Nine films. Six Dark Knights. Four Jokers. Four Alfreds. Three Catwomen. Two Robins (or is it three, Joseph Gordon-Levitt?). We could keep counting, but no matter what, it all adds up to 50 years of Batman action on the big screen. Following the release of two 15-chapter serials (1943’s “Batman” and 1949’s “Batman and Robin”), the Caped Crusader made the transition to full-length feature film events beginning with 1966’s TV series spin-off, “Batman.”
From Adam West to Christian Bale, there isn’t a threat Bruce Wayne has faced where audiences didn’t follow. “Batman v Superman’s” Ben Affleck is just the latest actor to don the cowl, in a film that — finally! — pits Batman against the Man of Steel for 12 generous rounds (and 153 minutes) of brawling. In honor of “BvS” swinging into theaters after two and a half years of anticipation, we’ve ranked every one of Batman’s theatrical releases from worst to best.
9. “Batman & Robin” (1997)
This isn’t the worst movie ever made — but it’s definitely its cousin. With more neon and bad one-liners than its predecessor “Batman Forever,” George Clooney’s first (and only) Batman film gives him absolutely nothing interesting to do — other than look stiff as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s jacked Mr. Freeze chews scenery. How one normal-sized movie can fit in so many bad ideas — not to mention characters — still makes us cringe almost 20 years after its release. We’d rather come down with MacGregor’s Syndrome than watch this again.
8. “Batman Forever” (1995)
Director Joel Schumacher’s first Batman movie was intended to be an “antidote” to the dark and darker Tim Burton films, but instead it infected the series with a serious case of “too muchness” — one that Warner Bros. wouldn’t cure until Christopher Nolan took over a decade later. We loved this all-over-the-place blockbuster as a kid — Bat Nipples, McDonald’s “Gotham Glasswear” mugs and all. Then, we instantly hated our teenage selves for it — but not as much as we hate the central conceit of the script, which would have you believe that a man who witnessed the murder of his parents would ever need a reminder as to why he dresses up as a vengeance-seeking bat.
7. “Batman: The Movie” (1966)
1966’s “Batman: The Movie” kicked off the Caped Crusader’s Hollywood career (not counting the WWII-era movie serials). Yes, it is very campy, but Adam West’s take on Batman is endlessly charming as a result. Plus, the film features four A-List villains (Lee Meriwether’s Catwoman, Cesar Romero’s Joker, Burgess Meredith’s Penguin and Frank Gorshin’s Riddler) and somehow avoids feeling “Batman & Robin”-levels of overstuffed. And who doesn’t love the fact that Batman takes out a rubber shark by spraying its teeth-filled face with a can of Shark Repellent?
6. “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)
If you like your Batman arcs to go from retired to really retired, then this disappointing entry in Nolan’s Bat-franchise is for you. Bane’s voice is the least of the film’s problems, as “TDKR” spends too much time exposition-ing about the Clean Slate MacGuffin and paying off certain characterizations that the previous films didn’t really set up — but “Rises” operates as if they did. While Bale gives arguably his most entertaining (Batman cracks jokes!) performance as the Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s grasp can’t match his reach in this overstuffed and undercooked threequel.
5. “Batman” (1989)
“Love that Joker!” The Batman franchise was still trying to establish itself outside of the shadow of the campy 1960’s TV series when director Tim Burton re-branded the hero with his unique (read: dark, off-kilter) vision. Casting Batman with a comedic actor like Michael Keaton turned heads back then, but an entire generation of Bat-fans now can’t imagine anyone else in the role. Sure, the Prince soundtrack might not hold up, but the gritty tone and lead performances — especially Jack Nicholson’s cackling and snarling Joker — do.
4. “Batman Returns” (1992)
Tim Burton’s follow-up to his 1989’s box office smash has a number of highlights, including Michelle Pfeiffer’s scary-good Catwoman and any time Christopher Walken’s Max Shrek says anything — especially about his son, Chip. “Batman Returns” was one of the most anticipated sequels ever upon its initial release and while it was a hit, it was not as big of one with audiences as the first film. You could blame that on the film’s black-on-black comedic tone and the fact that Danny DeVito’s unsettling Penguin drives the plot more than Batman ever does. As a result, Bruce Wayne is reduced to guest star status in his own movie and fans get an uneven — but never uninteresting — sequel.
3. “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” (1993)
For some, this is the best Batman movie ever. Released in theaters on Christmas Day in 1993, this animated film (based on the hit animated series) gives Bruce Wayne one of the most layered and tragic stories he’s ever had. Facing a new foe (the Phantasm) with ties to an old one (the Joker), Batman struggles to save Gotham from a pending terrible future while battling the demons of his past — and the pain of a lost love. If only more animated entries in the Batman canon could be as nuanced. If you haven’t seen this film, fix that.
2. “Batman Begins” (2005)
For the first time in his big screen career, the Dark Knight was actually scary on screen. Bale’s Batman was a legitimately menacing presence, thanks to Christopher Nolan’s grounded take on Gotham’s hero. By exploring the character’s “Year One” days, “Batman Begins” is equal parts engaging origin story and epic summer blockbuster. Seriously — the scope of this film was, at that point, the biggest ever afforded the Dark Knight. That is, until a guy in makeup with pockets full of knives and lint came shambling along…
1. “The Dark Knight” (2008)
The best, most ambitious Bat movie in Nolan’s trilogy, “The Dark Knight” isn’t just a great comic book movie, it’s a great film. This urban crime thriller has as much in common with “Heat” as does its preceding Batman films. This time around, the battle between Batman and Joker is actually a battle for Gotham’s soul. And even if Jared Leto’s take on Joker in “Suicide Squad” is good, there is no way it will ever be as great as the performance given by the late Heath Ledger in this film. It’s an Oscar-winning performance worth marveling at every time you rewatch this seminal film.
Let us know where you rank the Batman movies in the comments!