Batman Movie Grades
For years Batman has been one of the most popular and profitable figures in fiction. Beyond comics, the Caped Crusader has been a frequent presence in television, video games, and of course film. Batman has proven time and again that he can carry a successful film franchise no matter how filmmakers decide to use him. Given the number of films the hero has been in I thought it would be fun to look at his various film incarnations to rate their quality. Because of the numerous straight to home release movies I am limiting this to only Batmovies which had a theatrical release.
Batman (1966): In the 1960’s a colorful tongue-in-cheek version of the Caped Crusader dominated TV with a satirical take on the character. Taking full advantage of Batman’s newfound fame the decision was made to move his adventures to the big screen (full Retro Review available HERE). Of course a bigger screen means a bigger threat, so Batman and Robin had to contend with the combined evil of: the Joker, Catwoman, the Riddler, and the Penguin. The entire fate of the planet hangs in the balance when the villains reduce the ambassadors of the United World into dust. Of course this movie is less about an actual plot than it is throwing nonstop entertainment at the viewer. We see everything from: Bat Shark Repellent to pirates to the Penguin dressed as a commodore to Batman running around with a bomb, all done in a way that proves nothing is being taken seriously. Of course Adam West plays Batman the way a sugar-addicted hyper kid believes a superhero should act and that’s part of the charm of it all.
Grade: B +
Batman (1989): Thanks in large part to the Adam West TV series and the Superfriends cartoon, the general public still saw Batman in a campy and comedic light. Enter young quirky filmmaker Tim Burton who brought the dark and moody vigilante from the comic pages to the silver screen. From the moment we see a black clad Batman stalk a pair of thieves through an art deco inspired Gotham City, we know Batman is going to give us whole new take on the character. Bringing Burton’s vision of Batman to life surprisingly came from short of stature comedy actor Michael Keaton. Silencing doubters, Keaton’s brooding performance truly captures the Dark Knight. Audiences are introduced to a world where Batman seen as an urban legend in Gotham City, until the Joker, played to hammy perfection by Jack Nicholson busts onto the scene. For the first time Batman must step into the public eye to stop this threat to his city. Batman has become a classic of the superhero genre and still holds up as a damn entertaining flick. Tim Burton’s style and strong performances from both Nicholson and Keaton prove to be a winning combination in bringing Batman to the big screen. If you wish you can read the full Retro Review HERE.
Batman Returns: With the success of Batman, it was a no-brainer Tim Burton would be brought in for a sequel and with Batman Returns he amped up the Burton-ness to new heights. The Expressionistic style was increased to make Gotham more nightmarish (especially with the Penguin’s circus people running around) which fit well with the wintery setting of the flick. Introducing both the Penguin and Catwoman into the mix, the director set in stone the Batmovie precedent of having multiple villains in a movie. Michael Keaton is once again fantastic as Batman but it is Michelle Pfeifer’s Catwoman who steals the show as Gotham’s most famous thief. Burton may have given her a bizarre origin (empowered from cat licks) but Pfeifer absolutely nails her performance. Instead of a dapper gentleman with a long nose, the Penguin of this flick is a grotesque character who found a home among the freaks and outcasts whom he leads. The fact that Tim Burton’s creative brought with it a darker and more foreboding tone, which made Batman Returns a hard sell to licensees hoping to make; T-shirts and action figures and Kid’s Meal toys etc. Despite this, it is an entertaining film if not a little more bizarre than many would expect.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm: Television’s Batman the Animated Series had become a solid hit for the Fox TV network. Thanks to showrunner Bruce Timm and the love he and his team had for the Batman mythos the series became a hit with kids and adult audiences alike earning rave reviews from critics. This led to a bold choice to adapt Batman TAS to the big screen with Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Kevon Conroy, Mark Hamill and the rest of the show’s cast were joined by talents like; Dana Delaney, Stacey Keach, and Abe Vigoda who all brought their A-game. A new villain, the Phantasm, as come to Gotham and is targeting the mob bosses and letting Batman take the heat for it. Now Batman is a fugitive and the target of a smear campaign as he tries to solve this mystery. Adding on to this is the return of a woman from Bruce Wayne’s past who complicates matters as he ponders leaving behind his cape and cowl to be with her. Like the series it was based on, Mask of the Phantasm featured a level of violence and complex storytelling not often seen in a “kid’s movie”. For many fans this was the movie which made Mark Hamill the definitive Joker as he brought a gleefully sinister vocal performance to the character. Despite not lighting up the box office, Mask of the Phantasm was a hit on the video market and is definitely in contention for best Batman movie ever.
Batman Forever: After the darker tone of Batman Returns, the studio heads wanted to bring a more family friendly take on Batman to the big screen. They brought in Joel Schumacher for Batman Forever it what would be the beginning of the end for this series. Schumacher’s biggest contribution would be adding Robin to the series after years of fans wondering when he would show up. Visually the series separated from Burton’s noir inspired Expressionism and headed for a more colorful direction with neon lighting strewn everywhere, definitely taking away from the city’s ominous nature. Like in Batman Returns, Batman had to deal with two villains in the form of the Riddler and Two Face. Though viewers are sadly out of luck as they are not the eccentric tactician and tortured former DA as they are in the source material; instead they act like obnoxious hams trying to eat up as much scenery as possible. Though the silliness and camp aspects were on prominent display we got glimpses of a darker storyline where Bruce Wayne ponders his future as Batman which could have been interesting had they followed-up with it more.
Batman & Robin: Without a doubt Batman & Robin is the low point of the Batman film franchise. Like Burton with Batman Returns, Joel Schumacher’s initial success gave him the greenlight to go even bigger and bolder. The revolving door of Batactors continued as George Clooney replaced Val Kilmer in the cape and cowl. However this is not the veteran actor who takes his roles seriously kind of Clooney we know today, instead this George Clooney who hammed it up with a smugness that was cringeworthy. In the promotion of this flick however Clooney was not top-billed, that honor went to Arnold Schwarzenegger who played Mr. Freeze. Those hoping for a cerebral tragic Freeze inspired by Batman: the Animated Series need look elsewhere if that’s what they were looking for in Batman & Robin, as the action hero’s performance has entered geek legend for its silliness. Chris O’Donell is once again a whiny annoyance as Robin, made even worse by the fact that he’s a grown adult by this point. Less of a movie a more of a loud bombastic toy commercial Batman & Robin failed in spectacular fashion and killed the Batman franchise for the next several years.
Batman Begins: It had been close to a decade since the Dark Knight’s pointy cowl had shown up onscreen. Considering how bad the last outing was, many filmgoers were okay with this, but not director Christopher Nolan who was entrusted give audiences a fresh new spin on Batman. His film Batman Begins took this beloved characters back to basics, at the very beginning of his career in a very real and recognizable world. In a career defining performance Christian Bale portrays Bruce Wayne as a troubled young man searching the world for fulfillment after the fallout of his parent’s murder. He returns to Gotham adopting the mantle of the Batman to terrorize the criminal underworld. After movies of hammy over-the-top villains, it was refreshing to see takes on Ras al Ghul and the Scarecrow which were menacing and true to the comics. Batman Begins restored the Caped Crusader as a bankable franchise as it earned tremendous critical and commercial success.
The Dark Knight: As critically and commercially successful as Batman Begins was Christopher Nolan had complete trust in planning the next step in his Batman saga. As movie history has now proven he absolutely delivered as the Dark Knight will probably be remembered as one of the finest movies ever made. Lest we forget the casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker ruffled feathers all over the place when it was originally announced, but the young actor silenced any criticism with his inspired take on the villain. It is a shame that we lost him so soon thereafter. Picking up where Begins left off, this movie shows a Batman who must now deal with the consequences of his mission to fight crime. His forges an alliance with Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent to deliver a finishing blow to the traditional crime in Gotham, but a new threat rises in its place in the form of the Joker. The Dark Knight is nothing short of an enthralling epic with two rivals battling for the soul of the city in the center of it all. Hailed by many critics as arguably the best movie of 2008, the Dark Knight had lofty expectations to meet after the success of it’s predecessor and it arguably exceeded all of them.
The Dark Knight Rises: All good things must end and so the Dark Knight trilogy drew to a close with the Dark Knight Rises. Christopher Nolan pulled out all the stops for this finale as a false era of peace comes to an end in Gotham at the hands of Bane. This forces a damaged Bruce Wayne out of his self-imposed exile for one last battle to save his city. To stand a chance in the face of this threat, Batman must forge an uneasy alliance with the thief Catwoman. Christopher Nolan tackles heavy issues like class division and mortality, but never loses sight that this epic is all centered on one man who perseveres in the face of adversity. To reflect this Christian Bale once again delivers an emotional performance in his final turn as the Dark Knight. The character is now older and trying to reignite the fire he once had and Bale plays this perfectly. With everything going on in this movie the Dark Knight Rises can feel bloated but it is still a masterful ending to the trilogy.
Batman vs Superman: Studio heads at Warner Bros. tried to figure out how to play catch-up with Marvel Studios who had turned their properties into a full-fledged cinematic universe. What they came up with was the meeting of the two biggest superheroes in their stable as for the first time onscreen. The aesthetics of their approach was wrong from the start however. The biggest reason people always compare and contrast these two character is because of how different they are. Superman is the charming dashing hero who soars in the skies while Batman is a dark and brooding hero who hides in the shadows. In Batman vs Superman it was decided that both characters would be violent, dark and brooding throwing the dynamic off and making the flick a joyless drag. After much controversy, Ben Affleck made his Batman debut in this movie as an aging cynical Bruce Wayne inspired by Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. Affleck’s performance surprised a lot of people as the actor proved more than ready to play this iconic character alongside Jeremy Irons as Alfred. After seeing Superman destroy Metropolis in a slugfest, rather than stop along the way to help people, Batman understandably sees the Man of Steel as a potential threat. This rivalry is amplified by Lex Luthor playing a convoluted game to bring these heroes to blows, luckily their mothers have the same name so they become BFFs instantly. With a good half hour cut out of the movie the plot flows horribly, but even with those scenes restored Batman vs. Superman is still a bleak bore of a movie.
Grade: D (theatrical cut) C- (director’s cut)
Justice League: With the culmination of the DCEU, Warner Bros. took their time to ensure all of their duck were in a ro…….actually they just slapped a movie together at the last minute. Originally slated to be two movies, the studio got cold feet and forced director Zack Snyder to cram everything into one movie. When a family tragedy pulled Snyder away before the film’s completion, Joss Whedon, who has a style completely contrary to Snyder’s, was brought in to finish the project in time for a November release. This way the executives could still get their bonuses. The result was Justice League being a bizarre Frankenstein movie, throwing DC’s marquee characters together for a flick that was; part Zack Snyder monochromatic spectacle and part Joss Whedon quippy character moments. Ben Affleck once again donned the cape and cowl in a leadership role, putting together a team who would hurriedly bounce around from scene to scene. The pace was fast to a fault as the team had to: form together, resurrect Superman (who is a symbol of hope all of a sudden), and stop a Playstation rendered baddie in a less than 2 hr. runtime. This is by no stretch of the imagination a good movie but it is a very entertaining movie. The characters are fun for the most part and any dull moments are few and far between. Justice League is worth a watch if for the life experience alone.
The Lego Batman Movie: I must admit I must give this one extra credit, based on the fact the “kids can be cruel” line is one of my favorite jokes in a movie ever. With the surprise success of the Lego Movie, the powers that be at Warner Bros. decided to branch out with the franchise beginning with a block version of this popular character. Obviously Lego Batman took a very tongue-in-cheek look at the hero, but there is a solid heart to the movie which shows a bravado-filled Batman who is ultimately scared to be part of a family again. Will Arnett reprises his role as Batman in Lego-form and is joined by an all-star cast including: Ralph Fiennes, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, and Zach Galifianakis. Given the freedom animation gives filmmakers director Chris McKay pulls out all the stops in this movie. Not only do we see every member of Batman’s distinguished Rogue’s Gallery in block form, but thanks to the Joker we see other famed pop culture baddies like: Sauron, Daleks, King Kong, Voldemort and so many others. It is clear this movie was made for Batman fans by Batman fans as they are countless references to the characters 75+ year history. The Lego Batman Movie is good silly fun with an unexpected amount of heart.