Welcome to the Waiver Wire’s EVERY BATMAN EVER MARATHON. In the weeks leading up to the release of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ I will be watching and analyzing every feature film based on the Caped Crusader. The Batman film franchise is an old one with roots stretching all the way back to film serials produced in the 40′s. The first feature film came about in 1966 and our love affair with The World’s Greatest Detective has continued on ever since. Check back every Wednesday for the newest installments and I encourage you to join in and do the marathon with me. Here’s the schedule (click on the date for past installments):
Intro: 5/23; Batman (1966): 5/30; Batman (1989): 6/6; Batman Returns (1992): 6/13; Batman Forever (1995): 6/20; Batman & Robin (1997): 6/27; Batman Begins (2005): 7/4; The Dark Knight (2008): 7/11; Recap/Rankings: 7/18; The Dark Knight Rises (2012): 7/25
We are one day away from the release of The Dark Knight Rises and I’m full on freaking out. The early reviews are positive, I’ve managed to avoid spoilers (so far) and my quest to ban myself from watching any new clips or trailers has been a smashing success. My midnight Imax tickets are locked and loaded and I’ve just spent the last seven weeks watching and analyzing all of the Batman films leading up to this point. I’m ready. But first I want to take a look back.
This weekly marathon started as an idea I presented to the other Waiver Wire writers with me saying something like, “I’m going to try and watch all the Batman movies and write about it but will probably forget one week and ruin the whole thing.” As it turns out once I started I was hooked and the movies and reviews have been something I’ve looked forward to each week. What’s been remarkable to me is watching the franchise go through so many transitions while factoring what I know about the production history of each film and the eventual direction of the character. Before ranking anything I want to give out a few awards.
Award For the Craziest Moment: This award should probably just go to Batman: The Movie (1966) because it is one long spiral into brightly colored insanity. But that would be a cop out so instead I’m going to give the award out to two different scenes (less of a cop out), the first is Adam West’s Batman attempting to dispose of a comically oversized bomb for upwards of a year in the 1966 film. This ties with the Batman & Robin scene in which Mr. Freeze tries to make his army of hockey playing henchmen sing, all while wearing polar bear slippers and a robe. I’m pretty sure Arnold wouldn’t have been a Governor if one of his opponents thought to whip out that scene.
Award for the Best Batman/Bruce: My Nolan bias is going to win out here. The award goes to Christian Bale for his smarmy public Bruce Wayne and snarling, badass Batman. It’s a combination of a great dramatic actor clicking with his director and Bale’s ability to handle the grueling fight choreography. His divisive Bat voice works for me and he has the acting chops necessary to carry out Nolan’s artistic vision.
Award for the Best Villain: Who am I to argue with the Academy? The award goes to Heath Ledger for his jaw dropping performance as the Joker. The most amazing part of his take on the character is how transformed Ledger is as an actor. It’s a rare thing to see someone truly disappear into a character but this is one glorious instance. When you compare it to Jack Nicholson’s performance you can see what I’m talking about. Jack is fun, but you know exactly who’s under that makeup. Heath is damn near unrecognizable, and not just because of his makeup. Plus there’s this.
Award for the Best Gotham: And the award goes to…Batman Returns and Mr. Tim Burton. Rewatching this movie made me remember that, before Burton was making horrendous, unforgivably bad versions of Alice in Wonderland, he was a visionary artist capable of creating dark blockbusters that brimmed with imagination.
Burton imbues his Gotham with a timeless quality that no other director has been able to match. Nolan’s grounded Gotham is great for his film’s but Burton really grasps the gothic and noir elements of the source material. His Gotham seems to exist in a time between the Great Depression and the mid 50’s. Yet modern technology isn’t shied away from. This style blends with Burton’s dark inclinations and the result is a city that feels like a place where Batman would really exist.
My Mistakes: Someone pointed out to me that Robin’s costume in Batman & Robin is actually a red and black version of the Nightwing costume. While Schumacher made the mistake of putting Chris O’Donnell in that costume, I have to concede that the design is a great nod to the comics and solves the problem of translating Robin’s skimpy source material outfit to the screen.
Each of these films has been out for years and has had a chance to sink in. Their cultural impact is established and their iconography is firmly in the mind of Batman fans. I’ve also seen each of these films more than once and have had time to process them fully. For that reason I’m going to rank the films in this franchise before seeing The Dark Knight Rises. I’m going to do an analysis of TDKR but I don’t want to rank it before giving it time to set in. So now, without further ado, here are rankings:
- #7- Batman Forever (1995)
In last place is Joel Schumacher’s first attempt at killing Batman. Batman & Robin is a worse film. Hell, Batman: The Movie is a worse film. But Forever is just so much less watchable. It’s not campy enough to qualify for ‘so bad it’s good’ and it’s not a great film by any other standards. Val Kilmer is an awkward, goofy Batman and he’s pitted against two villains who seem to be in a contest to try and be more ridiculous than the other. Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones do have moments of over the top performing which leads to laughs but for the most part their performances are just sort of sad. Plus, this movie unleashed the atrocious superhero acting of Chris O’Donnell on the world and I’ll never forgive it for that. You can skip this one at Blockbuster (if you can even find one).
Next up is 1966’s camptastic take on the “Bright Knight.” Adam West is fun to watch in this film because he comes across as deranged instead of heroic. But not typical Batman deranged. More like Death to Smoochy deranged. You never know exactly what bizarre monologue or kooky device he’ll whip out next and Burt Ward’s overzealous Boy Scout version of Robin is the perfect sidekick. The villains are all giggling lunatics prone to astonishingly bad plans and any gadget owned by Batman has “Bat” in front of it. This may not be a good movie but it sure is an experience.
- #5- Batman & Robin (1997)
In 5th place is the film which killed Batman as a film franchise for eight long years. It’s silly, visually confusing and never manages to come together in any meaningful or exciting way. On the other hand, it has some of the most cringe worthy one-liners ever committed to the screen and an Arnold Schwarzenegger performance for the ages. Batman and Robin’s omnipresent nipples and huge cod pieces are just a small sample of all the ways Schumacher went wrong with this film but you’ll have a great time watching it and, in this case, that’s what counts.
- #4- Batman (1989)
Tim Burton’s first crack at the Caped Crusader didn’t hold up as well as I expected it to. It’s a decent movie and Burton was at the top of his game when he made the film. His visual instincts are sharp and he crafts a really fun Gotham that works well within the tone he tries to establish. Still, Nicholson’s Joker is more enjoyable in an “enjoy Jack Nicholson” way than he is a good Joker. The character’s origin is far too boilerplate and his connection to Batman is lazy and foolhardy. Mostly this film feels like something that Burton had a vision for that was tampered with by the studio. My belief in that explanation is bolstered by the next film on the list…
Burton’s follow up is a different animal entirely. I’d forgotten just how good this film is until I rewatched it for the marathon. In fact, it holds its own with any of Nolan’s movie and you can really tell that Burton had much more control over the direction of this movie. His take on Gotham is even better than before and his cavalcade of bad guys features iconic performances from both Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer. It doesn’t hurt that Christopher Walken was thrown in too. This film is bigger, badder and darker than its predecessor and the peak of Batman’s early filmography.
- #2- Batman Begins (2005)
Upon rewatching this film I was surprised by how great it was. After The Dark Knight took over the world in 2008 it was easy to forget about its predecessor but that would be a mistake. This is the definitive Batman origin story and the bold choice to keep Batman off screen for over an hour pays off in a big way. That is, we care about Bruce Wayne. Christian Bale is a big part of this, along with a big, idea driven script that manages to balance thematic excellence and kickass set pieces. This film also introduced the world to a grounded version of Batman who seemed as if he could almost exist in real life. That feat alone deserves a round of applause because it was not easy to pull off in a believable fashion.
Are you really surprised? This film is adored, and decimated the box office, for a reason. Nolan crafted one the all time great summer blockbusters by doing something few big budget filmmakers do, focusing on story and characters. Sure there is great action and Nolan knows how to put a huge budget on the screen in a satisfying way but it’s the deep pathos and complex themes of The Dark Knight that makes the film so damn great. It assumes the audience is filled with intelligent people who want to be challenged by ideas. That puts it miles apart from the average Michael Bay picture.
And do I even have to say it? Heath. Fucking. Ledger.
I’ve really enjoyed these weekly trips to Gotham and I’m beyond excited to take one more trip tomorrow. Check back next week for the conclusion to this series and what may end up being the greatest film trilogy of all time.
Last Up: The Dark Knight Rises (2012): 7/25