The number and variety of Batman films in existence mean that there’s something for everyone to favour: you can like the Tim Burton ones if you prefer it gothy; you can like the Christopher Nolan ones if you go in for things gritty and slightly overblown; and you can like the Joel Schumacher ones if you’ve recently suffered a severely traumatic head injury. For my money, though, the best Batman film of all time is none of these – it’s the 1993 classic Demolition Man, starring Sylvester Stallone as Batman and Wesley Snipes as the Joker. OK, they actually have different names (I assume there were licensing issues), but this film is not only clearly a Batman film; it is clearly the best Batman film. Let’s review.
My problem with the Joker has always been that he’s never come across to me as a credible threat. His superpower is… he’s crazy? That’s it? Yeah, it means he’s unpredictable and unencumbered by conscience, but seriously, that’s more of a liability than an advantage. He’s only able to succeed at anything because of the army of hired goons who are inexplicably willing to work for him, despite the certainty that their employment will end with Batman beating the shit out of them or the Joker killing them on a whim. His most remarkable trait is his uncanny knack for completely renovating locations in his trademark “twisted fairground” style in no time at all – that seems to be his real superpower: interior decoration.
Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight was the first time I saw a version of the Joker who I thought was a genuine threat to Batman – he was cunning and ruthless, he planned ahead, and it was clear that his only goal was to fuck shit up for the sake of it. Only of course it wasn’t the first time, because 25 years before Ledger’s Joker, there was Simon Phoenix.
Do I even have to establish that Simon Phoenix is the Joker? He’s got the look – discoloured hair and outlandish costumes (even by the standards of the mid-90s).
He has 100% of the attitude – playful psychosis, manic laughter, casual violence, non-stop quipping and on top of all of that he says “motherfucker” and can kick the shit out of anyone.
Remember the bit in The Dark Knight when the Joker stabs a guy in the eye with a pencil? Phoenix was stabbing out guys’ eyes with stationery before it was cool. Best Joker Ever.
If Simon Phoenix is the Joker, then John Spartan has to be Batman. He’s fearless, single-minded in pursuit of justice and doesn’t let little things like property destruction get between him and his quarry. He’s also a much less interesting character than the villain – another clear sign this is a Batman film. And he runs around with a shotgun and freeze-kicks the Joker’s head entirely the fuck off. Best Batman Ever.
(OK, first of all, if you’re enough of a pedant to get in a huff over Batman shooting people, you’re enough of a pedant to know that in his original comic book incarnation he did use guns and shoot mobsters, so there’s precedent. And if you’re talking about more recent continuity, you still can’t pull that “Batman never kills” bullshit – even assuming that his martial arts proficiency is such that he never accidentally inflicts fatal injuries when he’s pounding people’s organs and kicking them unconscious, with the sheer number of criminals he’s put in hospital, statistically at least some of them must have contracted a secondary infection and died there thanks to him.)
So far my children have been of the penised variety, which means I’ve never been in a position to make good on my documented threat to name any daughter I have Lenina Huxley:
Lenina Huxley, apart from being Sandra Bullock’s first and finest major role, is clearly Robin to John Spartan’s Batman. She’s a devoted follower of Spartan’s ethos, kicks bad guys in the face, looks great in tight pants and for once the sexual tension between her and Batman is explicitly followed up on. If they truly had the courage of their convictions, every Batman film would end with the Dynamic Duo transferring fluids.
(Minor digression: I have to admit that my biggest problem with Demolition Man is Spartan’s coupling with Lenina. He comes out of deep freeze asking for his wife, gets told she’s dead by Huxley and by the end of the film – which takes place over a few days at most – he’s hooking up with her. Call me a prude, but that’s not much of a mourning period.)
Dr Cocteau’s utopian tendencies and ends-justifies-the-means morality basically make him Ra’s al Ghul minus the immortality (Phoenix calls him “an evil Mr. Rogers” – same difference). I’m not well-versed enough in Batman lore to know if Ra’s ever tried to get the Joker to work for him – I do recall times when other big villains tried to manipulate the Joker, and it never worked out that well for them either.
And Denis Leary’s Edgar Friendly is… Anarky? Sort of? Look it doesn’t fucking matter who every single cast member maps on to – the point is that we’ve got a Batman, a Joker and a Robin and that’s all we need. The old black cop is probably Alfred.
The Defence Rests
I don’t think there can be any argument that Demolition Man is a Batman film – you could no more deny that than you could deny that White House Down is a Die Hard sequel (and a better one than 2, 4 or 5). More than that, it’s a Batman film with gunplay, swearing, crotch kicking and eyeball trauma, clearly making it the Best Batman Movie Ever. Possibly the Best Movie Ever, purely because of this shot: