Batman may have been my first obsession. I was five when Batman: The Animated Series debuted. After school, I would come home and watch the series every afternoon. There are episodes of the show I’ve seen dozens of times in my life. And it was through that series that I was ultimately introduced to Superman, when Superman: The Animated Series debuted a few years later.
I love superheroes to this day, and I enjoy reading and watching their stories regardless of publisher. But Batman, and Superman to a lesser degree, are tied into my development in ways that don’t hold for other superheroes. So, of course I’ve seen all of their films. Multiple times, even.
That must say something, because while both characters have some great films under their belts, they also have some absolute wrecks. While going through a marathon of these films for this list, it hit me that both of these superheroes have films that can rightfully be regarded as cinematic classics, as well as films that are undeniably cinematic crimes.
With the two superheroes finally coming to the big screen in a joint feature – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – it felt like the perfect opportunity to compare not just rank Batman’s films or Superman’s films, but to throw them together to see which hero has the best and worst films.
18. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
Yeah. There’s another film that appears on this list that most would peg as the “Worst Superhero Movie Ever.” Those people, though, likely haven’t actually seen this low-budget anti-climax to the first superhero film series. The film was slaughtered in editing before release, trimming a major storyline, and the shots of Superman flying were all recorded in one take in front of a green screen, leading to some awkward looking flight scenes. But nothing compares to having a woman flown into space in nothing but a dress. No spacesuit, no force to “explain” how she’s surviving in space – nothing. No sucking the oxygen out of her lungs – just out of the series.
17. Superman and the Mole Men
Filmed as a pilot of sorts for the Adventures of Superman series that premiered months later, Superman and the Mole Men features a couple of familiar characters: Clark Kent and Lois Lane. Oh, and Superman for a handful of scenes. The film’s attempt to broach the subject of xenophobia in 1950 is notable, but poorly handled. The hour-long film was eventually edited into two episodes of the series, but even those episodes are among the weaker of the series.
16. Superman III
There’s some debate to this day about whether Richard Donner or Richard Lester is responsible for making Superman II a good film. In my mind, the argument is settled not by comparing the two cuts of the film, but by comparing the films they clearly made themselves. In Lester’s case, we can see that the comedy definitely came from him. Unfortunately. For some reason, someone thought that it would be a good idea to make half of the film about Gus Gorman, a character created for the film specifically for comedian Richard Pryor. Pryor’s a genius as a comedian, but he’s handcuffed in the role here, and he pulls serious focus from Superman. Speaking of Kal-El, he gets to play a “comically” “dark” take on the character, and outside of a few scenes at the beginning and end, rarely interacts with cast members from the previous films.
15. Batman & Robin
Now here is the film most would likely assume would be at the bottom. More people definitely saw Batman & Robin, even if it killed its series the same way Superman IV: The Quest for Peace did a decade earlier. The difference is that, for all that doesn’t work about the film (and a lot of it doesn’t), there are a handful of elements that have their charms. Like Uma Thurman’s take on Poison Ivy, performed with all the subtlety of a drag queen on acid. That aside, the film suffers from some awful casting (George Clooney and Alicia Silverstone in particular just don’t work), surprisingly cheap effects, and a clear desire to make the film “toyetic,” to quote director Joel Schumacher.
14. Superman Returns
Director Bryan Singer left the X-Men series to offer his take on a superhero close to his heart, and what did he do? He made an alternate sequel to Superman II. On the one hand, Superman Returns is a much better film than either Superman III or IV. On the other hand, it still doesn’t work all that well. There are a handful of compelling action sequences, most notably the runaway airplane sequence, that effectively demonstrate how far visual effects have come since 1978. Brandon Routh does a commendable job channeling Christopher Reeve’s take on Superman while not feeling like a carbon copy, and Kevin Spacey’s take on Lex Luthor is decidedly more sinister than Gene Hackman’s. But most of the film veers towards boring in its reverence for the earlier Superman films, and woefully miscasts a number of other roles; Kate Bosworth is no Margot Kidder, in looks, sound or action.
13. Batman Forever
Call it nostalgia, but I have a soft spot for Batman Forever. This was the first PG-13 film my parents let me watch, and I still have a few of the associated products that came out during the summer of 1995 for the film. That being said, while it’s better than Batman & Robin, it’s easy to see in hindsight the seeds being planted for that disastrous take. Replacing the dark, gothic tones of Tim Burton’s Batman films with a brighter, neon-infused take shifts the series from existing in a somewhat nebulous time period to a very specific mid-90s one. Val Kilmer manages to find the best balance in handling the balance of Batman and Bruce Wayne of this particular series, but he also lacks some of the eccentricity of Michael Keaton’s performances. Jim Carrey, meanwhile, essentially makes The Riddler into a masked version of himself at that time. Whether that works or not depends on the audience member, but it undeniably draws the attention away from anyone else in a scene with him. And poor Tommy Lee Jones. This role is so far from his usual, more grounded performances, and it just doesn’t work.
12. Superman II
For the purposes of this list, we’re going with the original 1980 release of the film, which saw Richard Donner replaced as director in the middle of production by Richard Lester. It’s worth remembering that, unlike any of the other sequels on this list, Superman II was planned as a film alongside its predecessor. There are elements of Donner’s production that still made it into the final cut of Lester’s film, but Lester added a comic tone that’s not nearly as present in Superman. That comic tone, though, doesn’t hold up. It strips some of the majesty and awe away from the character, occasionally replacing it with a far more mean-spirited tone (which would only increase with Superman III). Oh, and if you’re one of those people who had an issue with the way Man of Steel resolved the issue of General Zod, remember that Superman does something similar here – but with a smile on his face.
11. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t delve deeply into Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice before my review posts. But this one hurts. As a fan of Man of Steel who loves Batman and feels Wonder Woman is long overdue for making it to the big screen, this movie held a lot of promise for me. In some ways, it delivers. Zack Snyder is an impressive visual director, and the fight sequences here are brutal. Ben Affleck is a great choice for both Batman and Bruce Wayne. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman has quite possibly the most badass entrance of a superhero’s film debut ever. And yet, this movie is not only overstuffed, but makes some surprising shortcuts in its storytelling. Following up Man of Steel while introducing a world’s worth of new characters and setting up for the DC Expanded Universe may have been too much for one film to take in any case, but Batman v Superman proves it was definitely too much for this film.
10. Batman: The Movie
It’s perfectly okay to have fun with superheroes. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And if nothing else, Batman: The Movie is fun. Brimming with all the corny wit of the TV series (the film came out months after the end of the first season), Batman: The Movie finds Batman and Robin fighting off the Dynamic Duo’s four most fearsome (and popular) villains. Though one looks a little…different. Maybe that’s why Batman couldn’t recognize Miss Kitka. Anyway, from the use of Shark-Repellant Bat Spray to a bomb with the world’s slowest-burning fuse, Batman: The Movie is a fun extension of the hit series, and injects some much-needed humor into this list.
“You’ll believe a man can fly!” was the popular tagline to Superman, the first film to explore Superman’s origin story. In fact, Superman is really the first film to properly explore any superhero’s origin story, and it does so with a well-structured story that spends solid lengths of time both on Krypton and Smallville before introducing Clark Kent to Metropolis. The film also created some astonishing effects to actually make Superman appear to fly; though they don’t hold up completely today, it’s remarkable how solid they still are (especially compared to what came a decade later). And if nothing else, Christopher Reeve created the definitive version of Superman for the big screen with his performance. He embodies the concept of “truth, justice and the American way” in a way that will be hard to challenge, particularly for any version of the character modeled after the classic Superman.
When Batman was originally announced with Tim Burton as director and Michael Keaton as star, many people thought it was going to be a joke. Well, the joke was on them. Batman provided a dark new spin on what a superhero film could be, at a time where even the mighty Superman had fallen to some significant lows. Batman brings the darkness of The Dark Knight Returns and Year One into film, creating a new idea of what superheroes can look like in this medium. Not that everything works, mind you. Those Prince songs stick out like a sore thumb. Vicki Vale starts out promisingly, but proves to be little more than the damsel in distress. Jack Nicholson’s take on the Joker is fine, but is essentially very much Jack Nicholson. But it’s a promising first attempt at the Batman universe from Tim Burton, one he’d manage to outdo a few years later.
7. The LEGO Movie
Technically, the first time Batman and Superman appear in the same film together. And Batman’s a supporting character who’s now getting a spinoff film. So it counts! The LEGO Movie, in keeping with its tongue-in-cheek approach to everything that’s awesome, takes some very welcome shots at Batman as the dark, brooding character he’s been for the past few decades. Will Arnett brings the right tone of voice to the character, one who assumes he’s awesome because he’s Batman even when he’s a douchebag.
6. The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight Rises is an interesting superhero film. It’s not the first film to end a superhero series, but it’s the first one to definitively put a cap on a particular narrative. Far more than The Dark Knight, Rises hearkens back to Batman Begins to resurrect story elements and bring this Batman’s story to a satisfying conclusion. Here’s the thing, though: more than any other Batman film, by far, this is one that has a hard time standing alone. Even though it provides flashbacks to relevant scenes from Batman Begins, it requires a knowledge of events from the other two films in the trilogy to work. Ultimately, that’s what pushes it down a few spots on the list.
5. Man of Steel
Yeah, yeah. I get that this isn’t for everyone. But damn, if nothing else, Zack Snyder knows how to make Superman look…well, super. This take on Superman actually works hard at making Superman a more relevant hero for the 21st century, and takes into account the very real reactions mankind might have with the discovery that not only are we not alone in the universe, but we may be inferior creatures. This is a newly-formed Superman entering the scene, and he feels appropriately green – he’s a superpower being who’s been told to (I’m sorry for this, really) “conceal, don’t feel.” That carries over to his battles with the Kryptonians in the latter half of the film, as he takes on warriors who have no regard for the humans around them. As for the film’s controversial ending to the battle? What exactly would you have Superman do to a powerful mad man with nothing left to lose who wants to destroy what you love?
4. Batman Returns
If Batman is a Tim Burton take on a Batman film, Batman Returns is Batman in a Tim Burton film. And it’s awesome. Burton creates fascinating origin stories for both the Penguin and Catwoman, creating some sympathy for both while refusing to let them off the hook for their villainous escapades. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, in particular, is the high point for villainy in the Burton/Schumacher run of Batman films, and is among the most memorable portrayals of a villain in comic book movie history. More importantly, it makes the true villain of the film businessman Max Shreck, the one character who seems sane and normal. It’s also darkly funny, injecting humor in a way that actually works for a modern Batman film. What also helps the film is its connection to when it was released – unlike the other films Burton and Schumacher made, Batman Returns feels far less tied to the time period in which it was released, from the design of the sets to the musical choices, to the aesthetic that at times looks just shy of being a black and white film. More than any of the live-action Batman films released around its time, Batman Returns is timeless, and holds up to this day.
3. Batman Begins
Batman finally gets a proper origin story – and I don’t mean the inclusion of shots involving the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne, which have been featured several times over the years. And what an origin story this is. Christopher Nolan wanted to bring a grounded, real-world “what if?” take to the character, and he achieves it in spectacular fashion. It’s also an intriguing story about the nature of fear, and how humans respond to it. It’s weighty material, made all the more relevant in a post-9/11 world. All of this, combined with a tremendous performance from Christian Bale as Batman and Bruce Wayne, create a fresh new take on the classic character. Compared to what came before it, there’s never been a greater shift in creating a reboot for a franchise, and it’s never been achieved in the same way it was here.
2. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
Of all the DC animated films out there, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is the only one to get a theatrical release. And that’s a good thing, because this film is not only the best product of DC animation, but perfectly broadens the world of Batman: The Animated Series in a way that wouldn’t work in an episode (or four) of television. The film uses extensive flashbacks to show a point in Bruce Wayne’s training where he was presented a tantalizing different path in life, courtesy of the lovely Andrea Beaumont, and how circumstances forced them apart and led to him finally becoming Batman. Andrea’s reappearance in Gotham City coincides with a series of murders of people with loose connections, but ones that hit close to home. Mask of the Phantasm ultimately highlights the significance of the boundaries Batman refuses to cross, and how even a tiny step over those boundaries can have devastating consequences. It’s a surprisingly mature film that, for years, stood as the best example of how to use this character.
1. The Dark Knight
And to the surprise of exactly no one, The Dark Knight tops this list. With his sequel to Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan crafted a brilliant crime thriller that happens to include both Batman and the Joker. There’s an interesting dynamic between the film’s three heroes – Batman, Gordon, and Harvey Dent – that offers a ray of hope for Batman through the purity of Harvey Dent, before the Joker makes him his target and threatens to destroy everything the three men have fought to achieve. And no mention of The Dark Knight can escape Heath Ledger’s brilliant performance, which creates the definitive live-action take on the character. Given his surprisingly limited screen time, the Joker is felt throughout nearly every inch of this film, his presence introducing anarchy into the proceedings of Nolan’s Gotham. The Dark Knight has brilliant, real-effect set pieces, excellent performances, a tight story, and showcases the entire creative team at the top of their games. More than any other film on this list, The Dark Knight not only stands as a great superhero film, but a great film – period.