When it comes to the world of Batman, there are a nearly incomprehensible amount of stories for fans to enjoy. While most of these exist throughout many comic books or graphic novels, that doesn’t mean that the only place to quench your thirst for the bat is at your local comic book store. In fact, there are plenty of great visual representations of Batman that have been introduced throughout the years. Whether it be television, animated films, live-action feature films or even video games, there’s tons to enjoy if you’re a Batman fan who doesn’t have the time or inclination to read the comics.
In order to make it easy for the casual fan, we’ve decided to rank the 10 best Batman stories from beyond the world of comics. Some (or most) of these do take a lot of elements directly from the comic book source material — in fact, many do so directly — but they are entirely enjoyable on their own in a separate medium without any prior knowledge. Heck, they might even get you started on your way to becoming a Batman expert! Without further ado, let’s begin.
10. Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013)
To start this list off, we’re recommending a movie that isn’t entirely a “Batman” story in the way most fans think, but certainly is one of the most heartfelt and touching stories to ever feature the caped crusader. In the film (an adaptation of the “Flashpoint” comic event), The Flash goes back in time to save his mother from being killed, and inadvertently messes up the timeline pretty badly. In and of itself, it’s a great adaptation of a popular comic book event, but specifically for our purposes here, “Flashpoint Paradox” makes the list due to the appearance of Batman.
In the film’s timeline, the Batman we know and love is no more. Instead of Bruce Wayne under the cowl, it’s his father, Thomas Wayne. Due to Barry changing the future, it’s Bruce that dies, causing Thomas to don the cowl out of grief. In what may be one of the better twists in any Batman story, we find out that Thomas’ wife, Martha Wayne, loses herself to grief so much that she howls with insane laughter; a nod to the comic book, wherein she becomes this Batman’s greatest, and most tragic, foe. That is just one element of what makes this such a great Batman story. It’s also an incredible reminder of what the unique effects of losing a child could do to a parent. Meanwhile, the film’s ending, which puts Flash as a very special messenger to (and indeed from) Batman, is an equally emotional moment for parents and children both.
9. Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009)
Prior to this entry, Batman may not have been the first person you thought of when it comes to great video game characters. However, not only did “Arkham Asylum” usher in a new age for comic book video games, it also brought us some of the best Batman storytelling outside of the comic books. Brought about by the success of Christopher Nolan’s films, “Arkham Asylum” was written by comic book veteran and “Batman: The Animated Series” producer Paul Dini and featured The Joker trying to take over the titular madhouse to trap Batman inside alongside all of its prisoners.
When the game was first announced, few knew what to expect. What gamers got was a title that featured some incredible stealth gameplay, gave fans truly memorable moments between Batman and some of his greatest enemies, and featured outstanding voice work from some fan favorite Batman actors, including greats like Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill. If you want to talk about some of the most accurate representations of the Batman comics to ever be portrayed in other media, look no further than this series. Plus, you get to do all of the punching.
8. Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000)
If you don’t know about this film, there are actually two versions: one rated, the other unrated. For the sake of this list, we’re going to be talking about the unrated version (although both are still great). “Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker” is inspired by the animated series “Batman Beyond,” in which we see Bruce Wayne retiring from the role of the Bat, and a 17 year old Terry McGinnis taking up the mantle. In “Return of the Joker,” we find out that the Joker has suddenly resurfaced after being gone for nearly 40 years. What follows is by far one of the most emotional stories ever told by DC, especially where Batman is concerned. Not only is it a wonderfully-told tale, it also does an extremely good job of portraying the struggle that the Bat-Family and the Joker seem to be locked in for eternity.
As the film unravels and we slowly learn how and why the Joker has returned (we won’t spoil it for you), the film’s tone shifts from a typical Batman movie to a something akin to a horror film. Plus, thanks to its connection to “Batman: The Animated Series,” we get some of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill’s greatest voiceover work, which is always a treat.
7. Batman: The Animated Series – “Mad Love” (1999)
While the entries in this list so far have featured Batman (or a variation thereof), this one deviates just a bit, simply because its focus isn’t Batman. Still, it’s from the wildly popular “Batman: The Animated Series” and is quite simply a great story within the Dark Knight’s universe. In what may be the biggest contribution that the animated series made to the Batman lore, “Mad Love” marks the introduction of one of today’s most popular characters: Harley Quinn. In this episode, which was adapted from the 1994 issue of “The Batman Adventures” that has become the de facto origin story of Quinn, fans witnessed just how the Joker and his infamous girlfriend came to meet. Many of you know the story, no doubt, but essentially, Harley (then known as Dr. Harleen Quinzel) became infatuated with the Joker during his stay in Arkham Asylum, until she eventually broke him out and joined him in his life of crime.
What makes this one of the better Batman stories ever told is just how seriously twisted the relationship between Harley and the Joker is. Instead of the typical sitcom-esque banter between the two, we’re shown just how abusive and manipulative their dynamic really is. On a show that was geared toward kids, it’s shockingly dark, and something all Batman fans should get around to watching.
6. Batman: The Animated Series – “Heart of Ice” (1992)
“Batman: The Animated Series” had a knack for taking seemingly unknown villains and making them shine in a short amount of time. Where “Mad Love” exposed the dark story of the Joker and his relationship with Harley, “Heart of Ice” shifts gears, and manages to humanize one of Batman’s most notorious villains. In what might be one of the most tragic origin stories for a villain ever told, we are given the backstory of Dr. Victor Fries, who would soon find fame (infamy, really), as the nefarious Mr. Freeze. Without going into too much detail here, Freeze’s story is one of great tragedy and staggering heartbreak, expressed here in animated form with surprisingly haunting resonance.
Like many of his foes, Mr. Freeze is victim of his own misfortune, and the animated series does an incredible job of painting the character in just the right light, so that fans may be able to sympathize with him, while at the same time still see him as a very real and dangerous antagonist to Batman. In general, this is something that the animated series excelled at, and while there are almost countless great episodes, this one is a true standout.
5. The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012)
Prior to these three films, it seemed as if the only places that took Batman’s story and the content within seriously were cartoon-based, barring Tim Burton’s “Batman” and “Batman Returns,” the greatness of which have already been discussed to death. However, when Christopher Nolan (not yet the renowned director he would become) got hold of Batman, fans were finally given a series of feature films that they could get behind. Instead of the light-hearted, neon painted worlds of the Batman movies directly preceding them, Nolan delivered a more gritty, grounded Batman story, and did so without compromising much of what makes the character who he is. “Batman Begins” introduced us to Christian Bale’s take on the caped crusader, while also giving us a great origin story.
It wasn’t until the sequel, however, that we get one of the greatest Batman stories of all-time. Not only did “The Dark Knight” raise the bar for all super hero movies, it also gave us a new take on what superhero movies could be in the modern age. More of a crime thriller than a superhero flick, the film delivers what is arguably the best Batman movie ever made to date, and also introduces the late Heath Ledger’s iconic take on the Joker. If it wasn’t for “The Dark Knight Rises,” which paled as a Batman story by comparison, the trilogy’s entry on this list might be higher. Regardless, Christopher Nolan clearly knew what Batman was about, and gave us three of the best Batman stories ever told outside of the comics.
4. The Dark Knight Returns, Parts 1 & 2 (2012, 2013)
In what might be the most aggressive Batman story on this list, “The Dark Knight Returns” is a two-part animated comic book adaptation that instantly takes the title as “darkest Batman movie ever.” In the first part of the films, fans meet a much older Bruce Wayne; one who comes out of retirement in order to deal with a new threat to Gotham’s peace. What follows is a gory, faithful take on Frank Miller’s classic 1986 graphic novel, which sees Bruce not only contending with his age and injuries, but also trying to instill the same fear in criminals he once did. The story in the comics is regarded as reinventing the Batman character into the grizzled and grim one he exists as today; a closer characterization to his roots than the colorful version made popular with Adam West’s portrayal in 1966.
What really makes “The Dark Knight Returns” shine as a Batman story and film is its second act. Not only does the audience watch Bruce come to terms with what could be his final days wearing the cowl, we are also given the fight between Superman and Batman that fans have clamored for since the two were first created and thrust into the same universe. Simply viewing the movies as an adaptation shows how a comic book can (and should) be faithfully translated into film. This may well be the best example of that process, and remains an absolute must for anyone who wants to see one of Batman’s most enduring and important stories come alive.
3. Batman: Year One (2011)
Interestingly enough, as we reach the top three, we end up back at the beginning. “Batman: Year One,” as the name suggests, tells the story of Bruce Wayne in his first year fighting crime as the Batman. Another extremely faithful adaptation of a Frank Miller classic, “Year One” shows us a side of Bruce we’d never seen before outside of comics. Having become so accustomed to the highly meticulous and ever-present vigilante, it was an interesting tale indeed to see his first unsure steps into what would become a storied life as the world’s greatest crimefighter.
What was equally great about “Year One,” along with Bruce learning the ropes of what it takes to be a hero, was also the rise of his valued partner in crime(fighting): Commissioner Jim Gordon. In a nice parallel, we see that while Batman has his own trials and tribulations to go through, so too does Gordon. As a detective rising through the ranks of Gotham PD, Gordon’s story is one that fans won’t regret getting to see. Oh, and did we mention that Bryan Cranston voices him in the adaptation? This film is a dream come true for any fan of the Batman mythos, and definitely one of the best Batman movies ever made, animated or otherwise.
2. Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
It may not seem like it, but something all of the entries on this list have in common is letting the audience see key characters in a different light. “Batman: Under the Red Hood” is no different. In this story about Batman having to face an unknown foe in the Red Hood, showcasing a more vulnerable Batman then we normally see. Not only do we get answers to questions fans have been asking for ages (specifically, why Batman won’t kill the Joker), but we get to watch as he’s forced into confronting some of his greatest mistakes while wearing the cowl.
Bruce Greenwood and Jensen Ackles turn in some great performances, and John DiMaggio (of “Futurama” and “Adventure Time” fame) manages to turn in a completely unique and still very well done portrayal of the Joker. When it comes down to it, “Under the Red Hood” is simply one of the best non-comic Batman stories ever released. A combination of everything that makes for a good Batman story, it shines a new light on the Dark Knight, while also doing a great job of making us feel the anger and grief associated with his job.
1. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
It was a close call between “Under the Red Hood” and “Mask of the Phantasm,” but when all is said and done, the latter is without a doubt the greatest animated Batman film, and may be his greatest, period. Taken directly out of “Batman: The Animated Series,” the film retains the style and soul of what made the TV show so successful. Instead of focusing too much on action, however, Paul Dini (writer) and Bruce Timm (co-director) stay true to the animated series and focus mostly on storytelling. In the film, Batman must track down a villain who dresses much like him in order to clear his own name, while also managing a relationship with an old flame. As if that wasn’t enough, the Joker manages to find a way to entangle himself within the epic (because, of course he does) to give this film all it needs to please fans.
DC chose to release the film in theaters on short notice, which led to it being a failure at the box office. Despite that, it has received universal praise from fans and has developed a cult following. Featuring what many consider to be the true voices of Batman and the Joker, as well as keeping up the “neo noir” style of the animated series, “Mask of the Phantasm” cements itself as the greatest non-comic story ever told. Do yourself a favor and watch this one ASAP.
What are your favorite Batman stories to appear outside of the comics? Let us know in the comments!
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