still contributions from Zack Snyder, the world’s greatest detective has gone through many iterations, some with more satisfying returns than others.


Now, with the Dark Knight about to rise again in Matt Reeves’ upcoming The Batman, we’re going to take a look back at the films that have come before to see which one rises about the rest.


14 - Batman & Robin (1997)

Let’s start with a short anecdote. Back in 1997, after a fairly long journey to the nearest big-name cinema (there wasn’t as many back then kids), I had settled into my seat ready to revel in the latest offering featuring what had become and still is my favourite hero, only for my hopes to be dashed by sound issues resulting in an early exit from the screening and a long drive home for my parents and their distraught son.


Little did I know that my disappointment with this film was only just beginning.


What hasn’t been said about this movie already? Batman & Robin has not only become the yardstick when discussing the worst Batman film, but a popular go-to when it comes to bad films as a whole. On paper, a cast consisting of what were very bankable stars at the time such as George Clooney, Alicia Silverstone and of course Arnold Schwarzenegger should surely have meant a recipe for success.


But between the criminally unconvincing performance under the cowl from Clooney (and everyone else to be fair), the WTF creative decisions (bringing the bat nipples back?) and just sheer ridiculous (but not in the fun Tim Burton way), it instead carried on the horrific backwards slide started by its predecessor Batman Forever, it’s planned sequels were subsequently cancelled and the franchise was banished to oblivion for eight years.


13 - Batman Forever (1995)

Only slightly more palatable than the entry that came after it, but by a hair. Batman Forever shows where a lot of the problems of its successor stemmed from, including those aforementioned bat nipples, but before things got really out of hand.


The film looks just as terrible, from the costumes to the sets to Gotham itself, not to mention the nauseatingly over-the-top performances that might just be some of the hammiest you’ve ever seen, Jim Carrey manages to out Jim Carrey himself and even Nicole Kidman is hard to watch. Nicole Kidman! Yes, Kilmer is slightly less stiff behind the mask that Clooney, but that’s not saying a lot and at points the film does have some moments to cheer for, but Batman Forever reeks of a film manufactured to sell toys, lunch boxes and whatever else you can stick a bat logo on and was a dramatic and saddening shift away in tone from the ridiculous but enjoyable world that Tim Burton had built.


To paraphrase Tommy Lee Jones…


I cannot sanction this films buffoonery


12 - Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Martha!


The scene that spawned a thousand memes is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s not good about Zack Snyder’s second entry in the DCEU. Part sequel to Man of Steel, part Justice League precursor, BvS is a film trying to do a lot at once and none of it convincingly.

Cavill, Gadot and Affleck try their best with weak material, but all three seem rather frustratingly to be in the right roles in the wrong films at the wrong time.


A nonsensical plot and general misunderstanding of the characters, (see the complete miscasting of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor as a prime example) are simply some of a plethora of things to point at here, but ultimately the only way to describe BvS is…boring. Which for a film brimming with potential for an epic battle of the ages is what really stings here, instead it is so underwhelming that it’s poor reception actually started the ball rolling on Warner Bros. demanding swift action on the production of the soon to follow Justice League movie…and we all know how that turned out.


11 - Justice League

And oh look, here we are. The backlash of BvS caused Warner Bros. to step in and demand changes when it came to the next entry in the DCEU, and so the legend of the troubled production of Justice League began.


Numerous script rewrites and demands for a lighter tone led to the recruitment of Joss Whedon who helped write and eventually took over during post-production when Snyder stepped away, and while that move has since brought its own terrible controversy, there was a time when bringing on a director that already had a track record for bringing a bunch of super-heroes together to great success (twice) for one studio would have made sense to anyone. But as we now know, it only exacerbated issues even further.


As for the film itself, while the action scenes have merit and there a highlights among the performances as was the case in BvS, the inconsistency of plot, tone, characterisation and overall direction is what makes Justice League an undeniable train-wreck, so ultimately in all that effort to please audiences after BvS, instead what they got was essentially a Frankenstein’s monster of a film that audiences panned across the board, jarringly torn between the two very different styles of two very different film-makers, with very little of it actually working.


10 - Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

The saga of the Snyder Cut is one of the most interesting stories in modern cinema. Having stepped away from the initial Justice League production due to tragic personal circumstances, Zack Snyder always claimed there was a bigger, better vision of this film out there. His vision. The Snyder Cut.


Did it exist? If it did, was it any better? It surely couldn’t be any worse. A lot of questions and were raised and for a long time unanswered until 2021 when the full four-hour uncompromising promise became a reality.


So, it did exist, but was it any better? Yes, Absolutely yes. ZS:JL is miles above anything that Justice League achieves. It’s more coherent under a single film-makers direction. Its plot points come together much more elegantly. Performances are more engaging across the board in both the heroes and villains, characters are fleshed out and made whole, especially in Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, whose presence in this film actually means something rather than being cut down to a literal exposition machine.


But there are still flaws. The amount of slow-mo is simply ridiculous even for Snyder, a director with a certain style you’ll either get on with or you won’t. The story still isn’t the best, but at least it makes sense(ish), and the last hour is where the films sing but you could argue if you throw enough mud at a wall some of it will stick, so after four hours you’d expect to get something out of it.


ZS:JL isn’t perfect, but it’s a damn sight better than what we got before and if nothing else, Snyder got to finally realise his vision.


9 - The Killing Joke (2016)

Its very limited theatrical release may be a technicality here, but the adaptation of one of the most iconic stories within the Dark Knight’s canon (or is it canon, the debate rages on) definitely deserves a mention. The Killing Joke is the ultimate Batman versus Joker story for fans so a cinematic adaptation was something to both have hope for given the ultra-rich source material to draw from, but also approach with caution for fear of the legacy of this particular work being tarnished.


It’s a film of two halves really, meaning this adaptation doesn’t quite meet the dizzying heights the graphic novel achieves. It’s a messy start and not entirely faithful especially in the first half and generally with its characterisation, Batgirl/Barbara Gordon’s story arc specifically is something that drew warranted criticism from both fans and critics. It does grow in strength somewhat in the second half and of course includes the delightful dynamic duo dream team of voice performances in Kevin Conroy’s Batman and Mark Hamill’s Joker (perhaps the greatest Joker?) but it’s not the greatest testament to one of the most beloved comic books of all time, all-in-all a story more worth-reading than watching.


8 - The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The Dark Knight Rises was always faced with an impossible task. After The Dark Knight did what it did, it was always going to be an ask for it to get anywhere even remotely close.


As a trilogy topper its fine, it does what it needs to do even if it isn’t done in the most elegant way. The performances are mostly strong as well, Tom Hardy’s Bane was meme-laden before release but actually presents as a formidable villain in the end and Bale, who actually never seemed out of place as Batman or Bruce Wayne, really brings home that struggle as he begins to question his legacy behind the mask. However, while the film is ambitious and not short on the action, the plot is muddled and too long, resulting in a safe but bumpy landing of the Dark Knight trilogy.


7 - Batman: The Movie (1966)

You always remember your first Batman. In full colour! Adam West was one of a kind, he didn’t need to say “I’m Batman”, people just knew he was. God rest him.


Of course, Batman: The Movie is utterly, utterly ludicrous as a film/long episode, and camp to no end. But even with shark repellent, cheesy one-liners and onomatopoeic captions included, , Batman: The Movie channels that camp and ridiculousness in ways the Schumacher films simply couldn’t, allowing us to laugh with it rather than at it (mostly).


While audiences of the modern age of Batman might look back at the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder’s exploits from that era with raised eyebrows, the Batman series of the 60s was a real beacon of silly ridiculous light and while this one might be more for fans of the show than your contemporary bat-fan, it’s a film that works as a beautiful piece of nostalgia, escapism and innocent fun, and really was the spark that brought Batman into the mainstream.


6 - Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

A brilliant origin story for our hero, focusing not just on the mask but the man behind it, and why Bruce Wayne feels compelled to put on the suit night after night, learning his way through his early days of vigilantism while dealing with his torment in choosing between a normal life and vengeance for this parent's death.


It’s a wonderfully animated adaptation that is refreshingly respectful of its source material, Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are again insurmountable in their voice performances in a piece filled with compelling characters throughout. More one for the die-hards perhaps than the casual observer, but Mask of the Phantasm is as crucial a story as it gets when it comes to Batman. Not initially successful, the film thankfully found its audience later on and has since become a must-see classic and one of the most respected on-screen stories Batman has ever had.


5 - The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

Black. All important movies start with a black screen.


What do you do with the best part of The Lego Movie? You give him his own movie and let him own it.


The Lego Batman Movie is simply a joy from the very first second, somehow managing to fully celebrate the franchise while barraging its history of ridiculousness as a concept with playful jabs all the way through, the perfect antidote to the dark, despairing and unimpressive live-action offerings that were around at the time.


It’s not perfect, not all the jokes land but the great majority do and they do with a resounding thud, providing laughs for kids and grown-ups alike and fully captures the undeniable pleasure that the Lego movies started, not to mention hosting a veritable who’s who of supporting voices and cameos. And if Kevin Conroy is to be considered king when it comes to the voice of Batman, Will Arnett is the prince in waiting. More please.


4 - Batman (1989)

“Now you wanna get nuts? Come on! Let’s get nuts!”


Tim Burton did, and what we got back in 1989 was a film that ripped up the playbook when it came to superhero movies. Nolan might get name checked more these days for bringing Batman to the table of serious discussion, but Burton was the man who brought him to the big time.

An absolute smash, Batman is a smile-widening, two-hour joy ride for everyone to delight in.


Keaton is both the quintessential Bruce Wayne and Batman, no actor to date has been able to traverse both roles equally with such success and while Heath Ledger’s Joker might be the definitive for many, there are those who would point you to Jack Nicholson’s brilliantly maniacal turn here as a counter argument, and they would definitely have a case. It’s a film with some odd moves sure, some more welcome than others. The Prince songs are a bold choice, especially when coupled with a few peculiar dance scenes. But Batman is quirky in all the right places, fun, dark, cheesy, serious and laid the blueprint for its even more brilliant successor.


3 - The Dark Knight (2008)

Often looked to as the pinnacle of the Caped Crusaders cinematic exploits and to be fair it’s impossible to deny the enormity of what Christopher Nolan achieved with his sophomore instalment in his Dark Knight trilogy.


Inspired loosely by the magnificent 1996 series of comics The Long Halloween, The Dark Knight is more crime thriller than superhero fare, that once again sees Batman and Joker, two of cinemas greatest ever characters, battle it out but not just for the heart of Gotham, but that of the city’s moral compass Harvey Dent, a role for which Aaron Eckhart was a great fit. For some, it’s a story told ever so slightly better and fuller on the page than the screen, but there is no denying how significant this film has been and continues to be for...well...the Dark Knight.


The Dark Knight isn’t just an incredible achievement as a Batman film, but as a film period. Heath Ledger’s Joker performance is so unerringly brilliant it's hard to see how it could be topped, and everything there is to be said on that has been. The Dark Knight has simply become the benchmark against which all other superhero films have been and will be measured for years to come.


2 - Batman Begins (2005)

But while The Dark Knight is often the most celebrated of not just the Nolan Trilogy and we’ve already mentioned what that film achieved, it simply cannot be understated the importance of what Batman Begins did for our masked vigilante when it glided onto the big screen back in 2005.

Batman was a franchise floundering in an purgatory after Batman & Robin, even George Clooney said he thought he had killed the franchise forever. But no, it did rise again and it made those who had previously turned their noses up at "superhero nonsense" stand up and take notice.


Drawing inspiration from Batman: Year One, The Man Who Falls and The Long Halloween again, Batman Begins shows the journey of how Bruce Wayne becomes not the hero Gotham deserves, but the one it needs. It’s a Batman centric epic that celebrates everything we love about the character, managing to feel both like a comic book and an exciting cinematic experience at the same time, all the while managing to lay the necessary groundwork to be built upon for the rest of the trilogy. And for my money, it has the best alley scene of them all.


Sure, Scarecrow’s plan doesn’t make total sense when you really think about it. But with everything else going on around, who really cares?


1 - Batman Returns (1992)

However, while The Dark Knight and Batman Begins brought Batman back from the dead and into the serious film discussion and inspired all those that came after it, it’s Tim Burton’s second and unfortunately final outing with the world’s greatest detective that has everything, the best car, the best villains, the best Gotham and of course, the best Batman.


Batman Returns not only carries on from a lot of the hard work done by its predecessor, but also builds on it, smooths out the edges, polishes things off and at the same time, completely goes all in. It’s Burton at the top of his game, Performance wise, there isn’t a bad one. Keaton’s batman is still the best and here was he firmly placed that marker. Devito’s Penguin is still a villain for the ages, but Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is the one who steals the show. It’s fun, it’s dark, it’s a comic-book-come-to-life, as close as there has been anyway.


And that is what a Batman film should be.

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