There’s something about the Batman franchise that always gets it right. There was The Animated Series in the early 1990s, which redefined what a cartoon could be. The show was dark and gritty without being excessively violent, sexual, or even PG-13. The Arkham series of video games broke the mold as far as what fans want in a superhero video game; no other related title has even come close to matching the magnetism, immersive storyline, stealth gameplay, voice acting talent, and graphics of Rocksteady’s trio of Batman games.
The movies too have upped the ante, solidifying Batman as a cinematic marvel and earning him his rightful place in the world of film. While yes, the campy enthusiasm from director Joel Schumacher threatened to kill the Batman film franchise dead, it’s since recovered in the 2000s with the trilogy of films directed by Christopher Nolan. However, with so many great Bat-films by so many talented directors and actors, just which is the best? Just what makes a Batman movie so great? Obviously the actor who wears the cape and cowl matters quite a lot, but he’s nothing without good direction and plot.
We’ll all always have our opinions, and that’s entirely what this piece is: an opinion. You may not agree with every ranking, and that’s perfectly fine. What matters is that every one of these movies, in one way or another, is fantastic. Some are certainly better than others, but each made us love the Batman universe that much more.
10. Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero
If you remember Batman: The Animated Series, then you recall that Mr. Freeze was a bit player, only featured in a smattering of random episodes. However, around 1997, Batman and Robin, that franchise-murdering title by Joel Schumacher, had come out, and Mr. Freeze was supposed to become the villain. That didn’t happen, but by then, Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero was already in the works. In this film, Batman (Kevin Conroy) must stop Freeze (Michael Ansara) from turning Gotham into a block of ice.
Mr. Freeze is a very underrated character, and every representation has managed to make you feel bad for the man once known as Victor Fries, who only wants to save his wife from a terrible disease. Done in the same style as The Animated Series, it’s a shame that this movie got pushed back in Batman and Robin‘s shadow, because it truly is beautiful with fast-paced storytelling and a solid plot.
9. Batman Forever
The first of the two Joel Schumacher films, Batman Forever, released in 1995, sees Batman (played by Val Kilmer) open up his crime-fighting world to Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell). Grayson’s parents die during a circus performance at the hands of Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), and Bruce Wayne takes him in; eventually Grayson becomes Robin. Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey) is pushed over the deep end when Wayne rejects his project to suck people’s brainwaves and glean personal information from them. As the Riddler, he and Two-Face join up to do battle against Batman and Robin.
This movie is campy in parts (like that over-acting guard at the beginning, the Riddler’s invasion of the Batcave, and that creepy Batman smile), but when you watch Batman and Robin, this one seems as dark as Tim Burton‘s first two films by comparison. Carrey gets the Riddler right without bogging him down with too much pseudo-intellectualism, and Jones really does play a mean Two-Face. Kilmer was an alright Batman; nothing insanely memorable, but not as bad as George Clooney either.
8. Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker
A 2000 animated film, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker takes place in the Batman Beyond universe. Terry McGinnis, the new Batman, is still doing battle with Bruce Wayne’s (voiced by Kevin Conroy, the same voice of Batman as in The Animated Series) nemesis the Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill, also of The Animated Series). Mistah J has been gone for nearly 40 years, and to make up for it, he has a group of younger henchmen called Jokerz. Terry, who doesn’t really know much of the hell that the original Joker wrought, speaks to GCPD Commissioner Barbara Gordon to get the scoop. That’s how we learned that Joker and Harley Quinn turned former Robin Tim Drake into a mini Joker.
This is certainly darker than much of what you’d see on Batman: The Animated Series or Batman Beyond, but given how it’s a direct-to-VHS movie, DC could get away with that.
7. Batman Begins
The 2005 movie that reset the Batman franchise and essentially saved it from going down in history as a cheesy nightmare, this film introduced Christian Bale as Batman and Liam Neeson as Ra’s al Ghul. The film tells the long story of how Batman grew up and trained to become the masked vigilante hero that he is today while he also takes down Scarecrow, who wants to terrorize Gotham.
This film is definitely a great first step in erasing Batman and Robin out of fans’ minds forever.
6. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
If you couldn’t get enough of Batman: The Animated Series, then there was no way you could miss Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. This 1993 delight featured Kevin Conroy’s voice work as Batman and was directed by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski of The Animated Series. Bruce gets back together with ex-girlfriend Andrea Beaumont, but around the same time that she returns to Gotham, a series of murders start occurring. The finger is pointed at Batman, who has to prove that he’s innocent and prevent any more needless deaths while learning an interesting secret about his new girlfriend.
While this one did badly in the box office, it wasn’t because Mask of the Phantasm is an awful movie. Quite the contrary; it was just poor marketing. Watching this is like tuning into a really long episode of The Animated Series, which sounded awesome for kids of the ’90s and still sounds pretty awesome now. Even still, this is just a touch more mature than the cartoon series, what with the flashbacks to Bruce’s early life and an actual romantic storyline.
5. The Dark Knight Rises
The final film in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, this 2012 title centers around Batman’s indecisiveness to continue working as a masked vigilante. Bruce Wayne has become reclusive. Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) is seeking a means of starting over so her record as a cat burglar is erased. Bane (Tom Hardy) terrorizes the city and brings the police force to its knees. With the help of Catwoman and cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Batman must carry out his last mission to stop Bane.
It’s the movie that started it all, the 1989 Tim Burton classic where Batman (played by Michael Keaton) wore black and yellow rubber and the Joker (Jack Nicholson) probably gave a few kids nightmares. This film features the introductory story of the Joker, who was once known as Jack Napier, a mobster boss. He falls into a vat of acid and then becomes totally twisted. Batman must stop the Joker’s reign of terror over Gotham City.
3. Batman: Year One
If you’ve ever read the comic Batman: Year One, then you should certainly see the film made in its honor. It too focuses on Bruce Wayne’s (Ben McKenzie; yes, the same actor who plays James Gordon on Gotham) first year fighting crime in Gotham City as Batman. At that point he’s an unwanted vigilante and Commissioner Jim Gordon (Bryan Cranston) is seen as the city’s hero. Batman tangles with crime boss Carmine Falcone (Alex Rocco) as he and Gordon slowly learn what it takes to keep Gotham’s streets mostly free of crime.
The art style is beautiful, the voice acting is A+, it’s appropriately grim, and although the origin story of Batman is a little tired by now, this animated take is one worth watching.
2. Batman Returns
Tim Burton’s sequel to 1989’s Batman, 1992’s Batman Returns takes place around Christmas time. Michael Keaton is back as Batman, who has two new threats in the Penguin (played by Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). The Penguin grows up looking for his parents, who abandoned him because of his deformities, only to find out that they’re dead; in the meantime, he tries to take over Gotham internally by running for mayor. Selina Kyle worked for kingpin Max Shreck (played by Christopher Walken), but when he tries to kill her, she survives and becomes Catwoman. Batman fights his feelings for Kyle and battles Shreck and the Penguin to keep Gotham from going under.
1. The Dark Knight
Raking in more than $1 billion in 2008 all over the world, The Dark Night ranks number 23 in the list of movies that made the most money in history. Christian Bale is back as Batman, and this time he chases the Joker (Heath Ledger) through Gotham City before the Clown Prince of Crime attempts to blow the place to shreds. Bats must also contend with his friend Harvey Dent who turns into the villainous Two-Face.
While Jack Nicholson and Jared Leto are two insanely talented actors, Heath Ledger’s Joker will always be the most memorable. No one has ever portrayed the character so convincingly. While Ledger died shortly after the film was made, his legacy lives on forever. The numbers for this movie speak for itself. There is no other Batman film as engrossing, action-packed, dramatic, and visually stunning as this one.