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Every Live-Action 80s/90s Batman Movie Ranked

From Burton and Keaton to Schumacher and Kilmer, who did it best?

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

With Keaton returning to the cowl as Batman in The Flash this summer, I thought it would be a pivotal time to revisit the retro Batman Anthology and see how well this oddball selection of superhero flicks holds up today…

4. Batman & Robin

This is why Superman works alone… Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

1997, Directed By Joel Schumacher

Hooo boy, here we go. Now, I’m not even going to pretend this is a hot take because it simply isn’t. Everyone knows this is the worst Batman film by a mile, and nothing else even comes close. It killed the public perception of the character, dug a nail into the coffin of the camp era of Batman movies, and inspired a new generation of critics to hate superhero movies.

Now I can wail on this movie with ease, as has everyone else, for a variety of reasons:

  • The villains are all entirely hollow vessels for set pieces and one-liners.
  • Arnie’s Mr. Freeze is one of the worst superhero villains ever put to film, which is a crime because Mr Freeze is actually a fantastic supervillain when the source material is treated with respect.
  • As the runtime drones on, the film gets duller and duller with every passing second, the camp charm soon wearing off.
  • The castings of Clooney as Batman and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy are COMPLETELY wasted.
  • Bane is a mute musclehead. That, within itself, is a crime in some countries. How can you adapt a character so POORLY?
  • The attempts at an emotional story clash pretty intensely with the overtly camp and cartoonish nature.

I put these in list form because they are completely obvious criticisms that I’m sure you’ve heard a million times. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t disagree with them, not a single one, because I entirely agree with them, and this film does suck big-time. However, I wanted to take this opportunity to look at some of the things this film does well because why not? We’re here, aren’t we? Let’s do something different.

First of all, the most obvious praise one can throw at the film is its gorgeous production design. The sets, costumes, and props all look like they’re torn right out of a comic book, heavily emphasizing incredible practical effects that lend weight and feel to the bat-shit-crazy action set pieces. The frozen-over museum, Arkham Asylum, and the jungle ball all look phenomenal.

Secondly, while some of the performances are better left off in a dark hole, never to be seen again, I must praise a few. Despite the atrocious material she is provided, Uma Thurman slays it as Poison Ivy and is, in my eyes, a pop culture icon. If she had been in the excellent film, I genuinely believe her Poison Ivy could’ve been on the level of Pfieffer’s Catwoman (read: awesome).

O’Donnell also brings a suitable level of camp and edgy badassery to the role of Robin, and I genuinely believe that he was cats perfectly. I love him, and I wish he, too, got better films to flex his Superhero muscles in. I must also shout out to Gough’s suitable mortal performance as a terminally ill Alfred; he manages to deliver a few of the sparse heartwarming moments in the film.

Now, let me make this as straightforward as possible: this is a bad movie, and I do not enjoy it. It is; I do not deny it. However, it is also clear that the film was a labor of love, albeit messy, and to rob it of praises it so clearly deserves simply because I don’t enjoy it would be outright unfair.

Best Moment: Poison Ivy’s entrance into the jungle ball. Either that or the moment she is ‘born.’ Both are peak camps, and Uma is in full-on iconic mode.

3. Batman

It’s the cowl. Chicks dig the cowl. Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

1989, Directed By Tim Burton

Hah! Here’s a hot take for you, Batman nerds: I don’t care for this film. I’m sorry, I don’t. It’s not as camp as Forever or as epic as Returns, so why do I have to return to it? Okay, maybe I’m overplaying this for theatric sake, so let me get a bit more critical

The film has plenty to enjoy; its dark and gothic aesthetic is fantastic, as is its emphasis on practical displays of Batman’s gadgets. While not reaching the heights he does in Returns, Keaton is still great both with and without the cowl, and, of course, Nicholson’s Joker is undoubtedly iconic. So what’s the problem, then? It just gives them nothing to do…

Keaton’s Batman is ultimately superfluous, lacking depth or moral conflict (he kills without hesitation, something I despise in Batman adaptions unless given proper reasoning like in BVS, where he is a Batman off the rails, etc.), and Nicholson’s Joker, while fantastic at first, ultimately becomes (as do many of the villains in these films) a vessel for set pieces and conflict. Also, making him the man who killed Batman’s parents is an utterly bizarre creative choice that I will forever question, especially considering how little it is explored.

Overall, it’s not a bad film, but one that has all aspects of it improved on or completely overtaken in later films: Bruce confronting his parent’s killer? Batman Begins does it better. The Joker? Ledger does it far, far, far better. A dark and gothic Gotham City? Look no further than the vastly superior sequel, Batman Returns. And a villain who utilizes creative and engaging ways to muddle with the Dark Knight? Well, look no further than the next film on this list…

Best Moment: The reveal of Nicholson as The Joker; Danny Elfman’s theme is fantastic.

2. Batman Forever

It’s the nipples. Chicks dig the nipples Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

1995, Directed By Joel Schumacher

Uh oh, another hot take! Lower your rubber pitchforks, folks; they won’t do anything anyway! That’s right; I enjoy this more than Batman ’89 (audience gasps)! ‘But Aaron,’ I hear you cry, ‘Batman Forever is a silly movie! Batman can’t be silly!’. AHAH! That is where I disagree with my friends, acquaintances, strangers, and potential enemies. Batman CAN be silly; here, he is stupid while still (just about) holding onto the cool factor. Just about…

Now I won’t sit here and pretend this is a fantastic film or something because it isn’t. I’m not crazy, delusional, and fully aware that approaching it from a genuinely objective standpoint, 89 is better. I do not care. I don’t. It’s as simple as that. I had way more fun watching this than I did 89, and when it comes to films like this, I’d argue that matters more.

Okay, I’ll stop being so annoying and talk about the film. First, like Batman & Robin, the production design is astounding. Through a massive budget and a lot of talent, the film is a visual treat, heightening the action set pieces to another level. Also, shoutout to the costume designers because the suits in this movie go hard.

Next up, I want to praise Val Kilmer as Batman. Seriously, he’s probably my favorite Batman in these movies (sorry, Keaton). Despite the sheer campiness of what surrounds him, Kilmer’s Wayne fits right in as a sterner but still caring version of the character, knowing when to play it seriously and when to ham it up. I wish he had a better film in which to show off his performance, but he’s remarkable all the same (the same goes for O’Donnell as Robin, who I praise in the Batman & Robin segment).

As for the villains? Well, while they are pretty much as hollow as every past entry on this list, there’s no denying that Carrey was born to play the Riddler. Whether playing the absurdly over-obsessive Edward Nygma or his off-the-wall alter-ego, Carrey is simply perfect. On the other hand, Tommy Lee Jones’s Two-Face is a few more lousy line deliveries away from being as bad as Arnie’s Mr. Freeze and lets the film down immeasurably.

Is it a great film? No, it’s not. Is it an entertaining and excellent film I’d happily rewatch over Batman 89′ any day of the week? Yes, it is, and unapologetically so. Of course, neither of these three films comes anywhere near the final (and best by a mile) entry on this list…

Best Moment: Seeing Edward Nygma gloat about his newfound success at his party. He and Bruce Wayne having a testosterone-off is ridiculously fun.

1. Batman Returns

It’s the Cat. Chicks Dig the Cat Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Let me clarify: there is a whole continent of quality difference between this film and the other three on this list. If 89′ and Forever are enjoyable, this is a goddam rollercoaster. All I’d have to say is Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman, and I’d have said enough, but that would be cheating, so I guess I’ll add some more…

Okay, but seriously, Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman. While we’ve been blessed by many incredible portrayals of the character over the years, from Hathaway’s slinky cat-burglar to Kravitz’s more disillusioned form of vengeance, Pfieffer stands out for the sheer insanity of her performance. You know what? I love her so much; she can get her paragraph.

Selina Kyle is the mistreated assistant of Christopher Walken’s vile businessman, Max Shreck. Laughed out of the room and entirely unappreciated, this abuse becomes more serious when Shreck shoves her out of a window to what he assumes is her doom. He is wrong, as she miraculously survives with a few more screws loose.

She takes up a costumed alter-ego in the form of Catwoman and lives life how she so chooses, taking and doing what she wants, when she wants. She reclaims her life, at the cost of a slowly deteriorating mental state, frustrated and angry with the world to the point where, to the dismay of her love interest Batman (that’s right, he’s her love interest in this article), she sees no point in its joys anymore and gives her own life to vengeance.

Pfieffer is phenomenal and steals the show, although I should also talk about the other characters. Keaton is his exact brand of Batman, goofy and charming; nothing new there. DeVito’s Penguin is vile but with a sincere haunting of tragedy in the mistreatment and abuse he faced in his life. Christopher Walken is… I suppose Christopher Walken, for better or for worse; it just depends on how much you like Christopher Walken.

Ultimately, the film is bigger and better in pretty much everywhere than its predecessor. While Penguin may not entirely be as memorable as Joker, he’s given far more to do, and Kyle’s Catwoman is far more intriguing and developed than the utterly forgettable Vick Vale (stop the press!). I love this film so much, and if you, dear reader, are only to watch one of these films, make it this one.

Best Moment: The ‘Death’ of Catwoman. While she may not actually die (which is a bit lame), the actual scene of her entirely giving in to vengeance and murdering herself and her abusive boss in one sweep was both tragic and incredible.

Closing Remarks

I initially considered making this an “Every Live-Action Batman Movie Ranked,” but you know what? I’m fed up with the Dark Knight Trilogy overshadowing these films. Yes, they are better in almost every conceivable way, but these films are still unique. They represent an era of superhero filmmaking gone by: an era of bombastic and colorful sets, of camp and oddball villains, and of a Batamn who blows people up with bombs (yes, that happens).

Are they perfect? Hell no! But they’re fun, and I was more than happy to spotlight them when they feel forgotten…

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