2019 is the 30th anniversary of the release of Tim Burton’s Batman. If you remember waiting in line to see that blockbuster, it means one of two things. One, you were there at the beginning of a renaissance of comic book movies where characters other than Superman could be seen on the big screen. Two, you’re old now. So, for those of us who saw it in the theater, it’s a good time to revisit that classic. Everyone else, see 1989’s Batman again, or see it for the first time. It’s not only a classic, it’s still an amazing watch.
However, in honor of the 30th anniversary of the movie that showed us how perfect Michael Keaton was in the role of Batman, we’re ranking the eight Batman movies from worst to best. Justice League doesn’t count since that’s an ensemble team movie. The various animated Batman movies could spawn their own entire list. So, we’re sticking with just the live action, non-team faire. This list will give you Keaton, Kilmer, Clooney, Bale, Affleck, and, yes, West.
- Batman Forever (1995)
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another movie so plagued with both over and under-acting. I assume the extremely campy version of Batman is thanks to director Joel Schumacher. Why he chose to turn the path of the Batman movies from dark and mysterious wonder to a cheesefest, I’m guessing no one will ever know. He, of course, nearly ruined the franchise. Instead of quality action as a comic-book- turned-movie should have, viewers were subjected to what the masses at the time believed comic books to be, goofy and silly.
However, back to the acting issues. Not every problem we see in the movie can be laid at the feet of Schumacher. Jim Carrey turned in a nutty job in the role of The Riddler. Though he’s performed some great roles in his career, Jim Carrey overacting isn’t an extreme surprise. Tommy Lee Jones, though? The extent he hams it up for the screen is something I think I haven’t seen the equivalent of since. What he did wasn’t Pacino-style scenery chewing. Rather, it was just frenzied and unwatchable at times. There was a scene early in the movie that sadly set the tone for the whole problematic movie. Jones’ Two-Face steals and entire bank vault with a guard still in it. The guard so badly overacts, I question whether he ever acted again. When the heist was stopped, the vault magically fell right back into the bank from whence it came! On the flipside of the overacting, Kilmer had the role of a lifetime. He normally has a screen presence, but he seemed invisible as Batman. Just a guy in a suit.
- Batman and Robin (1997)
The arrival of George Clooney in the role of Batman brings with it bat-nipples. As Schumacher continued his attempts to single-handedly destroy one of the biggest movie franchises ever, the characters were all mishandled, even their wardrobe. While Clooney improved the title role’s acting, the villains still suffered from overacting and bad writing. Schwarzenegger looked cool as Mr. Freeze but continued the theme of bat-villains hamming it up for the camera. Same can be said for Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy. The two villains teamed up against Batman, but the villain team-up was such a tired formula by this point. It worked in Batman Returns with Catwoman and the Penguin, but already seemed cliché when Riddler and Two-Face did it in Batman Forever. So, the third time the villains decide to team up just seems like lazy writing. The movie also introduces Bane for the first time. The extremely smart, cunning, and strong villain that “broke the Bat” in the comics was reduced to an unintelligent, grunting brute in the movie. Did he go up against Batman as one of his deadliest and most formidable foes? No, he was Ivy’s chauffeur.
- Batman (1966)
Adam West’s Batman was from a different time. The cheese Schumacher injected into his movies was actually enjoyable in the 60’s. Dayglow, giant death traps, and sound effects that appear as words on the screen. This movie is a blast. It’s nice to bookend with Nolan’s super realistic gritty Batman movies to remember movies can also be pure fun. There has never been a more prepared Batman than Adam West either. Keaton had a lot of “wonderful toys,” but West had shark repellent! Not to be contradictory since cheese is being applauded in 1966’s Batman yet ridiculed in Schumacher’s Batman movies, but cheese and camp have to be the right fit or it ends up in complete failure. Batman (1966) was the perfect fit.
- Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The finale to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy just didn’t excite me the way it should have. Christian Bale, in Batman voice, was already hard to understand. Throw in Tom Hardy being unintelligible as Bane, and you have a movie where quite a bit of the dialogue was hard to decipher. Anne Hathaway made a decent Catwoman. However, there was such a focus on realism in Nolan’s trilogy that Catwoman’s “ears” are actually her goggles set atop her head. While that’s sort of neat, why avoid the ears? After all, the movie’s main protagonist has them. Also, the drive for the realism was meant to avoid the cheese that previous installments had. The trend of most action movies after the emergence of Jason Bourne was gritty realism. Why, then, did viewers get stuck with the ultra-cheesy line where John Blake mentions his first name is “Robin.” They could have skipped the “Robin” name entirely and just pushed him into the Nightwing persona. Either way, though, the character should have been named Dick Grayson. There’s nothing unrealistic about that name, yet there is something unlikable about not using it. Aside from the odd character choices, the plot of Talia Al Ghul showing up to avenge her father’s death from Batman Begins was exciting to watch. So, all in all, it was a good entry into Nolan’s trilogy. The issue is that Nolan’s other two are significantly better.
- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
I’m not normally in the camp of Batman believers that think he can beat anyone in the universe given enough time to strategize. However, how can you not go 100% fanboy when watching these two iconic characters go up against each other. Yes, Superman could simply just zap Bruce in half from a distance, but Clark isn’t going to do that. Even the DCEU Clark that snapped Zodd’s neck isn’t going to do that. Bruce knows this and capitalizes on that knowledge in order to get in close with his kryptonite strategies. Naturally, as with any hero conflict-turned-team-up, the misunderstandings work themselves out. The two then combine forces to go up against Doomsday. Ben Affleck worked fine in the role of Bruce. My issue with this movie was Doomsday’s origin. Creating him out of Zodd’s dead body seemed more like the heroes were fighting zombie Zodd instead of a new, separate villain.
- Batman Returns (1992)
In the second modern Batman movie to hit the big screen, Michael Keaton still reigned supreme as Batman. Michelle Pfieffer was absolutely amazing in all leather, or rather I mean in the role of Catwoman. Danny Devito was disgusting as the Penguin, which was director Tim Burton’s intention. Here’s where the movie goes a little astray. Tim Burton was allowed to go a little too “Tim Burtony”. Instead of a chubby, big nosed crime lord, Penguin was half penguin, grotesque, and ate fish, heads and all. His weird little army of penguins helped him out and even gave him a funeral dirge. Catwoman wasn’t simply a cat burglar with a sense of irony when planning her wardrobe. No, she died and was licked back to life by cats. Tim Burton gets weird. Personally, I think someone should have reigned his tendencies in. Otherwise, the movie was excellent. It was the first to start the trope of the villain team-up, so Catwoman working with Penguin to take down Batman was fresh and cool. Also, the love story that won’t give up was prominently displayed on the big screen, as Batman fell for the seductive Catwoman. How could he not? Again, the leather!
- Batman Begins (2005)
The movie equivalent of a “Year One” origin story showed us Bruce becoming Batman. Comic book fans had always heard Bruce trained around the world in all styles of fighting. So, having Ra’s Al Ghul as one of his trainers wasn’t a stretch, but it was a very cool plot device. Liam Neeson as Ra’s was just icing on the cake. Christian Bale’s first foray as Batman proved he was a great choice for the duality role of Batman and Bruce Wayne, even though he was sometimes hard to understand. In this Batman reboot, an egregious error made in Batman (1989) was fixed. Joker wasn’t the one who killed Bruce’s parents and was never meant to be. That kind of misses the point that crime can be anywhere and everywhere. The criminal can be anyone, and the crime can happen to anybody. Rich or poor, it doesn’t matter.
- Dark Knight (2008)
It’s very hard to choose between Dark Knight and Batman (1989). Both are excellent. Both ushered in a new age comic book movies. Essentially, it comes down to Nolan versus Burton more so even than Bale versus Keaton. Batman, the character, is mysterious, and his world is atmospheric. I love the realistic grittiness of Nolan’s movies, but the wonder that Burton is able to display on the screen, I believe, beats the realism. You’re not in the real world of violence and politics. Instead, you’re in a surreal world that’s dark, dreamlike, and fun as a comic book movie about Batman should be.
That being said, Dark Knight falls to spot number 2 on the list. Its action is amazing to watch. More amazing are the villains themselves, specifically Heath Ledger as the Joker. Bale does a great job as Batman again, Cillian Murphy briefly pops up in all his craziness as Scarecrow, Gary Oldman makes a great Jim Gordon, and Aaron Eckhart did a much better rendition of Two-Face than Tommy Lee Jones. The performance to watch, though, is Ledger. He brings out the madcap but extremely volatile and dangerous sides of the Joker pitch perfectly. In a comparison of Jokers that’s almost as hard to choose between as these final two movies of this list, I’d give it to Ledger over Jack Nicholson. They did equally well in the role, in my opinion, I just believe Ledger had more plot to work with since he was using Two-Face to make a statement that anyone could turn evil, while Jack hosted an evil parade that the whole town was dumb enough to attend. One point for realism!
The best of the best of the Bat is Batman (1989). People site Blade or X-Men as the movies that proved Marvel characters could make big bucks, but Batman paved the way for all comic characters. Keaton’s Batman versus Nicholson’s Joker was thrilling viewing and deserves to be called a classic. Some of the Joker’s plot choices were a bit over the top but nonetheless fun to watch. Before the movie even came out, many complained that Keaton was a poor choice to play the role of Batman. After everyone saw it though, many consider him the best that’s been in the role. Tim Burton made a perfectly dark and moody Gotham, and Keaton brooded to match. Nicholson was as volatile and dangerous as Ledger’s Joker, but he was more manically sarcastic and fun rather than sinister. Instantly quotable, people have emulated Keaton’s “I am Batman” or asked Joker’s line, “ Where does he get those wonderful toys?” ever since. Also, with apologies to Hans Zimmer’s Batman score from the Nolan films, no Batman music is as iconic as Danny Elfman’s score from this movie!
Notice, that’s 9 movies. There’s still room for a 10th one to round out a top 10 list. So, we’re looking at you, Robert Pattinson. Where do you want your movie to fall in this list? Do the character proud and get it to land near the top.
Batman Films Ranked!
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