Batman franchise continues with "The Dark Knight Rises"

July 22, 2012

By the time this is published, the Bat-frenzy will have reached fever pitch. I, myself, confess to being bitten, and have eagerly awaited the conclusion of the fascinating world constructed by director Christopher Nolan. He has raised the bar on films based on comic books, legitimizing them to the uninitiated, and delivering spectacle and enough dramatic heft to not only draw in Oscar talent (Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, Marion Cotillard), but also garner awards buzz on their own merits.

Given the fact that the first two films of the franchise marked such a distinguished path and are in a league of their own, I thought it fitting to look at the Dark Knight's predecessors over the years.

There have been many attempts to bring the Bob Kane comic creation to life through film, both animated and live action. For sake of space, I will avoid going into detail about the small-screen offerings, of which there have been countless versions: the short-lived "The Adventures of Batman" that ran from 1968-70, their stints with The Super Friends, the abysmal "New Adventures of Batman," and the more recent, superlative "Batman: The Animated Series," the uneven "New Batman Adventures," and the trippy "Batman Beyond." So, if you find yourself hankering for another hit, here is a sampling of Bat-centric offerings in ascending order.

10) "Batman & Robin" (1997): This was the final nail in the coffin of the franchise before its most recent reboot. It represents the epitome of excess: glitz for the sake of affording shiny sets, then-big-name actors paid exorbitant amounts of cash for minor roles (Arnold Schwarzenegger alone netted $20 mil for his screen time), puns that even the Saturday morning cartoons would reject, Bat Credit Cards, Bat Hockey, nipples on the Batsuits. You could say this represents the rock bottom of Batman, but somehow it manages to bring a shovel and keep digging.

9) "Batman Forever" (1995): After the earnest efforts of director Tim Burton to provide Batman with his signature (and appropriate) Gothic style, this next entry was a wild pivot in another direction by director Joel Schumacher, who also barfed up "Batman & Robin." Camp and candy replaced dark and brooding, and it was a jarring transition, indeed. Taken on its own, it's still slight, but thanks to Jim Carrey as The Riddler, Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face and Val Kilmer as Batman, it's saved from being a complete disaster.

8) "Batman: Gotham Knight" (2008): A colossal wasted opportunity, which was essentially a number of animated anime directors' takes on the "Batman" legend. Taking a page from "The Animatrix," which handed that film's mythology over to a number of different animation directors, "Gotham Knight" starts out mediocre and works its way down from there.

7) "Scooby-Doo Meets Batman" (1972): Technically, this was a couple of "Scooby-Doo" episodes packaged together for DVD, but they did appear originally in "The New Scooby-Doo Movies," so ... there. It's campy, kitschy and slight, but it's a welcome teaming of two childhood powerhouses.

6) "Batman" (1966): Forget "Snakes on a Plane," this one had "Sharks on a Helicopter." While there were certainly stronger episodes in the short-lived television series that preceded this, the film is a great primer for the acid-laced interpretation and an introduction to all the stellar talent assembled for its cast of baddies.

5) "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" (1993): Ignored on its initial release, "Phantasm" remains one of the best buried Bat treasures. Dark, brutal and psychologically complex, this is perhaps the most closely aligned with director Tim Burton's vision of the comic. For purists, this one's a must.

4) "Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker" (2000): Another animated entry that earns respect for just how bold it is with what could have easily been a cheap draw to lure in a new generation of Bat consumers. Set decades after Bruce Wayne's crime-fighting prime, "Beyond" suits up another young lad to battle crime. It's every bit as good as "Phantasm," but the animation is so superior in every way, it merits a notch higher on the list.

3) "Batman" (1989): This represented Tim Burton at the height of his game (which sadly has been stealing from its own playbook far too often recently). To a generation weaned on reruns of the old Adam West TV show, the film planted the flag for all future interpretations of the Caped Crusader. Bruce Wayne is portrayed as a haunted, complex man who was not too far removed from the criminals he sought to bring to justice. Burton was helped by an incredible assemblage of actors operating at peak form.

2) "Batman: Under the Red Hood" (2011): For those who are devoted to the comics and/or graphic novels featuring Batman, this is the one. Perhaps it is the raw, emotional story it tells, or it could also be the sterling voice work (featuring Bruce Greenwood and Neil Patrick Harris, among others), or it could be the haunting visuals, but much care went into this direct-to-video release, and it is a fitting animated companion to Nolan's vision of the hero.

1) "Batman Returns" (1992): The original Tim Burton film did for comic-book adaptations what "Star Wars" did for sci-fi: made it accessible, fun and (perhaps most importantly) extremely profitable. Well, then, this is that series' "Empire Strikes Back." Initially criticized for being too dark, "Returns" captured the heart and complexity of the Kane comics, took us deeper into his twisted take on Gotham City and presented iconic roles for Danny DeVito as The Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman.