Batman

1989, PolyGram Films et al

Tim Burton did something daring: take an old, beloved comic book character and build a dark, serious, big-budget film around him. History shows it worked. Casting Michael Keaton as the caped crusader was equally daring; it worked, too. And Danny Elfman's score led to a highly successful career composing for cinema. Curiously, Burton thought the finished film was "boring." Fans also objected loudly to the many liberties he took with the comic strip. But that didn't keep it from earning ten times as much as it cost to make, spawning a new franchise, and inspiring a film trend that's still on the upswing nearly three decades later.

     

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Batman Returns

1992, PolyGram Films et al

After the success of his first superhero film, Tim Burton was lured back to the franchise for a second round. The inspired casting and high production values, along with the same dark humor, yielded an equally successful film. Burton confessed he liked this one better than the first, in spite of the backlash it received for being too dark and slow-paced. Evidently McDonalds cancelled a Happy Meal tie-in because they felt the film was inappropriate for young children.

     

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Batman Forever

1992, PolyGram Films et al

Joel Schumacher took over directing duties from Tim Burton and effectively killed the franchise in the process, although it still managed to earn over three times what it cost—go figure. Gone was Burton's signature dark humor, replaced by goofy, over-the-top slapstick that embarrassed everyone involved with the project (with the possible exception of Jim Carrey). Val Kilmer replaced Michael Keaton, who wisely saw what was coming and bowed out.

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Batman and Robin

1997, PolyGram Films et al

Joel Schumacher returned once more to drive the final nail into Batman's coffin with an even more stupid, embarrassing film. One got the distinct sense that the actors participated solely to collect their paychecks. Val Kilmer refused to reprise his role, and the cowl went to George Clooney, who looked for all the world like a deer caught in the headlights. A Rotten Tomatoes score of 10% says it all.

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Batman Begins

2005, Legendary Pictures et al

Nearly a decade after Batman had hung up his cowl, Christopher Nolan decided to breathe new life into the franchise. His approach was quite different from that of Tim Burton, but no less successful: create a unique and richly-detailed origin story, cast it in decidedly dramatic light, and utilize the highest production values possible. Casting heartthrob Christian Bale didn't hurt, either, although Gary Oldman is arguably the very best Commissioner Gordon ever seen. The result was very well received by critics and audiences alike. For me it's certainly the most enjoyable of the Batman flavors to date—and I love that Batmobile. But at 140 minutes, it's a bit hard on the bladder.

       

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The Dark Knight

2008, Legendary Pictures et al

Christopher Nolan's second entry in his Batrilogy (see what I did there) was a worldwide smash, most notable for Heath Ledger's knockout performance of the Joker, which earned him an Academy Award—posthumously, as he died of a drug overdose shortly after filming ended. High praise should also go to Gary Oldman for his portrayal of a deeply divided Commissioner Gordon. When the tickets were counted, Dark Knight sold over a billion dollars' worth. While I'll certainly acknowledge the quality performances and astronomical production value, I had some trouble with the Joker's "conundrum" for Batman; it simply didn't work for me. Also, at 152 minutes, it's even harder on the bladder.

       

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The Dark Knight Rises

2012, Legendary Pictures et al

The final chapter in Christopher Nolan's take on Batman is yet another stunner, earning another billion for the franchise. Of the three, I'm hard-pressed to choose the best; I found Tom Hardy's one-dimensional Bane entirely too difficult to understand (in terms of speaking), and needlessly so, I'll argue. But he's more than balanced out by Catwoman's highly complex nature—as intriguing as the Joker's psychoses, and much more pleasant—which creates the perfect counterpoint for Batman's tough shell. We all knew they'd be an item, but it was sure a fun ride getting there—although at a whopping 162 minutes, it's an awfully long ride!

       

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