Of all the superheroes, DC Comics’ Batman is now endowed with the most Dostoyevskian seriousness. It wasn’t always like this. And, in my heart, my favourite Batman is the first movie version, from 1966, which grew out of the wacky TV show in the era of Get Smart and I Dream Of Jeannie and Mad magazine. As kids, we watched the program religiously on TV, which is where I caught up with the film about Batman and Robin taking on Joker, Penguin, Catwoman and Riddler – never dreaming that it was anything other than deadly serious. I watched it in the same spirit as I now watch Michael Mann films. I was thrilled by the (genuinely) propulsive and exciting “dinner-dinner-dinner-dinner” theme tune (how I resented the vulgar playground joke about what Batman’s mum shouts out of the window to get him in at mealtimes) and quivered at the brilliant, psychedelically conceived title-cards for fights: BAM! I also fanatically pored over the novelisation tie-in – Batman vs The Fearsome Foursome.
The show-stopper was the famous, entertainingly tense sequence where Batman can’t find anywhere to dispose of a smoking bomb, something that surely inspired the later Zucker/Abrahams comedies. Adam West played the sonorous Bruce Wayne and Batman and Burt Ward was Robin (confusingly, his alter ego Dick Grayson was often described as Wayne’s “ward”). Their costumes, with luxuriant silk capes, were gorgeous. Brilliant acting talent lined up for the villains: Latin lover Cesar Romero was the Joker; veteran Hollywood character turn Burgess Meredith was Penguin, Lee Meriwether fused glamour and comedy as Catwoman (replacing TV’s Julie Newmar) and impressionist and night-club comic Frank Gorshin was Riddler. Much is said about the campiness of this show – and yes, there is a case for retrospectively re-interpreting this Batman and Robin as a covert queer statement. (In fact, it was Cesar Romero who kept the press guessing about his sexuality.) But in a way, it was more about goofiness as part of the Sixties Zeitgeist: being silly, even at this level, was countercultural seriousness. I suspect that every single Batman director, from Joel Schumacher to Christopher Nolan, measures their work against the addictive Day-Glo potency of the ’66 Batman. Pow! Peter Bradshaw
In the flood of frowningly serious superhero films that have emerged since, the true brilliance of Tim Burton’s then-revolutionary two Batfilms has become somewhat obscured, largely because of the silly Joel Schumacher follow-ups that demonstrated that the wrath of fanship was something Hollywood had to be careful of. But it’s totally worth another look: drinking deep of the gothic/deco vibe beloved of comic-book rebooter Frank Miller, Burton adds that distinctive combination of beautiful detailing and lurid trashiness that has marked out all his best work.
When I saw it back in the day, I remember thinking Michael Keaton was bit of a waste of space, but in retrospect his straight-arrow blandness works superbly off Jack Nicholson’s gurning and Kim Basinger’s sultriness. It’s worth remembering too, that this was the first major Batman feature since the Adam West one in 1966 – hilarious, but one Burton clearly wanted to put some distance from. Tonally, the whole thing is just great, it hits that sweet spot between flippant self-parody and unironic spectacle – most superhero films since have veered too close to either. No Batman film, in this writer’s opinion, has come close since. Andrew Pulver
I yearn for the day that comic book movies can be sexy again, when a new Caped Crusader and Catwoman can exude just a fraction of the pheromones fogging up the screen in Batman Returns. The moonlight tussles between those iconic characters played by Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfieffer are an alluring and thorny mix of acrobatic choreography and S&M violence that simply would not fly today.
Batman Returns belongs to Pfeiffer, whose purrr-fect take on Catwoman, AKA Selina Kyle, as a feral woman scorned is unparalleled. And it’s not just because she makes people weak in the knees with her throaty delivery of “hear me roar.” Her origin story involves being demeaned at the office and then shoved out a window by her Trump-like boss Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), a bully with sexual menace in his eyes.
Pfieffer absorbs that trauma into her performance as a Catwoman who is at once vulnerable and dangerous, seductive and afraid, craving affection but brimming with anger. That complicated push-pull is even there in a steamy and thrilling fireside canoodle with Bruce Wayne, where she’s torn between giving her all and hiding her scars before the sex is interrupted. Radheyan Simonpillai
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Even as a cartoon, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’s got it all – gangster thrills, municipal corruption and the residual anguish of long lost love. Set in the 1940s, it follows our hero’s pursuit of the Phantasm, a seemingly supernatural angel of death who appears in Gotham equipped with a voice modulator and menacing scythe. As they snuff out the city’s mob bosses one by one, they frame Batman for the murders. The Caped Crusader, meanwhile, is haunted by his own memories from a decade earlier, when his broken engagement to the wealthy and beautiful Andrea Beaumont drove him to his current life of darkness.
As a spinoff of Batman: The Animated Series, arguably the greatest iteration of the franchise there ever was, Phantasm offers the same intricate plotlines that cemented the TV show’s greatness – Bruce Wayne was not just brooding, he was emotionally complex. Plus, the film’s got style; having emerged after the Day-Glo camp of the 1960s Batman and just before Joel Schumacher’s similarly kitschy universe, Phantasm marked a pendulum swing into a darker iteration, of an art deco Gotham filled with film noir shadows, and a cinematic score with the sweeping love scenes of a second world war epic. Phantasm is one of those rare childhood favorites that holds up into adulthood. Janelle Zara
Gaudy, kaleidoscopic and winkingly homoerotic, the 90s-saturated Batman Forever is a growing addiction that I can’t deny, the light on the dark side of the Batman film franchise.
Consider the blockbuster’s cast: Val Kilmer, Nicole Kidman, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey and Chris O’Donnell, all at the height of their powers, with appearances by Drew Barrymore, George Wallace and members of En Vogue. Each embodies Forever’s more-is-more ethos: an orange-haired, jumpsuit-clad Carrey air-thrusts, mimics pitching a baseball, twirls a question-mark-shaped cane, and screams “Joygasm!” all while destroying the Batmobile; Kilmer rasps, “Chicks love the car,” as an oversexed Kidman caresses his infamous nippled Batsuit; and just about everything about Jones’s grunting and cackling Two-Face, from his fuchsia-colored scars to his puffing of two cigarettes, one lit via flamethrower, from each side of his mouth. Not to mention the chart-topping soundtrack featuring songs by ’90s mega acts U2, Method Man, Brandy, Massive Attack, the Offspring and the Flaming Lips – and led by Seal’s unforgettable Grammy-winning karaoke classic, Kiss From a Rose.
More than 26 years later, it’s safe to say Joel Schumacher’s first foray to Gotham will never be the cinematic classic that Tim Burton’s or Christopher Nolan’s takes on the tale have become. But in dark times, Batman Forever’s light hits the gloom on the gray. Lisa Wong Macabasco
Batman & Robin
Consider, for a moment, that a film beginning with snap zooms on its main characters’ taut tushes, proud codpieces and pert nipples may be in on its own joke. Those erroneously defaming Joel Schumacher’s camp classic as “bad” most likely subscribe to the confused notion that superhero movies are serious business, a belief estranged from the color, humor and roiling homoeroticism of old-school comics revived here.
Even if the Adam West TV show hadn’t provided us with a clear precedent for a sillier Batman, there’s still too much deliberate artistry at play to write off Schumacher’s choices as invalid: the stunning soundstage sets under exploded-rainbow lighting, the magnificent costume design splitting the difference between the Met Ball and a drag ball, the Marlene Dietrich gorilla-costume striptease that explains what Uma Thurman’s doing with her voice as Poison Ivy. Schumacher seized on the oft-denied truth that there’s a fundamental absurdity to encasing one’s self in spandex and fighting crime, his direction suggesting that donning the bat-suit still counts as playing dress-up. You don’t like Mr. Freeze’s unlimited supply of cold-themed puns delivered in the blunt-force howl of Arnold Schwarzenegger? Fine, just have the decency to admit that that’s a you-issue, a matter of tastes rather than garden-variety incompetence. Charles Bramesco
Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker
The surprisingly rich 2000 animated adventure Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker stands apart thanks to its dark, character-driven mystery plot. Return of the Joker should, in that sense, work just as well with Bat-fans who are unfamiliar with Batman Beyond, a sci-fi spinoff of the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series that takes place in the Gotham City of the future (2019!) and follows angsty teenager Terry McGinnis (Will Friedle) as he takes over the role of Batman from old man Bruce Wayne (Batman: The Animated Series’s Kevin Conroy).
In Return of the Joker, Terry takes on the Joker (Mark Hamill), whose reappearance, after decades of being presumed dead, reminds Bruce of a traumatic memory involving his kid sidekick Tim “Robin” Drake (Matthew Valencia) and Barbara “Batgirl” Gordon (Tara Strong), who replaced her father as Gotham’s police commissioner.
Fan-favorite screenwriter Paul Dini focuses on Terry and Bruce’s frustrated mentor/pupil relationship, as when Bruce confesses to Terry: “I had no right to force this life on you or anyone else.” And the great character actor Dean Stockwell complements the typically sharp ensemble voice cast as an adult Tim, now retired and seemingly happier for having escaped Bruce’s influence. Simon Abrams
Joel Schumacher’s lysergic, almost enjoyably appalling Batman & Robin – the Bat-movie least likely to appear elsewhere in this article – was both a blessing and a curse for Christopher Nolan. On the one hand, when the then-hotshot writer-director of sleeper hits Memento and Insomnia signed on to resurrect the franchise, Schumacher had set the bar so low that all Nolan had to do was make a film without Bat-nipples in it and it would be an improvement. On the other, Schumacher had taken any goodwill that somehow remained after Batman Forever, said “Ice to meet you,” and then flushed it down the toilet. An origin story for a superhero no one cared about any more? Why bother?
Nolan’s pitch to Warner Bros executives only lasted 15 minutes, which is indicative of the focused, brilliantly singular film it produced. Batman Begins did the impossible: answering the question “how does a billionaire playboy become a face-pummelling, chiroptera-stanning martial-artist vigilante” in a manner that’s logical, even believable, grounding Gotham City in general and Bruce Wayne in particular like no Bat-film before, shorn of the funereally frilly, wink-wink indulgences of Tim Burton or Schumacher’s neon plasticity. Christian Bale was perfectly cast (yes, even with the silly voice), the action was robust and moody, the story twisted and yawed until the final epic showdown, and it isn’t an overstuffed, three-hour delusion of grandeur like the two films that followed it. Everything about Batman Begins just works. This, more than any other, is the film R-Patz has to beat. Luke Holland
The Dark Knight
It’s impossible to look back on Christopher Nolan’s glum 2008 sequel without an exhausted eye-roll, it being the superhero film that unfortunately inspired an unending glut of unbearably self-serious emo imitators. But it’s also impossible not to rewatch it without seeing exactly why it became so wildly influential, a sleek but punishing upgrade of what we had come to expect from a Batman movie.
Sure, Batman Begins had already introduced Nolan’s new, straight-faced universe, a world away from the codpiece camp of Joel Schumacher’s fun and flashy fripperies, but it was a flawed introduction, hemmed in by some slightly laborious world-building, an aggressively underwhelming lead villain and … Katie Holmes. The Dark Knight was freer, if still tightly controlled, and gave us both a better bad guy (in Heath Ledger’s terrifying Joker, an unpredictable and unbridled agent of pure chaos) and love interest (Maggie Gyllenhaal adding some texture to Bruce’s doomed childhood sweetheart Rachel). It was a shocking jolt at the time, and still remains so, staggering for how far Nolan was willing and able to take a film of this scale (without seemingly being micromanaged by studio execs), an unusually nihilistic PG-13 provocation that wrestled with weighty, unresolved issues but, unlike those that came after, did it without a heavy hand. Because importantly, nestled alongside the dour grisliness, was a string of dazzling, seat-clenching action set pieces, Nolan smartly playing to all seats. The poorly calibrated murk of the Snyderverse wouldn’t exist without it but The Dark Knight proves that it’s a price worth paying. Benjamin Lee
The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight Rises may well be the ugly sister of Nolan’s Batman trilogy – but for all its flaws it is hard to resist the ludicrous bombast on display, all accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s honking score. In truth it shares more in common with Adam West’s iteration of the Caped Crusader than the supposed “grounded” take that Christian Bale was embodying.
From the nonsensical plot of the villain – a neutron bomb used to hold Gotham island hostage for … reasons – to the absurdity of Tom Hardy’s Bane, with his barely audible mumbling behind his mask endlessly amusing; and the Scooby Doo reveal of the real big bad, Rises ditches the realism in favour of spectacle. And isn’t that what we want from our superhero films? Sure, the treatment of Catwoman isn’t ideal (goggles that flip up to look like cat ears, really?) and the ease with which Alfred abandons his charge is entirely out of character, but for every misstep there’s something to enjoy. The Broken Bat finally translated to the silver screen; Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow sending the rich to their deathly exile on the icy river from his kangaroo court; we even got Robin (sort of). And the coup de grace, in what was surely a tribute to the first Batman big screen outing in 1966, we have the world’s greatest detective scrabbling to dispose of a nuke over the water that surrounds Gotham – and apparently dying in the process. Indeed, some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb. Toby Moses
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
For geeks of a certain age, the definitive Batman graphic novel will always be The Dark Knight Returns, written and drawn by Frank Miller in 1986. And the closest thing we will ever get to a big-budget Hollywood adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns is not Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, or even The Dark Knight Rises. No, that honour goes to Zack Snyder’s dystopian Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Admittedly, you have to do a little mental editing. You have to imagine that Jesse Eisenberg is playing the Joker rather than Lex Luthor, and that the alien zombie has been cut out altogether. But a good proportion of the film is pinched from Miller’s tale: the hefty, short-eared Batsuit design, the vicious Bats-versus-Supes punch-up, Alfred’s waspish wit and, most importantly, the obsessive, ruthless central character. For once, Batman actually resembles the towering tough guy in the comics. Well over six feet tall, Ben Affleck looks as if a) he could beat all of the other Bat-actors to a pulp, and b) he might even enjoy it. Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy may have borrowed Miller’s title, but Batman v Superman is the only film to have a properly dark Dark Knight. Nicholas Barber