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Out of all the comic book heroes who’ve crossed over to the big screen, Batman may just be the most made-for-the-movies superhero of them all. The Caped Crusader’s long and storied history in DC comics comes with a deep, dark background filled with relatable human trauma, and frames it within Gotham — the picture-perfect fictional city for nefarious movie dealings.
Then there’s Bruce Wayne himself. Strip away the wealth, the gadgets, the butlers and the tech experts, and he’s really just like us! At the end of the day, the man behind the cowl isn’t an irradiated mutant who’s transcended being human with special powers — he’s just a guy who really wants to clean up his city…with a little help, of course, from his sizable family fortune. But there’s an underpinning of real-world relatability in Bob Kane’s iconic comic book creation, which is probably why Batman has remained so beloved by fans through all the twists and turns of his 83-year history.
That leaves us with a fun challenge: Ranking our favorite Batman films of the modern movie era that scored theatrical releases. In fairness to changing times, we’re leaving out the 1966 movie Batman, which now resides in the rarified realm of untouchable movie history. Stars Adam West (Batman) and Burt Ward (Robin), not to mention the movie’s period-specific spandex suits and lighthearted lilt, all loom larger than life for longtime fans of the franchise, and as pop culture touchstones, they’ve become almost as much a part of the Batman canon as the comics themselves. (We're also skipping Batfleck's cameo in Suicide Squad from 2016 because obvious.)
Instead, we’re setting the starting date for our Batman movie timeline with Tim Burton’s eponymous 1989 film. Where does it fall in our best-of list? Let’s whisk off to the Batcave and find out.
13. Batman & Robin (1997)
Batman & Robin somehow found a way to take great individual parts — George Clooney as the Caped Crusader, Chris O’Donnell as Dick Grayson, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, and a legendary director in the late Joel Schumacher — and make the least of them. Invoking some of the tongue-in-cheek camp of Batman’s 1960s spandex heyday is a fun idea we can get behind in theory, but this 1997 ode to box office excess remains a disappointing way to bring out the Dark Knight’s lighter side. In a way, it’s necessary viewing for any Batman buff who’s diving deep into the superhero’s evolution on film…but in the wake of later stunners from Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale, that’s the only real lasting value that Batman & Robin brings to the table.
12. Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
Taken as a DC ensemble movie rather than a Batman one, Zack Snyder's Justice League could probably notch a few tick higher that it does here. But four hours of CGI mayhem and a plot that’s paced to satisfy fans disappointed by Joss Whedon’s original Justice League treatment doesn’t do Ben Affleck’s Batman many additional favors. We’re grateful that Snyder dialed back Batman's Wonder Woman fixation and laid the guilt on thick over the death of Superman, but Affleck’s version of Batman — love it or loathe it — gets much deeper treatment in tighter, more focused movies like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
11. Justice League (2017)
Snyder’s extended cut of Justice League atoned for many sins in this Joss Whedon-helmed predecessor, but one thing it didn’t do was compact the action into a comparatively tight 120-minute runtime. Criticize Justice League where it counts, but Affleck’s Batman at least remains near the action enough to keep viewers constantly aware of his ringleader role. Despite its lackluster villain and a plot that too often favors spectacle over character investment, Justice League laid some serious Nick Fury vibes on Bruce Wayne as a seen-it-all fighter who musters the will to fight on. Thanks to the movie’s faster pace, Batman’s early mentorship of the Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Miller) as the ‘League’s newest inductees carries just a little more weight — which felt in 2017, as it still does today, like the start of a welcome new thread in DC’s emerging movie continuity. It’s hard to know whether Warner Bros. and DC will get the chance to pull at that thread in the future — after all, things have significantly changed off-screen since then. But Justice League is at least decent, popcorn-munching fun, and it never loses sight of Batman as the key player in assembling all the movie’s moving parts.
10. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
DC film fans who think character pairings muddy the waters in giving one superhero the screen story they deserve can look to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as perhaps the start of a trend. Both Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman (Ben Affleck in his debut Dark Knight appearance) are each plenty big enough to carry their own movie, and while Dawn of Justice’s premise is intriguing, it’s weighted down by a somber, humorless tone (something of a Snyder specialty) that just puts too much weight on viewers’ expectations for a superhero film that sulks with a pair of dour good guys for a ponderous two and-a-half hours. The silver lining, though, is that Affleck totally sold the refreshed role of a world-weary Bruce Wayne in his debut outing as Batman. We just wish he’d been given a better place to start.
9. Batman Forever (1995)
People who were kids in the 1990s are ripe for revisiting the goofy stuff of their youth through a nostalgic lens, and by that measure at least, Batman Forever is pretty great. Sure, it’s overblown and ridiculous, and gives Val Kilmer (an actor with plenty of Dark Knight-worthy gravitas) a story arc framed by campy, cartoonish characters that wouldn’t have felt too out of place in Tim Burton’s more fantastical films. But oh, what characters they were: It’s impossible not to give in to Jim Carrey as The Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey Dent (aka Two-Face). Most of Batman Forever’s faults stem from the uneven contrast between its over-the-top bad guys and its relatively tame, low-key good guys (with Chris O’Donnell on board once again as Robin). But even if Batman himself isn't the chief reason to watch, Batman Forever marks the high point of the pair of Bat-films that Joel Schumacher directed.
8. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
From here on out, die-hard Bat-fans can make a compelling case for each of our top five movies to lay claim to number-one spot. With Christian Bale behind the cowl, Christopher Nolan capped his Dark Knight movie trilogy with this third and final film that feels like a worthy successor to the two that came before — even if it doesn’t really feel like a closing chapter. Finding a villain as complex and compelling as the late Heath Ledger’s Joker was a nearly impossible challenge in the wake of Nolan’s The Dark Knight, but casting Tom Hardy as the fearsome, principled Bane came about as close as anyone could have hoped for. The Dark Knight Rises is a terrific film and among the best superhero films, period…but when we’re talking Batman movies, things are crowded at the top.
7. Batman (1989)
As the star-crossed films of Tim Burton’s 1990s directing successors show, there are a million ways that reimagining Batman with an eye for dark fantasy can go wrong. Thankfully, Burton’s fertile mind was at the helm for this late-1980s reintroduction of the Caped Crusader — the first proper big-screen treatment since Batman in 1966 — and in Burton’s hands, Gotham City came to life in live action without losing an ounce of its comic book charm. For fans of a certain age, Michael Keaton will always be the definitive movie version of Bruce Wayne. But Batman nailed its character casting at every turn, getting iconic performances from Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale, the late Jack Palance as Carl Grissom, and especially Jack Nicholson as the Joker. In many ways, Batman set the stage for the revival of comic book heroes as movie titans that take over popular culture, leading to the runaway success of today’s Marvel and DC franchise tentpoles. And with Prince’s “Batdance” (which topped Billboard’s Hot 100 chart) saturating MTV and radio airwaves, really — how could it not?
6. Batman Returns (1992)
It’s no heresy to put Tim Burton’s Batman Returns ahead of its phenomenal 1989 predecessor, because it only improved on an already terrific fantasy formula. With a slightly tighter plot, a killer cast of villains and would-be villains (especially Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman), and even more of the painterly, artistic flourishes that elevated Gotham City out of the comics and into a brooding live-action playground for crazed criminals, Batman Returns marked the apex of the Caped Crusader’s return to the big screen until Christopher Nolan’s trilogy came along. The casting was just incredible: Where else but in Burton’s Gotham could you find Danny DeVito (Penguin), Christopher Walken (Max Shreck), and Paul Reubens (Tucker Cobblepot, Peguin’s father) — all vying for top bad-guy billing?
5. The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
This underrated spinoff of 2012's hit The LEGO Movie is an action-packed, heartfelt meta take on the Dark Knight that pulls on the heartstrings with the same clever wit and inventiveness of the first LEGO movie.
Sure, this Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) is kind of a dick - but he's a very lovable dick, as his Caped Crusader finds himself in the funniest Batman film ever made as he deals with villains ranging from iconic (Mr. Freeze! Joker!) to, well, Condiment Man. All of the zany action and Easter egg sight gags to Batman big-screen history are in service of a story centered on what kind of future can an isolated loner like Bruce Wayne have when most of his live is spent saving the lives of others. Being a dick is treated like a defense mechanism, and LEGO Batman peels back the curtains on that personality trait to expose the red-raw humanity lurking within a guy who dresses up as a bat. We know, and yes, a movie aimed at kids packs this much pathos and heart in between all the rapid-fire visual gags and quotable jokes. Once again, Batman proves that animation is where he thrives on the big screen.
4. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
For some fans, Batman: Mask of The Phantasm 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 City from a pending terrible future while battling the demons of his past — and the pain of a lost love. If only more live-action entries in the Batman canon could be as nuanced as this underrated masterpiece.
3. The Batman (2022)
We're gonna keep this as spoiler-free as possible, since most of you haven't seen the movie yet as of press time. But director and co-writer Matt Reeves has done for Batman what he did for Caesar in his two Planet of the Apes rebootquels: He found a new, grounded, and emotionally-satisfying way to make a franchise movie that both revitalizes the genre and gives audiences a larger-than-life hero we can somehow relate it. Even if we don't wear a cowl and cope with our grief by way of punching criminals, The Batman sets its impressive, rain-slicked action at ground level; everything plays out at human height. That way, every blow Batman takes or mini victory he earns, it feels like one of our own.
And those victories are some of the hardest ones we have ever seen the character struggle to achieve, as the World's Greatest Detective finds himself a in the middle of Seven or Zodiac, Gotham City-style, on the trail of The Riddler (Paul Dano) and his murder-fueled, city-wide escape room-esque hunt for clues that threaten to expose Gotham's secret history and upend the lives of both the city's criminal element and those struggling to stop them. Robert Pattinson delivers a new kind of brooding for Bruce Wayne; a raw nerve of guilt and shame and grief that finds solace behind a mask because it feels more dangerous to sit with himself, who he really is, than go out at night pretending to be that which no one else can. In doing so, Matt Reeves' take on the Dark Knight levels-up the themes of escalation that Christopher Nolan explored deeply in his first two Batman films. How? By adding the organic and stunning complication that Batman's manor of seeking vengeance is a well-spring for all of the rogues in his gallery. When your supposed hero does more harm than good by way of his actions spawning equally-theatrical villains, how safe can you ever really be? How can Bruce Wayne live with himself by avenging his dead parents in a way that spawns the very crime and corruption he has vowed to stop? Worse, what does it say about a city that needs a hero like that to defend it from evils that their vigilante savior is largely responsible for?
There are no easy answers to those questions, as this iteration of Batman discovers through exciting bouts of kick-punching and one hell of a car chase involving the Batmobile. While The Batman thrives in the more dour corners of the interesting and complex questions its bloated story asks, it does so with a sophisticated level of introspection (and sexiness) that previous live-action Bat movies have never been afforded. And even if the final moments of the film set up a potential "been there, done that" feeling when it comes to where a sequel can take the character from here, it's a journey we are eager to be a part of.
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
Why is The Dark Knight sitting in the No. 2 spot on this list? Because it’s really about Heath Ledger’s Joker. That’s how indelible an impression the late actor’s penultimate film performance left on movie audiences when the middle movie in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy debuted in 2008, and it’s still the one that resonates with audiences today. Ledger borrowed liberally from Jack Nicholson’s gleeful portrayal of a villain fully committed to chaos — and then went deeper, mining the mind of a DC baddie who’d too often been played for lighter laughs. In the process, he created a Joker whose anarchic world view, dare we say it, made its own kind of solipsistic sense. The Dark Knight invites viewers to root for Batman (and all of Gotham City) while slyly recruiting their empathy over to the Joker’s side, rationalizing his desire to watch the world burn. That’s a tall order for a movie based on comic book characters, and none of it would have worked without Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance.
1. Batman Begins (2005)
“Why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
With those words and a cast of actors who seemed born for their roles, Christopher Nolan hit the reset button on the Batman movie legacy with an origin story that walked fans through every believable step in Bruce Wayne’s iconic personal journey. If Tim Burton’s Batman pointed the early way for a superhero movie revival, Batman Begins took the baton and ran with it, turning the 2005 film into a box office powerhouse — a full three years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe flickered to life with 2008’s Iron Man.
From Bruce Wayne’s first run-in with the League of Shadows to the final spectacular train crash that takes Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) out of the picture, not an ounce of fat hangs on the debut pairing between Nolan and pitch-perfect Batman actor Christian Bale. Buoyed by Nolan’s directing credibility, the movie was jammed with A-list stars (Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, Michael Caine as Pennyworth, Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes) who took their source material seriously — and it showed. If we can only take one Batman movie with us to Arkham, Batman Begins is it.