Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Ranking The Batman Films (Worst To First)

After months of feverish anticipation, when The Dark Knight finally opens this Friday the big question likely won't be whether it's good, but HOW GOOD? Unfortunately, the hype is so out of control that anything less than a modern cinematic masterpiece would be considered disappointing. Me? I just want a great time.

Despite expectations being so high the good news for director Christopher Nolan is that all of the previous entries in the series (including his) are far from perfect and you could argue the definitive Batman film has yet to be made. Over the years the franchise has taken many forms and has had a rough history, proving to be a challenging character to efficiently translate to the big screen. So where will The Dark Knight rank? It could be at the top if Nolan avoids making the many mistakes listed below and sprinkled throughout various installments of the series. Of course, that’s easier said than done.


6. Batman and Robin (1997)
What Works:
Um…this is tough. Give me a second here. Well, Uma Thurman at least looks great in the Poison Ivy costume. I actually thought her performance wasn’t too bad either, and the casting of her and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze made sense on paper. The special effects and set pieces are impressive and Michael Gough does his best work as Alfred here. I guess it’s possible you can view it as the guiltiest of guilty pleasures if you’re in the mood. The unintentionally hilarious casting of George Clooney as Batman is good for a couple of points. At least now we can laugh. Yeah, I know, I’m grasping at straws here.

What Doesn’t:
How much time do you have? First off, Clooney obviously. Though in his defense there isn’t an actor alive who could have saved this and it's to his credit that he’s needlessly taken responsibility for the film’s failure in interviews. But he was the wrong choice and you could argue it’s the worst casting decision in the franchise’s history, with Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl coming in at a close second. And when did that character become Alfred’s niece?

Arnold is just plain laughable as Mr. Freeze. Chris O’ Donnell is wasted this time around as Robin. The dialogue is embarrassing, the special effects are just too much, nipples on the bat suit, the whole movie is a toy commercial, Elle McPherson. Yeah, that about covers it.

We all should all thank Schumacher. If he didn’t make this disaster the Batman franchise would not be experiencing the creative resurgence it is now.

5. Batman Forever (1995)
What works:
Val Kilmer does a decent job when in costume. Chris O’ Donnell is a great fit as Robin and his introduction is handled surprisingly well. Jim Carrey as the The Riddler works and Nicole Kidman’s Dr. Chase Meridian is easily the best love interest in all the Batman films, even if that's faint praise. It’s a visual feast that moves along at a spry pace and features a great soundtrack.

What Doesn’t:
Tommy Lee Jones gives the worst performance of his career as Two-Face. Aaron Eckhart should have an easy job wiping that painful memory away. Kilmer is wooden as Bruce Wayne. Carrey is annoying as Edward E. Nigma and his back story is ridiculous. Schumacher manages to find precisely the wrong tone for the franchise-all style, no substance at all. And what’s with that silly title?

Having recently re-watched and reviewed this, I was surprised it had some positive attributes. It could almost be considered a good movie, if you shut your brain off and look at it at for what it is. That said, this was the wrong direction for the series to go in and its follow-up proved it.

4. Batman: The Movie (1966)
What Works:
Adam West and Burt Ward are perfect as Batman and Robin (at least within the context and time period they’re presented). Cesar Romero, Frank Gorshin and Burgess Meredith steal the show as Joker, Riddler, and Penguin respectively. Despite cramming all those villains in the story manages to be very entertaining while effortlessly capturing the energy and spirit of the campy 60’s TV series.

What Doesn’t:
NO JULIE NEWMAR AS CATWOMAN. Lee Meriwether steps in and does about as good a job as can be expected, but Newmar’s absence is really felt. In fact, she currently holds the title for best performance as a Batman villain in the franchise’s history. In her prime she could show up in the Nolan films (or any of the others on this list) and just kill it. She was that good. The film is overcrowded with villains, the screenplay jams too much in and its tone prevents it from being viewed as anything more than a fun diversion or goofy nostalgia.

It’s a joke, but unlike Schumacher’s films, it’s intended to be. Part of me wonders what would happen if they re-made the ‘60’s TV series in this style today with current actors in the roles. Interesting fact: Cesar Romero actually refused to shave his mustache to play the Joker in both the show and the movie so they were forced to actually apply the make-up over it. C'mon Cesar, why so serious?

3. Batman Returns (1992)
What Works:
It's by far the most visually impressive Batman film of them all. The costume and production design deserve to go down as the some of the most memorable of the 90’s. When people think of what best represents Tim Burton’s visual artistry as a director this is always mentioned alongside Edward Scissorhands and it should be.

Michelle Pfeiffer is fantastic as Catwoman, but I think Danny DeVito is even better as the grotesque Penguin. Michael Keaton excels once again as both Bruce Wayne and Batman. A crazed Chistopher Walken, Danny Elfman’s score, a cameo from Pee-Wee Herman! What’s not to like? It’s the rare sequel that not only doesn’t suck, but builds on everything that was special about its predecessor.

What Doesn’t:

The screenplay. The scenes with Catwoman work well, but any with mousy secretary Selena Kyle and her ridiculous backstory don’t. The movie suffers from having to split time between her and Penguin and as a result, both villains suffer. Each really needed a film apiece to convey the depth of their stories and adding Walken to the mix didn’t help their cause. It has a “been there, done that” feel to it because Burton essentially made the same film as his original, but inserted different villains.

A lot of people consider this their favorite Batman film and I can see why. Despite the writing flaws, it’s mostly terrific.

2. Batman Begins (2005)
What Works:
The best acting of any Batman film. Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Tom Wilkinson, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy. It doesn’t get any better than that. You can tell Christopher Nolan took the job of resuscitating this franchise seriously and the results clearly show on screen. It’s a tight origin story to re-establish the character and almost flawlessly directed. Like Keaton before him, Bale is awesome as Bruce Wayne AND Batman. If Schumacher found exactly the wrong tone, Nolan's feels just right.

What Doesn’t:
I'll give you a hint: She's married to Tom Cruise. All Maggie Gyllenhaal has to do is show up and she’ll likely make a better Rachel Dawes than Katie Holmes. It’s not so much that Holmes gives a bad performance per se, just that she adds nothing to the role and shared little chemistry with Bale. But in her defense the Rachel character is thanklessly written and poorly developed, so it’s hard to distinguish how much of this can actually be attributed to her.

While played exceptionally well by Neeson and Murphy, Ra’s al Ghul and Scarecrow just aren’t strong, recognizable villains. Also, having two or more major villains never works as well as having a single strong one. It's a mistake that’s been made repeatedly in the franchise’s history and a potential problem to watch out for in The Dark Knight.

Nolan deserves a standing ovation. This was incredibly difficult to pull off, but he did and the film benefits from being completely unlike any other on this list. It really is a re-imagining, but I think he's capable of even more.

1. Batman (1989)
What Works:
Strong screenplay, strong visuals, Elfman’s score, Keaton’s performance, and it features the best looks for the bat suit, the batmobile and the batcave. Nearly everything clicks. It also proves why there should only be one main villain in a Batman film. And boy is it that villain ever a strong one.

At risk of eating these words later, I hope that regardless of what Heath Ledger does with his Joker,  that it isn’t lost on current audiences that Jack Nicholson really shines here. And no, I’m not among those who feel he “upstaged” the film or Keaton. When I think of Batman or Bruce Wayne I still think of Keaton immediately and while Bale may have been the best actor to play the role, he hasn’t changed that in my mind. At least not yet.

What Doesn’t:
Kim Basinger’s Vicky Vale, who’s a very bland, flavor-of-the-week love interest in a film that deserves better. Basinger’s performance is fine, but the character is a throwaway. To be honest, all these films have serious problems portraying strong female characters and this definitely isn't an exception. The movie hasn’t aged as well as I thought it would and that’s mainly because Burton has spent his entire career re-making it over and over again (most recently with Sweeney Todd), thus lessening its impact. His Gothic universe is really starting to wear out its welcome.

A very close call but this edges out Batman Begins, if just barely. It still holds the top slot but its grip is slipping.

1 comment:

JD said...

The only problem I have with Batman Returns is Devito-- it is just to over the top, but otherwise I think it is a pretty sweet film.
To be honest, it took many a long time to get into the first Batman film. I saw it a couple of times, but the first time-- I just thought it was a lot of hype.
What works about both Burton
s films is Keaton. He is the unsung hero of that era. The Schumacher films are an abomination the more I think about them.

BAtman Begins was perfect to me. It just got everything right.
Excellent article.