Tuesday, March 29, 2016

For the record: Batman movies ranked

To put my review of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in some perspective I present my rankings of all live-action Batman movies from 1943 to the present.

1. The Dark Knight (2008) - Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker has overshadowed the tragic element of Bruce Wayne's story in the second film of Christopher Nolan's trilogy. This is the one where Wayne (Christian Bale) wants to give up Batman so he can be with his beloved Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Almost unconsciously, he sets up Rachel's current boyfriend, D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) to take his place as Gotham's hero -- a "white knight" to his dark knight -- so he can take Dent's place with Rachel. His plan ends with both Rachel and Harvey destroyed. Having never truly given up the cowl, he now wears it as a matter of penance, not just as the hero Gotham "deserves," but as the hero Bruce deserves to be -- or so we thought at the end until Nolan told us in the next film that Bruce actually just quit. I left Dark Knight feeling that Nolan had said all he needed to say about Batman, and his sequel sadly vindicated that feeling.

2. Batman Returns (1992) - I guess I prefer a tragic Batman, because here's another. Bruce (Michael Keaton) finds a soulmate in damaged, vengeful Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) but if anything they're too much alike for a happy ending to be possible. Returns is Tim Burton in ultimate Expressionist mode, mastering his influences in a never-to-be-repeated personalization of a corporate entertainment property. Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito's Penguin follow Ledger as the best Batman villains on screen.

3. Batman (1989) - Marred by the pop imperative of Prince's soundtrack, the first Burton film remains iconic, and I suspect Ledger has never fully displaced Jack Nicholson as the ideal incarnation of the Joker for many people. Michael Keaton remains the template for unpredictable casting that pays off; at the very least he's the right Batman for a Burton film. Danny Elfman's score is a revelation.

4. Batman Begins (2005) - Strange to report, I didn't see the first Nolan Batman film on the big screen. It struck me at first glance as unambitious in its effort to ground Batman in a realistic milieu, but Begins won me over on the small screen.

5. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) - It should be apparent that Batman fandom biases me in this film's favor a little, but I like Ben Affleck's intensity and the hints of dissolution both he and Jeremy Irons' Alfred display, and I'm interested in seeing more of his interpretation of the character, especially if he asserts more creative control in the future.

6. Batman (1966) - It's a shame Julie Newmar couldn't play Catwoman in this all-star villain jam, but it's a treat to see Cesar Romero's Joker, Burgess Meredith's Penguin and especially Frank Gorshin's Riddler bounce off each other. Many Batman fans still resent this film and Adam West's TV show, and their defensiveness toward their hero has darkened the knight for generations afterward. I felt that way myself for a few years until I came to appreciate that West et al did their thing on purpose, not because they were idiots, and were actually quite good at it. The movie isn't as good as the best episodes -- for me those are the second-season stories with Newmar -- but I still find it entertaining.

7. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) - Nolan concludes his trilogy with a clunk, undermining the tragic message of his previous film by allowing Bruce to escape his destiny and have a happy ending with Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), but it takes a plot that makes Dawn of Justice look brilliant and at crucial points apes the rather crappy James Bond film The World is Not Enough. Count me as an admirer of Tom Hardy's eccentric Bane, while Hathaway's "Cat" is likable but not as darkly original and powerful as Pfeiffer's. Too many moments that insult the intelligence almost balanced by some epic action scenes, and ultimately the biggest disappointment of all these films considering what was expected.

8. Batman (1943) - Unapologetic wartime racism, chintzy production values and inept action only add to this Columbia serial's bizarre camp charm. On the plus side, the serial gives us Alfred in his definitive form -- the comics imitated it and abandoned his original roly-poly form -- and I enjoy Lewis Wilson's seedy undercover work as "Chuck White," a precursor of Matches Malone and a personality I'd have Batman play in comics if I ever had a chance. Plus, for all that he's a racist stereotype, J. Carrol Naish's Dr. Daka makes a pretty good serial villain.

9. Batman Forever (1995) - Once upon a time Warner Bros. decided that Batman movies had gotten too dark. The solution to the problem was Joel Schumacher. Be careful what you wish for now. The knee-jerk casting of Jim Carrey as the Riddler and the total botch of Two-Face by future Oscar winner Akiva Goldsman and Tommy Lee Jones sealed this film's fate fast. Worse was to come.

10. Batman and Robin (1949) - Say what you will about the 1943 serial, but it wasn't dull. This one was. I remember almost nothing about it, which is the only reason it doesn't sit at the bottom of this list.

11. Batman and Robin (1997) - I remember Schumacher's second, series-killing film all too well. This movie opened thirty-year old wounds for many Batman fans and scarred some who'd never had an opinion about the old TV show. It probably led to some people doubling down on darkness for Batman, with consequences felt to the present day. Compromise the darkness, they might say, and you start on a slippery slope that ends here. Likewise, some will say that blind flight from camp ends at the opposite extreme of Dawn of Justice. A middle ground ought to be possible, but you can understand why people would want to get as far aesthetically as possible from this disaster.

1 comment:

hobbyfan said...

Like, Sam, you KNOW "Batman Begins" came out in 2005.

That aside, and having not seen the 40's serials in their entirety, I'd rank what I've seen differently. To wit:

1. Dark Knight.
2. Batman '89.
3. Batman Returns.
4. Batman Begins.
5. The Dark Knight Rises.
6. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
7. Batman '66.
8. Batman & Robin '97.
9. Batman Forever.

Schumacher deservedly belongs at the bottom of the Bat-barrel.