Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Batman Edition - The Part-Time Critic

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Batman Edition

*Last Updated 4/19/2022 

This list was a far more difficult list than I anticipated. If we are being honest, Hollywood productions have come a long way since 1989's Batman came out. Comparing such different takes on Batman action as Tim Burton's "bursts of action" (more so sequences that have moments of action), Joel Schumacher's stylized set pieces in the mid to late 90's, Nolan's clockwork precision spectacle, Zack Snyder's dim, CGI-laden, and Matt Reeve's Fincher fanboying violence isn't easy. So if you see the finale sequence from 1989's Batman not rated highly as an action scene, it isn't a commentary on the quality of the movie - just the quality of that final sequence purely as an action sequence. For those interested in knowing before you get into the ratings, here's how I would rank the ten films I considered:

11. Batman Returns (C-) 1992
10. Batman & Robin (C-) 1997
9. Justice League (C-) 2017
8. The Batman (C) 2022
7. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (C) 2016
6. Batman Forever (C+) 1995
5. The Dark Knight Rises (B-) 2012
4. Batman (B-) 1989
3. Zack Snyder's Justice League (B) 2021
2. Batman Begins (B) 2005
1. The Dark Knight (A) 2008

It's clear from my rankings that I preferred the Nolan films - that's true. It's not necessarily because of the action though as I think of Christopher Nolan as a decent, but flawed action director. His action scenes are always well photographed and are usually part of an "airtight" plot - but they also lack 'back and forth' between the good guys and bad guys. The action is more a cog in the wheel of the spectacle rather than the spectacle if you catch what I mean. That's not outside the norm for the franchise itself though - Batman isn't a karate master nor a SWAT soldier - so his action has to be an interesting mix of those elements. To keep the list manageable, I've kept my commentary to around the top 20.

All Batman Action Sequences Graded & Ranked
*Not including anything pre-1989 or animated 

GRADE: D
49. “Finale: Batman vs. Penguin's Penguins” -Batman Returns (1992)

GRADE: C-
48. “Batman Rescues the Winter Princess and is Setup by Penguin and Catwoman” -Batman Returns (1992)

GRADE: C
47. “Opening: Batman Roughs Up a Couple of Muggers” -Batman (1989)
46. “Opening: Batman vs a Parademon Scout” -Justice League (2017)
45. "Train Station Scuffle: Batman Takes Out Face Paint Gang" -The Batman (2022)
44. “Batman vs. Harvey in a Street Race” -Batman Forever (1995)
43. “Freeze's Lair: Getting His Diamonds & Losing His Girl” -Batman & Robin (1997)
42. "Selina Outwits Her Fence at a Bar Shootout" -The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
41. “Batgirl, with a Robin shadow, street races in Gotham” -Batman & Robin (1997)
40. “Two-Face Ambushes a Circus Giving Birth to Robin” -Batman Forever (1995)
39. “Opening: Attack by the Circus Gang Broken Up by Batman” -Batman Returns (1992)
38. “Rooftop Fight: Batman & Catwoman vs. Dagget's Thugs” -The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
37. “Justice League vs Superman” -Justice League (2017)
36. “Two-Face Sets at Trap for Batman at Nygma's Party” -Batman Forever (1995)
35. “Joker's Origins: Batman & Police Ambush Napier at Axis Chemicals” -Batman (1989)
34. “Finale: Superman, Wonder Woman, & Batman vs. Doomsday” -Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

GRADE: C+
33. “Dick Grayson is Saved from Neon Gang” -Batman Forever (1995)
32. "Joker Crashes Wayne's Fundraiser" -The Dark Knight (2008)
31. "Selina & Batman Go After Falcone in Their Own Ways" -The Batman (2022)
30. “Bruce's Apocalyptic Knightmare” -Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
29. “Batman Saves Vicki Vale from a Dinner with the Joker” -Batman (1989)
28. “Finale: Observatory Fight” -Batman & Robin (1997)
27. “Opening: Vault Heist with Two-Face” -Batman Forever (1995)
26. “Chasing Mr. Freeze from the Flower Ball Thru Gotham” -Batman & Robin (1997)
25. “Opening: Ice Hockey Fight with Freeze” -Batman & Robin (1997)
24. "Finale: Gotham Square Arena Fight & Shootout" -The Batman (2022)
23. “Batman Stops the Circus Gang and Runs into Catwoman for the 1st Time” -Batman Returns (1992)
22. “Finale: Batman & Robin at Riddler Island” -Batman Forever (1995)

21. “Parking Garage Fight” -The Dark Knight (2008)
- Commentary: This sequence reintroduces the viewers to Batman and the effect he has had on the city. Criminals are now meeting in dark parking garages worried about the Batman. Other civilians have also taken up to fighting crime, though clearly on a lower budget. This is a short burst of action that re-establishes Batman as a strong character: he arrives in his awesome batmobile, bends a rifle, and grabs on to a moving truck which he opens with his can-opener gadget. After being shaken off by the van, he picks himself up and jumps down the middle of the circle ramp and right onto the top of the van, to destructive ends. It's a cool moment and this is a confident little sequence.

20. “Night Rain Chase: Batman Goes After the Penguin” -The Batman (2022)
- Commentary: The best overall action sequence from Matt Reeve's entry in to the series and its essentially a stripped down car chase. The Batmobile here is essentially a muscle car with a jet engine I guess and this chase scene is filmed with a strong artsy flair. It's almost entirely black with that orange/brown David Fincher glow and rather than a normal superhero chase, we get a stripped down simple chase on the highway. The visceral nature comes from making it at night (pitch black essentially) with little light, rain, strong sound editing and placing the camera right next to the tires or right in front of the actor with the action in the background. There's little fancy driving or stunt until you get to the main one where Batman uses something from a truck as a ramp over the destruction. It's moody and atomospheric, but meh on the actual chase. The funny part is that this was just meant to get Penguin so they could question him...not even arrest him. All Penguin says is basically he's not the rat. 

19. “Finale: Batman Ruins the Joker's Parade and Finishes him on the Tower” -Batman (1989)
- Commentary: The film that kicked the modern franchise off! I was more into the Ninja Turtles as a kid, but I was not immune to the hype fest that was Batman. The finale of that franchise starter looks insanely restricted compared to the finales we expect today. Beginning with the balloon parade in the streets and ending on the top of the church bell tower - this was once considered an epic showdown. In reality, the first phase of this sequence consists of a couple passes of the batwing to collect the poison spewing balloons and Joker shooting it down with his hilariously long pistol. From there the sequence moves to the bell tower with Batman facing off against a few henchmen and then the Joker himself. It's still a dramatically strong and satisfying ending even if the action now seems a bit tame in comparison.

18. “Batman vs. Superman” -Batman v Superman (2016)
- Commentary: The epic “what if” of so many young teens comes to life in an…well…okay fight. From a nuts and bolts perspective, the fight is at least interesting. How could Batman possibly take on someone like Superman. From that view – this fight works fairly well. Batman, with weaponized Kryptonite, weakens Superman and then gets the chance to beat him up. There’s some nice visuals here and Batman comes off as fairly intelligent from that vantage. The problem is four-fold: the context, the setting, the structure, and the ending. First, the context for the fight doesn’t work. It’s one of those “epic misunderstandings” where a line or two said by either could diffuse the entire situation. Second, the setting for this epic fight is at night, in the train, at some abandoned warehouse. I get the logic of that, but from a viewer’s perspective – it’s bland and boring. Third, the structure of the fight is too one-sided. At first, Superman wins and then Batman wins. There is barely any back and forth, no real response from Superman once Batman gets the upper hand. Lastly, the infamous “Why did you say that name” ending doesn’t get better with repeated viewings. It’s pretty groan worthy and just makes the forced context feel even worse. I wish this fight could have been better, but it's just an expensive dud with a couple of nice thoughts and shots.

17. “Batman Stops Falcone's Last Shipment on the Docks” -Batman Begins (2005)
- Commentary: The first "Batman" action sequence of the Nolan series and it is a largely atmospheric one. Paying off on the idea of Batman becoming a symbol of fear and legend, the scene mostly plays on Batman's ability to hide and grab people largely unseen. It's shot well here and the payoff moment "I'm Batman" is a nice finishing touch. This sequence doesn't compete with more action packed ones, but as a basic theatrical introduction, it's quite perfect.   

GRADE: B-
16. “Batmobile Chase: Attempting to Steal the Kryptonite” -Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
- Commentary: The first good look at the batmobile of the Ben Affleck era and it’s essentially an all-purpose SWAT machine. Batman here chases down a shipment of kryptonite from the Gotham docks. He takes out flanking cars with guns and other explosives maneuvers, but is ultimately interrupted by Superman who stops him in his tracks.

15. “Explosive Escape from League of Shadows Mountain Site” -Batman Begins (2005)
- Commentary: This sequence is the capstone to Bruce Wayne’s training sequences up in the mountains. After Wayne refuses to become an executioner, he starts a fire and takes on who he believes is the head of the League of Shadows. A sword fight and explosions abound in the wooden training facility. It’s capped off with a nice stunt where Wayne saves Ra’s Al Gul from sliding over a mountain cliffside. Like many of Nolan directed action sequences, it’s largely visuals over actual kinetic/smooth action.

14. “Finale: The League vs. Steppenwolf in Chernobyl” -Justice League (2017)
- Commentary: This sequence was re-cut and extended in Zack Snyder's version. Check the list later for commentary on the better version of this action sequence.

13. “Batman vs Scarecrow & Makes a Batmobile Escape” -Batman Begins (2005)
- Commentary: This fight builds upon the theatrical nature of the dock fight against Falcone. We get the hiding in the shadows Batman, but a bit more of a glimpse into the mechanics. When the cops show up, Batman uses sonar to attract a swarm of bats as his cover. We get a cool and iconic image of Batman gliding down the center of a stair spiral surrounded by bats. To save a poisoned Rachel, he has to get her back to the Batcave and that means escaping the police using his batmobile. This is the first extended sequence we get with Nolan's "Tumblr" version and its not bad - with a lot of practical stunts and Bond like gadgets on display.

12. “Bane's Stock Market Run Ends in a Batwing Chase” -The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
- Commentary: Bane hits the Gotham stock market to implant an important application. He breaks out of the police barricade with motorcycles carrying hostages. This draws Batman to the chase and knockdown of several Bane henchmen. Rather than continue to chase Bane's group the police get hungry to take down Batman. Batman eventually gets cornered on his batpod motorcycle and gets out of the situation with the first use of the batwing. Well shot and edited - again it's a smooth, good looking action scene, but lacking that intense back and forth nature I enjoy.

11. “Opening: Joker Robs a Bank” -The Dark Knight (2008)
- Commentary: This sequence introduces us to Nolan's incarnation of the Joker and while it's not a full-on action sequence (there really isn't much of a fight put up), it's a wonderful action spectacle that immediately demonstrates the eccentricities of the new villain in town. This sequence was originally showcased as a trailer for the movie in IMAX theatres and its easy to see why - it's gorgeous and showcases the scale of the city/buildings perfectly. The score adds intensity and the clockwork nature of each henchmen taking each other out is a unique and smart take on the heist sequence. A great opening.

10. “Gotham Underground Harbor Fight: Steppenwolf vs. the League” -Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) or Justice League (2017)
- Commentary: A lot of effort went into making the Justice League’s first encounter with Steppenwolf make logical sense. Each character here shines in their respective departments with Flash and Cyborg, considering their rookie nature, getting the boring “help the hostages get to safety” routine. Wonder Woman and Batman do the majority of the fighting and its Diana who is clearly the strongest and most interesting. Batman at least gets a couple of nice fighting beats before he has to rely on his big “Nightcrawler” machine. Nice moments here, but the CGI underground setting just doesn’t work great, feels unspecific, and makes everything feel a bit too dark to enjoy properly. Not bad for a scene clearly indicating the League is makeshift and still learning. While I prefer Snyder’s cut here, the Whedon cut isn’t that much different and there are 1-2 moments I’d like to have from it.

GRADE: B
9. "Opening: Bane Plane Mystery" -The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
- Commentary: When previews began for the follow-up to the smash hit The Dark Knight, they used this sequence as a teaser in IMAX theatres - just as they used the opening bank heist to introduce Ledger's Joker. You can tell why - it's an absolutely gorgeously shot bit of action and a wonderful introduction to the beefy yet intelligent character of Bane. The scene runs so smoothly that I am tempted to even call it an "action" sequence - more of a thrilling dramatic sequence. Therein often lay the challenge for Nolan at his best - he constructs good looking, very practical, action sequences that play out like meticulously crafted pieces of engineering that they can end up seeming too smooth for "action." Here we get gorgeous and practical aerial shots of one plane essentially hijacking another. Special forces drop down and hook up a smaller plane, shoot out CIA members, and leave a fake body or two behind. It all goes down without very little resistance. It's a wonderful scene that I wish wasn't so clean and easy.

8. “Battle for Gotham: Against Bane & the Bomb” -The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
- Commentary: The big finale to close out Nolan's epic trilogy is...a bit of a dud if you ask me. I mean, it's a good sequence overall, but it's just not the spectacle I think most of us were expecting after the heights reached with The Dark Knight. The sequence has two real phases, the first is battle between Bane's forces and Batman's police forces. This looks like it will be a real engaging sequence, but after a couple of shots of the two forces getting together, the fight just becomes focused on Bane battling Batman again. This isn't as good as their previous fight and its not clear why exactly (according to the themes of the film) why Batman now beats Bane in a fight. After taking down Bane, the sequence switches to finding and getting rid of a nuclear bomb (which I like to think is a play on a similar bomb sequence in The Batman Movie). This sequence features the batwing chasing a military truck and two military versions of the Batmobile. A decent shootout ensues that looks very practical, but also very restrained. Eventually, Batman hooks the bomb to his batwing and takes it out over the water to explode. Unfortunately, the entire sequence is hindered by ANOTHER "let's look out for civilians" side story here. It just feels like a distraction and frustration at this point.

7. “Skyscraper Showdown with Swat and the Joker” -The Dark Knight (2008)
- Commentary: This is a bit of an odd action sequence as it's intercut back and forth with the drama of Jim Gordon's family and the drama of the two ferry boats. Batman begins his attack on Joker's forces holding the upper floors of a skyscraper before Godon's SWAT forces can get there. Using the sonar power he is able to get a better read of the land than his opponents. He quickly realizes the doctors dressed as hostages are actually the bad guys and the clowns in masks are hostages with their hands taped to guns. His mission is to stop an accidental SWAT massacre and still take down the Joker. As usual, Nolan portrays this as a generally smooth one way arrow - as if Batman had a plan the whole time. The visuals here are pretty impressive at times - at other times, it's really choppy and over-edited. Thankfully, the ending is strong, with Batman getting the best of the Joker not just because he's stronger, but because he's smarter and has his moral code. Yet, there's a seed of defeat there - did Batman really lose by not paying more attention to Harvey Dent? 

6. “Bane vs. Batman” -The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
- Commentary: This is probably the best one on one fight Christopher Nolan has ever directed. Now in the grand scheme of things, it's nothing that special (Donnie Yen, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li would smirk at this being considered great), but in Nolan and the Batman canon, this is pretty great stuff. Nolan has removed the musical score and just kept the ambient sound of the water and impacts. What we get is an intense and physical fight, without a lot of cuts, between Bane and Batman. No big frills. I like that Batman continues to try and use the different gadgets and skills he has acquired and I wish Bane was affected a bit more, but at least it feels like there is some back and forth - even though its obvious Bane is the ultimate winner here. Beyond the fight, the discussion between the two has stood the test of time - this is not just a fight of strength but of will. 

5. “Finale: Batman Arrives at the Narrows and Stops Ra's Al Ghul & the Train” -Batman Begins (2005)
- Commentary: This finale sequence has taken me a while to come around on, but I think it's held up better after repeated viewings. The beginning of the sequence see's the fear toxin released into the down in the dumps Narrows section of Gotham. After saving Rachel and kid, Batman looks towards Ra's Al Ghul and his henchmen. This is a low point as Nolan's direction of fighting at this point is still over-edited and choppy. Thankfully it is short and the centerpiece of the sequence begins - stopping an elevated train from making it to the center of Gotham where the water mains are and fear will overtake everyone. Batman's boarding, fight with Ra's and the ultimate ending to the train is done well here. The side stuff with Gordon trying to operate the Batmobile provides some night humor without stopping the seriousness of the moment. 

4. “Hong Kong Snatch and Grab” -The Dark Knight (2008)
- Commentary: This is such an awesome action sequence/spectacle. It's so good in fact that it really upsets me that it isn't better. Nolan sets the sequence up well with Fox visiting Hong Kong and setting up his phone to take down the electronics in Lau's building. Lau, you see is holding all of the Mafia's money outside of Gotham's jurisdiction. Batman sits atop a Hong Kong skyscraper, in a gorgeous aerial night shot, and shoots charges on the windows of Lau's floors. Batman glides over to Lau's floor and breaks in. A small fight and shootout happens, but Batman grabs Lau, applies a parachute to his chest, the windows explode as planned, and a plane picks up Batman and Lau on their exposed parachute - dragging them out the window. It's short, but another cool, simple, and smooth looking action sequence. Why couldn't there be at least some nice back and forth resistance here to give some more meat to the bones? I love this moment - it's so iconically Batman - but can't Nolan at least show Batman adapting and changing the plan on the spot to an enemy who isn't always overwhelmed? 

3. “Batman v Warehouse Thugs for Martha” -Batman v Superman (2016)
- Commentary: How can the best action sequence in a film titled “Batman v Superman” be a generic “Batman vs Thugs” moment that could have been put into pretty much any Batman story? In this sequence, Batman must take out a group of thugs who are holding Martha, Superman’s mother, hostage. It begins with the Batplane strafing the streets and then dropping Batman off into the warehouse. What follows is essentially a sequence where Batman is the ultimate SWAT officer – infiltrating and taking out bad guys with non-lethal counter weapons and combat. Its really well laid-out and shout. It would have been interesting to see more of this style play itself out in another Batman movie in this mold.

GRADE: B+
2. “Finale: The League vs. Steppenwolf in Chernobyl” -Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
- Commentary: Maybe not fair to put an ensemble action sequence with Batman here, but he is still a major part of it and it counts. This finale sequence actually working is quite a mystery to me. The original version is a perfect example of CGI finale bloat that feels committed to being so epic that everything is CG, but because everything is CG, it at looks bland and done in a computer. While there is still a bit of that going on here (I mean it’s not an 'A' level sequence afterall), the logic and drama of the finale sequence is what shines here. Bruce Wayne forging the way to take down the dome with one of his flying contraptions and the Batmobile while Aquaman and Wonder Woman get to kick butt. Eventually they take on Steppenwolf long enough so that Cyborg can get his hands on the motherbox. From here they need Flash to spark the box. Superman shows up with one of his best entrances and comments in the entire DC Universe and there’s a beautiful false ending here that allows for Flash to get an all-time great moment – putting this “quick” character at least on part with Quicksilvers moments in the X-Men universe. Let's be real, this isn't even close to what has become the standard for superhero finales in the Avengers Infinity War and End Game films. However, this sequence does embody the best parts of Zack Snyder’s four hour recut of Justice League, it allows the finale to breathe while bringing more logic, drama, and action spectacle. It feels like an epic comic book finale in an epic comic book movie.

GRADE: A-
1. “Transporting Harvey Dent and Capturing the Joker” -The Dark Knight (2008)
- I think the best version of cinematic Batman action is illustrated in the iconic "Joker trying to catch Harvey but being caught by Gordon, but wanting to be caught in the long run anyways" sequence in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. The Chicago setting for Gotham here is dark, but more grounded than Burton and Schumacher's versions, and avoids the industrial CGI wastelands of Snyder's take. What makes it the quintessential Batman cinematic action is thus: the sequence provides a key plot moment (Joker is caught...though it's part of his plan), a thematic showdown (the lengths Harvey, Joker, Gordon, and Batman are willing to go to win), and highlights Batman's unique features - his cool gadgets, intelligence, and moral code. The batmobile and batpod shine in big ways here that distinguish this scene from other action genres. This scene even breaks (or seems to, since getting caught is the Joker's ultimate plan) one of Nolan's key flaws (even if unintentionally), as there seems to be a genuine give and take to both sides here - one side isn't just overwhelmed by the plan of the other. The key draw of this franchise is not in the skill of the action, but in the way Batman intelligently and morally (with some skill as well) combats his enemies who test his limits. No seen better depicts that, with large scale spectacle, and plotting that keeps you guessing, than this one.

No comments:

Post a Comment