There is a reason that Batman holds the title of the hero with the most cinematic adaptions and it has nothing to do with the decades that The Dark Knight has spent capturing the imagination of generations. It's not only that his story noble vengeance is so primal as to be intuitively understandable by any person who has ever loved anyone and feared losing them, but the methods he uses to engage in his mission of revenge are irresistible to any filmmaker looking to test their skills.
Without the flashy powers of his comic book contemporaries, Batman's reliance on his body and his mind as weapons challenge filmmakers to convey on screen to viewers not only the same kind of fear that those who cross Batman's path are made to, but the deeper war that rages constantly within him; aspects of his character hidden in shadow and behind masks. There is no amount of CG wizardry that can show that as well as a good director telling a story in words and moving pictures can.
Note how it was said: 'good director.' Thanks to the love that movie-makers have for The Dark Knight we can have a list of the ten greatest Batman films without a shot of a rubber clad butt in sight. While The Dark Knight Rises will belong on any future lists of this sort, here are the ten best Batman films before that came into play.
10 Batman: Dead End
Who says a Batman movie needs to have multimillion dollar budget to be great? Nobody, except perhaps the same people who says you need the permission of the rights holders to make it!
Luckily that didn't stop wanna-be director Sandy Collora, who in an attempt to create a demo reel of his directing skills instead set a benchmark for fan films that holds to this day. In this eight minute short, a starkly realistic Batman tracks the Joker in a dark, rainy corner of Gotham City only instead to find himself up against a threat beyond perhaps even his capabilities.
Dead End looks every penny of its $30,000 budget but it not only met its goal of attracting the attention of Hollywood (only partially for its infringing nature) but it also set a historical marker for the growth of the internet as a means to distribute one's creative efforts and laid the groundwork for the ensuing decade’s battles between the concept of “fair-use” on the web .
9 Batman: The Movie (1966)
As much as hardcore Bat-fans have been trying to live down the effects of the 1960's Batman TV series on the public's perceptions of not only Batman and comic books in general, it regardless remains a point of reference for more the one generation of viewers. The movie version, filmed between the first and second seasons of the show however hid in its camp a streak of satire that plays on the very subversion of reality that must be present if there ever really could be a man who dresses as a bat to fights crime.
In the film, a yet to be broken mark of four Bat-Villians (Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin and Catwoman) team up for a fiendish/ridiculous plot to conquer the world by kidnapping the members of an ersatz United Nations Security Council. The ever vigilant Dynamic Duo races to foil the plot while Bruce Wayne wrestles with his mission when he falls in love with a mysterious Soviet reporter with a feline name.
Even without mining the film for greater relevance from its undercurrent of resentment over Cold War era international political squabbling, it's hard not to like a film that brought the people such timeless artifacts like Bat-Shark Repellent Spray, a diesel submarine shaped like a penguin and the epic slapstick set-piece “some days you just can't get rid of a bomb” scene.
8 Batman: Under the Red Hood
The death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, for decades remained a static point in comic book history; a fresher tragedy for Batman to brood over and a minor source of guilt for the real world fans who were implicit (and in some cases active conspirators) in a fictional murder. Decades later in the pages of the same comics Jason Todd was revealed to be alive, the end result of a complicated series of events that again were not just related to a fictional universe but to renewed interest in the character by a new generation of fans.
In Under the Red Hood dozens of comics are sharpened to a razor point as the old trope of the killer vigilante is seen though the lenses of the men on both sides of the law who created him. Batman not only finds himself saving the lives of his enemies, including the Joker, but faced with the prospect of having to destroy his former protege in the process.
Under the Red Hood is a rare example of a comic book film that demands more from its audience. No time in it is wasted rehashing any of Batman's history or origin that is not relevant. Instead it assumes its audience is sufficiently informed or at least intelligent enough to grasp the basic concepts of costumed vigilantism to the point where one can understand its story of justice taken too far without any hand holding. A feature that other franchises never seem to get the hang of.
7 Batman Returns
There will be more about the Keaton/Burton Batman a little later on, but first there is Batman Returns, a sequel that may not have outshone its predecessor Spider-Man 2-style but still manages to set the tone for all comic book movie sequels with its combination upped stakes, darkened tone and broaching out into more mature subject matter.
In a tale grounded largely in politics and public perception over any grandiose plan for mass chaos and world-domination, Danny DeVito's freakish Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer's lurid Catwoman are brought into the film franchise’s canon for this this installment and challenge Batman in ways that years of marital arts training can’t prepare him for. While Penguin manipulates to public in his bid for the Mayor’s office (with the help of a classic Christopher Walken performance as the ruthless businessman Max Shreck) this Dark Knight against fights his feeling for Catwoman in a manner that has become legend.
Director Tim Burton’s dark, sexy and grotesque follow up to his breakout hit was not the success that was planned for by the studio that produced it, and the franchise was taken away from him in what would be end up being one of the worst ideas in cinematic history.
6 Batman: Year One
There are many ways to adapt a work for the screen and most of them are likely to draw the ire of the fans, and occasionally the creators, of that work. ‘Faithfulness’ is one word used: how close the movie will be the spirit/soul of the original work, ‘respect’ is another: does it do the original work justice for the reasons that it was found fit to adapt in the first place. Few films ever made fit both criteria as the animated movie Batman: Year One, adapted from Frank Miller’s landmark 1987 comic book miniseries.
Expanding on a hereunto unexplored era in Batman’s life, Year One explores the first twelve months after Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham after spending his youth traveling the world squaring the skills he felt were necessary to accomplish his mission of cleaning up the city. After nearly getting killed on his first outing, he learns that he needs to become something more. At the same time a young Lt. Jim Gordon transfers to Gotham form Chicago and faces institutional corruption that goes all the way to the top and discovers that the only way to clean it up might be to ally himself with someone who works outside the law.
By mimicking the tone and look of the source comic so closely, Year One also serves as a gateway into the rich history of excellent Batman stories that exist only in comic form, subtly encouraging the viewer to seek them out for themselves, increasing the chances that they too will someday be adapted into movies.
5 Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
The NBC sitcom Community has a running joke: “Six Seasons and a Movie” which means that if a TV show is partially awesome that it will run for years and eventually spawn a cinematic version that legions of die-hard fans will see en masse. As a testament to its quality, the mid-1990’s cartoon show Batman: The Animated Series didn’t need nearly that long to earn that honor, like Batman: The Movie: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was released to critical praise not long after the end of its first year.
Like Year One it’s another story of Batman’s early crime fighting days, this time his nascent career is not only threatened by his lack of a proper method of striking fear into his foes, but by his falling in love, breaking his vow to his slain parents and the prospects of a normal life. Mask of the Phantasm also brings with it the shadowy, drawn-on-black-paper look of the TV version, and the legendary pairing of Kevin Conroy’s Batman and Mark Hammill’s Joker, whose voices would set the tone for each character for a generation.
Released between iterations of the tonally schizophrenic and continuity- light live-action film series, Mask of the Phantasm instead fit into what would become an alternate universe of DC comic book characters that would span decades.
4 Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker
Met by considerable skepticism when it was conceived and maligned as a crass attempt to make Batman ‘younger and edgier,’ the animated series Batman Beyond, silenced its critics by almost ‘out-darkening’ it’s predecessor in tone and maintaining faithfulness with its established continuity. However, some of the show’s most pressing questions were only answered with the premier of Return of the Joker, which as the title indicates brings the arch foe back into the limelight he craves.
Despite it being decades after he was last seen under shockingly tragic circumstances, The Joker has returned to Gotham as young as he’s ever been and the new Batman, Terry McGinnis must learn in time to not only underestimate this foe, but uncover what happened decades ago when the Clown Prince of Crime supposedly died.
A key part of Return of the Joker’s infamy was the level of violence and horror in it that spurred an expensive, last minute recall of the film in order to tone down the subject matter. However, even with these changes the movie is still startlingly mature in tone and remains a benchmark in the development of western animation for older audiences.
3 Batman (1989 film)
By 1989 the Superman film franchise had all but petered out, perhaps spelling the end of superheroes on the big screen. Rather than let it die, instead Warner Brothers took a huge gamble by hiring the director of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and green-lighting the star of Mr. Mom to bring Batman to life. With the help of Jack Nicholson’s Joker, a Danny Elfman score and landmark art design, generations were reintroduced to an iconic character that was closer to his original conception then even before.
In a dark, claustrophobic Gotham Batman’s war on crime is about to become more public when a betrayed mobster reemerges, disfigured and insane as The Joker. His murderous rampage seems all but spurred on by the presence of Batman, leading to escalating acts of murder that threaten the entire city. Meanwhile, intrepid reporter Vicky Vale crosses both their paths and ends up a pawn in The Joker’s game while trying to uncover the truth about Batman.
The 1989 Batman movie works because it doesn’t spend any time making excuses for itself. Instead the madness of a ‘man dressed up like a bat’ and a clown faced criminal are handled straight and it’s their actions that force the audience to accept this world as real.
2 Batman Begins
Origin stories are easy to make into movies, all of the handholding that is necessary to bring non-die-hards into the theater is built tight into the screenplay, no need for the encyclopedic recall of obscure comic book continuity required. So it’s the rare film that goes over that well-worn territory again without leaving a legion of fans drumming the fingers on the theater seat armrest, Batman Begins is one such film.
Christopher Nolan's first Batman film certainly take its time to get to the point where Batman is first shown on screen, but none of the preceding hour-plus is wasted as we see the development of the hero in an almost lyrical way. This Batman comes to life as an extension of Bruce Wayne’s personal drive, to the point of almost seeming logical that anyone in his situation would do the same. This ‘realistic’ perspective extends to film’s villains as well, as apart from Scarecrow’s partially justified ‘scary mask,’ are depicted as realistic threats.
Batman Begins ‘reset’ the idea of what a big screen Batman could be but was only setting the stage for what came next.
1 The Dark Knight
Gallons of ink and gigabytes of pixels have been spilled over the dichotomy of Batman and The Joker, even the fact that the latter seems to change with every interpretation just to fit the necessities of the story only adds to this mythos. So while Batman’s role as the eternal ‘straight man’ remains largely static, iterations of The Joker from Nicholson to Hamill to Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight always steal the spotlight and haunt audiences retreating from the theater.
The Dark Knight finds Batman and Gotham woefully unprepared for the level of violence and complexity of schemes that The Joker is able to enact and their underestimation is costing lives. Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent is ready to clean up the city in a way that Batman could never do, and is able to make a life for himself with the woman Bruce Wayne loves, but can’t.
It’s the underlying theme of failure that upends the very idea of a superhero movie and mocks the idea that anyone really has control over their lives that might make viewers, like some of the movie’s most idealistic characters, end up agreeing with The Joker’s madness. The Dark Knight is a tightly plotted, tense psychological horror show and definitely the best Batman film ever made... at least for now.