With The Dark Knight Rises on the horizon, I think it is appropriate to take a moment and look back at Batman's cinematic history. He has had some of the best and worst adaptations of his story in comic book movie history.
Let's start with the worst and proceed on to the best in order (we will stick to only feature films in last 50 years).
- Batman and RobinThis is, hands down, the worst film I have ever seen in the theater, and I saw The Piano. This movie did more to destroy the comic book film genre than anything in movie history. Tons of comic book projects were immediately scrapped because of the sickening thud that this made when it hit theaters. Joel Schummacher is rightly reviled for this travesty. He has a cast of decent actors who could have pulled off a mediocre film. But his direction is so unfathomably horrid that he squeezes every drop of insipidness from them. I can imagine one of the actors stopping mid-shoot and saying “Wait, you don't expect me to say this line, do you? It's so stupid.” And I imagine Schummacher saying, “No, it's okay, it's just a comic book movie.” People point to the monumental stupidity of the Mr. Freeze character:But the actual moment the franchise died is here:
- Batman ForeverThis was the beginning of the end. Tim Burton had left the franchise as director so he turned it over to Schummacher. He keeps some of the Burtonesque quality, but you can feel his desire for stupidity pushing through the story. The first warning sign should have been the nipples on the bat suit.This of course showed that he had no idea who Batman was. Unless those nipples fired out a knockout gas when Batman was in trouble, there is no reason for the Dark Knight to have those. But the real crime was Two-Face.Fans were happy when Tommy Lee Jones was cast, but were horrified to see that the direction that Schummacher gave him was, “Did you see Nicholson's Joker? Do that, but with less dignity.
- Batman (1966)I don't want to be too unfair to this movie. By modern standards it is terrible. But if you look at the movie like a parody, it is almost enjoyable. Almost. The super-sincerity with which Adam West and Burt Ward play their parts is reminiscent of the Great Leslie Nielsen from Airplane. But it still cannot escape its inherent dumbness. For example, the heroes are trying to figure out who set a trap for the Dynamic Duo out in the Ocean. Robin comes to the brilliant insight: “Hey, this happened at SEA! Don't you SEE? “C” for Catwoman!”
- 5. Batman ReturnsThis is a decent follow up to the original. Michelle Pfiefer as Catwoman was fantastic, even if a bit over the top. I loved watching Keaton in the Batsuit without the cowl towards the end.But what weighs this movie down is the Penguin. It is not that the character is terribly misinterpreted (which he is). It is that he lacks any kind of real serious threat to Batman, even with his giant rubber duck and cyborg birds
- Batman (1989)This is a fun movie to watch. Michael Keaton's Batman silenced all critics who railed against his casting. This was such a turn around from how he had been portrayed in movies and TV This Batman was mysterious, in the shadows, and dark (note the move to take out all the grays and blues and go with solid black). When Keaton said, “I'm Batman” you believed it. And Nicholson's Joker is iconic and bold and done with much flair. It is actually fascinating to watch the sane “Jack Napier” be controlled and violent, then snap to become the crazy and more violent Joker. This movie has 2 flaws though. Stan Lee once pointed out that this is not a Batman movie, but a Joker movie. On that score he was right on the money. This poisoned the rest of the franchise because the focus would fall more and more on the villains than on the hero. The second is that Batman kills people. In both of Burton's movies, he ignores the most fundamental core principle of Batman: he doesn't want to see anyone die.
- Batman: Mask of the PhantasmThis is the only animated movie on the list, and yes it is better than Burton's Batman. This film was made by the producers of the animated series of the same name. But unlike the show it was more emotional and more violent. The story involves a new vigilante, the Phantasm, coming to Gotham. Unlike the Caped Crusader, the new crime fighter kills people. This causes Batman to set himself in opposition not only to the criminals but to their common enemy in the Phantasm. All the while Bruce Wayne must decide if his never ending war on crime should be abandoned for the lost love of his life, Andrea Beaumont, who has returned to try and win Bruce's heart.This movie gets more right about Batman than any of the feature films up until it came out in 1993
- Batman BeginsWhen Christopher Nolan came aboard to re-introduce Batman to theaters, he wanted to do 2 things: First, he wanted to create a Batman story on the scale of Richard Donner's Superman. That movie was sprawling epic taking place over several years in different places with an all-star cast of characters. Second, he wanted to focus on a part of Batman's origin that had never really been dealt with in movies, namely the years between his parent's death and the donning of the cowl. This fresh take allowed for development of deeper themes like overcoming fear and justice versus vengeance Nolan was also smart enough to move the spotlight away from the villains and onto Bruce Wayne to rediscover why he is such a fascinating character. The biggest flaw in the movie was the miscasting of Katie Holmes as Bruce's love interest Rachel Dawes.While there is chemistry, she does not come off as a believably mature DA. Other than that this was the best of the Batman movies except for...1. The Dark KnightThere are so many things to admire about The Dark Knight both as an avid comic book fan and a film fanatic. As with the prequel, Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan took Batman seriously and placed him in as real a world as possible. Unlike the prequel, the climax of the film is not a hyper-ninja duel, but a battle of wills between the hero (Batman), the monster (the Joker), and the fallen (Two-Face). There are no easy answers in The Dark Knight. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The two questions that are interwoven throughout this highly intellectual superhero film are: Could you become the monster? And what price would you pay to be the hero? Besides the performances, the action sequences, and the overall story, this theme makes The Dark Knight rise above its genre and allows you to reflect on life. The ensemble cast pulls off a multi-faceted narrative that both horrifies and inspires. This is the film that fans of comic books have been waiting for.Special note of course goes to the riveting portrayal of the Joker by Heath Ledger who won a well earned post-humous Oscar for his work. We've always known the power of these characters. The Dark Knight has unleashed them on the world.So how will the last of the Nolan series, The Dark Knight Rises, fare?We'll find out on Friday!