If you think about Batman too hard you begin to think one of two things: that he is either one of the most compelling fictional characters created during the 20th Century, or that he is one of the silliest. Because no matter how dark, how gritty, who deeply psychological his classic stories get, he’s still just a billionaire in an animal costume.
But that second interpretation isn’t very popular nowadays. Batman remains one of the most popular characters in popular culture, and this month he finally gets a live-action title bout with Superman, one of the other most popular characters in popular culture. We’ll have to wait until Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice comes out to see just how interesting Zack Snyder and Ben Affleck’s interpretation of the character will be, but right now it’s time for us to take a look back at the cinematic history of the character and decide, for now at least, what the best Batman movie ever really is.
And this week, our Best Movie Ever film critics each picked wildly different interpretations of the character, proving that all of them (well, almost) are arguably valid. So find out which Batman movie William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold and Collider’s Brian Formo picked, and come back next week when The Best Movie Ever will tackle Batman’s upcoming opponent… Superman!
Witney Seibold’s Pick: Batman: The Movie (1966)
I have overheard many conversations, mostly from the geekier of film critics, concerning the most “accurate” cinematic representation of Batman. Some feel that the stylized late ’80s angst shows Batman as he really is: wounded, stoic, and mysterious. The current generation has rallied around the 2005 version, and its commitment to training, morals, and the practicalities of crime fighting. (No one has really gone to the Schumacher films as an exemplar of anything other than how not to make a feature film.)
Here’s what I say: Who cares? Batman is a character that was invented in 1939, and has gone through so many iterations there can’t possibly be one true version of the character anymore. The notion of a centralized geek canon is pretty much gone in a world that has gone reboot-loopy, and we’re about to face an even newer film version of Batman less than five years after the last one. There is no one accurate version. They’re all totally accurate, because they’re all about Batman. Even Schumacher’s versions are legitimate.
The best version, however, is Leslie H. Martinson’s 1966 film version. Batman: The Movie is one of the brightest, most fun feature films ever made. At the time, comic book Batman was living through a bold new wave of silliness, where his adventures were cartoonish and borderline surreal. Batman: The Movie reflects that era. It takes the bold colorful weirdness of comic books, and applies it to glorious and childlike cinematic artificiality. Gravity and drama are not what makes Batman great. Only violent orphans can truly relate to his angst-ridden iteration. But everyone can understand the deliberately oversimplified glory of colorful playtime joy. There is something basic and universal about Batman: The Movie. It’s fun. And sometimes, I like to have fun.
William Bibbiani’s Pick: Batman (1989)
It’s true that every Batman movie has its fans (even Batman & Robin, which may be a bad Batman movie but is, at least, a very good luchador movie). And frankly, at one point or another I’ve liked them all. But Tim Burton’s first film is the one I will always think of when I think about a live-action Batman, and no, that’s not because it’s the one that came out when I was seven years old.
Tim Burton’s Batman is funny, but not dopey. It’s serious, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It embraces the iconography of the character, but it doesn’t go overboard. The origin story is important but not the whole plot. The villain is a cartoon but also a real threat. Bruce Wayne is tormented but able to function as a human being. In practical every way this is the platonic ideal of Batman: it is fully formed, totally entertaining, smart entertainment.
It’s amazing to see the original Batman and think about just how perfectly of its time it was. Tim Burton was coming off of two broad comedies and was clearly eager to prove he could tackle serious material, and converted a character the public still equated with camp into a flesh and blood character. The filmmaker’s operatic visual style is grounded by a simple, dynamic story that is in turn driven by exciting characters. It’s quintessentially Batman but it’s worth pointing out that whatever Burton’s influences were (there’s a LOT of German Expressionism here), this film is its own entity. There was nothing quite like it, and yet it felt so utterly timeless. Batman is still the best Batman.
Brian Formo’s Pick: Batman Begins (2005)
There are dual identities in all the Batman films, of course. It’s easy to say that Christian Bale was the best Bruce Wayne and Michael Keaton was the best Batman. But what director Christopher Nolan understood in his trilogy is that the two identities are very much the same because they’re both trying to save the status quo through their own private military defense fund.
Each of Bruce Wayne and Batman’s moves are to keep Gotham’s orphanages well-funded, the city’s mental health patients and prisoners locked up, and to quash any revolution that might shrink the upper and middle class. Batman is able to maintain status quo by funding his own private fleet of military vehicles and weapons because he’s inherited a ton of money and major production means from his father’s Wayne Industries. To hide his military expansion, Wayne thinks he needs to play up the playboy persona of the spoiled brat who can buy hotels on a whim, bathe with models, and rudely dismiss people from his birthday party at his reclusive estate.
Both Bruce Wayne and Batman are a brand; they’re on the same coin, just different sides. Each side of the brand protects and serves capitalism and the importance of the individual. Batman Begins understands this and that makes it the best Batman movie ever. We see Master Wayne go penniless and into exile, broken by his parent’s murder. He finds his way to a training ground for the League of Shadows, an organization that hopes to restore balance to the world through a period of imbalance, by breaking up the status quo, realigning power. What makes Wayne go against his trainers is that he cannot kill an individual man brought before him. He still has hope for each individual person. The idea that each individual can flourish is something that Gotham proclaims, but cannot promise. And in Batman Begins, Wayne sets out to protect that proclamation. With Begins it sets the stubborn foundation of the anti-change stance of both Wayne and Batman. And in subsequent films, the villain becomes far more interesting.