We’re three weeks from the latest cinematic incarnation of Batman, brought to us this time by action film director Zack Snyder. I would be lying if I didn’t express a certain amount of apprehension for “Batman V Superman: The Dawn of Justice.” Snyder is known for his bombastic sense of adventure in action sequences, but not so much in storytelling.
Still, there’s a thrill to seeing one of my favorite superheroes returning to the big screen in a new form. Much has been speculated about Ben Affleck and how he’ll do in the role. We’ll have to judge for ourselves soon, but now would be a great time to reflect back on the past films featuring the Dark Knight. It’ll be fascinating to see how Affleck’s Bruce Wayne ranks among the best – and worst – moments in Batman movie history.
Onto the countdown!
- Batman & Robin
There’s not much to say about this absolute massacre of Batman that hasn’t already been stated. Universally panned at the time of release, and even more hated in the years since, “Batman & Robin” was a rushed blockbuster meant to capitalize on the mammoth success of “Batman Forever” just two years earlier. The public wasn’t ready for more Batman, and, as it turns out, neither were the filmmakers. Featuring a horrid performance by George Clooney as the Caped Crusader and a comically atrocious Mr. Freeze in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger, it’s easy to see why some believed Batman would never recover from such a train wreck. The only redeeming quality is we now have this campy gem to reflect on when considering Batman at his worst.
- Batman Forever
“Batman Forever” is a lot like that truck stop you pulled over at on a road trip to your grandmother’s house in Texas growing up. You remember the greasy, overfilled plate as being one of the best meals of your youth; then you go back years later and discover the sliminess really being consumed. Many fans – especially those like me who were in our youths when this film came out – have fond memories of the 1995 blockbuster. Returning to it today shows how incoherent it is. True, Jim Carey’s Riddler is good for some laughs, and the Robin origin story is told is a somewhat poignant matter. Val Kilmer’s Batman, though, is as about as lively as cardboard, and the ridiculous plot produces more eye rolls than anything else. At least the ads with the Batman symbol in the Riddler’s question mark were cool, right?
- Batman: The Movie
This 1966 adaptation of the famed television show was, outside of a few black-and-white movie serials, the first big screen appearance of Batman. And, honestly, it’s not that bad. Yes, it is as comical and campy as you’d come to expect. The Adam West-led cast plays it as comedic, though, which makes the viewing infinitely more enjoyable. The film is loaded with characters from the original TV series and actually serves as a good introduction to the franchise for younger viewers. Those that prefer their Batman serious, however, would be best to avoid it.
- The Dark Knight Rises
Did I just ruffle some feathers? The 2012 follow-up to the epic “Dark Knight,” was easily one of the most anticipated films of all time. We waited four years to get a five-star conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s trilogy; instead, what we got was a bit of a mixed bag. Yes, there’s no denying Tom Hardy’s Bane is magnificent, as is the set-up for crippling Bruce Wayne only to bring him back as Gotham’s savior. There are still too many plot holes and poorly conceived scenarios in the second half (a city bomb threat? At a football game? Really?) to be ignored. And the ending, which I won’t spoil, left many scratching their heads. “The Dark Knight Rises” certainly isn’t a bad film; it’s a good one that attempts to be great, but never quite reaches the mark.
- Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Often forgotten in Batman cinematic lore is the 1993 animated release, which was another TV series adaptation. “Batman: The Animated Series” was one of the most acclaimed cartoons of the early 1990s. It was praised for its design, killer scores, and themes, which were seen as being just as accessible to adults as they were to children. It made sense for the theatrical release to take place, which serves as part-mystery and part-character exploration. We get a better understanding of Batman, his past, and his detective skills from this one outing than we do from the majority of his live-action crime fighting. Highly reviewed and still embraced by fans 23 years later, “Mask of the Phantasm” is a smaller Dark Knight release with a big reputation.
- Batman Returns
As gritty as we’ve seen Batman on the big screen, it’s hard to top the raw darkness and grim nature of Tim Burton’s sequel, “Batman Returns.” Most at the time considered the release to be downright strange; many still do. Beneath the surface, though, you’ll discover one of Burton’s most physiologically complex films and a real treat for fans of the Caped Crusader. Featuring perfect casting (it doesn’t get any better than Danny DeVito as Penguin) and luxurious set pieces, this rendition of Batman’s journey delves more into the minds of its villains than its heroes. The results are sometimes disturbing, but always fascinating. I feel this is a Batman film that will continue to gain traction and attention as the years go on.
- Batman Begins
What’s to be said about this 2005 reboot that hasn’t already been uttered? It’s one of the finest templates we have for how to relaunch a franchise. Christopher Nolan directs the origin of Batman and his rise to prominence with such focus and intensity, it’s hard to not view it as one of the best versions of Bruce Wayne’s beginnings ever told. Throw in a new Batman in Christian Bale and a mesmerizing performance from Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow, and you have yourself one monumental start to a new trilogy of superhero films. Even as DC has had such a hard time creating cinematic versions of its heroes to compete with the juggernaut that is Marvel, “Batman Begins” is proof it can happen.
It’s as essential the 80s at Michael Jackson, Madonna, Ronald Reagan, and Alf. 1989’s “Batman,” Tim Burton’s first take on the Batman legend, set the standard for all films on the character to follow, and, in many ways, it’s never been topped. Danny Elfman’s unforgettable score lingers in the head for days after watching it, as does Prince’s electric soundtrack. The performances are among the most memorable in the franchise, from Michael Keaton’s stoic Bruce Wayne to Jack Nicholson’s dynamic Joker. Even though “Star Wars” and “Jaws” get the bulk of the credit for creating the modern summer blockbuster, “Batman” is every bit as important for serving as one of the first summer big-budget releases that completely reshaped the business. At nearly 30 years old, it still holds up so well. What a treasure of a film this is.
- The Dark Knight
The obvious choice for the top spot is the right one. Christopher Nolan’s phenomenal sequel to 2005’s “Batman Begins” raised the bar not just for Batman flicks, but superhero outings in general. Heath Ledger’s Joker is the stuff of legend and more than worthy of the Oscar it earned the film. Equally compelling is the Shakespearean-esque script, which balances a murder mystery with a powerful moral lesson on security and the lengths we go to protect those we love. Nolan directs a real masterpiece here, backed up by Hans Zimmer’s powerful score and Christian Bale’s best acting of the trilogy. It’s Batman at his finest, and while we’ll undoubtedly see many interpretations of the Caped Crusader in the years ahead, “The Dark Knight” will be a hard king to dethrone. After all, there’s only one film in history that actually made the Academy change its rules for Best Picture, and it’s this one.