Hollywood cannot get enough of the Caped Crusader. With The Batman, Robert Pattinson becomes the eighth live-action Batman to fight Gotham’s most corrupt criminals on the silver screen. His iteration is darker than any Dark Knight who has come before—which is saying something. Batman is perhaps our grimmest superhero. Tim Burton brought a campy darkness and sense of style to the DC superhero movies. Christopher Nolan set a new bar for scale and emotional depth of superhero films with his iconic Dark Knight movie. And Zack Snyder’s version of the superhero was relentlessly grim.
With so many Bat-people running around, it’s hard to stand out. It’s time to ask how Pattinson’s Batman measures up to all the other brooding playboys, from Christian Bale’s lovelorn version to George Clooney’s Bat with nipples on his suit. (Well, you can maybe already guess that Pattinson comes out on top of poor Clooney, given the costuming.) We ranked all 16 Batman films that made their way to theaters (or, in the case of Zack Snyder’s cut of Justice League, to HBO Max for pandemic reasons).
Here’s how The Batman compares to its predecessors.
15. Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)
The extremely problematic comic book stirred up even more controversy when it got an animated adaptation. The original story centered on the Joker kidnapping Batgirl, whose secret identity is Barbara Gordon, daughter of Commissioner Gordon. He tortures her, paralyzes her, and then takes pictures of her naked body to send to her father. It’s disturbing and a classic example of fridging in comic books—or hurting women in order to motivate the male hero. Bizarrely, the movie version decides to add a prologue in which Barbara and Batman sleep together. I assume the intent was to make Barbara’s kidnapping more heart-wrenching for Batman. In reality it’s creepy—Batman is a sort of father figure to Barbara, so, that’s gross. Ultimately, their affair only serves to further objectify the character rather than giving her any depth.
14. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Zack Snyder took all the wrong lessons away from the success of the Dark Knight films. Batman v Superman is aggressively gloomy but with no emotional depth to back up the characters’ misery. Plus, the plot is silly. This movie hinges on the fact that both Batman and Superman’s moms are named Martha. Seriously. The two superheroes are fighting—mostly for dumb ego reasons—and about to kill each other, until one of them utters their mom’s name, and then they decide to be BFF. It’s supremely dumb. Plus, Ben Affleck brings no charm to the part, so the audience is left to puzzle over why he abandoned a successful directing career to play this role. At least Joel Schumacher’s much-maligned Batman movies could be fun in a cheesy way. Batman v Superman just feels like an assault on the goodwill of the moviegoer.
13. Batman & Robin (1997)
Well, this movie was a catastrophe. George Clooney is miscast, his immense charm lost in the patter of bad jokes. Arnold Schwarzenegger is wooden as Mr. Freeze (though some may argue he was going for a “so-bad-its-good” vibe). To his credit, director Joel Schumacher commits to campiness—this Batman had nipples on his suit, for goodness sake. But everyone in the film seems mildly contemptuous of the material, which becomes rather grating. Still, we can be grateful that its awfulness inspired studio executives to take greater risks and demand higher standards for their franchise fare, hiring the likes of Sam Raimi (Spider-Man) and Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) to reimagine superhero storytelling.
12. Justice League (the Whedon cut, 2017)
Is this movie better than Batman v Superman? Marginally. Is it good? Absolutely not. It’s a muddled mess, in part thanks to Joss Whedon taking over from Zack Snyder as director halfway through filming and trying to punch up the dialogue with his Marvel witticisms. Snyder—known for his dark, bloody comic book films—and Avengers director Whedon could not be more different as filmmakers, and the meshing of their two visions makes for a bipolar film. The script also fails to make the audience feel for any of its heroes, skipping over important character beats in favor of boring CGI-heavy battles with large, disposable beasts. Bizarrely, Ben Affleck’s Batman is positioned as the leader of this team, even though his portrayal is so lacking in dynamism it’s hard to understand why he’d be elected to that position over Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman or Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, both much more interesting characters.
11. Batman (1966)
The 1966 film Batman was basically a long episode of the Adam West TV series. All the major villains—The Joker, Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman—decide to team up to take on the Dynamic Duo, Batman, and Robin. The tone is predictably campy, and every single line seems to be uttered tongue-in-cheek. But there is something enduringly fun and sweet about this era of Batman media before Bruce ditched Robin, receded into his Bat Cave, and spent most of his time journaling or tinkering with the Batmobile. Will Batman ever be fun again? Probably not. Nowadays, we have plenty of other superheroes on TV and film to crack jokes, so Batman can be left to his brooding.
10. Justice League (the Snyder cut, 2021)
The so-called Snyder Cut is marginally better but quite a bit longer than Joss Whedon’s version. Snyder adds important backstory for characters like Cyborg and The Flash who (bizarrely) never got their own solo films before Warner Bros. decided to make an ensemble flick. But those additions, plus some totally irrelevant dream sequences that tease a future film that will probably never come to be, drag the movie out to an untenable length: four hours. And even the additional content cannot save the film from another rather bland otherworldly villain who pales compared to Batman’s usual, more grounded nemeses. Batman has always felt the most human and therefore more relatable of DC’s superheroes. He’s best left in Gotham, battling other people rather than aliens or gods.
9. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Batman: The Animated Series was surprisingly dark and complex for a children’s television show. When Warner Bros. asked the creators to churn out a movie for the big screen, the writers produced a film more ambitious than it had any right to be. The movie explored a romance between Batman and a woman named Andrea who suddenly and inexplicably drops out of his life. Beloved at the time of its release, the film studied how trauma isolates its characters. (Mark Hamill also scene steals as the Joker.) That said, the 1993 film leans on the fairly obvious—and frankly infuriating—twist that the female love interest has agency and motives of her own (gasp!). These days, it all feels a little retro.
8. Batman Forever (1995)
This movie is kind of insane. It starts with a crotch shot of Batman’s codpiece followed by a crack about Batman picking up a drive through meal. It’s somehow even hornier than the already-pretty-horny Batman Returns—Nicole Kidman plays a psychiatrist whose sole trait seems to be wanting to get under Batman’s cape. (Her desire is a bit curious considering Kilmer’s Dark Knight is far less dynamic than his predecessor, Michael Keaton, but no matter.) This film is also so 90s. Drew Barrymore! Jim Carey! Tommy Lee Jones! Smash hits from U2 and Seal on the soundtrack! (Remember soundtracks?) Director Joel Schumacher tried to lighten up the tone after Tim Burton’s films and have a little more fun. It did not always work. Somehow this movie is both too busy and a bit boring. And it didn’t quite have enough wit to buoy it above its predecessors. Still, Burton’s films were a hard act to follow, and this film is probably more fun than you remember.
7. Batman (1989)
In his first superhero flick, you can see director Tim Burton toying with the weirdness that would blossom in Batman Returns. Previous iterations of Batman had been campy, even funny. Batman is certainly a darker interpretation, though one that does find some silliness in the idea of grown men are dressing up as creatures and clowns. Burton turned the Batman into a brand, and the movie’s value mainly lies in the history it makes and the stories it will inspire. Jack Nicholson plays the Joker as an unhinged showboat, and it’s impossible to not retrospectively watch his performance without thinking about how it laid the groundwork for Heath Ledger’s even grander and scarier version (no offense to Nicholson).
6. The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
Sometimes you need a break from Batman’s glowering, and Will Arnett’s toy version offers a giddy alternative. The Lego Batman movie delights in poking fun at the gloomy superhero: Batman’s theme in the movie is an emo song with the lyrics, “Darkness! No parents!” It’s frankly surprising that Warner Bros. allowed the movie to poke so much fun at the past Batmen, particularly Zack Snyder’s contemporaneous, lumbering, self-serious version. Michael Cera’s Robin is perfectly cloying, and Jenny Slate’s Harley Quinn instantly iconic. Plus, the film has one genius insight: Batman’s true love is not Rachel Dawes or Selina Kyle, but the Joker himself. One simply cannot exist without the other. The lover’s spat between Arnett’s Batman and Zack Galifianakis’ joker is truly hilarious.
Read the Review: Lego Batman Finds the Funny In Existential Angst
5. Batman Returns (1992)
Remember when superhero movies used to be sexy? Pfeiffer licks Michael Keaton’s face in this film and growls lines like, “Life’s a bitch, now so am I.” It’s so fun! When did we decide to fill superhero films with violence but totally sanitize them of sex? Anyway, Pfeiffer shines in this thing: Failing to give her a Catwoman spinoff movie is one of Hollywood’s worst mistakes. But the studio did get it right when they allowed Tim Burton to make his second Batman film stranger. Tim Burton delivers an extremely Tim Burton movie about a bunch of lost and lonely souls. The poignancy of that isolation makes up for the fact that there are some extremely bizarre plotting choices in this film, including the fact that the climax of this movie is dependent on rerouting penguins with rockets strapped to their backs from Gotham’s City Center back to the Penguin’s hide-out. But, honestly, even the rocket penguins are kind of delightful.
4. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Maybe my Nolan bias is showing here. Nothing was ever going to live up to The Dark Knight, but Rises is still one of the better superhero movies ever made. The first hour or so of the movie is particularly promising: Bruce has grown older and weary of his role as Gotham’s protector. Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman and Jospeh Gordon Levitt’s Robin add new life to the fight for the city’s soul. And even though you can’t understand a darn thing Bane says, the scenes where he captures a plane with another plane and, later, sets off bombs on Gotham’s football field are some of Nolan’s better action set pieces to date. But things really start to deteriorate when Bane throws Bruce Wayne into that pit in the middle of nowhere. It’s wild that Batman spends half of a Batman movie sitting in a remote prison with a broken back. Meanwhile, Bane’s bid to lead Occupy Wall Street doesn’t quite land. The ending and its intended political message gets rather muddled.
Read the Review: The Dark Knight Rises Is the Best Superhero Movie Yet
3. The Batman (2022)
This may be recency bias speaking, but if Matt Reeves continues making Batman films, he may give Nolan a run for his money as the master of the form. The Batman works as a noir crime thriller. But the movie also has a lot on its mind. The Dark Knight trilogy first premiered in an uncertain post-9/11 era and tapped into our fears of the moment—the threat of terrorism, Patriot Act-level surveillance, and the culture wars over Occupy Wall Street. Similarly, The Batman feels utterly relevant in 2022 with its focus on Bruce’s privilege as a super rich white dude, how dangerous fringe movements grow on social media, and questions of whether fear or hope is a more potent political force. While the film certainly has its flaws—at times feeling perhaps too claustrophobic and missing some of the fun we’ve come to expect from superhero movies—I’m excited to see what Reeves and Pattinson do next with the Caped Crusader.
Read the Review: The Batman Is Dark, Real Dark—Or So It Wants Us to Think
2. Batman Begins (2005)
Batman Begins was a radical shift away from goofy costumes towards a grounded tale of the most corrupt city in fiction. It’s also an astounding start to one of the best film trilogies of all time. Christian Bale is perfectly cast: He can play both the brooding bat and the slightly smarmy playboy (drawing from his American Psycho days). And thanks mostly to Michael Cane the movie is far funnier than you probably remember. It certainly has issues: The Scarecrow (despite Cillian Murphy’s heroic efforts to make him sufficiently creepy) is a bit of a throwaway villain, outshined by Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul. And the movie falls apart towards the end: The action is chaotic, as are Batman’s ethics: His whole deal throughout the movie is he refuses to kill, until of course he intentionally abandons Ra’s Al Ghul on a speeding train to die. But it was the first superhero movie to take its hero’s pain deadly seriously, and its influence on dark films to come is undeniable—for better or worse.
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
The Dark Knight is a masterpiece and has endured as the greatest superhero film of all time. The crime thriller captivates with all its twists and turns, from the clown robbery in the very first scene to Batman’s fateful choice of whether to save Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) or Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Wisely, Nolan centers much of the action not on Batman but on Harvey Dent and Commissioner Gordon. Both get full emotional arcs, while Bruce Wayne is largely left to survey the chaos that he’s caused merely by donning a mask. But the real reason this movie will always remain in the pantheon of greatest films of all time is Heath Ledger’s iconic performance as the Joker. Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for the role, and rightly so.
Read the Review: The Batman Is Back
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