In retrospect, it’s pretty silly there was once a movie called “Batman Returns” because the Caped Crusader has been returning ever since and will likely be returning forever. Before 1989, the idea of making a Batman movie was almost unthinkable. Now, there will be one every three years for the rest of our lives.The latest iteration, called only “The Batman,” opens on Friday. You’ll probably see it. So will I. In the meantime, let’s see how we got here by ranking every iteration we’ve seen so far.
8. All the Ben Affleck Batman Movies
Affleck has played Batman in two movies—”Justice League” and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice—and he’s scheduled to do it at least once more in the upcoming “The Flash.” I positively reviewed Zack Snyder’s re-edit of “Justice League” in this space, but the original version was borderline unwatchable, and “Batman v. Superman” is one of the worst superhero films ever made. Affleck was always the wrong choice for the role—he’s working-class, not old money—but the movies around him would have been terrible regardless of who was in the role.
7. “Batman and Robin” (1997)
The campy approach that kind of/sort of worked in “Batman Forever” (see below) fails miserably here. There’s really only one thing to recommend about Joel Schumacher’s second Batman film, and that’s Uma Thurman’s campy turn as villainess Poison Ivy. She channels the seductive talents of a classic starlet like Barbara Stanwyck in her performance as the mad environmentalist, but George Clooney is a dud as Batman, and the less said about Chris O’Donnell as Robin the better off we’ll all be.
6. “Batman” (1989)
Apologies to the purists, but Tim Burton’s first attempt to bring “Batman” is wildly uneven. Give it credit for establishing a tone that future Batmans would utilize (and improve upon), but it’s too silly to be taken seriously and far too serious-minded to be any fun. Michael Keaton establishes himself as a Batman to be reckoned with, but Jack Nicholson’s casting of the Joker—a character he had essentially already been playing for a decade—was too obvious to really work.
5. “Batman Forever” (1995)
After the success of “Batman Returns,” the studio inexplicably changed the formula, hiring Schumacher to return the film to the campy tone of the ‘60s TV show. Ya know, it almost works. None of the actors are quite on the same frequency, but it’s strategy of throwing major movie stars, bright colors, and silly action together in the hopes of creating something compelling makes for a decent diversion.
4. “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)
The final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is a messy monster with an indecipherable villain (Bane) voiced by an unrecognizable star (Tom Hardy). I’m not sure its story or any of its themes land—its vision of populism gone mad is powerfully rendered, though it doesn’t connect to the rest of the story—but there are several powerful sequences, such as Bruce Wayne’s escape from his subterranean prison and an agonizing battle between Bane and the Bat.
3. “Batman Begins” (2005)
The underrated Batman. Often overshadowed by its sequel, “Batman Begins” is a film that features very little Batman and lots of Bruce Wayne, and is somehow better for it. We’ve all seen Bruce’s parents get killed more times than we can count, but we hadn’t seen Bruce in samurai training and using a Katana saber, learned about the League of Shadows, or come across the Scarecrow, a villain who imposes hallucinogenic nightmares on his victims. “Batman Begins” is barely a superhero movie at all. Maybe that’s why it’s great.
2. “The Dark Knight” (2008)
This is the film that changed everything. It was the biggest movie of its year, beating “Iron Man” by more than $200 million, and its exclusion from the Best Picture race forced the Academy to change the number of nominees in future races. And ya know what? The film earned those seismic shifts. A thoughtful examination of complications of fighting terror with terror, “The Dark Knight” features big ideas, an indelible performance by Heath Ledger as the Joker, and one exhilarating set piece after another.
- “Batman Returns” (1992)
Because the very idea of a superhero is so silly, these movies are at their best when they unwrap the psychology of their protagonists, and “Batman Returns” does it better than any. Giving equal screen time to Batman, Penguin (Danny DeVito), Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), and the uber-capitalist Max Schreck (Christopher Walken), Tim Burton turns the comic book movie into a gothic nightmare with bursts of comedy, while underlining the idea that superheroes are just as screwed up as supervillains.