The LEGO Batman Movie will be swooping into theaters tomorrow with a Rotten Tomatoes rating that’s exceedingly fresh—as I write this, its score stands at 94%. That kind of critical acclaim is a big change from the reception Gotham's caped crusader has received in his other recent film forays.
Between Suicide Squad (which featured Batman punching Harley in the face, stuffing her in the trunk of a car, and kissing her while she was still unconscious); the terrible animated Killing Joke movie; and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman has been in a lot of bad movies of late. But over the years, there have been incredible Batman movies, too—many of which helped create the superhero movie boom we're experiencing today.
Below, in ascending order, are the five movies that made me fall for the Batman. Think I left something out, or included a title that doesn’t belong? Let me know in the comments below!
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Tim Burton’s Batman is by no means a perfect movie. It features some truly ill-advised Prince songs, Michael Keaton seems a little uncertain as Batman throughout, and Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale doesn't have nearly as much to do as she deserves. But the 1989 Batman still belongs on this list, for showing audiences what superhero movies could be capable of. When Batman came out, it had been over two decades since the caped crusader had appeared on the big screen. His last outing, 1966's Batman, was slapstick-y and good-humored; tonally very different from Burton's take. Tim Burton's vision of Gotham was a gothic, looming city evoked through truly meticulous set design. His Batman was grim, the Joker (played by Jack Nicholson) truly upsetting, and the overall effect just as zany and strange as it was serious. Today, there's no shortage of superhero movies to choose from, but Batman still stands out from the crowd for showing audiences that superhero movies can be gritty and fun.
Batman Returns (1992)
Tim Burton's second Batman movie is even more effective than his first. Featuring Danny DeVito as an unsettling Penguin, Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, and Christopher Walken as sinister businessman Max Shreck, Batman Returns is an unapologetically dark, aesthetically unique superhero noir. The script was written by Heathers’ scribe Dan Waters, and has all the black humor you'd expect from the writer who brought us “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw. Do I look like Mother Teresa?”
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Originally intended by Warner Bros. as a direct-to-video release, this animated feature was moved to theaters at the last minute, and opened Christmas day, 1993. Although a box-office flop, Mask of the Phantasm was lauded by critics for its excellent voice acting cast and compelling, mature plot. Based off Batman: The Animated Series, Mask of the Phantasm, like the animated show, never condescends to its audience — despite ostensibly being for kids. The movie features an incredible score, and masterful voice performances, many of them from actors who also appeared on the animated series. Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as the Joker, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Alfred are still considered by many fans (present company included!) to be the definitive portrayals of those roles.
Batman arrived in theaters months after the final episode of the iconic live-action show, starring much of the same cast, including Adam West as a very wholesome Batman, and Burt Ward as a perpetually exclaiming Robin. Batman is enjoyably goofy and self-deprecating, but its heroes unflinchingly sincere. The movie can be a bit slow for modern audiences accustomed to higher stakes in their superhero flicks, but it also features enough endearingly bizarre hijinks to be worthwhile. Standout scenes include Batman fighting (and then exploding) a shark, and trying vainly to dispose of a bomb.
The Dark Knight, 2008
You knew where this list was going, didn't you? Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight was one of the first movies I ever saw in theaters that left me legitimately awe-struck. Nearly a decade later, Heath Ledger’s transformative turn as the Joker is still unmatched, and the movie's contemplation of heady themes like responsibility and good versus evil still matches well with its incredible action. I didn't have the same emotional response to Batman Begins or The Dark Knight Rises, the other movies in Nolan's bat-rilogy—but on this side of Dawn of Justice, they both seem like relative masterpieces, too.