5. Batman Returns (1992)
A Tim Burton directed sequel to his 1989 Batman release (which breathed new life into the franchise after some 23 years away from cinema screens), Batman Returns appeals to a slightly different part of the Batman fandom, the rich mix of villainous characters and a more traditionally blockbuster-like plot being the key defining features.
This sequel, which is far superior to all of the films already on this list, features some of Burton’s great early work and a fantastic cast including support for Keaton’s Batman from Christopher Walken, Danny DeVito and the incomparable Michelle Pfeiffer who turned in the best big-screen Catwoman ever, its low position on this list being proof of the franchise’s overall quality as opposed to a knock on Returns itself.
4. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Batman-defining trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises wrapped up the threads of the previous two films to offer satisfying narrative conclusions to the majority of characters, the director laying on the “blockbuster” aspect of his heist-action-blockbuster series more-so than in his previous two movies.
Shot on film (and partially in iMax), The Dark Knight Rises is arguably the most gorgeous Batman movie to look at, with the pulsating drones and thunderous bangs of Hans Zimmer’s score creating an atmosphere unlike much of superhero cinema before or since.
This particular Nolan entry was less well received than the first two instalments of his trilogy with a number of people pointing towards the conveniences in the plot as the central reason, yet it remains a classic superhero film for this century (of any studio) and a classic Batman movie nonetheless.
Nolan gifted us the best trilogy in all of superhero cinema history (sorry MCU, X-Men and the Spider-Man trilogy), and The Dark Knight Rises was the sweet icing on the cake that gets a harder wrap from industry commentators than it deserves.
3. Batman (1989)
One of the most important superhero films of all time, Batman (1989) proved that superhero cinema could succeed beyond the world of Superman, opening eyes to a whole new world of what would come to be the superhero genre we know and love today.
Burton’s Batman was only the director’s third feature-length directorial effort following Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988), but the darker and more gothic sensibilities the director had proven through both titles made him the perfect match for a new, darker take on Batman. In many ways, Batman (1989) is Burton’s own unique vision put to film, though in casting Michael Keaton (whom he’d teamed with on Beetlejuice) as Batman and the iconic Jack Nicholson as his chief antagonist The Joker, Batman (1989) became the stuff of myth and legend, the kind of iconic superhero film that even people who don’t know about superhero films have heard about.
Elements of this Batman are way more dated than those of the Nolan trilogy and some elements are a little less than the extraordinary standard on offer in Nolan’s work, but this film remains a classic nonetheless, a genre-defining entry from one of the leading franchises of superhero cinema.
2. Batman Begins (2005)
Despite a prestigious early career directing Following (1998), Memento (2000) and Insomnia (2002), Christopher Nolan’s true coming out party was Batman Begins, a film so popular that it helped to make him a household name.
Coming from an era largely defined by poor superhero entries like Daredevil, Fantastic Four and Elektra, Batman Begins was a breath of fresh air that had more in common with the X-Men and Spider-Man movies of the time than its lesser brethren, the all-star cast (including Christian Bale, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine) being among the very best ever assembled within the genre, and the strong narrative through-line for central character Bruce Wayne/Batman being nothing short of outstanding.
More traditionally Batman-movie-like from a visual standpoint than Nolan’s other franchise entries, Batman Begins offers something that is both original and faithful to the films that came before it, the signs of Nolan’s fantastic oncoming career clearly evident in the work offered here, the base for his fantastic sequel being firmly established.
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
When 2008 rolled around with the promise of a posthumous performance for the ages from Heath Ledger as The Joker, expectations were high. From the moment Joker removed his mask at the conclusion of the movie’s opening heist scene, all expectations were shattered. Within moments, The Dark Knight felt special and, by the conclusion of the film, a new bar had been set for the entire genre of fantasy-action superhero movies – a bar that has arguably never been topped.
Featuring undoubtedly the greatest superhero movie performance of all time (and thus far the only superhero Oscar-winning performance) from Heath Ledger, as well as arguably the greatest work of Hans Zimmer’s extraordinary composing career, The Dark Knight was one of those magical moments in cinema when so many phenomenally talented artists come together to produce something that is nothing short of being an all-time great.
Even beyond the realm of superhero films, this movie has become a landmark in American cinema and has redefined the template for blockbuster success, making it not only the greatest of Nolan’s Batman trilogy but one of the greatest movies of our current century and undoubtedly the very best live-action Batman movie ever put to the silver screen.
What do you think? Let us know your order in the comments!