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The Great Batman Movie Debate!

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
The Great Batman Movie Debate!

It’s VS! Welcome back to the column where Brett White and I pit awesome things against one another and pit ourselves against one another with only Opinion Bullets to defend ourselves (opinion bullets are totally â„¢ and © Brett White).

This time we’re looking at all the Batman movies ever. Which Dark Knight is our favorite? Will we agree and will this be super boring? Find out now!

Obviously spoilers abound!

Kelly Thompson: We’ll start in the beginning and work our way forward, so first up is “Batman ’66” (1966) – may be in the weird minority on this one because I feel like most people either love it or hate it, but I’m middle of the road on it.

Brett White: And I’m running down the shoulder of the road reserved for people that love it.

Kelly: [Laughs] On the one hand I’m way too young to have the ’60s Batman TV series and movie as a nostalgic touchstone, but at the same time I totally get the light campy vibe they’re going for and there’s something pure and sweet (and hilarious — inadvertently so or otherwise) about it that I enjoy. It’s totally at odds with my feelings for what “Batman” should be, so it’s hard for me to take seriously as a film, but I get a kick out of it? Does that make sense?

Brett: Oh totally; the ’60s Batman embodies almost nothing that has come to be synonymous with Batman in the past 50 years — namely, this Batman is a rigid-yet-goofy Sherlock Holmes and down to do the Batusi. I have so much nostalgia for this simply because it was reran on Nick at Nite when I was very young; I would watch it with my dad on a nightly basis, while sitting with him in his recliner. That show is really the first superhero thing I loved.

Kelly: Like, every scene is shot in the brightest possible light — like high noon in Los Angeles. There’s no sense of Gotham as its own character — which is one of my favorite elements of Batman, and so the aesthetic that I’ve come to expect of Batman is utterly missing. But for so many people this is/was the right aesthetic and I get that. It was supposed to be campy cartoon fun. I suppose in the final analysis I find it hilarious and fun, but it’s not “my Batman” and that’s at least in part because it makes superhero properties seem cartoonish and ridiculous and that’s an interpretation I have to fight a lot in my life — regular folks understanding that there are many, many sides to superheroes (and even more to comics as a medium).

Brett: I think a lot of people go through a phase where they really resent this interpretation for that very reason; it saddled the genre with all that “Pow! Wam!” stuff that still gets trotted out in groan-inducing headlines about how comics have “suddenly” become adult. But at some point my nostalgia for this movie and the joy it brought me as a tiny person trumped the resentment and I’ve come full circle.

Kelly: “Batman” (1989), and let’s face it, the beginning of the movie going audience basically demanding Batman movies every few years… or at least going to them enough that Hollywood thinks they were demanding them. But let’s be honest, Batman is one of the greatest heroes ever (full disclosure: I’m totally biased, as he is perhaps my favorite superhero of all-time) and he’s perfect for the cinematic treatment.

Brett: “Batman” really should be my favorite hero because he was definitely my first favorite hero. I had already become obsessed with Adam West’s Batman when this movie came out, so I was super confused that this Batman was in all black. I saw this movie in the theater even though I was five and the electrocution scene terrified me.

Kelly: I was young (though not as young as Baby White here) when the first “Batman” came out, but even at that young age I remember thinking that I didn’t really understand how Michael Keaton could be Bruce Wayne. No disrespect to Keaton who is freaking exceptional in “Birdman” and “Mr. Mom” (’cause let’s be real), but he’s not really a devastatingly gorgeous playboy bachelor heartthrob which is what Bruce should be. Keaton’s Batman isn’t bad, but his Bruce Wayne is… sorta terrible? I never really buy him fully as Bruce/Batman, then or now.

Brett: Watch out because my brain is forming opinions! I think that Adam West is my favorite Bruce Wayne (I definitely think he’s the handsomest!) and Keaton is probably my favorite Batman. This was the first Keaton movie I saw, so I never understood why he was considered an odd choice for Batman. To me he was always Batman. And I dunno, there’s something… brooding yet aw-shucks about his Bruce Wayne? Like him saying he’s never been in that room of his house before. It’s so down to Earth yet so weird, I find it super charming.

Kelly: Adam West is super handsome (maybe the handsomest!), and that’s sort of a pre-requisite for Bruce Wayne and for me every actor to inhabit the role except Keaton is dreamy. Different levels of dreamy because personal mileage varies on these things of course, but there’s zero dreaminess for me about Keaton, which is probably part of why he works better for me as a masked Batman but not a tuxedo-wearing Bruce Wayne? West isn’t my favorite Bruce Wayne but he may be the most handsome, I have to concede that!

Brett: Concession accepted.

Kelly: Kim Basinger does a pretty good job as Vicki Vale and the movie does a pretty good job of giving her something to do in addition to being the damsel and love interest, but it’s still not really that engaging. Jack Nicholson’s Joker was a revelation at the time and while it’s perhaps not fair to compare it to something that came 20 years later, it’s impossible to deny that in comparison to Heath Ledger’s take, it feels positively safe and weirdly over the top without really being scary.

Brett: Listen, all I want from the Joker is to see him deface art while dancing to songs Prince forgot he wrote. Ugh, lord, I cannot express how much I love that scene in the museum.

Kelly: [Laughs] Yes, hearing you describe it I may be wrong. It’s amazing. Okay, “Batman Returns” (1992) and if anything could make me ignore the weak Keaton Bruce Wayne it’s how in love I fell with Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. This Catwoman was a complete revelation to young Kelly and it’s honestly stayed with me my whole life. This one role began a life-long love affair with both Catwoman and a huge spike in my interest in seeing women as superheroes (and villains) and more broadly as action stars and complex leads that weren’t love interests (or at least not just love interests). Pfeiffer even makes Keaton’s Bruce more palatable — I can almost see what she sees in him.

Brett: Yeah, that’s definitely what I picked up on after watching “Batman Returns” for the first time in years. This film fell victim to the VHS curse though, meaning that since I didn’t own the VHS as a kid, I only saw this once in the theater and then had to wait until college to see it again. Pfeiffer is go-for-broke awesome in it, though; there’s an edit in this movie where it’s just a totally awesome Catwoman flick.

Kelly: Like last week’s “Black Widow edit” suggestion I must say again, would buy, Brett. Would buy.. Danny DeVito’s Penguin is a great deal of fun even if it is way over the top and sort of weirdly creepy and gross.

Brett: I cannot handle any scene involving him in that Old West-style stained onesie. It just makes me gag. I have no time for you, DeVito Penguin! Where’s Burgess Meredith?!

Kelly: It’s totally gross. That one scene where he’s in the stained onesie and eating raw fish with his black mouth. AHHHH. But contrast that with Catwoman laughing maniacally on the bed, or licking her vinyl suit as if grooming herself and I can forget all about it. Plus you’ve got the always watchable Christopher Walker as the real baddie. Good stuff. And while the ending is sort of extremely ridiculous, the ending for Catwoman at least feels real and earned. She doesn’t just go play house, she follows through on her revenge — which is so very Selina Kyle — and carves her own way — a true anti-hero. It’s a freaking crime we didn’t get a Pfeiffer Catwoman movie. Mad forever about that.

Brett: Yeah, what’s up with that? Was that ever discussed? She’s the real star of this movie.

Kelly: I don’t know if a Pfeiffer Catwoman film was ever a thing seriously considered, but it certainly should have been! And now… “Batman Forever” (1995) Ah. And so begins the dark times… ironic considering these were the two brightly colored candy pop offerings on Batman. The campy bright vibe could have maybe worked, except they just don’t? As I think about these films and the original movie and TV show, they’re surely trying to emulate that with a modern twist, but it’s a fail.

Brett: I think that’s definitely true, but I think Joel Schumacher misinterpreted what was so great about “Batman ’66” and it really wrecks these movies. “Batman ’66” was written by comedy writers and performed completely straight; the people making it believed in what they were doing and were totally aware of it. Schumacher, from what I’ve read, seemed to just indulge campiness for campiness’ sake. The actors aren’t playing it straight, they’re hamming it up. Plus the jokes aren’t good in these like they are in “’66.” Is this me VSing you?

Kelly: No, unfortunately we are not VSing. I totally agree. The ’66 Batman is legit funny and fun and it’s on purpose, these just feel embarrassing and funny on accident. It makes all the difference in the world. Even though “Batman ’66” is not my perfect cup of tea, I like it better than these? Yeah. I do. Like these two movies wanted to have the best of both worlds, be campy and dark at once… and they just don’t work. God, it’s hard to imagine these olden times when this was really all superhero movies had to offer. Like this was the big Hollywood ticket if you liked superheroes. How far we’ve come!

Brett: I’ll forever be thankful that “Batman Forever” provided me with a crystal clear McDonald’s mug shaped like Jim Carrey’s Riddler.

Kelly: [Laughs] It’s good that you have your priorities in good order. I have to admit, Val Kilmer (who I’ve always liked) made a decent Bruce Wayne but not a great Batman (when oh when will we get one who can manage both… oh, wait, I know the answer!). I have a hard time blaming Kilmer for this though; he works to me more than most of the other elements in the film. Kidman is wooden and (maybe?) miscast as the boring as hell romantic lead. Chris O’Donnell is charming enough but also kind of wooden (and bratty?) as Robin. Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey are anything but wooden… but really go too far trying to make the movie fun and so instead make it kind of ridiculous. This is definitely the beginning of trying to cram too many characters and too many stars into the film (interesting side note: I read that Two-Face and Robin were deleted from the “Batman Returns” script — as if they saw the writing on the wall of trying to overfill a film).

Brett: Marlon Wayans was already cast as Robin in “Batman Returns” and then got cut — but I think he still got paid? Listen, readers, Google this for me. Thanks.

Kelly: Oh yeah, you’re right! I remember that now! This movie also has Drew Barrymore in one of her most adorable phases but just criminally wasted as the “good” girl sidekick for Two Face… just a sad little mess.

Brett: Yeah, that’s the casting problem in a nutshell. You have Drew Barrymore in your film and she’s forgettable. Don’t waste Drew Barrymore, Schumacher! I did have this one on VHS as a kid, so I would watch it in 15-minute increments while I got ready for school in the morning. I remember being underwhelmed with this movie at first, and I was not that discerning of a sixth grader. I went back and re-watched it when it was on Netflix and, holy wow, is it ridiculous. If “Batman & Robin” didn’t exist, I think this could easily be the accepted low point for the genre. I’m being harsh!

Kelly: I like that you can acknowledge your “not so discerning” tastes as a sixth grader. But none of us are terribly discerning at that age I’d wager. There are things about “Batman Forever” that could have worked I guess but instead it’s all things that seem “cool” thrown in a blender until nothing is cool.

Brett: Oh, oh you know what is cool, right…? Our next movie…!

Kelly: [Laughs] Height of cool. “Batman & Robin” (1997). Yeah, somehow “Batman & Robin” is even worse. I actually won tickets to screening of this by doing a drawing of Poison Ivy and sending it to my local radio station… or maybe I won tickets and then sent in a drawing as a thank you? Either way there was a crappy drawing made and shared with actual people.

Brett: Fantastic. This story alone justifies the existence of “Batman & Robin” to me.

Kelly: [Laughs] Thanks. So a lot of people hate Clooney in the Batman/Bruce Wayne role but I think he’s pretty good. Maybe it’s just because I find him attractive and charming and I think his deadpan delivery often saves some horrible elements in the script… but I’m a fan, at least a mild one, of his Batman and his Bruce, which is the first time that’s true for me (except maybe Adam West).

Brett: Yeah, it also helps that of all the actors to ever play Batman, I could buy George Clooney actually being Batman.

Kelly: That’s totally true about Clooney. So, I think there’s an awful script (and bad direction) really driving this one, but the casting to me is the biggest mistake. It feels like some typical 1990s overcompensation crap — like let’s hire the “hot young actress” instead of the best one for the part (see: Alicia Silverstone as the Batgirl none of us ever dreamed of), let’s hire Schwarzenegger because he’s a “big action name” and no of course it won’t be ridiculous (eye roll), let’s hire hot new star Uma Thurman and give her nothing to do except slink around the set and let’s make the dumbest incarnation of Bane possible. So sad.

Brett: Maybe it’s because I delight at ridiculous crap, but there is some accidental joy to Schwarzenegger’s performance; like, he’s enjoyable in all the horrible ways the filmmaker’s definitely did not intend for him to be. But the other two — Silverstone and Thurman in this movie just make me sad. And that sucks, because Uma Thurman is such a relentless badass in the “Kill Bill” franchise, it’s so awful that her big superhero movie is this one. I am so angry that we as a people have been robbed of yearly action movies starring Uma Thurman (also Charlize Theron).

Kelly: You know, it occurs to me just now that Michael Gough is the only Alfred in these four films… and he’s the best and most consistent thing in all of them (except Pfeiffer’s Catwoman). In fact… I wish that he was the Alfred on “Gotham” too. Do. Not. Like. “Gotham” Alfred. Grrrr.

Brett: I don’t watch “Gotham,” but that Alfred has a round, doughy English face so that pegs him as one of “my types.” TMI, Brett, TMI!

Kelly: Indeed TMI! But yeah, but since you don’t watch do you know that he’s Australian? Which is just… so wrong. And he’s kinda mean and “badass” it’s just all wrong on a level that disturbs me greatly. Some things just don’t need to be messed with or updated and Alfred Pennyworth is one of those things. He’s perfection.

Kelly: All right. “Batman Begins” (2005). And so it begins. See what I did there, Brett? See? Anyway, yeah, this was a great new start. Bold and dark and smart and cool and serious. A grown man’s/woman’s Batman. I’m not a fan of “grim and gritty” applied universally to all superheroes but it makes a good deal of sense for Batman — which is superheroes meets horror, right?

Brett: Yeah, “grim and gritty” works on Batman very well because there are decades upon decades of him being that way in the comics; it’s how he was when he first appeared. Superman, not so much. Not so much. Do you hear me, Snyder?! I saw this during my first ever trip to New York City, and I remember rolling my eyes hard at the idea of a reboot and seeing this origin story all over again — although “Batman ’89” should be commended for reserving the origin for a few quick flashback scenes. But I was pleasantly surprised, mostly because of the tonal about face done in the wake of “Batman & Robin” years earlier.

Kelly: You’re right about “Batman ’89” largely skipping over the origin — that is a bonus! I know “The Batman Voice” is much debated among fans, but I’m a fan of the voice. Sure, it’s a bit extreme and Christian Bale could have pulled it back a bit, but I think it’s a really practical and — to be completely honest — realistic thing that a real Batman would do — and since the Nolan films pride themselves on being dark and “real,” so it’s fitting.

Brett: Totally agree — plus without it I wouldn’t be able to growl “swear to me”, which is something I do surprisingly often?

Kelly: [Laughs] Christian Bale is definitely my favorite Batman and Bruce Wayne. It’s hard to do both, but he does them beautifully. And really, playing Batman is actually three roles, not two — you’ve got Batman (obviously), and then fake arrogant playboy Bruce Wayne, and then the real Bruce Wayne —  tortured and borderline lovesick. Bale nails all three with ease.

Brett: I can see that, I think this is the first film where Batman really has all three of those components going — but there’s something about Bale that I’m just lukewarm about? I can see the guy’s totally doing a great job, but I get way more jazzed about everyone else in this trilogy than Bale himself. Like Gary Oldman!

Kelly: Gary Oldman is a perfect Commissioner Gordon. There are a few things about “Begins” that frustrate me including its super “origin story” roots which I understand why Nolan wants to start with but… I mean… are there people in the world (those that are going to watch a Batman movie) that don’t know the origin of Bruce Wayne? Sigh. Katie Holmes is miscast and forgettable in an also forgettable role (Nolan does seem to struggle a bit with resonant roles for women).

Brett: I tweeted once that “The Wolverine” has more substantial female roles in it than the entire “Dark Knight” trilogy and I stand by that.

Kelly: God. That’s true. That’s kind of insanely embarrassing. And though Liam Neeson is basically great as Ra’s, it’s unfortunate that they went with a white man for the role. Big missed opportunity IMO.

Brett: Yeah, in some ways “Iron Man 3” stole its twist from this movie, wherein the white guy you know by another name (Henri Ducard/Aldrich Killian) is revealed to have the mantle of a traditionally non-white villain (Ra’s/Mandarin). They both even have POC stand-ins in Ken Watanabe and Ben Kingsley! What’s up with that?!

Kelly: Huh. That’s weird. I guess that worked better for me in “IM3” because it felt like a deliberate commentary and not just “we really like Liam Neeson for the role.” Does that make any sense? I don’t know. Okay, “The Dark Knight” (2008). A truly excellent superhero film. I’m totally in the tank for this film. It’s got an even worse problem with women — Rachel is still nothing but a girlfriend pawn role and then gets fridged, the “Not-Montoya” role turns out to be corrupt bad guy role, and Nolan squanders a perfect opportunity to at least show/tease Barbara Gordon, instead opting to show the far less important young James Gordon. Yeah, women’s roles in this film kinda suck even though Maggie Gyllenhaal feels like an upgrade from Katie Holmes.

Brett: I enjoy Maggie Gyllenhaal more as an actor; she brought way more weight and life to the role than Holmes did, even if it was total fridge fodder. I’m on board for this one, too. I think this was the first superhero film that I thought just went all-in on another genre; you take off the Batsuit and makeup and this is a two thumbs way up crime drama. Since then we’ve seen comic movies defy the idea that “superhero” alone is a genre; we now get all these genre hybrids where we see what superheroes look like through the lens of space operas or political thrillers. I think that all starts with “Dark Knight,” in a way.

Kelly: Agreed. And for me, except for the female roles misfire, everything else is basically perfection. Bale and Oldman are still wildly on point plus Heath Ledger basically being a revelation as Joker raises this up to masterful levels. The ideas the movie explores are fantastic, the development of the mythos and characters is layered and complex, and the use of Gotham as its own character is great. Fix the female roles/lack of female roles and it’s a near perfect film.

Brett: This was in the early days of me being aware of comic book news online and the news cycle of a casting announcement and rage about that casting announcement. So like almost everyone, I just could not understand how Heath Ledger would make a decent Joker. I was wrong! This was not “10 Things I Hate About You” Heath (the only Heath I really knew). I thought the pacing of this movie was brilliant, with Batman chasing Joker from one chaotic incident to another. I think it gets a little long in the cape when we get to the Two-Face stuff, but Aaron Eckhart is great in the role and that stuff gives us a finale that has real emotional heft to it and doesn’t rely on rampant property damage.

Kelly: “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012). Thank god for Catwoman and Talia. Finally some interesting and complex roles that are well written and exceptionally inhabited by Anne Hathaway and Marion Cotillard. Everyone else on board is basically great too. And though Tom Hardy’s Bane is sometimes hard to hear, man does he look awesome. Such a difference 15 years can make (since “Batman and Robin”)!

Brett: I love Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman so much. She makes the movie for me.

Kelly: Same. My biggest problem with “TDKR” is that it feels overly long and thus a bit overblown and the end reveals hang too much on the Talia reveal, which any comic book fan worth their salt likely figured out thus taking the wind out of the sails. Also, because I am apparently now an old person, I find the sound badly mixed… too loud overall and often too hard to understand. Still, great fight sequences, great evolution and arc for both Bruce and Selina, a Selina that feels real and earned, some cool vehicles, badass Bane, and lots of layers means it’s still a great Batman movie… one of the best.

Brett: I have mixed emotions about this one! Mostly because my fiance outright hated it, and everyone else I saw it with had very mixed reactions to it. It is very long, very overstuffed and I think it suffered from coming out at the same time Occupy Wall Street was going on; at that time, I worked just a few blocks down from Zuccotti Park, so I saw the protesters every day. A lot of the imagery in the movie seemed way too real — parts of “TDKR” were shot in that neighborhood of Manhattan, too! — and therefore I could see how inaccurate they were in depicting income disparity and real human spirit. We were seeing average people rising up and taking a stand, but in “TDKR,” everyone holes up at home and waits. It, at times, felt like the movie was asking me to side with the police over the protestors — even if some of the protestors in “TDKR” were on Bane’s side. It felt weird to see something Occupy-esque played as evil? There’s a lot of complex stuff going on here, I’m definitely not getting at the heart of it because my brain hurts, and I think big chunks of the movie are hurt by the political climate in which it was made radically shifting by the time it was released. Still, Catwoman is great! And I didn’t even mind the super winky “My middle name is Robin, get it?”

Kelly: Those are really good points. I don’t think I noticed it as strongly as you, but I do remember feeling sort of uncomfortable with some things here and the execution. But then…Catwoman, Brett. I am easily swayed by Catwoman. And I straight up weep that it looks like we’re never going to get the Joseph Gordon-Levitt Robin (or “nuBatman”). I would have been so down for that. All right, so that’s all of them… where do you land, Brett?

Brett: This is truly a list where nostalgia trumps actual craft, methinks.

08. Batman & Robin

07. Batman Forever

06. Batman Returns

05. Batman Begins

04. The Dark Knight Rises

03. Batman (1966)

02. The Dark Knight

01. Batman

Kelly: Wow. I cannot believe Keaton “Batman” is your No. 1! I’m shocked! I’m gonna lock in with:

08. Batman & Robin

07. Batman Forever

06. Batman Movie (1966)

05. Batman

04. Batman Begins

03. Batman Returns

02. The Dark Knight Rises

01. The Dark Knight

Kelly: All right, kids, that’s all for this week! Don’t forget to vote on your favorite Batman film in the poll and join us next time when we tackle Runaways VS Young Avengers! OMG.

Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He makes videos for the Upright Citizens Brigade as a member of UCB1 and writes for the sketch comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).

Kelly Thompson is the author of the novels “The Girl Who Would be King” and “Storykiller.” She’s also the writer of IDW’s “Jem and the Holograms,” the Graphic Novel “Heart in a Box,” and co-writer of Marvel’s “Captain Marvel & the Carol Corps.” You can find Kelly all over the place, but twitter is easiest: @79semifinalist

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