.5. Batman (1989) In 1989, the public perception of Batman changed. Sure, Comic-Con nerds knew he was the dark-hearted flipside to the pretty boy Superman, but most people only knew the ’60s camp edition. Tim Burton was an inspired choice to change all that, embracing the dark psychology of the character and redefining the world through gothic design, while still retaining enough tongue-in-cheek humor to avoid Nolan levels of seriousness that audiences weren’t ready for yet. Michael Keaton was a perfect casting choice for a Bruce Wayne who actually needed to put on a ridiculous costume to inspire fear in criminals, while Jack Nicholson was born to attach his persona to the Joker. The film shattered box office records, and superhero movies suddenly seemed like reputable blockbuster fodder. A modern classic that would stand as the best Batman adaptation were it not for a certain other movie that topped all of its acclaim and success.
4. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) Although I love the more recent film Batman Under the Red Hood, there is no substitute for this classic. Released in the early ’90s, Batman: The Animated Series is probably the incarnation of a Batman most true to the comic book source. The creative team behind the show got one crack at a movie and delivered what is possibly the Dark Knight’s most underrated film. Combining elements of Batman: Year One and Year Two storylines into a twisted tale involving a phantom masked villain killing gangsters (with the cops obviously assuming it’s Batman) and the Joker thrown in for good measure, this is a far darker animated film than you would expect to see from a major studio. Characters are killed, blood is spilled and Batman goes through some complex emotional issues. The movie bombed in theaters over Christmas in 1993, with kids disturbed by the twisted tale and adults unwilling to pay for a cartoon. However, if you’re a fan of Batman, you owe it to yourself to seek out this dark animated gem.
3. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) The Dark Knight Rises suffers heavily from following two other films on this list. With all of its maligning The Dark Knight Rises still did excellent at the box office. It is definitely the weakest film in the Nolan trilogy, but that’s a fairly high bar. The Dark Knight Rises is a great action film with phenomenal acting. This film has one of the strongest cast of any super hero movie (Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, Tom Hardy and Anne Hathaway to name a few). The film contains elements of The Dark Knight Returns and is a satisfying conclusion to one of the greatest trilogies of all time.
2. Batman Begins (2005) After Joel Schumacher debuted Batman and Robin in 1997 many thought the Caped Crusader had reverted back to his cheesy and unrealistic adaptation. It was hard to imagine that anyone could ever pull Batman back from this critical failure of a film. However, in 2005 Christopher Nolan released his gritty realistic take on Batman’s origin story. Christian Bale starred as Bruce Wayne and a host of other talented actors (Liam Neeson, Michael Cain, Gary Oldman, Katie Holmes, and others) joined him in a cinematography masterpiece. Batman Begins jumpstarted a successful trilogy by grounding the audience in Bruce Wayne’s backstory. Christopher Nolan took the time to present Bruce Wayne as a human being that the audience could connect and sympathize with instead of just another unrelatable superhero in a cape. Fans had high hopes for where Nolan was taking the character, but no one was prepared for what would come next.
1. The Dark Knight (2008) The Dark Knight had everything: action, romance, drama, Batman, and a jaw-dropping portrayal of the Joker. Nolan’s second installment broke box office records and it’s easy to see why. The reason for this success truly belongs to the talented Heath Ledger, who was awarded the Best Supporting Actor award following his untimely death. His performance is dark, edgy and stupefying. The best villains have clear motivations that an audience can understand, and Heath Ledger delivered this. Believe it or not, this Batman film was nominated for eight Academy Awards which solidified the fact that comic book films can be successful.