This weekend’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice brings DC‘s heaviest hitters face-to-face for their first live-action throwdown on the big screen — and gives us our first glimpse of the new Wonder Woman in the bargain. To celebrate this momentous occasion, we’re serving up a supersized Total Recall overview of all the times the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel starred in movies of their own.
One of the least-loved blockbusters of recent years, Batman & Robin brought the Batman 1.0 franchise to a screeching halt. Unlike the earlier installments, which returned the Caped Crusader to his brooding noir roots, Batman & Robin was a veritable camp-o-rama, closer in spirit to the 1960s TV series. Utilizing punny dialogue to a jaw-dropping degree were villains Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze (“Ice to see you!”) and Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy (“My garden needs tending”). Even George Clooney made little impression as Batman, and his sidekicks (Chris O’Donnell as Robin, Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl) failed to drum up much audience or critical enthusiasm. As a result, a planned fifth sequel, Batman Triumphant, which would have pitted our heroes against the Scarecrow, never materialized, so it was left to Christopher Nolan to resurrect the series. “Fans of the movie series will be shocked at the shortage of original thought put into this project,” wrote John Paul Powell of Jam! Movies.
With Gene Hackman back in the cast and a four-year break to cleanse filmgoers’ palates after the unpleasantness of Superman III, 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace seemed to have everything going for it at first — including a smartly topical storyline that put the Man of Steel in the middle of the Cold War (and doing battle with a nuclear-powered Superclone designed by Lex Luthor). Unfortunately, when money started to run tight at Cannon Films, director Sidney J. Furie found himself forced to cut corners in every direction; the result, according to most critics, was a disjointed, cheap-looking mess, further hampered by dejected-seeming performances from a cast that appeared to know exactly how much of a mistake they were making. (In fact, Jon Cryer — who played Luthor’s nephew Lenny — alleges that Christopher Reeve told him the movie was “an absolute mess.”) It all added up to the original franchise’s critical and commercial nadir, a dud so resounding that it sent the franchise into limbo for nearly 20 years. Calling it “More sluggish than a funeral barge, cheaper than a sale at K mart,” the Washington Post’s Desson Thomson warned, “it’s a nerd, it’s a shame, it’s Superman IV.”
The first two Superman movies boasted an impressive narrative scope, state-of-the-art special effects, and layered performances that made it possible for the story to move gracefully between action, drama, and comedy, sometimes within the space of a single scene. They were a tough act to follow, in other words — which might explain why 1983’s Superman III didn’t really bother attempting to build on their success, instead opting to take the franchise in an altogether sillier direction by pitting the Man of Steel against a power-mad CEO (Robert Vaughn) who blackmails an unscrupulous computer programmer (Richard Pryor) into using his know-how to help him achieve world domination. Aside from the typically techno-ignorant screenplay, which imagines weather satellites capable of creating tornados and supercomputers that achieve sentience after being attacked with an axe, III earned fans’ and critics’ ire by ignoring any semblance of character development in favor of director Richard Lester’s fondness for oddball humor and silly sight gags. Under different circumstances, Pryor could have been a worthy addition to a Superman movie — and the storyline, which sent Clark Kent back to Smallville for a high school reunion that reconnected him with childhood crush Lana Lang (Annette O’Toole), certainly had possibilities, as did a subplot that found Superman’s personality slowly being altered due to artificial Kryptonite poisoning. Ultimately, however, Superman III was less than the sum of its parts; as Variety argued, “Putting its emphasis on broad comedy at the expense of ingenious plotting and technical wizardry, it has virtually none of the mythic or cosmic sensibility that marked its predecessors.”
The established rules of superhero films require at least one blockbuster battle by the final act — the catastrophic damage from which is typically largely forgotten by the time the curtain rises on the inevitable sequel. Credit Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, then, for trying to take a more thoughtful approach, and using the aftershocks from Man of Steel‘s climactic orgy of violence to establish the titular conflict between two iconic superheroes.
Unfortunately, director Zack Snyder was also tasked with setting up a slew of future films in the burgeoning DC Extended Universe, and the result was a sequel that juggles an unwieldy array of characters and storylines while trying to grapple with serious questions — and in spite of Batman v Superman‘s super-sized running time, many critics felt the whole thing was even more of a muddled mess than the much-maligned Man of Steel. Still, the CG-enhanced action was enough for some scribes, including Andrew O’Hehir of Salon, who admitted the movie was “kind of dopey” but shrugged, “It largely kept me entertained for two and a half hours, which is not nothing.”
One can draw a fairly direct line from the 1966 Batman to Joel Schumacher’s mid-series reboot: Garish colors; some tongue-in-cheek dialogue; the presence of Robin to draw in the young’uns. This may not be a great Batman movie, but it is a successful one — drawing in a legion of new viewers while shifting the series away from the twisted mindscape of Tim Burton (whose movies weren’t totally representative of the comics anyway). And if you were the at the right age, there was nothing more fun in 1995 than this (except perhaps getting a PlayStation). It’s “Bigger, battier and better,” wrote Susan Wloszczyna for USA Today.
After coming down from the nostalgic rush of Superman Returns, studio execs decided that instead of a sequel, yet another reboot was in order, and they handed the reins to Watchmen director Zack Snyder to make it happen. The result was 2013’s Man of Steel, starring Henry Cavill as the latest take on the broad-shouldered Kryptonian orphan and Michael Shannon as his first nemesis, the villainous General Zod. Snyder’s revisionist take on the Superman mythology definitely had a special effects advantage over its predecessors, but a large number of critics took issue with other aspects of the movie, particularly what many saw as a rather cavalier approach to violence — summed up by Superman’s decision to commit murder in the final act. Still, even if few would argue that Man of Steel was an entirely successful attempt to apply a dark layer of post-Nolan grit to the franchise, plenty of writers appreciated seeing a fresh spin on a familiar character. “If Man of Steel is Snyder at his most conventional,” mused Mick LaSalle for the San Francisco Chronicle, “he’s still more inspired and innovative than his competition.”
One of the most hyped movies in Hollywood history, and one of the finest examples of movie tie-ins and cross-promotion (so successful it made t-shirt bootleggers filthy rich), Batman is also one of the weirdest event pictures of all time. Director Tim Burton jettisoned the plots (if not the dark tone) of Bob Kane’s original comics, and came up with a picture with set designs reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and freakish, brooding characters similar to… well, a Tim Burton movie. Particularly compelling is Jack Nicholson as the Joker, who gleefully relishes his plan to kill the citizens of Gotham City with lethal gas. Michael Keaton makes for a subdued Dark Knight, a hero who dispenses vigilante justice while living a morose existence in Wayne Manor. A precursor to more complex comic book adaptations, Batman made piles of money, and the bat-logo was ubiquitous in the summer of 1989. “Burton brings back film noir elements to the new Batman, elevating it to a dark, demented opera,” wrote Jeffrey Anderson of Combustible Celluloid.
For a Batman interpretation frequently derided for its campiness, Batman: The Movie has a surprisingly high number of quotable lines and memorable scenes. Remember how the dynamic duo deduce that all their archenemies — Penguin, Catwoman, The Riddler, and The Joker — are working together to take over the world? Or the insane logic Robin consistently applies to Riddler’s questions that always turns out to be right? But the best bit has to be the one that involves bat ladders, shark repellent Bat-spray, and a high seas encounter with an exploding Megalodon. “Holy Cornball Camp, Batman!” exclaimed Scott Weinberg, “This movie’s a hoot!”
Tim Burton has said he always sympathized with monsters, and so, for his sequel to Batman, he gave audiences not one, but two empathetic, pitiable villains. The Penguin (Danny DeVito) is a deformed orphan who leads an army of aquatic, flightless birds from the bowels of Gotham City. The Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a frumpy secretary who is killed by her boss (Christopher Walken) after she learns of his evil schemes, but is brought back to life by a group of cats. Teaming up against Batman, the pair plans an assault on the city above. Batman Returns is so cold and dark it makes the first installment look like Amelie by comparison, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it still made a killing at the box office, and was Burton’s favorite of the two Batman movies he helmed. “Of all the Batman pictures, this is the most striking, atmospheric and effective,” wrote David Keyes of Cinemaphile.org.
Before the Nolan Batman movies, Mask of the Phantasm offered the most articulate exploration of the Bruce Wayne character. While the movie takes the action that made The Animated Series such great afternoon fun and expands it (but avoids the cheap, empty thrills that having a big budget can afford you), it also showers loving detail on a pivotal romance in Bruce’s life and an affecting scene of Bruce begging for release at his parents’ gravestone. It’s the rare movie that shows its protagonist for what he is: essentially insane. “[Mask of the Phantasm] managed to soar above the theatrical Batman adaptation,” states Kevin Carr of 7M Pictures, “And would remain the best Bat Movie to hit the big screens until Batman Begins shook things up in 2005.”
With his lack of superpowers and a vast fortune at his disposal, Batman was always the most plausible of heroes. With Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan shucked off the direction of the previous big-screen incarnations and boiled the Batman mythos down to its essence, resulting in one of the most realistic superhero movies ever. Thankfully, Nolan didn’t skimp on action-paced pyrotechnics, and as the suitably suave and tortured Bruce Wayne, Christian Bale added a greater emotional heft to the Caped Crusader (he was also ably abetted by the likes of Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, and Gary Oldman). Batman Begins signaled a bold new beginning for the franchise, and was a huge hit with audiences and pundits alike. “It’s a wake-up call to the people who keep giving us cute capers about men in tights,” wrote Kyle Smith of the New York Post. “It wipes the smirk off the face of the superhero movie.”
With 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan was faced with the task of coming up with a compelling closing chapter to a blockbuster trilogy — the first two entries of which ranked among the best-reviewed superhero movies of all time. Under all that pressure, it’s commendable that Nolan emerged with something as solid as Rises: even if it didn’t quite reach the same lofty heights achieved by its predecessor, it offered Christian Bale’s Batman one last round of hard-hitting action before wrapping up this era of the franchise, with a bit of socioeconomic subtext woven into the plot for good measure. For some, just being forced to say goodbye to Nolan’s vision of the series was an untenable disappointment — to say nothing of any of the nits worth picking with a storyline that saw Batman being driven to the brink of destruction in an epic confrontation with the fearsome revolutionary known as Bane (Tom Hardy). Yet for most others, The Dark Knight Rises proved a perfectly fitting farewell — like Andrew O’Hehir of Salon, who called it “Arguably the biggest, darkest, most thrilling and disturbing and utterly balls-out spectacle ever created for the screen.”
After putting together what seemed like a foolproof plan for a speedy Superman follow-up — hiring director Richard Donner to shoot much of the sequel concurrently with the first film — Warner Bros. watched with growing dismay as production slowed to a crawl, finally coming to a halt when Donner’s feuds with producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind led to his firing from the project. Things grew more complicated when new director Richard Lester came on board, and — needing to film at least 51 percent of the movie in order to obtain a director’s credit — reshot many scenes from a movie that had already been substantially filmed. Those are just a few of the many challenges Superman II needed to overcome before it finally arrived in theaters in 1981; amazingly, all that behind-the-scenes chaos didn’t have much of an adverse impact on the original theatrical cut, which broke the $100 million barrier at the box office while enjoying almost as many positive reviews as its predecessor. It certainly helped that the screenplay gave Superman (Christopher Reeve) the most formidable villains he’d face in the original trilogy: Kryptonian criminals Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O’Halloran), sent into exile just before the planet’s destruction by Superman’s father Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and freed by the blast from a bomb Superman threw into space. Add in a subplot involving our hero opting to give up his powers in order to pursue domestic bliss with Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), and it isn’t hard to see why many fans consider this the best of the Reeve-era Superman movies (or why enough of them clamored for the release of Donner’s cut that it finally saw the official light of day in 2006). “Superman II,” sighed an appreciative Janet Maslin for the New York Times, “is a marvelous toy.”
“You’ll believe a man can fly,” promised the posters for 1978’s Superman, and they were right in more ways than one. The special effects were impressive for the era, but more importantly, the movie benefited from a talented director in Richard Donner, a solid screenplay derived from a story by Godfather author Mario Puzo, and a great cast anchored by Christopher Reeve, whose looming physique and chiseled good looks combined with his Juilliard-trained acting chops to help create the most perfect Superman ever to grace the screen (so far). While Gene Hackman’s rather ineffective Lex Luthor (coupled with the buffoonish Otis, played by Ned Beatty) was far from the most imposing foe our hero would face, the movie didn’t lack for dramatic stakes — and with Margot Kidder playing Lois Lane, it even managed to mix a little feminism in with its romance. “The audience finds itself pleasantly surprised, and taken a little off guard,” observed an appreciative Roger Ebert. “The movie’s tremendously exciting in a comic book sort of way (kids will go ape for it), but at the same time it has a sly sophistication, a kidding insight into the material, that makes it, amazingly, a refreshingly offbeat comedy.”
Having already brought an end to the candy-colored, Schumacher-wrought nightmare that gripped the Batman franchise in the late 1990s, Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale had fans primed for a successful second act — but even after the smashing success of Batman Begins, few could have guessed just how popular The Dark Knight would be in the summer of 2008. A sprawling superhero epic that somehow managed to make room for jaw-dropping visuals, a compelling storyline, and stellar performances, Knight climbed out from under months of intense speculation — not to mention the shadow cast by Heath Ledger’s shocking death — with a worldwide gross in excess of $1 billion, a towering stack of positive reviews, and a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Ledger. Richard Roeper joined the chorus of near-universal critical praise, calling it “a rich, complex, visually thrilling piece of pop entertainment, as strong as any superhero epic we’ve ever seen.”