Since the character’s conception in 1939, Batman has proven to be amongst the most iconic superheroes in pop culture and shows no signs of slowing down, over eighty years later. The Caped Crusader has had a long and colorful history through the pages of DC Comics, and his ongoing cinematic legacy is arguably just as dynamic. From all-time blunders to genuine classics, the fabled vigilante has enjoyed a decade-spanning run on the silver screen that has entertained far more than it has disappointed. With an instantly notable appearance, an impressive rogues gallery of villains, and an endless amount of source material to pull from, it’s no surprise the Bat has remained such an important staple in film. In honor of the highly-anticipated release of Matt Reeves’ “The Batman”, it seems only right to take a step back and reminisce on this group of wildly diverging comic book flicks. For this list, we will only be considering the Dark Knight’s theatrically-released solo outings, so entries from the DCEU will not be made eligible; with all due respect to Batfleck. That being said, make sure to grab your shark repellent, fire up the Batmobile, and prepare for vengeance. Here’s our ranking of all Batman movies, from worst to best.
11. Batman & Robin (1997)
Generally regarded as one of the worst comic book movies ever made, and understandably so, it’s hard to look at “Batman & Robin” as anything other than one colossal misstep. Following the financial success of “Batman Forever”, director Joel Schumacher would double down on the idea of a kid-friendly superhero franchise, to absolutely no avail. While the aforementioned predecessor shows flashes bordering on “so bad it’s good” territory, this late ’90s monstrosity ultimately amounts to no more than an obvious ploy to sell merchandise. The entire runtime is one convoluted mess of hackneyed concepts, unfortunate costumes, and painfully foolish puns. Right out of the gate it’s made embarrassingly evident that Schumacher and crew seemed to be making things up as they went along, but, truth be told, the story’s inability to latch onto a coherent narrative is far from the movie’s biggest fault.
It is also, plain and simple, just horribly miscast. Uma Thurman and Arnold Schwarzenegger give extraordinarily cringe-worthy outings as Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze, respectively, while George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell stumble around awkwardly as the titular crime-fighting duo. The film’s undying commitment to its campy nature is, at times, oddly commendable, attempting to shine as a tongue-in-cheek throwback to the ‘60s television series; but in the end, it fails to click on virtually any level. Better known today for its terrible dialogue and infamous bat-nipples than anything of particular merit, this irredeemable disaster is better off left in the past.
10. Batman Forever (1995)
Though it is, certainly, leaps and bounds better than “Batman & Robin”, this zany continuation of Tim Burton’s Batman series is easily the more disappointing film. Subsequent to the departure of Burton, after critics perceived his final rendition of the Caped Crusader as being too weird and disturbing for children, the reins for a third installment were passed to Joel Schumacher, as the cape and cowl were handed over to Val Kilmer. Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey were also given the roles of the villains, and in theory, this should have been great, or at the very least, entertaining. In execution, however, the movie falls almost entirely flat. Val Kilmer, coming off of some fantastic performances could have been pretty interesting in the role of Batman, but instead, all the material really allows for is a boring, often stagnant protagonist to stand in frame.
Conversely, Jones and Carrey are wacky, off-the-wall, and utterly ridiculous as Two-Face and the Riddler, but even their antics can’t mask the reality that the film is dreadfully hollow. In fact, Schumacher’s vision spends so much time trying to hide that reality in obnoxious neon-lighting, that, in addition to feeling like a slog to get through, it also becomes a headache to watch. Wooden acting and incomprehensible action aside, the biggest downfall of “Batman Forever” remains that it holds genuine potential. Shying away from Burton’s dark and gothic tone at a time when the character was gaining credibility on-screen, this puzzling sequel is proof that sometimes you shouldn’t meddle with a good thing.
9. Batman (1966)
Unlike the two previous entries on the list, this is cheesy comic book fun done the right way. The World’s Greatest Detective has certainly come a long way since his big-screen debut, but there is still something so undeniably charming about Batman ‘66. Making the jump from television to the theatre look easy, this schlocky feature film adaptation of the beloved Batman TV serial may not hold up entirely well, but that was never exactly the point, either. Embracing the show’s silly approach to the character, the film is a villain-packed extravaganza that lays claim to several of the Bat’s most iconic moments.
The late Adam West’s portrayal of Batman still holds up today, with a deadpan style of humor that plays into the over-the-top hysterics of the picture, wonderfully. And it is, without a doubt, the entire cast’s commitment to this hokey shtick that continues to keep fans coming back, all these years later. Boasting a dry wit and by far the least intimidating iteration of the masked hero (whom many have deemed the ‘Bright Knight’), the movie is an all-around joy, even when it starts to drag. Wholesome, vibrant, and often quite funny, this ‘60s era superhero tale of nonsense is a delight from start to finish – just don’t expect anything too brooding.
8. The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
Lighthearted, fun, and effortlessly loveable, it’s refreshing oddities like this that make a splash in an increasingly saturated superhero genre. Considering the substantial acclaim that 2014’s “The Lego Movie” managed to garner from audiences and critics alike, spinoffs were almost inevitable. However, few could have predicted just how well “The Lego Batman Movie” would live up to its predecessor while carving out its own unique spot in the franchise. Delivering on the laugh-a-minute pace and frenetic energy of the first, while shifting the focus solely to Batman, the film finds tons of enjoyment dissecting and satirizing the mythology and rich, occasionally embarrassing, history of DC’s favorite masked vigilante. Presenting Gotham’s watchful protector as a self-obsessed narcissist secretly yearning for fellowship, the movie is a surprisingly heartfelt glimpse into the stoic hero’s quest for companionship.
The story isn’t necessarily anything groundbreaking, but it’s handled with a real sense of care and hilarity, as Will Arnett’s stellar voice work in the role sells every beat of it. Everyone, from Michael Cera to Zach Galifianakis completely crushes it as their respective characters, offering quirky, yet never overdone, variations of some of comics’ most recognizable figures. Whether it’s Batman rapping or Joker declaring his true hatred for his long-time nemesis with pure sincerity, this movie finds a way to please and surprise in rapidly unexpected ways; and most of all, it never overstays its welcome. The animation is a technical marvel, the writing is clever, and overall, this is something truly special that die-hard fans will cherish for many years to come.
7. Batman Returns (1992)
Controversial at the time, but beloved by moviegoers, Tim Burton’s return to Gotham was everything that it needed to be, and so much more. Sinking his teeth into an even more Burtonesque take on the Batman universe this time around, the auteur visionary, having already proven himself with the first film, goes bigger, and certainly bolder, with this beautifully peculiar sequel. Though it is, unfortunately, the reason that led to his removal from the franchise, Burton’s confidence in shaping “Batman Returns” around his trademark style and unrestrained creativity is precisely what makes the movie so memorable. Through and through, the project radiates the director’s sense of gothic whimsy, from themes of societal rejection, all the way down to the melancholic Christmas setting.
Mixing in a fresh pair of villains into the mold for Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne to play off of, Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer chew the scenery at every chance, stealing scenes left and right. DeVito’s portrayal of the Penguin is pure nightmare fuel, with a disgustingly vile makeup design and an unhinged temper to boot. Pfeiffer is equally as captivating, and outright invincible in the role of Catwoman; delivering at once, a vulnerable side, and an unpredictable edge to the character. Everything audiences adore about the original is alive and intact here, just with a slightly more macabre shift in mood. Colorful performances and awe-inspiring visuals blend to create an absolute landmark of comic book cinema, and one of Burton’s finest.
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6. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
For decades, “Batman: The Animated Series” has been praised for its sophisticated approach to the lore of the Dark Knight, inside the framing of a kid-friendly cartoon show. So, it’s only fitting that its theatrical offshoot remains arguably the most mature take on the character to ever grace the screen. Tragic, honest, and above all else, astoundingly moving for an animated comic book movie, “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” offers a pensive study on the psychology of the Bat, often left glossed over by other portrayals. Upon striking up a promising new romance, Bruce Wayne is torn between two worlds, as an ominous murderer begins to strategically pick off members of Gotham’s criminal underbelly, one-by-one.
Delving deep into the many burdens of being a hero, the film is a seriously thought-provoking look into the demoralizing existence of Batman, and the heavy ramifications that come with donning the mantle. Unflinching in its depiction of the emotional toll Wayne carries with him day-to-day, the script stands out from the rest of the pack, of course, for its insightful characterization, but also for its compelling mystery plot. Expertly crafted to look and feel like a film noir, every scene holds onto a distinctly sinister atmosphere that boils down to an explosive ending. On top of it all, Kevin Conroy is giving some of his best work as the voice of the conflicted Caped Crusader, and the insertion of his eternal foil, in the form of Mark Hamill’s Joker, is just the devilish icing on the cake.
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5. Batman Begins (2005)
Christopher Nolan once famously stated that the character of Batman is one that thrives off of continuous reinterpretations. And, it’s difficult to dispute, considering one can only imagine where the franchise would be right now if it weren’t for the efforts of the gifted filmmaker. Rescuing the titular avenger from the fiery depths of neon-permeated hell, Nolan’s refined introduction to the esteemed Dark Knight trilogy is the grounded superhero origin story of which all others are to be compared. Rebooting the series from scratch and taking the character back to his roots with a more realistic telling than ever before, “Batman Begins” kicks off the saga with a bang. Christian Bale cements himself as an intriguing Bruce Wayne almost instantaneously, and aside from a few choppy action sequences, Christopher Nolan proves himself more than capable of helming a big-budget blockbuster for the first time in his career.
The story examines quintessential Batman themes like justice, identity, and most prominently, fear; but, while the beginning of the trilogy is clearly (understandably so) finding its footing early on, Nolan’s competent direction and stirring writing prevail throughout. In addition to a few fantastic side performances from the likes of Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine, the film also manages to produce two pitch-perfect antagonists, with the duo of Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul and Cillian Murphy’s turn as Scarecrow making for a more than formidable pairing. Truly only a taste of what was yet to come, but a brilliant movie in its own right, as well, this grand reintroduction still hasn’t aged a day.
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4. Batman (1989)
Groundbreaking for its time, and still an indelible piece of the genre to this day, Tim Burton’s “Batman” would set the bar high for what a comic book movie could accomplish, all the way back in 1989. Showing Hollywood that the character could be taken seriously on-screen, the film opened many doors for superhero fare in the industry and remains an everlasting imprint on the character’s legacy. Despite being only the second crack at a feature-length adaptation of the moonlighting vigilante, following 1966’s decidedly pulpy endeavor, the movie nails the feel of the comics, with a darker, more faithful translation from page to screen. So many of the Burtonesque aspects established by this ‘80s classic have become synonymous with the Batman mythos, from the German expressionist-inspired landscape to the unforgettable Danny Elfman theme music, used since across television, video games, and more.
Michael Keaton makes for an amusing, albeit, not overly layered, Bruce Wayne, and while the story is definitely light on plot, what it lacks in substantial narrative, it more than makes up for with the presence of Jack Nicholson’s Joker. Nicholson charismatically dominates the frame as the Clown Prince of Crime, exuding the maniac’s twisted panache, and playing flawlessly into the distorted environment Burton has constructed. Exuberant, spirited, and positively entrancing, Burton’s original stint into the vivid world of the lonesome crime-fighter continues to endure, as an integral component of the director’s filmography, as well as, in many ways, the archetypal Batman flick.
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3. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
It surely isn’t without its issues, but Christopher Nolan’s monumental send-off to the widely revered Dark Knight trilogy is, without question, the exhilarating conclusion that the series deserved. Picking up eight years after the previous film, this third and final installment finds Bruce Wayne, decrepit and in hiding, before being forced out of retirement by a brand new adversary – the ruthless mercenary known as Bane. Chronicling the aging hero’s initial resentment, turned zealous urgency towards saving his city from destruction one last time, “The Dark Knight Rises” presents a view of the Bat like never before, and Christian Bale simply revels in the material. Upping the ante and pitting Batman against his greatest challenge yet, the film raises the stakes significantly, due to the addition of Tom Hardy’s Bane.
The portrayal is nothing short of menacing. From the chilling voice to the imposing physicality, Hardy brings to the screen, truthfully for the first time in the trilogy, a foe that can match the brooding savior in both wit and combat; leaving behind an immortal antagonist in the process. Newcomers Anne Hathaway and Joseph Gordon-Levitt make for exciting expansions to the ensemble, while each and every member of the pre-established cast are giving some of their best work in their bittersweet finales. Powerful and touching storytelling, made all the richer by the immense gravity of Hans Zimmer’s score and the ambitious direction of Christopher Nolan, this electrifying farewell may have its problems, but as a whole, it’s plenty satisfying.
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2. The Batman (2022)
The wait is finally over and Matt Reeves has delivered on the unapologetically gritty Batman film that moviegoers have been craving for what feels like an eternity. Finding a young Bruce Wayne in just his second year of crime-fighting, “The Batman” leans full tilt into the first real noir detective story in the character’s filmography, and the result is staggeringly unique. Pushing its PG-13 rating to its limits in the best ways possible, the twisted tale is a look into Gotham’s corruption like never before. Paul Dano is frighteningly eerie in the role of the Riddler; relishing in insanity as he unravels a web of lies in an effort to unmask the truth of his decaying city.
Likewise, Zoë Kravitz and Jeffrey Wright breathe new life into their age-old characters, and a nearly unrecognizable Colin Farrell is having the time of his life as the Penguin. Shining brightest though, is actually Robert Pattinson, as the gloomiest, but arguably most effective, Batman to ever walk the cold and dreary streets of Gotham. Silencing naysayers everywhere with a nuanced portrayal with even more room to grow, Pattinson strikes an incredible balance of intimidation, sorrow, and abnormal awkwardness as the reclusive billionaire-turned-vigilante. An immaculate production design, stunning cinematography, and a mesmerizing score, with a little help from a certain Nirvana track, round off the film into the must-see event that it is. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of our number one spot, Reeves’ vision has definitely given DC fans plenty to look forward to.
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1. The Dark Knight (2008)
Try as they may, it seems unlikely that any comic book film will ever be able to surpass Christopher Nolan’s crowning achievement in the genre. With the perfect storm of the right elements coming together to create something timeless and impactful, “The Dark Knight” is a true modern masterpiece in every sense of the word. Rooting the picture as a crime-thriller as opposed to pure big-budget spectacle, Nolan’s iconic sequel separates itself from the rest of the typical superhero canon with a politically-charged tale of contrasting ideologies. Batman is met with a clashing of moralities, upon the arrival of the Joker (Heath Ledger), who wants nothing more than to watch the world burn.
Never has the dynamic between the two archenemies been expressed so clearly, cleverly, and compellingly on screen, and that, above all else, is what renders the film a classic. Ledger commands the screen as the grinning lunatic, earning himself a well-earned posthumous Oscar; haunting lines are dispensed at a rapid-fire rate, and each individual scene advances the plot seamlessly while never falling flat. At the movie’s center, however, is the simple proposal of order versus chaos, and in the end, isn’t that what these films really stand for? A brave individual’s sacrifice to find tranquility and justice amidst anarchy and madness. Though it has evidently been given many serious runs for its money, the definitive Batman film of our time will likely forever remain this 2008 sensation. And really, who’s complaining?