Ranking the Batman Films

With the impending release of The Dark Knight Rises tomorrow (I’ve already got my ticket to see the whole Dark Knight trilogy, starting at 6 PM today, culminating with DKR at midnight tonight), I thought it would be appropriate to throw up my own ranking of the various big screen incarnations of Bruce Wayne and his alter ego.

I will go on record as saying that one does not cast for Batman. One casts for Bruce Wayne. You could put almost anyone into the costume, especially since half the time it’s a stunt double anyway. But the scenes where he doesn’t have his mask, where it’s the pained and vulnerable Bruce Wayne on the screen, is where an actor in the role really gets a chance to prove his mettle (or lack thereof).

So here, from least favorite to most favorite, are my rankings of the films. How do you rank them? Let me know in the comments.

Batman and Robin. I like George Clooney and I like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but this movie was terrible. The campy tone, the crappy dialogue, the costumes, the absolutely terrible batmobile, and the overabundance of villains (and heroes) made this mish-mash just painful to watch. Mr. Freeze singing the Cold Miser song? Poison Ivy imitating Mae West? A totally mindless Bane? Spare me. Joel Schumacher said he didn’t want to make a film about guys in tights with capes, and it shows in every frame.

Batman (1966). Although this was the Batman I grew up with as a kid (thanks to the television show that accompanied the movie), once my eyes were opened up to other takes on the character, this one swiftly slid into the bottom tier. Sure, Caesar Romero is a terrific Joker, and Frank Gorshin a terrific Riddler, and Burgis Meredith a terrific Penguin. And all of the Catwomen are… terrific. But that can’t make up for the comparison with the later films.

Batman Returns. While I think Michael Keaton is one of the best Bruce Waynes ever cast (see below), I didn’t much care for either Danny Devito’s Penguin or Michelle Pfeifer’s Catwoman (heresy, I know). The fact that the Penguin in the first few seasons of Batman the Animated Series was based on the physical design of this Penguin is something that I wish hadn’t been done, but there it is. I suppose it beats a Penguin with a British accent. I was somewhat disappointed that the production design was so obviously the same as that seen in the previous film, with little or no memorable additions, that it felt more like a sequel than most sequels do.

Batman Forever. While I hated Jim Carrey’s Riddler, I loved Tommy Lee Jones’s Two-Face. I thought Val Kilmer was a decent enough Bruce Wayne, and he had a sort of snobbery that was refreshing to see in the character (especially evident in the scene where Carrey’s Edward Nygma tries to pressure him to agree to back his project). I’m not too much of  a fan of the bright colors that this film made up of, though. And while the addition of Robin was predictable, it was also unnecessary, making the film feel more crowded than it needed to be.

Batman Begins. The first of the newest Batman series was ground-breaking. It took a much more serious, practical approach to the character and his world. Gone were the fantastic science-fictiony elements, replaced with military hardware and rigorous training that we actually got to see. Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne was genuinely haunted, seeking to lash out at a world that had hurt him so terribly, and he played that character excellently. Michael Caine’s Alfred was equally terrific; a sympathetic and solid surrogate father for Bruce Wayne.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. I’m so glad this was released (ever so briefly) in theaters, because it gives me a chance to talk about Kevin Conroy’s take on the character. Here, because of the special circumstances surrounding animation, one actually does cast for Batman, because all of the actual acting is done solely through the talents of the actor’s voice. and boy, does Conroy nail it. He can switch in an instant from the dark, gravelly, brooding Batman to the cheerful, almost dopey Bruce Wayne. Mark Hamill’s Joker is rightly praised both for this film and the various television series that featured him, but Conroy is a superb bit of casting that kept the whole thing together. He is the voice of Batman.

Batman (1989). While it’s easy to compare Michael Keaton’s Batman to the others that have come since, it must be remembered that when this film came out, the only Batman audiences had ever seen was Adam West (or the various cartoon incarnations, such as Superfriends from the 1970’s or the Batman/Superman Hour from the 1960’s). At the time, knowing that Tim Burton was going for a darker, more serious tone than anyone had ever really seen from the character in film or television, people thought the casting of Michael Keaton (who at the time was mostly known for his comedic roles such as Night Shift) was a huge mistake. But as soon as the audience saw him hold the mugger off the edge of a rooftop and utter the line “I’m Batman”, all doubts were erased. He played Bruce Wayne with a tinge of humor, but there was always a huge pathos in the background, which I found perfectly spot-on. And of course Jack Nicholson’s Joker was over the top and absolutely terrific. Even the Prince soundtrack was wonderful (not to mention the Danny Elfman score). In my own mind, it’s only a hair’s breadth that separates this film from #1, which is…

The Dark Knight. Having established the character so very well with Batman Begins, Christian Bale stayed the course and delivered another outstanding performance as Gotham’s millionaire playboy. The film is bigger, broader, and in almost all respects better than its predecessor. Of course it is one again the Joker that steals the show– in this case by the late Heath Ledger, who won an Oscar posthumously for his performance. But even his Joker is grounded in reality; no esoteric chemicals to cause the famous grin here; his is literally carved into his face, and his trademark white face and green hair are affectations done simply to creep out his victims (and possibly to cause them to under-estimate him). If this film has a weak spot, it’s the introduction of Harvey Dent/Two Face. The very end, where Batman takes the rap for Harvey’s crimes, seemed a bit contrived, but not enough to knock the film out of its perch as #1. (My original review when it came out is here.)

Tomorrow I should have a review of The Dark Knight Rises up (if I wake up, that is– I’m going to be in the theater ’til 3 AM tonight!).

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

6 thoughts on “Ranking the Batman Films

  1. Great review – and have fun tonight!

    I'm not much of a comics person but I've definitely grown up with TV/Movie Batman – but I've haven't seen Mark of the Phantasm yet – I'm going to check that out.

    Do I have this wrong though: Isn't Tom Hanks the star of Bachelor Party and Bosom Buddies?

    Again – enjoy the films tonight!

  2. That was Tom Hanks in Bosom Buddies and Bachelor Party, not Michael Keaton. Keaton was known for comedic roles in the movies Night Shift and Mr. Mom.

    But other than this, I find it refreshing that your picks match mine perfectly–and for the same reasons.

  3. Gotta agree with you there, rck. That was a terrific film that really tied the whole Batman animated universe together, especially the unexpurgated version.

  4. Not counting the animated films, my list goes, from most to least well-liked:

    Batman (1966)/(1989) – I go back and forth on which is my favourite. Today, it's Adam West.

    Batman Returns

    The Dark Knight

    Batman Forever

    Batman Begins

    Batman and Robin

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