Did you ever think you’d see the day when there would be enough Batman movies for a ranking list? With Matt Reeves’ The Batman opening this weekend, there have now been 10 movies about the zorro-esque aristocrat in a mask who fights for the common man, not counting animated versions (Lego Batman) and spinoffs like Catwoman, Joker or Birds of Prey — the Harley Quinn movie (Harley Quinn is the Joker’s girlfriend; the Joker is the evil clown who fights Batman, for those of you who haven’t been keeping a mental spreadsheet of such things).
Robert Pattinson will be the sixth actor (West, Keaton, Kilmer, Clooney, Bale, Affleck) to play Batman. Reeves will be the sixth director (Leslie Martinson, Burton, Nolan, Schumacher, Snyder) to helm a live-action Batman movie. There are now identifiable Batman eras. Do you like your Batman with murder or no murder? A weirdo or a boy scout? Glib and funny or intense and brooding? Someone should design a Myers-Briggs test to match you with your ideal Batman.
With so many different approaches to Batman having been attempted, we thought why not dance with the devil in the pale moonlight and try to rank our favorite? Because the only thing the internet appreciates more than a numbered list is the opportunity to fight about our favorite cape daddies. Keep in mind, tastes are subjective, so if you disagree with me on any of these it’s probably because you are wrong.
10. Batman Forever
Year Released: 1995
The Principals: Joel Schumacher directing, Val Kilmer as Batman, with Nicole Kidman and Drew Barrymore as love interests and Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones as villains.
I really wanted to be one of those smart critics with a brilliant, bespoke take about how the much-maligned Joel Schumacher Batman movies are actually better than you remember, full of sardonic wit overlooked by contemporary critics and the ultimate reflections of America’s obsession with blah blah blah. Then I tried to actually rewatch Batman Forever. It’s clear from the very first frames that something isn’t quite right here.
Batman Forever opens with a “gear montage,” of Batman suiting up, which leads into a shot of the Batmobile, this iteration of which looks a bit like a big veiny dildo on wheels.
It’s first lines are:
ALFRED: Can I persuade you to take a sandwich, sir?
BATMAN: …I’ll get drive-through.
It feels like a fast-food commercial, and… it sort of was one? Batman Forever allegedly cost $100 million to make, and yet the whole thing feels cheap, like a disposable plastic toy come to life. Schumacher made no effort to make his sets look like anything but sets, and his big visual idea seems to have been “canted angles” (which he may have taken from the villain scenes in 1966’s Batman, which were allegedly shot with Dutch angles to convey that the characters were “crooked”). Pretty much every scene opens with the camera cocked sideways, and having to tilt your head does not improve the plasticky sets or bizarre tone — which finds neither the goth camp of the Burton Batman movies nor the grounded realism of the Nolan Batmans. Schumacher’s efforts land somewhere between “half-assed” and “community theater” with an occasional jolts of bracing horniness.
It’s strange, because if you had told me in 1995 that the director of The Lost Boys and Falling Down was doing a Batman movie starring the guy from True Romance and Tombstone I would’ve thought it sounded like the greatest idea ever. Kilmer on paper seems like a fantastic Batman — he has the perfect eyebrows and lips for it, and he’s a great actor with classic action movies on his resume. In practice his Batman is a weirdly bland boy scout; even worse than Clooney’s glib version. At least that was a take.
The only time the Joel Schumacher Batman movies are interesting is when they’re horny, and Batman Forever is far less horny than Batman & Robin. (Nicole Kidman’s psychiatrist character showing off her cleavage to seduce Batman, to whom she’s attracted because she has psychopath fetish, is the only interesting scene).
9. Batman (1966)
Year Released: 1966
The Principals: Leslie H. Martinson directing Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin; Cesar Romero, Lee Merriwether, Burgess Meredith, and Frank Gorshin.
Any Gen Xer or younger who thinks their generation invented irony or post-modernism needs to watch this swinging sixties version of Batman, in which Adam West does deadpan puns for 90 minutes and fights off a rubber shark in the first act. Vigilantes?? This Batman rejects the label. He and Robin are “fully deputized agents of the law!”
This generation’s sense of camp is somewhat opaque to us now, but Batman seems clearly intended as some kind of knowing, wink-wink nudge-nudge parody, which kids could naively enjoy while their chain-smoking parents smirked appreciatively at the drollness of it all before going out for an eight-martini steak dinner.
Burgess Meredith, aka the original trainer from Rocky, plays Penguin, with Cesar Romero as the Joker (a role for which he refused to shave his mustache) and Lee Merriwether replacing Julie Newmar as a very pointy-boobed Catwoman. Burt Ward played a dopey, maybe-gay Robin who wasn’t smart enough to get any of Batman’s jokes.
This was the era when everything in the Batman universe had a “bat” label and/or pun, like the batcopter and batladder, the latter of which dangled from the former while the pastel-clad Batman punched a shark (“hand me down the shark repellent bat spray, Robin!”). The matter-of-fact goofy labels on everything feel like a particular inspiration for Wes Anderson.
The whole vibe reminds me of Tarantino’s conception of pre-hippie Hollywood’s halcyon days that inspired Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, or of a sketch being performed at the Playboy Mansion to loosen everyone up before the hot tub. Which is to say, some knowingly goofy pantomime that existed largely as a way to kill some time before everyone got drunk and fucked. There aren’t actual bikini go-go dancers in it, but it feels like there are? The go-go dancers are implied? Was that a thing?
Anyway, this is a movie where it seems like everyone involved was having a lot of fun. Not that much of it actually translates to us the viewers, mind you, especially almost 60 years later, but it does look like the sixties were a sexy fun time.
8. Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Year Released: 2016
The Principals: Zack Snyder directs Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman; with Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor.
I don’t know if this one even belongs on the list, as I’ve always thought of it primarily as a Superman movie rather than a Batman movie. I did like the idea of Zack Snyder directing Ben Affleck as a ‘roided-out, over-the-hill Batman, and perhaps I’m in the minority here, but I quite enjoyed at least the first two-thirds of Man of Steel.
Yet six years later, the only things I can remember about Batman V. Superman are that it had a dream sequence within a dream sequence (double dream!) and the heroes bonding over both their moms being named Martha. Otherwise it was just a long, dull commercial for future DC movies. Which honestly makes me a little nostalgic for Batman movies as-commercials-for-McDonald’s. Say what you will about the Schumacher Batman movies, at least they weren’t 156 minutes long.
7. Batman & Robin
Year Released: 1997
The Principals: Schumacher back as director; George Clooney as Batman and Chris O’Donnell as Robin; Uma Thurman and Alicia Silverstone as Poison Ivy and Batgirl; Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, plus an early version of Bane.
Schumacher’s second Batman movie opens with an even sillier version of the gear montage from the first one, now with gratuitous closeups of butts and codpieces (angles canted, of course). That leads into an action set piece so goofy it makes the old Adam West Batman TV show look like Heat by comparison. Batman and Robin try to steal back some giant, cartoony jewels from Arnold’s Mr. Freeze (see above), who’s trying desperately to shoehorn every groan-worthy catchphrase however many screenwriters this movie actually had could think of. It truly must be seen to be believed, making absolutely no concessions to the laws of physics, with Batman and Robin literally floating from place to place as if being controlled by a kid playing with dolls, all while fighting bad guys dressed like evil hockey players.
On the one hand, Batman & Robin is a tonal disaster and the acting is more grating than your average high school play. On the other hand, it is extremely horny, and it’s hard not to begrudgingly respect Schumacher for fitting so much horniness into an otherwise nonsensical half-assed kids movie. The conceit of Poison Ivy was that she was a femme fatale, a budding eco-terrorist who could inspire so much lust in men that they would kill each other or themselves just for a taste. And suffice it to say, this was wildly believable as embodied by 1997 Uma Thurman (even taking account the awful Mae West accent she uses the entire movie). During a wild charity gala sequence, Poison Ivy takes the stage in a giant gorilla costume for a pseudo-burlesque dance sequence, during which she coquettishly reveals a nipple, shot in close-up — a papier mache gorilla nipple!
That scene along bumps this one a couple spots up on the list, a bizarre porno for 8-year-olds. It’s wild. And yet also, kind of boring and shitty.
6. The Batman
Year Released: 2022
The Principals: Matt Reeves directs Robert Pattinson as Batman, with Zoe Kravitz as Catwoman, Paul Dano as The Riddler, Colin Farrell, and John Turturro.
Adding to the “things that sounded good on paper” theme of the first part of this list, I really liked the idea of a stand-alone, not-part-of-the-DCEU Batman movie starring Robert Pattinson as a weird goth Bruce Wayne. Robert Pattinson has the ideal jawline to play Batman, and between him and Zoe Kravitz, there are times when The Batman feels like a movie about sharp jawlines. Unfortunately, The Batman is also two hours and 56 minutes long, far too much screen time to be filled with sculpted jawlines alone. Warner also managed to hire the only mainstream blockbuster director with even less of a sense of humor than Christopher Nolan, Matt Reeves.
Perhaps you enjoy Reeves’ Planet Of The Apes films. Many people I normally agree with do. While I grant Reeves a rich visual vocabulary, I find his Apes movies oppressively joyless, which in retrospect probably should’ve been a clue as to how I’d find The Batman. The Batman uses as its main musical cues the traditional “Ave Maria” and Nirvana’s “Something In The Way,” the worst song on Nevermind and a perfect Nirvana song for people whose favorite thing about Nirvana was Kurt’s self-pitying heroin hangovers. (Someone please make the “Drain You” of Batman movies, I prefer my cynicism drenched in sarcastic cheer).
The Batman starts out attempting something like a film noir, a Chinatown or a The Crow about the real power behind the city, starring Batman. Yet it lacks both the coherence of Chinatown and the earnestness and camp flair of The Crow, and really any sense of exuberance or joy whatsoever. It skips Batman’s origin story for once, which in theory is admirable, but in practice just leaves more room for The Batman‘s leaden yet somehow frantic plotting. God, I’m so sick of baroque plotting.
A good film noir breathes. It’s anchored in time and place. The characters are recognizable types. In The Batman, Italian gangsters who control the city, 1940s-like, coexist with a social media-famous killer, 2020s political debates, and multiple characters who grew up in 1920s orphanages. It’s a lot of things at once, all of them GRRRR DARK SAD but not especially coherent or believable.
A film noir Batman sounded like a cool idea, the same way a 70s Deniro homage Joker was kind of a cool idea. Yet even more so than Joker, The Batman can’t seem to commit to its own idea. Despite the sheen of art cinema it eventually throws in all the old corny Batman clichés anyway, complete with a post-credits sequence that might as well have been a big middle finger reading “f*ck you for sitting through the credits, you dumb asshole.”
I’d actually kind of respect it if I hadn’t just sat through a Batman movie longer than The Godfather.
5. The Dark Knight Rises
Year Released: 2012
The Principals: The third Christopher Nolan-directed, Christian Bale-starring Batman, with Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, and Michael Caine.
I think most of us can agree that The Dark Knight Rises was the weakest of the Nolan-Bale trilogy, right? Probably three Batman movies is a lot to ask of any director.
In the broader context of Batman movies in general, The Dark Knight Rises still pretty good. I just think most of us were getting pretty tired of endless twists, motiveless villains who get caught on purpose, and armies of inexplicably suicidal henchmen by this point. At this late stage I mostly remember Bane being unintelligible, way too many endings, and an overbearing score that made most of the action sequences feel like music videos.
Which is a bit of a shame, because Nolan had gotten pretty good at shooting action by this point, surprising considering he started his career as one of the foremost offenders of hacked-together shaky cam action. TDKR was also 165 minutes long, which is, again, way too long for a Batman movie. Sorry, guys, I love a lot of Batman movies but Batman is not Apocalypse Now. I honestly shouldn’t even have to elaborate on this point, if your protagonist is a guy who wears a cape and punches people two and a half hours plus is too long.
Still, for all his tics, and all the tropes Nolan popularized that other directors ripped off and did poorly, it’s undeniable that Christopher Nolan is real movie director. He understands themes, his compositions are spectacular (in the true sense of “spectacle”), his actors always bring their A-games, and his scenes tend to work even when the story is overplotted and/or full of holes if you stop to think about it.
4. The Dark Knight
Year Of Release: 2008
The Principals: Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhardt, Maggie Gyllenhaal.
I know, I know, CONTROVERSIAL TAKE here, but if you can stop shouting for a moment, I’ll defend the indefensible by saying that while The Dark Knight was almost certainly my favorite Batman movie when I was leaving the theater, it’s a brilliantly-made movie that doesn’t have a ton of rewatch value for me these days.
The action scenes were easily a high-water mark for superhero movies up until that point, and Christian Bale and Heath Ledger are a basically perfect Batman and Joker. But again, the motiveless killer and army of inexplicably-loyal-to-the-point-of-human-sacrifice henchman don’t really do it for me. The frenetic pacing and busy plot are things that worked well enough in the moment but don’t hold up that well in retrospect.
3. Batman Returns
Year Of Release: 1992
Principals: Tim Burton directing Michael Keaton as Batman, Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, Danny DeVito as the Penguin, Christopher Walken.
Batman Returns is admittedly one of the weirdest blockbusters ever made, but unlike Schumacher’s Batman movies, it’s fascinatingly weird. It was written by Daniel Waters, who also wrote Heathers and Demolition Man, another one of my favorite weird action movies from the early 90s, and Batman Returns feels like a high-water mark of 90s goth-camp culture. After all, it brought together two titans of 90s art student kitsch — Waters and Tim Burton.
No other Batman movie balances camp silliness and goth noir as well as Batman Returns. It has scenes that are hilarious, scenes that are borderline disturbing, scenes that are absurd, and scenes that are costume-freak sexy. The scenes between Batman and Catwoman are arguably the only legitimately sexy scenes in the Batman universe (though Schumacher’s Batman movies are enjoyably horny at times), with real sexual chemistry (“mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it”) and two characters who seem like they’re seconds from f*cking every time they’re onscreen. With all due respect to Heath Ledger’s memory, Danny DeVito as Oswald Cobblepot is easily my favorite Batman movie villain. “It could be worse, my nose could be gushing blood” edges out “wanna see a pencil disappear?” for the best line.
Batman Returns is also a strangely great satire of political optics with an underrated performance both by Christopher Walken as Max Schreck, with Andrew Bryniarski (aka Lattimore from The Program) perfectly cast as Max’s large son, Chip, in his brief scenes. Oswald Cobblepot’s penguin funeral is truly surreal and the whole film is strangely unforgettable, even if most of us probably left the theater scratching our heads at the time it came out. In many ways it’s the opposite of The Dark Knight, a movie that’s maybe too weird the first time you see it but seems to get better with every rewatch. I love Batman Returns.
2. Batman Begins
Year Of Release: 2005
The Principals: Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Cillian Murphy.
Trying to decide between Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and Batman Returns is the hardest part of this ranking by far — they all have things about them that I love and other things about them that I don’t. Batman Begins is, in my opinion, by far the strongest of the Nolan Batman movies from a story standpoint. It had a few twists, as all Nolan movies do, but it didn’t try to do too much and it didn’t try to make the whole world or the whole universe the stakes of every scene. If I could beg the people who make superhero movies for one thing it would be to stop having the heroes have to save the entirety of existence in every movie. It’s exhausting. Cable news has done the same thing. If everything is the most dangerous thing in the world, eventually nothing is.
Anyway, Batman Begins was an ideal introduction to Bale-Batman, and Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow is an underrated villain — essentially, a guy who gets you way too high and then goads you into bad trips, but on an industrial scale. I love the idea that a supervillain is the Bad Drug Friend.
The biggest shame of Batman Begins is that for as strong as it is on story, it was firmly ensconced in the “shaking-makes-it-more-realistic” era of Christopher Nolan action scenes. Batman might be doing something really cool, but all we’re going to see is breaking glass, a close-up of someone’s lapel, a blurry something, and then a shot of Batman snarling. My dream would be for present-day Christopher Nolan to remake Batman Begins, and he has to let a third party supervise the sound mix.
Year Of Release: 1989
Principals: Tim Burton directing, Michael Keaton as Batman, Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale, Jack Nicholson as the Joker, Robert Wuhl, soundtrack by Prince.
It’s easy to forget how weird Batman was in 1989. Producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters (also known as Barbra Streisand’s one-time boyfriend, since parodied by everyone from Kevin Smith to Paul Thomas Anderson in Licorice Pizza, in which Peters is played by Bradley Cooper) had developed it for 10 years before it actually came out, and it’s hard to imagine anyone less crazy and prone to bizarre wild hairs than Jon Peters could’ve made it.
When he was hired, Tim Burton had had just one feature released, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, in 1985. Shooting on Batman didn’t get the go ahead until after the success of Beetlejuice three years later. Michael Keaton, meanwhile, was a slightly-built comedic actor with poofy hair, known for such films as Johnny Dangerously and The Dream Team (Pierce Brosnan and Tom Selleck were apparently considered for the role, among many others — part of me still wants to see the Tom Selleck version of Batman). Batman itself was a sixties TV show about a chipper boy scout in a blue suit who drove a convertible.
Imagine telling a financier that you want to turn a kids TV show into a dark, PG-13 adult drama starring the little poofy-haired guy from Mr. Mom directed by the guy from Pee Wee’s Big Adventure with Jack Nicholson and a soundtrack by Prince. We should all write a thank-you letter to cocaine.
Almost every single creative choice in the development of Batman seems like a wild longshot, but by some weird alchemy they kind of balance each other out. Keaton is a shockingly effective mix of unassuming, wild-eyed, guarded, and fierce, and Tim Burton still feels like the ideal director to balance the schlock, camp, noir world of Batman while still making it feel real. I’m not even a Burton fanboy, but his are the only Batman movies to have jokes in them without being jokes themselves. The story breathes. It has just one big action set piece, the Joker’s free-money parade, but it doesn’t need more. The script builds up to this one big action scene, and then the scene delivers.
If there was one movie that laid the groundwork for the current content ecosystem of psuedo-kids entertainment actually aimed at adults, it was Batman. (I actually tried to watch it with my 8-year-old stepson and he made me turn it off because it was too scary). Yet whereas Marvel mostly makes violent-but-sanitized war propaganda with cutesy dialogue, Batman was an eerie drama about a weird guy and a broken villain directed by an art school goth. There’s a wit, a level of craft, and a sweetness to the 1989 Batman. Other directors’ Batman movies might’ve had one or two of those at the same time, but never all three.
Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.