clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A collage image of Batman movies, including Batman Begins, Batman Returns, The Batman, and Mask of the Phantasm. Graphic: Pete Volk/Polygon

Filed under:

Polygon ranks the Batman movies

We like them all, but some choices have to be made

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Riddle me this, reader. What’s black and brooding and now streaming on HBO Max?

It’s The Batman, of course! Robert Pattinson’s grumpy take on Gotham’s preeminent masked vigilante is now more widely available to watch, and what better excuse could there be to rank the 13 theatrically released Batman movies?

Our crack team of Polygon movie scientists got together to submit our individual Bat rankings, averaging them out to come up with this Very Exact ranking of our favorite Bat movies. But in the process, we discovered ... we actually like all these movies in different ways and for different reasons! Batman movies have ranged from pure camp to ultra-serious to everything in between, and they all pretty much succeed at their respective goals at the end of the day. So if your favorite Bat movie is low on this list, take heart in the fact that we like it, too.

For more Bat movie coverage, check out our suggestion on three different orders to watch the Batman movies in, and our list of the best animated Batman movies and where you can watch them.


13. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Ben Affleck as Batman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Image: Warner Bros.

More of a sequel to Man of Steel than a true Batman movie, this nevertheless gets a place on the list due to Batman’s prominent placement in both the title and the plot. The first live-action movie with both Batman and Superman in it, it also featured the first live-action theatrical appearance of Wonder Woman and the first appearance of Ben Affleck as Batman. Also, it kind of rules! Yes, even though it’s technically 13th on our list!

After Bruce Wayne witnesses the destruction of Man of Steel firsthand, he views Superman as an existential threat to humanity. Similarly, Superman learns of Batman’s actions and sees him as a threat to the safety of the citizens of Gotham. Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) exploits the situation, pitting the two against each other for his gain. A flawed but fascinating movie, BvS interrogates the self-perception of both heroes through the lens of their heroic “rival” and the partial pictures they have of each other. As a fan of Zack Snyder’s DC movies, I suggest checking out the longer Ultimate Edition, but this gets the “if you’re not down with Snyder’s approach, this might not be for you” disclaimer. —Pete Volk

12. Batman & Robin

Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone), Batman (George Clooney), and Robin (Chris O’Donnell) in Batman & Robin. Image: Warner Home Video

George Clooney’s lone movie as Batman, Batman & Robin is the fourth and final movie in the series that started with 1989’s Batman, and the only one of the group not to involve Tim Burton. The second Batman movie directed by Joel Schumacher, Batman & Robin is a deeply bisexual movie that brings back Chris O’Donnell’s Robin and introduces Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl as well as dual villains in Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze. Schwarzenegger is deliciously over the top as Freeze (“What killed the dinosaurs? The Ice Age!”) — your mileage with his performance is as good of a barometer as you’re going to get on your enjoyment of this campy, colorful, silly time at the movies. —PV

11. Batman Forever

Val Kilmer as Batman surrounded by glowing neon question marks in Batman Forever. Image: Warner Bros.

Schumacher’s first turn as a Batman director feels in many ways like a transitional movie between the German Expressionist approach of the early Tim Burton movies and the colorful campiness of Batman & Robin. It introduces Chris O’Donnell’s Robin and is Val Kilmer’s lone turn in the Batsuit, but what really pulls the whole thing together are the absolutely unhinged villain performances by Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face and Jim Carrey as The Riddler.

You want dedication? Jim Carrey was so devoted to the Riddler life that Jones allegedly said to him during the production, “I hate you. I really don’t like you ... I cannot sanction your buffoonery.” That energy comes through in the final product for both actors, and it makes the movie a delightful time. —PV

10. Zack Snyder’s Justice League

the Justice League assembled on the edge of a cliff in Zack Snyder’s Justice League Image: HBO Max

We’re going with this version of the movie, because it is significantly better and more interesting than the theatrical release. And it is worth briefly talking about the circumstances that got us to this point: Joss Whedon replaced Zack Snyder during production after a family tragedy, and the resulting theatrical film was a complete mess, launching abuse allegations against Whedon and the eventual release of Snyder’s version of the movie on HBO Max.

Following the events of Dawn of Justice, this movie sees the newly formed Justice League team up to fight off an invasion of Earth by Darkseid, Steppenwolf, and their army of Parademons.

I’ll give it to you straight: If you’re even iffy on Snyder’s style, this is probably not the Batman movie for you. But I, personally, love it, and if you’re down for an over-the-top, four-hour superhero epic made by someone with unabashed passion and enthusiasm for that sort of thing, set aside a weekend day to bask and enjoy. —PV

9. The Lego Batman Movie

The Lego Batman Movie - Batman waving in gold suit Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Live-action Batman movies love to ask if Batman is really good for Gotham, or if his presence simply creates more crime. Taking Batman seriously enough for a “grounded,” live-action movie creates narrative inconsistencies absent in more fantastical or comedic takes on the character. Lamp-shading them gives a veneer of “realism,” that quality so theoretically prized by the modern superhero movie audience. But the best answers that Batman movies usually come up with are near-tautologies like “Gotham needs Batman.”

The Lego Batman Movie asks these fundamental questions, and then it actually provides its own clear answers and solutions. This is a take on Batman that is not to be underestimated, as it shows us exactly why Batman is alone, how he keeps himself alone, and the trauma and justified fear that ultimately drive his isolation.

It’s also an hour and 46 minutes of pure joy; a hilarious heroic romp and a love letter to the history of Batman in film; and an out-loud critique of the brooding, angry, hyper-masculine, loner Batman of modern cinema, from his cut abs to his sadness mansion. It also has a big dance number over the end credits. —Susana Polo

8. The Dark Knight Rises

Bane (Tom Hardy) and Batman (Christian Bale) face off in a brawl in The Dark Knight Rises. Image: Warner Home Video

The finale of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises finds Bruce questioning his role as The Bat, living as a recluse after the events of The Dark Knight. When Bane (Tom Hardy) initiates a deadly scheme in Gotham, Bruce must confront demons from his past as well as Bane’s to save the day. Often considered the weakest of Nolan’s three movies, The Dark Knight Rises may surprise you with how well it holds up years later as a coda to the trilogy, especially through Hardy’s remarkable physical and vocal performance. The scene of Heinz Field collapsing as Hines Ward returns a kick won’t be leaving my head for some time, either. —PV

7. Batman: The Movie

Burt Ward and Adam West as Robin and Batman in Batman: The Movie (1966). Image: Warner Home Video

Putting the 1966 Batman anywhere but last on this ranked list is asking for trouble from the kinds of fans NPR’s Glen Weldon calls out in his book The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, the ones who have heavily shaped Batman movies over the decades by insisting that the darker a Batman story is, the more authentic and adult and important it is. But grittiness and adultiness aren’t the only arbiters of film quality; sometimes a good movie is just one where everyone’s agreed about their goals and willing to fully commit. Everyone in Batman: The Movie knows they’re in a camp comedy, and they play that camp to the rafters.

They aren’t unpacking and challenging the Batman mythos in a thoughtful, abiding way, but it’s still a hoot to watch the rogues’ gallery of Lee Meriwether, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, and Frank Gorshin vamping it up in roles that keep getting reinterpreted as more airless and joyless with each new outing. Adam West’s self-important huffiness and Burt Ward’s go-for-broke gameness are just gravy. This film is worth it for the “Batman tries to dispose of a bomb” sequence alone, but it’s also a useful reminder that superheroes are, at heart, pretty campy, no matter how glowering and serious they try to be. —Tasha Robinson

6. Batman

Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger as Batman and Vicki Vale in Batman. Image: Warner Bros.

Tim Burton’s Batman looks comparatively quaint by the standards of today’s Batman movies, with Michael Keaton playing Bruce Wayne as a mildly doofy guy with a serious calling instead of as a madman with an obsession, and the wall-to-wall Prince songs giving the whole movie an unusual pop sheen. (Burton later admitted he felt trapped by studio pressure to boost the film’s profile by partnering with Prince.) But it’s hard to overestimate how radical it felt in its day, and how much the mainstream still needed to hear the “Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!” messaging and see an onscreen Batman who was both a relatable person and a thrilling hero. Jack Nicholson walks away with the movie as the Joker, strutting and sneering and occasionally fraying into something scarier — while Heath Ledger later eclipsed him in the role, there’s still something compelling about Nicholson’s “gentleman madman” portrayal of someone covering his pain in different layers of pretense, just like his nemesis, but with less control and more sense that he’s constantly about to spin off the edge. —TR

5. The Batman

Robert Pattinson as the Batman. Photo: Jonathan Olley/Warner Bros.

The latest entry in the Bat canon is also one of the strongest. Robert Pattinson brings a unique sullen attitude to the role, and writer-director Matt Reeves surrounds the young Bruce with older allies and enemies at every turn, emphasizing how green this version of the Bat is. This movie is also, somewhat surprisingly, hilarious. Bruce is often remarkably dense as “The World’s Greatest Detective,” and the movie has no problem leaning into this and making fun of him for it (The Penguin roasting Bruce for his lack of Spanish comprehension is legitimately one of the funniest moments in any Batman movie.)

With strong performances from the rest of the cast, including Zoë Kravitz as the best Catwoman since Michelle Pfeiffer and John Turturro as Carmine Falcone, and an understanding that “dark” movies can still have fun and be silly, The Batman is perfect for a rainy day. —PV

4. The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight - Batman standing in flames Photo: Warner Bros.

Scripting a superhero film is a delicate balance between hero and villain. In the best of worlds, you want the audience to be equally fascinated by both — intrigued by their depth of motivation and rapt at their antics. The Dark Knight absolutely fails at maintaining that balance, but saves itself by being the best dang superhero movie that’s really just about about the supervillains ever made.

The Nolans never seem particularly interested in Bruce Wayne’s interiority after Batman Begins, but with Heath Ledger’s Joker, Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent, and the rest of the extremely high-caliber actors in the production, you won’t notice for hours after the credits roll that Batman didn’t actually grow or learn anything.

And you will still be thinking about The Dark Knight hours after the credits roll, because Hollywood is still thinking about it more than a decade after its release. With their second stab at Batman, the Nolans made a film so compelling and memetic that every superhero movie since exists in conversation with it — Warner Bros.’ DC stable; every studio attempt to build a franchise on a darker, “realer” version of a campy classic; and even the Marvel Cinematic Universe are all made in conversation with The Dark Knight, retreading the path it carved or volleying back a rebuttal.

When those rebuttals say “Why so serious?” they’re not talking to Batman Begins, the movie with ninjas, and fear gas, and a magical microwave. —SP

3. Mask of the Phantasm

a man looks at a mask in batman: mask of the phantasm Image: Warner Bros.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is one of the greatest Batman films of all time, full stop. Initially produced by Batman: The Animated Series producers Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm as a direct-to-video feature before being later released in theaters, 1993’s Mask of the Phantasm pits the Dark Knight against a mysterious new enemy and his long-time nemesis the Joker. The film probes at the inherent tragedy and history of the character with a level of nuance and depth that few subsequent incarnations (live-action or otherwise) have successfully attempted since, conjuring a portrait of loss and heartbreak whose resonance endures to this day. —Toussaint Egan

2. Batman Returns

Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) standing in front of a silhouette of the bat signal in Batman Returns. Image: Warner Home Video

A gothic Batman adaptation with delicious German Expressionist architecture and a vibrant score by Danny Elfman, Batman Returns meets a bizarre comic book-style plot with a tangible sense of Gotham as a real place, from its board rooms to its sewers.

Michael Keaton returns as Bruce Wayne, this time facing off against the Penguin (Danny DeVito) and business tycoon Max Shreck (Christopher Walken), with the occasional help of Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer). Impeccably cast and with truly unforgettable moments (the Penguin running for mayor! Catwoman going Full Cat Mode!), Batman Returns is the most completely realized version of Gotham City ever put on film. —PV

1. Batman Begins

batman threatening jonathan crane on a staircase, with his hand around crane’s throat Image: Warner Bros.

In retrospect, it’s pretty remarkable just how well the first attempt at a super-serious live-action Batman movie went. Sure, the framework was there in the comics, but most of the films that preceded this one ranged from pretty silly to extremely silly. Nearly two decades later, the Batman franchise is still synonymous with “gritty superhero” movies, and this is where it all began.

The first in the Nolan trilogy, Batman Begins is an origin story that follows the young Bruce Wayne’s journey outside of Gotham to find his purpose after the murder of his parents. He joins up with Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows, training with them (including a fantastic, intricately choreographed scene with dozens of ninjas) before leaving over a difference in crime-fighting methodology. Back in Gotham, the newly anointed Batman takes up the cape to fight the Mafia and a sinister plot by the Scarecrow (played by a very game Cillian Murphy).

Begins launches the visual style the Nolan movies would be known for, as well as the continual theme of Batman’s responsibility for the costumed villains that stem from his existence. Sure, it has since been overshadowed for many by Heath Ledger’s legendary performance in the sequel, but Batman Begins more than holds up and earns the top spot on our list as the best Batman movie ever made. —PV

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon