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Batman's five biggest onscreen hits

Few films generate such long-winded hype as The Dark Knight Rises. The latest theatrical trailer has been viewed more than 21 million times on YouTube. Tickets for the first IMAX showings in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco went on sale six months ago and immediately sold out. It might be easier to get Pearl Jam tickets than seats to this Friday's local premiere at the Carmike 10 and Village 6.

In addition to hype, the newest Batman installment also carries the weight of adding to a beloved superhero franchise. The Dark Knight Rises marks the seventh modern Batman movie and, depending on how you tally spinoff series, about the 17th different time the character has headlined on either the small or big screen. Holy overkill, bat fans! With so much black latex to trim, here's one argument for the five best Batmans of the bunch.

5. "Batman" (1943)

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This 15-chapter serial has to make the list, if only because it came first and directly influenced more than 20 years of early Batman portrayals. The production itself isn't great outside of a historical context, and even then it's mostly remembered for its racist overtones; a World War II story line pits Batman against an evil Japanese scientist named Dr. Darka. Nonetheless, it makes for fascinating viewing 70 years㭂 years!—later and deserves recognition for eventually leading to the farcical ABC series starring Adam West that, outside of comic books, introduced most fans of a certain age to the franchise.

4. Batman (1989)

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Hardcore fans eviscerated director Tim Burton for putting Michael Keaton in the lead role, but why? Keaton was a mega-star at the time and his turn in Burton's Beetlejuice showed a certain sinister side that proved to work with the brooding Dark Knight. You could make the case Keaton comes out as the second-best Batman ever. But, whatever. Jack Nicholson's portrayal of the Joker gets this film on the list no matter what you thought of Keaton.

3. Batman Begins (2005)

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Director Christopher Nolan is supremely talented and a perfect fit for this franchise, but he couldn't have walked into a better situation with this re-boot of the Batman series. His version followed two bloated debacles directed by Joel Schumacher: 1995's Batman Forever, which featured Val Kilmer in a bat suit with visible nipples and lots of Jim Carrey being Jim Carrey, and Batman & Robin, the 1997 mess with George Clooney in the lead role, plus Arnold Schwarzen-egger, Uma Thurman, Alicia Silverstone and Chris O'Donnell in largely forgettable supporting spots.

Nolan's Begins went back to the dark origins of the story. Christian Bale turned out to be a perfect mix of tortured and privileged for Bruce Wayne, not to mention his being athletic enough to fill out the suit. As Alfred Pennyworth and Lucius Fox, respectively, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine brought the necessary gravitas to the superhero's inner circle. Anything with Gary Oldman and Liam Neeson can't be bad. Even Katie Holmes held her own as Wayne's childhood friend and love interest. Most importantly, the film spent considerable time building Batman's back story, a vital part of this franchise's foundation and perhaps the main reason it remains so popular.

2. "Batman: The Animated Series" (1992–1995)

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What? You're surprised an animated television series ranks this high? Don't be. This series was so well done it runs circles around Val Kilmer's bat nipples.

Critics hailed "Batman: The Animated Series" as the truest adaptation of the comic books. Even without that frame of reference, it was striking for its film noir style, its edgy storylines and the sort of violence not often found in Saturday morning cartoons. "B:TAS" became one of those rare shows that appealed to kids, adults and, in my case, procrastinating (and possibly drunk) college students.

1. The Dark Knight (2008)

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There's so much to like about Nolan's second Batman film: The stark backdrop of modern-day Chicago. The Batpod. Shooting entire action sequences in IMAX format to create incredible clarity. The cliffhangers at the film's end. Heath Ledger. It's no wonder the expectations for The Dark Knight Rises are so high: Nolan's last foray was damn near perfect, and left plenty more story to tell. Now, if only we could score tickets to the premiere.

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