This summer marks some anniversaries for the Batman franchise. This July will mark the 25th anniversary of Batman Forever…. okay, so maybe not the biggest anniversaries. Still, it’s an excuse to talk about the caped crusader and I’m always excited to do that. I’ll save the animated movies for another list, as many of them deserve to be talked about. We’ll be focusing on the live-action films. So here are the live-action Batman movies ranked.
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11. Everything Prior to 1966
This isn’t actually a ranking. It’s merely an acknowledgment that there have been other Batman films than the ones most people know. There was a serialization of Batman both in 1942, and of Batman and Robin in 1949. The first, like other superhero pictures at the time, was WW2 propaganda. However, it is notable for introducing the Bat-Cave and the Grandfather clock entrance. With these films, it’s safe to say that if they were masterpieces, you would know about them.
10. Batman Vs. Superman (2016)
So given that I’m disqualifying the 40’s films, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice gets the bottom spot. This movie was really bad guys. And it’s not just “MARTHA!” that makes it so. Although that was pretty awful. Nothing about this movie feels right about Batman. For a guy who supposedly won’t cross the line of killing, the movie certainly doesn’t portray him that way. The whole bit about nuking Superman was the jump the shark moment for me. I almost walked out of the theater.
This movie has some good elements. I actually liked the fight with Superman. I enjoyed seeing Batman utilize his full arsenal to try and compete with the man of steel. But 10 good minutes does not a movie make. The majority of this movie was unbelievable at best and the criminal use of these characters at worst.
9. Batman and Robin (1997)
Hoo boy. Batman and Robin. A movie that asked a bold question. “What if we took the Adam West TV show and made a movie out of it… again?” Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin is a call back to the 60’s batman in all of the wrong ways. In the late ’90s, as things were beginning to become more realistic and less cartoony, this movie was just a mess. Do you remember them playing Ice Hockey with a giant diamond in the middle of the Gotham museum? I do. Do you remember the bat credit card? I do. Do you remember Robin kissing Poison Ivy while wearing rubber lips? I do. I wish I didn’t.
The casting in this movie was all over the place. George Clooney is okay as Bruce Wayne and awful as Batman. Chris O’Donnell is annoying as Robin. Uma Thurman is TERRIBLE as Poison Ivy. Alicia Silverstone is Batgirl… we’re just gonna leave that one alone. And of course, most insulting of all, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze. Let me be clear, I love Arnold. But just… no. Overall, those are some major actors who turn in an awful movie.
8. Batman (1966)
I may not be the best person to rank this movie. I’m not a fan of the 60’s Batman. I much prefer the darker Batman of the ’70s and ’80s. That said, 8 out of 11 is about right for me. Most of what I said about Batman and Robin also applies here, but I judge it less harshly. Why? Because it came out in 1966. This was the Batman of the time, and this movie delivers exactly what someone watching the TV show would have expected. So why isn’t it higher on my list? Because I didn’t like the TV show and don’t want a movie about it.
7. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Christopher Nolan was so close to being a living legend. The trilogy started off good with Batman Begins and then soared with The Dark Knight. But it all went so so wrong with The Dark Knight Rises. Whereas the first two movies felt like a tightly told superhero flick, this movie feels disjointed and all over the place. I’ve heard the theory that the villain for this movie was supposed to involve the Joker again, which makes sense given how The Dark Knight ends. Unfortunately, Heath Ledger’s death made that impossible. I could definitely believe they were left scrambling to figure out how to end the story with other villains.
And so we get Tom Hardy’s Bane. Yes, I could poke fun at the voice. However, if we didn’t have to sit through that, we wouldn’t have Bane the way he is in Harley Quinn. So you win some and you lose some. We get the infamous back-breaking scene from the comics, but everything else just feels forced. Am I supposed to believe that Bane sealed Gotham off from the rest of the country for six months? It just seems unlikely.
6. Justice League (2017)
I wasn’t sure if I should include this one on the list or not. I decided to since Batman is usually one of the main three on the Justice League. What is there to say about Justice League? It was okay. It’s not bad, but it certainly isn’t good. Which is why it gets a spot right in the middle of the list. I would argue that Batman is far from the best character in the movie, as we once again saw Wonder Woman. Flash also stole the show for what little we saw of him.
I don’t have a ton else to say about Justice League except don’t expect anything better from the Snyder cut. It’s not about to be some masterpiece that makes everything right in the land of DC.
5. Batman Forever (1995)
So, now we’re beginning our transition from the bad movies to the good ones. And that’s pretty much the perfect place for Batman Forever. It’s not good, but it’s definitely not bad. It fills that middle ground admirably. After Tim Burton was booted off Batman, Joel Schumacher took over. And his first film was a pretty good middle ground between the dark gritty tone of Burton’s movies and… well… Batman and Robin.
Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones entered the picture as Riddler and Two-Face, and I’ll be honest, I love both of them. I could watch Tommy Lee Jones mug for the camera all day long, and he’s a total ham. I, unfortunately, have to stomach Val Kilmer as Batman, and Chris O’Donnell as Robin. It’s nothing stellar, but hearing Jim Carrey yell “Surf’s up Big Kahuna!” was pretty worthwhile.
4. Batman Begins (2005)
Now we enter the realm of the good Batman movies. Batman Begins is quietly one of the best movies in the franchise. Many people almost forget that it was a thing, but this is one of the rare instances where that isn’t because the movie is bad or forgetful. It just has the unfortunate distinction of being followed by The Dark Knight. Batman Begins launched the Christopher Nolan trilogy, casting Christian Bale as Batman. Like so many actors, he plays Bruce Wayne well and is… okay as Batman. Only a few actors have managed to play both roles well. Looking at you Kevin Conroy!
Serving as an origin story, it must have been all too tempting to use the Joker as their first villain. However, Nolan resisted temptation and instead used Scarecrow and Ra’s Al-Ghul. Both villains played their part effectively in the movie and the casting was pretty on point for both Ra’s and Dr. Crane. Slotting Michael Caine in as Alfred was spot on, as was Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon. Taken all together, we’re left with a stellar cast that kicks off an amazing trilogy.
3. Batman Returns (1992)
People are divided on Batman Returns. It obviously wasn’t as successful as people were hoping it would be since it was Tim Burton’s last film on the project. Myself, I very much enjoyed Batman Returns, but I definitely understand people’s misgivings. Whereas Burton played a lot of things safe in the first movie, he went full-on Tim Burton in the sequel. What results is something that feels like what you’d see in a nightmare, not Gotham. By the end of the movie, Gotham looks more like Halloween Town than it does a struggling city rampant with corruption.
You’re never going to see me complain about Michelle Pfeiffer wearing skin-tight vinyl and a whip, and the casting of Danny DeVito as the penguin definitely worked. Christopher Walken as a villain was an…. interesting choice, and I don’t think interesting in a good way. The original Batman ends on a triumphant note, whereas the second one seems a little more hopeless. I wonder if Tim Burton wasn’t planning a trilogy that would see the hero rise back up in the third? Overall, I like the movie a lot, but it doesn’t always make you feel good to watch.
2. Batman (1989)
Many people will argue with me that Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman should take the top slot. Truthfully, I’m not sure I disagree. The original Batman was a classic, and it damn well should be given how long it was in development. Almost 10 years! Batman welcomes Michael Keaton to the titular role, and he does pretty well. I think he’s a better Batman than he is Bruce Wayne, but he’s serviceable as both. Jack Nicholson steals the show as the Joker, putting on an incredible performance. Look at this genuinely creepy shot of him coming out of the elevator.
Batman, to me, is what happens when genius directors aren’t given unlimited creative freedom. I believe strongly that restriction breeds creativity. Whereas Tim Burton seemed to have the run of the show in the sequel, it still feels like he had to get approval in the original. The result is a movie that takes Burton’s unusual style and makes it palatable. Overall, the movie feels balanced. The movie ends on a fun note, despite having a lot of really dark moments. Let me ask you. You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
And we arrive at the top slot. No surprise here, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight takes the award for best live-action Batman film of all time. Batman Begins ended with Jim Gordan asking Batman what he thought about escalation. As the police get body armor, the criminals get armor-piercing bullets. What will Gotham’s escalation to Batman be? And then he shows him the Joker card being left at crime scenes.
Three years later, The Dark Knight came out, casting Heath Ledger in as the Joker. If you were like me, your first thought was, “The guy from A Knight’s Tale? Absolutely not.” Oh, how wrong we were. Ledger turns in an utterly chilling performance as the clown prince of crime. The movie explores a lot of the conundrums that make the Batman mythos so interesting. Is Gotham only tolerating Batman because they need him? What happens in a world that doesn’t need him anymore?
The Joker says it best near the end of the movie when he describes his feud with Batman as the battle for Gotham’s soul. His goal is to prove that deep down, people are as bad as him. The sheer brilliance is that goal takes the power out of Batman’s hands and puts it into those of average people, or we, the audience. We all feel like we have a part to play in The Dark Knight. For this reason and so many more, this movie earns the title of the best Batman movie of all time. Live-action that is, we’ll explore animated films another time.
Lead Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images