Batman Forever: Five Reasons the Caped Crusader is the Greatest Superhero
Updated: Apr 19, 2020
Superheroes are big business.
Our cinema screens are dominated by a seemingly endless parade of flamboyantly-attired champions, the archives of decades of comic books ruthlessly dredged for ever-more-obscure characters to dust off and toss onto the bandwagon. The public’s appetite for costumed crime-fighters appears insatiable; would anyone have seriously predicted that Aquaman and Shazam, characters thinner than the paper they were originally printed on, would become successful silver screen icons??
But, across this gaudy and increasingly uninspiring landscape, a shadowy figure looms. His stature remains immense, his dark influence formidable, his capacity for reinvention unrivalled. He is vengeance personified, a sinister bogeyman whose thirst for justice is matched only by his appetite for extreme violence. He is the world’s greatest detective, the darkest of knights, and in my opinion he’ll always stand head and shoulders above the rest – and in today’s post I’m trying to figure out why.
1). He’s got the best visuals
From the twisted, steam-shrouded gothic spires of Tim Burton’s seminal 1989 movie to the visceral menace of Christopher Nolan’s reimagined Batmobile, Batman’s aesthetic has always been darker, edgier, and undeniably more stylish than the competition. While Superman and Spiderman parade around in ludicrous patriotic underpants (does a red, white and blue spider really make any sort of sense?), Batman oozes effortless cool as he flits across the shadows of Gotham in the unmistakeable cape and cowl.
2). He’s more believable
Okay, I’m not suggesting that a story about a sleep-dodging, ninja-trained billionaire vigilante is the height of plausibility, but it’s a lot easier to swallow – and much more relatable – than a story about a godlike alien or a person blessed with magical powers by a chance encounter with a radioactive insect. Batman can’t fly. He doesn’t have superhuman strength, or X-ray vision. He’s just a bloke. Which makes his achievements all the more impressive, his peril that much more convincing. Along with the best of his rogues’ gallery, Batman is rooted in reality, the tragic story of a man driven to brutal vengeance by the murder of his beloved parents.
Give me that over Aquaman any day.
3). He’s got the best films
Yes, there are a few clunkers (although I still maintain that Batman Vs Superman and even Suicide Squad were unfairly panned), but Batman’s back catalogue of big screen appearances undoubtedly includes some of the best movies of all time. Batman and Batman Forever are a pair of dark masterpieces that represent Tim Burton at the height of his Grimm fairytale powers, and reams have been written about the greatness of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, which peaked at its midpoint with The Dark Knight, a movie that elevated the superhero genre and managed to credibly transform Batman into a gritty crime drama.
4). He’s got the best baddies
The posse of villains desperate to put Batman’s head on a spike has some truly fascinating members. Ever since the early 90s animated series I’ve been a sucker for Two-Face, a once-noble District Attorney whose anger management issues are monstrously aggravated when an accident renders his left-hand side horrifically burned, spawning a second personality consumed with rage and revenge. He is 50% the original Harvey and 50% brutal mobster, and relies upon the flip of a coin to decide his victims’ fates, trusting his decisions to nothing other than blind, impartial chance.
The animated series also gave us the greatest ever portrayal of Mr Freeze, whose origin story episode is a genuine tear-jerker; a moving depiction of a tragic villain that could not be further removed from the laughably over-the-top performance given by Arnold Schwarzenegger several years later in Batman & Robin (and he’s still the best thing in Joel Schumacher’s dreadful film by a mile).
And who can forget the portrayals of The Penguin and Catwoman by Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer, both breathing sinister new life into long-standing foes of the caped crusader?
That’s not to mention the Riddler, Clay Face, Killer Croc, and another favourite of mine, Scarface (a violent, Tommy-gun-wielding ventriloquist’s dummy operated by a mild-mannered man with dissociative identity disorder)… and of course, we mustn't leave out the Condiment King...
5). He’s got the best arch-enemy
You may have been disturbed by one glaring omission from the previous section, but don’t worry; the clown prince of crime is getting an entry all of his own. The Joker’s stock has never been higher since Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning portrayal, and we eagerly await the latest in the stellar lineage of actors to don the white make-up and green hair dye when Joaquin Phoenix brings his talents to the role in the upcoming Joker movie (personally, Mark Hamill remains my favourite, his performance nailing the exact mid-point between a giggling buffoon and a homicidal psychopath).
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this character is so popular and enduring. Perhaps it’s his instantly recognisable, compellingly grotesque appearance, a deathly pallor that may or may not be the result of chemical bleaching, a frozen rictus grin that perhaps hides a warped and terrible insight into the human condition (in my favourite Joker story, The Killing Joke, Commissioner Gordon – and thereby the reader – is invited to consider whether we’re all just one bad day away from a descent into murderous insanity). Or maybe we simply can’t resist his mischievous charm, the malevolent, Loki-esque glee with which he wreaks chaos across a Gotham to which Batman is so desperate to bring order and stability.
But I think the crux of the Joker’s popularity lies in his relationship with his nemesis: the Joker and Batman, in their purest form, are made for each other. A man who refuses to kill criminals, who believes absolutely in justice and rehabilitation, in perpetual conflict against a man whose raison d’être is to bring destructive, deadly havoc for no other reason than because he feels like it. While Batman’s other enemies scheme to unmask and thereby defeat him, to destroy the myth by undermining the man, the Joker couldn’t care less about his rival’s secret identity; to him, Batman’s principled refusal to murder him (despite knowing how many lives that would surely save) is his all-time favourite gag.
As Ledger himself once (poignantly) uttered: ‘I think you and I are destined to do this forever…’
I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s post, and if you’ve never treated yourself to the animated series I mentioned, seek out the feature-length movie Mask Of The Phantasm, if only to see Mark Hammill give Heath Ledger a run for his money as best Joker of all time.
Until next time… keep smiling!