The Tuesday List: Live Action Batman Films of the Modern Era

Did you hear that a new movie with Batman came out? It's true! And people seem to love it! Or hate it! One thing's for sure, critics don't matter (more on that later this week).

But there was a simpler time when Batman was the only marquee hero in his movies, although sometimes he had a sidekick called Robin. Or who's real name was Robin (so stupid!)

Anyway, the modern era, for our purposes, starts with the first Tim Burton film (1989) and goes through Dark Knight Rises. The latest one would count, I think, but I haven't seen it yet so I can't say for sure. I'm sure you understand.

And, though it says it in the title, although me to reiterate: these are live action, so no Mask of the Phantasm, no 600 other direct to video releases.

The Entirely Objectively Correct Ranking of the Batman Films of the Modern Era

7.) Batman & Robin- There are people who will defend this as "fun" or the the only Batman film of the Burton/Schumacher era that fully realizes itself, but, well I can't disagree more. It's not that I disagree with the fact that it's intended to be funny or that it is aimed towards being a 2+ hour toy commercial. But! But, but, but!

Despite the budget everything in the movie looks impossibly cheap. They even run the film forward and then immediately back to simulate Robin fighting vines. The relationships in the movie are nonexistent despite the movie insisting they exist. The characters are empty and thus the jokes, fairly lame already, die on the vine.

(sorry for the pun)

Speaking of, the puns are brutal. Just...wall to wall.

And despite its rep as a candy colored camp factory, it is actually weirdly dark at times. One wife is in a coma, one father figure nearly dies, heroes squabble constantly etc etc. It's a tonal mess despite people's assertion of its consistency.

Finally, the camp thing. Look, I admit, I'm not a huge Batman '66 guy and thus camp is not really my bag. HOWEVER, if that was my objection here, I could acknowledge it. Cheap is not camp. Lame jokes are not camp. Batman '66 was often sly, B&R has no awareness of the concept.

I do like the credit card gag though, I admit.

6.) Batman Returns- Speaking of tonal messes.

I can rattle off several things I like about this movie: the duck boat, Michelle Pfeiffer's Selina Kyle/Catwoman, Keaton more self-assured in the Batman role, the penguins with rockets, Alfred, Penguin when he's in relationship to Schreck or Catwoman.

And yet.

The most Burton of his two Bat-films, he falls in love with the more "visible" freaks (Catwoman, Penguin, the Red Triangle Circus Gang) at the cost of even less Batman. Worse, everyone acts like slaves to plot with little personality. Gordon requires no convincing at all of Batman having killed the Winter Festival Queen, Gotham loves and hates Penguin with seemingly the smallest amount of push. And so on.

Overall, it's kind of a mean, ugly movie that takes place on a bigger set yet feels so much smaller.

5.) Dark Knight Rises- First Bane is a kick. From his Bond villain first job to his Bond through a respirator voice to his giant fur coat costume, he is somehow broad without seeming unrealistic. After B&R's horrible rendition of the character, it's pretty impressive.

Anne Hathaway does a nice job as well, creating a new and distinct Catwoman that's good without needing to copy or compete with Pfeiffer's. 

Caine as Alfred creates a longing and pain that I am not sure any other Alfred, outside of comics, has quite managed.

However, the film is poorly paced and holds its cards for too tight for too long. The emotional beats are there, they just sometimes are buried under plot machinations.

Oh, and Joseph Gordon Levitt is great. Even if that "real name reveal" is dumb as hell.

4.) Batman Forever- You want me to say it? Ok, I'll say it. I will. This is the underappreciated gem of the catalog.


Now that's out there. Deal with it, world.

Kilmer is an effective Batman, different than Keaton but still capable of that off-kilter presentation. Kidman is a suitably strange love interest, fitting in with the unspoken idea of Gotham warping everyone just a touch.

It is true that the seeds of B&R are planted here and they bear bitter bitter fruit. And Tommy Lee Jones's off the wall Two- Face makes me so terribly sad. But overall? Hidden gem.

3.) Batman Begins- Every complaint is true. It's slow. Batman's "I won't kill but I won't save either" thing at the end is bad, the hunger for realism can border on self serious.


It's almost exactly the first Batman movie in a series I always wanted. Bruce Wayne journeying from scared boy to angry teen to instrument of justice. A Batman villain I never thought I would see on the screen. Another that I had wanted for years. And Bale is great as feckless playboy Wayne and, even if the voice is too much, the most natural to date in the costume (Kilmer is a close second. I SAID IT!)

It has rough edges but overall, it hit the spot so well.

2.) Batman- Some say it has not aged well. Some say it was overrated in the first place. Well, some are wrong.

The hero to villain ratio is off here, for sure. But Keaton's Wayne is a weird loopy delight and he sells an under 6 foot unmuscled Batman in a way that never makes me question his ability to stop crime. And Nicholson's gangster turns performance artist Joker is a great interpretation of the character that gives menace to the manic for the first time in live action. 

Even though I dislike the Joker makes Batman makes Joker thing they do, I really truly do like the movie. Just not as much as...

1.) The Dark Knight- I know, the film's ubiquity in meme culture and people getting the exact wrong message from the Joker ("he's cool, right? Like he's just chaos, maaaan") can make you feel negatively towards it in retrospect. Don't. It is, really and truly, excellent. Smart, even funny at points, with stakes that are, by definition, a bit low and yet feel like they are about the very fabric of society.

I only wish we could have gotten more Ekhardt as Two-Face. He's damn near perfect. In a movie where everyone couldn't stop talking about Ledger's Joker--for good reason--Ekhardt's Dent/Two-Face is probably the closest live action realization of the Platonic ideal of the villain he is depicting.