In honor of the ten-year anniversary of “The Dark Knight,” here are nine cinematic Batman stories plus one honorable mention, ranked according to their excellence.
The primary criterion was that it be a Batman film and either an excellent film or an excellent portrayal of Batman, and hopefully both. There are a few animated films and a couple documentaries, so nothing was considered off-limits.
9. ‘Batman: Under the Red Hood’
This is the first of several animated features on this list. It never premiered in cinemas, but sometimes the freedom of the small screen yields amazing results.
This is a story of Batman’s greatest failure: the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd. It’s tightly told tale, loaded with action and drama, and set in a fully stocked comic book universe. This is essential viewing for Batfans, so if you’re even mildly curious check it out.
One of the most interesting things about this film is the voice actors. Bruce Greenwood is an excellent Batman, and the incomparable John DiMaggio plays a particularly bizarre but effective Joker. There are some crazy twists and turns, so I’m avoiding spoilers, but this is a wonderful movie.
It’s dark and tragic, yet still entertaining. It stays with you after the credits roll.
8. ‘Batman’ (1989)
The 1989 Tim Burton film is not a very good adaptation of the character in the sense that it gets almost all the fundamentals completely wrong: This Batman kills. He’s overly reliant upon gadgets and guns. Maybe worst of all, he’s not a tortured soul as much as he is a weird soul.
This is a Burton film first, and a Batman film second. That being said, it’s still excellent, and one of Burton’s best. Certain aspects have not aged well. The Prince songs and some of the special effects are very trapped in the ‘80s. But overall this film is still very solid.
It’s structured well, has a great villain, and includes arguably the greatest film score of all time. The bizarre Burton Gothic aesthetic is very endearing.
Michael Keaton is a terrible choice to actually adapt the real Batman from the pages of the comics, but that didn’t matter in the late ‘80s. What mattered was actually getting a Batman film made, one that felt serious and was entertaining. Keaton certainly helped accomplish that. His take is odd, but it works for this film.
Jack Nicholson’s Joker was the real star, but Keaton’s Batman went toe-to-toe with the psycho clown. The end result was box office gold and the rejuvenation of a long-lost superhero icon within the public imagination. It will always be the most important depiction of Batman historically, even if not the most faithful.
7. ‘Lego Batman’
This is the funniest Bat film, by a long shot. As good as the three Adam West films are, this one is just a better comedy. It also deals with some interesting aspects of Batman’s personality that sometimes are neglected. But really this is about the laughs—constant, ab-crunching laughs.
Thanks to Christopher Nolan finally doing Batman right, and very, very serious, with “The Dark Knight,” we were able to laugh at Batman again. This movie is just pure delight.
6. ‘Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker’
This might be the darkest chapter in Batman’s cinematic exploits, and it’s a direct to video animated feature. If you’re unfamiliar with “Batman Beyond,” this cartoon was set in the distant future. Bruce Wayne is retired and training a new Batman named Terry.
In this story, as the title suggests, the Joker returns. I don’t want to reveal too much, but it involves childhood trauma. That sounds like normal Batman, given his origin story, but it’s not. This film is genuinely disturbing, but it won’t leave you scared so much as impacted.
Mark Hamill gets to do things with the Joker that he was never able to do before or since. And Kevin Conroy’s old Bruce Wayne is absolute perfection. Will Friedle is also no slouch as the young Batman in training. The character winds up being a sort of Batman/Spider-Man mishmash, which is very fun to watch. This film is a favorite among diehard fans, but still seems to get little love from outsiders.
5. ‘Legends of the Knight’
This is a documentary about people Batman has inspired. For a Batfan, it’s a big cryfest. For those of us who esteem Batman in a special way, there’s almost a religious aspect to our devotion. It’s very hard to explain to outsiders. But we feel like we know Batman. To us, he’s real.
He’s the most human of DC’s hero repertoire, and also somehow the least. He uses his mind to deify himself through strategy and technology. He can be especially ruthless and cruel towards evildoers.
But at the same time, the heart beating in his fictional chest is one of compassion. It wasn’t hatred that caused Bruce to make his childhood vow to fight criminals, it was love: Love for the parents he had lost, and love for other children he might prevent from being orphaned.
This documentary is about real-life strength and perseverance that Batman’s love has inspired.
4. ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘The Dark Knight Rises’
Taken as a complete cycle, Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is the greatest complete Batman story ever told. Some of the comics have better individual stories, but this trilogy is the only time Batman’s story has been told from cradle to, well, not grave, but retirement at least.
That in and of itself would make all these films amazing. But each individual film also happens to be nearly perfect and an excellent take on Batman.
“The Dark Knight” clearly stands above these two and is later on this list. It’s not so much that these films are inferior as that “Dark Knight” just has more. But “Begin”s is clearly the standard by which all origin films should be judged, and “Rises” is an urban epic the likes of which have never been seen before. Nolan’s Bat films will be the measure for live-action takes from now on.
3. ‘Batman and Bill’
I included this at No. 1 for my best films of 2017, and I’m sticking by that. The true story of Batman’s origins from the creative and mostly forgotten mind of Bill Finger is one of the most important cultural stories ever told. It is evidence that life can be both tragic and beautiful, that buried justice doesn’t always stay that way, and that the best stories are worth waiting for.
The world should be forever grateful to Finger for giving us the most amazing character in the history of literature, and to Marc Tyler Nobleman for making sure his story was finally told. “What was lost is now found.”
2. ‘The Dark Knight’
This is the best film featuring Batman ever, and possibly the most perfect film ever made. See my review.
Honorable mention: ‘Justice League Unlimited, Epilogue’
This is kind of cheating. But this is my single favorite piece of Bat media, possibly even my single favorite piece of superhero storytelling.
This episode is the true end to the fantastic cartoon series “Batman Beyond,” mentioned above in No. 6. Most cartoons don’t get a conclusion. They just end. That’s what happened with “Batman Beyond.” But this very special episode was included in the “Justice League Unlimited” continuity to give an actual conclusion to “Batman Beyond.” And it is quite an ending.
There are some astoundingly powerful moments crammed into this 22-minute episode. I don’t want to spoil it, but if you don’t cry when the little girl named Ace says, “Would you stay with me? I’m scared,” something is wrong with you. You don’t need to have seen “Batman Beyond” or any of the DC cartoons to appreciate this. Of course, it’s more meaningful that way, but it does work on its own amazingly well.
1. ‘Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’
This is the greatest Batman film of all time. Hands down. No debate. Science spoke, and then feeling, and so did God. There is literally a copy of this film in the Ark of the Covenant.
It may not be the greatest film featuring Batman. That is clearly “The Dark Knight.” But this film doesn’t merely feature Batman, it is the film about Batman. It isn’t an origin story but does deal with his origins. Better than any other narrative about the orphaned crusader, this concisely communicates who and what he is, the complications and the virtues.
If it fits into any genre outside of comic/superhero, it would be wherever we put the unrequited love films. Yes, it can sit comfortably next to “Casablanca.” That’s how good it is. There’s a strong case to be made that it’s top five animated films ever. It really is fantastic.
Conroy and Hamill were never better as Batman and the Joker. It’s both funny and tragic. The spectacular soundtrack by Shirley Walker gives Elfman’s magnificent “Batman 89” score a serious run for its money, while simultaneously being deeply indebted to it.
If you’ve never seen this film, you must watch it, Batman fan or not. If you think you’re a Batfan and you haven’t seen this film yet, I got some bad news for you: you aren’t yet. But you can still become one.
Batman is bigger than any one film or comic. He’s a myth that looms large over our culture, casting a wide and long shadow. There are numerous other films featuring the character. But these really are the best of the best. Congratulations to “The Dark Knight” for being such an amazing film that ten years on we’re commemorating it as a significant cultural event.