6. Batman: The Movie (1966)
The 1960s TV show has a legion of fans, mainly middle aged men that grew up with it. It’s made it’s way into other age groups, but that’s pretty much the strongest point of it’s stranglehold. And the movie is a big piece of entertainment for them. As it should, as it’s a fun piece of candy colored popcorn entertainment. But it maybe showed the restraints of the show a little too much.
That the structure and pacing of the show isn’t suited to a feature length movie. It’s not a bad thing, and the movie itself is really good. But it lacks a but of that special something that makes the best Batman movies great. It’s the functional version of what Batman & Robin was trying to do, but not the exceptional version. There’s that version a little higher up on the list.
5. Batman Returns (1992)
Now this is what we’re talking about. Tim Burton, finally with clout in the industry, makes the movie he wants to make. And it is possibly the most Tim Burton movie ever made. The visuals are off the charts Burton. Anton Furst is gone, having taken his life a year before this movie was made. Burton manages to make the movie a good mixture of Fursts work and his own stylings, creating a truly sumptuous piece of eye candy.
The Christmas setting does wonders for the movie, so much more striking than the last one. And with his new clout, he gets to get deeper and weirder into these characters. While he still loves the villains a lot more than Batman, we get a good deal more Batman than the last time out. We see the loneliness and isolation. We see him hungry for connection, more so than the last time out. And there’s an actual connection between him and his villains beyond a stupid twist, but one borne out of theme.
Penguin and Catwoman are the flip sides of who he is. Penguin is too a son born into wealth and separated from his family to become a mythical monster in Gotham. Only he was too ugly for his family and abandoned down river, left to fend for himself to become an actual monster and not just some criminal bedtime story. He is what Bruce could have been with guidance, without Alfred.
A sad, lonely little man out to burn the world down because he lost his parents instead of one out to build it back up. Catwoman is the uglier version of a masked vigilante, running out and committing crimes in the name of revenge. She’s a feral animal, a tiger with a nail in her paw trying to do whatever she can to exact revenge on the man that hurt her. She’s the chaotic version of Batman. Hell, even Max Schreck is a dark side version of Bruce Wayne.
The billionaire CEO who will break the law for his own needs, only Schrecks is only out for himself and will kill to make a little more bread. It’s a much weirder and singular movie than Burtons last outing, so much so that he would be booted from the series for haunting little childrens dreams with this. But it’s a much more complete ride and a very solid entry into the Batman canon.
4. Batman Begins (2005)
The movie that would kickstart one of the biggest trilogies ever, though it really didn’t feel like it at the time. Nolan was still a fresh face in Hollywood, coming to the table with only two movies under his belt, 2000’s Memento and 2002’s Insomnia. It had been years since Batman & Robin had kneecapped the franchise.
The whole series was cold and WB wanted to heat it up. So they hired this fresh faced kid with a knack for interesting storytelling about main characters dealing with the grief from their pasts, let him do whatever he wanted as long as it wasn’t even close to that 1997 massacre and wasn’t too drastic of a change from the Bat of the comics.
And he really delivered, giving us the (at the time) most faithful adaptation of the character. But it didn’t really click on its initial release, doing just ok. Well enough that, in conjunction with the massive home video sales, that Nolan would be allowed to make this series his own and change cinema for a time.
As a movie? It’s amazing. Perhaps the best origin story in comic book cinema history (until Wonder Woman perhaps?), it utilizes Nolans impeccable craft at non linear storytelling, complex editing and well earned twists to create something we hadn’t seen before.
Tackling the psychology of the character textually and utilizing it within the narrative is a stroke of genius, really diving into the hows and whys of a grief stricken rich boy becoming a masked vigliante. Showing his time overseas, learning to become a criminal to better understand criminals.
The mentor he befriends in Henri Ducard and the moral disagreement that separates them. Getting to really see how his parents death affected him as a child and a young man. Giving us the seeds of a plot slowly, tricking us into thinking that the Scarecrow is as big as the threat will be until the reveal pulls the rug out from under Bruce.
A thematically rich subversion, forcing Bruce to confront his past and the dangerous methods he deals in. If there’s any real flaws in the movie it’s that Nolan leans on the shaky cam style of action filmmaking that was uber popular at the time a little too much. Outside the really great dock attack, the action is choppy and unclear. It’s an issue that would plague Nolan for some time, but doesn’t distract from the masterful narrative he crafted. It doesn’t help that he assembled a murderers row of actors to bring this movie to life.
Christian Bale as the (again, at the time) best Dark Knight was a smart move, getting a method actor to dive fully into the role and bring both sides of the character to life. Then theres the rest of the cast. Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Gary Oldman, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer, and Morgan Freeman. What a cast. What a movie. Still a killer to this day.
3. Batman: Mask of The Phantasm (1993)
This is the second, and easily best, movie released into theaters that is based off a specific Batman tv show. This has the distinction of being based off the landmark animated series that came out in the 90s, in the wake of Batman 89’s massive success, and the distinction of being the first legitimately great Batman movie. It manages to evoke the true spirit of the Batman mythos, dealing with the psychology of the character, his detective spirit, and his violent nature while never falling too deeply into misery porn.
The movie takes itself seriously but never gets up its own butt about itself, pretension falling to the wayside as entertainment is the first measure of business, with the whipsmart writing of the tv show being a very close second. The movie is just fun to watch. It takes the visual aesthetic of the show and turns the dial to 11, utilizing the feature length budget to truly bring the modern day noir feel out. And it takes the feature length setting to be even more mature with its storytelling, going full noir with it.
It’s very much the comic book movie version of an old John Huston or Fritz Lang movie, complete with femme fatale and moral murkiness. Following the time jumping narrative of Bruce Waynes hunt for a murderous specter with his early days as a vigilante being challenged by the arrival of the woman he would fall for, the movie is much more emotional than one would assume a cartoon Batman movie would be.
The twisting and turning story is the peak output by a team that can be argued is the best team to ever work on Batman. Just on a pure ratio of successes, Batman has a 100% win rate in animation. Maybe future live action movies could take a look at what makes this movie work.
2. The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
This may be number two right now, but given time? This could very well be the movie that tops the list. The Lego Movie was a miracle, an obviously cynical cash grab that would surprise everyone by being infused with infinite amounts of heart and intelligence and humor. So a “sequel” of sorts wasn’t going to be met with an apathy, especially one that would give us more of Will Arnetts wonderfully brotastic Batman. The movie didn’t disappoint on any counts. If anything, it far exceeded expectations and surpassed the first Lego Movie.
It’s the movie that Batman & Robin and Batman: The Movie wanted to be but just couldn’t do it, either by a lack of talent (B&R) or a lack of interest in diving deeper (BTM). This isn’t a doom and gloom movie, easily the funniest and friendliest movie with Batman.
But what separates it from all the others is how fundamentally it understands Batman. It’s also the only one that tackles the Bat family and the reasoning behind the very concept of a Bat family. There’s been plenty of loner Batman, going at it alone. The attempts to add a Bat family before (in the 60s and in Schumachers movies), either didn’t tackle the whys or just fumbled the concept so badly that it felt like it didn’t. But this gets it.
Batman is a loner, but his pathology is built around the loss of his family. So it’s only reasonable to assume that he would want a family. Yet he’s so entrenched in his ways and broken that he just can’t accept anyone in. But the events of this movie help him to open his mind and let people in, even if he’s still gonna be a 9 pack wielding doofus at the end. Hell, they even manage to work in the relationship between Bats and The Joker being one almost akin to a love story, them needing each other to function. Doing it in a funny as hell way doesn’t ignore the fact that it’s smart and almost kinda moving in its silly way.
The amount of deep lore is impressive, showing off the breadth of knowledge and love these filmmakers have for the Bat. So many references and jokes to the mythology that it’s almost overwhelming. And despite all the amazing thematic work being done, the movie is just absolute funny. Packed to the gills with jokes, it absolutely demands rewatches. In a year with so many great comic book movie, this one stands damn near the top.
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
Not only is this the best Batman movie, but it is one of the best blockbusters ever made. Immediately upon it’s release, it joined the pantheon of titles like Jurassic Park and Star Wars and Back To The Future. It dropped like an atomic bomb onto cinemas, raking in cash like it was no one’s business based off of nothing other than the amazing word of mouth.
On every single level, this movie is firing on all cylinders. Storytelling and technical wizardry and acting and action. Just amazing. It’s no surprise that Nolan hasn’t been able to top the movie since then, as this is the peak of his skills. Continuing the themes of escalation built into Batman Begins, Nolan does not hold back on his subversive streak he has laid out that critiques the very idea of vigilantism. And this time out he has even more freedom, so he builds a narrative that is essentially analogous to the War On Terror.
Who better to represent the chaotic nature of terrorism than the clown prince of crime, The Joker? No one, that’s who. The Joker in this is like the shark in Jaws, showing up every now and then to sow some discord and disappear, stealing the show in his wake. And as portrayed by the late Heath Ledger, it is the best villain performance in all of cinema. Filled with intellect and evil and cunning and humor and hatred, it’s a next level job. And like many of the best Batman villains, he represents the opposite side of the coin to Batman.
Whereas Batman is the absolute version of law & order, The Joker is nothing but pure random chaos. For as cunning and forward thinking as he is, he is ultimately nothing but a man looking to break everything for breaking him. His whole plot is to break the Bat by breaking Harvey Dent, for no other reason than Batmans existence insults him.
And guess what? The Joker wins. By critiquing the war on terror within the confines of a superhero movie, Nolan is critiquing the illegal notion of masked crime fighting, showing it for the fascistic notion that it actually is. Having Batman spy on all of Gotham to fight the Joker is his downfall, putting all of his eggs into one illegal basket that blinds him to the damage done to Dent. You can’t win if you have to stoop to the level of the ones you’re fighting.
It’s a fairly ingenious plot, one that subverts the tropes we had just started to get inundated with, and still are. He builds a fascinating and thrilling action blockbuster that is equally watchable on the surface and under the surface. It’s pure perfection, the likes of which we wouldn’t see until 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Can the Bat reach such heights again? Only time, and many well reasoned comments below, will tell.
Author Bio: Tom Lorenzo is Long Island, NY’s most preeminent pop culture fanatic. If it’s a western or a horror movie, he wants to see it. No argument is too minuscule or flawed for him to go full force with.