All The Batmans: #1 Of 3 Plastic Ducks And Poodle Grenades

Feb 28, 2022
The Batman (2022) movie poster

What feels like a million years ago now, but was actually only October 2020, I finally finished a piece which had been a long time coming, about the Catwoman outfits which had made the most impact on me over the years. Whilst diligently doing my homework for this, it occurred to me that I’ve never seen the Anne Hathaway suit ‘in the field’ as it were – I hadn’t seen The Dark Knight Rises - which led me to wonder if there are other Batman movies I had missed. Cue the first glimpses of the Robert Pattinson incarnation, The Batman, with indications it would be released in 2021, plus some teaser shots of Zoë Kravitz in killer heels, and a project was born: All the Batmans, in which I determined to watch every Batman movie ever made* before The Batman was released.

That little asterisk* above is doing some work: there are many animated Bat movies, and there have been Batman series released cinematically – should they be included? – (I note with fascination that the live action 1943 15-part Batman serial was released the year my dad was born!) so in discussion with our own Matt and James, the following list was determined, by the single criterion ‘All the Batman movies of feature length with full cinematic releases’:

1. Batman (1966)
2. Batman (1989)
3. Batman Returns (1992)
4. Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm (1993)
5. Batman Forever (1995)
6. Batman And Robin (1997)
7. Batman Begins (2005)
8. The Dark Knight (2008)
9. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
10. Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016)
11. The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
12. The Batman (2021, revised to 2022)

This criterion allows me to include two crucial animated releases – James assures me that Mask Of The Phantasm is an immovable requirement and I just wanted to see The LEGO Batman again – but also means I would have to endure BvS: DoJ, a necessary suffering for the art (I decided to skip either iteration of Justice League to steer clear of all the hoopla that surrounds them, justifying it as it's Bats in an ensemble rather than the spotlight). Release date order seemed sensible to avoid any spoilers.

When this list was finalised, I tweeted this:

“So now it's this - I'll shall be done in no time POW! BLAMMO! TWUNK!”

Oh, I really need to think these statements through…

Batman (1966) movie poster

BATMAN (1966, dir. Leslie H Martinson) 

Thoughts: this format wasn't designed for movie length - it drags now and again but there are enough gems to make it a hoot anyway. Bats getting dunked in the sea and coming up with a ridiculous rubber shark attached; literally everything about the utterly marvellous Lee Meriwether.

The choreography of this movie is so neat: the section where there’s a four-way split with Bats, Robin, Commissioner and Chief is just a joy; the playing of the mask ruse over and over until it comes right back to being funny again is sheer brilliance. The fact that they used a real submarine (because they had it left over from something else) but a family of plastic ducks instead of the real thing just leaves me grinning, and the bomb sequence is such perfectly executed nonsense it had me in tears of laughter - The Naked Gun definitely owes multiple debts to this.

There’s a bevy of bad guys – including all of Batman’s classic enemies - but I can only watch Lee Meriwether when she's on screen (except when she's competing with Cesar Romero's moustache, which is weirder than Superman's lip in Justice League). She’s my first Catwoman, she set the pattern for on-screen Selinas, and in such fearless style – I don’t think I can be accused of cliché if I call her an icon.

All the Batcave Batmachines are Batlabelled; but I’ll bet none of them make decent Batcoffee.

I'm considering this the amuse bouche of the venture. It’s nonsense, and probably an affront to all serious Batfans. See how much I care? This is ENTERTAINMENT! It’s silly and goofy and refuses to take itself seriously for even a second but it brought me and probably countless others to Batman and his ilk – TAKE THAT, SERIOUS BATFANS! KAPOWEE! SSHHONK! PRANGGGGG!

Bring on the Prince soundtrack! On to '89!

Batman (1989) movie poster

BATMAN (1989, dir. Tim Burton) 

Tim Burton before he gave everyone stripey legs in everything. I loved the architecture: huge statues looming through windows, gargoyles and gothic goodies galore. The Batmobile gives me the tingles - that thing is SO SEXY. At the time, I didn't 'get' Michael Keaton and I think I still don't. He has great lips, which I guess is good when that's all you can see.

The Danny Elfman score set me on a wave of nostalgia - daa, da da DAAAA, da daaa - and the Viennese waltz in the belfry is great. I found myself surprised at how very little Prince there really is – my memory was of a full soundtrack – but Elfman gives a genuine elegance to it which soothes my grumbling regarding the minimising of the Pequeño Prince of Pop.

I find myself concentrating (for obvious reasons, I suppose) on how female roles have changed in what’s been a relatively short time. Vicky Vale is useless. She's supposed to have been a war photographer but she's written as a vacuous damsel who contributes almost nothing except requiring rescuing. And poor Jerry Hall gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop; she doesn't even get to speak for herself when deciding to defenestrate following her mutilation at Joker's hand, we just hear about it from him. "You tried to destroy me over a woman, a WOMAN!" he rants to Grissom. This area of review is pretty depressing - the eighties weren't ALL that bad, were they? Let’s hope things have genuinely changed for the better on this.

I’m going to throw in my four penn'th regarding the Joker's origin, giving him a name, making him the trigger for Batman's origin. It's a bit simple, isn't it? Part of the Joker's charm is his lack of reliable origin story, and this all feels a bit too neat? I can understand the need for the movie to be self-contained, but glad, perhaps, that now writers are more able to rely on public knowledge of character backstories, and can eschew lengthy redeveloping of origins. At this stage in the characters’ histories, I guess we couldn't depend on a large audience of folk who knew anything other than the TV show so Burton needed a real fresh start.

I love the quiet little touches, like Alfred quietly picking up after Bruce and his guests and Bruce later calling him 'family' and the brilliantly complicated designs - I adored the fantastic set and props in the Axis factory: dials, levers, pistons, steam jets and bubbling vats, and the equipment: the grapple hook gun, the Batjet (the latter has guns - I thought Bats had a no-gun policy? To be fair, he misses every shot), there's a slip in the belfry precipice hanging scene which I wasn't expecting and made me go GASP! There’s a point at which Batman kicks a goon through a door with a straight leg kick that Bryan Hitch has drawn at least 200 times, it's excellent.

Overall, though, sadly, it's not quite what I remember: it's a bit slow and the action is a bit corny but I can imagine and partly remember the impact it had at the time, so need to credit it in context.

Onward then! 1992 is calling and ohboyohboyohboy, this one changed my life!

Batman Returns (1992) movie poster

BATMAN RETURNS (1992, dir. Tim Burton) 

As Michelle Pfeiffer's Selina Kyle purrs "It's 'The Batman', or is it just 'Batman'?" Returns!

This was the one I was waiting for, and it did NOT disappoint. I saw this at the cinema and hadn't rewatched it since, I had only really remembered one thing about it (more on that in a sec) but OH BOY this is a great film!

First up, again, Danny Elfman's score is so rich and joyful, Williamsesque brass and dramatic strings, this time there's no Prince but Elfman gives us all the moods we need (even a loungey version of 'Superfreak' covering my disco-funkin’ needs).

The production design is really kicking in now: Gotham's gothic steeples, huge industrial statuary and snowy gloom all punctuated by Christmas lights and shiny things (yes, yes, I'll get to that), the Penguin's circus goons (I'm a bit obsessed with the Poodle Lady) - I totally forgot that this is a full-on Christmas movie! It's going into the festive rotation from this year on. Burton's whole dark Christmas aesthetic is just brilliant - style-wise, this could have been made this year, very little has dated (except maybe Bruce's cute li’l octagonal reading glasses).

Batman Returns (1992) Catwoman and Penguin

De Vito's Penguin is phenomenal: credible prosthetics, dribbling black goo; bringing him out into the light amplifying the nasty rottenness of his sorry existence. Maybe we could empathise with this poor orphan, racked by pollution's effects but... ughhh, he's just revolting.

The TOYS! Animatronic penguins, poodle grenades, the programmable Batarang, the brollycopter, the Bat-signal reflectors, and OH! the remote control system for the Batmobile - I need to know where Penguin's ride-a-long Batcar machine is now!

...but I know why you're here - you want to hear about The Cat! Pfeiffer's portrayal had a major impact on me back in '92, I've never recovered. The SUIT. The WHIP. The LIPSTICK. The ONE-LINERS (though most of those were spoiled by the trailer, if I remember correctly). The SUIT.

New things I noticed this time: is she some kind of cat-zombie? Is that the situation? She can't have survived the fall so do the cats bring her back to life? No wonder she's a bit unhinged. I'm not sure about Burton’s reboot, giving her a mouse-to-MEOWWWW backstory - losing her cat burglar history seems a shame, it’s so integral to the character, to her cleverness.

As ever with Catwoman, she's complicated: she rescues an assault victim by swift and gory dispatch of a ruffian in an alley - and then brutally tears down the victim for making it easy for her attacker. I can’t imagine that would play so well today.

I love the subtle flusterment of Bruce's "Sorry, I mistook me for someone else" when he sees her again as Bruce, having saved her as the Bat. The way she wrong-foots him in the midst of their rooftop fight by saying "How could you, I'm a WOMAN?!" - it's exploiting his ethics.

It's not clear (to me) why she takes such an instant, deadly dislike to the Batman (maybe I missed something here). Burton again takes liberties which couldn't be afforded in the comic books by having Batman unmask for her - and in front of Max Shreck and Cobblepot too.

The murder-suicide kiss is so blatant, risky, shameless - I love that. Like the cat that snuggles into petting tenderness until the moment you relax, when she sinks her fangs and claws into your hand.

"I don't know about you, Miss Kitty, but I feel so much yummier now!" brings a luxurious sigh forth from this catlady.

One of two animated Bat things next: Mask Of The Phantasm. I'll have mine on a saucer, please.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) movie poster

BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM (1993, dir. Eric Radomski, Bruce Timm) 

Instant first impression: wow, it's grainy. Since watching I scored a Christmas gift from the marvellous mother-in-law of the full animated series and Mask Of The Phantasm on Blu-ray and I’ll be rerunning this again in better quality shortly.

Second impression: WOW Gotham looks amazing! The skyscrapers are so tall and gothic, it's like they're scraping the moon. And the cars, wow, like huge monsters roaring around - almost characters in their own right. This movie, like the animated series, is all about the style, darling. The arc from the '66 pastiche, through Burton's distinctively eighties-styled first movie and his almost timeless second, and into Mask is absolutely crazy. I love the 1930s styling - sharp suits, pencil skirts - and especially love the clever use of the Gotham World's Fair: although in fairness, anything which includes an old timey pitch of what the future will be like gets a tick from me.

Alfred in this movie is my favourite Alfred so far, by a country mile. Just sarcastic enough, deferential but loving, hilarious. The repeated 'walks in on couple smooching, reacts, stifles reaction and retreats unnoticed' is timed to absolute perfection.

Animation allows some nice touches: Bruce's jaw is super-sturdy but it becomes impossibly rectangular when he dons his mask; the dramatic use of silhouettes and shadows, especially the shadow of the cowl falling on the Wayne memorial stone, and of course the obligatory cape swirling rooftop scenes are all effortlessly stunning.

In summary, this has loads of style, architecture and sci-fi wins, and the The Best Alfred so far.

Onward! In Part 2, we're going two years ahead but a world away: Kilmer, Carrey and Kidman - oh my!


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