Ranking the Batman Films
For fifteen podcast episodes over the course of five months, we here at The Reel World have gone deep down the Batman rabbit hole, from Adam West to Ben Affleck and pretty much every actor to play The Dark Knight along the way, passing out hot takes left and right. But what is the overall outcome of The Tape Crusaders? Which of these films is our consensus favourite? Which ones can’t we stand? It’s time to find out. (Mike would like to make clear that the white-bread af introduction you just read was written by Matt.)
Mike and Matt each sat down and separately ranked every film talked about in the show (minus Justice League: New Frontier), and by weighting their rankings via a secret point system, a combined consensus has been achieved. And thus, we present to you, the Super-Official Reel World Ranking of the Batmen.
We couldn’t get to EVERYTHING during the course of the show, but because Matt Waters is a crazy person, he has seen almost every single Batman film there is. Some of them are decidedly mediocre, but of the stuff not covered he would recommend Batman: Assault on Arkham for what Suicide Squad SHOULD have been, Son of Batman + Batman vs Robin for a fun pair of Damian Wayne stories and finally Justice League: Gods and Monsters, for Michael C. Hall voicing an alternate version of Batman who is a freakin’ vampire, which speaks for itself, quite frankly.
Matt Waters: Well, something had to bring up the rear, didn’t it? Despite previously writing a list of things to enjoy about Suicide Squad, I can’t deny this film was a complete mess, with virtually every major decision going the wrong way. I still like Jared Leto’s Joker more than most, I still like the Meet-the-Team montages and I still listen to that soundtrack from time to time, but it’s hard to argue with a pointless apocalyptic sky-vortex, a supremely racist Killer Croc and the overall ill-advised choices by David Ayer.
Mike Thomas: This film is uniquely terrible in virtually every way. However, the one aspect of the film that actually was done quite well was the portrayal of the humanity in Mr. Freeze. Arnold nailed those pathos moments so well that you cannot help but look at this film in retrospect and think about what could have been. There’s a great film to be had with the Victor Freeze character, and it would be nice if someone could capture it one day.
Mike: There is something bizarrely compelling about this vehicle of Tim Burton excess. Nothing about the film is good exactly, but it’s all such a compelling disaster of a project. I wouldn’t say I have a “soft spot” for it exactly, but I find it oddly compelling whenever I throw it on.
Matt: Growing up, I thought this film was the greatest. What an amazingly fun Batman caper with two great villains, plenty of gadgets and a cool, neon yet dark Gotham city. Turns out when you rewatch it as an adult it breaks your heart a smidge. I still think there’s some decent stuff in here; they made an attempt to make Batman more physically capable, and you can definitely see the moments here and there where Joel Schumacher wanted to get a little more psychological with it. Also Val Kilmer is an underrated Batman/Bruce Wayne.
Mike: SubZero is not really a good film. It doesn’t have a ton going for it, but it does have the Victor Freeze story, and I’m a sucker for the Victor Freeze story as discussed above. It succeeds in doing that component of the story justice even if everything else feels very rushed and forced. It’s an easy watch if nothing else and worth checking out if it ever pops up on any of your streaming services.
Matt: Despite Mike’s best attempts to drag me for daring to not give a fully negative review of BvS, I acknowledge there’s a LOT wrong with it, and you can blame me for it making its way this far up the list almost entirely due to the Ultimate Edition. I really enjoyed Ben Affleck’s older, wiser, wearier but still suave Bruce Wayne, and the 3(!) hour version of the film fleshed out Lex Luthor’s elaborate plot, gave Lois Lane more to do, and did some interesting things with each character investigating the other. And if one more person makes fun of the Martha connection I will fight them.
Matt: People who think Batman Returns is better than Tim Burton’s very okay first crack at Batman are on dust. To say the special effects have aged poorly would be putting it mildly, but Michael Keaton is a great aloof-yet-charming-yet-damaged Bruce Wayne, and a surprisingly good Batman. Jack Nicholson’s performance is iconic, and Burton does a good job of making The Bat seem terrifying from the criminals’ point of view. (Why is this low, you ask? Mike really hates it and finds it tedious at the best of times.)
Mike: This film is not exactly “good,” but it provides a very watchable story and a fine showcase of the Batman: Beyond show for fans of Batman who otherwise missed out on that journey. The plot here strains credulity to say the least, and it uses Batman: The Animated Series nostalgia as a crutch instead of telling a compelling, creative, and unique narrative. The Batman: Beyond cartoon was cool enough though and everyone should get to get a taste of it. This would be as good as a place as any to get it.
Mike: The animated adaptation of this infamous comic was the tale of two movies (almost literally). The first half was an exceptionally hashtag problematic exploration of the psyche of Barbara Gordon before she becomes an object to be destroyed for the Batman/Joker conflict in the second half of the film. The Batman/Joker portion is infinitely stronger in execution even if the premise is a bit faulty. It’s worth checking out if you have any interest in hearing Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill go at it one final time though.
Mike: The 1966 Batman is one of the most purely fun interpretations of Batman ever. You would not necessarily want this version of Batman to be the dominant take on the character for very long. It’s a completely valid one though and as satisfying as any take on Batman when done well. I’m still hoping an adaption with Jeff Goldblum playing this take of the Caped Crusader happens before I die!
Matt: The grand sendoff for the best take on the Batman universe outside of the original source material, Phantasm is a well-paced detective story that asks interesting questions about Bruce’s self-imposed duty as Batman. The scene where Bruce asks his parents’ gravestones for permission to be even slightly happy with Andrea offers a surprisingly effective window into the psyche of the man behind the cowl. Joker’s inclusion is a little eye-rolling, and the final showdown is underwhelming, but the set-up is pretty darn good.
Mike: The ceiling for Lego Batman movies is probably never going to be all that high. However, the margin of error is probably always going to be pretty wide based on what we saw here. This film really demonstrated how deep of a well they have to work with in regards to Batman universe gags AND references from other properties that Warner Bros. has access to (this is the ONLY film where you can see Batman and Lord Voldemort interact). It seems impossible that they will ever produce a boring Lego Batman film with that formula, and that should cover the limits of telling a satirical 100+ minute Batman story.
Matt: Yes, there are two TDKR films, but in my opinion, while part one is a slightly tighter endeavour, they’re too joined at the hip to earn separate rankings. Say what you want about the Mutant Gang, watching an older Bruce Wayne try and drink himself to death before giving in to the itch and suiting up as Batman again is wonderful. There are four major plot lines across the two films, roughly mirroring the four issues of the book, and each one contributes to the project’s psychoanalysis of who Batman is. I particularly liked Two-Face’s final moment, and adore the Batman/Joker showdown in the carnival. As someone who irrationally hates the art style of the comic, these films are a great adaptation, that offer some minor improvements in certain areas. Also: Greek Chorus.
Mike: This was not only a good film in its own right, but it simultaneously serves as a great and necessary companion piece to Nolan’s Batman universe. This story gives us the Gotham perspective on the rise of Batman by showing us the majority of the happenings through a (very flawed) Jim Gordon. This was a great look at Jim Gordon, as we got to see his attempts at heroics and the majorly poor decisions he made personally and professionally along the way. The audience then also received the necessary justification for the temporary need for someone like Batman to help fix the systemic issues in Gotham. Every Batman fan should read and/or watch this story. It’s a classic for good reasons.
Mike: This is a film that I’ve grown to love despite its gaping and massive flaws that undermine a lot of what the film was trying to do. It’s this beautiful monstrosity of a picture that could understandably be outside someone’s Top Ten list of best Batman films. After repeatedly re-watching it though, I’ve begun to love it for being a series of great ideas and concepts even if they are often paid off in rushed and/or unsatisfying ways. That does not make for a great (or possibly even a good) film in a vacuum obviously. I’ve come to terms with that, and the film holds a special place in my heart now.
Matt: In a world where I had remembered to hit record at the start of this episode of the podcast, you would have heard a great deal more gushing about how amazing this film is. I adore the Jason Todd character, and he’s at his best here, with Jensen Ackles knocking it so far out of the park it’s unreal. The emotional final confrontation with Batman, Jason and Joker is among the best pieces of Batman film writing ever, and John DiMaggio’s Joker is shockingly good once you get over the initial shock of hearing his voice come out of the Clown Prince of Crime’s mouth. It’s equal parts fun and touching, with gadgets, detective work, flashbacks and Neil Patrick f’n Harris nailing it as Nightwing. I concede the two films above it on this list are objectively better practices in movie making, but Red Hood will forever have my heart.
Mike: While this film will be remembered for many things in the decades to come, thinking back on it right now reminds me about what a turning point in the career of Christopher Nolan it was as a storyteller. While I’ve generally liked everything Nolan has done since, this film, this picture was definitely what jump-started his signature storytelling style becoming more focused on the macro and less focused on attention to detail. The plot-holes in this one seem minuscule compared to his work in the ensuing years, but the whole idea of “things happening just because” really started here for him and then became his trademark in everything since.
(Yes, that was an odd blurb, but that thought literally just came to me and what else can be said about this film in all honesty?)
Matt: Once upon a time I branded the vocal minority who believed Batman Begins is better than The Dark Knight as crazy people. Well, I’ve either grown up or gone crazy myself, because upon rewatching the first entry in the Nolan trilogy, I’ve come to realise it is a superior Batman film. From the amount of care that was taken with making Bruce a three-dimensional character, to Liam Neeson’s phenomenal work as Ra’s al Ghul, to the air-tight script strung together by consistent themes, Batman Begins is the film every lazy director or producer in Hollywood should be comparing their latest entry in a franchise to instead of The Dark Knight. With a straight face tell me Christian Bale gives a better performance as Bruce Wayne in either of the sequels.