Few comic book characters have a longer, or more diverse, history on the silver screen than The Dark Knight. The Batman movies have been high camp, gritty realism and whatever Batman & Robin was. More than any other character, Batman has always been a reflection of our times — from the Swinging Sixties to the War on Terror, Batman was the hero Gotham (and we) needed. Why so serious? Well, with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice just a few short months away, we thought we’d rank all of his outings on the big screen, from worst to first. Catch IFC’s Batman movie marathon Saturday, December 26th, then let us know if we got it right.
10. Batman & Robin (1997)
Few franchises have bottomed out as hard as the Batman movies did with this wretched effort. Lots of fingers have been pointed over the years, but it’s clear that no one was proud of this travesty. George Clooney, who somehow turned off his inherent charisma for the role, still to this day apologizes for his hand in effectively ending the ’90s Bat franchise. The first of many problems here was trying to emulate the camp classic 1960s Batman TV series, while still maintaining the continuity of the earlier, darker entires in the series. Still, if you’re going to channel Adam West, make it funny. Instead, the sharp satire of the TV show was lost under an avalanche of bat nipples, product placement and puns that make no sense. (“Let’s kick some ice?” Let’s not. )
9. Batman and Robin Serial (1949)
There’s a certain low budget charm to the early Batman serials, what with the Batmobile looking like a family sedan and The Dark Knight’s droopy ears refusing to stay upright. But, when compared to the rest of the Caped Crusader’s films, these cash grab affairs struggle to feel like the iconic character we all know and love. For instance, unlike the comics, Bruce Wayne lives in a typical suburban house and fights an unmemorable villain named The Wizard. The acting is also difficult to sit through, in particular Johnny Duncan, who’s a bit too old and wooden to convincingly portray the Boy Wonder. It’s a tough call, but of the two sets of serials, Batman and Robin is just a touch worse. Where the first had touches of originality and flair, this one just seems like everyone is phoning it in.
8. Batman Serial (1943)
Still, the original 15-chapter Batman serial isn’t that much better. At the height of World War II, the serial crated an original villain named Dr. Daka, who puts a face on all the troubling racism this series seems to be playing around with. But, unlike its 1949 sequel, these shorts actually added to the Batman canon. The Bat Cave and a thin, more refined Alfred (he was a bumbling, rotund comedic foil in his early comic book appearances) both appeared for the first time in these shorts, before making their way into the comics. And unlike the sequel, Robin actor Douglas Croft was only 16 years old here, making him the only actual teenager to ever appear as the Boy Wonder. All in all, both of these serials have a certain time capsule quality that can be enjoyed by Batman completists, but as works of art, their threadbare qualities are hard to ignore.
7. Batman Forever (1995)
The best thing Batman Forever has going for it is that it isn’t Batman & Robin. That, and that alone, saves it from being the worst Batman film of the modern era. If you squint hard enough, you can still see some of Tim Burton’s fingerprints on this film, which was originally intended as the climax of a trilogy. Instead, St. Elmo’s Fire auteur Joel Schumacher used it as an excuse to wipe the slate clean, crafting a story that allowed for Batman to get over all the dark, broody stuff so he could strap on the Bat-skates and gaudy suit with prominent nipples. Still, the acting was fine, in a campy sort of way, with Jim Carrey pulling out ALL of the stops as The Riddler. Tommy Lee Jones, miscast as Two-Face, seems one step away from an aneurysm, trying to keep up with the manic comedian whose buffoonery he could not sanction. Taking over the Bat cowl from Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer doesn’t embarrass himself, but he also doesn’t make much of an impression. In fact, that’s the best way to describe this movie. Fine, and doesn’t completely embarrass itself.
6. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The Dark Knight Rises is a good movie. Unfortunately, after the mind blowing intensity of The Dark Knight, with Heath Ledger winning an Oscar for playing the Joker as a Tom Waits-fueled nightmare, good wasn’t good enough. Director Christopher Nolan does his best to connect the dots of the previous two movies, which were surprisingly different in tone, and make them feel part of a larger whole. And for the most part, he succeeds, showing how Batman’s war on terror has affected Bruce Wayne and those around him. But there are just too many missed opportunities, too many moments of overthinking plot, to really call this film a total success. While Anne Hathaway surprises as Catwoman, Tom Hardy comes across as a hoity English butler talking through a paper towel roll. And while the plot itself is as intricate as ever, (Nolan loves his layered puzzle pieces) it all begins to feel a bit forced as the story lurches to a memorable finale. The one-two punch of Bruce Wayne recovering from a broken back by doing push-ups for a week, and flying a plane into a nuclear explosion, only to survive for a happy ending, sort of highlights the shortcuts Nolan took. A solid entry in a great trilogy, but the ending here is the weakest of the three.
5. Batman Returns (1992)
Placing Batman Returns right smack dab in the middle of this list might be a bit controversial. Some would claim it should be much higher, if for no other reason than with the success of 1989’s Batman, Tim Burton was allowed to let his freak flag fly here. This is, without a doubt, a full-blown Tim Burton affair, complete with circus freaks and penguins firing rockets. But the elements that make it a good Tim Burton film help to make Batman Returns a messy Batman film. This is really Batman Scissorhands, exploring what it’s like to be a grotesque outsider. There is a lot to love, in particular Michelle Pfeiffer as a Catwoman who bites back. Mix in Danny DeVito as a crazed, drooling Penguin running for mayor and Christopher Walken going full Walken, and you’ve got a movie that’s good, baroque fun. It just happens to feel a bit more like A Nightmare Before Christmas at times than a full-blown Batman movie.
4. Batman: The Movie (1966)
In an era of grim, gritty Batman movies, the high camp of the 1960s TV series can seem like a hopelessly dated relic. But just because one style is successful, doesn’t mean its polar opposite can’t work as well. Played as broad comedy, Batman: The Movie would be almost unrecognizable to an audience that grew up bowing at the feet of Nolan. Like the beloved TV show it burst from, the movie has legitimate laughs, as well as a healthy dose of pointed satire and a day-glow Swinging Sixties vibe that’s still gorgeous to look at. Adam West was the perfect lead, mixing a square jawed seriousness with a knowing wink to the camera. Here was a Batman who always won, thanks to his Pow! and Pop!-aided fighting style, along with a utility belt that always had the answer. (Shark repellent Bat Spray? No problem.) Combining all the classic villains — from The Joker to the Penguin to Catwoman — in a giant plot to turn the world’s greatest leaders into piles of dust, this movie was a great example of a creative vision firing on all cylinders. It may not have won Oscars, but series producer William Dozier had a vision that fit the times, and few shows or movies have ever been as much fun. With the darkness of the Bat-movies today, this outing allows our inner child to be a Batman fan too.
3. Batman (1989)
A phenomenon when it was released in 1989, for one crazy summer it seemed like the whole world had Bat-fever. For the first time, a darker, more adult Batman was brought to the big screen, and it worked. And in the Joker, Jack Nicholson created a villain for the ages. Tim Burton found a unique balance of his more Gothic instincts, with a touch of real world flavor, to create a movie that could be grounded in emotions, but still had room for Joker and his cronies wreaking havoc in an art museum to the tune of Prince’s “Partyman.” A common complaint has been that this is less a Batman movie than a Joker movie, but Michael Keaton acquits himself nicely, despite initial protest from fans, as the unassuming billionaire with a dark secret. And while Burton was admittedly not a comic book fan when he took this movie on, the mix of bright colors played against Gothic horror made this movie feel more like a comic book than any Batman flick that’s followed. Nolan’s movies may have knocked Batman from the top of the list, but it still holds up remarkably well for a movie in which Joker threatens the citizens of Gotham with an enema.
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
When it was first announced that Heath Ledger would be taking his turn as the Crown Prince of Crime, fans were not happy. How was this teen heartthrob, best known at the time for 10 Things I Hate About You and Brokeback Mountain, going to live up to Jack Nicholson? How was he going to play the most legendary villain in the history of comics? Well, those worries turned out to be unfounded, and then some. Not only did Ledger prove them wrong, he also delivered one of the most iconic performances in movie history. His Joker truly seemed like he stepped out of a nightmare, throwing Gotham into chaos. And who hates chaos more than Batman? The duo facing off in an intricately plotted Nolan epic, all played against a backdrop that seemed to be either criticizing or justifying the War on Terror, depending who you talk to, made for what may well be the most important comic book movie ever made. This movie is dense, both with story and ideas, and it isn’t afraid to let its ambiguity challenge the audience to make up its own mind. A movie that changed the way we think about the comic book movie genre, with a performance for the ages. It should be hard to top it. And yet…
1. Batman Begins (2005)
While it might not be the obvious choice, Batman Begins is the best Batman movie ever made. The Dark Knight might have a better villain, but Batman Begins has a stronger story from beginning to end. Origin stories might be played out by now, but this was really the only route to go after the disaster that was Batman & Robin. And unlike most superhero’s beginnings, how a scared little boy became the thing that goes bump in the night is a truly epic story. This is also the only Batman movie that truly centers on Batman himself. Who he is? What makes him tick? Combine that with a renewed commitment to realism that made all the other Nolan Batman movies and the current trend of gritty superhero films possible, and you’re left with one of the most influential movies of the 2000s. Nolan assembled an all-star cast here, who brought new levels of depth to their roles. Michael Caine helped turn Alfred from a background player into the moral conscience of the world’s most brooding hero. Sure, Katie Holmes didn’t deliver the most captivating performance, leading to her Rachel Dawes character being recast for the sequel, but any great movie is bound to have one mistake. At the end of the day, this is the type of movie you watch whenever it comes on TV. (Like, say, IFC.) The Dark Knight is the type of movie you revere, but don’t revisit. In a list filled with hits and misses, Batman Begins has best stood the test of time.