Every theatrical Batman film, ranked

Every theatrical Batman film, ranked
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Whatever name you prefer to call him by—Batman, the Batman, Batsy, the Caped Crusader, the World’s Greatest Detective, the Dark Knight, the Dork Knight, Beloved—Bruce Wayne’s alter ego has taken many forms over the years in his efforts to protect Gotham from clowns, plant ladies, and that one guy who just likes to shoot ketchup and mustard at people. Sometimes he growls incomprehensibly. Sometimes he ice skates. Sometimes he’s actually just LEGO bricks. But he always stands for justice and absolutely never kills anyone (most of the time).

For over 50 years, Batman has graced the big screen, portrayed through visionaries as diverse as Joel Schumacher and Christopher Nolan. In 2022, director Matt Reeves delivers the 11th solo theatrical Batman feature with Robert Pattinson under the cowl and Zoë Kravitz, Colin Farrell, and Paul Dano playing three of the Dark Knight’s most famous villains: Catwoman, Penguin, and Riddler.

To celebrate this newest take on the Bat, here is every solo theatrical Batman film ranked—minus, for now, the latest entry.

Quick, to the Bat-ranking!

10. Batman & Robin (1997)

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Batman & Robin a misunderstood masterpiece of superhero cinema, but I will say it just might be the best trashy midnight movie the world has not yet learned to take proper advantage of. When viewed through the right lens (and with expectations and intellects checked fully at the door), Batman & Robin is an absolute blast.

Here are the first 10 pages of Akiva Goldsman’s script condensed:

Batman and Robin suit up to respond to mayhem in the city. Through lens-shattering zoom-ins we discover their chest armor now comes with nipples. Robin complains about not having a Robinmobile (tell the execs not to worry, we’ll see a Robincycle in just a bit). George Clooney deadpans, “This is why Superman works alone.” Hot minute later, Batman and Robin are skating on ice and playing hockey with a diamond against Arnold Schwarzenegger’s glow-in- the-dark goons. After exhausting what may just be every ice pun in existence (spoiler: there are more to come—so many more), Arnie escapes in a spaceship, which he’ll soon abandon by sprouting mechanical wings so B&R can surf after him through the clouds above Gotham in free-fall. Robin gets to say, “Cowabunga.”

And that’s just the first 10 minutes.

But here’s the thing: as bonkers as that sounds (and it is even more bonkers to watch), everybody involved knows just what kind of film they’re making, and they all dial the ham to 11. Uma Thurman and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze would fit right in with the exaggerated performances and manic energy of the villains on the ’60s Batman TV show. And while no Adam West, Clooney plays his deadpan Dark Knight just right and flashes that Bat-credit card like nobody’s business.

So the whole thing was a big cash grab built completely around the idea of having as many flashy vehicles and costume changes as possible so they could fill the retail shelves with B&R toys.

Batman & Robin isn’t the last film on this list to just be one really long commercial in disguise. Saddled with the demand to go bigger and splashier, Schumacher at least made it all as goofy and entertaining as possible.

Except for that pretty grim subplot about Alfred dying ... yeah, this film’s a mess.

9. Batman: The Movie (1966)

Speaking of the ’60s Batman TV show ... it came with a movie!

Apparently, this theatrical feature came about as a way of bringing wider audiences to the show. But the show became so successful on its own it ended up not needing the movie’s help. Regardless, Batman: The Movie is a delightful slice of ‘60s camp that sees four of Batman’s most nefarious villains (Joker, Catwoman, Penguin, and Riddler) teaming up to take on not Gotham but the world.

The plot, which has something to do with pirates and a ray-gun that can handily remove and return every drop of moisture in the human body, is as outlandish as they come. But that’s precisely the kind of world Adam West’s and Burt Ward’s Batman and Robin inhabit. It’s a world where the Batcopter comes fully stocked with Oceanic Repellent Bat-sprays in four varieties (barracuda, whale, manta ray, and shark) and where Penguin can be casually sold a pre-atomic submarine by the US Navy by using the alias P. N. Guin.

The deadpan delivery of Adam West and Burt Ward plays in wonderful contrast to the quartet of Burgess Meredith, Cesar Romero, Lee Meriwether, and Frank Gorshin repeatedly out-crazying one another with Olympic breath control.

Despite being a theatrical release, the film does still very much have a TV-budget feel. It also starts to run out of steam a bit by the final act, suggesting this brand of comedy might play better in the 30-minute format after all. But the colorful BLUURP!s and KER-PLOP!s accompanying the punch-out with the pirates helps pick things up toward the end and Burgess Meredith’s wah-wah-wahhhs simply never get old.

Most enduring moment: Batman racing around a dock with a lit bomb held over his head, running into a lady pushing a baby carriage, a marching band, a couple of nuns, or adorable little duckies every which way he turns. We know how you feel, Batman. We’ve all been there.

8. Batman Forever (1995)

Joel Schumacher’s first and more serious attempt at putting the Caped Crusader on the big screen is nothing if not entertaining. At times, it feels like some bonkers comic strip come to life with canted angles capturing Batman slugging it out with Two-Face’s gang while Elliot Goldenthal’s trumpets blare cartoonishly. At other times, Forever plays like some cool noir with smoke billowing by rotating fans while Nicole Kidman and Val Kilmer trade lines out of a ’40s serial.

While Schumacher plays up the camp of ’60s Batman in big, zany, colorful ways, he also treats his heroes’ unmasked selves mostly seriously. Kilmer’s underrated Bruce Wayne sees his own childhood tragedy reflected in what becomes of the trapeze-swinging family of his young ward, Dick Grayson, grounding the film with a needed sense of drama. A good thing too, as the combo of Riddler and Two-Face would be more than enough of the opposite for one film to handle.

When they met, Tommy Lee Jones famously told Jim Carrey, “I cannot sanction your buffoonery.” That statement alone somehow seems to perfectly define both their performances here.

Their hyperventilating attempts to outdo one another in sheer, manic expenditure of energy are at times exhausting. But the two sure are memorable, and their pairing, like sinking a shot of espresso in an energy drink, helps make Forever the ambitious and often quite over-the-top extravaganza it is.

(Also, shout out to Seal. “Kiss From a Rose” was and still is way legit.)

7. The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)

A movie that’s played fully for laughs where all the characters are LEGO and where Batman angrily beatboxes at Alfred was never going to seriously compete with the greater portion of cinematic Bat-features. But goshdarnit, The LEGO Batman Movie is still so much fun.

The humor is smart and impeccably timed and geared just as much toward adults as kids without resorting to innuendo. From Zac Snyder to Tim Burton to Batman: The Animated Series and the ’40s serials, no corner of Bat-history is left unparodied. The Easter eggs even extend to the greater DC universe when Batman stumbles upon a Justice League party he wasn’t invited to at Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

Amidst all the jokes and the frantic energy that propels the whole thing from start to finish, LEGO Batman also takes time out for the human side of the Dark Knight, touching on the relationship issues Batman has with everyone from Commissioner Barbara Gordon (cue ‘80s love ballad) to his accidentally-adopted-son-turned-sidekick to the Joker himself.

Things get a little out of hand toward the end when Sauron from The Lord of the Rings is turning Gotham’s city center into a bottomless abyss and Joe Dante’s gremlins are running amok, but by and large this is a brisk and often downright hilarious tour through the colorful history of cinematic Batman. You’ll even forget that what you’re really watching is the world’s longest and most entertaining commercial.

6. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Leave it to Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Alan Burnett, and the rest of the brains behind Batman: The Animated Series to tell one of the most emotionally stirring Bat-tales via cartoon.

Way before Christopher Nolan sent Christian Bale soul-searching in the Himalayas, Mask of the Phantasm delved deep into the origins of the Dark Knight, considering both the possibility of the happy future Bruce Wayne might have once had a shot at and the tragic circumstances that led him to take up the life of a vigilante.

Despite the natural limitations of telling a really character-driven story in 2D and with a runtime of less than an hour and 20 minutes, Phantasm does a better job of getting at what drives Bruce Wayne to don the cape and cowl than most of its live-action counterparts. Make no mistake, this is not simply some extended Saturday morning cartoon. With mob bosses getting whacked left and right, hearts poured out before family graves, new love torn asunder, and Mark Hamill’s cackling Joker more terrifying and deranged than ever, Mask of the Phantasm is nourishment for those who crave rich storytelling over rapid-fire puns and explosions.

5. The Dark Knight (2008)

I realize I run the risk of having to turn in my Bat-membership card by ranking The Dark Knight anywhere but first on this list—and ranking it fifth might actually land me in Arkham. But let me say this, “This may not be the ranking The Dark Knight deserves, but it’s the one it needs right now.”

I also realize that’s not helping my case.

Before I lose you completely ... Heath Ledger was fantastic, wasn’t he? For all the beef I have with The Dark Knight, Ledger’s performance truly was one for the ages and fully deserving of the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. Whether aggressively licking his lip scars or erupting into psychotic laughter, Ledger fully embodies his Joker, delivering a character so rich in nuance and psychology he may simply never be surpassed by future portrayals of comic book villains.

The film surrounding this legendary performance of Ledger’s serves the role of bridging Nolan’s trilogy by earning Batman the hatred of the city he protects and launching him into his darkest hour. And a lot of other material is tackled along the way: copycat Batmans, mob rivalry, Russian ballerinas in Hong Kong, political assassinations, the death of the love of Bruce Wayne’s life, the ethical implications of illegal surveillance, sundry other moral and philosophical questions raised in the scene with the two boats, a story about a tangerine, and quite astoundingly the entirety of Harvey Dent’s arc as Two-Face shoehorned into the final 25 minutes.

It’s a lot, and structurally The Dark Knight only balances it all so well, leaving a brilliant performance by Heath Ledger amidst a solidly good but maybe not greatest of all time Batman film. I will now climb onto my Batcycle and dramatically race up an on-ramp in the hope the movie’s title and end credits arrive before the mob does.

4. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Nolan had quite the task ahead of him as he headed into the final installment of his Dark Knight trilogy. He had to tie up story threads from both The Dark Knight and Batman Begins while introducing a whole new team of villains and somehow close the chapter on his version of Gotham’s crusader. That Nolan managed to pull it off at all is certainly something. That he pulled it off with such style and spectacle is a feat indeed.

Bringing things full circle with Batman Begins with the introduction of Ra’s’ daughter, Talia, and avoiding comparisons with Ledger’s Joker by delivering Batman’s greatest physical opponent, Bane, turned out to be winning moves. Sure, Tom Hardy may be the only one who knows why his Caribbean-born Bane speaks with a Scottish brogue or even what he’s saying half the time under that inverted face-hugger of a mask, but the showdown between Batman and Bane that results in the physical breaking of the Bat is a definite highlight of the trilogy.

Propelled briskly along by set-pieces involving Nolan’s version of the Batwing, the annihilation of a football field, and an all-out war in downtown Gotham, The Dark Knight Rises never feels nearly as long as its nearly three-hour running length. The film’s climax certainly plays fast and loose with the audience’s emotions—assisted in no small way by some pretty magnificent scoring from Hans Zimmer—yet Nolan nevertheless manages to bring three films’ worth of ambitious Bat-narrative to a satisfying conclusion.

(A word of caution: depending on your interpretation of the chanting accompanying Bane’s activities, Rises may or may not subliminally put you in the mood for fishy pasta.)

3. Batman (1989)

To say Burton’s Batman exploded onto the scene the summer of ’89 with all the ferocity and gusto of the Batmobile blowing apart Axis Chemicals would be an understatement. This was superhero cinema unlike any the world had witnessed before. The sets were all masterworks of industrial or Gothic design, the music by Danny Elfman was equal parts horror and heroism, and the main cast all fit into their roles as comfortably as a pointy-eared cowl over the head of a billionaire vigilante.

Based on their earlier output, no one could have foreseen just how perfectly suited Burton, Elfman, and Keaton were for the world of the Bat. Yet all three delivered to the fullest and forever changed the perception of what a superhero movie could be.

True, the sight of the Joker dancing to Prince either on a giant parade float or in an art museum has not aged well (and was a pretty questionable call for 1989 anyway) and Basinger is no Pfeiffer, but more than three decades later, Batman remains a gold standard for how to put comic books on the big screen.

2. Batman Returns (1992)

In 1992, Batman Returns legendarily upset a lot of parents who wanted to know just what McDonald’s thought they were doing selling Happy Meals that promoted a movie where Danny DeVito’s grunting, sewer-dwelling, completely uncouth Penguin chomps into a man’s nose causing it to gush blood across the screen. A fair question perhaps ... and the backlash would see Burton replaced by Schumacher for more Happy Meal-friendly Bat-fare the next time around. But if losing Burton and Keaton and Elfman from future installments was the cost of Batman Returns existing, it was so worth it.

Thanks to the runaway success of Batman ’89 at the box office, Burton was given much more freedom to make his Bat-sequel as twisted and comically dark as he desired. There’s Selina Kyle unleashing repressed aggression through her Catwoman alter ego, the Penguin thirsting for revenge for his rejection by his parents and society alike, and even Bruce himself realizing his life never has been and never can be that of a fairy tale. Every character suffers from some neurosis born of tragedy that gets blown up to fantastic proportions and acted out on an epic scale across a snowy, war-beleaguered Gotham at Christmastime.

It’s tragedy for the whole family with a hefty dose of dark comedy. What better to put in a Happy Meal, right? Plus, it’s got prime ’90s Christopher Walken strutting around, straightening his bowtie, and offering Catwoman a very big ball of yarn in exchange for his life. What more really does anyone need out of any movie?

1. Batman Begins (2005)

Where it all began.

The Dark Knight of course garnered a great deal of attention from both critics and fans, immediately shooting to the top of all kinds of “Greatest Film of All Time” lists, and Rises as the culmination of the trilogy has enjoyed a fair amount of praise as well. Batman Begins in the meanwhile has been, if not completely overlooked, at the very least comparatively unsung. But Nolan had all the right elements in place from the very beginning.

Drawing from Frank Miller’s Year One and Dennis O’Neil’s “The Man Who Falls,” Batman Begins chronicles Bruce Wayne’s ascent from lost soul to trained warrior with a purpose. After training with a secret society of vigilantes far from Gotham and high in the mountains, Bruce returns to fulfill his calling on his home turf, along the way jumping the Bat Tumbler across a few rooftops and encountering two very cool rogues from the comics who had never before been featured theatrically, Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul.

With Zimmer’s propulsive action music along for the ride, a more elevated cast featuring the likes of Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Liam Neeson, and ample humor to keep things from ever getting too serious, Batman Begins strikes a perfect balance between levity and dramatic ambition.

The film’s arrival was a pronounced change-up from the excesses of the Schumacher era, and while the big-screen representations of DC’s superheroes have progressively gotten more serious and more brooding through the two Dark Knight sequels and the Snyderverse that followed, Nolan’s debut entry remains a perfectly balanced high-watermark for cinematic Batman.

Mike Ettel is a freelance journalist who enjoys watching, reading, and writing science fiction. He’s still waiting for the day dinosaur cloning is made a reality.