Update: After receiving an alarming number of angry emails, DMs, and one particularly profane postcard (those are still a thing?), I have chosen under (ahem) my own volition to reverse the order of the Top 2 films on this list. True CT purists may wish to look away. The rest of you, read on…
When first published in 1939, Detective Comics #27 featured a total of nine stories, most of them focused on square-jawed men who moonlit as crime-fighters. The roster included private eye Slam Bradley, OSS Agent Speed Saunders, and the red-uniformed Crimson Avenger (plus his, um, best-forgotten sidekick, Wing). Odds are the issue would have been passed by as just another pulpy installment of one of the still-fresh industry’s more popular magazines, had the cover not trumpeted the debut of an all-new superhero – a fellow the interior story referred to as “the Bat-Man.”
Eighty years later, Detective #27 has become one of the most valuable and cherished comic books in the world. (A copy in 2015 was auctioned for over $1 million.) And how could it not be? Most of the characters therein have been lost to history, but the Bat-Man (whose hyphen was wisely dropped beginning with issue #29) has become one of the most iconic pop-cultural figures of the past century.
Batman has appeared in more forms of media, and in more iterations, than any other superhero in existence, outpacing even his progenitor Superman. People who have never opened a comic book in their lives know his friends, his nemeses, and his origin story. He has achieved a ubiquity that most fictional characters can only dream of.
And his most distinguishing factor may be his presence in cinema. Batman has appeared on the silver screen more times than any other comic book hero, dating all the way back to a low-budget movie serial in 1943, and continuing with a countless array of both live-action and animated feature films, debuting in theaters, on DVD, and even a streaming service. His presence on film is so lasting, in fact, that we’re now getting a Joker film that doesn’t even feature Batman. That’s brand endurance, folks.
Some of Batman’s films have been good, some great, and some very, very bad. But being the eternal optimist that I am (haha), we’re going to focus today on the best of the best! What follows are the 10 greatest Batman films ever.
(Note: This list only includes films that are at least partly Batman-centric. Films featuring him as part of an ensemble or as a supporting player are not included. We’re only interested in the truly Batty stuff here.)
10. The Batman/Superman Movie (1997)
Technically, it wasn’t originally made as a film, airing as three episodes of Superman: The Animated Series under the collective title “World’s Finest” (recalling the long-running comic series that showcased team-ups between DC’s two preeminent heroes). But whether experienced on an episodic level or as a cohesive film, The Batman/Superman Movie is terrific entertainment. The script showcases the first meeting between the two heroes, whose differing philosophies and methods make for some juicy conflict (before they eventually learn to put differences aside and take on the Joker and Lex Luthor together). The film is fast-paced and breezily funny, with some terrific action sequences in each of its three acts. A fun and rewatchable film that showcases the popcorn-entertainment strengths the DCAU.
9. Batman Returns (1992)
Tonal conflicts abound in Tim Burton’s second and final Bat-flick, but it meshes screwball comedy and nihilistically dark drama to (mostly) successful effect. As the Penguin, Danny DeVito embodies a grotesque symphony of privilege and squalor, while Michelle Pfeiffer exudes confidence and (oft-literal) cattiness in a role that turns out to be much more than mere eye candy, And despite the film’s plotting flaws, it remains a marked improvement over the subsequent Schumacher shenanigans.
8. Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
I’ve had and continue to have mixed feelings about DC’s made-for-DVD animated films, which feature strong talent behind the camera and on the soundtrack but too often feel staid and tethered to their source material. But the first of the franchise’s Batman films remains a highlight – an adaptation of the modern-day Red Hood saga (focused on the death and eventual rebirth of Jason Todd), it weaves a compelling story told through the triangulated worlds of Batman, Red Hood, and Joker. A sharp, nuanced film that doesn’t scrimp on the story’s darker aspects, delivering several emotional gut-punches along the way.
7. Batman & Bill (2017)
Hard to believe it took 78 years for someone to make a feature-length Batman documentary, but Hulu’s tribute to the Dark Knight’s original creator was worth the wait. The film follows Marc Tyler Nobleman (author of Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-creator of Batman) and his quest to track down the full story of Bill Finger, the original Batman writer who never received the credit he deserved. Along the way, we’re treated to interviews with many classic comic-book giants who reflect on their knowledge of Bill and the integral role he had in shaping one of fiction’s most iconic heroes. It’s a compelling and entertaining story (with sound messages about corporate oversight and creative control), and builds to an inspiring finale.
6. Batman Begins (2005)
The opening chapter of Christopher Nolan’s widely acclaimed trilogy set a new bar for superhero films upon its premiere – as many other comic-book franchises were floundering in direction and tone, Nolan produced a dark and psychologically complex depiction of Batman that smartly put the greater focus on Bruce Wayne, and the emotional toll of trying to salvage a seemingly unsalvageable city. These themes would be developed to even sharper effect in Nolan’s second film (before disappointingly dulling in the third), but it was here that the Batman of the 21st century truly began.
5. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Batman: The Animated Series remains a landmark of animation, and one of the best TV shows (animated or otherwise) of the 1990s. And Mask of the Phantasm proved that its talents were not limited to the small screen. An effective, at times noir-tinged mystery that recalls the early tales of the 1940s, with a terrific script and above-average action sequences. Relatively standard animation can’t diminish the vivid characters, shining through in both Bruce Wayne’s gritty present-day scenes and romanticized flashbacks.
4. Batman (1989)
There are aspects of Tim Burton’s first Bat-movie that don’t hold up – the production design is heavily ‘80s-influenced, and Keaton’s Batman no longer feels quite so definitive. But every other film on this list owes a debt to this one, which finally dispelled the 20-year picture of Batman as a figure of campy pop kitsch, and took the art of comic-book filmmaking to a level not then seen outside of Donner’s first Superman. And even if few would still consider him the best actor to wear the Joker’s ghastly smile, Jack Nicholson completely steals the show.
3. The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
Will Arnett’s Batman was one of the highlights of the first Lego Movie, his character a tongue-in-cheek twist that gleefully lampooned the Dark Knight’s grim cinematic persona. Any skepticism that the character could sustain his own feature film was quickly dispelled in this follow-up, which cranked up the hilarity and provided humorous riffs on Robin, the Joker, and nearly every other character in the Bat’s long and stories history. And the film never met a sly reference it didn’t like, teasing everything from the Colombia serials to the Adam West show to the Nolan trilogy. Longtime Bat-fans will probably laugh even harder than the young audience the film was marketed for.
2. Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000)
The DCAU features some of the finest Batman stories ever written, and Return of the Joker may be its peak. A tense, riveting, complex look at the nature of the Bat and his arch-foe – spanning multiple generations and harmonizing the best aspects of two great TV series – the film pushes its characters into darker and more disturbing corners than ever, without ever losing sight of what made them so likable to begin with. The film exemplifies the greatest plight of Bruce Wayne – his commitment to save his city comes at the cost of hurting and/or losing those who assist him – and highlight how, decades later, the damage of his work has never truly faded. At the same time, the film highlights the heroism that comes with donning the cowl, be it of Bruce, Terry McGinnis, or any of the other men and women who have assisted Batman in his endless struggle against the undying forces of evil.
This is merely the thematic foundation of the film. The true thrills of this movie come by way of the cutting dialogue, the orchestral action sequences, and the crisp and evocative animation. A stunning achievement.
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
The Dark Knight is the standard by which every other superhero film is measured. (“Yeah, that Avengers movie was good… but was it Dark Knight good?”) And it’s not difficult to understand why. Terrifically scripted, thrillingly directed, with superlative staging and cinematography, the film blessed the comic-book genre with a respect unseen before or since. It presents a grim view of both Gotham City and the world, but even at its bleakest, the film’s messages of hope and salvation shine through. And is there anything left to say about Heath Ledger’s performance? A fascinating film, no matter how many times we revisit it, and the best Batman film ever.