The Dark Knight is back, with The Batman seeing a new star take up the cape and cowl. With new blood in the franchise, what's that mean for the ongoing ranking of the best Batman movies? Is there a new crime-fighting king on the silver screen?
Very, very nearly – as you'll see from our full The Batman review, director Matt Reeves take on the mega-popular comic book hero hits pretty much everything we'd like to see from a Batman flick.
But what makes a great Batman movie?
For us, it's a combination of casting choices, villains, tone and who's behind the camera. Created in 1939, Batman is a character that can be reshaped to tell different types of stories more than any other – from noir-style detective tales, to campy villain-of-the-week fluff. That's why the hero has remained evergreen on the big screen.
With The Batman now out, he has been played by six actors in the space of 33 years, just in the movies. By comparison, only seven actors have played James Bond across 60 years.
In this list, we've ranked the live-action Batman movies from worst to best, based on a TechRadar team vote. Ultimately, we decided to leave 1966's Batman movie out of the rankings. Technically, it's a theatrically-released live-action Batman film, but as much as Adam West's version of the character endures as a slice of pop culture iconography, most of the team hasn't actually seen it – so we've kept it to movies from the last few decades.
We've also left off the Batman animated movies, simply because there are so many of them, but a number of those are terrific too. Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker and Batman: Mask of the Phantasm are both phenomenal, and CG family film The Lego Batman Movie remains a favorite. Some of the newer animated movies are patchy – but the Dark Knight Returns adaptation is well worth a look. And, we're keeping team-up movies off the list, too – so no Justice League, and no Suicide Squad cameos. This is all about the big, bad bat, doing his thing.
Okay: let's rank the nine big-screen Batman movies.
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9. Batman and Robin (1997)
You can't even enjoy the late Joel Schumacher's second Batman movie ironically – which is an argument you can at least make in defense of the slightly better Batman Forever. Batman and Robin seems okay on paper: George Clooney as Bruce Wayne before he became a red-hot credible actor, Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl after a wonderful turn in Clueless, mega star Arnie as Mr Freeze and a post-Pulp Fiction Uma Thurman.
Unfortunately, the film has the tone of a bad episode of Power Rangers, and the finished product is a dumpster fire that's clearly designed to sell toys to children. Tired jokes about nipples on the Batman and Robin suits aside, this film is just joyless as a Batman story, and clocks in at a blatantly overlong 125 minutes running time. 90 minutes would've been too many. How did Tim Burton's vision of Gotham get mangled into this in just eight years?
Still, without this terrible movie, you'd probably never have got Christopher Nolan's take on the character. So maybe we should be thanking Schumacher.
8. Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice
Snyder's second DC movie (not counting Watchmen) has its fans on the TechRadar team, but also plenty of people who don't like it at all. That basically sums up the overall sentiment towards Snyder's superhero movies – a collective of fans who clearly click with his take on these characters, versus people who reject it outright.
It's hard to argue Batman Vs Superman is a great film, however you look at it. Yes, the big turning point of this movie – that Bruce Wayne decides not to kill Superman because he learns they both have a mother called Martha – has been dunked on plenty by critics. It's such a weak, unconvincing pivot point of an overly long movie that it deflates the final act. Still, there are things to like, here: Ben Affleck was a fine Batman, Jesse Eisenberg plays a memorably unhinged Lex Luthor and it's a beautiful-looking film.
Dawn of Justice is pretty disjointed generally – though it is helped by a somewhat better Ultimate Edition that gives Henry Cavill a little more screen time, and fills in a few of the plot holes. But compared to many of the other movies higher on this list, it's hard to argue Batman Vs Superman is anywhere near as entertaining.
7. Batman Forever
Joel Schumacher's first effort at Batman stripped away the fairytale-infused nastiness of Batman Returns in favor of a more family-friendly and conventional 1990s blockbuster. It's not so bad, though, even if Kilmer is a very lifeless Batman, and Chris O'Donnell's Dick Grayson is a vanilla addition – that's because the dual pantomime-style performances of Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face and Jim Carrey as Riddler make it pretty entertaining to watch.
The weak links don't just stop with Kilmer and O'Donnell with Batman Forever. Nicole Kidman's Dr Chase Meridian has big early CD-ROM game FMV energy, and doesn't bring much to the film. Generally speaking, it's not great, but it just about stops short of becoming the campy disaster that Batman and Robin is, despite some gaudy color choices.
Besides, can we really hold too much of a grudge against the movie that gave us Seal's 'Kiss From A Rose'?
6. The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan's third Batman movie is wildly uneven – its unsettling first act, which culminates in a brutal sequence where Bane (Tom Hardy) breaks Batman's back as he assumes control of Gotham City, is wonderful. Bane feels like a true (if incoherent) threat, while an underpowered Bruce Wayne finds himself truly out of his depth.
From there, The Dark Knight Rises only gets wonkier. We get long, dull sequences in Gotham as Bane inexplicably waits for a bomb to go off over the course of months, while Bruce Wayne's broken back is healed by a man literally punching him in the spine while he's hanging from a rope. It's wild, but the closing race to save Gotham is thrilling – and it's a shame you only got one movie of Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle, because she's a brilliant foil to Bruce, and the pair have a lot of chemistry.
There are some parts of this film that haven't aged wonderfully: Bane's intention to strip wealthy people of their riches and power would actually have dated reasonably well as his (initial) motivation, if only he didn't spend most of this movie killing loads of people.
The idea, too, that Gotham's bloated police force is its ultimate savior definitely reads differently in recent times than it did in 2012 – though the movie does make the point that the police only accumulated the power it did because Jim Gordon lied about Harvey Dent's death in the previous movie.
Ultimately, Nolan didn't close the trilogy as strongly as we would've liked, but that still leaves the muddled The Dark Knight Rises as the fifth best Batman movie.
5. Batman (1989)
Batman was fighting a bit of a perception battle before 1989's movie, with the 1960s Adam West series casting a long shadow over the character – even if the gritty likes of The Dark Knight Returns were making huge waves in the comic book scene.
Even though Batman (1989) marked a sea change in the visual style of Dark Knight media – the movie's astonishing art deco-infused Gotham City was the work of production design master Anton Furst – this is still a very fun movie. You can tell Burton was a fan of the 1960s series, even if he wanted to do something new and fresh.
His Bruce Wayne, played by Michael Keaton, is a charismatic but eccentric billionaire. His Joker, played by a scenery-chewing and wonderful Jack Nicholson, is hilariously theatrical. Keaton manages to match Nicholson in his relatively understated performance, despite the latter's clear star power at the moment back then – no wonder people still adore Keaton's Batman, so many years later.
This 1989 movie kicked off a wave of Batmania, and positioned the Dark Knight as one of cinema's most bankable and important characters.
4. Batman Returns
If there's one lesson to take from how creatively successful Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan's Batman movies were, it's that these films are at their best when directors have the leeway to put their own tonal stamp on the character. This applies to Batman comics, too – not every interpretation has to be the same, it just has to actually excite the audience.
That's why Batman Returns gets so high on our list. It's 50% a Batman villains movie, and 50% a Tim Burton dark fairy tale. The origins of the Penguin and Catwoman are closer to Edward Scissorhands in their telling than a comic book adaptation – and that's exactly what's great about this film. The Caped Crusader's foes utterly take over the movie, with dominating performances from Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle and Danny DeVito as Oswald Cobblepot. Keaton ends up being the movie's third lead.
Batman Returns successfully captures the idea that the hero's best villains always start out as victims of some kind. This movie was called out for being too grim for its time – leading to two far inferior movies that would cynically pander to children – but it's actually pretty awesome that this film got away with Penguin almost biting a guy's nose off.
3. Batman Begins
After Batman and Robin, DC's hero sat on the shelf for a few years as creators came and pitched various new projects. Christopher Nolan, director of moody crime thrillers Memento and Insomnia, won out with a back-to-basics take on Batman that tapped into the vibe of classic graphic novels like Batman: Year One and The Long Halloween.
None of this is new information – but it's worth remembering just what a game-changer Batman Begins was for the time. It took superhero fiction seriously, but did so without sapping the joy from the character and his world, which is a mistake that other gritty comic book movies frequently make.
The tone of this film is very down-to-earth. We see a grief-stricken Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) vow to bring justice to Gotham by becoming a symbol – in this case, a bat, something he feared the most as a child. This journey has Wayne trained by the League of Shadows, and Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), before he turns his back on their brutal methods; the League later comes to Gotham to raze the city by poisoning its water supply, in conjunction with Dr Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy).
Batman Begins is markedly different from Nolan's two succeeding Dark Knight movies. In structure, it has similarities to Nolan's The Prestige and Memento in how it weaves flashbacks into its story. In tone, it's actually a little closer in look to a comic book – particularly in its night-time Gotham scenes in its third act – than the two Dark Knight movies are. This remains the definitive Batman origin story on the big screen.
2. The Batman
Some Batman fans may consider it sacrilegious to separate the best two films in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. But, if one deserved to do so, Matt Reeves’ inaugural take on DC’s iconic vigilante does.
And with good reason – The Batman (portrayed by Robert Pattinson) is a methodically paced, neo noir flick that heavily leans into the character’s detective side. Its near three-hour runtime makes it something of a slower burn compared to what’s come before, but that doesn’t make it any less thrilling, dramatic, or at-times frightening than its predecessors.
Set during Bruce Wayne’s second year as a crime fighter – he’s not even assumed the Batman pseudonym yet – The Batman focuses on the vigilante’s pursuit of the Riddler (Paul Dano), a serial killer bumping off Gotham City’s elite at an alarming rate. However, as the Wayne family’s legacy becomes entangled in the Riddler’s elaborate masterplan to rid Gotham of its corrupt elements, Bruce is forced to confront his own demons as well as those who prowl the city’s streets.
The hallmarks of any good Batman movie are here: a gritty Gotham, morally gray characters, a compelling plot, and plenty of grade A action. What truly makes The Batman such a terrific film, though, is the manner in which it’s presented, and its unique character study of the movie’s eclectic mix of individuals. Batman and Riddler are explored in ways that few (if any) previous live-action or animated offerings have done before, while a pre-Catwoman and Penguin era Selina Kyle and Oswald Cobblepot earn interesting character arcs respectively. If not for one particular Batman film, this would certainly top our list.
1. The Dark Knight
The ultimate Caped Crusader movie, and a predictable choice for number one, Christopher Nolan's follow-up to Batman Begins was a serious step up in storytelling ambition. Gotham looks and feels very different in this movie – most of the film's exterior shots are clearly of Chicago – which has led to numerous comparisons to crime thrillers like Heat. Nolan uses that influence to create a superhero movie unlike any other.
In The Dark Knight, DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) stands up to Gotham's long-festering criminal element. But along comes Heath Ledger's Joker, an unknowable and dangerous figure who upends Gotham's traditional underworld, and sees Batman (Bale) as his twisted equal. The Joker's war on Gotham is as much about creating raw chaos as it is to prove a point about its citizens – it's riveting stuff. Bale is arguably third lead to both Eckhart and Ledger in this compelling movie, which features one of the best vehicle chase sequences ever filmed.
You could argue the movie is a touch too long at 152 minutes, and it peaks with a big twist before its final act – but this is undoubtedly the best Batman movie, and it will cast a long shadow over all other adaptations that follow.