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Every movie version of Batman ranked from worst to best

Only a few years after he made his debut in the comics, Batman hit the silver screen in 1943, and in the decades since, he's been one of Hollywood's most accomplished heroes. In a dozen feature films, we've seen a truly incredible roster of Caped Crusaders and Dark Knights do their best to battle against evil, taking the character in plenty of different directions. Well… Maybe "incredible" is the wrong word. As prominent as Batman has been in film, he hasn't always been good.

To sort them all out, we sat down with every single theatrically released Batman film, reliving all the Shark-Repellent Bat-Spray, molded plastic nipples, suspiciously phallic rocket cars, and incredibly growly voices. Here's the definitive, inarguable ranking of every movie Batman, from the worst all the way down to the best.

Batman, 1943 (Lewis Wilson)

The thing you really have to understand about the original Batman serials is that they're bad. Not just bad in retrospect after 70 years of advancements in filmmaking and special effects, although they certainly fit that bill pretty handily. No, they're just bad, even judged by both the comics of the time and the standard set three years earlier by The Adventures of Captain Marvel.

The first serial, released by Columbia in 15 parts, amounts to four and a half hours of the worst version of Batman to ever hit the silver screen. Batman and Robin, played by Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft, are recast as government agents who joined up to help the war effort and are tasked with stopping the villainous Dr. Daka from building a death ray. In theory, that's a pretty exciting plot, and it actually does wind up introducing two key elements that would stay at the core of the Batman franchise: the Batcave and the thin, mustachioed version of Alfred that would quickly supplant the heftier version in the comics.

Unfortunately, the actual execution is atrocious. It somehow winds up being repetitive even by the standards of serials, with alarmingly bad special effects, hilariously awkward costumes, unconvincing fights, and, of course, a massive helping of racism to bring it all together. That is, unfortunately, not entirely unexpected for superhero stories released during World War II, but around the time that the narrator starts praising the government's internment camps for "shifty-eyed" Japanese-Americans, it becomes pretty clear that this is a Batman best forgotten.

Batman and Robin, 1949 (Robert Lowery)

The best thing you can say about 1949's Batman and Robin is that it's not as racist as its predecessor. Admittedly, that's a pretty important improvement, but it also seems like Columbia's second Batman serial only managed to clear the lowest possible bar in terms of being better than the first one.

Robert Lowery's Batman stumbles from one goofy cliffhanger to the next—including being electrocuted on three separate occasions—in an attempt to unmask a mad scientist called the Wizard, only to dismiss the prime (read: only) suspect because he's in a wheelchair. The only problem is that Batman and Robin, the World's Greatest Detectives, see him walking around on multiple occasions, and never think to maybe adjust their suspicions accordingly.

We'll take "hilariously silly" over "upsettingly racist" any day of the week, but the fact remains that Lowery's bumbling, barely present Batman is trapped in a pretty awful plot that stretches out even longer than the first serial. The worst part, though, is the costume: a straight up sweatsuit capped off with an ill-fitting cowl. It's like a look at an alternate universe where young Bruce Wayne was wondering how to make criminals afraid on that fateful night all those years ago, when a floppy-eared bunny rabbit crashed through his window. Say what you will about the molded abs and plastic nipples of Joel Schumacher's late '90s Batsuit—at least the damn thing fits.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, 2016 (Ben Affleck)

On paper, Ben Affleck seems like a pretty solid choice for Batman. He's got those square-jawed good looks and he's more than capable of bringing a deep focus and intensity to roles when they call for it—and honestly, if you're looking for someone to play a moody aging millionaire, you might as well get a real-life aging millionaire. In practice, though, the Batman of Dawn of Justice is only saved from being the worst superhero in his universe because Superman is somehow even worse.

It's worth noting that much of director Zack Snyder's inspiration came from Frank Miller's landmark story The Dark Knight Returns. Unfortunately, while the movie definitely lifted entire scenes wholesale from the comics in an effort to please hardcore fans by recreating iconic imagery, they're all divorced from their original context, and presented to viewers in a world where the first thing we see Batman do is come out of retirement to fight another superhero. This is a Batman who's been operating for years right across the river, and yet apparently no one ever heard about him, which might be a more believable play on Batman being an "urban legend" if he didn't have a spotlight with his personal brand on it mounted on the top of a building.

Affleck's Batman is a ludicrously violent murderer who only takes some time away from driving around in a vaguely car-shaped gun when he's easily manipulated into a fistfight with another superhero—a fistfight that ends when the person he's fighting reminds him that other people also have moms. You'd think that would be something he would've learned in his years as the World's Greatest Detective.

Batman Forever, 1995 (Val Kilmer)

In a movie that's soaked in lime green neon and hot pink leopard print, Val Kilmer's portrayal of the Caped Crusader is… well, the kindest way to put it would be "reserved," but let's not mince words here. Kilmer, only two years removed from a charismatic, scene-stealing turn as Doc Holliday in Tombstone, drifts through Batman Forever with the screen presence of a cardboard cutout.

To be fair, there was a good reason for him to make that choice as an actor. Director Joel Schumacher, Tim Burton's hand-picked successor, was clearly drawing his inspiration from the 1966 television show, and with Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones chewing their way through every available bit of scenery, replicating Adam West's stentorian straight man so they'd have something to bounce off of probably seemed like the best way to go.

There are parts where it actually works, too—the best scenes by far in Batman Forever are the ones in which Carrey's Edward Nygma tries to dress, act, and sound like his idol, Kilmer's Bruce Wayne. For those, he's the perfect straight man for the wildly over-the-top villains. When it comes to actually being Batman, however, his Adam West impression just doesn't land, whether it's battling against the villains, giving Dick Grayson a home, or having a monumentally tepid romance with Nicole Kidman's Dr. Chase Meridian, the worst-named love interest in the franchise. It just flat-out doesn't work.

Batman and Robin, 1997 (George Clooney)

To say Batman and Robin has a bad reputation is putting it about as mildly as you possibly could. Whether or not it deserves all the hate, it's commonly regarded as one of the worst superhero movies of all time, with a bloated cast of villains and sidekicks sprawling out into a plot that starts off silly and ends up verging on ludicrous. It's so bad that both Joel Schumacher and George Clooney have apologized for it since, and it was credited with nearly killing the franchise until it returned with a darker direction under Christopher Nolan.

The thing is, as controversial as it might sound, Clooney's not actually that bad.

Like Affleck, he's an actor who was perfect for the role on paper, a leading man on the rise who brought an effortless charm to the role. The problem is that "effortless charm" doesn't really work for Batman—but it ends up working pretty well for Bruce Wayne. If you can get past the toyetic suits and their marble statue anatomy, Clooney's best work comes when he's out of the costume, sweeping around Wayne Manor dealing with Alfred's not-quite-fatal illness, or in the few scenes where we see him as the franchise's most convincing version of a celebrity playboy to date. Plus, let's be real here: even if Clooney was as bad as the movie's reputation would lead you to believe, he'd still score bonus points for the way he gets frustrated and refers to Robin as "Dick."

The Dark Knight Trilogy, 2005 - 2012 (Christian Bale)

There's a moment in Batman Begins when a crooked cop gets snared by the ankle and pulled up five stories in a rainstorm, coming face to face with a vigilante who demands information, and when he immediately breaks down and says "I swear to God," Batman's response, literally shaking with rage, is to scream "SWEAR TO ME!" with a growl that sounds like Satan himself came to Earth and decided, for some reason, to fight crime. So yeah: the word you want when it comes to describing Christian Bale's performance is intense.

Bale's Batman brings that level of intensity to everything he does, showing an emotional range that stretches from the righteous fury of Batman to the aimless pain of the orphaned Bruce Wayne who was denied his vengeance, and even the quippy sarcasm of his exchanges with Alfred. It's a power that's only ever matched when he goes up against Heath Ledger's Joker—truly one of the best performances in the genre.

Sure, the actual "detective" part of the package might be a little lacking—the scene in The Dark Knight when he uses computers to put together a shattered bullet so that he can discover exactly one fingerprint is one of the goofiest things ever put on film—but the way Bale plays off of his costars and paints a picture of a man torn between using his rage to fuel his mission and letting it consume him is genuinely incredible. The fact that he does it all while speaking in a voice that sounds like he's chewing rusty nails and PCP? That's just icing on the cake.

Batman/Batman Returns, 1989 - 1992 (Michael Keaton)

Here's the thing about Tim Burton's Batman movies: they're great Tim Burton movies. They have an incredible visual style, with a Gotham City that's hellish urban sprawl come to life, full of buildings with exposed ductwork and piping stacked up next to Art Deco sculptures, where everyone still dresses like it's 1940 and where lime green gas is a deadly threat against a monochromatic cityscape. They're full of great bits of satire, beautiful shots—particularly in Returns—and the casting is amazingly offbeat, pitting our hero against Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jack Palance, and Christopher Walken.

They're just not good Batman movies, and no one really captures that disconnect more than Michael Keaton did when he put on the cape and cowl. Not only is he not at all bad in the part, he's actually kind of perfect for the kind of remote, mysterious weirdo who sleeps upside down because he wants to be more like a bat, and finds himself slugging it out with thugs in purple satin jackets in order to get his vengeance. It's Batman '66 with shadows and guns.

And that's the problem: a disconnect between the stylized goofiness that Burton explored in movies like Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, and the '80s action movie aesthetic that saw Keaton's Batman throwing people off buildings and blowing up factories with bombs. It's not really portrayed as heroism, but as a personal quest for vengeance that only incidentally winds up saving a city, and that's a shame. Keaton does so well in the role that he really deserved a better version of Batman to define for a new generation.

The LEGO Batman Movie, 2017 (Will Arnett)

An ultra-competent, self-absorbed superhero who writes heavy metal songs about being a sad orphan and who is seemingly able to appear at will as soon as no one's looking, the LEGO version of Batman is one of those rare finds: a parody of something that actually works pretty well as the thing itself.

Make no mistake: Arnett's Batman is a parody, a version of the Caped Crusader that skews towards comedy, from his obsession with only building things out of black bricks to Arnett ramping up his naturally gravelly voice into a spoof of Christian Bale's. At the same time, though, he's very rarely presented as anything other than extremely good at what he does, and he really does act heroically, even if his heroism occasionally means that, y'know, Han Solo gets eaten by a space worm. 

Either way, it works—while other portrayals might do their best to move away from the inherent silliness of a guy dressed as a bat who primarily fights murder clowns, embracing it gives the Lego version a flavor that helps him rival even the best of his big-screen contemporaries. As funny and angular as he might be, he's still Batman, in one of his purest forms.

Batman: The Movie, 1966 (Adam West)

The best thing about Adam West's performance in Batman is that it can mean completely different things depending when you watch it. As a child, it's easy to buy West's spandex-clad squareness as completely genuine, and as an adult, once you're in on the joke, the fact that he was able to play the perfect straight man for a wild cast of villains is every bit as astonishing as those surface-level comic book thrills—and while that largely came out during the three seasons he spent as the Caped Crusader on television, the 1966 movie makes the perfect stage.

It has everything, in a very literal sense. The arch-villains this time around are four of his greatest foes brought together as the United Underworld, complete with a sequence in which Batman and Robin identify their enemies through truly profound leaps of logic that include the immortal "it happened at sea… C… for Catwoman!" Even beyond that, though, it features West using the role of Bruce Wayne as an attempt to draw his enemies out into the open, miraculously turning his carefully modulated tone into barely controlled rage at the threat to his love interest, Miss Kitka. And the heartbreak in his eyes when he discovers that she was Catwoman all along? Even if you're watching it with a healthy level of irony, it's a powerful moment.

No actor has ever been as strongly identified with the role of Batman as Adam West, and the movie shows exactly why. His performance walks the same delicate balance between full-hearted adventure and witty satire that the material does, and the end result is perfect. He is and always will be the Batman who won't throw a bomb at a bunch of baby ducks. 

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, 1993 (Kevin Conroy)

Okay, we'll admit that this one is a bit of a cheat. Kevin Conroy has, after all, been the most prominent Batman actor for over 25 years, making his debut on Batman: The Animated Series and staying in the role in everything from DC's animated movies to the Arkham video games. But there's a good reason for that: Conroy is an amazing Batman, and everything that makes him great is on display in Mask of the Phantasm.

It's the kind of thing that shouldn't really work. One of the great things about The Animated Series was that it gave us a version of Batman that was already fully formed, saving the origin stories for a handful of villains like Two-Face and the Riddler while boiling its title character down to his most crucial components. For the film, though, the origin story was a crucial component, and Conroy's performance sold it beautifully. The scene when he's standing in front of his parents' graves, pleading with them to understand if he gives up on being Batman because he's finally found happiness, might sound ridiculous if you read a description, but in practice, it's devastatingly emotional. And when that happiness is taken away and Batman gives himself over to his mission entirely, with Conroy shifting his voice to Batman's deep growl? It's fantastic.

For a generation of Batman fans, Conroy's is the voice they hear in their heads when they read comics, and that alone should show just how great he was in the role. It takes an incredible amount of talent to redefine the character and emerge from Adam West's shadow, but Conroy did it—and continues to do so.