It’s one thing to pick out all the many ridiculous moments contained in the modern Batman films – which is exactly what we did right here – but it’s another to take stock of their many cinematic highlights, those moments that are so indelible that they’ve not only permanently imprinted themselves on our collective cultural consciousness, but that have also gone on to define what it is to craft a Batman story ever since, whether on the big screen or on the comic page.
And, as it turns out, with the much-heralded Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice only two short months away now, and with a whole new slew of Dark Knight adventures poised to descend on movie theaters in the next few years – containing everything from the sinister Suicide Squad to the already-controversial new solo film – there’s never been a better time to devise such a list. Can directors Zack Snyder and Ben Affleck ever hope to craft a perfect moment to enter this pantheon – or, what’s more, to overthrow the top three entries?
Let’s go over the 11 Most Glorious Moments in Batman Movies, and then you can weigh in on the subject in the comments below.
11. Batman (1989): “I’m Batman”
Although Tim Burton’s Batman wasn’t technically the first big-screen adaptation of the Dark Knight – Adam West and director Leslie Martinson beat him to the punch 23 years earlier – it was the first modern interpretation not tied to a pre-existent version of the character, such as the 1966-68 television series, and, thus, it needed to introduce the titular character in a suitably splashy-yet-enigmatic way.
Enter Michael Keaton slowly gliding into frame on the top of some Gotham building to deliver a beat-down on two unsuspecting street punks. The cinematography, the music, the theatrical quality of Batman using his cape and costume to instill fear in the witless thugs – it all combines to create a sequence that is as timeless as Keaton’s flawless delivery of the (admittedly somewhat campy) line, “I’m Batman.”
10. Batman Begins (2005): Test-driving the Tumbler
“Oh, the Tumbler? Oh, you wouldn’t be interested in that.”
One of Batman Begins’s many strengths – despite director and co-writer Christopher Nolan’s inability to maintain the balance consistently – is the film’s ability to interweave the sometimes-disparate elements of humor, action, drama, and classic Bat-iconography that combine to create any classic Batman story. This is arguably best exemplified by recently-returned Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) paying Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) yet another visit for more goodies that can be adapted to his ever-growing arsenal of Bat-tools; while going over the “smart fabric” that would ultimately enable Bruce to create a gliding cape – providing one of the best technological explanations for the vigilante’s sometimes-outlandish abilities – the millionaire spots a tank-like vehicle sitting discarded in the corner.
The scene that follows, of Wayne and Fox taking the Tumbler for a brief spin in a gigantic testing chamber, manages to fold exposition into a few scant moments of pure, unbridled fun almost flawlessly, providing yet another grounded explanation for the creation of the Batman, while setting up a key action set piece that is yet to come.
9. Batman Returns (1992): Batman vs. the Red Triangle Circus Gang
The opening of Tim Burton’s follow-up Batman film, which sees Batman riding to the rescue after the Penguin’s (Danny DeVito) Red Triangle Circus Gang crashes the Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, has an unadulterated sense of fun that is sorely missing from the later films, whether they be Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or the current DC Extended Universe installments. The colors of the Circus Gang add a visual panache that is also a minimal element in other Bat-helmers’ handling, and even the Gothic architecture of Burton’s idealized Gotham City is simultaneously a jolt of fun and an unique, foreboding stylistic choice; the Chicago and Detroit locations of the more recent Bat fare certainly are more “realistic,” but they’re also far more drab, missing the idiosyncratic nature of the city that has been so prevalent in the comics for decades.
And even with all this (comparative) light-heartedness, there’s still a sense of danger in the film’s early sequence; the cartoony circus firebreather indiscriminately torches a store, resulting in people catching on fire and screaming in pain. (But the humor, as ever in Returns, isn’t far behind, as the Batmobile’s signature jet returns the favor a few moments later.)
8. The Dark Knight Rises (2012): Batman vs. Bane
In any other film, the obligatory fight scene between the hero and the villain would be filled with both bombast, from the choreography to the music, and with fanfare, as the protagonist slowly but surely overcomes all forms of adversity to win the day. Not so in The Dark Knight Rises; when Batman finally comes face-to-face with Bane (Tom Hardy), the sequence subverts every conception to make it something of an unsettling affair.
The lack of music, Bale’s tireless-yet-frightened performance, and the wetness that permeates most of the action comprise the stage dressing, but it is, of course, Bane’s purely dominating physicality that seals the deal. By the time he manages to shatter Batman’s supposedly-indestructible cowl, audiences are already filled with dread; by the time he breaks Bruce’s back, audiences are left breathless.
But perhaps the single most unnerving part of the scene is just how casually Bane discards Batman’s mask once the fight is done, as if the event were nothing of note to the would-be revolutionary – a fact reinforced by the lack of a sound effect of the broken cowl landing on the metal catwalk (or plunging into the water).
7. Batman Begins: Bruce vs. Ra’s al Ghul
Bruce Wayne’s training sequence at the hands of Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) and his League of Shadows is easily one of the most memorable parts of Batman Begins, providing yet another method to Batman’s madness that the other films in the overarching franchise leave wholly unexplored. It’s also capped off by a moment when, in order to graduate into the League’s leadership corps, Bruce must execute a thief from a local mountainside village. His refusal to do so creates a definable moment of virtue – something which the current Ben Affleck version of Batman may be distinctly lacking – and it leads to a giant fight against Ra’s fully capable stand-in (Ken Watanabe).
The brawl is nicely choreographed and is distinctly exciting on its own, but the fact that it culminates in the League’s compound being burnt to the ground – and in quasi-Ra’s death – makes it truly stand out. The exotic locale, the first of its kind in any Bat-production, and the heavy action are enough to help make Begins a memorable Dark Knight outing.
6. The Dark Knight Rises: John Blake inherits the cape and cowl
Although Chris Nolan’s final Bat-film attempts to juggle too many balls in the air simultaneously, it does manage – to mix Bat-metaphors here – to nail a few of the trickier landings. Central to the story, thematically speaking, is rookie cop Robin John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who mirrors young Bruce Wayne’s personal quest for justice, from his being orphaned at a young age to discovering a distaste for firearms. Such similar backgrounds gives Blake insight into the Batman’s psychological origins and sociological benefits (as well as into the vigilante’s secret identity), and when the film finds both men uprooted from their expected life paths and thrust into a state of limbo, Bruce plays on this commonality by giving the now-ex-detective the same tools he required to process the pain and anger of his youth – namely, the Batcave and the cape and cowl.
It’s actually a deft touch, as it allows audiences to say goodbye to the character of Bruce while still retaining the presence of Batman. And it serves as, arguably, the perfect ending to a Batman story, which is, in and of itself, something of a rarity in the character’s 77 years of existence.
5. Batman: Birth of the Joker
The grunginess of the set, the moody lighting, Jack Napier’s (Jack Nicholson) bandaged hand, and the nervous hovering of the foreign doctor all wonderfully set the stage for a reveal that audiences know is coming, given their familiarity with the source material and the ubiquitous nature of Batman’s marketing machine in the summer of 1989, but nonetheless find themselves suddenly dreading. And Nicholson’s spot-on performance, from his breaking of the hand mirror to his trademark cackle, only makes the birth of the Joker all the sweeter to savor.
The real star of the scene, however, is not, ironically enough, the silhouetted Joker, but the close-up of the “tools” Dr. Davis has to work with. No matter how many times viewers watch the scene, and no matter how much more disturbing subsequent iterations of the Joker have become in the years since, they can’t help but wince when taking a look at that dirty tray of bloody instruments.
4. The Dark Knight (2008): Joker blows up the hospital
Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker may have been wildly divergent from both Nicholson’s and, for that matter, the comics’, but it was electric, primal, and raw in a way that prevented anyone from taking their eyes off the screen. It’s no exaggeration to say that his portrayal is the heart and soul of The Dark Knight, and it’s also no exaggeration to say that his visit to Gotham General Hospital, dressed as a demonic nurse, holds the very essence of the character.
And the purest distillation of that character comes not from his torturing of poor Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) or in his whole-hearted embrace of the gun that may end up claiming his life, but, rather, from his casual detonation of the hospital – while he’s still in it. That strange gait of his and the bewildered, disappointed shrug of his arms when the full explosion fails to go off are the stuff of cinematic legend – and for very good reason.
3. The Dark Knight: Joker’s magic trick
The delivery of the Joker’s line – in which he offers a magic trick as the single reason why the various gathered mob bosses shouldn’t kill him – is so simple, so dead-panned, and so initially out-of-left field that it, along with its alarming (and almost literal) punchline, becomes the perfect balance of the character’s traditional demented humor and Ledger’s newfound creepy lethality. In a film with so many strong individual moments, it instantly became the one that audience members talked about long after leaving the theater, and it remains one of the Joker’s quintessential “gags,” no matter the medium.
It also doesn’t hurt that the moment is followed by another, equally riotous one: “You think you can steal from us and just walk away?” Gambol (Michael Jai White) demands. “Yeah,” the Joker says quite sincerely, without missing a beat. If it’s hard, in a film filled with so many explosions and fistfights, to make one simple pencil a deadly weapon, then it should be impossible to make one simple word one of the funniest exchanges in the entire trilogy.
2. The Dark Knight: Batman interrogates Joker
The hospital scene may be the key to unlocking the Joker’s character, and his confrontation with the mob bosses may be the key to his characterization, but it’s actually a third moment that synthesizes the two and, in the process, becomes the key to unlocking The Dark Knight’s thematic core.
The Joker is arrested and given the traditional “good cop, bad cop” routine, albeit with a vigilante twist. What’s truly remarkable about the scene is that, no matter his circumstances, no matter whether he is handcuffed or freed, spoken to or beaten down, the Joker is in absolute control. Batman’s physical superiority doesn’t faze him; he’s neither afraid of nor motivated by pain, forcing the man who is used to getting his way no matter the situation to play by another’s rules. It’s a remarkable narrative turn, and it’s a spectacular method with which to craft an antagonist.
Oh, and the scene also manages to spew a whole host of expositional information, explaining the Joker’s real goal, driving motivation, and underlying philosophy – people are, deep down, animals; when circumstances change, “civilization” falls away, exposing the savage reality in its wake. The exchange transforms Batman and Joker’s battle from a simple street war, as it were, to an eternal ideological clash.
1. The Dark Knight: Rachel’s death and Two-Face’s birth
The Joker has taken both Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) hostage and has given Batman enough time to save just one of them. He swoops off to rescue the love of his life, leaving the man who is the supposed future of the city to be taken care of by Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman) and his staff. “No sweat,” the audience thinks to itself. It’s a predicament encountered many a time before in film, particularly in the ones closest in nature to Batman – the good guys will find a way. They always do.
Except, this time, they don’t; just as the Joker uses law enforcement’s presumptions against them, Chris Nolan, too, performs an act of narrative jiu-jitsu, blinding the audience with the one-two twist that the Joker lied to Batman about the location of his prisoners, forcing Bruce to save the wrong person, and that Rachel does, indeed, end up dying. It’s a heavy blow – it’s emotionally jarring – and signals to the audience that the force-of-nature Joker can rewrite the rules as he goes.
There is no moment in any Batman before that is anything like it, and it’s doubtful that any after will come close, either.
Agree with our assessment? Disagree with our rankings? Think that Batman v Superman will have either an easy or hard time getting on this list? Be sure to sound off in the comments below.