To coincide with the release of The Batman, we look back at cinema's decades-long grappling with the Caped Crusader...
As long as there is cinema, there will be Batman. The Dark Knight of Gotham has remained a largely consistent presence on our screens ever since Tim Burton brought the character back from big screen obscurity in his 1989 blockbuster and reignited the public's appetite for the iconic superhero.
From campy to solemn, filmmakers have grappled with numerous depictions of the costumed crimefighter to varying degrees of success, with an increasing emphasis on a darker, brooding version of the character following the success of Christopher Nolan's groundbreaking Dark Knight trilogy.
However you prefer him, Batman shows no sign of slowing down. With a new reboot from director Matt Reeves now in cinemas, with Robert Pattinson cast in the role (and before Ben Affleck makes his own last appearance as the character in the upcoming Flash film), we've combed through every live-action Batman film and ranked them from worst to best…
10. Batman & Robin (1997)
A reputation for being the worst movie of all time precedes any viewing of this second Batman yarn from director Joel Schumacher – and rightly so. Batman & Robin came to define the cheap, rubbery excess of a certain type of '90s Hollywood filmmaking, casting George Clooney as the smarmiest incarnation of the Caped Crusader yet. The attempt to make something cheesier than a fondue might have been intentional, but it's hard to get past the terrible performances from basically everyone involved, especially Arnold Schwarzenegger as the pun-obsessed Mr. Freeze, and special effects that are anything but. There's a reason they didn't make another Batman film for almost a decade after this one.
9. Batman Forever (1995)
Val Kilmer stepped up to the plate for the third Batman flick of the 1989-1997 run, replacing Michael Keaton following the actor's decision to call it a day. Here, director Joel Schumacher – taking over from Tim Burton – leans into the campiness that defined the character's early screen appearances, eschewing the series' Gothic ties in the process. It's all very silly (and filled to the brim with Dutch angles for some reason), while Jim Carrey is at his most insufferable as The Riddler. Yet there's so much going on for every second of the runtime that it's never exactly boring, and Nicole Kidman sizzles as the terribly-named (and very horny) Dr. Chase Meridian.
8. Batman (1966)
The camp hi-jinks provided by this 1966 comedy-adventure might prove hard to stomach for those who insist that Batman be taken seriously, but there is still something timelessly appealing about this film's sheer “oh boy!” antics. More than five decades after its first release, Batman remains a surprisingly charming (if eventually exhausting) foray. Adam West, reprising his role from the iconic TV series, is undeniably appealing as the quipping crime-fighter, while the now infamous bomb sequence remains a tour-de-force in physical comedy. It doesn't all hold up today, but it's bright, colourful and takes itself seriously in absolutely zero ways – the exact opposite of how we tend to think about Batman in 2022. Kapow!
7. The Batman (2021)
The latest Batman film is an exercise in outright emo, with Batman – former Twilight star Robert Pattinson – cast as the moodiest incarnation of the character yet. It's beautifully shot and scored, but it’s hard to feel that the winding story being told here is justified by the frankly stupefying three-hour runtime. And while the film is supposed to hinge on the idea of Paul Dano's incel-like Riddler, the movie never feels clever in the way it ought to. It also misses the juxtaposition between Bruce Wayne and Batman, with a well-cast but relentlessly and frustratingly one-note Pattinson. The Batman compels in fits and starts – the car chase is a highlight, as is Collin Farrell's scenery-chewing Penguin – but falls apart in one crucial way: it just isn't very entertaining to sit through.
6. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
A movie whose entire legacy now seems to hinge on a key reveal about the names of Batman and Superman's mothers. Batman v Superman seemed like a proper cinematic event at the time, because who could resist the idea of a movie hinged around these two Goliaths going toe-to-toe? Safe to say most people felt let down by the results. Once again, this is ultra sincere filmmaking from writer-director Zack Snyder, who can't seem to find a good reason for his titular characters to fight. But I'd argue there's more to this than one meets the eye – it's undoubtably messy and excessive, but regular moments of inspiration ensure it's always interesting, and Snyder conjures up some stunning images. How bizarre, too, that Ben Affleck, once the subject of superhero ridicule, would be so compelling as a broken, more violent version of Bruce Wayne, absolutely the film's best inclusion.
5. The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight Rises faced an impossible challenge following the death of Heath Ledger, in that Christopher Nolan's follow-up could no longer rely on his manic charisma to carry the movie. Tom Hardy stepped in as new baddie Bane, and was largely mocked as a replacement villain – mostly for his unusual, shrill voice (say what you will about the performance, but Bane is the bit everybody remembers). Rises is inferior to its predecessor in many ways: despite some great set-pieces (the plane!), its plot is messy and illogical and too allegorical, while Bruce Wayne’s romance with newcomer Marianne Cotillard feels as forced as the political messages Nolan hammers throughout. Still, this has its moments, especially in the first hour, and Anne Hathaway was inspired casting as Selina Kyle/Catwoman.
4. Batman Returns (1992)
Essentially, this is a Catwoman film masquerading as a Batman movie – Michael Keaton barely appears in the first half hour and quickly comes to feel like a secondary character in his own film. But that's kind of what makes this one interesting. Tim Burton's follow-up to his 1989 smash hit was met with confusion upon release, but time has been kind: a very personal meditation on outsiderness, with a frankly mesmerising turn from Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle. This is a wild and subversive piece of Hollywood filmmaking, and all its $80 million budget is up there on the screen. What it lacks in plot and suspense – really, it is a bunch of “scenes” with a very vague through-line – it more than makes up for in grotesque imagery (Danny DeVito's Penguin is gross) and admirable real intent to go against the traditional demands of the Hollywood sequel.
3. Batman (1989)
With his 1989 movie Batman, Tim Burton basically forged the template for the modern superhero movie, shedding the campiness associated with the character following the '60s television run and exchanging it for something darker (without losing the humour entirely). Yes, there would be some tweaking along the way, but this is essentially where it all started, striking the right balance between sincere and send-up, with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson facing off against one another in a very Gothic vision of Gotham City. Both are well-suited to their roles, but it's the production details that make this one sing: the Arc Deco-inspired sets; the sleaziness of the city's streets. And then, of course, there is Danny Elfman's unforgettable, brooding score, so good that it briefly made us forget that the “Na na na na” version was a thing.
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
It's easy to remember the sense of game-changing fever ushered in by the arrival of The Dark Knight, a film that many believe to be the greatest superhero film ever made. It’s easy to see why: with his follow-up to Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan took inspiration from the stark, metal-and-glass crime films of directors like Michael Mann – and just like that, the genre seemed to transform before our eyes into something distinctly… well, grown up. Suddenly, our own world seemed to run into that of the comics in a way that felt thrilling like nothing before. And at the heart of The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s miraculous performance as the Joker, the magic trick from which the film draws all its chaotic power. Its legacy is to have inspired countless “dark” superhero films, but none of them have come close to capturing the sleek confidence and actorly prowess of this muscular masterpiece.
1. Batman Begins (2005)
And yet…. is Batman Begins actually the greatest of all the Batman films to date? For my money, the answer is a resounding yes. After all, this is the one that strikes the best balance between that from the pages of a comic and an attempt to ground the story in something resembling reality – without bowing to the restrictions imposed by either. It's packed with inspired moments, a sharp and satisfying script, fantastic music, bold cinematography, and several great performances: Liam Neeson's complex and complicated villain; Cillian Murphy's creepy turn as the infernal Scarecrow. From the opening training sequences in the mountains to the seamless integration of multiple story strands (which could have clashed but brilliantly co-exist instead), Nolan brought this hero back from the brink of irrelevancy and made the idea of Batman seem genuinely plausible; and it all moves along with such assurance it's impossible not to get swept up time and time again. A perfect superhero film.
The Batman is now in UK cinemas.