As of this post, there have been a total of 8 Batman films. (I am including the hilarious Batman film in 1966 produced in Italy. You must see this film.) I could stretch this out over eight posts, but I don’t have that kind of energy, so here’s a list of them ranked.
8. Batman and Robin. Let me start off by saying that I don’t hate this film. It is very much a B-movie, or perhaps a C-movie. It is only in the context of its cast that it is a disappointment. It reminds me of Godfather Part III. Imagine a universe in which you watched only Godfather Part III. You would walk away, say “that film was okay” and walk away. You might even watch it again. So it is with Batman and Robin.
7. Batman ’66. Has any one actor ever got more enjoyment out of playing a character than Adam West did with his version of Batman? It’s corny and schlocky, but great fun.
6. Batman Returns. It may surprise you that I have this ranked so low. It’s generally well received, after all. Again, I’m not saying I didn’t like it. In fact, I enjoy it immensely. However, Michelle Pfeiffer struck me as something of a flop as Catwoman, and while Christopher Walken was awesome as Max Schreck, The Penguin is just not an ideal lead villain for Batman, especially when he isn’t fleshed out very well. Danny DeVito did a great job portraying him — it’s not his fault Penguin’s backstory wasn’t more developed.
5. Batman Forever. Here is where you call me insane. I will explain my ranking of this film after the list.
4. The Dark Knight Rises. Despite owning this on Blu-Ray, I’ve only seen it once. I loved how cerebral Bane was in this movie (although he’s supposed to be Hispanic, you fools!) and didn’t find his voice as distracting as some. Anne Hathaway was a brilliant Catwoman, better than Michelle Pfeiffer in my book. I have only one complaint about this film (and another viewing might change my opinion); it really needed a secondary villain. Catwoman doesn’t count, since she’s a tweener to use wrestling terminology. (That is, sort of good and sort of bad.)
3. Batman ’89. If you’re going to do a Batman film with only one major villain, it’s got to be the Joker. Up until recently, Jack Nicholson was The Joker for me. Michael Keaton was a serviceable Batman, but this was Jack Nicholson’s film.
2. Batman Begins. The first Batman film I’ve ever seen in theaters. A fantastic trio of villains, Ra’s Al-Ghul, Scarecrow, and one could argue, Carmine Falcone. Great cast from top to bottom.
1. The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger was the Joker we didn’t know we needed. Easily the single best performance of any actor in a Batman film. Aaron Eckhart as Two-Face was almost as brilliant as the B-villain. This is an all time great film, without question.
Now, in all of my discussions, you’ll notice that I’m focusing heavily on the villains and not on Batman. That’s intentional because (takes a deep breath) the least important actor in a Batman film is Batman. Batman is a blank canvas, the backdrop on which the story is told. The actor who plays Batman gets the most visible role, but will almost inevitably be overshadowed by the supporting cast. That’s fine, and I daresay, that’s intentional.
That doesn’t mean a bad Batman can’t kill a Batman movie. George Clooney was abysmal in Batman and Robin. Why? Because he had the audacity to make Batman the star of his own movie. He completely overshadowed the rest of the cast. I really liked Ah-nold as Mr. Freeze, but he shifts between being a villain and being a good guy (like Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises). That leaves you with Poison Ivy as your main villain. Uma Thurman is a talented actress — we know that from Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction. She is not, however, worthy of being the main villain in a Batman picture. Even if she played Ivy well (and I will grant that), Poison Ivy just doesn’t work as a main villain. If you have only one villain, Poison Ivy is among the worst choices you could make, apart from Calendar Man maybe.
Michael Keaton starred in Batman Returns, and while it’s an okay film, again, we have Batman overshadowing the villains. It’s pretty obvious that Returns was written to emphasize Catwoman, and Catwoman is a secondary villain at best. It doesn’t help that Keaton’s Batman is kind of like Superman wearing a bat costume. Keaton is too goody-goody to be a great Batman. Batman ’89 works because of Jack Nicholson, who tries to bring Batman down to his level but fails. I just never got that from Returns.
This brings me to Val Kilmer, who I think is severely underrated as a Batman. How many truly bad films has Val Kilmer been in? None that I can think of. Why? Because Val Kilmer is a replacement level actor. He will never truly star in a film. (Salton Sea was a possible exception, but Vincent d’Onofrio DOMINATED that movie). He doesn’t need to. Val Kilmer is Val Kilmer, 100% of the time, and sometimes Val Kilmer is what you need in a film. Val Kilmer knows when to bring himself forward and when to get out of the way. He is the anti-Christopher Lee; he has as much screen presence as the situation demands and no more, which makes him almost perfect for certain films. Batman Forever was one of those films.
Val Kilmer and Chris O’Donnell worked great together as Batman and Robin, better than Clooney did with O’Donnell. Nicole Kidman was a very respectable second-tier good guy. The villains dominated (which is key for a Batman film) and they had two great ones: The Riddler and Two Face. Tommy Lee Jones looks like he had fun playing Two Face, as well he should. Jim Carrey was brilliant as The Riddler, and he’s secretly the focus of the film. Now, maybe you don’t like Jim Carrey. I don’t like him in everything either. (I can’t watch The Mask again, despite loving it as a kid. I just can’t.) Yet he played the Riddler as delightfully sinister, even evil, which is something the Riddler rarely gets to be.
The Riddler may be the most difficult Batman villain to portray effectively. Part of this is because he and the Joker are so very close in gimmick, only the Riddler has OCD and the Joker doesn’t. If you ever try to show them at the same time, you doom yourself, because the Joker will eat him alive. What’s more, in Batman Forever, we see his origin story and his attempt to hide his own identity. The Joker doesn’t hide; he couldn’t even if he wanted to, which he doesn’t.
So who is the very best Batman? Christian Bale. Why? Because he found the one way Batman can shine in his own story — by making him a quasi-villain. He has an intensity that nobody else brought to the role before; he is the only Batman I believe that literally makes most bad guys shit their pants. The raspy voice has spawned a number of imitators, which is somewhat irritating, but it worked for him. Christopher Nolan, perhaps realizing that Batman can’t be at the center of his own story, put him slightly off center, and it worked brilliantly.
All of this is a leadup to the question that was on my mind: will Ben Affleck be a worthy Batman in the 2016 film? That’s a question I can’t effectively answer. Of all the actors that played Batman, he’s closest to George Clooney in stature, and that worked out really badly. Yet a Superman vs. Batman film is a different animal than any other film on this list. In that kind of matchup, Batman almost has to be the villain, at least initially, so it’s okay. Ben Affleck has been in some really great films and some really shitty ones. Yet he can get out of the way if the situation demands it (look at Good Will Hunting or, even more so, Dogma). That’s why I’m not worried about Ben Affleck being Batman.
Now, Jesse Eisenberg being Lex Luthor? That’s a whole different matter.