So I recently completed watching every Batman movie. Considering that Batman has been my favorite superhero since I was kid, it’s surprising how long it took me. Batman movies range from utterly breathtaking to downright silly. I thought I would offer my humblest opinion about the respective strengths and weaknesses of each film, ranking them from least to greatest.
For our purposes, “least/worst” means least likely for me to watch again and “greatest/best” means mostly likely to be watched again sometime soon. Also, I’m not including the animated films since it’s been so long since I’ve seen them nor the Adam West 60’s film since I haven’t seen it.
Some of these films are getting pretty old, but if the story is solid they should hold up, right? Admittedly I am very biased against older films having grown up with fast-paced action of the 90’s. However I recently watched all the Indiana Jones movies for the first time and old age hasn’t slowed them down a bit. Not all stories survive the test of a time but in examining Batman we can hopefully see what elements work and what don’t.
I know there’s already 800 lists out there that do the exact same thing but hopefully I can make it worth your while. Here goes nothing. From least to greatest:
This was by far the most difficult movie for me to sit through. Labeling it as just another Batman movie is a little unfair considering that Tim Burton’s dark and brooding caped crusader was a necessary evolutionary step for changing people’s opinion of Batman away from the campy Adam West incarnation toward the sometimes campy but always intensely dark hero we know and love today.
Frankly, this first Batman movie is boring. It was huge hit during its time but it’s not at all what you would expect from a Batman film today. It has some major issues.
Major Issue #1: Where is Batman for half the movie???
Instead of Batman we get a lot of time with Jack Napier aka the Joker, a crime boss dude, some vaguely important officials, and two investigative reporters. It takes too long for the hero to actually show up and do stuff.
Imagine a movie called Man of Steel where Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman didn’t show up an hour through the movie. That’s Burton’s Batman for you.
Major Issue #2: Who is the main character???
I can’t tell if it’s the Joker or Bruce Wayne or Vicki Vale. They each seem to have important goals but no one seems to be in charge of the story’s direction. We just sort of mosey around setting up an actual story which will take place sometime in the future. Since we’ve decided to skip over Batman’s origin story and jump right into things, I would think the good stuff should be going down by now!
Major Issue #3: What’s wrong with Batman????
Okay I lied a little bit. Batman does show up toward the beginning of the movie. But it’s definitely not the Batman I’ve known and loved since I was a wee boy listening to Alfred read me bedtime stories.
He first shows up in a chemical plant that has just been broken into by Jack Napier. Batman breaks through the ceiling and shimmies on down with his cape-wings outstretched. And then he stands there, cape-wings outstretched. He is posing. Doing nothing. For what seems like forever.
Wow, this Batman sure likes to take his time.
Before this scene we are introduced to Bruce Wayne at a party. Michael Keaton’s Bruce is socially awkward and basically a creeper. Maybe it’s the script, but Bruce just likes to stand there. Waiting. For something to happen. Maybe.
Why is he not playing the dashing playboy? Why is he not chatting up the guests in his own house? Why is so weird in his flirtations? Yikes.
A huge plus about Burton’s first Batman outing is his solid depiction of Gotham, a city of gothic skyscrapers and dingy alleyways. It’s fantastical and gritty and very much the perfect home for Batman. Glad he got this part right.
Strengths: Batman (1989) introduces us to a more serious Batman than we’ve ever seen before on screen. We get the awesome Batman theme song that would go on to be featured in the awesome Batman: The Animated Series. It takes goofy Batman and turns him into brooding Batman, cementing him in the hearts and minds of studio execs as box office gold. Burton’s film was good enough to open the door for more Batman films.
Weaknesses: Not enough actual Batman. Although Jack Nicholson’s Joker is good for what it is, it’s just a little too weird to take seriously. The blaring soundtrack by Prince is unsettling and quite disturbing, it’s laughably bad. And also, sometimes nothing happens for long periods of time.
Love Interest: Vicki Vale was actually a pretty good love interest in addition to take the initiative as an investigative photojournalist. Sure, she ends up a damsel in distress during the climax but for the most part she works well. I actually was expecting to see her return in Batman Returns (1992)
Verdict: Barely watchable. Almost made me give up on trying to watch all the Batman films.
Batman Forever (1995)
By accident I actually watched Batman and Robin (1997) before watching this one. As a result, I later realized that a lot of the things I took fault with in Batman and Robin actually have their genesis in Batman Forever (1995).
One of the supposed rules of superhero movies is more villains equals more stupidity and bad movieness. That’s definitely a factor in Batman Forever. This one ups the ante by also throwing in a sidekick who is half tragic circus performer, half nosy jerk on a motorcycle.
Tommy Lee Jones is a stellar actor but it’s near impossible to make a role like the goofy version of Two-Face work. Thus we end up with things like a villain lair that’s divided nearly in half, a dark side and light side, one which happens to contain Drew Barrymore as a henchwoman. The “man with two faces” conceit is taken so literally that it robs the metaphor of any real poignancy.
Jim Carrey brings his A game to his performance as the Riddler, but it is so wacky and out there that it makes you feel like a grumpy old Scrooge for not enjoying it. My mind get kept getting stuck on silly things like how he managed to dye his hair so many different colors between scenes. It’s a little too Jim Carrey for my taste.
Chris O’Donnell’s portrayal of Robin is much more reasonable than the insanity we are given in Batman and Robin (1997). But why wasn’t this movie given the title Batman and Robin since technically it fits the description much better than its successor? And why is the slo-mo death of Robin’s entire family come off as a funny rather than tragic?
Honestly this is Batman film I remember the least. The only scene that really sticks out to me is the final set piece inside the Riddler’s tower of riddles. That was pretty cool and actually one of the things that was over-the-top in a good way.
Strengths: Personally I find Val Kilmer a step up from Michael Keaton. He has more of a real personality as Batman. He’s functional and at least doesn’t come off a such a weirdo when he does the weird Bruce-being-all-silent thing. The Batmobile did some fun inventive stuff too if I remember correctly.
Also, I really liked how the Riddler and Two-Face knock out Alfred, invade Wayne Manor, and kidnap Batman’s girlfriend. Now that’s called creating some stakes! Batman should definitely get his home raided more often. The Riddler gleefully blowing up major pieces of the Batcave is the dream of every Batvillain.
Weaknesses: A lot of the bad things from Batman and Robin (1997) originate here in 1995. An inexplicable gang of “neon” thugs from a terrible 90’s nightmare? Gigantic bronze statues of dudes holding spheres stacked around Gotham city? Ending with slo mo running? And worst of all, uncomfortable close ups of Batman’s butt while suiting up? NO!
Love Interest: Nicole Kidman’s Chase Meridian, a psychiatrist obsessed with bats, is an interesting choice to begin with. But then then she takes a surprising turn when she falls in love with both Batman and Bruce Wayne without realizing that they are one and the same. That’s definitely one way to create a memorable character.
Verdict: Passable as an actual Batman film, but with the bad still outweighing the good.
Batman and Robin (1997)
Unfortunately the last of the Burton/Schumacher quadrilogy cannot be described in actual words. It is like floating in zero gravity or tasting ice cream: it must be experienced firsthand.
Most people rank Batman and Robin as the worst Batman film in existence. And they would be absolutely right. It’s a hot mess of a movie. However if you remember what I said earlier, I am ranking these films’ quality based on how rewatchable they are. And while Batman and Robin is certainly the most poorly made, most times it fall into “so bad it’s good” category. Hey at least it’s not boring.
Partly this is due to the sheer unbelievability of what is happening on screen. From the very opening scene we get the sense that is a very special kind of terrible unfolding before our eyes.
That awful Batsuit close up from Batman Forever is now twice as long with the addition of Robin, featuring unspeakable things. And since the film believes firmly in equality, later in the movie we get the same gross treatment for Batgirl. From there things goes downhill because we’re about to get our first dose of dialogue.
ROBIN: I want a car. Chicks dig the car.
BATMAN: This is why Superman works alone.
Since Batman Forever had two villains, Batman and Robin clearly needs to have three. And since Batman Forever had two heroes, Batman and Robin requires an absolute minimum of three. Clearly this is not an accident, it’s everything Commissioner Gordon has feared: escalation.
Mr. Freeze spouts unspeakable puns in Arnold’s thick Austrian accent. Poison Ivy lands like an unwelcome stain on Uma Thurman’s filmography. Also, we get a version of Bane who yells “BAAAAAANE!!!” and doubles as a chauffeur.
More neon gang members.
More giant bronze statues.
More motorcycle stunts (including a rigged bike race that defies reason!)
More ice skating combat.
In the very first sequence of the movie Batman and Robin follow Freeze on to his rocket ship as it launches into space. No matter how many times I see it happen I still have trouble believing this made it onto film. Even writing this sentence now I still wonder if I’m not just making it up and must watch it again to make sure I’m not crazy.
Strengths: Um, George Clooney is okay I guess.
Weaknesses: Everything I’ve mentioned so far and more. The Batsuit’s “features.” The eardrum-piercing dialogue. The unnecessary Alfred-is-dying subplot. The super delayed introduction of Batgirl halfway through the movie. Also Batgirl. Whiny Robin. Distant father figure Batman. Every scene with Poison Ivy. Every scene with Mr. Freeze. Every scene with Bane. The last scene of them running for no reason.
Love Interest: Julie Madison has by far the smallest role as Batman’s love interest in any of the Batman films on the list. I think she tells Bruce she wants to marry him and he just sorta forgets to say anything back. Evidently most of her stuff was edited out of the final cut of the film.
Batman Returns (1992)
This one is the best out of the whole Burton/Schumacher era, which only discernible attempt at continuity seems to be the returning cast members of Alfred and Gordon.
Michael Keaton is more confident this time around, and a little more likable. But even more significant is that this seems to be Burton’s personal vision of a Batman movie. With Batman (1989) under his belt and officially designated a smashing success, now Burton had the creative freedom to make Batman into a bonafide Burton movie. And wow is it weird.
There is however a method to this weirdness. In the opening scene of the movie we are told that this one is gonna be a tragedy. A poor baby with flippers instead of hands is thrown into an icy river cursed to live in the sewers of Gotham where he is raised by penguins.
It’s again completely over the top, but this time it is not only weird but it’s full of sorrow. The Penguin has it bad. Could it be that he is simply what society has made him to be? Maybe he deserves a second chance.
Well very quickly we find the answer. Nope, he’s just as crazy as the rest of Batman’s rogues gallery, the only difference being that he somehow is actually able to convince Gotham he’s not.
Sure, he rides a rubber duck and is hideous to look at, but show the man some compassion. Did I mention there’s a scene where Penguin bites off someone’s nose mid-conversation? How about that.
Okay so in addition to Danny DeVito’s incredible performance there’s also Christopher Walken’s evil businessman Max Shreck and Michelle Pfieffer’s feminist anti-hero Catwoman. When all the moving parts are working together, it feels almost as if you are watching a stage production instead of a movie.
Where Batman Returns succeeds over the other three in the series is that the zany characters seem to work together as an fanciful allegory. The Penguin actually seems to function like he represents isolation and otherness. Catwoman transforms herself into a symbol of the repressed and abused female spirit aching for justice against the men who have used her. Shreck reeks with the filthy decay of personal greed and corporate corruption. Somehow Burton makes a silly Batman movie come off as a larger parable.
Strength: The characters are the backbone of this movie. Wild and far out though they may be, they are grounded and consistent enough to build a vibrant story of personal tragedy. Batman Returns resonates with something the other early films failed to really develop: theme.
Burton takes what could easily be a rather stupid Batvillain, the subterranean Penguin, and paints him as a lurking force of evil seeping up out of the sewers of Gotham. He is infectious. You can’t even recognize the actor underneath all the prosthetics.
This film captures the dark gothic nature of Batman’s soul and the world he lives in. That deserves some kudos.
Weakness: Unfortunately Batman takes a backseat to all the excellent villains romping around. He ends up doing uncharacteristic things like killing goons with explosives. The plot to turn Gotham against Batman is half-baked and not really explored.
Love Interest: Selina Kyle is smitten with Batman and then when her darker persona takes over becomes his opponent. The chemistry between them works just well enough to move the story along.
Verdict: A deliciously dark ride.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Nolan’s masterpiece is one of the highest earning domestic releases of all time and perfectly captured many of our post-9-11 concerns. It’s gone on to become hugely influential in the action genre.
But is it the best?
Well objectively speaking, yes it is. But according to my criteria it only ranks third in terms of Batmovies I want to watch over and over again.
I went to see the Dark Knight for the first time along with a bunch of my cousins, including a young cousin barely in elementary school. My first Batman experience was Adam West, but my cousin’s was Heath Ledger. If that had been me, I probably would have never seen another Batman movie ever again.
It made me realize that as much as I agree on the inherent quality and craftsmanship of The Dark Knight, it’s frankly a little disturbing. Nolan’s version of Two-Face and the Joker kinda freak me out, especially that whole pencil trick.
That might seem a silly reason to you, but it’s one of those little things that for me would keep me from putting on a movie and showing it to my kids.
That said, The Dark Knight is the polar opposite of Batman and Robin: it’s too good for words. I feel like I would ruin it just trying to explain what makes it so good. Harvey Dent is spot on. The Joker’s performance is brilliant. Batman’s eventual fate is poignant. Even the score rocks.
Strengths: Pretty much everything. The dog motif repeated throughout the film is pretty cool. Joker burning a mountain of cash is a big plus. The new Batpod is pretty nice. Ok fine, these are all just little bonuses to a tremendously thematic and satisfying film.
Weaknesses: Joker’s plans and backup plans are surprisingly thorough for an insane guy. Two Face’s computer generated face does requires some suspension of disbelief. Why does Gordon fake his death again?
Love Interest: Rachel Dawes, finally a strong female character who is not totally smitten with Batman. Her role goes beyond love interest to actually fighting alongside Batman as Assistant District Attorney, basically Batman without the mask. Not bad!
Verdict: The perfect Batman movie, but one that brings out the scared little boy in me.
Batman Begins (2005)
It’s 2005 and for the first time we get a Batman movie that’s really about Bruce Wayne more than anything else. Bruce’s quest to become Batman shakes up the criminal underworld and shows us a welcome glimpse behind the mask. Now we’re talking Batman movie.
This film establishes some old characters in a fresh new format. Elderly butler Alfred is played by Michael Caine and finally gains some gravitas. Morgan Freeman gives us a new supporting character in Lucius Fox whose main job is to turn Wayne Enterprises’ defense contracts into an unlimited supply of cool gadgets for Batman (he also makes witty remarks). A brand new character, Rachel Dawes, plays Bruce’s childhood friend and provides him with a moral center.
After the prior films’ total cartoonization of the Bat’s rogue gallery, Christopher Nolan and company were stuck with some major baggage in coming up with an enemy for the caped crusader. Surprisingly they went with two unlikely candidates, at least for a more serious superhero film, and gave us something beyond what anyone expected of a comic book movie.
The Scarecrow proves to be a sturdy threat to Batman, lighting him on fire and throwing him out a window. He’s a wacko but he works under the guise of a reputable professional. The strange duality of Dr. Crane reminds us of the deep contradiction of Bruce/Batman himself.
Unexpectedly Crane isn’t even the true villain. He essentially just a henchman. The real danger is Ra’s al Ghul, the extremist leader of the League of Shadows and Bruce’s former mentor. Like Batman, his identity remains hidden from the world. Like Batman, he wants to rescue Gotham from the forces of corruption and injustice. Where they differ is on just how far they are willing to go.
Although its The Dark Knight sequel would go on to become commercial, cultural, and critical king of the Batfranchise, it really all began here in Batman Begins. This is the movie that told the world that supervillains didn’t have to be goofy caricatures with their faces painted blue. And they sure didn’t need insane rubber duck vehicles, wild wardrobe changes, and crazy hair. Building upon Nolan’s film noir roots, Batman Begins fashions a dilapidated Gotham clothed in realistic political and urban complexities.
The opening scenes of the movie take us to a Chinese prison set among looming snow-laden mountains. This is no ordinary hero movie. No, it’s a story worthy of Batman.
Strengths: By showing Bruce as a novice, we learn to appreciate his weaknesses as well as his rapid improvement. This film is a character study on Bruce Wayne, vengeful billionaire orphan, who decides to become something more. It has great villains, stays grounded in its own particular vision of realism, and makes the crime tactile in a way that Two-Face robbing banks never was. It’s always nice to see Wayne Manor burn to the ground.
Weaknesses: The first film in Nolan’s trilogy begins Batman’s taste for wanton destruction of public and personal property (I suppose it’s the price you pay for being home to the world’s greatest detective.)
Love Interest: The choice of Katie Holmes was unfortunately forced upon Nolan by the studio, but her Rachel Dawes works as a meaningful counterpoint to Bruce’s anger. Somewhat forgettable, this version of Dawes hovers somewhere between mediocre and okay.
Verdict: Batman Begins gives us the incredible origin story we deserve, even if we already liked Batman anyway.
And now for my pick for top Batman film, it’s time for…
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Imagine what you could do if you had already reinvented a popular and well-received vision of Batman? Then imagine if you had taken that initial success and leveraged it into an iconic film capturing the pulse of an entire post-9-11 era, won awards, broke box office records, and re-affirmed Batman as the greatest superhero of all time? Where would you go from there?
The thing is, you wouldn’t. You would move on, knowing that there was absolutely no way you could ever top what you had already done. That no matter what there’s no way you could ever convince the fans, the critics, or the box office pundits that your third outing was a success. Sure, maybe Pixar pulled it off with Toy Story 3 but obviously that was an act of God and not a feat of living breathing human beings with real flaws and inconsistencies.
Is The Dark Knight Rises objectively the best Batman movie of all time? No, but it’s the one that I watch the most. It’s the one that for me is always the most enjoyable, more rewarding, and most batty.
Rises begins with a radical question, one gleaned from the comics: what if Batman retired? What would happen to him? How would Gotham be different? What would it cost him and everyone around him?
Bruce is a shell of a man, a cripple and a failure. The cost has been too great. Rachel. Harvey. His fortune. His pride. He has won the war on crime but it is a bittersweet and temporary victory that has left him broken.
What would it take to bring him out of retirement?
Can Batman as we know him truly return?
Is Gotham safe without its dark knight?
This film is completely gratuitous, absolutely unnecessary, and beautiful to behold. After the gifts that were Batman Begins and the Dark Knight, we didn’t need the answers to these questions. We had enough good Batman movies to last a lifetime. But this movie arrived anyway.
It is a labor of love, set against the impossible standards of its previous installment and burdened with making sense of the many disparate plot elements, themes, characters, and unanswered questions from the first two films. And so it decides to pit a brooding Mexican wrestler in a mask against the very building blocks of Gotham society. A huge sprawling narrative, this final installment belongs to the few Hollywood pictures deserving of the title: a modern epic.
Strengths: Rises brings back the ghost of Ra’s al Ghul and the aftermath of the Joker’s rampage and uses them to set the stage for a new upsetting of Gotham’s fragile equilibrium. The action scenes alone top any previous Batman film. The Nolanverse score which has been gradually built up over three movies achieves new emotional heights.
Weaknesses: An abundance of characters clouds the primary narrative. Time passes in odd intervals, sometimes months go by. Things happen so quickly at times you almost wonder if this movie actually should have been a candidate to be split into two films.
Love Interest: Mr. Wayne has a flirtatious chemistry with Selina that is soon superseded by a more serious interest in Miranda Tate. This creates an interesting dynamic. Miranda unravels his heartstrings, finding a broken creature in need of redemption. Can she save the man who saves everyone else? Selina, the self-interested anti-hero, helps Batman in a different way by becoming useful mirror for Bruce’s actions. The fact that she could care less for Batman makes her all the more sweet.
Verdict: The Batman film we never deserved.