With the release of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice just a little over a week away on March 25, DC Comics’ two favorite characters are coming together like chocolate and peanut butter. Regardless of their rage, fanboys and geek girls will eagerly buy their tickets so they can proclaim their love or hate online, while mainstream audiences will see it in droves just because they’re looking for a fun diversion. Whether this movie will be a Reese’s Cup or a peanut butter-and-chocolate-flavored turd is yet to be seen.
As a movie fan with a limited knowledge of the comic book versions of Batman and Superman, my enjoyment of their respective big-screen adventures has never hinged on how faithful the films are to the source material. We thought we’d do a quick survey of the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel’s cinematic output to date, with the exception of the early movie serials, spin-offs, and foreign flicks, of course.
Based on the campy mid-’60s hit TV series, Batman’s feature-length big-screen debut is enjoyable for all the reasons that most diehard batfans hate it — the bright colors, its innate campiness, the “POW” and “BAM” flashcards, and the scenery chewing, most notably from iconic ham Adam West. Come on — how can you dislike a movie where our hero uses shark repellent Bat Spray to ward off a hungry shark nipping at his heels while he dangles from a helicopter ladder? Enjoy this for what it is — pure psychedelic-era silliness.
Superman: The Movie (1978)
As we approached the 1980s, the summer blockbuster was starting to become a thing. Star Wars, Jaws, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind proved that. Richard Donner’s 1978 film is a near-perfect encapsulation of the Superman mythos. The epic tale of a baby from the planet Krypton named Kal-El who realizes his powers as an awkward teen in Smallville, Kansas, Superman: The Movie never feels overstuffed even though it has so many plot points to hit — the destruction of Superman’s home world, his escape, his adoption by the Kents, etc., etc. It says something that Christopher Reeve’s visage immediately springs to mind for so many of us whenever the character is mentioned. This one still holds its own.
Superman II (1981)
While this sequel didn’t capture the epic nature of the previous Donner entry, Superman II is no less a great flick. Once again, Reeves proves he was born to play Superman/Clark Kent. Directed by both Richard Lester and Donner, the sequel emphasizes the struggle of Kal-El as he deals with his love for ace reporter Lois Lane. Ultimately, the son of Jor-El ditches his superpowers so that he can finally be with Lane. I couldn’t think of anything more romantic.
Superman III (1983)
Here are few thoughts I had when I saw the third Superman film: Where is Lex Luthor? Why is the guy from Stir Crazy in this movie? Superman can grow a five o’clock shadow? Whereas Lester was brought onto the previous film to add levity and do the series producer Ilya Salkind’s will, here The Hard Day’s Night director has it all to himself, and that’s the film’s undoing. The humor that Lester gave the second film is unrestrained in the third chapter. In fact, it’s irritating. All whining aside, there was something pretty cool about watching Superman battle an evil version of himself in a junk yard.
Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987)
There was a moment in time when Cannon Films was on the verge of dominating the action genre. Known for Chuck Norris vehicles like Invasion U.S.A. and pop-culture flicks like the two Breakin’ movies, Cannon tossed its hat in the summer-blockbuster ring with the fourth film in the Superman saga and the action figure adaptation Masters of the Universe. Neither film did well. At the center of The Quest for Peace is a “no nukes” theme that serves as a backdrop for the adventure, in which Supes battles, um, Nuclear Man. This movie is a real strain on the eyeballs. There’s something quietly disheartening about watching a film series known for spectacular visuals resort to the substandard effects that rival The Return of Superman, an unauthorized 1979 Turkish Superman rip-off. To make matters worse, the cast, including Reeves himself, are mentally on vacation throughout the whole affair.
Before the interwebs, it took more than a few days for fan outrage to ripple through the entertainment world. Enter Michael Keaton, a comedian best known for his roles in the comedies Beetlejuice, Mr. Mom, Gung Ho, and Night Shift. To say Bat-fans were super-skeptical of director Tim Burton’s choice is to put it mildly. If social media had existed in 1988, the anti-Keaton outrage would’ve broken the internet. While the film does have its flaws — an inconsistent tone as it leaps from a loud summer action movie to a quiet film noir, Jack Nicholson playing Jack Nicholson, the strange inclusion of Prince on the soundtrack (seriously, that art museum scene is a train wreck) — in the end, the one thing that truly worked in Batman was the one thing fans were most upset about, Michael Keaton. For many, he remains the definitive Batman.
Batman Returns (1992)
First things first, Batman Returns is not a Batman film; it’s a Tim Burton film. Danny Elfman’s score, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, Danny Devito’s Penquin, the Christmastime setting, and Bo Welch’s production design create a world that befits a nightmare-ish fairy tale more than a comic book. Of all the Batman films, it lacks a heroic voice the most. But as a Tim Burton film, it’s very Tim Burton-y. You either like that sort of thing or you don’t.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
After Batman Returns but before Batman Forever, Warner Brothers decided to release this animated feature in the theaters. Based on TV’s Batman: The Animated Series, it’s amazing how effectively Mask of the Phantasm captures the noir-ish tone of the Batman comics. It also aims for loftier themes and more adult subject matter than most animated films of its time. Make no mistake, this film deserves to sit alongside the Caped Crusader’s live-action entries. It’s certainly better than several.
Batman Forever (1995)
After Batman Returns failed to top the original film’s box office numbers, Warner Brothers decided to revisit the Adam West TV series, at least in spirit. The Lost Boys director Joel Schumacher took the reins in this colorful entry, and the unpredictable Val Kilmer donned the mask. This go around, Batman is nowhere near as brooding as Keaton, nor as charismatic. The Riddler (Jim Carrey) and Two Face (Tommy Lee Jones) are on hand to give the film a lighter, funnier tone. It’s definitely not a bad movie — they handle the inclusion of Robin quite well — but the gravity of the Burton movies is noticeably absent.
Batman and Robin (1997)
Christ on a cracker, this movie is a pile of guano. I like George Clooney. I like Arnold Schwarzenegger. I like bad puns. Hell, I even like codpieces and pointlessly pointy nipples on superhero outfits. These and other ingredients could’ve been a part of a great Batman movie, but this is not. I completely understand Schumacher’s decision to pursue a more comic interpretation of Batman after his success with Forever, but it just doesn’t work here. Thanks to some great sets and costume design, it looks like a fun movie, but it’s the farthest thing from it — it’s a monumental bore. In the end, Batman and Robin nearly destroyed the Batman franchise.
Batman Begins (2005)
Christopher Nolan’s first Bat-movie nixes the goofiness of Schumacher’s films, but it also steers clear of Burton’s super-gothic trappings, setting the tone for the Memento‘s reboot trilogy. This film focuses on Bruce Wayne’s evolution from poor little rich boy to the Dark Knight he will eventually become. Nolan chose Christian Bale to don the mask, and he gets strong results throughout. Bonus: Cillian Murphy’s brief moments as his nemesis The Scarecrow can be downright frightening for the viewer. While it has occasional missteps, like the disorienting shaky-cam fast edits in most action sequences, Batman Begins gets the job done. More importantly, it sets the stage for what is arguably the greatest superhero movie ever.
Superman Returns (2006)
Nearly 20 years after the last Superman film, X-Men director Bryan Singer signed on to create a semi-sequel to the first two Donner films. Years after the Man of Steel’s battle with Zod, Superman returns to Earth after a five year quest to find the surviving Kryptonians — they’re aren’t any. It isn’t long before he and his old enemy Lex Luthor are facing off. Decidedly more melancholic in tone than the first two Superman films, Returns captures the inner struggle of Superman — at times the whole contemplative tone is Terrence Malick-like sedate. Although Brandon Routh may have bore a notable resemblance to Reeve, he lacked that late actor’s charm. As a result, Superman Returns fizzled at the box office. Once again Kal-El was persona non grata at the multiplex.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Of all the films on this list, this is the one that needs no introduction. There is nothing I could say that you haven’t heard before or know for yourself. Eight years later, the movie still works despite its flaws, which one only notices after multiple anal-retentive viewings. But, come on, why so serious?
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
It’s a blessing and a curse that Heath Ledger’s Joker ever happened. What few flaws existed in The Dark Knight were covered up by Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance. Sadly, his spectre looms over the third film. At points overlong and convoluted, Rises is ultimately enthralling. It’s a testament to the movie when Tom Hardy’s Bane hits almost parodic heights yet he still remains effective as a villain. Battered and broken, Bruce Wayne, not Batman, is the focus of the film. In fact, for the majority of the film — the most comic book-like of Nolan’s trilogy — we watch Wayne slowly return to take up the cape and cowl once again. This may be the first time Batman is the most interesting character in a Batman movie.
Man of Steel (2013)
If anyone wants a hint of what the vibe will be for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, look no further than director Zack Snyder’s 2013 reboot. Like Synder’s previous efforts — 300, Sucker Punch, and Watchmen — Man of Steel is loaded with energy, over-the-top action, and dramatic hyperbole. This reboot feels almost like a 180-degree reaction to Bryan Singer’s film. It is a big, majestic movie with loads of destruction and seriousness. Henry Cavill’s take on Superman/Kal-El/Clark Kent is pretty good, and Michael Shannon as his nemesis, General Zod, is wonderfully cold-hearted. The spectacle is viscerally effective for anyone who likes things big and loud, especially throughout the second half of the film in which the hero and villain brawl. That pro, however, also threatens to become exhausting because it simply does not let up. Whether or not you’ll enjoy Snyder’s latest will likely depend on how you feel about his work on this and other flicks.
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