With the release of the latest outing for DC’s premier superheroes, we thought we’d take an overview of all of the previous live action movie adaptations of Batman and Superman, as well as give you our take on the Dawn of Justice currently lighting up your local multiplex. Once we’re done, you’ll surely believe a yam can fry.
Now, we’re not going to be concerning ourselves overly with the television outings, but this feature length episode of the sixties telly series gives us an opportunity to recognise how much this franchise has changed over the years. Firmly rooted in golden era silliness, this takes a very tongue in cheek take on the material for camp comic effect, including the now thoroughly be-memed shark repellent spray. The plot’s not worth concerning ourselves with, as Catwoman, The Penguin, The Joker and The Riddler team up to dehydrate an analogue of the United Nations Security Council, but it gives the leads a chance to run through their trademark schtick before Adam West vanquishes them. I prefer these in T.V. episode lengths, with the joke wearing a touch thin by the end, but everything is done with such good nature that you’d surely have to be a right ol’ grump to take real issue with it. Harmless, paper-thin fun, but very much a footnote to the rest of the films we’ll speak of.
Perhaps the first great comic to film translation, Richard Donner’s film gives us Marlon Brando sending his only son from the soon-to-explode planet Krypton to Earth, where he’ll have the super-powers I trust we don’t need to enumerate, particularly as they seem to vary depending on the needs of the various film plots. After growing up in a small mid-West town, he heads off to Metropolis in his cover identity of Clark Kent to join the Daily Planet as a mild mannered reporter, before unveiling himself to the world as a defender of truth, justice and the American Way. His sternest task in this film is to deal with self-proclaimed criminal mastermind Lex Luthor’s plan to drop most of the Western coast into the sea to increase the value of his inland, soon-to-be coastal properties. Unfortunately we don’t get to that until relatively late in the film, so it’s a bit of a waste of Gene Hackman’s talents, however the rest of the film stands up pretty well to this day. Sure, as with all films of the era the front-projection system, cutting edge in the day, doesn’t stand up too well to hi-def scrutiny, but even so still cuts a fairly believable flying effect thanks to the excellent attention to detail on the physical components – wind billowing through capes and dresses, that sort of thing. However, for me at least, the real reason this is so fondly remembered is the brilliant performance from Christopher Reeve and the chemistry with Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane, both as Clark and Superman. Watching him shrink back from the bold Superman to the timid Clark is a joy to behold, and actually has me believing that his secret identity ploy might actually have worked, despite it being limited to a pair of glasses. Still the high water mark for Supes on film.
With a confusing and controversial production history that would warrant a podcast by itself, Richard Donner is replaced by Richard Lester in the director’s chair, restarting a production originally designed to be shot simultaneously as the original. It’s obviously quite closely tied into the first film, as a stray nuclear blast releases the three Kryptonian rebels imprisoned at that film’s start head off to cause havoc on Earth, headed by Terrence Stamp’s iconic General Zod. Meanwhile Lois Lane has figured out Clark’s big secret and the two have become romantically involved, leading to Superman to give up his super-powers in order to live a normal, happy, mortal life with Lois – just as Zod pops up in the White House and proclaims himself ruler of the world. Hackman also returns, Luthor having escaped prison and figured out the location of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, and being more than willing to share that information to ingratiate himself with our new dubiously tailored overlords. Lester takes a somewhat lighter tone than Donner, with a little more slapstick working its way into proceedings but I don’t think that necessarily is to the film’s detriment. It remains an enjoyable and good natured entry into the series that for my money is almost as good as its predecessor. It’s only a shame that the somewhat fractured nature of the production has led to a few odd continuity snags and scenes that don’t flow quite as well as the original. Still well worth watching.
With S-Man Zwei performing quite well at the box office, there presumably was little resistance to Lester returning for another outing that takes a much more broadly comic, slapstick tone from the onset with a pretty execrable title sequence loaded with buffoonery. This time Superman’s dealing with monopolistic business tycoon Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) who’s leaning on computer savant Gus (Richard Pryor) to boost business with such schemes as hacking into computers controlling a weather satellite and using it to effect crops in Columbia, displaying a worrying indifference to both how computers and weather satellites work. Once it’s clear that Superman’s able to stop their ploys with ease, they concoct some artificial almost-Kryptonite that doesn’t kill Superman as intended, but instead turns him into a Superdouchebag. This leads to the systemically puzzling but nonetheless pretty awesome “good” Clark vs “evil” Superman fight, a concept shamelessly reprised in Fight Club. That is however, along with Reeve’s great portrayal of Supermens Good ‘n’ Bad, pretty much the only awesome thing in the film. I can’t quite get on board the hate train commonly ascribed to this film, but certainly it’s got its negatives. Gene Hackman not returning could have been treated as an opportunity to do something different with an enemy; instead we get a pale imitation of Lex Luthor. Somewhat more successful, Margot Kidder’s reduction to a cameo allows old childhood flame Lana Lane (Annette O’Toole) to take over love interest duty, which is a good idea but rather flat in execution – the chemistry isn’t really there. Most of the heavy lifting for keeping this entertaining has been left to Pryor, who does the best I can imagine anyone doing with the material but it’s not really good enough to hang with the previous two instalments. Still, with the benefit of hindsight it’s tough to be too dismissive of Superman III, given what follows.
With the Salkinds figuring this Superman thing had run its course, production duties fell to another party, Golan Globus, two words guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of anyone old enough to remember trawling trough Blockbuster Video. Sure, they took a few risks by filming operas and such, but their legacy in the main is composed of such Grade A clunkers as Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, the American Ninja franchise, Lifeforce, He-Man: Masters of the Universe, and of course Superman IV, a joyless, wildly underwritten film that I absolutely can get on board the hate train for. After mulling it over, Superman decides that nuclear weapons are intolerable and starts rounding them up and launching them into the sun for disposal. This plays into Lex Luthor’s newest plan, to enhance his arms dealing business by creating a compliant superpowered Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) to destroy Superman via some of the highly questionable science the franchise seems so fond of. They fight. Superman wins. Sorry, spoiler alert. Somehow this stretches out to an hour and a half. Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman return, so on a superficial level at least this looks like a Superman film, but the grunting, one note Nuclear Man is as uninspired and boring an antagonist as could be imagined, and also is clearly solar powered, not nuclear powered, so grossly mis-named. Just when you think you’ve remembered everything bad about this film, you remember that that doofus from Two and a Half Men is in this, which at least proves he’s never been funny. This film deserves the same fate as Superman bestows upon the nukes he hated so much – launch it into the sun, and avert your eyes from it.
We should start by recognising the phenomena that Tim Burton’s adaptation starring Michael Keaton was back in the dying days of the eighties – Batman and his associated merchandising opportunities were everywhere, handled with the sort of fervour you’d expect of a Star Wars release. While it was described as a dark, gothic take on the subject matter, reflecting the changed tone of the comics it’s sourced from, this is only really the case when comparing to Adam West’s campy telly version. Rather than dive straight into Batman’s origin story, it’s quite cleverly weaved in throughout the film with an origin story of The Joker, memorably played by Jack Nicholson, as he is betrayed by the crime boss he ultimately usurps before unleashing a deadly poison backed wave of fear across Gotham. This means you can get straight to the bat-action, although that’s rather bat-dated by this point, in particular the bat-suit, which still looks pretty good but clearly has no range of motion at all, leading to fight scenes full of goons running into Keaton’s fist. The production design is amazing, with Gotham having a sleazy, 20’s Noo Yawk aesthetic that’s never been more atmospheric, even if some of the mattes are rather obvious even on DVD. Keaton’s a solid hand as Batman, but he’s rather overshadowed by Nicholson’s showboating., but this still remains an enjoyable instalment.
Burton and Keaton return three years later, with the primary villain in this instalment being Danny De Vito’s Penguin. A somewhat bizarre take on the character, seemingly able to actually communicate and command penguins, who are living in the sewer for some reason, and appears to actually be part penguin. Anyway, after a life of living in the sewers he hatches a plan, along with his gang of circus goons, to blackmail shady business tycoon Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) into helping him return to society. Meanwhile Shreck’s attempted murder of his doormat of a secretary who digs a little too deep into his plans gives rise to Michelle Pfeiffer’s split personality Catwoman, an acrobatic loose cannon who has her own agenda. While it retains the strong sense of production design in terms of the set and characters, the plot can’t really survive the final act deployment of a literal penguin army, although it was doing okay until that point. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the script is the volume of, well, double entendres rather gives them a grandeur they do not deserve. Single entendres, perhaps. It’s weird given how, by today’s standards, how cartoony everything around it is to see these rather crass adult moments shoehorned in. It’s a step down from its predecessor, but still leagues ahead of the two following efforts.
New brooms all round, as Joel Schumacher takes over on direction and Val Kilmer slips under the cowl, aided for the first time by Chris O’Donnel’s acrobat turned vengeance seeker Robin, after Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) kills his parents in a plan to flush out the Bat’s secret identity. With that foiled, he teams up with Jim Carrey’s Riddler, a mad scientist with a grudge against Bruce Wayne who is busy convincing Gothamites to purchase a new 3D TV with the side effect of draining their brainpower. Kilmer’s convincing enough, and his interactions with O’Donnel and new love interest Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman) are all well done, but the side is rather let down by the bad guys. The action is decent enough, better than ever in fact, but the continual Carrey gurning combined with the continual Jones gurning is grating. Also, while we’re told repeatedly of Two-Face’s split personality, I don’t think it’s ever once actually shown, instead just lots of shouting. It’s more enjoyable than I recalled it being, to be fair, but still middling-to-mediocre.
Schumacher continues shifting the tone into all-out cartoon for this follow-up, as Arnold Schwarzenegger dons a tonne of make-up and prosthetics as Mr. Freeze, a scientist who put his beloved, terminally ill wife into cryo-sleep until he can perfect a cure, although any interest his back-story is quickly leveraged and wasted into turning him into a one-liner spewing diamond thief. He teams up with Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy, another corrupted scientist who’s now able to control vegetation and wants to destroy humanity. It’s up to Batman and Robin to stop them, now also aided by Alicia Silverstone as Alfred’s niece stepping in as Bat-Girl. Chris O’Donnel returns, however Batman has been recast as George Clooney. George Clooney? Really? Much as I like the guy, he’s wildly miscast here and doesn’t convince in the slightest. Gotham’s been given a wild neon infusion that clashes terribly with the expected atmosphere, and the plot’s occasional attempt at drama is undermined by the continual and horrible puns. Thurman perhaps escapes from this best in the femme fatale role and the action sequences are largely okay, but it’s still probably a career low for all involved. I can’t bring myself to hate it as much as I used to, but it’s the least rewarding way to spend two hours that we’ll speak about in this episode.
I remember thinking on release that I could take Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns or leave it, and given that I’d not thought about it at all until rewatching for this podcast, I suppose I left it. There is, however, nothing like watching this back-to-back with Superman IV to force a reappraisal. That said, it’s not without its problems. Structurally and narratively it’s a little slippery, trying to be a sequel to Superman II at the same time as being as close to a reboot as you can get without being a reboot, which might have been a cleaner way to do things in retrospect. As the title implies, Superman Returns after a period of absence when he flew off to see if his homeworld got less blown up since last time he was there, or something equally tenuous, to find the world in general and Luis Lane in particular getting on without him. She’s married to fellow Daily Planet worker Richard White (James Marsden), and has spawned a young boy, as he discovers by somewhat creepily Super-stalking her. There’s little time to unpick this dynamic however, as a recently released Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacy) has discovered / rediscovered the Fortress of Solitude and nicked some of them there magic Krypton crystals, and is planning on using them creating a new continent, sinking North America at least – essentially his wheeze from the first film on steroids. It’s not a bad film at all, for a film that seems keen to tie into the early instalments of the series it’s taking a noticeably darker tone – which rather nicely bridges into the Nolan Batman series. My main issue is that it’s all a bit flat – there’s no real chemistry between any of the leads, and Brandon Routh’s nowhere near as compelling a performer as Reeve. With the perhaps the exception of Spacey’s occasional scenery chewing, there’s just not a great deal of energy onscreen, such that even when the remarkable happens, it feels rather ordinary – and we shouldn’t be able to say that about lifting a small continent. Despite not really doing anything massively wrong, it’s tough to say it’s much above mediocre – although as we’ve seen with the rest of the franchise so far, that’s easily enough to sneak into third place in the rankings.
Another descriptive title, covering as it does the kick-off of the Nolan-flavoured, Christian Bale starring Batman universe. Bruce Wayne is orphaned after a random mugging goes wrong, leaving him with a burning need for justice / vengeance. After determining that he’s not going to be able to do much against crime as a young rich kid, he goes off around the world in a quest to understand and beat up the criminal elements in society, eventually coming to the attention of Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Shadows, which I believe is a particularly hard-fought pub football league. Through the power of amateur soccer they teach Wayne the secrets of the ninja and general bad-assery, but Wayne leaves in dramatic, bridge-burning style when they inform him of their plan to destroy Gotham as an unsalvageable den of scum and villainy. Bruce is convinced it can be saved, so dons the Batsuit along with other Wayne Industries prototype military equipment and goes to work on the mob, meeting with some success. At least, that is, until the League shows up for revenge and a spot of light Gotham-destroying via Scarecrow’s powerful psycho-gas. There’s a number of great elements in Nolan’s stint, most of them common amongst them all, but what stands out most in this first instalment is Bale’s outstanding performance, compelling enough even to make his silly Batman voice convincing, and the tone has Nolan has created. It’s not exactly realistic, in the Dogme ’95 sense, but it’s as close to it as you could feasibly expect for this film and the choice to use practical effects wherever possible, despite the seeming impossibility of many of them, gives the film a heft that reliance on CG cannot provide – and as a result this film looks as convincing today as it did a decade ago, and you can’t say that of the likes of King Kong. It’s hugely enjoyable stuff.
A few years into Batman’s campaign against organised crime, the mob bosses are on the run and citizens of Gotham appear to have rediscovered some hope, particularly DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). There seems, however, to have been a response to Batman’s ante-upping in the form of Heath Ledger’s Joker, the iconic villain of the Batman franchise, who goes on a spree of crime and violence aimed at not only bringing down the Bat, but also showing the corruption at the heart of Gotham’s people itself with Harvey Dent coming in for some particular attention, leading to Batman taking the fall for Dent’s crimes as he loses his marbles, becoming the horrific Two-Face. The strengths of Batman Begins are still evident, but the show is stolen by Ledger’s Oscar winning and Oscar worthy performance, redolent with menace, strange ticks and a general other-worldy, psychopathic charm. He’d be worth the price of admission alone, but it’s worth mentioning the quality of the casting throughout Nolan’s films. Bale is terrific as both oblivious playboy Bruce Wayne and a brooding, serious Batman after a severe case of becoming the mask, and the supporting cast also deliver memorable turns, from Michael Caine’s Alfred to Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon. It’s generally regarded as the high point of the series – to me ranking these films feels like something of a futile exercise, given that the appeal of them is the arc of Batman’s character, but if you were to force an opinion out of me I’d probably go along with the majority opinion.
Set some years later, Batman is still seen as a villain but he’s not needed to put on the cape for a while. Laws inspired by the mythology of Harvey Dent’s unimpeached character has swept criminals into gaol by the boatload, and a beaten up, broken down Wayne has withdrawn himself from the world into a wing of his mansion. He’s prompted to re-join the world a little when who turns out to be Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) seems to be stealing his family jewels, oo-er, missus, but is actually after his fingerprints for use in this film’s main antagonist’s plan. Bane (Tom Hardy) is described as a mercenary, but before long he’s unveiling himself as leader of the resurgent League of Shadows, although his backstory and relationship to Ra’s al Ghul is a little more complicated than that. Bane’s on a quest to finish what Ra’s started, firstly by breaking Batman’s back and throwing him in a deep, dark prison, then by holding Gotham hostage with a fusion bomb, primed to blow Gotham up after he instigates a reign of anarchy and suffering under the guise of this being a redistribution of power to the common people. Who will stop him? Well, Batman, obviously. Sorry for the spoiler. While I suppose the general feeling is that this is the weakest of the three films, I feel using the word weak anywhere near this trilogy is entirely wrongheaded, and as the completion of Batman’s story arc it’s tremendously satisfying and the best trilogy of films that there has yet been. So there.
With Superman Returns being released to widespread apathy, the series was deemed ripe for a reboot, with Watchmen‘s Zack Snyder at the helm and Henry Cavill donning the cape, in time, although a decent chunk of the film is devoted to Russell Crowe’s Jor-El back on Krypton. After the ruling council ignore Jor-El’s warning that the planet’s about to explode, a faction of the army under General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup. While this fails, seeing them banished, there’s no stopping the planet’s destruction and all Jor-El can do is fire off his son to Earth, Brando-style. Raised by Kevin Costner’s Jonathan and Diane Lane’s Martha Kent, he’s instructed by a sensibly paranoid Jonathan to keep his super-powers hidden, to the extent of rather pointlessly sacrificing himself in a sneak tornado attack rather than allow his son to save him. It seemed a weak reason for Clark to go off on a journey of self-discovery then, and it’s no less silly now. At any rate, he spends some time travelling around, saving enough people to leave an urban legend trail for enterprising journalists to later follow, before getting wind of what turns out to be a old, crashed Kryptonian scout ship that fires off a number of plot strands. It puts Lois Lane on his trail, it reveals to Clark details of his past, and it puts Clark and Earth on the radar of Zod and the surviving Krypton militia. Clark decides to become the Superman we know and love just in time for Zod and squad to show up and cause a ruckus, looking to terraform the Earth into something a little more homely and killing us wee Earthlings off in the process. Superman had better stop him, then. Like most of Snyder’s films, it was divisive, taking the usual Superman mythos in a few different directions which wasn’t universally well received. It’s certainly much darker in tone, even more so than Nolan’s, and contains none of the wisecracks or inappropriate moments of levity that for god knows what reason the Marvel Cinematic Deluge has trained audiences to expect. Superman himself is presented with much tougher moral choices to challenge his code of conduct, and I think a lot of people didn’t want to be challenged with the actual logistics of what happens when conflict on this scale occurs. But for me, the biggest problem is simply the amount of CG required for its city-wrecking climax, which isn’t exactly bad, but it feels like something we’ve seen before multiple times by this point, and frankly would have been more satisfyingly resolved with a fist fight in a dark alley between Supes and Zod rather than a flat ten minute CG excursion. It’s a little too flat to sustain interest over the piece, but there are positives to be had for sure. The Krypton sequences are fun and visually distinctive, Henry Cavill is immediately convincing in the role and there’s solid support from Costner and Shannon. There’s still something I find intriguing about this film, but I can’t actually make the jump from there to actively recommending it. For sure, it’s nowhere near the worst film in this list, but it’s certainly mid-table.
Zack Snyder follows on from Man of Steel finally hitting the crossover goal DC and WB have been trying to reach for, I think, something in the region of twenty years. Henry Cavill returns as Superman, now revealed to the world after the carnage at the end of the last film and largely seen as a protector, guardian, and a saviour, with all the connotations that last word entails. The unveiling of super-powered aliens has caused some concern, particularly amongst Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, who’s rather more Zuckerbergian in character in this incarnation, and Ben Affleck’s Bruce “Batman” Wayne, who witnesses the downsides of being collateral damage in a battle between Gods when Zod and Superman casually wipe out one of his office towers, including a lot of his employees. With Luthor pulling strings along the way, Batman and Superman head on a collision course leading to the headline fight, before of course coming to an understanding to face an even greater threat as the subtitle would imply, with Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman joining the proto-Justice League for the final showdown as we find out that there are other highly powered meta-humans knocking about, as the film attempts to single handedly create a DC Universe.
Indeed, that’s perhaps the film’s biggest structural boondoggle, as there’s a few very notable occasions where it slows right down to show something off that’s not going to be paid off in this film, or even later in the year with Suicide Squad. If these had been rather lighter touches it may have helped reduce the running time, particularly the effectively told but rather tangential sequences where Wayne appears to be imagining, or perhaps viewing an alternate universe, where Superman’s a tyrannical dictator. The only other bone I have to pick with it is the all-too common reliance of recent superhero films to wind up with CG actors thumping CG monsters as a climax, which I’ve seen too much of to care about at this point. Not that BvS‘s CG is worse than any others, but there’s none of the heft to it as with Nolan’s films and their practical effects.
The rest of the film I feel works terrifically well. Eisenberg and in particular Affleck give really great turns, and were it not for Christian Bale would be the best Batman of them all. It’s also interesting to join a Batman at the tail end of his career, and the nods to this version’s history add real intrigue to his character. Between the titular fight and a later dismantling of Luthor’s goons, it has the two best Batman fights yet seen – particularly the latter of the two mentioned, which eschews the more grounded combat of Nolan’s Batman for something closer to the Arkham games, with gadget disabling guns and grappling hooks throwing goons around – great fun for a change of pace, although a film full of it would be tiring. Which brings us to another perceived flaw, although it’s a strength in my book – rather like Watchmen, it’s not wall to wall action, and does take many moments of inspection at the internal lives and motivations of the protagonists, and does take them seriously. It rather seems that critics have become conditioned by Marvel’s output to expect nice bright colours and breezy banter, all of which is distinctly lacking in BvS. For my money this makes it a more remarkable and better film than its competition, but your mileage may vary.
In a general sense, BvS combines the aesthetic of Man of Steel with elements of the thematic content of Watchmen. Both were somewhat divisive films, so on some level I understand why this will meet a similar fate. But rather like my opinion on those films, I cannot quite get my head around why you wouldn’t like it. The action might not be constant, but when it shows up it’s all the more impactful for it, and it treats its characters as, y’know, actual characters rather than spandex-clad kung-fu monkeys. Batman vs. Superman isn’t as good as Nolan’s works, to be sure, but it’s leagues ahead of most of the identikit Marvel output.
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