Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and The Dark Knight.
Photo: WB Animation and Warner Bros.
This article was originally published June 18, 2018. It’s been updated with the addition of new Batman movies, including Merry Little Batman.
When people argue about which version of Batman is best, the debate usually boils down to a preference between Adam West’s fun-loving TV version; Tim Burton’s nervy, bizarro treatment; and Christopher Nolan’s elegantly somber reboot. (Folks who try to bring up Joel Schumacher’s abominations or Ben Affleck’s Sad Bat are politely shown the door.)
With the addition of Robert Pattinson to the Caped Crusader cannon, we decided to weigh The Batman against the other Batflicks over the last 50 years — including Adam West’s Batman movie and other recent features like Batman: The Killing Joke, The Lego Batman Movie, and (dear God in heaven) Batman v. Superman.
First, some quick bits of housekeeping. For this list, we decided to forgo the 1940s Batman serials. Also, direct-to-video Batman animated movies didn’t count. And, finally, we dispensed with any films in which Gotham’s champion is merely a supporting character — so that disqualifies The Lego Movie and Suicide Squad. What we’re left with is 15 bona fide Batman movies — half of which we think are at least pretty darn great, and two more that we’d happily rewatch right now. This list was compiled by two people who think Batman is the best of all superheroes. We’re grateful that (for the most part) he’s been represented so well at the multiplex.
Sheesh, where to start? How about the fact that Batman — whose whole existence is based on not killing people — just mows people down with Batmobile machine guns and bombs like it’s nothing? Or the glum tone of relentless, thudding dipshittery? Or Jesse Eisenberg’s manic, what-in-the-world-is-he-doing Lex Luthor? Or the Martha thing? (Yeah, it’s probably the Martha thing.) It’s not Ben Affleck’s fault that this movie is so terrible and deadening, but his morose, glowering, joyless Batman has to serve as its public face regardless. This is worse than the worst of the Joel Schumacher movies because, at their worst, those were just dumb and cheesy. This is an all-out assault on the senses and the soul: It makes you feel bad for liking Batman, or movies, at all.
Give Joel Schumacher this: When he makes a calamity, he goes all the way. The costume designer turned filmmaker has often been at his best at his boldest: Think of the feverish angry-white-guy character study Falling Down or his relentlessly stripped-down war drama Tigerland. But for his second Batman film, Schumacher’s worst impulses took over. Yes, Batman & Robin really is as terrible as you’ve been told: a witless, hyperactive, childish cavalcade of terrible action sequences, campy performances, and unfunny lines. Worse, it’s all delivered with a petty impertinence, as if cast and crew want you to know how little they think of the material. Because Arnold Schwarzenegger was, deservedly, lambasted for his wooden portrayal as the pun-spouting Mr. Freeze, history has forgotten how equally disastrous Uma Thurman is as the awkwardly slinky Poison Ivy. When Batman & Robin opened in the summer of 1997, L.A. Weekly’s Ella Taylor observed, “There’s so much happening in the movie that it feels like nothing is happening at all.” Honestly, nothing happening at all is preferable to sitting through this monstrosity.
The best you can say about Justice League is that, well, at least it’s not as terrible as Batman v Superman, which introduced Ben Affleck as the latest incarnation of the Dark Knight. Batman is front and center in Justice League — which, like Batman v Superman, was directed by Zack Snyder (with an assist from Joss Whedon) — but Affleck’s uninspired portrayal of the iconic character is at least mitigated by the presence of Bruce Wayne’s super friends, most notably Gal Gadot’s righteous, compelling Wonder Woman. Affleck can be an affecting actor — ironically, he was really good in Hollywoodland, where he played George Reeves, the man who played Superman in the 1950s — but he seems completely thrown by Bruce Wayne’s haunted, melancholy essence. His Batman isn’t a figure of profound darkness — he’s just a mope, sucking any semblance of joy out of this unwieldy would-be epic. Batman may be the leader of this ragtag group of heroes, but Affleck lacks the charisma to make you believe anybody would follow him anywhere.
The famously polarizing Batman comic book lost quite a bit in the transition to theaters. It has all the hallmarks of the popular Batman: The Animated Series, including Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker, but the desire to darken the film up to an R rating took the character a step too far. This is basically Batman’s version of Logan, only animated and without the emotional resonance. The film also makes the strange decision to add a prologue for Batgirl, one that isn’t in the comic, in which she and Batman have sex. Is that something you want? Here it is:
The whole thing has a nastier vibe than you might want from your animated Batman movie. Hamill taking the Joker into scarier places has its appeal, but not enough.
Imagine a world in which Val Kilmer, Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, and Nicole Kidman were all in a movie together. And U2 and Seal both had big hits on the soundtrack. It happened 22 years ago … in the live-action Batman movie that’s probably least remembered. Other Caped Crusader films were bigger disasters, but Batman Forever’s grandest failing is how disposable it is. Taking over for Michael Keaton, Kilmer plays Bruce Wayne as a faintly put-upon hero, battling not just supervillains Two-Face (Jones) and the Riddler (Carrey), but also the lusty advances of a psychologist (Kidman) who wants to get under his Batsuit. Now most fondly known as the less-terrible Joel Schumacher Batman flick, Batman Forever is what happens when this inherently somber property decides to loosen up and have some fun. But — and this is important — it’s devoid of the smarts and impish wit that distinguishes a few lighter Batman movies higher up on our list. The only thing worth saving from this listless enterprise is Carrey’s go-for-broke portrayal — it’s a cackling, inspired performance of joyful dementedness that desperately needed a Burton or a Nolan to give it true epic force.
This animated doodle was sold to Amazon Prime during the WB-Discovery purge, which is to say, considering the fate of Batgirl, we should feel fortunate to be able to watch this at all. The charmingly slight premise here is that Batman (voiced by a laid-back Luke Wilson), upon becoming a father to a cute 8-year-old sprite, becomes a helicopter dad who’s terrified something will happen to his beloved boy and therefore won’t let him do anything even slightly dangerous. Inevitably, the kid wants to do some superheroing — he’s Batman’s kid, after all — and when he ends up stranded, Home Alone–style, in Wayne Manor over Christmas as criminals descend upon Gotham, he gets to step up and do some Bat-kid-ing. Unlike most of the other animated films on this list, it’s intended primarily for kids: It’s silly and light and doesn’t feature a lot of Bat-world in-jokes (other than giving Mr. Freeze a goofy Austrian accent). Your kids will love it, you’ll tolerate it, and you’ll both forget about it until next Christmas.
Made as a sort of promotional transition between the TV show’s first and second seasons, this is basically a long episode, albeit one that makes sure to get all the villains together. The Joker, Riddler, Penguin, and Catwoman — played by Lee Meriwether, rather than Julie Newmar, who had a scheduling conflict — band together to create “The United Underworld,” and, of course, the Dynamic Duo tries to stop them. This doesn’t particularly expand the show’s canvas, and it mostly just keeps that same wacky tone that Adam West & Co. cemented in the public imagination for decades to come — which is a feature, not a bug. In the wake of West’s death in June, there was a renewed appreciation for the innocence and fun of this era of Batman, and while we’ll confess to being more interested in Batman’s dark side, rather than his campy side, it’s impossible to deny that this Batman is fun.
2014’s The Lego Movie was a kaleidoscope of fizzy pop-culture jokes and giddy, frenetic action sequences. And Will Arnett’s tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the oh-so-dark Batman was one of its consistent pleasures. (“Darkness! No parents!”) The spinoff film is a full-on spoof of the Caped Crusader’s big-screen legacy, mocking all the different Batman iterations. Most specifically, though, it targets the brooding ethos that was at the heart of the Dark Knight trilogy — and, by extension, eviscerates the poisonous self-importance of Zack Snyder’s lumbering, atrocious Batman v Superman. Sure, that’s a one-joke premise, but The Lego Batman Movie ends up being surprisingly dexterous, as director Chris McKay and his bevy of screenwriters attack our modern glut of superhero movies from every angle. Meta to the max, The Lego Batman Movie rewards all of us nerds who have wasted so much of our lives obsessing over Batman minutiae, throwing in nods to obscure villains and costumes from the Adam West series and the 1990s animated show. Plus, no Dick Grayson has even been more fragile or adorable than Michael Cera, playing the sweet orphan who may just teach this blowhard how to get in touch with his feelings.
In between Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher’s Batman films, Warner Bros. produced the innovative Batman: The Animated Series, which was surprisingly sophisticated and serious for a kids’ show. This iteration of the Batman legend came to the big screen for Mask of the Phantasm, an impressively complex 76-minute tale that deftly mixes a love story, Bruce Wayne’s tragic past, the scene-stealing Joker, and a mystery into a intricate, flashback-laden narrative. Juilliard-trained actor Kevin Conroy plays Wayne, who is reacquainted with Andrea (Dana Delany), an old flame who mysteriously dropped out of his life years ago. At the same time, he’s forced to contend with a new menace in Gotham: A shadowy, murderous masked figure whose cape makes him look an awful lot like Batman. While it reimagines Wayne’s past as a trauma he shares with Andrea (she lost her mom), Mask of the Phantasm is surprisingly sexy, touching, and emotionally astute. And Mark Hamill nicely channels Cesar Romero’s lunatic laugh for his portrayal of the Joker. If you’re looking for a Batman movie to get your young kids hooked on this superhero for life, Mask ought to do the trick.
It would have been impossible to live up to The Dark Knight — and this doesn’t, something Christopher Nolan seems to concede by steering the franchise into more traditional comic-book tropes. (Before this film, it would have been impossible to imagine Robin in a Nolan universe.) But just because this feels like a letdown after The Dark Knight doesn’t mean it’s not still a crackerjack work, full of the big swings that Nolan can’t help himself from taking. Tom Hardy is a hulking force of nature, even if the movie’s nods to Occupy Wall Street don’t quite land; you still see the chaos of Bane on the horizon. The sequence in which Bane sets off bombs throughout Gotham is still one of Nolan’s great set pieces, particularly if you were fortunate enough to see it in Imax. And Anne Hathaway is low-key solid as Catwoman (as much as anything can be low-key in these movies). The ending still feels perfunctory and even a little pandering, and you sense that Nolan was just about out of ideas at this point, but it still does the trilogy proud.
The comparisons to Seven and Chinatown raise the bar too high, setting fans up for disappointment. But we’ll say that Matt Reeves’s reimagining — more of a refinement, really — is a pretty terrific crime saga, focusing on a Batman who’s still learning the ropes, not fully confident in his role as Gotham’s champion. That’s too bad considering that the Riddler (Paul Dano) is making the city a nightmare, methodically killing high-ranking officials and leaving clues for the Dark Knight to unravel. Robert Pattinson is a wonderfully gloomy Bruce Wayne, but the real star might be The Batman’s sumptuous visual style. Beautifully photographed by Greig Fraser, the film oozes noir atmosphere and shadowy intrigue, giving us a world haunted by crime and grief. At three hours, the movie has its missteps. But anyone who loves their Batman to be no-fuss and impossibly mythic, here’s the film for you.
In the decades since Adam West’s cheeky Batman television series, the Caped Crusader’s handlers have yo-yoed between presenting the superhero as a ludicrous, self-mocking figure (the Joel Schumacher films) and a brooding, somber tragedy (the Christopher Nolan films). In retrospect, what’s most satisfying about Batman is that director Tim Burton got to have it both ways. At the time, this urban, Gothic action-thriller seemed incredibly dark — way kinkier than the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, and certainly edgier than West’s show. But in the nearly 30 years since it debuted, this Batman now stands as a surprisingly funny comic-book flick, one that cares about the psychology of its characters, but also enjoys making light of the weirdness inherent in grown men running around in costumes. Playing the Joker as a whacked-out showboat, Jack Nicholson doesn’t have time for your complaints that this once-titanic actor has devolved into a shameless ham — he basically dares Michael Keaton’s buttoned-down Batman to stop him. The imbalance in their performances is what gives Batman its spark: Our hero is noble, but muted and tormented, while his nemesis is a gloriously unhinged man free of such hang-ups. Who’s to say which character is really the more troubled?
The first, massively successful Batman gave Tim Burton the cachet to make his own, truly Burton Batman, and the result was this weird, lonely, aching blockbuster about a bunch of souls in pain who also happen to be extremely famous comic-book characters. Danny DeVito’s Penguin is grotesque and repulsive, but he’s also another of Burton’s damaged souls; the first image of the movie depicts his parents abandoning him. Batman himself is lost and terrified — remember, the culminating image of the finale features him tearing his mask off and begging to be loved. The key to this all was Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, who is sexy and scary and forever in danger of spiraling gloriously out of control. This movie was way too strange to be the tentpole Warner Bros. wanted, and they quite reasonably, if ultimately foolishly, tried to steer the franchise back to steadier, more mainstream waters. But this film, in a way, is peak Burton, before Burton receded too far into Depp Blockbuster Land: His own obsessions, the lives of outcast weirdoes, splayed out for the whole planet to see.
You could argue that the modern comic-book movie — and Hollywood’s obsession with dark reboots of its biggest franchises — began on January 27, 2003. That’s when Warner Bros. announced it was tapping Christopher Nolan to direct a new Batman film. “All I can say is that I grew up with Batman, I’ve been fascinated by him and I’m excited to contribute to the lore surrounding the character,” the director said at the time. “He is the most credible and realistic of the superheroes, and has the most complex human psychology. His superhero qualities come from within. He’s not a magical character.” That emphasis on the Caped Crusader’s dark mental makeup informs every moment of Batman Begins, which didn’t just wipe away the neon inanity of Joel Schumacher’s mid-to-late-’90s installments, but created a template for other studios to follow to revive their moribund properties. Here was a film that actually took Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma seriously, casting Christian Bale as a distant, uncertain playboy who was crippled inside — becoming Batman not because he loved the gadgets, but because he desperately needed a way to exorcise the pain of seeing his parents murdered. Beautifully cast from top to bottom — Gary Oldman was a sublime choice for James Gordon; Michael Caine a delightfully droll and compassionate Alfred — Batman Begins brilliantly kick-started a trilogy that would compellingly examine how darkness can consume both heroes and villains. And the follow-up was even better.
Epic, magisterial, and still intensely relevant, Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece changed both what a superhero movie could be and what a blockbuster could be — in ways we’re still dealing with nearly a decade later. Nolan turned his Batman movie into a moral crime thriller, in which Batman himself is sort of an irrelevant character who must accept the ramifications of the madness he unwittingly unleashed on Gotham merely by existing. (The only characters with real arcs are Two-Face and Commissioner Gordon, not that they end up in particularly happy places.) And, of course, there’s Heath Ledger’s Joker, a menace so terrifying and unknowable that it feels like Nolan and the actor dug up something from so deep within that it was almost too much to handle. This remains the best comic-book movie of all time. Everyone’s still trying to make this movie, for better and for worse.
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