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.
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.