Ranking the Batman Movies

21Apr12

Have I never done this? I guess not officially, though I’m sure I’ve always had a comparison list in my head. It’s what I do.

A friend put this challenge to me on Facebook, and I quickly jammed out a list, which I’m sure will draw mild controversy. But it shouldn’t, because there’s really only two truly great Batman movies, and one of those stands above the other. The rest are either better than people thought, but still not great, or worse than people want them to be.

Here now, a semi-detailed list of the correct rankings of the theatrically-released Batman movies, starting at the top:

#1: “The Dark Knight” (2008). This movie is like Kentucky in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. The obvious choice for #1 because it’s the best. It has the best story, the most exciting characters, some of the best performances, and an amazing scope for a movie, let alone a Batman movie. It didn’t take a movie this great to rank among the best Batman movies, but I certainly welcome the effort.

Special plusses: acting, story, jokes simultaneously funny and horrifying, the Chicago locations, and the IMAX screening — while not essential — was remarkable.

Demerits: hurting dogs, weird collateral damage to citizens property, a weird ending and the re-casting of Katie Holmes with Maggie Gylenhall. It didn’t make Rachel a better character.

#2: “Batman Begins” (2005). I know some people who talk about how they just weren’t that into this movie, and I can’t understand that. The only real complaint I would have would be the camera work during the fight scenes. I guess you could argue that it’s a stylistic choice to make Batman into this image you can never quite see… but it feels like cheating.

Special plusses: the ending(!), the twist of Ra’s al Ghul (I had a real forest-for-the-trees moment in this movie), the “Year One” riffs.

Demerits: the fight scene cinematography, and that old guy in Wayne Tower who narrates everything but doesn’t have sense to LEAVE when the destruction is headed his way, and Tom Wilkinson’s “gangster accent.”

#3 Batman (1989). Here’s where it gets tricky. If you wanna get down to it, there are really only two unimpeachably “good” Batman movies. The rest are exercises in style that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. And for all of its faults and weird choices (the Joker killing the Waynes, Batman being pretty cool on the whole killing people thing, etc.), Tim Burton’s inaugural Bat-film has the style thing down. It might get raised up the ranks by virtue of being the first of its kind, but I’ll live with that. It shouldn’t represent everyone’s idea of what Batman’s about, but it works in broad strokes.

Special plusses: the Batmobile, the tone of the ending, the score.

Demerits: Mentioned above.

#4. “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” (1993). Readers may find it surprising that this one didn’t make it into the top 3, knowing my love of the Animated Series. And while this isn’t a bad movie, it’s not as great as they could do. There are some surprises in the story, but then a few non-surprising surprises (he’s the JOKER?!?!?!). I might be holding the whole WB/Bruce Timm team to a higher level than this movie deserves, but that’s how it is. Their greatest would come in the form of the three-part episode “Batman-Superman: World’s Finest.”

Special plusses: it’s animated!

Demerits: it just kinda doesn’t rock, and the ending… Batman’s kind of just an observer.

#5. “Batman: The Movie” (1966). Again, a style choice that works. My son currently keeps this movie in his afternoon-TV-time rotation, so I’ve had ample time to study it, and I still get a kick out of the Batman-ness of the story, however campy some of it may be. Say what you will about the rest of the movie, but the actual dramatic action of the third act boat chase is pretty solid Batman stuff. He’s terrorizing those criminals. That’s what Batman does.

Plusses: performances, performances, performances. Except…

Demerits: Lee Meriwether’s performance.

#6. “Batman Forever” (1995). I’ve always got some fight in me for this movie. Sure, it’s not great, but it flows well, and it actually looks pretty good (yeah, I said it). I’m fine with a lighter toned Batman, so introducing Robin is cool with me, as well. I would have preferred Two-Face be a less of a Wicked-Witch-of-the-West type character, but the opening sequence still feels like as good a Batman set piece as you can get.

Special plusses: Val Kilmer — the unsung Batman, the opening, the death of the Graysons.

Demerits: Tommy Lee — unchained, the deus ex machina ending.

#7. “Batman Returns” (1992). I think some people would rank this much higher by following the popular belief that “Dark” = “Good,” while “Light” = “Hollywood-ized version of the world, man.” But either way you take it, “Returns” is a very mixed bag for all involved. Visually, it’s a beautiful movie. Story wise, it’s a mess. It’s overcrowded and unappealing and cold and distant… but there’s some madness in there that people seem to respond to. The madness shows up in the villains, with Catwoman stealing the show, representing (in my mind) the finest portrayal of that character ever. But it’s not called “Catwoman Arrives,” and the titular character is completely passive in his own movie. I still remember reading a bitter review that summed up my feelings perfectly with one example: when you first see Batman, he isn’t doing anything.

Special plusses: Pfieffer’s performance, the score, the art direction.

Demerits: the story, most of the other characters, a lot of the tone, confusing continuity… like I said, it’s a fascinating mess.

#8. “Batman & Robin” (1997). There’s a mess, and then there’s a MESS! What am I going to say that hasn’t been said before? The most amazing part about how bad this movie is comes in the fact that the horrible parts are so glaringly obvious. It’s overcrowded (a problem of “Returns”), sloppy story, jokey without being funny, uninteresting and confusing. It also seems to be the worst casting job of any of the movies, and casting carries a lot of weight when you’re making a style piece. A past-their-prime Silverstone and Schwartzenegger, O’Donnell on his way down, Thurman lost without a steady hand. The only one who could give you hope would be Clooney, who has been unfairly saddled with the label of “franchise ruiner” for this one. It wasn’t your fault, George. You’re obviously capable of making good and even great movies. You were mishandled. Nobody could have saved this thing.

So there you go: two real movies, a hand-ful of middling style pieces, and then a terrible ending.

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One Response to “Ranking the Batman Movies”


  1. 1 The Loyal Opposition « Phillip Mottaz Town

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