Darkness. No parents. Continued darkness. The opposite of light. Black hole. Curtains drawn. In the basement. Middle of the night. Blacked-out windows. Other places that are dark.

This is the world of the Batman, in all of its bleakness (and darkness, obviously). And for over 70 years, it’s been a world explored in movies as well as comic-books. That expansive history makes the Caped Crusader one of the most enduringly popular heroes in all of American cinema, if not all of fiction. People loves them some Batman, whether he’s cast as a walking figure of vengeance or a walking action figure of adorableness.

With The Batman looming on the horizon, we decided to go through all seven decades of Batmania onscreen and rank the entire series from worst to first. Only theatrical films qualified though, so you won’t find some of Batman’s better direct-to-video animated adventures (like Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, or any of the recent DC Animated Original Movies, which we’ve already ranked in a separate post). After nearly 75 years, here is the state of the Bat-franchise, for better, for worse, and Forever.

Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

14. Batman

Year: 1943
Director: Lambert Hillyer
Batman Is Played By: Lewis Wilson
The Villain Is: Dr. Daka (Carrol Naish), a Japanese spy.
Why It’s 14th: In 2015, I called 1943’s Batman serial — the first Dark Knight to ever appear on movie screens — “[possibly] the worst Batman anything in any medium period.” In 2017, I am sticking to that assessment. The 15-part film is credited with introducing a few key elements of the Batman mythos (including the Batcave) and its overheated cliffhangers and campy production values were a major influence on the Adam West Batman two decades later. In the history of the character, it is important. As a work of entertainment, it is long, boring, and often shockingly racist. If you think the George Clooney Batman is bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet.


13. Batman and Robin

Year: 1949
Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet
Batman Is Played By: Robert Lowery
The Villain Is: The Wizard, a masked villain looking to sow chaos in Gotham City
Why It’s 13th: The second Batman serial is even cheaper looking than the first, which is hard to believe if you’ve seen the first. Two things make it a slight improvement over its predecessor: It’s not grotesquely bigoted, and sometimes it’s so incompetent — The Bat-Signal inexplicably visible on a bright sunny day? A Bat-costume that makes the hero look more like Bat-Mite than Batman? — that it’s frequently amusing, albeit in an unintentional way. What is it about the title Batman and Robin that causes any movie attached to it to become hilariously terrible? Speaking of which...

Warner Bros.

12. Justice League

Year: 2017
Director: Zack Snyder
Batman Is Played By: Ben Affleck
The Villains Are: Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), an alien looking to collect three “Mother Boxes” in order to destroy the world and remake it in the image of his home plane.
Why It’s 12th: Justice League should have been the grand conclusion to a series of interlocking stories. Instead, it was the moment a once-promising cinematic universe hit rock bottom. Director Zack Snyder left the project in the middle of shooting for personal reasons, Joss Whedon took over, and the result doesn’t feel like something either one of them would have made. The editing is sloppy, the tone is a mess, and the big villain is a generic CGI goober with zero personality. Until such time as the Snyder Cut is rightfully set free and becomes the consensus pick for the greatest motion picture of all time, Justice League shall remain among the weaker Batman movies ever made.

Warner Bros.

11. Batman & Robin

Year: 1997
Director: Joel Schumacher
Batman Is Played By: George Clooney
The Villains Are: Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), an eco-terrorist with poisonous lips and a hulking brute sidekick named Bane (Jeep Swenson), and Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a scientist who requires subzero temperatures to survive as the result of a lab accident, and who wants to find a cure for his dying wife and also make a lot of cold-related puns.
Why It’s 11th: There’s so very much that’s awful about the fourth and final live-action Bat-film of the ’90s, but I have to confess something: I still find myself drawn to this movie on occasion. If I stumble across it on television, I have trouble flipping to another channel. And once every year or so, I feel compelled to pop in my Blu-ray and relive the madness yet again. The gonzo production design, the ridiculous costumes, the shaggy subplots, the staggering number of ice jokes (coupled with a complete lack of understanding of how ice actually works); it’s just so freaking weird that I marvel that it even exists. It’s bad, but it’s memorable. And even kind of enjoyable in the right mood.

Warner Bros.

10. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Year: 2016
Director: Zack Snyder
Batman Is Played By: Ben Affleck
The Villain Is: Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who wants to drive a wedge between the world’s finest superheroes, and Doomsday, a sentient pile of CGI poop made from the dead body of General Zod combined with Lex Luthor DNA.
Why It’s 10th: Zack Snyder is a very skilled visual director, and there are some really impressive sequences in Batman v Superman; in particular, the final battle with Doomsday. But Dawn of Justice’s story is an absolute mess; the heroes arbitrarily hate each other until they arbitrarily stop (Thanks, Martha!), the plot keeps getting interrupted for dream sequences that double as ads for upcoming DC movies, and even an evil super-genius couldn’t make sense of Lex Luthor’s plan. Justice may be dawning, but logic sure as hell ain’t. The title characters are so morose that they’re constantly upstaged by Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. (It shouldn’t have surprised us that Wonder Woman was so much better than any of the other early DCEU movies.)

Warner Bros.

9. Batman Forever

Year: 1995
Director: Joel Schumacher
Batman Is Played By: Val Kilmer
The Villain Is: The Riddler (Jim Carrey), a disgruntled Wayne Enterprises employee who invents a machine that can drain people’s brain power, and Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), a hideously scarred former district attorney who wants to kill Batman because this is a Batman movie.
Why It’s 9th: Batman Forever exists in a sort of filmic No Man’s Land. It’s not as dark as the Tim Burton Bat-flicks or as silly as Batman & Robin, and as a result, it never quite carves out an identity of its own. It has some fun moments though, and Val Kilmer had a lot of potential as Batman, even if he never got to fulfill it. Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones’ over-the-top performances have not aged well. (At least Schwarzenegger’s work in Batman & Robin is amusing in a silly way. Those two doofuses are just annoying.) Let’s put it this way: Batman Forever is the dude in an unbuttoned silk shirt singing a ballad about a flower of Batman movies.

20th Century Fox

8. Batman: The Movie

Year: 1966
Director: Leslie H. Martinson
Batman Is Played By: Adam West
The Villain Is: United Underworld, a group comprised of four of Batman’s most fearsome arch-enemies: The Joker (Cesar Romero), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), and the Penguin (Burgess Meredith, WAHHH WAHHHHHHHH).
Why It’s 8th: For a long time, many die-hard comic-book fans held the 1960s Batman in contempt for the negative impact it had on comics’ image. Decades of journalism assumed all comics were like the Adam West Batman; colorful, poppy, and goofily campy. As comic books have moved closer and closer to the cultural mainstream, the Adam West and Burt Ward series has experienced a bit of a revival, with new comics and animated movies done in its deliberately (and often very charmingly) silly style. This movie, released between seasons of the Batman TV series, lacks the ambitions of the later Batman films. But its Bat-heart is firmly in the right place. And I love the frenetic, free-swinging fight scenes — onscreen sound effects and all.

Warner Bros.

7. The LEGO Batman Movie

Year: 2017
Director: Chris McKay
Batman Is Played By: Will Arnett
The Villain Is: Primarily the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), though he recruits an enormous rogues’ gallery from Batman comics (and beyond) to assist him in his scheme to prove his worth as a villain.
Why It’s 7th: It’s fitting to rank The LEGO Batman Movie slightly ahead of the 1960s Batman movie, since this over-the-top animated adventure borrows heavily from the Dark Knight’s Pop Art Adventures. That includes appearances from villains like Egghead (who was created for the ’60s Batman show and originally portrayed by horror movie legend Vincent Prince) and jokes about the infamous Bat-Shark Repellant. Beyond that, though, it transforms the old show’s campy aesthetic into something modern, fun, and — believe it or not — kind of cool. As Walt Whitman famously said, Batman contains multitudes. The LEGO Batman Movie proves his versatility better than any other movie in history. He can serves as a vehicle for the serious contemplation of myths, heroes, and social order. Or he can serve as the vehicle for jokes involving a man who throws eggs because his head is shaped like an egg.

Warner Bros.

6. The Dark Knight Rises

Year: 2012
Director: Christopher Nolan
Batman Is Played By: Christian Bale
The Villain Is: Bane (Tom Hardy), a muscle-bound anarchist who wants to break Batman and bring about a revolution in Gotham City.
Why It’s 6th: The Dark Knight Rises is like the Bizarro Universe version of 1966’s Batman; its opposite in almost every conceivable way. It’s wildly ambitious and hugely expensive. In concluding his Batman Trilogy, Christopher Nolan conceived a 
grand cinematic opera of action, violence, and philosophical musings. Like a lot of Batman movies, it is overstuffed with characters and incidents (including Marion Cotillard as a mysterious love interest for Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a virtuous police officer). Five years later, I still don’t know what the hell Tom Hardy was saying in that ridiculous Bane voice. But there are worse things for superhero films to be than artful and challenging. If more comic-book movies aspired to something bigger than escapism, we’d all be better off.

Warner Bros.

5. Batman Begins

Year: 2005
Director: Christopher Nolan
Batman Is Played By: Christian Bale
The Villain Is: Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), a psychotic psychiatrist who has created a drug that drives people insane with fear.
Why It’s 5th: Some of Batman Begins’ achievements have been overshadowed by The Dark Knight, but it’s worth remembering just how important it is in the overall arc of Batman movie history. After Batman & Robin, the material was basically left for dead in Hollywood. Christopher Nolan proved that the character still had plenty of potential, and even more importantly, that a Batman movie could be full of big ideas as well as eye candy. Wacky Bat-voice aside, Bale’s Dark Knight remains one of his best performances; moody, sad, dryly hilarious, and believably tough as hell. Plus, Liam Neeson’s surprising role as Bruce Wayne’s early mentor is unique amongst Batman antagonists.

Warner Bros.

4. Batman Returns

Year: 1992
Director: Tim Burton
Batman Is Played By: Michael Keaton
The Villain Is: The Penguin (Danny DeVito), a mutant orphan who runs for Mayor of Gotham City with the help of a corrupt businessman (Christopher Walken), and Catwoman, (Michelle Pfeiffer) a cat burglar with a leather fetish and a serious grudge against Penguin’s benefactor.
Why It’s 4th: The final Tim Burton Batman is a bit like the final Christopher Nolan Batman: Strange, funky, and difficult. It applied a more-is-more approach to Burton’s first Batman — more villains, more darkness, more gothic architecture, and more poignant melodrama, with Keaton’s Bruce Wayne, DeVito’s Penguin, and Pfeiffer’s Catwoman portrayed as three inextricably linked wayward souls, each broken by circumstance and searching for personal peace or acceptance. It has a reputation as a peculiar film, and by the standards of a blockbuster it is, but it is also extremely watchable, thanks in large part to an underrated Keaton performance and an accurately rated Pfeiffer performance as one of the most complex female characters in any superhero film. That this Catwoman never got her own solo movie and Halle Berry's did is one of the great tragedies in Hollywood history.

Warner Bros.

3. Batman

Year: 1989
Director: Tim Burton
Batman Is Played By: Michael Keaton
The Villain Is: The Joker (Jack Nicholson), a mid-level gangster transformed into a sociopathic killer and crime boss by a dip in a vat of toxic chemicals.
Why It’s #3: The impact of Tim Burton’s Batman cannot be overstated. Even more than the first Superman from 1978, Batman changed the way Hollywood — and a lot of people around the world — thought about superheroes, turning “kids stuff” into big business and serious art at the same time. Its influence on popular culture was enormous. It changed the future of superhero movies, the look and style of Batman comics and cartoons, and even music (thanks to its Prince songs and Danny Elfman score) and hairstyles (a kid down the block from me shaved the Bat-logo into the back of his head and I have never been more jealous of anyone in my entire life). The comic-book movie world can be divided into two eras: Before Tim Burton’s Batman, and after. I’m glad I’ve spent most of my life in the ATBB.

Warner Bros.

2. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

Year: 1993
Director: Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm
Batman Is Played By: Kevin Conroy
The Villain Is: Phantasm (???), a cloaked figure assassinating Gotham City mob figures, and the Joker (Mark Hamill), the deranged criminal clown who gets caught between Batman and Phantasm.
Why It’s 2nd: Long before The LEGO Batman MovieBatman: Mask of the Phantasm made a persuasive case that animation was the ideal medium for the Caped Crusader. Created by the team behind the classic Batman: The Animated Series, Mask of the Phantasm boiled all the things that made that show great beautiful designs, fluid animation, iconic voice talents down into a near-perfect 75-minute package. (Where so many Batman movies are bloated and exhausting, MotP is sleek and lean like a perfect 22-page comic book.) The doomed romance between Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy, still the greatest Batman in history, if only in audio form) and Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany) rivals the one between Bruce and Selina Kyle in Batman Returns, and the film’s central mystery actually packs quite a punch (provided you don’t spoil it by looking at the movie’s action figures). Now almost 25 years old, the film has aged beautifully, in part because the streamlined TAS artwork — a blend of Art Deco architecture and futuristic technology — was deliberately out-of-time even in 1993. Sadly, Mask of the Phantasm is not currently available on Blu-ray, an oversight Warner Bros. really needs to correct.

Warner Bros.

1. The Dark Knight

Year: 2008
Director: Christopher Nolan
Batman Is Played By: Christian Bale
The Villain Is: The Joker (Heath Ledger), a mysterious madman determined to plunge Gotham City into chaos, and eventually Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Gotham City’s crusading district attorney driven mad by the death of a loved one and a horrible disfigurement.
Why It’s #1: Only a man as demented as a Batman villain would think he could recast the role of the Joker after Jack Nicholson put his inimitable stamp on it. But Christopher Nolan did, and the late Heath Ledger delivered a performance for the ages. (He remains the only actor to win an Academy Award for a role in a superhero movie, which is kind of an incredible statistic.) There have been a lot of good Batman movies, but The Dark Knight remains a cut above the rest for its taut action, bold IMAX photography, and the provocative questions it raises about heroes and villains. It’s going to be the standard every Batman movie will be measured against for the foreseeable future  and maybe forever.

Gallery — Every DC Comics Movie Ranked: