June 2020 is full of Batman milestones. With Batman Begins and Batman Forever celebrating their 15th and 25th anniversaries, respectively, and with the recent news that Michael Keaton is in talks to don the cowl again in the upcoming The Flash movie, the Dark Knight is once again reminding us why he's the hero we need right now.
Batman fans wouldn't be where we are now if not for Christopher Nolan unveiling his take on the iconic DC hero 15 years ago this month. On June 15, 2005, Nolan and his team ushered in a new area of comic book filmmaking that elevated the genre in ways that would light the fuse on a resurgence in the genre that audiences are still experiencing to this day. Studios and fans were not prepared for how Batman Begins, and its landmark sequel, The Dark Knight, would — to paraphrase Joker — change things forever. Nolan's first Batman film proved that the genre can produce movies that can be just as compelling, and taken just as seriously, as other dramas. Just with more kick-punching.
DC's big-screen output for the last 40 years has been more miss than hit, especially in the post-Nolan era. In celebration of all things Batman in recent weeks, here's a ranking of every theatrical release based on a DC comics property released via the company's home studio, Warner Bros. (Sorry, 20th Century Fox's 1966 Batman: The Movie starring Adam West.)
The epitome of “how-did-this-movie-get-made?!” mockery, Catwoman is a rudderless, overproduced insult to narrative storytelling. (Halle Berry deserves so much better). Edited and shot as though it was everyone’s first time using Avid or a camera, this notorious box office and creative flop has wisely been all but forgotten as something people thought it was a good idea to spend millions of dollars on.
Jonah Hex (2010)
Before finding success in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Thanos, Josh Brolin headlined this 2010 misfire — a movie so infamously terrible that the best its own leading man could say about it is that he “hated” it.
The most painful part about Jonah Hex is how obvious the studio tinkering is with it. You can see the seams of hasty reshoots that tried to save this movie but just made it worse. More disappointing? All the pieces for an entertaining horror-western starring the DC fan-favorite character are there — they’re just squandered in favor of jerky camera moves and soulless set pieces.
Judd Nelson shady military baddie vs. Shaquille O’Neal’s titular hero sounds like a fever dream but, no, that’s just how the late ‘90s rolled.
Director Kenneth Johnson (NBC’s V) executes what feels like a TV movie pretending to be a wannabe summer blockbuster, one void of nuance or humor. Shaq has charisma for days, but he feels miscast as the blue-collar superhero that came out of DC’s iconic Reign of the Supermen run. If Steel is remembered for anything, it’s how hard the marketing and story worked to distance it from its source material.
The Return of Swamp Thing (1989)
Swamp Thing is one of the best DC characters that has yet to find a truly great movie or TV enterprise. He, and fans, deserve better — The Return of Swamp Thing is not it.
On a list of greatest guilty pleasures ever, Return of Swamp Thing would rank considerably high. But, as a DC comics adaptation, this campy and low-budget entry is one of the genre’s biggest head-scratchers. Heather Locklear’s chemistry opposite Dick Durock’s Swamp Thing is, uh, a sight to behold.
Supergirl is a bad, campy spinoff of Christopher Reeve’s Superman franchise that has no awareness that it is bad and campy. The best thing the movie pulls off is casting Helen Slater in the titular role; you instantly buy her as Kal-El’s superpowered cousin, it’s too bad the production couldn’t afford her a movie worthy of her considerable screen presence. (But we do get Faye Dunaway’s vampy villain.)
Suicide Squad (2016)
What a… twisted mess. Yes, Warner Bros. infamously tinkered with director David Ayer’s tonally inconsistent DC outing but as the writer and director, the buck stops with Ayer for both the movie’s failures and successes. No one wanted his gritty-for-gritty’s sake take on Joker — or Jared Leto’s performance of it — but he committed fully to executing that which is one of many dissonant pieces of this Frankenstien’d together blockbuster. Suicide Squad was so mishandled and poorly received that its studio announced its rebootquel three years after its release. Here’s hoping James Gunn can do for DC’s R-rated “Dirty Dozen” what he did for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
Batman & Robin (1997)
23 years after its release, the genre is still suffering the consequences of Batman & Robin.
The late director Joel Schumacher doubles-down on his campy take on the Dark Knight to deliver the feature-film equivalent of a cautionary tale — one that subsequent comic book movies have strived to not be for more than two decades. George Clooney seems embarrassed to be both Bruce Wayne and Batman whenever either character goes up against a scene-chewing Rogue’s Gallery headlined by Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman). And, because the movie couldn’t settle for just being overstuffed, it further bloats the plot with an underserved Batgirl storyline. Its over-commitment to shots of the Bat Crotch, too many ice puns, and neon everything hurt the Batman brand so bad, it took eight years for the healing process to start with Christopher Nolan.
Green Lantern (2011)
It’s hard to imagine a more mismatched director with a film in the modern blockbuster era than Martin Campbell and Green Lantern.
Another wannabe DC franchise that sputtered out on the launch pad, the Campbell that gave us the modern classic Casino Royale seems totally disengaged from the material — not that you can blame him, given the shallow script’s emphasis on world building over characters worth spending time in those worlds with. Ryan Reynolds is a serviceable Hal Jordan, and his screen presence helps carry the movie when it frequently sags. But nothing can save a movie whose ultimate Big Bad, Parallax, is brought to life in a way that resembles a giant cloud of CG poop.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
How on Earth did this one, normal-length movie pack in so much awful. It’s impressive, almost.
From Nuclear Man’s laughable character design, to the low-budget production’s constant re-use of stock Superman flying effects shot, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace seems cursed for badness from the jump. It’s unfortunate that Christoper Reeve’s final Superman movie would negatively impact the great franchise he started. It’s only saving graces? A mad-cap sequence where Superman and Clark Kent have to be in two different places at the same time and Reeve’s performance as Superman while giving an impassioned speech at the UN about the need for nuclear disarmament.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
The “Martha” issues aside, Batman v Superman is a marketing ploy disguised as a “serious” blockbuster. Zack Snyder, who already showed he didn’t understand what makes Superman tick in Man of Steel, applies that same misguided ethos to the Dark Knight. The end result is a messy and soulless mash-up that tarnishes the brands of DC’s two most iconic heroes. With a script co-written by Argo’s Chris Terrio, BvS puts Ben Affleck’s Batman through an excessively-violent lens that is more of a misplaced homage to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns than a logical or necessary exploration of the character.
Shoehorning the charismatic Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman into the movie is a welcomed but narratively-problematic addition, but it’s better than how poorly executed the Doomsday plot line is. (And, don’t forget that, when we first meet Superman in the opening scenes, he straight-up murders a random bad guy.)
James Wan’s bloated CG-fest doesn’t know if it wants to be a straight-laced Marvel movie in tone or an underwater, Flash Gordon-y guilty pleasure. It succeeds at pulling off neither.
Aquaman is stuck with Jason Mamoa’s “Aqua Bro” interpretation of the character; a Spencer’s Gifts black-light poster come to life who, despite being one of the smartest characters in the DCU, mocks that intelligence. (But the hero is totally fine using it when it helps him solve a wannabe Da Vinci Code-esque mystery in the second act.)
Warner Bros. execs thought that Aquaman fans wanted a movie that sees the King of the Seas playing National Treasure in a desert. (Maybe they wanted to give us a break from the weird CG hair effects when the characters are underwater?) What few points it scores are in its brazen, “kitchen sink” approach. Every idea the filmmakers had seemingly made it on screen. If Aquaman succeeds at anything, it’s not being afraid to take big, pulp-y creative swings at a time when DC’s films mostly played it safe.
While Aquaman was a bigger hit than Warner Bros. was expecting, here’s hoping the sequel gets right what this tonally scattershot and heartless blockbuster got wrong.
Justice League (2017)
Justice League’s third act is one of the most fun live-action exercises in DC’s history. Whatever reshoots Joss Whedon contributed to these sequences, which inject the drab Snyderverse movie with some of the charm and wit and fun of Whedon’s first Avengers movie, they tease fans with the Justice League team-up they have been dreaming about for decades. (From Aquaman sitting on Diana’s truth lasso, to Superman bantering with Flash, the movie just works).
Outside of those moments, it is hard to connect with or feel compelled to watch the first live-action Justice League movie that sidelines Superman for most of its run time. (That would be like Avengers keeping Iron Man out of the action until two-thirds in.)
Despite HBO Max promising to spend tens of millions of dollars to finish a long-desired Snyder Cut of the movie, fans may regret wishing for more of a story its own studio didn’t want until fans took to bullying online to get it.
Batman Forever (1995)
Batman Forever was a huge hit, but that doesn’t mean it is remotely a good movie. In fact, you can make a strong argument that it is one of the worst Batman movies.
Why? Because it would have you believe that Bruce Wayne would ever forget — or need reminding — about why he puts on the cape and cowl. Obviously, Joel Schumacher and co-writer Akiva Goldsman didn’t seem bothered by that core flaw to the story — maybe because they were distracted by the infamous nipples on the Batsuit — or Jim Carrey’s excessive hamminess as the Riddler.
Superman III (1983)
The third film in Christopher Reeve's run as Superman is definitely the Batman Forever of the franchise. With a Lex Luthor-lite villain and a woefully out-of-place Richard Pryor serving up problematic comic relief, Superman III captured little of what made the first two movies great. But, at least, it gave us an entertaining junkyard brawl between Clark Kent and evil, five-o'clock shadowed, day-drinking Superman.
The Losers (2010)
The Losers’ lackluster box office aside, this adaptation of the popular Vertigo comic isn’t the terrible flop fandom would have you believe it to be. The Losers is a confidently-executed (if, at times, unwieldy) blast of ‘80s action movie fun, with an ensemble cast headlined by Zoe Saldana, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Chris Evans that has charisma for days. Bonus points for Jason Patric’s love-to-hate performance as the slick, corrupt baddie, Max, who is hellbent on upending our commandos’ action-packed mission.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
As a trilogy capper, The Dark Knight Rises is both too much and not enough. It is a movie that you can tell Christopher Nolan had many ideas for and wanted to tell, but his heart just wasn’t in it. At least not as much as it was in his previous two installments.
Bane's voice is the least of the film's problems, as The Dark Knight Rises 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 TDKR operates as if they did. Also, Bruce Wayne is saddled with the somewhat dull arc that has him go from being retired to being really retired. While Bale gives arguably his most entertaining performance as the Dark Knight (Batman cracks jokes!), Christopher Nolan's grasp can't match his reach in this overstuffed and undercooked threequel.
Swamp Thing (1982)
Wes Craven’s first (and only) comic book movie suffers from extreme low-budget limitations that the director overcomes with a straightforward and, at times, surprisingly resonant, Frankenstein story about Dr. Alec Holland (Ray Wise) and his moss-covered alter ego. It is a slow-burn to the lab accident that turns Holland into Swampy, but the wait is worth it as Craven goes into full spooky revenge movie mode against the evil scientist that made him this way. Adrienne Barbeau helps ground the B-movie proceedings with her earnest performance.
No, Constantine is not a very faithful adaptation of the source material. But on its own merits as a supernatural action movie, it's an entertaining and inventive ride — thanks in large part to a very game Keanu Reeves in the titular role. And any movie with Tilda Swinton as the Archangel Gabriel is worth a watch.
Director Zack Snyder’s insistence that Watchmen be faithful to its source material is both the movie’s biggest draw and most problematic choice. Less concerned with interpreting the material in his own unique and manageable way as he is executing panels with obsessive fidelity, Snyder adapts the heralded graphic novel in a way that dials up the violence with his patented under-cranked style but without carrying over much of the nuance that made the graphic novel such an essential read.
While lacking the consistent tension of the comic, Watchmen does succeed at bringing Rorschach to life — thanks to Jackie Earle Haley’s performance that seemingly taps into how fans have imagined this character to sound and move in live-action. The movie also does an earnest job with its unflinching approach to Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) and his tragic origin story.
Man of Steel (2013)
Everyone had high hopes for Zack Snyder’s big-budget Supes reboot, especially with DC riding high on Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Unfortunately, Man of Steel borrowed way too much from those movies, presenting Superman as a brooding, reluctant hero with a casual attitude towards murder.
Henry Cavill was (and still is) a good Superman in search of a great movie. It’s just a shame that DC’s attempt at a cinematic universe began with a dour movie that showcases such a disregard for human collateral damage that later superhero movies would go out of their way to show they weren’t like Man of Steel. Attention must be paid, however, to Man of Steel’s impressive world building during the prologue set on Krypton, and it’s grounded approach to a young and lost Clark Kent figuring out his place in a world that’s as alien to him as he is to it. This aspect of the story affords the film with its beating heart, especially in scenes where Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) struggle to help their son make sense of his newfound powers.
Cavill’s chemistry with Amy Adams’ charming Lois Lane, along with the impressive visual effects and Hans Zimmer score, help make Man of Steel one of the DCEU’s better (if somewhat uneven) entries.
Superman Returns (2006)
Warner Bros. brass made the dubious choice to position Superman Returns as a sidequel to the original Richard Donner films, rather than do a complete reboot a la Batman Begins. The result was that Returns channeled some of the appeal of those films, but never escaped their shadow.
While Returns is overly concerned with being a love letter to the previous era, and as a result struggles to establish its own touchstones, the movie does succeed at finally giving Superman the big-budget canvas the character deserves. It also doesn’t shy from the then-novel approach of having Superman expand more upon his heartfelt relationship with his adoptive mother, Martha (the great Eve Marie Saint). The story doubles-down on the themes of identity, and the cost of leaving the only home you’ve ever known, Earth, in search of what’s left of the one that’s long been gone.
At the time of release, almost 20 years had passed since audiences saw Supes on the big screen. When Returns finally reveals Brandon Routh’s Last Son of Krypton in action, it’s a riveting and inventive aerial sequence where he has to save a passenger jet (and the space shuttle attached to it) from crashing into a baseball stadium full of fans. There’s a certain awe to this sequence (thanks to that classic John Williams theme) that is missing from the current take on the classic hero. And while fans like Kevin Smith complained that Superman doesn’t get to punch anyone in this movie, that didn’t seem to be a problem in 1978 when Reeve’s Man of Steel didn’t punch anyone, either.
V For Vendetta (2005)
As with Watchmen, V for Vendetta is a valiant attempt at adapting a classic Alan Moore graphic novel that comes very close to capturing the appeal of the source material.
More timely now than upon its original release, Vendetta offers an action-packed plea for how to fix what ails our society before someone in a Guy Hawks mask does it for us. Speaking of that mask, Hugo Weaving’s impressive work behind it is one of the genre’s most under-appreciated performances. What Weaving lacks in terms of being able to express with his eyes and face he more than makes up for with the passion in his voice. Natalie Portman has the unenviable task of helping sell her character and V’s complicated relationship, but her sympathetic and impassioned portrayal pulls it off effortlessly.
V for Vendetta isn’t a perfect adaptation, but what it gets right provides a never-dull, action-heavy alternative to your average dystopian thriller.
If the divisive, billion-dollar grossing Joker succeeds at anything, it’s finding a way to subvert expectations on what a comic book movie can do and be. Producer and director Todd Phillips, and Best Actor Oscar-winner Joaquin Phoenix, bring to life a Clown Prince of Crime who doesn’t need much of a push before becoming Batman’s greatest nemesis in this R-rated, violent, and tragic character study
Arthur’s life choices have already brought him teetering on the edge of sanity long before audiences are first introduced to him, which begets the question as to why the movie would try to engender our sympathies for a man who seemingly would rather embrace his broken self than push back at a society that says he will be nothing more than that.
In a post-Nolan era, the timely (if problematic) story and themes the jittery Joker takes on are unheard of for a major studio release. The end result made a considerable dent in pop-culture, even if the conversation led to less-than-desirable takeaways.
Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)
Like most post-Suicide Squad movies in the DCEU, Birds of Prey suffers from excessive helicopter parenting from studio execs that muddies its narrative throughline seemingly for the sake of satisfying whatever marketing metrics execs use to motivate such tinkering. But, unlike those films, it overcomes its problems in post-production to deliver one of the most exciting and original blockbusters ever attempted.
Birds of Prey features some of the best action scenes in the entire DC canon, like a chaotic fun house battle royale, and what might be the franchise’s most likable and watchable ensemble, which includes Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as The Huntress. Their chemistry, coupled with Cathy Yen’s deft direction, results in a charming and effective entertainment despite its story flaws. In a just world, at least two more installments would have been greenlit by now.
The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
The Lego Batman Movie is exactly what fans needed after the crushing disappointment that was BvS. While not quite as excellent as its predecessor, The LEGO Movie, this spinoff delivers a zany, epic adventure that pokes fun at pretty much every corner of the franchise, even as it offers a more faithful take on the Dark Knight than most of DC's live-action movies.
One of the reasons Shazam! works so well is that it largely ignores the “dark and dour” tone most of the DCEU was built upon. Bright, bubbly, and beholden to its lovably cheesy source material (but never slavishly so), it's a coming-of-age comedy hiding out in a big-budget comic book movie that you can't help but love.
Zachary Levi gives the DCEU a strong dose of Ryan Reynolds-like charm and fun as the titular character, as director David F. Sandberg. executes an entertaining, four-quadrant crowd-pleaser that’s both comic book hero origin story and a comedy-drama with a lot of heavy themes to explore — like family and what it takes to be a hero. Those aren’t easy needles to thread, especially for a big-budget studio film, but Shazam! pulls it off with endlessly-rewatchable ease.
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.
"Love that Joker!" The Batman franchise was still trying to establish itself outside of the shadow of the campy 1960s 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 Keaton proved the naysayers wrong with his perfect performance that would set the tone for all future wearers of the cowl. Sure, the Prince soundtrack might not hold up, but the gritty tone and lead performances — especially Jack Nicholson's cackling and snarling Joker — do.
Superman II (1981)
While a little rougher around the edges than its predecessor (in part because of behind-the-scenes drama), Superman II remains one of DC's best. This sequel pits the Man of Steel against three rogue Kryptonians, and — in the process — made the phrase "Kneel before Zod!" part of the pop-culture lexicon. Superman II holds up even better now, thanks to the release of "The Donner Cut" a few years ago.
Wonder Woman (2017)
Wonder Woman beat Marvel to the punch with the first major comic book movie featuring a female lead. It’s still crazy that it took that long to happen, because studios are terrible.
Director Patty Jenkins — one of the few women to headline a superhero movie, although they’re increasingly more common, thankfully — created a heartfelt and action-packed blockbuster. Her Wonder Woman takes the Amazonian princess seriously but not Too Seriously — resulting in a movie that’s All Quiet On the Western Front starring a hero who wields a truth lasso and sword. As Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot seems to collect one iconic moment after another — especially that WWI trench scene. Wonder Woman came out just as the #MeToo movement really started to heat up, and combined with an ever-louder audience demand for a superheroine, both of which helped make Wonder Woman a movie all audiences needed and deserved. It’s just too bad we had to wait so long for it.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
For some fans, 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 animated entries in the Batman canon could be as nuanced. If you haven't seen this film, fix that.
Superman: The Movie (1978)
Richard Donner’s first Superman movie promised "You'll believe a man can fly." And, boy, did it deliver.
For whatever problems the film might have, script-wise, or the potential dated feel of certain flying effects (that were state-of-the-art at the time), this tonally-perfect adventure brought Superman to life like no movie before or since. There's a reason we still regard Christopher Reeve as the definitive Man of Steel.
Batman Begins (2005)
For the first time in his big screen career, Batman was actually scary on screen. Bale's Dark Knight was a legitimately menacing presence, thanks to Christopher Nolan's grounded take on — and necessary reimagining — of 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 DC hero. That is, until a guy with pockets full of knives and lint came shambling along...
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 actioner has as much in common with Michael Mann’s classic crime thriller, Heat, as it does with preceding Batman films. This time around, the battle between Batman and Joker boils over into a battle for Gotham's soul. The late Heath Ledger still gives the greatest performance as Joker, one you still marvel at with every rewatch of this seminal film. The Dark Knight continues to be that which all comic book movies, especially DC’s output, are measured by. So far, more than a decade since its release, no film has topped it.