Ranking the Batman Movies From Worst to Best

Batman vs Superman
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

It’s absurd to suggest that film critics were paid to write negative reviews of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” But as absurd ideas go, it’s a mildly flattering one, since it carries with it a sliver of implication that critics actually matter — or that a studio would give a bat’s ass what critics think of a movie as thoroughly, obtusely critic-proof as “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” (I keep typing “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” in hopes that the overextended title may improve with repetition, but it doesn’t — instead it just sits there, heavy with meaningless portent and bereft of punctuation: “Who stole my period?”)

Did I mention that, unlike roughly 69% of the critics listed on Rotten Tomatoes who reviewed “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” I did not hate “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”? Well, I didn’t — and no, Warner Bros. didn’t pay me to say that. I’m not sure it’s possible to be disappointed by a movie for which you had zero expectations going in, which may account for why Zack Snyder’s bloated, bombastic sequel to his bloated, bombastic “Man of Steel” (2013) couldn’t help but leave me feeling a tad impressed — mainly in the sense that, say, your forehead can be impressed by a giant slab of concrete, but still.

Snyder’s movie may be a two-and-a-half-hour Manichaean lecture disguised as a halfway compelling psychodrama (with an advertisement for the upcoming Wonder Woman picture gracelessly shoehorned in). But hey, a surfeit of pretentious ideas is preferable to no ideas at all, and up until the inevitable smash-’em-up climax, the screenplay’s inquiry into the ethics of collateral damage — asserting, at least momentarily, the humanity of all those digital extras buried under all that CGI rubble — is nuanced enough to almost qualify as self-critique.

It’s also nice to report that, years after Ben Affleck was roundly derided as the worst thing to happen to Batman since Joel Schumacher and his bat-nipples, my early hunch has been proven correct: Affleck turns out to be quite good in the role, and while the movie has many problems, he isn’t even remotely one of them. I’m tempted to suggest he might be the second best big-screen Batman ever (second only to Christian Bale), even if the movie itself doesn’t merit quite the same consideration.

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Which brings us to our rankings, which will be limited to the live-action films in the Batman series from 1989 onward, listed from worst to best. I know, the world needs another list ranking the Batman movies about as much as it needs more Batman movies. Consider it a mercy that I opted to leave out Superman; life, by which I mean the non-Kryptonian variety, is truly too short.

8. “Batman & Robin” (1997). You’d never know, from watching Arnold Schwarzenegger and Uma Thurman grimace and grind their way through one cartoon pose after another, that Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy are among the most compelling villains in the Batman annals (though perhaps these superb episodes of “Batman: The Animated Series” might convince you otherwise). The two decades that have passed since the release of this hysterical campfest have done nothing to diminish its transcendent awfulness. With the arguable exception of the director Joel Schumacher himself (who still had the kitsch explosion of “The Phantom of the Opera” to look forward to), it remains a career nadir for just about everyone involved — a rare misstep for George Clooney, a major career setback for Chris O’Donnell and Alicia Silverstone, and a movie that turned the words “written by Akiva Goldsman” into a permanent harbinger of dread.

7. “Batman Forever” (1995). It’s a sign of just how uninterested this movie is in being interesting that Harvey Dent’s origin story (later dramatized to wrenching effect in “The Dark Knight”) is relegated here to a quick flashback. Clearly it was much more important that we watch Tommy Lee Jones shriek up a storm for two hours, all while sporting a Two-Face makeup job that suggests a Dadaist take on PB&J. Notable in retrospect for being less embarrassing than “Batman & Robin,” yet still showing warning signs of the horrors to come, “Batman Forever” stars Val Kilmer as a stiff-as-a-board Bruce Wayne (perhaps trying to compensate for Jim Carrey’s flailingly over-the-top Riddler), milks a few poignant moments from Robin’s childhood trauma, and features Nicole Kidman as a sexy psychologist named Chase Meridian. Presumably Wella Fargo was already taken.

6. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016). Not a great movie in general, and not much of a Batman movie in particular: The Caped Crusader gets pretty short shrift compared with the Man of Steel, and while Affleck gives very good brood, he’s embodied here with an icy, mechanical ruthlessness that feels more dramatically expedient than rooted in character. The questions that screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer are trying to get at — about the limits of heroism and the rejection of divinity — are legitimately fascinating and provocative. But you leave the movie wondering exactly why Batman had to be the one posing those questions, which require him to transform into the sort of grimly paranoid, by-any-means-necessary enforcer who might give even Dick Cheney pause. Snyder has learned how to appropriate the grim weightiness and thoughtful texture of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, but he continues to mistake dourness for depth.

5. “Batman” (1989). “The movie’s darkness is essential to its hold on us. The whole conception of Batman and Gotham City is a nighttime vision,” Pauline Kael wrote of the movie that first kicked off this cycle of eternal recurrence. Admittedly, that malevolent spell it cast on audiences back in 1989 no longer exerts quite the same hold. The script never allows Michael Keaton to make Bruce Wayne more than a psychological sketch, and Jack Nicholson’s interpretation of the Joker, while memorable in its rictus-grin insanity (“He’s all entertainer, a glinting-eyed cartoon,” per Kael), is a prime example of how an actor can dominate a movie without ever really haunting it. Still, kudos to Burton for nudging the series away from the bright, cheery colors of the Adam West TV series and closer to the enveloping eeriness of Bob Kane’s original comic-book conception.

4. “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012). The least of the three “Dark Knight” movies movies still has much to recommend itself: It may be a muddled vision, but there’s no denying it’s a vision, as Nolan’s attempts to ground his superhero saga against the backdrop of a major metropolitan city becomes, like Gotham itself, a sprawling, majestic ruin. Fittingly torn between its light and dark sides — between the impulse toward comic-book levity (provided by Anne Hathaway’s skillful turn as Catwoman) and the brooding grandeur of its superior predecessor — “The Dark Knight Rises” never fully jells. But it shoots higher, and deeper, than any movie of its comic-book kind, and it remains the most vividly cinematic entry in the series: Nolan’s staggering Imax panoramas remain burned into my brain, long after the impenetrable boom of Bane’s voice has left it.

3. “Batman Returns” (1992). Burton’s willingness to push deeper into ever darker and more surreal corners of his imagination paid off quite well with this more fully realized, still under-appreciated follow-up to his original “Batman.” It’s not just that Danny DeVito’s irredeemably grotesque Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s fiercely felt Catwoman are two of the strongest baddies in the series’ history; it’s the way those characters dovetail with the movie’s sympathetic understanding of what freakdom really means, for heroes and villains alike: The Penguin, Catwoman and Batman are all, in the end, seeking an elusive sense of justice, one that drives them all to embrace urges of a literally animalistic nature. Many complained that the result was too twisted, too somber, and not nearly enough fun, setting off a debate that has come to define the Batman series and, indeed, the entire Marvel/DC Comics cinematic cosmos: Are these movies too frivolous for their own good, or are they top-heavy with their own self-seriousness? Regardless, it’s a shame that Burton’s unswerving devotion to his own artistry caused the series to be placed in different, far less trustworthy hands.

2. “Batman Begins” (2005). All comic-book origin stories should be as intricately, rigorously imagined as Nolan’s reboot, which brilliantly set the template for a new kind of superhero neorealism: an anti-escapist vision of Gotham City where the Batmobile is an unsexy, tank-like behemoth and the criminal underworld springs to life with a thickly inhabited reality. Most of all, it’s a place where Bruce Wayne’s transformation, rather than being relegated to an afterthought, is fully and richly dramatized, showing us firsthand the peculiar alchemy of childhood dreams, grown-up disillusionment and intense physical training that brought Batman into being. It’s astonishing, in retrospect, that Nolan was the first filmmaker to really seize on the notion that this transformation — far from being some hasty, expository afterthought — might actually be a compelling source of drama, and the very reason why Batman is interesting in the first place. And he was just getting warmed up.

1. “The Dark Knight” (2008). Arguably Nolan’s crowning achievement, a triumph of genre filmmaking and one of the key studio movies of the past decade. It not only gave us one of the great villains of modern cinema, but also succeeded in making that villain a constant, menacing presence — even while wisely restricting Heath Ledger’s performance to just a handful of scenes. Writing about the movie a few years ago, I noted that it “feels like something sculpted in the Joker’s demonic image — it’s as if Nolan had succeeded in bottling the very essence of criminal anarchy in narrative form.” I also called it “the greatest comic-book movie ever made,” and “one of the finest sequels Hollywood ever produced.” There is no reason to revise that opinion now, or indeed ever. “The Dark Knight Rises” may have brought Batman back into the light, but it is to the deep, lingering shadows of this magnificent middle chapter that we will always long to return.

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  1. me says:

    f’n AWFUL list.

    – shitty Batman Returns in THIRD???
    – Batman 89 not either 1 or 2?????
    – the pathetic JOKE of a film that was Batman v Superman ahead of FAR superior Batman Forever???

    keep laughably trolling, dumbass

  2. Pretty solid list. I’d personally rank all three Nolan Batman movies together with Rises coming in third though.

  3. C.D.Carney says:

    There’s a problem here. The Dark Knight Rises is the worst Batman movie of all time and more importantly it is one of the worst movies ever written in terms of the possibility of the events in the movie being true. It is more feasible that the entire LOTR mythos occurred at one point in the distant past than The Dark Knight Rises could happen at some point in our present. It is impossible to believe that its main plot line could actually be achieved the way it is presented in the movie. We have to excuse the reconstructing fingerprints from a bullet scene in The Dark Knight because it was a one time insult to believability but everything in Dark Knight Rises is an insult. Everything from a fusion reactor being turned into a radiation-spewing nuke, a spec op being helplessly choked out without a fight, and everyone in the city being a silent member of Occupy Wall Street who doesn’t suffer from mass riots perpetrated by the actual criminals guilty of murder, mayhem, and drug dealing magically released from Black Gate Prison (who builds a prison in the middle of a major metropolitan city?) is just an insult to our intellects.

  4. Mr. Gan says:

    8. Batman and Robin
    7. Batman Forever
    6. Batman Returns
    5. the Dark Knight Rises
    4. Batman Begins
    3. Batman
    2. the Dark Knight
    1. Dawn of Justice (just because of the gadgets)

  5. Naveen says:

    1. Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice
    2. The Dark Knight Rises
    3. The Dark Knight
    4. Batman Begins
    5. Batman Returns
    6. Batman
    7. Batman Forever
    8. Batman & Robin

  6. Mmmm…
    I would say:

    8. “Batman & Robin” (1997)

    7. “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)

    6. “Batman Forever” (1995)

    5. “Batman Begins” (2005)

    4. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016)

    3. “Batman” (1989)

    2. “Batman Returns” (1992)

    1. “The Dark Knight” (2008)

    Is all about personal preferences… even I could change it tomorrow!

  7. bloggertarc1 says:

    I would put Batman Forever before Batman vs Superman, but other than that I pretty much agree. (I have to admit I enjoy Batman and Robin, but I understand it being last… Still if I have to rewatch that or BvS, I take B&R—even over Batman 89 without saying it is better)

  8. Frederick Louis Richardson says:

    No mention of BATMAN (1966) starring Adam West. Not a truly cinematic iteration of the live-action comic but historically worthy of a mention and ranking.

  9. At least you put Batman V Superman above Batnipples.. lol. It’s an interesting point, however one thing not mentioned in the piece which I think does the movie injustice (no pun intended) is that most fans seem to agree that this films Batman is probably at least visually the best ever onscreen.

  10. luisbats says:

    you are crazy, batman v superman should be 3 or 2, i don’t understand the hate and dislike for this movie, I’m a huge dc comics fan and i know what zack snyder trying to do, we are at a new age, what he did for this movie was epic, the ones who don’t like this movie are not fans of dc fans or don’t have a clue, i saw this movie three times and going tonight to see it again, everyone in the theater applaud this movie and i went to three different theaters with the same reaction

  11. William says:

    I totally agree with the your list but I would switch 4 with 3.

  12. William says:

    I’d give Batman V Superman a C+. I didn’t like how definitive Superman’s defeat was at the hands of Batman. That was a mistake, in my opinion. Superman has as many fans as Batman and they should have at least fought to a standing draw! Wonder Woman was excellent but her arrival was too late and too brief in the film. The Marvel standard of introducing new heroes in their own movie before teaming them with others heroes should be a respected gold standard in superhero films. Ben Affleck made a terrific Batman! The cast was awesome but killing Superman will not make this film as huge as The first Avengers film. Some dream scenes could have been cut and ending the film with Superman’s funeral and that rising dirt on his casket left me wanting more, but not wanting to see it again. Sorry. I really wanted to love this film, but I only like it. They should have played it to an audience who could have given them more feedback. This could have been great. Instead it’s just good.

  13. EC says:

    Great read. Thank you for giving Batman Returns its well-deserved due in the cannon. Though why leave off Adam West’s gloriously cheeky Dork Knight :-)

  14. I haven’t seen BvS yet, but, as bad as Snyder is, he is no Joel Schumacher, so I think your placement of this latest installment is probably correct. I do have a problem with your ranking. There is no way that “The Dark Night Rises” is better than Burton’s 1989 rendition of “Batman”. I urge you to reconsider, placing an “original movie” (I use this term loosely, as this is an adaptation), one of the first big screen comic book adaptations to actually succeed (if not the first) charting new territories, bellow Nolan’s tired, lazy, disappointing and plot-hole ridden third effort into his own tenure at the helm of the Caped crusader’s Kinetic exploits. Whatever “failures” Burton’s vision present, come from risk taking, whereas Nolan’s 3rd’s overwhelming list of missteps comes from a clearly tired filmmaker, utterly disenamored with his own project, only wrapping it up for contractual reasons – Kind of like going to a dinner party you where invited to, after you’ve already eaten. You’ll eat something, out of obligation, but you sure as hell won’t enjoy it. That’s “The Dark Night Rises”. No matter what you think of 89’s Batman, you cannot put it a step below Nolan’s unwanted dinner.

    • To this day it perplexes me when people say Nolan made TDKR out of obligation or because he was forced to or that he was tired or “disenamored”, There’s absolutely no proof of that. He clearly put a lot of time, care and effort into making a satisfying farewell to the film series that launched his career into super-stardom. By comparison, It’s definitely more of a passion project for him than Batman 89 was for Burton (who cited that movie as a cultural phenomenon rather than a great movie in and of itself)

      In my opinion, TDKR had much better supporting characters than 89 (Selina Kyle>>Vicki Vale, Blake>>Knox, Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon>>>>Hingles Commissioner Gordon), Bales best performance as Bruce Wayne and a great villain that didn’t completely steal the movie from the hero (Not trying to knock Nicholsons Joker, He was great but overused) and if were talking “plot holes”, Nothing in Rises is bigger than the police not showing up to immediately apprehend the Joker once he announces he’ll be at the parade.

      So No, TDKR is not a “tired dinner” and it’s a perfectly respectable opinion to place it above the Burton films if going by quality of film-making.

  15. Gabe says:

    surprising order

  16. BillUSA says:

    I’d pretty much have the same listing except for “Batman Returns”. I’d have placed it at around 7 or 8 because I never liked that Burtonesque, carnival-like telling of the story. Too corny even if he tried to stay close to the comic book feel. I much preferred the Nolan concept of a fictional world with a bit more realism. I don’t know why really, but in making the story seem more realistic I suppose I can empathize with all the characters, both good and bad. That way, I’m more invested in the film.

  17. Jay K says:

    This list bears no surprise other than ‘Returns’ being way too close to the top. The cookie was definitely crumbling. There is no wonder Burton left after it.

  18. Shawna waldron says:

    not a single decent reviewer I’ve seen would not rank Batman returns as the second worst of the lot. To name it so high is an insult to everyone who sadly watched it

    • rockymontana says:

      Totally agree!
      Not to mention how eeeeverybody rate Bale as The Batman. And Tim Burton as The Batman-director… Sure, They’re both good and all that… Tim Burton made an awesome 80th version, but when I imagine Nicholson as the Joker I don’t see evil. I see a clown. The Joker is no clown, he’s a bloody maniac. But they’re all blown to high heavens because it’s the first (or at least a very early) darker superhero movie…
      We have different techniques and more experience with darkness. This makes The Batman a classic, but not all classics are the very best.

      • Jay K says:

        There are a few problems with the Burton movies. Nicholson was more sinister before the accident. The movies were a bit too silly (Joker’s gun vs. Bat-Jet, etc). ‘Returns’ had nothing to do with Batman. He was practically a cameo.

  19. I liked that there were ideas here that made me think about the movie a little (I forgot both Avengers movies when I left the screenings), even if the end result was kind of a muddled mess. Affleck holds promise; I liked the uberviolent murderous Batman that fights like a tank, and his age opens up for more Batmembers in the future. Did not like Cavill as Superman at all, the movie would have benefitted from being even more of a Batman story with less focus on Superman. Wonder Woman made me cautiously optimistic, but was not a fan of throwback photo, looked silly. Introduction of future Justice League members felt forced. Mostly liked Eisenberg.

    1. Batman Returns
    2. Batman Begins
    3. The Dark Knight
    4. The Dark Knight Rises
    5. Batman
    6. Dawn Of Justice
    7. Batman Forever
    8. Batman & Robin

  20. Tony says:

    Who cares what critics think.

  21. eCinemaOne says:

    Uhhhh, Justin…”Mask of The Phantasm”? Shame on you for forgetting to include this animated masterpiece, which ranks up there with 1989’s Batman and 2008’s The Dark Knight. And you should have included 1966’s Batman as well…who’s a naughty critic then? :-)

    • Silas says:

      Again, he said “our rankings … will be limited to the live-action films in the Batman series from 1989 onward”. Animated films weren’t forgotten, they just didn’t qualify.

  22. rockymontana says:

    SPOILERS BELOW

    I really liked that the characters actually got character in BvS. Superman wasn’t all Jesus-y and almighty cheesy hero without a darker human side. He had no problem putting on a mean face and that’s something I haven’t seen since Christopher Reeve got cloned into a bad shoes and a dorky Clark.

    Bruce Wayne got more airtime than Batman (that might not be entirely true, but that’s how it felt to me), and that’s way more appealing than the gunless Bruce Lee’ish Batman that Nolan gave us. That Batman felt more like a glamorous rich kid wanting to be James Bond. And don’t get me wrong. Bale was an AWESOME Batman, but when put into a new series of movies – it had to be different.
    And I looove how he was more of a 2m tall techie beast with gadgets to help him out. To me, that became a vital difference from the invincible previous Batties that we’ve seen, and a lot more interesting.

    So – this movie gave our heroes a lot more character.

    My criticism is more regarding the youth of our super villain. Jessie Eisenberg is a very good actor, but the choice of using a short youngster feels a bit misplaced. He’s also more Joker-crazy than a supersmart power hungry businessman that strives world domination.
    Also – Batman had supes within the death range. And to not go through with it because supes mentioned a certain name feels like a cheap out for the writers. It doesn’t go in line with the rest of the Batman we’ve seen in this movie.

    Also – Doomsday got killed way to easy. And even though I like that the fight didn’t eat up half of the movie, they could’ve shortened the closing scene and give Doomsday a bit more power.

    • Mr. Gan says:

      I agree. “I think the boy who cried Martha” was a weak way to go.
      I do think the movie was an overall success. I liked the darker more brute batman that isn’t afraid to snap a superman dream soldier’s neck.
      In addition to your observations, I think the movie spent too much time in the dream sequences. And the time travel visit from the Flash would have been a way better post credit scene.
      And on Doomsday, I agree. I hope very much that they will go by the comics, and bring Doomsday back to life. But in this form he cannot be killed the same way he was previously. So whenever he comes back. He will be immune to kryptonite.
      I think Zack Snyder and the rest of DC should have switched Jay Letto and Jesse Eisenberg should have switched jobs, because Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor was absolutely ridiculous.
      If I had to rank all batman movies in order from worst to best, it would go in this order.
      Batman and Robin
      Batman Forever
      Batman the Movie (1966)
      Batman Returns
      the Dark Knight Rises
      Batman
      Batman Begins
      The Dark Knight
      Batman vs Superman Dawn of Justice
      I think Dawn of Justice is the best simply because of Batfleck. It was the first time that batman was portrayed as a psychotic killer with the full gadget catalog and a really bad case of PTSD. In Dark Knight, though Bale is a decent actor was not a good batman imop. Between the voice that sounds like he was gargling marbles and the fact that he almost had no gadgets…made him the second best batman imop.

  23. jazz says:

    can’t agree at all with your ‘christian bale’ comment…i thought bale was horrible and ruined the trilogy, despite ledger’s brilliant take on the joker…

    for me, michael keaton was the best batman…and i really believe clooney would have been good, had he been in a tim burton feature instead of the nonsense that he had to suffer with…jim carrey, on the other hand, destroyed my all time favorite villain when he hammed-up the riddler…and tommy lee jones didn’t do us any favors with his ‘jokeristic’ take on two-face which was so wrong on so many levels…so awful it makes me wanna watch ‘batman and robin’ over ‘batman forever’…

    and, though it was out of the time parameter for the list, props to adam west for being the batman we love, both on tv and in the feature film…

    • Mr. Gan says:

      No way did George Clooney ever have a shot as batman.
      I don’t know if anybody has ever noticed, but the best batmen have been played by crazy people, because you kind of have to be crazy to dress up like a bat and take on arguably crazier villains. George Clooney just isn’t crazy enough to be batman either is Val Kilmer.

    • Willis says:

      LOL. Christian Bale “ruined the Dark Knight Trilogy. What nonsense and pure drivel. This just shows any putz can spew their silliness in a serious forum.

    • BillUSA says:

      Classy of you to mention Adam West.

  24. I don’t think it’s fair to consider BvS a “Batman” movie, any more than you can consider any episode of the Justice League a Batman episode. This movie was meant to show three different characters, Batman, Superman, and Lex Luthor (four if you count Wonder Woman) dealing with the same problem: what to do about Superman. The first half of the movie was a bit choppy, but in the end, they all got what they wanted; and proved the adage you should be careful what you wish for. That, I think, is the “moral” of the movie, if it can be said to have one.

  25. Rumbo says:

    Rumbo hates Batman & Robin Hood you should to! Jon Affleck should gives up acting…

  26. cadavra says:

    The Adam West BATMAN–feature film and TV series–is still loved and enjoyed by millions half a century later. I wonder how many of these eight will be able to make that claim in 2066.

  27. Silas says:

    Batman Returns is remarkable. Very theatrical, surreal, atmospheric and comical. The action seems like an afterthought. So unlike any superhero movie made since 2000. I pretty much agree with its place in this ranking (though I haven’t seen BvS).

  28. Malcolm says:

    Batman and Robin, viewed as the same kind of (camp) COMEDY film as Batman (66) is, I find, a lot more watchable than Forever.

    Neither are good “Batman” films, but despite that, both are miles better (and, despite being unBatman, *still* closer to the spirit of the character) than, say, Superman Returns and Man of Steel.

    Approach the Nolan films as Batman films, the Burton films as comics films and the lesser sequels (and Adam West) as comedy films with comic/Batman trappings, and all are enjoyable to some degree.

    The over-the-top, camp, comedy, surreality and oddity of the lesser Batman films pale when compared to the very flawed and ill-judged logic and execution of the latter Reeve Superman films, the stalker/abandonment undertones of Superman Returns and the utter anti-Superman, scared, hiding and negative tone of Man of Steel.

  29. T0rchwood says:

    Please show me the news value of this article, poorly researched to not even include the 1966 movie at the height of “Batmania”. The Batman TV series is why Lost in Space went camp running opposite on Wednesday nights and competin for the same demographics.

    • Silas says:

      He said “our rankings … will be limited to the live-action films in the Batman series from 1989 onward”. Not sure why you think his research is deficient.

  30. terry kennedy says:

    Just snub Adam West

  31. me says:

    Ha looks like someone realizes he shouldn’t have given a positive review to “Dung of Justice”, and is now backpedaling faster than Robin on the Batcycle.

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