Eighty years ago this month a modern fairy tale was born when Detective Comics #27 hit newsstands. Four years later, Batman swung from the comics to the big screen in a 15-part Batman serial, and he was back with his ward four years later in a Batman and Robin serial. I’m not including those two serials in these rankings because they’re more akin to a TV series. And I’m talking movies.
And that means — BANG! — this list starts — POW! — with 1966’s Batman and runs through the next 51 years, all the way up to 2017’s The LEGO Batman Movie. I’m also not counting the original The LEGO Movie or Justice League because they’re not really Batman movies. And I’m only counting animated movies that got a proper theatrical release, so Batman: Gotham by Gaslight doesn’t get to make a case for being in the top five, while Batman: The Killing Joke (which only had a one-day theatrical release) avoids being appropriately besmirched.
Caveats, caveats, so many caveats. Anyway, from worst to first, here we go…
11. Batman & Robin (1997).
Batman: [talking about Robin] “This is why Superman works alone.”
Batman: [talking about Poison Ivy] Great stems though.
Robin: Buds, too.
The defense rests.
10. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).
Martha. Fucking Martha.
9. Batman Forever (1995).
Bat. Suit. Nipples.
8. Batman (1966).
Batman wasn’t always the grimDark Knight we mostly think of today. For a good part of the Silver Age (’50s-’60s) the Batman of comics was much lighter and fucking weird (one hyphenated word: Bat-Mite). This is the version of Batman that jumped onto TV in early 1966 and then onto the big screen a few months later. Adam West’s Batman may be campy and silly, but it’s a fun version of the disinfected and sanitized version of Batman that my father read in the comics when he was a kid. (And, for 30+ years, would reign as the only possible holder to the title.)
7. The Dark Knight Rises (2012).
It’s not exactly that the conclusion to Chris Nolan’s Batman trilogy is bad. It’s just that the bar had been set really high for what turned out to be a mess. A muffled mess. A muffled Tom Hardy voice mess. …Seriously, I don’t know much about how to make a successful movie. But I do know this - if you have Tom Hardy in your movie, do. not. muffle his voice.
There’s a thread running through this movie that is a really interesting question: what is Bruce Wayne without Batman? I wish the film had pulled this thread and given us a smaller movie focused on Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman and Bruce’s recovery and redemption. That could’ve been lovely. Instead, with Bane we got a villain with motivations largely rehashed from Batman Begins and a movie that just generally throws too much against the wall for any of it to quite stick.
But it did give us Banecat:
6. Batman (1989).
In 1986, Batman started to see a real resurgence with Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns.” That trend continued with Miller’s subsequent retelling of Batman’s origin in “Batman: Year One” in 1988. And then one year later, Tim Burton took that gritty Batman, and injected the goofy weirdness of Batman ‘66 into its veins. The result is a movie that could have only been made by Tim Burton in the waning years of the 1980s. I mean, the Joker and Prince:
A lot of people enjoy slagging on Jack Nicholson’s Joker because it’s so campy and goofy and, well, Jack. But this is an easy example of how Burton took the campiness of the Silver Age and added a little grit to it. This Joker is ridiculous, but he’s also dangerous. He’s fundamentally a criminal and thug; he just happens to also be utterly insane, which serves as a nice balance to the self-seriousness of Keaton’s Batman, which has no Silver Age to be found.
It doesn’t all work and, thus, this Batman isn’t a perfect movie. If so inclined, I could nit-pick it to death. But I’m not so inclined, because the movie still holds up as a relatively fun ride. This film is also an important one to the cultural relevancy of Batman himself - it’s really responsible for shooting the character into the mainstream so strongly and indelibly that he’s since never left - as well as to comic movies in general, acting as the spiritual godfather (with Superman II the spiritual godmother) to the modern superhero movie.
Also, Danny Elfman’s theme remains the Batman theme.
5. Batman Begins (2005).
When Christopher Nolan decided to bring Batman out of an 8-year cinematic hibernation, he decided to eschew the increasing preposterousness of the earlier Batman movies for a more grounded-in-the-real-word take on the dark knight. While we’ve seen in unrelenting number of superhero origin stories in the years since, Nolan’s take was fresh at the time, giving us a Bruce Wayne who’s ready to become Batman and just doesn’t know it yet, steeped in years of anger and guilt. The guilt, in particular, is a nice touch, as Nolan smartly avoids the Burton nonsense of tying the Joker or another villain to the Waynes’ murder, and instead makes it somewhat Bruce’s fault that his folks leave the show early (due to his batcave nightmare).
Before rewatching these movies to make this list, I thought I’d rank Burton’s first film higher because, in my mind, Keaton was the better Bruce Wayne. But in rewatching, I realized it’s just that Keaton is my Bruce Wayne, but Nolan and Bale’s Wayne comes off much truer to what feels like the right version of Wayne, genuinely capturing the notion that Bruce Wayne is Batman’s mask, rather than the other way around. While Nolan went a little off-kilter by the end of his trilogy, with Batman Begins, he shows that he truly gets who Batman is (something he’d continue to explore, of course, in The Dark Knight, which we’re working our way up to).
4. The LEGO Batman Movie (2017).
The LEGO Batman Movie is a hilarious takedown of many of the tropes that are central to Batman. But in tearing these down with a caustically-voiced egoist who truly believes he alone can save everything, the movie actually provides a poignant analysis of the caped crusader. Because it’s a LEGO movie, the central theme of the film winds up being how Batman isn’t his best when he’s alone. He needs Robin and Barbara Gordon; he even needs the Joker. As a result, this film touches on a sweeter side of the Batman mythos, but one that’s just as important to him.
3. Batman Returns (1992).
Say what you will about Zack Snyder’s take on Batman, the one thing he got right was that it wasn’t necessary to dig into Batman’s origin story again. There’s a reason Nolan and Burton’s first movies rank below their sequels - we all know the story. With his sequel, Tim Burton was able to go fully, unapologetically Burton. Christopher Walken is Christopher Walken. Danny DeVito is a perfectly curmudgeonly Penguin. And Michelle Pfeiffer leans into her preposterous Catwoman with sheer insanity.
Batman Returns is simply a mad delight.
2. The Dark Knight (2008).
Sure, The Dark Knight is a bit too long and a bit overstuffed. It’s also the closest we’ve gotten to the purest version of Batman on the big screen, a hero who’s a detective first, a dark knight who believes in the good of people. And the film uses one of the greatest villains put to comic page to be the other side of Harvey Dent’s coin to Batman.
Heath Ledger’s Joker takes the darkest edges of the character and drowns in them. This Joker is a fundamental force, the living embodiment of anarchy. The Joker’s existence and resulting mayhem cause Bruce Wayne to fall down a rabbit hole, and The Dark Knight winds up showing us what Batman is by showing us what the Joker is. As a result, this more than any other Batman film explores just how close to being absolutely insane Wayne himself is, but how on that edge of insanity walks the hero we need and, if we’re lucky, the hero we deserve.
1. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993).
I should have said that The Dark Knight is almost the closest we’ve gotten to the purest version of Batman. Because the best version of Batman ever put to screen big or small was in Batman: The Animated Series and this movie spin-off is perfection. That’s all I can say. This is Batman.
Header Image Source: Warner Brothers