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Highlights of Batman’s Cinematic Crime-Fighting Career

Critically and commercially, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is turning out to be the biggest hit of the year, maybe of all time. Both the amount of box office records it has broken and its staggering 94 percent rating on has surprised nearly every industry analyst; no one expected it to be so good or so successful. It is a very lengthy sequel to a moderately successful (in the world of superhero movies, anyway) reboot of a franchise based on a character who had already had six films based on him — eight if you count the 1940s serials. Everyone knew it was going to be big, but it had enough working against it that no one thought it would be this big.

As Batman fever reaches heights it hasn’t seen since Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), still the second-highest grossing comic book film of all time when adjusted for ticket price inflation, it may be time to revisit other filmed adaptations of the exploits of the caped crusader. The Dark Knight is, by nearly unanimous opinion, the best Batman film ever made, but if it has left you with a Bat-craving that can’t be satisfied with another expensive trip to the movie theater, you can find the following films on DVD at your local video store.

Batman (1943)

It didn’t take long for Hollywood to realize Batman’s cinematic potential, with this serial released less than five years after the character was created. Like the comics of the time, which had already drifted from Batman’s rather hard-edged origins, this one’s for the kids. It isn’t as unconsciously goofy as the sequel, Batman and Robin (1949, not to be confused by the other disaster by the same name), but patient Bat-maniacs will enjoy this 15 part, 260 minute collection of shorts.

Batman (1966)
Actually the pilot for the TV show which would become Batman’s first major foray into the realm of pop culture phenomena, this may be the perfect Batman movie. The tongue-in-cheek film can never go wrong because its purpose is to go wrong. It starts with an all too earnest salute to all crime fighters and includes a trained exploding shark, a dehydration machine that turns people into salt, and an assertion by Commissioner Gordon that Batman and Robin are fully deputized law enforcers. And yes, Shark Repellent Bat-Spray.

Batman (1989)
Tim Burton helmed this update of the character, which was an unprecedented success, quickly becoming one of the top-grossing films of all time. And despite Burton and his script doctors’ numerous mistakes (Sam Hamm, the credited screenwriter, disavows the decision to have Batman kill, among other things), the film is appreciable for turning the tide toward a more adult vision of Batman. A tide which, of course, would be reversed again in the 90s.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
I loved this film as a child, but as an adult, there is perhaps even more to enjoy in this little-remembered film based on “Batman: The Animated Series.” Pulling in only $5 million at the box office, this commercial dud doesn’t make many “Top Ten Superhero Films” lists, but before The Dark Knight it may have been Batman’s best outing on the big screen. Like the new film, it focuses on Batman’s war against the mob, the Joker and a new villain, all of whom are tied together in an intricate if transparent plot which works far better than most attempts to include multiple villains in a Batman film. It is about the sacrifices Bruce Wayne has had to make in order to fight crime, the psychological effects of which are felt here more strongly than they have been in most other films.

Batman and Robin (1997)
This is the most universally reviled entry in any Batman franchise, but is a cinematic train wreck of such monumental scale that watching it crash and burn is almost as fun as watching a really great Batman film. For a bonus, turn on the audio commentary on the Warner Brothers Special Edition DVD, wherein director Joel Schumacher apologizes for the film multiple times with excuses like, “they wanted to sell action figures.” Maybe, Joel, but I don’t know if Warner Brothers insisted on action figures with Bat-Nipples.

Batman Begins (2005)
Chances are you’ve already watched this recently to warm up for the new one, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t realize The Dark Knight is a sequel to anything. Some people also still insist that the new films are prequels to Tim Burton’s film, which is a frustratingly stupid misconception. So let’s be clear: this re-launch of the Batman franchise, which is in no way related to any Batman films made before it, attempts a realistic take on the origin of Batman. It peaks 1.5 hours in and then descends into rote comic book stuff for the last half-hour, essentially stealing the diabolical device of the film’s villains from the dehydrator in Batman (1966).

Batman’s cinematic legacy is longer than most other superheroes’. I would like to say his staying power is somehow related to the way people relate to his story, that he’s human and sympathetic and captures something simple but emotionally profound in his quest to avenge the death of his parents. This is what DC Comics executives will tell you, but the truth is that, as these picks prove, there are several different takes on Batman, none of which are more dominant than the others. They all have their appeal and every once in a while a filmmaker finds an angle on Batman that appeals to everyone.

It is pretty safe to assume, however, that I am the only one you will ever hear recommend Batman and Robin.

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