In Anticipation of The Batman, Idle Hands Ranks The Live Action Batman Films Thus Far In The Only Order That Counts; His Personal Bat-Taste
And so it begins again, Different Bat-Time, Different Bat-Actor, as Robert Pattinson becomes the 9th actor to don the famous Cape 'N' Cowl for a Live Action Motion Picture, if we're counting serials.
Having just counted them, I'm now going to discount the serials from this ranking, for two very good reasons;
1) I've Not Seen Them Yet
2) It's My Damn Ranking
On that basis, what follows, in ascending order, is the current Idle Hands ranking of the live action films to star The Dark Knight Detective, The Caped Crusader... The Batman.
8) Batman & Robin 
Ah, Batman & Robin. The film that put a bankable franchise... on ice.
Rarely witty enough to work as a flat-out comedy, too lazy to work as an action-adventure film and only intermittently watchable as a drama, Batman & Robin might well have fared better had it been released more recently, packed as it is with a 'Look, we know this is all silly, we don't take ourselves too seriously, isn't this all a great lark' attitude that is all the rage in current comic book films. I'll maintain to my dying day that George Clooney could have played an excellent Bruce Wayne, and the scenes between him and Michael Gough's Alfred are easily the best parts of the film, but other than that, and save for the enjoyable Mr Freeze puns and Uma Thurman vamping it up, this is a movie that handsomely earned the near-decade pausing of the franchise machine.
7) Batman Forever 
Taken in the round, Batman Forever hits more or less the same tone that the beloved Batman: The Animated Series generally adhered to, so on that basis it's a surprise it isn't more liked; serious moments of drama, lightened with some goofy humour and general naffness. Those who hold BTAS in the highest esteem tend to be blind to this fact, but any honest reappraisal of the cartoon forces one to accept that it's rarely as 'mature', or as good, as their nostalgia-addled memory will allow them to recall. Forever, however, is hamstrung by a failure to balance the two warring elements of its script (fitting for a film with Two-Face in it) and with the fact that neither element is quite well executed enough on its own terms. There's two good films in there somewhere, neither of which quite emerge and which don't combine into a satisfying whole. Maybe the Schumacher Cut, currently being campaigned for online, would provide a more cohesive movie. Kilmer is good, as are Carrey, Kidman and TLJ, and it's still an entertaining enough watch, for all it's failings and all its largely thwarted potential.
6) Batman Returns 
The Idle Hands view of this film has evolved significantly over time. There was a period where I ranked it lower than Forever, when I simply couldn't overlook the naff stuff, like zombie Catwoman being imbued with magical powers due to cat-licks, like The Penguin having easy access to Batmobile blueprints, like the army of rocket propelling penguins, like the over-the-top deformity of The Penguin himself. As Batman himself says, though, 'things change'.
Don't mistake me, those things are still very naff. Yet whilst I don't much care for those elements, I've come to see the strengths of the film the more I've revisited it. The script is witty, the fable-like parody running through the heart of the characters and plot is clever and funny, the performances are fantastic and even someone like me, for whom Burton's particular aesthetic does very little, has to appreciate some of the excellent imagery. It at least has a distinct vision and sense of directorial voice, a rarity in comic book films. Another thing; whilst the interpretation of Batman ( the dynamite planting, Bat-engine burning murderer version) isn't my favourite, I've grown to become far less militant about how Batman is portrayed. In my view, it's pretty much all valid. Nowadays, you really need to go some to make me think a take on The Caped Crusader is in any way fundamentally wrong.
5) Batman 
It was a really close call, this one. Tim Burton's 1989 picture brought forth the second recorded instance of Bat-mania, as mentioned in my longer review of the film. And yet, it very nearly fell behind it's successor, Batman Returns.
B89 is let down by a simplistic and generic script, for one thing. In fact, take out the Anton Furst set designs, Burton's moody direction and the atmospheric Danny Elfman score and you're looking at a surprisingly formulaic motion picture. It really is very basic on plotting, pacing and scripting levels. It doesn't have the wit, creativity or eroticism of its sequel. It also very, very stupidly decides to make The Joker the Wayne killer, which has never been anything but exceedingly daft and reductive.
So what puts it over the top? What makes up for that lost ground? Two words, both emblazoned at the top of the above poster; Nicholson and Keaton.
Jack Nicholson has put in better performances and had more challenging parts than this, obviously, but he's a delight to watch both as Jack Napier (shudder, so so stupid) and The Joker. Keaton is brilliant as a very different Bruce Wayne, as well as convincing as Batman despite his obvious physical disadvantages. It's all in the eyes, man.
Those two performances alone allows Batman to edge out Returns, by the thinnest of margins.
4) Batman Begins 
By the gods, do I love this film. It might be easy to forget just how different this Batman film is, how fresh and inventive it felt in direct comparison to its predecessors. Warner Bros. lucked out when they elected to allow Christopher Nolan to retool Batman in his own inimitable way, adding a delightful verisimilitude and focusing on Bruce Wayne the man. Begins is truly and thoroughly up my alley; Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham after years of travelling and training with an idealistic zeal to rescue his City, to genuinely make it a better place.
Whilst I can get behind most if not any take on Bruce Wayne, I'm always going to prefer the ones who are about more than just personal revenge, who are interested in more than just posturing about how they are the embodiment of 'vengeance'. As fun as those takes can be, as valid as it is and as popular as it is, it's just a little bit two-dimensional, a bit too simplistic, to be my preference.
In Begins, Christian Bale's sensational Bruce Wayne literally describes vengeance as 'no good to him'. He outright rejects it as a primary motivation, intent on something far greater, far more in tune with my own personal preference for the way the character ought to be, in this exchange with Michael Caine's tremendous Alfred-
Alfred Pennyworth: Are you coming back to Gotham for long, sir?
Bruce Wayne: As long as it takes. I'm gonna show the people of Gotham their city doesn't belong to the criminals and the corrupt.
Alfred Pennyworth: In the depression, your father nearly bankrupted Wayne Enterprises combating poverty. He believed that his example could inspire the wealthy of Gotham to save their city.
Bruce Wayne: Did it?
Alfred Pennyworth: In a way. Their murder shocked the wealthy and the powerful into action.
Bruce Wayne: People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can't do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I'm flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed; but as a symbol... as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.
Alfred Pennyworth: What symbol?
Bruce Wayne: Something elemental, something terrifying.
That might be the purest distillation of what I've always preferred Batman to be that's ever been committed to film. The Bruce and Alfred relationship is brilliant, Gary Oldman's Jim Gordon is wonderful, Cillian Murphy is a fantastic Scarecrow, Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman are excellent and Rutger Hauer and Tom Wilkinson round out the cast very well indeed. Nolan started a revolution with this picture and it really stands up well, nearly 20 years later (good god). A triumph.
3) The Dark Knight Rises 
Probably the least beloved of The Dark Knight Trilogy, TDKRises is one of many Batman films, comic book films, hell, one of many films in general, to be judged not on what it is, but on what it isn't. To be appreciated not on its own merits, but held up against the hypothetical film many imagined in their own heads as a fitting way to cap the Nolan series.
To do that would be a real shame. You'd not fully enjoy the excellent film that did act as the swansong for Nolan and Bale. You'd fail to fully appreciate the excellent performances from Tom Hardy as Bane, from Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, from Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, from Michael Caine as Alfred and of course from Christian Bale himself. Bale gets to play a worn-out reclusive Bruce, as well as a reinvigorated, reborn one. He gets to bow out in style, something no Batman before him had managed. It's a wonderful finale full of invention, ambition and strong emotional beats, and it manages to to accomplish the only goals that actually matter; it's own.
2) The Dark Knight 
I wax lyrical about this sensational film in my full review, so I'll lift a snippet of that to present the case;
It gives us so much. It gives us an examination of Batman’s impact. It gives us a sensational take on The Joker. It gives us a thorough, fascinating take on Batman Vs The Joker. It gives us the joy of Batman, Gordon and Dent working together to take down the mob. It gives us the tragedy of Two-Face. It does this in a finale that is as unbearably tense as it desperately sad and beautifully poetic. It gives us outstanding performances pretty much across the board, none more so than Gary Oldman’s peerless, wonderful Jim Gordon. It’s his performance that we would rank highest of them all.
Yet the film doesn’t feel laboured. Never is the script too thinly spread. Everything is interwoven. The Dark Knight is the best straight-faced Batman film so far. It’s a remarkable achievement.
Yeah; Yeah that about sums it up. What a bloody brilliant film.
1) Batman: The Movie 
Really, I hear you ask? This is the motion picture that tops the Idle Hands Bat-Ranking? The silly Adam West one from the 60s? Biff, bam, pow?
Never let anyone underplay the importance of this Batman. With this film and the TV Series which birthed it, Bat-Mania was born. Never before and never since has Batman been so popular. His status today as the most popular superhero in the world owes pretty much everything to the overwhelming response this Batman got in the mid-sixties. Batman comics were in the doldrums, with plummeting sales figures. The Dark Knight was circling the drain. Then Executive Producer William Dozier pitched the Batman TV show and movie and, well, Holy History Batman!
Once again, I'll quote myself, from my full review of the film;
This film has so much to offer. There’s the satire; Cold War tensions, Pentagon incompetency, Presidential glory seeking and international relations are all targeted for knowing barbs. There’s the parody of 60s culture and old school Hollywood serials. There’s the surrealist and absurdist humour sprinkled in amongst the broader comedy beats. There’s the brief foray into romance for Bruce Wayne, who suffers clouded judgement, wild emotional responses and a broken heart. We also learn that when he goes out for drinks with a lady friend, he opts for milk from a brandy glass. There’s the small matter of the toughest, most competent live-action Batman in history. He’s the smartest, most adept human being of all time, whose physical endurance borders on the supernatural. There are the intentionally po-faced messages, poking fun at Hollywood pontification. There’s the action, the have-a-go fighting and the overwhelming sense of adventure that delights those a little too young to catch all the jokes.
There’s the inherent fun of the thing, which makes watching this movie such a treat. Only those with no fun in their soul, who take themselves far, far too seriously, would fail to enjoy watching this incredibly entertaining romp. It’s infectiously fun and, above all else, absolutely hilarious.
If your Batman needs to be absolutely serious absolutely all the time, you’ll force yourself not to enjoy this. If your only acceptable Batman is the grim, gritty avenger who is all about 'vengeance', the one that stinks of adolescence, you’ll be furious watching this film.
I was right then, and I'm right now. It's brilliantly written and fantastically performed. It's a riot, a bona fide delight, and it's very, very clever. At time of writing, it sits at the top of the tree and for very good reason.
Where Matt Reeves' The Batman will fit into this list remains to be seen, but i'm looking forward to it. I'm not a huge fan of the director's filmography thus far but the trailers look decent, Pattinson is an excellent actor and as I've pointed out many times now, I love me pretty much all types of Batman. Even the slightly Over-the-top 'I am vengeance' ones.
With that in mind, a wee caveat; I elected to only count the films that are out and out Batman movies, thus ruling out Ben Affleck's appearances. For the record, I love Batfleck. It's an outstandingly good performance across two films from an actor/Director who I'd have loved to see get a shot at helming a solo film all of his own. Zack Snyder's Justice League, were I to add it to this list, would come just after TDKRises, and would be followed by Batman V Superman: Ultimate Edition, which would be beaten only by TDK and Baman: The Movie.
And there we have it. You'll have your own Bat-Ranking, and that's fine. It won't be as correct as mine is, but, hey ho. It's yours all the same.