Everybody’s got a list these days. Heroic Hollywood has one on the best Batman movie, but I respectfully disagree with their list and methodology. So, not only am I going to count down to the best Batman movie, I’m ALSO going to count down to the best Superman movie!
What IS my methodology? Simply put, what is, formally, the best movie, and what has the richest, most nuanced ideology. Is it coherent? Is it good? Does it have any humanity? What does it have to say? MAYBE bonus points if it’s true to the character.
Now, because there have been so many of these, we’re only going to count feature-length theatrical releases. That means none of the live-action or animated movie serials, and none of the animated movies apart from one. So, without further ado…
Let’s count down to the best of the Bat!
9. BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997)
How could this not be here? Criticized upon release for its cartoonish camp, BATMAN AND ROBIN featured the garishly miscast Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, the atrocious Alicia Silverstone, the bastardization of the then-popular Bane, and the homoerotic imagery. The real crimes of BATMAN AND ROBIN were subtler. It was structurally identical to its predecessor, BATMAN FOREVER, had no internal logic, had uneven pacing, had nothing to say about Batman or his world, and –worst of all- was an unfunny comedy. It was the wrong movie for the wrong time –an irreverently campy take on Silver Age/Adam West Batman when the world was going nuts for Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and when kids had the far superior Batman fare: BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. BATMAN AND ROBIN’s critical failure was profound enough to kill the superhero movie for nearly a decade.
8. BATMAN FOREVER (1995)
Schumacher’s first outing of Batman is every bit as ridiculous as BATMAN AND ROBIN, but had loads more to about the man under the mask. Nicole Kidman’s Dr. Chase Meridian investigates Batman’s psychosexual elements, continually asking him if he’s got a rubber fetish; Batman and the newly introduced Robin hint at the pedastery that’s followed them since the Adam West days; the Batmobile is a straight-up phallus; and Batman woodenly says during the climax that he doesn’t have to be Batman; he chooses to be. On the nose as hell, but both are deconstructions of Burton-era Bat-films inasmuch as Schumacher’s neon aesthetics are. Don’t get me wrong, Tommy Lee Jones is miscast as Two-Face, and Val Kilmer always looks lost as Bruce Wayne, but BATMAN FOREVER’s bombast had a more coherent emotional arc guiding it.
7. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
If THE DARK KNIGHT was an examination of the Patriot Act and the War on Terror, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES was Christopher Nolan’s attempt to address the 99% movement, and the results are mixed. Bane’s mid-air terrorist attack is insane, and holy shit, Anne Hathaway rules as Catwoman. Thematically however, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES argues that if the 99% got their way, they’d destroy their city in a matter of days, and are only ever truly happy when they have a fascist (Batman) ruling over them. Seriously. That’s what it says thematically. If Bane wasn’t muffled, he could tell you. More concretely, the movie was overlong with two first acts, a second act that nearly wrote Batman out of the action, and had ill-advised fan service throughout the material, most infamously Joseph Gordon Levitt as John “Robin” Blake. It’s clear that Christopher Nolan’s heart wasn’t in this one, and it marked the beginning of the bad habits of his brother and screenwriter, Jonathan Nolan.
6. BATMAN (1989)
Up until BATMAN BEGINS and IRON MAN, BATMAN set the gold standard for superhero movies. Tim Burton’s gothic aesthetic lent itself perfectly to Gotham City, as did his sensibilities of a hero with talents that set him apart from the rest of humanity: Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is all but a damaged savant, reclusive, enigmatic, and tentative, only seeming natural in the bat costume. Despite this, the movie suffers from a lack of momentum and excitement, only really getting there when Jack Nicholson becomes the Joker. His maniacal performance cannot be understated, bringing a fractured vision of nascent 90s prismatic style into black and white Gotham. Without BATMAN, no superhero fad; without BATMAN, no Batman: The Animated Series, and by extension, no DC Animated Universe; without BATMAN, no Joker craze. So why so low on the list? Again, it’s poorly paced and stretched thin until the Joker –as the Joker- shows up, and after that, the movie is entirely motivated by and beholden to him.
5. BATMAN: THE MOVIE (1966)
“Better than BATMAN?! REALLY?!” Yes. Really. Adam West’s Batman is a polarizing figure, I realize, for his campy Silver Age antics, especially when grimdark Batman is all the rage with kids today, but find for me a movie better at being what it wants to be. Batman: the Movie is an imaginative, comedy adventure with his most dangerous adversaries from the 1966 TV series. More than a screwball slugfest, it offered minor satire on the nature of politics and bureaucracies. Don’t forget, for decades, this WAS Batman, through and through. Still, your mileage on its antics may vary.
4. BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
Tim Burton took everything that was BATMAN, for good or ill, and turned it up to 11. Three show-stealing villains: Michelle Phiffer’s crazed dominatrix Catwoman-as-rape-metaphor; Danny Devito’s horny circus freak Penguin; and Christopher Walken as vaguely scarier Christopher Walken! Crazy macabre set design! Better action with Batman, the Batmobile, and the Batboat! A better romance! BATMAN RETURNS is a hallucinogenic nightmare of Gotham City, but its chief crime is overexerting itself. Penguin, though unforgettable, feels shoehorned into an otherwise brilliant revenge story between Catwoman and Walken’s Max Shrek. BATMAN RETURNS didn’t offer a character arc for Bruce Wayne, but it was unapologetically nuts and self aware. Gotta love it.
3. BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM (1993)
The only animated Batman movie to hit theaters, BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM was essentially a long episode of BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, and was more competent than most live-action adaptations. In it, Kevin Conroy’s Bruce Wayne was torn between his survivor’s guilt and calling to be Batman vs. love with a woman from his past, all while a mysterious new villain is slaughtering the gangsters of Gotham City. Atmospheric, creepy, and heartfelt, MASK OF THE PHANTASM only falters in that, as a mystery, it only offers one suspect.
2. BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
I never forgave IRON MAN for copying this movie’s structure. BATMAN BEGINS is a slick, class-conscious update of Batman’s origin story, featuring top-notch acting by Liam Neeson as Henri Ducard; Cillian Murphy as Jonathan Crane; Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon; Michael Caine as Alfred; and Christian Bale as Batman. This is a movie that understands who Batman is: determined, compassionate, principled, and broken. Its training sequences have yet to be surpassed, and its pulse-pounding climax has yet to be topped in the franchise. I’d say its emotional journey and structure has yet to be matched, but IRON MAN copied it. Because it was that good.
1. THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
Largely considered the greatest comic book movie of all time, THE DARK KNIGHT is essentially THE WATCHMEN of comic book movies in its thoughtful and pointed deconstruction of superheroes as agents of fascism, using heavy War on Terror imagery and themes such as extradition, the Patriot Act, mass trials for Mobsters (terrorists); and the looming threat of the “head insurgent,” THE DARK KNIGHT forced Batman to compromise personal freedoms to capture a villain and to lie to an entire city to protect the ruling hegemony (about Harvey Dent/Two-Face). Seriously, Zack Snyder didn’t need to make the WATCHMEN with how well this played out. What can be said about Heath Ledger’s nihilistic, anarchistic Joker that hasn’t already been said? The man gave the performance of a lifetime, energizing an already multi-layered and exciting movie.
The sun sets in Gotham only for it to rise in Metropolis! Which Superman movies fall to Kryptonite, and which triumph over evil?
6. SUPERMAN III (1983)
What is SUPERMAN III? Screwball comedy with Richard Pryor? An adult life high school melodrama? Superman coming to grips with alcoholism? Whatever it is, it’s barely a Superman movie. Robert Vaughn’s Not-Lex-Luthor contracts Pryor’s Gus Gorman into hacking weather satellites to destroy Columbia for not joining his coffee bean trust, then uses faulty kryptonite to turn Superman evil. Describing this slow-paced, unfunny comedy makes it sound far more interesting than it really is. Its only saving graces are Clark Kent’s fight with Drunk Superman, a strangely Whovian fight with a supercomputer that turns people into robots, and Drunk Superman hijinks like blowing out the Olympic torch and straightening the leaning tower of Pisa. Rumor has it that the executives thought that people couldn’t take Mr. Myxoptlk, Bizarro, and Brainiac seriously, so we got a “screwball drama” with Richard Pryor, Drunk Superman, and a random computer instead. Pass.
5. MAN OF STEEL (2013)
Zack Snyder makes a beautiful image, no doubt, and many of his scenes, out of context, are pretty great. I’d expect no less from a music video director. But MAN OF STEEL represents all of his bad habits: a rushed script with cliffnotes standing in for arcs; heavy-handed, mixed metaphors standing in for characters; absent emotion; imagery in the place of earned themes; bizarre treatment of women; wooden acting; and unintentional messages from poorly thought-out beats (like the destruction of Metropolis and Superman breaking Zod’s neck). The script has no emotional heart to hold it together, rendering all of its beats lifeless and unengaging. It’s deeply embarrassed to be what it is, and would rather paint Superman as a fascist like Marvel Man than actually, earnestly depict Superman. Only Henry Cavill seems to understand that he’s playing Superman, and gives it his best with what little the script permitted.
4. SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006)
The right movie for the wrong era, Singer’s SUPERMAN RETURNS is an extension of SUPERMAN I & II, innocent and optimistic, when all fans wanted was something more like BATMAN BEGINS. Or at least Superman punching things. The movie has an awkward first half with Superman stalking Lois, who’s remarried in his absence, but the rest is a passionate tribute to the Donner films with Kevin Spacey giving the performance of his life as Lex Luthor, Sam Huntington’s Jimmy Olson and Kate Bosworth’s Lois Lane pitch-perfectly matching their 70s & 80s counterparts. It’s hopeful in a way many movies are not, but, even with its coherent script, it’s a little too understated for its own good.
3. SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987)
Go ahead, laugh at Mark Pillow’s 80s-tastic Nuclear Man, but don’t lose sight of what a confident, solid blockbuster this is. No movie, up until BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM can claim to be such a perfect 1:1 translation of comic to film, with Superman continuing his charming on-off relationship with Margot Kidder’s Lois while fielding advances from Mariel Hemmingway’s sex-starved Lacy Warfield; to the visually perfect 80s villain Nuclear Man, a walking allegory for nuclear armament; to Hackman giving another great Lex Luthor performance; to the playful montage of Superman saving people from the collapsing Great Wall of China and from a volcanic eruption in Pompei; to its thoughtful and hopeful message about the nuclear armament crisis during the Cold War. SUPERMAN IV only stumbles in motivating its third act, by then, it’s all gravy.
2. SUPERMAN II (1980)
Superman’s relationship with Lois hold the Christopher Reeve Superman movies together, and at no point is it more clear than here. Superman/Clark Kent and Margot Kidder’s can we/can’t we romance is the most passionate and mature relationship in superhero movies to this day, so much so that SPIDER-MAN 2 tried to copy it. While Superman struggles with love, honesty, and responsibility, Terrance Stamp’s elegant General Zod, Jack O’Halloran’s brutish Non, and Sarah Douglas’ psychotic, trophy-hunting Ursa destroy their way across America, discovering their strengths and playfully toying with the populace, ultimately forcing Superman’s hand. The resulting fight is every bit as explosive as MAN OF STEEL’s climax, but with a Superman who cares about collateral damage. The only weak moment in this film is literally in its last two minutes, which undercuts the beauty of Clark & Lois’ relationship. So what if it’s light and playful, this, like SUPERMAN IV, is proud of what it is.
Whatever you do, don’t watch the Donner cut. It’s serious, sure, but it rips coherency and the emotional heart right out of the movie.
1. SUPERMAN (1978)
BATMAN may have launched the 90s superhero fad, but the legacy of SUPERMAN is undeniable. SUPERMAN RETURNS, GREEN LANTERN, SPIDER-MAN, and BATMAN BEGINS lived off SUPERMAN’s script, just as MAN OF STEEL bastardized that of SUPERMAN II. And why not, for the first of its genre, it hit every note perfectly; the forward-thinking exile of Zod, Non, and Faora on Krypton; Marlon Brando’s Jor-El’s somber farwell to his son; wanderlust and loss in Smallville with the Kents; Christopher’s Reeve’s dual performance as the hapless wimp Clark Kent and the inspiring Superman; Gene Hackman’s flamboyant, mustache-twirling Lex Luthor; the stunning romance with Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane and the beautiful night-flight over Metropolis; and the sheer wonder and optimism of Superman. It’s hard to overstate just how sterling this movie is.
But who has the best overall movie? Let’s break it down!
BATMAN V. SUPERMAN (MOVIES)
SUPERMAN III (1983)
BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997)
BATMAN FOREVER (1995)
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
MAN OF STEEL (2013)
SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006)
BATMAN: THE MOVIE (1966)
BATMAN RETURNS (1992)
SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987)
BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM (1993)
SUPERMAN II (1980)
BATMAN BEGINS (2005)
THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
Let’s be real, though. The closer you get to the best of each character, the harder it is to pick the best! What do you think? Think I nailed it? Misrepresent one of your favorites? Sound off below!