Batman’s lived so many lives. Whether it’s on page or onscreen, Bruce Wayne and his alter ego have occupied nearly every corner of the genre-sphere. From the garish comedy of Adam West’s kaleidoscopic crusader to the gravelly tones of Christian Bale’s dark knight, this is a franchise that’s proven its longevity and ability to evolve with the times.
Batman’s modern reinvention came courtesy of Tim Burton, who in 1989 set the caped crusader against the gothic architecture and ominous strains of his aesthetic. It was an inspired pairing and one that’s seen its fair share of ups and downs as more cooks piled into the kitchen. To celebrate Batman’s forthcoming spar with Superman, we’ve decided to rank the franchise’s live-action, theatrically released films (Mr. West notwithstanding), beginning with Burton’s reintroduction and ending with the conclusion of Nolan’s invigorated trilogy.
Don’t like our picks? Too bad. Writing this has left us COLD to your pleas of mercy.
Senior Staff Writer
07. Batman Forever (1995)
Yeah, Batman & Robin is soulless, but look at it this way: It also has Arnold and all those delicious puns. Batman & Robin has something to grasp onto, an absurdity and transparency that never once masks its disdain for the audience. As such, the film’s failure is met with a consistency that catapults it into the kind of bad movie that can be celebrated rather than reviled. The same cannot be said for Batman Forever.
Batman Forever is where those rubber nipples first surfaced, lest we forget, and it’s only Batman & Robin’s reputation that’s caused us to lump Clooney in with that film’s failure. Clooney is charisma made manifest, the ideal amalgamation of talent, looks, and likability. Val Kilmer, on the other hand? He’s a Lord Fauntleroy in stockbroker’s clothes, glassy-eyed and speaking as if he’s afraid his tongue will fall out at any moment. It literally pains him to talk. His face seems to mutate from human to mannequin during the course of a single conversation. Onscreen, he turns into the toys that this movie was made to sell.
In this respect, Kilmer occupies one side of a coin that, on its opposing side, holds Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey, whose respective turns as Two-Face and The Riddler are all prattles and shrieks, a maelstrom of punishing whimsy that spews nothing but cackles and catchphrases. Not that it matters, as half the film’s dialogue was written with the film’s myriad commercial endorsements in mind. “Can I persuade you to take a sandwich with you, sir?” Alfred asks as Batman climbs into the Batmobile. Batman’s reply? “I’ll get drive-thru.” I remember that commercial. It’s 30 seconds long and not 122 minutes, so it’s better than Batman Forever already.
I could go on: The story is nonsensical, the logic is cheesecloth, Two-Face and Riddler are a toxic pairing, Carrey is unhinged, and it’s booooooooooring.
It’s a wonder that Batman & Robin’s shittiness was a surprise to anyone, as it could never have existed without this film. Truthfully, Forever should instill sympathy for it. Sins of the father and all that. –Randall Colburn
06. Batman & Robin (1997)
The George Clooney Apology Tour for the horrendous franchise-killer Batman & Robin, whether born from valiant self-deprecation or weirdly persistent narcissism (No, Val Kilmer, I was the worst Batman ever!), continues to this day. In May 2015, Clooney went on The Graham Norton Show and apologized again for “destroying” Batman, as if the infamous nipple suit is so damned that Christian Bale did not actually rise from its ashes and that the far superior Dark Knight series was, in fact, a nipple suit-induced mirage.
Nay, what feels more like a fever dream is the garish and cartoonish act of sadism that Joel Schumacher (who also directed The Number 23, lest we forget) delivered onto Batman buffs like an overturned vat – the nipple suit being the rotten cherry that floated out with the rest of it. This consumerist batch of neon sludge is made only slightly redeemable by how outright awful it is; Alicia Silverstone’s catatonic line deliveries, the flashing of the “Bat-Credit Card,” and Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger, that ham) reciting interminable ice-related puns (“I’m afraid that my condition has left me cold to your pleas of mercy”; “The Iceman cometh!”; “What killed the dinosaurs? The Ice Age!”) are hilarious enough to make the experience worth it. This unmitigated disaster may have pounded the final nail into the coffin of 1990s Batman (RIP), but that it left us with a bunch of so-bad-it’s-good moments and set the bar spectacularly low for anyone to follow keeps it just a hair above the interminably dull Batman Forever — yet far below the just-okay The Dark Knight Rises — on the Batman film hierarchy. –Leah Pickett
05. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The Dark Knight Rises is fine. That’s all. It’s fine. And that’s a problem when you’re the last leg in a trilogy that also contains one of the best Batman movies (Batman Begins) and one of the best superhero movies of all time (The Dark Knight). There was really nowhere to go other than down, honestly, and while The Dark Knight Rises isn’t unwatchable, it’s also just not particularly remarkable.
It’s overlong at 165 minutes, for one, and far too devoted to its source material. While Bruce Wayne’s broken back and his recuperation is an integral and memorable sequence in Batman comic lore, here it feels rushed and serves as a dull distraction from the chaos unfolding in Gotham. Couple the leaps in logic necessary to fully buy into this sequence with the mind-scrambling cacophony of the film’s final act – not to mention the underwhelming epilogue – and you’re left with a film that bursts at the seams, then drips into a soggy puddle. It doesn’t help that the specter of Heath Ledger’s Joker hangs heavy over the entire movie. His story was far from over.
That’s not to say it’s a total wash. Anne Hathaway is a fetching Catwoman, and Tom Hardy more than redeems Bane for those who only knew him as the painted luchador from Batman & Robin. Hardy’s interpretation gives Bane a slick charisma, an eloquence that’s almost as disarming as his muscles. It’s a shame, then, that his larger-than-life character is dispatched in such a forgettable fashion.
And, honestly, “forgettable” is probably the best description for The Dark Knight Rises. But, hey, sometimes it’s better to be forgotten than to be remembered like the previous two entries on this list. –Randall Colburn
04. Batman (1989)
Here’s a hot take: Jack Nicholson is the weakest Joker in the adapted Batman universe – too smug, too self-aware, too suave. In short, too Nicholson. He by no means harms Tim Burton’s Batman, still possessing the sly charisma that’s made the actor famous and endlessly imitated, though never replicated. But he never achieves the manic glee of Mark Hamill, the anarchic pathos of Heath Ledger, or even the joyous cartoonery of Cesar Romero. Whenever I watch it, I can’t help but wonder what someone like Willem Dafoe would have done with the role. In 1989, he already had the face for it. Alright, you can throw your sharpened Batarangs at me now.
Nicholson aside, there’s still plenty to love in Batman. Michael Keaton (known more as a comedic actor at the time) knocks the title role out of the park by actually making Bruce Wayne complicated, and in a note taken from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Year One comics, Burton builds his Gotham with an architecture that’s eye-popping in its expressionistic contrast. Realistic urban grit – from dented garbage cans to bone-rattling public transit systems – clashes with an imposing futurism reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. This is a city where the heroes and villains are dwarfed by titan-sized granite statues, by a city so imposing it shrouds everything in darkness. A city to overshadow the ’60s camp of the Adam West series.
Despite the overall timeless nature of the film, some cheesy ’80s details do creep in, most notably in the hairstyles (perms!) and some of the music (Prince!). For proof, take a quick re-watch of the art gallery scene, where The Joker’s mayhem is stripped of its danger thanks to an incongruous recording of “Partyman.” Even Burton himself has expressed regret over being forced by Warner Bros. to include The Purple One’s singles. As far as 1980s pop songs go, they’re perfect, but alongside Danny Elfman‘s score – iconic in how well it captures the brooding nature of the movie’s hero – they’re woefully out of place. At the end of the day, though, there’s no denying the cultural importance of Batman. It was the first time the hero was depicted onscreen with an adult sensibility. It was the first time that The Dark Knight (emphasis on the “Dark”) felt like an apt description. –Dan Caffrey
03. Batman Returns (1992)
No one expected Tim Burton’s Christmastime-set sequel to Batman to be even better than Burton’s original mega-hit film; save for The Godfather: Part II, sequels rarely accomplish this. But Returns immediately ups the ante with the addition of two fan-favorite characters into the Batman film canon: the villainous Penguin, played by Danny DeVito in a scene-chewing frenzy that in Burton’s phantasmagoric world is tantamount to high art, and the duplicitous Catwoman/Selina Kyle, played by Michelle Pfeiffer in one of the juiciest roles and most memorable performances of her career. Pair this antagonist and pseudo-antagonist against our returning hero (Keaton) with improved special effects, makeup, costumes, and sound staging, and Returns is a dark and sumptuous splendor on the level of Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, with an ever-present dash of whimsical snowfall thrown in for good measure.
But the scene that still stands out for this critic nearly 24 years later is not the tree-lighting ceremony-turned-riot in downtown Gotham, nor the climax in The Penguin’s underground lair, nor Catwoman’s iconic first appearance in that skintight, stitched-up suit. It’s the scene of Selina and Bruce dancing together at the “Maxquerade Ball,” in which they discover the truth about each other’s secret identities. It’s masterfully directed, ornamented, and acted, with Pfeiffer and Keaton’s chemistry sizzling even as Pfeiffer is taking her character from coquettish to vulnerable to the hysterical brink of madness and back again. If only all the obligatory romances in comic book films could be this undeniable. –Leah Pickett
02. Batman Begins (2005)
Christopher Nolan’s decision to put a hyper-realistic spin on the Caped Crusader would prove to be both a blessing and a curse in his Batman trilogy. While it gave The Dark Knight a sharpened, frothing set of teeth, it also made the director flounder ever so slightly when forced to anchor the sequel with a villain that wasn’t The Joker.
But back in 2005, Nolan’s penchant for non-theatrical antagonists had yet to be seen in a Batman film. Even as some fans were disappointed by the absence of a colorful baddie, most of them eventually realized that each of the villains were there not for show, but for psychology. Cillian Murphy’s minimalist Scarecrow preys on the idea that Gotham is a city driven by fear, and elsewhere, more common criminals like Joe Chill (Richard Brake) and Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) are there to haunt Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, still figuring out the right blend of vulnerability and gruffness) with reminders of his parents’ deaths. Likewise, the elaborate depiction of Ra’s Al Ghul – a combination of martial arts smoke and mirrors, Ken Watanabe’s facade, and Liam Neeson’s behind-the-scenes mastermind – taunts Batman’s own fears while also helping him overcome them.
The concept of an aggressively serious superhero movie would go on to spawn many lesser films, including Nolan’s own The Dark Knight Rises. But with his first foray into the world of the Dark Knight, the filmmaker wasn’t being dark just for darkness’ sake; he was doing it to explore the twisted psyche of his hero, and – most interesting of all – show how Bruce Wayne’s extremist mentality would influence the more unsavory characters of Gotham City. Without Batman, there would be no Joker. And without Batman Begins, there would be no Dark Knight. –Dan Caffrey
01. The Dark Knight (2008)
In July 2008, several CoS staffers and I were at the second day of the Pitchfork Music Festival, having just seen The Dark Knight the night before. As Vampire Weekend played a set that was perfect in its musical precision (they had just released their debut that January), we debated leaving and coming back later, not because we didn’t want to see Vampire Weekend, but because we wanted to see the latest Batman film for a second time. We seriously discussed this for the better part of an hour before deciding that we had paid good money for our passes and would hate to miss the rest of the bands that day. But even then, even as we were enjoying evening sets from Dizzee Rascal, Caribou, and Titus Andronicus, we couldn’t stop thinking about The Dark Knight.
But why? We could easily catch it again on Monday or even Sunday morning if we wanted to. Why, at a festival with some of our favorite musicians, were we so preoccupied with a comic-book movie that we could see as many times as we wanted? It’s simple. The Dark Knight is that rare superhero film – perhaps the only superhero film – that truly gets under your skin. We could talk about all the reasons why: about Bruce Wayne’s horror at the freakshow of villains his Batman identity has birthed; about Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) heartbreaking loss of faith in the justice system he once so elegantly championed; about the empathy of Gary Oldman’s weathered, everyman approach to Commissioner Gordon; about a city where, as Christopher Nolan has stated, things have to get a hell of a lot worse before they get any better. But who am I kidding? While all of those things play a huge part in making The Dark Knight one of the best films of the 2000s (and the best film of 2008), the movie would be nothing without its indispensable ace in the hole.
Of course, I’m talking about Heath Ledger.
As The Joker, he embodies all of the traits we’ve come to recognize in the arch-villain’s many iterations: the perverted joy, the predatory danger, the sick sense of magnetism. And indeed, those darker characteristics always get brought up when discussing Ledger’s game-changing final performance. It’s clear that he flew too close to the sun when immersing himself in the role, evidenced not just by his impassioned yet subversive approach to the dialogue (this is a comedian who knows his jokes are bad), but his appearance and physicality – his hair a toxic yellow-green, his greasepaint so thick and dry that you can see it crust on the edges of his cheek scars, his neck arched back and his eyes glazed over as he hangs off the side of a police car, resembling a dog that’s getting a little too much joy from sticking his head out the car window.
But what gets brought up far less when looking back on the film is how goddamn likable The Joker is. I don’t mean likable in the sense that you want to hang out with him. Actually, fuck that. That’s exactly what I mean. Only by the end of the film, when his theories of freedom, unpredictability, and anarchy are disproven by the passengers on the prison ferry, do we see him as a true maniac who shouldn’t be bothered with. Until then though, you might find yourself nodding in agreement with the Clown Prince of Crime. Is what he’s saying moral? Is it kind? Is it a sensible way to run the world? Absolutely not. But is it valid as an alternative viewpoint? Ledger would have you think so. He believes it as an actor, and with such an in-depth, scarily convincing performance, you believe it as an audience member. –Dan Caffrey