Sep 6, 2012

Ranking the Batman Films: Part 2

Bruce Wayne: Hater of Murder and Bats
After we watched The Dark Knight Rises, the final film in Christopher Nolan's trilogy, we thought it would be good to go back through the seven films that make up the modern Batman franchise and compare them to one another. We've already ranked the bottom four movies, and we were definitely stalling on the final three. Firstly, we didn't want to disappoint readers. Secondly, we were a little sick of the Caped Crusader.

Then, The Dark Knight rises made a billion dollars, and suddenly the films were thrust back into our minds. So here it is, our ranking of the top three Batman movies (with the generous help and support of our many guest bloggers and future guest bloggers). Read the list below and let us know what you think (spoilers ahead):

3. Batman Begins
Batman fights some baddies as Rachel looks on, lovingly
Plot: After trying and failing to escape the demons of his parents' murders, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) trains with and destroys the League of Shadows and returns home to become The Batman. He does this with the help of faithful butler Alfred (Michael Caine), wise tech expert Lucius (Morgan Freeman), and some not-so-gentle chastising from childhood friend and ADA Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). His Batman is a masked vigilante who uses non-lethal means to bring peace to the city he loves. It's really too bad that League of Shadows leader Ra's Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) want to wreak havoc and plunge the city into never-ending chaos and destruction using a fear-inducing drug and a good old fashioned bomb.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Femme Fatale: Rachel Dawes, sort of.
Best Villain Quotes
"When a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural." – Ra's Al Ghul 
"Would you like to see my mask?" – Dr. Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow
Thoughts: This is the closest any of the Batman films come to an origin story, detailing Bruce Wayne's parents' deaths, his training and ideal-building at the hands of the League of Shadows, his understanding of justice and the fundamental building blocks of right and wrong, and his ascent as Batman. It's amazing that this film is so packed with action and plot yet feels natural and fluid. This is due to the fact that, for the most part, the story deals exclusively with the protagonist. No other character is changing or growing as a person, with the possible exception of Rachel Dawes. This is Bruce Wayne's story, more so than any other Batman film before or after. When Christian Bale agreed to be in the film, he said that he was sick of the villains being more interesting than the lead in the previous Batman films, and his point of view is certainly evident in this film. Batman is the centerpiece, and his inner and outer power struggles form the main thrust of the action.The only real problem with the film is that, amongst all that growing and changing, nothing really pops. There are some great moments, but the tone is too subdued overall. We're also not totally happy with Batman’s distinction between 'killing' and 'not saving,' but that's a small quibble.
Bruce contemplates career options 
Saving Grace: The film is the first in the franchise to actually employ a completely solid lineup of actors. Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Christian Bale, and Cillian Murphy are all incredible (there's a reason all of them stay in the franchise for at least one more film). Even Katie Holmes is quite good. She's out-acted at every turn, but belligerent innocence is actually something that she can pull off. Nolan also balances exposition and action really well, and the fight sequences are brilliantly directed. With this film, he effectively put his stamp on the entire franchise, and he made the film series into something more than it had been before. This is a serious movie, an important movie, and it is meant to be regarded as more than a run-of-the-mill superhero movie. Sometimes, the film's self-serious is its undoing, but for the most part Nolan succeeds in creating a summer blockbuster that also challenges viewers as it entertains. Ugh, we disgusted ourselves with that last sentence.
Rating: This is another great movie. Quite a few guest bloggers put this as their top Batman film (guest blogger My Father would like to point out that he specifically would rank this film as the best). Origin movies are usually great, and this film is no exception.

2. Batman Returns
Plot: Batman (Michael Keaton) has to fight off a bevy of enemies, from the gruesomely grotesque Penguin (Danny DeVito) and his freak show minions to the corporate greed machine Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) and his meathead son. Also, a cat's out of the bag when the beguiling and deadly Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) flips through the city of Gotham and quickly becomes more than just the average, run-of-the-mill villainess. And, to top it all off, it's Christmas and Election season in Gotham.
Director: Tim Burton
Femme Fatale: Selina Kyle
Best Villain Line: "Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it. But a kiss can be even deadlier... if you mean it." – Sentences spoken alternately by Kyle/Catwoman and Wayne/Batman
Thoughts: When Burton directed the first Batman movie, he was more adept at focusing the action because there was really only one villain. With this film, with its multiple villains and split focus, we were struck by how slow everything moves, despite the awesomeness. It really takes a while for things to get into place, and even when it does it feels jerky and disconnected. Burton seems gets lost in his own vision and lets the crazy a bit too far out of the bag.  The Penguin is amazing, but he's also so over-the-top. DeVito plays the hell out of the role, but the cartoonishness of his plot strains credulity. Are we really supposed to believe that a supervillain rises up from Gotham's sewers to…. run for Mayor? It's all a little too ridiculous, and it's not helped by crazy-evil (or crazy and evil) Max Shreck, who provides us all with a lesson on the pitfalls of greed and power-hoarding in the most ham-fisted way possible. The man is literally hoarding the city's power to ensure the legacy of his son, Chip.
Catwoman's kiss-off to Max Shreck
Saving Grace: Even with the plot problems, the generally bonkers set direction and aesthetic, and the commitment to boring plot, there was no fiercer a competition in this ranking than between this film and the relatively well-plotted and acted Batman Begins. And this is, more than anything, due to the strength of Michelle Pfeiffer's performance as Catwoman, the most daring and amazingly crazy performance in this franchise. Catwoman's energy and danger is rooted deeply in a kind of propulsive sexuality, catapulting her from victim to victim at a rapid pace. First, she's after Max Shreck for murdering her, then she's after Batman, then she's after the world. As we and Square Peg put it a while back, "her vengeance is quick, far-reaching, and sometimes random. She's dangerous." We know that the film spends a long time hammering this comparison to death, but we also love that Pfeiffer's Catwoman is basically a mirror of Batman's own hidden lunacy and personality disorders, allowing him to really examine himself for the first time. When he does, he's horrified, confused, and aroused. It's no wonder - Pfeiffer is sexy and thought-provoking, and she carries the film (and a whip) almost by herself. Or, as guest blogger Eau de la Trine put it a bit more succinctly: "Ooooh, Michelle Pfeiffer. Work, child."
Rating: This film, ultimately, is really good. It has problems, sure, and it still looks like about 100 people live in Gotham (also, why are villains in Burton's universe so dependent on help from circus and carnival folk?). Still, Pfeiffer is unequivocally the most magnetic presence in this entire film series. She really helps the film hide some of its more glaring problems, and the same thing can be seen in the film that made it to number one on this list…

1. The Dark Knight
"Why so serious?"
Plot: Vigilantism is at an all-time high, thanks to people donning their own masks to fight crime. Meanwhile, Batman is trying to take down the mob once and for all AND gets a new cowl that helps him turn his head, Rachel Dawes is now played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and newly-elected District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is making the moves on old Maggie like it's nobody's business. Plus, a new menace is sweeping through Gotham, and he goes by the name of The Joker (Heath Ledger). This clown-faced anarchist endeavors to show that people are fundamentally evil, which he does by trying to get some boats blown up and corrupting "the best of us."
Director: Christopher Nolan
Femme Fatale: Maggie Gyllenhaal's Rachel Dawes
Best Villain Quote: "Why so serious?" – The Joker
Thoughts: The second film in Christopher Nolan's epic trilogy is clearly the strongest, not only in the trilogy but also in the whole franchise, and it was overwhelmingly the most popular choice among the guest bloggers. Guest blogger Con-Man noted that "It's very hard to compare the first four movies to the second three, because they are very different types of movies tonally and thematically. That being said, The Dark Knight is the clear winner." It's deftly written and directed, there are several little touches that work perfectly. Even a throwaway storyline about a whistleblower trying to expose Batman's identity provides scene after scene of great material for himself, Bale, and Freeman. It's also refreshing to watch a Batman movie where Bruce Wayne doesn't actually reveal his secret identity to anyone. People either know or they don't. In contrast, here are the people in whom Bruce Wayne confides his secret identity in the other films:
  • Batman – Vicki Vale
  • Batman Returns – Max Shreck and Selina Kyle
  • Batman Forever – Dick Grayson and Chase Meridian, as well as shouting it at the circus.
  • Batman & Robin – Alfred's niece Barbara
  • Batman Begins – Rachel Dawes and Lucius Fox
  • The Dark Knight Rises – Commissioner Gordon eventually figures it out, and basically everyone else already knows. It's the world’s worst kept secret.

Pow! Kick! Bam!
It's nice that, despite the plot dealing pretty heavily with the unmasking of Batman, nobody actually unmasks Batman, not even himself. That being said, the film has a fair number of problems. Firstly, Maggie Gyllenhaal is not very good in this movie. We love her to death, but she's got a stupid smug face, and she's sort brazenly sexual and flirtatious with a clear violence fetish, which counteracts the character that Katie Holmes built in Batman Begins. In almost every instance, Gyllenhaal is a better actress than Holmes, but not in this one. Secondly, as devastating as the murder of your fiancée is (we suppose), we don't buy Harvey Dent's 180 degree shift from pillar of the community to killer of the community. There needs to be more substance to his transformation into Two-Face, not just a random mention of his personality problems that we never actually see until he's a full-on baddie. Also, this is a minor quibble, but Batman is really against murdering humans but kills dogs all the time. He can't stop killing dogs in this movie.
Saving Grace: As previously noted, this film is really Heath Ledger's show, and the film is an insta-classic because of the now-iconic role that won him a posthumous Academy Award. Guest blogger Square Peg notes that the film is the best in the franchise because of the "perfection of [his] performance." He's the human incarnation of chaos, all manic energy, beady eyes, and lip licks. He's kinetic and scary. We're already afraid of clowns, but now we're terrified by them. Nolan also deserves a lot of credit for crafting a character that maintains a consistency of beliefs yet is constantly surprising. Still, it's Ledger who takes the character and turns it into the kind of performance that makes careers, which makes his untimely death all the more tragic and unsettling.
Rating: As Eau de la Trine says trilingually, the film is "Super dark, über serious, and trés sophistique." It's hurt by some weird plotting and strange character notes, but really this film could be as terrible as Batman & Robin and still make it to the top based on Ledger's performance alone. To us, it's the clear winner.
But what do you think? Did we get the top three correct? Did we make a huge mistake? Are Pfeiffer or Ledger (or both) just so-so? And are there any Batman films you would rather see in these top positions? Let us know in the comments! Also, be sure to check out the amazing work that Guest Bloggers are doing on this blog. They're fantastic!
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