With news of Ben Affleck officially directing a solo Batman film in the near future, what better time to look back at the history of the Caped Crusader on film? There have been plenty of Batman movies that have seen a wide release in one format or another, but only a handful have made it to theaters, so for our purposes here we’re only going to be looking at those Bat-films that saw a theatrical release. Here’s our list of the entire theatrical Batman catalog, ranked from worst to best:
9) Batman & Robin (1997)
There’s a reason why this movie constantly makes it onto the list of the worst superhero movies of all time (or worst movies of all time in general). It’s an atrocity to behold, but all of the angry hyperbole aside that Joel Schumacher’s second entry in the feature franchise has garnered over the past eighteen years, Batman & Robin is a shockingly incompetent film that fails to entertain or become anything other than an advertisement for tie-in movie merchandising. There’s nothing wrong with mindless fun, but this film is practically braindead. The orgy of neon vomit protruding from the screen would be fascinating if it didn’t also look so damn cheap. Clooney is fine in the Bruce Wayne role, but he and the rest of the cast are burdened with awful writing and lackluster direction.
8) Batman Forever (1995)
Not quite the disaster that is its successor, Joel Schumacher’s Batman debut is still a blight on the superhero landscape. Batman Forever’s best defense is Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey high on what I assume is illegal substances throughout the entire runtime of this movie. There’s nothing overly offensive here apart from a severely underutilized Nicole Kidman, which probably drops this movie an extra hundred points instead of just fifty, and with a confident swagger and likability in front and behind the mask, Val Kilmer was surprisingly the best live action Bruce Wayne for a decade.
7) Batman: The Movie (1966)
The Adam West and Burt Ward starring Batman: The Movie is a harmless iteration of the Batman mythos and a solid good time. Without this version of the World’s Greatest Detective, there’s a good chance these characters wouldn’t have the same A-grade appeal that they currently enjoy at the cinema. A commitment to hokeyness and primary colors, the feature length adaptation of the popular TV serial is fun that the whole family to enjoy.
6) Batman Returns (1992)
Tim Burton’s second attempt to make a good Batman film still doesn’t reach the mark of pure adaptation. Nonetheless, it’s a pretty good movie in its own right. The Penguin turned into a tragic Burton-monster is about as heavy a staple that the director could possible leave for the feature franchise to remember him by. Michelle Pheifer as Catwoman is bizarre and beyond cartoon-y, but that’s where the fun comes in. Not quite the home run as some of the other attempts at the character, but Batman Returns is still a good movie featuring an interesting gothic design.
5) Batman (1989)
The best Batman movie for years only won half the battle, as it’s a good movie with no interest in appealing to the fans of the source material. Adapting the character to Tim Burton’s twisted vision of the superhero story, Batman possesses a gothic majesty, with an entertaining clown prince of crime in Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of The Joker. The finale falls a little short, but the imagery and production value alone make it a worthwhile entry.
4) The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The weak link of Nolan’s trilogy still contains some highlights for the entire superhero sub-genre. Less of a straightforward comic book cape and more of an operatic clash of heroes and villains, The Dark Knight Rises depicts the entire city of Gotham partaking in a physical brawl to rival Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Bane and his voice are among the greatest contributions that this installment has to offer to the cinematic landscape, both in terms of the Batman character and beyond. An unrelenting force of evil and prodigal son to Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul, Tom Hardy delivers one of the greatest movie villain performances of all time. While the film is not as structurally tidy as the previous entries, the third of Nolan’s Bat-films is far ahead of most of the other live-action features of the Batman pack.
3) Batman Begins (2005)
The best live-action Batman-centric movie also gave Christian Bale the chance to break into more mainstream roles. Nearly flawless in adapting the aspects of the comic to film, Batman Begins is also one of the only features in the franchise to actually be about something more than stopping a villain. It gives the audience an insight into the life of Bruce Wayne, the relationship with his parents, and convinces us why a man would put on a suit and go around fighting crime in Gotham.
2) Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Remember how good Batman: The Animated Series was? If so, then you’ll be happy to hear that Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is nothing less than a giant feature-length episode of the series, showcasing the very best that the show ever had to offer. The animation flows with a noir undertone bubbling beneath the surface, as Bruce rekindles an old flame and Batman comes to philosophical blows with a new vigilante in town. The story isn’t groundbreaking in its conception, but the execution is where it continues to wow audiences everywhere, as what is a seemingly simple Batman tale bows into a full blown tragedy.
1) The Dark Knight (2008)
A crime epic masquerading as a superhero film, The Dark Knight is one of the only movies to warrant Best Picture discussion. Heath Ledger’s The Joker is the best modern movie villain (period), a being of pure evil seeming to arise only to test the people of Gotham and push the Batman to his limits. Inspired heavily by Michael Mann’s Heat, the opening of the film erupts with precise action-movie directing, and a twist opening to tell the audience that they’re in for the ride of their lives. We’ll likely never see another Batman movie as good as this again, but we can hope.