Hey, did you hear? There’s some picture about a bat guy and some super fella hitting the movie house this weekend. Oh, you did? Well then, see you later!
Okay, fine. While we have recently been in the midst of a bevy of superhero movies, Superman and Batman have been the two heroes who have always been around to grace the silver screen. And now, after decades of being kept apart, they’re finally being allowed to play with each other. I just hope they don’t play too rough…
So I thought I’d take you on a journey through all of the theatrical endeavors of these immortal characters. I could have listed them chronologically but I thought I’d rank them instead because who doesn’t like a little controversy?
Up, up, and away…
17. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987)
No. No no no. Bad Superman movie, bad. I had to rewatch this movie for the first time since I was a kid and not only is it worse than I remember, but it’s woefully misguided. It’s written with a child’s understanding of nuclear war and a looser understanding of story, leading to some glorious nonsense. Superman actually goes to the United Nations, says he’s going to rid the world of all nuclear weapons, AND EVERYONE IS TOTALLY COOL WITH IT!
A lot of beats are tired or completely rehashed, the effects are poor even for the time, and an onslaught of goofy humor bog down an already confounding motion picture. The only saving graces are Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder. They have a scene where Lois, visiting a sick Clark, kind of knows who Clark is and he kind of knows it too but they don’t say it, and it actually plays quite well.
16. Superman III (1983)
Excuse me, waiter? There seems to be a Richard Pryor in my Superman movie. I didn’t order any Richard Pryor, nobody at this table ordered it. Take it back, I’m not paying for it.
The less said about this unfocused, goofy mess, the better. However the scenes involving Smallville and Lana Lang give another perspective to the character that was quite nice.
15. Batman & Robin (1997)
When looked at as a sequel to the dark Burton films and even the quasi-dark Batman Forever, this movie is a gross misfire. However, when looked at as a big budget Adam West movie, it’s kind of amazing. I’m not gonna lie, I love this stupid, stupid, cartoon of a movie. I love the style, I love the failed attempt at drama, I love the ice puns, and I love the gloriously over the top Uma Thurman who seems to be the only one truly aware of what kind of movie they were making. Seriously, she’s something to behold.
14. Batman Forever (1995)
Of all the films on this list, this is the movie that most deserves a second chance. It’s got great style, a great sense of character, it has my favorite Batsuit, and it’s the only film of the original four that really looks at the psychology of Batman. It treats the character as a traumatized child with repressed memories who has to rediscover the motivation for his cursed existence, as if he has to pay a penance for some great crime. Kilmer is the best Batman in my opinion and that darkness inside him really shines.
I even love Carrey as the Riddler and Chris O’Donnell as Robin (remember, this is before the infamous Batman & Robin). Honestly my only really big problem is that the villains- especially the tone deaf Tommy Lee Jones who seems to be playing the Joker rather than Two-Face- often go too campy 60’s Batman and it clashes with the tone of the rest of the film. Even then, it’s worth another shot.
Plus it has one of my all-time favorite Batman lines: “Poor Edward. I had to save them both. You see, I’m both Bruce Wayne and Batman. Not because I have to be. Now… because I choose to be.”
13. Batman: The Movie (1966)
I’m sure this might place lower on other people’s lists, even at the very bottom. But it’s important to remember that the television series (and this theatrical film) was a satire and was meant to be funny. Everything we make fun of it for was intentional and in that sense it’s kind of brilliant. The scene with the shark is perhaps one of the top 5 greatest movie scenes of all time. Adam West’s timing and delivery is pitch perfect, the jokes land hard, and the villains all look like they’re having a grand old time every day. Although I’m sure some days were harder than others. After all, “some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”
12. Superman II (1980)
I used to think this film was as good as the first one, but alas, this is not the case. The change of director in the middle of production creates some jarring tone changes and pacing issues, but there are so many great scenes in there that you simply get swept up in. The relationship between Clark/ Superman and Lois Lane takes some fulfilling steps forward (and eventually backwards) and the showdown between Superman and Zod’s crew is still fun to watch even if the effects are dated.
11. Batman Returns (1992)
This movie would be much higher on the list if not for a few certain bird related things. Burton seems more comfortable with the world, the style is more palpable and Burton-esque, and Keaton is giving a better, more fully realized performance rooted in darkness and duality. And he is perfectly offset by Michelle Pfeiffer who is so fantastic as Catwoman that if this movie were released today she would have gotten serious awards buzz. She gives, hand down, one of the best performances in any comic book movie. It’s tragic, hopeless, and deluded yet somehow also enticing and powerful. Both scenes with the “mistletoe” line are standouts.
Unfortunately, the movie gets bogged down by the Penguin. The character is properly tragic and Danny DeVito is perfect casting, but his half of the movie just gets way too silly and it takes me right out of the dark, psychological Catwoman half.
“I am Catwoman. Hear me roar.”
10. Man of Steel (2013)
I’m so torn on this one. Are there flaws? Absolutely. But when it works, it really works. The film knows what it’s going for and it doesn’t hold back. The tone is stern and unforgiving and it focuses more on Superman as an internal character rather than an external symbol. Henry Cavill gives a great performance perhaps too subtle for a film so bombastic, but I don’t blame him for that. The film does such a thorough job presenting this world, these themes, and this character that some other aspects do get lost.
The film suffers from some wonky pacing, some horrendous dialogue (especially from Lois Lane), and the first half is so rushed and has so much action and jumps back and forth in the timeline that the characters are forced to speak in exposition and speeches and sound bites rather than sound like human beings. While the second half moves smoothly and the writing takes an upswing.
It’s a shaky, divisive film but I think the good outweighs the mediocre. Also dat score.
9. The Batman Superman Movie: World’s Finest (1997)
Okay, so I’m cheating here because this one was a TV movie but come on, it’s Superman AND Batman. Presented as the crossover between the impeccable animated Superman and Batman series of the 90’s, this film delivers everything you could want from such a team up and it’s only an hour long. At such a length you would expect it to be rushed, but the fact that it’s animated AND on television makes the storytelling brisk yet thorough. It doesn’t waste any time giving us the good stuff but doesn’t make us feel like we were cheated out of the full experience. We see them at odds, then they team up to fight Lex Luthor and The Joker. Bruce Wayne even dates Lois Lane because someone has been reading my fan-fiction.
8. Superman Returns (2006)
Much like Batman Forever, this film desperately deserves a second chance. While Superman is fun and hopeful and Man of Steel is dark and intense, this film manages to find a nice balance between the two. We see Superman return after 5 years of absence to a world that may not need him anymore and has to find new purpose. Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane took time to grow on me but Brandon Routh was great from the get-go. He really understood the outward persona of Superman while finding a depth and uncertainty and even vulnerability inside. Plus who doesn’t want to see Parker Posey and Kevin Spacey trade yuck yucks?
Oh, and that plane rescue is absolute perfection. Lois, believing Superman to be gone, holds on tight as she faces what must be her final moments. She looks out the window of the plane and sees a red and blue flash go by. It’s a key moment that actually made me get a little choked up.
7. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
It counts, it was released in theaters. Set in the continuity of the aforementioned animated series, this film tracks Batman in “present day” as he faces a new villain in town with a knack for offing mobsters and pitting the police against the dark knight, as well as flashing back to a younger Bruce Wayne during the inception of “the Batman.” Not the young boy who sees his parents murdered, but rather the young man who decided to don the cape and cowl.
He starts to question the promise he made to his late parents to protect the city and that internal struggle while also facing this new villain and a face from his past. It’s a truly sophisticated film for something many saw at the time as a children’s cartoon. Plus it has Mark Hamill as the Joker who is, in my opinion, the best Joker. Enjoy.
6. Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut
Okay, technically cheating again because this version wasn’t released theatrically but it’s a cut of a film that was, so whatever. This film reinserts so much of Donner’s footage that it even resorts to using screen test footage to fill in gaps, while getting rid of as much of replacement director Richard Lester’s footage as it can. The core story is essentially the same but for all intents and purposes, this is a different film. There are alternate storylines, one of which reinserts Marlon Brando’s cut footage and focuses more on his duty versus his desire.
The film, while still exuberant, treats the characters less like slapstick props and more like people you can actually care for. It retains the grand style of the first film and jettisons much of the goofiness that replaced it. I like the original film just fine but this is far superior.
5. Batman (1989)
Michael Keaton as Batman? Yeah, right.
Oh, okay. So it worked. Before this film, Batman in the mainstream was the campy Adam West, but Burton changed all of that. He delivered a dark, intense, violent, expressionist film that treated the character with the depth and respect that he deserved. Keaton (while not as good as his performance in Returns) makes you believe he is this tortured billionaire and embraces that darkness while delivering on some of the humor that he is so good at.
And of course there’s Jack Nicholson playing Jack Nicholson dressed up as the Joker. Not that I’m complaining. And as great as the two leads are, it’s easy to forget just how good Kim Basinger is as Vicki Vale. She keeps up with the other two and she doesn’t even get a costume. The cast is great, the style is great, and Billy Dee Williams is kind of in it a little. So that’s cool. Also dat score.
4. Superman (1978)
Admit it, John Williams’ theme just started playing in your head.
Look, I don’t know what this world did to deserve Christopher Reeve as Superman but I’m glad for it. He’s perhaps not as serious or commanding as Superman is in other more daring adaptations, but he is pitch perfect for this interpretation. He’s bold and charming as Superman and endearingly awkward as Clark Kent and not for one second would you believe they were the same person. And Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, my word, Margot Kidder is perfect. And Reeve and Kidder together? Flawless.
The style is sweeping, the score is rousing, and the action overcomes any dated qualities by being equally thrilling and grand. Much like some other films, the villain half gets perhaps too bumbling and silly even for this film. Not to mention the monumentally dumb moment when Superman spins the Earth in the other direction to reverse time. But it’s a minor bother in an otherwise magnificent film. Also dat score.
3. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Another inexplicably divisive film, The Dark Knight Rises breaks the bat in more ways than one. This film sees Batman return to duty after 8 years in solitude to take on notorious terrorist Bane with the, um, help I guess, of Catwoman. The first two thirds are a pretty good follow up to The Dark Knight and then the ballsy third act puts everything everyone believes in on trial as Gotham literally counts down to oblivion. Bruce has to come to terms with his destiny and learn how to be Batman again.
It’s perhaps Bale’s best performance in the trilogy as it really puts him to the test for this character. Meanwhile Anne Hathaway is great as Catwoman and Tom Hardy- despite talking like Sean Connery through a Darth Vader mask- was a worthy match for Bale’s Batman and a bold follow-up to Ledger’s Joker. Plus the ending legit made me cry but it’s okay because no one can see me behind my Batman mask. Help, I don’t know how to adult…
This film manages to feel like a sequel to the first film in the style of the second film, capturing the best of both worlds while perhaps not being as narratively tight.
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
What can be said about this film that hasn’t already been said? Narratively sound, thematically profound, socially intelligent, stylish yet grounded, and the cast is in tip top shape due in no small part to this film’s crowning achievement: Heath Ledger as The Joker. Equal parts frightening and provocative, The Joker manages to frighten us with inherent darkness while feeding anarchy with people’s own faults and fears.
He becomes an unstoppable, impenetrable force for Batman and creates an outstanding arc for Harvey Dent, leading to one of the best final scenes in any movie. This film is quite simply a masterpiece. While Nolan is the force behind it all, he lets everything on screen shine for itself.
1. Batman Begins (2005)
While The Dark Knight is perhaps objectively the better film in a general sense, this film is, in my opinion, a better Batman film. It takes place in a world that looks and feels like our own reality without cheating us out of the theatricality and darkness of the Batman character. We see a world that makes sense but still looks like Gotham. We see a character that makes sense but still looks like Batman. Bale is absolutely perfect as Batman because he gives unprecedented depth and sophistication to the portrayal of Bruce Wayne, hiding behind the mask of the Batman as well as the mask of Bruce Wayne’s public persona, never letting anyone see who he truly is.
The film is rounded out with an impeccable cast and a story that challenges the characters and the audience. The film presents differing views on heroism and nobility in the course of completing similar goals. Because after all, it’s not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you.
Also dat score.
Well there you have it. If you have the time, there are several animated films that are worth checking out as well like Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero, Under The Red Hood, as well as a number of other Superman, Batman, and Justice League films and animated TV series. The series of which for Justice League had an episode called “For The Man Who Has Everything” that haunted me for years.
There’s a lot out there to explore for fans of Batman and Superman, and if you’re looking to expand your DC horizons I’d say plow through the CW’s Arrow and The Flash because they’re so, so worth it.
Well that’s it for now. Let me know how close our ranking is to yours and if there are any other animated films I missed. And as usual, keep checking back for more, right here on GeekNation.
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