With the vast amounts of characters in the comic book universe, few are as prolific as Batman. Over the years the Caped Crusader has had multiple adaptations on the big screen, television and animation. With Christopher Nolan’s final entry in the Batman franchise (The Dark Knight Rises) quickly rising over the horizon, let’s take a look at the top theatrical entries to star the world’s greatest detective.
1. The Dark Knight (2008): Dark, complex, action-packed, sweepingly epic in scope, and thought provoking. Christopher Nolan’s second entry in his Batman trilogy ups the intensity and moral complexity that was introduced in ‘Batman Begins’ by pitting the masked vigilante against the dangerous anarchistic Joker. Heath Ledgers performance as the Joker brings the nonsensical insanity of the character to un-settling life and earned him an posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Filled with great action sequences like the famous Batcycle chase, this film not only managed to deliver great thrills but told a complex narrative that asked the question of how far Batman will go to defeat a seemingly unstoppable evil.
2. Batman Begins (2005): After the critical bomb of ‘Batman and Robin’, Nolan stepped in and rid the live-action franchise of its goofy camp aesthetics in favor of a more realistic approach. Taking inspiration from comic storylines such as the graphic novel Batman: Year One, the film follows the origins of Batman as he establishes himself as Gotham’s sworn protector. For the first time in the franchise, the plot is actually about Batman, not the villains which hogged screen time in the previous four outings. The darker and more realistic approach this movie brought to the table continues to influence Hollywood reboots today, most recently ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’.
3. Batman (1989): Before this movie came out the general conception audiences had about Batman was the campy and goofy 60’s Adam West TV show. That all changed when director Tim Burton brought to the screen a much more edgier interpretation of the character. Michael Keaton as Batman seemed like an unlikely casting choice at the time but his marvelous performance quickly silenced skeptics. The real show stopper however is Jack Nicholson’s off-the-wall performance as the Joker. Although Nicholson is playing more himself than the Joker, whenever he is on screen it’s hard to look away. Along with it’s gothic 30’s inspired setting and an iconic score from Danny Elfman, this movie proved that comic book movies outside of Superman can be done right.
4. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993): This big-screen spin-off to the iconic ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ follows Batman as he tries to stop a mysterious masked vigilante known as the Phantasm from systematically killing mob bosses while also dealing with an old flame. The film examined the complexities of Batman’s character, something the live-action films lacked in, and explored his past similar to that of ‘Batman Begins’. The animated show is considered the best incarnation of Batman and this movie carries the shows unique noir style along with some top-notch writing. It’s a shame that this movie flopped due to poor marketing because it is just as good, if not better than some of the live-action ones.
5. Batman Returns (1992): With the financial and cultural success of the first, both Burton and Keaton returned for the sequel. While the film boasted imaginative production value, Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance as Catwoman, and Danny DeVito’s turn as the Penguin, the even gloomier tone drew mixed reactions from audiences. A lot of parents were shocked at the level of violence (even though it’s PG-13?) and scared Warner Bros. into taking the franchise into a more family-friendly direction despite the film’s massive success.
6. Batman (1966): It’s easy to make fun of the old Adam West TV show for it’s camp aesthetics and silliness, but people have to remember that the show was intentionally so. The opening credits tell the audience up-front that it only means to provide pure un-adulterated entertainment. The movie pits Batman and Robin against the combined evil forces of Catwoman, the Joker, Riddler, and the Penguin. Un-apologetically cheesy and full of hilarious dialogue (Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb), this film is a fun piece of cinematic camp that shouldn’t be forgotten under the darker Nolan flicks.
7. Batman Forever (1995): Replacing Burton as director, Joel Schumacher brought a much brighter and family-friendly tone that was more marketable for Warner Bros. With more neon lights and flashier effects, Schumacher abandoned the gloomy tone of the Burton Batman’s for a more campy interpretation that harkened back to the 60’s TV show. Plagued by wooden-dialogue and an overly stoic lead performance from Val Kilmer, the biggest saving grace is Jim Carrey’s wild comedic performance as The Riddler. In a way, the film feels more like a Jim Carry movie than a Batman flick.
8. Batman and Robin (1997): Considered to be one of the worst superhero movies of all time, Schumacher’s final entry in the Batman franchise feels like the world’s longest and cheesiest toy commercial. Too campy and jokey to be taken seriously while also being too flashy and mindless to be exciting. From the infamous bat nipples and bat credit card to the insufferable one-liners, including the ice puns spewed from the severely misacted Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze. It’s a miracle that George Clooney, who played Batman, ended up being the only actor whose career was not severely damaged by this movie. The universal critical backlash stopped the live-action movie franchise cold (no pun intended) until 2005’s ‘Batman Begins’.