When Tim Burton’s Batman hit movie theatres in 1989, superhero movies were a risky gamble that few movie studios would approach. Twenty-seven years later, movies based on The Dark Knight are pretty much a given. But which ones are the best?
These days, it seems like there’s a new cinematic adaptation based on Batman every month. Heck, a new one just came out this week. But a steady stream of Bat-movies doesn’t mean that they all stand the test of time. The five flicks below are the ones that we think stand head, shoulders and pointy ears above the rest. You should have seen these all already but, if you haven’t, be warned that there are spoilers below.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
This 1993 animated movie drives home what exactly Bruce Wayne had to sacrifice to become the Dark Knight. Early in the movie, a college-age Bruce Wayne has found love with socialite Andrea Beaumont and stands in front of his parents’ graves, saying it doesn’t hurt so much anymore. You want to believe that he can find some sort of balance or happiness. He doesn’t, of course. When Thomas and Martha Wayne’s child finally does pull on that pointy-eared mask, Alfred’s gasp says it all: Bruce Wayne’s life effectively ends when Batman is born. For Gotham City to have any hope, its richest son must scuttle his own. Batman’s heroism is the tragic kind not only because it was borne of loss but because it keeps him losing.
Little touches make Mask of the Phantasm feel more grown-up than the cartoon series that spawned it. There’s a sequence that implies Bruce Wayne gets some loving and other scenes with both Batman and Joker bleeding from various scuffles. Throughout it all, Shirley Walker’s score reprises familiar themes from the Batman: The Animated Series TV show but adds orchestral heft and choral colour to lift them into operatic poignancy.
Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker
The Batman mythos has a Joker Problem. The Dark Knight’s archenemy exudes a near-irresistible gravity on creators, which has resulted in over-exposure for the Clown Prince of Crime. At first, the Batman Beyond cartoon dealt with that by not using the character at all, and only referencing him with a street gang that appropriated his look. But then they brought the original Joker back in the series’ sci-fi near-future setting, somehow making him even crueler and more magnetic. This film immediately became one of the definitive Joker stories, it was actually shocking because it showed Batman’s no-killing rule being broken in the most transgressive way.
If such a thing as a Batman orthodoxy exists, its tenets hold that both Bruce Wayne and his alter ego must be unshakably glum and committed to crimefighting above all else. But, ah, then there’s the live-action Batman TV show of the 1960s: the dad-joke Dark Knight that even grim-n-gritty purists have to respect. The movie version of the camp TV show blew out the scope of what Batman did, with a plot that saw Gotham’s biggest bad guys team up to commit evil on a global scale. Batman 1966 works because, like the show, it gets mileage out of the absurdity of superhero fantasies while embracing the sincerity of the concept. This was a Batman that kids (and probably some adults) looked up to: an avuncular, cool-as-a-cucumber super-genius.
Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne was the best thing about Tim Burton’s Batman movies. Keaton gave audiences a millionaire playboy who felt so quirkily detached and preoccupied that you couldn’t believe his head housed the weird psychological apparatus responsible for Batman. This sequel doubled down on the idea that childhood and adult trauma leaves people with fractured selves. Burton turned a snowy Gotham City into a bleak fairytale backdrop for the melodrama that had damaged souls coming together, soaring and crashing down short of their dreams. Almost every live-action Batman movie has been grim but Returns is genuinely sad.
Batman: The Dark Knight
Batman’s at the peak of his prowess in this movie and just starting to impose his own order on Gotham’s criminal underworld. That’s what makes it so chilling when the Joker — played by the late Heath Ledger — shows up. He’s chaos on two legs, a threat that Batman doesn’t have the tools to deal with. Ledger delivers a chilling performance as the most malevolent live-action Joker yet seen. His combo of manic grumbling, twitchy explosiveness and simmering menace made the decades-old villain feel like he could exist in the real world. Batman may win the day but, as it should be, his tangles with the Joker have left him forever changed.