Ladies and gentleman, please take your seats for the warm-up fight, Batman v Batman v Batman (the fact we couldn’t find enough writers for a Superman debate probably tells you who would win the main contest at ORWAV).
Three of our writers, Christopher Preston, Eddie Falvey and Joe Brennan, will be donning their capes and cowls to debate which is the best Batman film, with Tom Bond moderating like a low rent Harvey Dent.
Tom: As usual let’s kick off with opening statements for what you think is the best Batman film and why. Who wants to go first?
Eddie: I’m arguing that Batman Returns is the best Batman film of all time. This is not to say that Nolan’s heralded trilogy isn’t great, but with the exception of the first film, the best of that trilogy, Nolan’s films aren’t really about Batman at all – The Dark Knight is totally Joker’s film, and Rises is more about Wayne the man than man the Bat. Tim Burton managed to find the perfect balance between the campness of Batman’s origins and the darkness of the 1980s comics renaissance.
Christopher: I’m here to fight for The Dark Knight, though I’m not sure it’s actually the greatest Batman film ever made, so I’ll say it’s the first amongst equals. It stands beside The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather: Part II as sequels that build on strong first instalments by giving everything a rougher shove. Plus, obviously, Heath Ledger’s zeitgeist fizzing turn as the Clown Prince of Crime. It’s a Batman film firing on all cylinders.
Joe: The 1966 Adam West film Batman: The Movie is the greatest big screen incarnation of the Caped Crusader. Its youthful energy and sense of fun make it a timeless watch and its campy style makes it one of the funniest comedies of the ‘60s. Unlike many films of the same era, Batman is still referenced and parodied to this day. While other Batman films take themselves so seriously that they become silly, this incarnation revels in its own silliness and comes away the better for it.
Tom: So, we’ve got a clear difference in tone across the three picks already. Let’s start with the darkest of them all: The Dark Knight. Christopher, why so serious?
Christopher: The Dark Knight isn’t just dark, and that’s its point. It’s half dark, half light; half Batman, half Joker; half heads, half tails. It has to show us the dichotomy of what Batman is and what he stands for. He is about justice, but he’s a vigilante. He works outside the law.
In terms of Nolan’s darkness, this depiction of the character is nothing new. Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s creation was always forged in darkness. They gave us a tortured soul who spent his nights stalking a city, hunting the criminal underworld, dressed as a six foot plus bat. Personally, I’ve always found Burton’s two Batman entries to be far darker than Nolan’s trilogy. The Dark Knight, like its Joker, is more grungey than dark.
Eddie: I totally agree that Burton’s films are darker, just as I completely agree that Batman needs darkness – the ‘60s TV show and films are arguably the furthest removed from the source material. My greatest issue is that The Dark Knight (and Rises) don’t feel like they belong to a comics universe. The ‘Heat with masks’ descriptor has been used for The Dark Knight before, and I totally agree. Nolan’s obsession with plausibility is almost his undoing; in the context of his gritty, real world the characters feel absurd. He nailed it in Begins, The Dark Knight was the beginning of the unravelling.
Christopher: I’m not sure I agree. Gotham isn’t so real world that characters like Batman or the Joker feel alien inside it. It’s ‘real world’ but hung slightly askew.
Joe: As a hyper-realistic version of Batman I was troubled by the conclusion of The Dark Knight. When Batman uses the sonar technology to catch the Joker, the message seems to be that it’s ok to use invasive surveillance tactics so long as it is in the right hands and used for the right reasons. In the film’s own Bush-era context that’s uncomfortable. In today’s post-Snowden context it’s even worse.
Christopher: The conclusion didn’t trouble me because this is Batman. Not Superman. Batman is a fascist. He’s blinkered. He thinks only in absolutes: good, bad, right, wrong, and will do what is necessary to get the job done.
Eddie: I think that the ‘reality’ of Batman is quite troubling and only a psychotic break would allow for Wayne to reconcile his daylight philanthropy with his night-time beat-downs of the underprivileged. The Dark Knight’s success is in realising that it’s only a small push that separates Batman from all his villains. But Burton’s Gotham is perfect. Sure, it doesn’t dwell on Batman’s duality in the way that Nolan does, but this is because Batman doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Burton’s universe allows for these costumed lunatics to run riot and it’s so much fun.
Tom: That feels like a pretty smooth segue to Burton’s Batman. Christopher and Joe, what do you think of his films?
Christopher: I like both of them, a lot, but I think their chief gift is the development of the spiritually similar animated series. That in itself gave birth to one of the best Batman films of all time: The Mask of the Phantasm (a film only a hairline fracture behind The Dark Knight as my pick for tonight’s debate).
Joe: I like them, particularly Returns as Michelle Pfeiffer is my favourite version of Catwoman. The visuals are easily the best part, but I feel, like with a lot of Burton’s work, that there isn’t a lot going on beneath the surface.
Tom: That’s a good point Joe. Burton’s Gotham looks undeniably stunning, but do the story and characters hold up?
Eddie: Not a lot going on beneath the surface… I think that criticism could be made of most of Nolan’s films.
Christopher: Calm down, Falvey. I’m helping you out here.
Eddie: Burton’s films are horror movies though right? That’s part of their success.
Christopher: They always creeped me out as a child. Keaton’s Batman scared me, Nicholson’s Joker and DeVito’s Penguin terrified me, Michelle Pfeiffer transitioned me into adolescence.
I’m a big fan of Burton’s Batman, but I never liked the neatness of Napier murdering the Waynes. In fact, the only thing that makes that palatable is the delightful fan theory which suggests Batman projects his parents’ murder onto all his prey.
Eddie: People who don’t read a lot of Batman often don’t see how deeply invested his character is in the horror genre. Some of the best comics have made that same argument for Batman’s insanity – Morrison and McKean’s Arkham Asylum is a great example.
Tom: Let’s talk about Adam West’s Batman film, aka Batman: The Movie, a little more. It’s at the other end of the scale to Burton and Nolan’s films. Why is it great?
Joe: The Adam West version may look shallow compared to other screen versions, but this doesn’t hold up when viewed in context. Batman: The Movie was released in 1966, in the midst of the civil right movement and the rising counter culture. While Marvel superheroes were seen to reflect these cultural shifts (a 1965 Esquire piece found that college radical s hailed Spiderman and the Hulk as revolutionary figures alongside Che Guevara and Malcolm X) DC characters were seen as paternal.
The 1966 film has Batman and Robin embody American authority. They’re fully deputised law enforcement officers with official ties to the establishment – as Robin spouts at a press conference, “Support your police”. The film goes out of its way to make the two heroes massive dorks and so pokes fun at authority. However, much of the humour is apolitical, relying on the awkward timing, cheap production values, and implausible situations to deliver laughs 50 years after its initial release.
Christopher: Batman: The Movie is fantastic. It was my gateway drug into Batman as a character and his whole story. I used to wolf down my dinner at 6pm as quickly as I could without choking to go and watch the series on BBC2. One of my happiest moments as an adult is when the show was finally released on DVD and Blu-Ray the Christmas before last.
Tom: Someone said that it was the least faithful Batman film earlier. Does that weaken it for any of you?
Eddie: It’s very of its time, as are all of the Batman’s we’ve seen.
Christopher: It’s only the least faithful by modern terms. William Dozier’s Batman is very faithful to the pop-art zaniness of the ‘60s. I always like a Batman film that can convey the weight of the cowl and symbol. The ‘66 version does that through the really quite affecting fallout from the Bruce Wayne/KitKa relationship. Adam West really shows some acting chops in those handful of scenes.
Tom: I know some of you were very close to arguing for the animated series. Who wants to rave about them?
Christopher: Mark Hamill is the Joker. Perhaps Ledger’s was more of a grenade in the pop culture battlefield, but his version gets every facet of the character. Easily the most faithful, easily the most fun, easily the best incarnation.
Eddie: He nailed it in the Rocksteady games too. Kevin Conroy is also a fantastic Batman. He didn’t offer much as Wayne but for the animated series that was fine.
Joe: I also think the noir style of the animated series is perfect for Batman.
Eddie: For all of the animated series’ brilliance it also led to a dark patch for the character. After its success, Burton was deemed too dark; enter Schumacher. I honestly think that Batman Forever has some fun moments, and is quite close in tone to the animated series. On the other hand, I’m still not convinced that Batman and Robin wasn’t a Milgram experiment.
Joe: I actually kinda dug what Schumacher was going for even though it didn’t work.
Christopher: Mask of the Phantasm provides the Batman canon with one of its most tremendous sequences. It shows a devastated Bruce Wayne, early on in his tenure as the Dark Knight, knelt in a graveyard as rain buckets over him. He is weeping, distraught, and clinging to his parents’ headstone, and he spends the whole next minute or so begging with every cell of his alter egos to be released from his raison d’être. It’s powerful, going far further than its Saturday morning cartoon ever had the right to. And why does he want to move on from being the Batman? Because a chink of light has burst through the darkness. Bruce Wayne has fallen in love.
Eddie: And then you look at Nolan…ugh. His films are so sexless. I’m utterly convinced that in Nolan’s Bat-universe, Bruce Wayne is a virgin pre-Talia.
Christopher: Agreed. Bale’s Bat is far too asexual a character to make the Rachel Dawes saga worth investing in. The Talia episode in Rises feels rushed and tacky, too.
Tom: So with the image of Christian Bale’s virgin Batman fresh in our minds, let’s move onto final statements. Do you still think the film you first argued for is the best and why?
Joe: While there are great Batman adaptations (Returns, Phantasm) I still think that the Adam West version is the best because it fulfils its own ambitions the best. In all other adaptations I find something I don’t like, but with Batman: The Movie everything just fits into place.
Christopher: The Dark Knight was the first film I saw set an entire summer alight. I suppose it’s fortunate for the film that summer was my umbilical cord between school and university. It bathes it in a rather rose tinted glow. Nevertheless, Adam West’s Batman, Burt Ward’s Robin, and Leslie H. Martinson’s campy delight will always have a special place on my Bat shelf.
Eddie: I think that Begins is truly exceptional but it has put DC on an unfortunate trajectory that promises grit and realism when some characters just don’t need it (I’m looking at you Man of Steel). But I will stand by Returns; it is a beautiful production that really reflects the character’s origins and future. It may not be as great a film as Begins or TDK, but as a Batman film it’s first-class.