15. 'Superman IV: The Quest for Peace' (1987)
A beloved cultural institution under new cheapskate management produces no-brainer cashgrab trash aimed at the lowest common denominator: That’s the plot of Christopher Reeve’s last Superman movie – and the story behind the movie. In Quest for Peace, the Daily Planet is purchased by a tabloid magnate. In real life, the Superman movie license had passed from the Salkind family to Cannon Films. You may remember Cannon as the god-emperor mascot of ’80s B-movie glory: Cobra, Exterminator, American Ninja, Lifeforce, the entire early Chuck Norris canon.
Given that, you might think that Cannon’s Superman movie would feel like a tonally dissonant mid-’80s relic, a cheeseroid, ultraviolent Superman. But disappointingly, Quest for Peace isn’t even bad in the right way. It’s just bad karaoke, a pale imitation of the original Superman, one decade later and powers-of-10 less inspired. Baddie Nuclear Man looks like a renegade extra from Masters of the Universe, the watchably cheesy and thus brilliant-by-comparison He-Man film Cannon produced the same year. Gene Hackman was always bored as Lex Luthor, but everything in Quest for Peace feels bored.
It’s important to note here at the top that, when we rank Batman and Superman movies, we are not ranking them by how much they honored the comic books, or to what extent the characters onscreen reflected decades of iconography. That’s a fool’s game. Batman comic books have been serious and goofy. Superman has been a proletariat superhero and a fascist stormtrooper. We are ranking these movies as movies. And if some of these movies commit the High Nerd sin of ignoring the comics, Quest for Peace is the only film on this list that can’t even commit to being a movie. Unfinished, unmourned, unloved.
14. Man of Steel (2013)
We call Man of Steel a reboot, because nobody likes the word “remake” anymore. But Man of Steel recreates the beat-sheet of Christopher Reeve’s first two Superman films: lengthy Kryptonian prologue, a wandering journey to a remote Arctic landscape, the arrival of colonialist super-criminal Zod, a destructive battle through Metropolis. Replace the original films’ fascination with “crystals” with Man of Steel‘s fetish for the word “codex,” and the similarities pop. You could argue that it’s all from the source material – but go read, like, seven Superman comics, and then ask yourself why Hollywood decided Superman’s Joker is General Zod.
Working from a script by David S. Goyer and a story conceived by Dark Knight mastermind Christopher Nolan, director Zack Snyder’s one big idea is more. The Krypton prologue has flying monsters and baby-spores. Jonathan Kent doesn’t die of a heart attack; he gets self-sacrifice swallowed by a digital sludge tornado. Superman doesn’t just fight bad guys; he fights them through small towns and major cities, demolishing Metropolis with all the subtlety of Godzilla punching Mecha-Godzilla.
Man of Steel‘s bleak-bro tone is wildly at odds with its nonsense plot, which depends on digital hologram Dad-ghosts and all-powerful control keys. But that hides the film’s real problem: None of the characters matter. Snyder mostly eschews the typical supporting cast in favor of faceless-tough bargain-Bay military dudes – if you can name the characters played by Christopher Meloni, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, or Tahmoh Penikett, you win a medal nobody wants. Henry Cavill is twice the size of Christopher Reeve, but he’s playing half a character, trapped in a particularly formless origin story.
Man of Steel wants to lean heavily on the idea that Clark Kent is an alien, but it treats him more like a stained-glass Messiah, complete with copious visual Christ references. One might diplomatically point out that one of the defining traits of that Jesus guy was that he had a few big ideas, none of which involved punching. It took 26 years, but we finally got the Cannon Films superhero movie: A film that sanctifies all the most violent eye-for-an-eye action movie tropes, and then appends an epilogue where a uniformed female soldier declares that Superman is “kinda hot.”
13. Superman III (1983)
Christopher Reeve was never bad at playing Superman, a fact which especially stands out in his two very bad Superman films. Superman III builds its premise off the kind of high-concept casting that doesn’t really happen anymore, awkwardly plugging then-huge comedy star Richard Pryor into a lackadaisical threequel. The movie isn’t Pryor’s fault – it’s a lazy Reagan-era corpo-thriller with a plot that somehow involves coffee, farm equipment, and computers.
Still, Superman III does inadvertently give Reeve some of his best material. The concept of a superhero going “bad” is never not silly – witness Spider-Man 3 – but Reeve’s Bad Superman drinking binge leads into a weirdly appealing Clark-vs-Superman junkyard face-off, a long wordless fight scene that ends on the primordially disturbing image of Reeve strangling himself.
A question you’re probably asking now: Am I arguing that the helplessly goofy Superman III is “better” than the helplessly dull Man of Steel? Like, are the action scenes in Superman III “better” than the action scenes in Man of Steel? I guess you have to ask yourself a simple question. What do you think looks stupider: Christopher Reeve fighting Christopher Reeve in a junkyard with bad sound effects, or a slithery digitized Henry Cavill wrestling a squid-like insectile Playstation-bot in a grim-gray ocean? If you choose the latter: Totally fair. We’re both losers.
12. Batman Forever (1995)
You could draw a line from Richard Pryor in Superman III to Jim Carrey in Batman Forever, but Carrey isn’t just awkwardly wedged into a superhero story. As the Riddler, he’s the whole scenery-chewing heart of Joel Schumacher’s first Batman movie, a neon-camp production. An explicit attempt to walk back the more outré elements of Tim Burton’s twisted vision, Forever casts Val Kilmer as a more conventionally romantic hero, with co-star Nicole Kidman playing one last pre-To Die For variation of her Days of Thunder bland-smart love interest. Completing the triumvirate of blandness: Chris O’Donnell, way too old for Robin, trapped in a plot that can’t figure out whether he’s a tragic orphan or a moody teen acting old. On the villain side, Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones compete to see who can do the best Nicholson-as-Joker impression.
If Batman Forever gets a better rap then Schumacher’s next movie, it’s because it’s the first Batman movie to try hard not to be weird. (Even Forever‘s flourishes feel market-tested: A street gang wearing black light face paint!) But it’s mostly irrelevant, an exercise in mandatory fun.
11. Batman & Robin (1997)
Age hasn’t made Joel Schumacher’s second Bat-film any better. The top-to-bottom miscasting is almost purposeful. George Clooney is the only Bruce Wayne with a steady girlfriend; Alicia Silverstone is an opposite-of-Clueless moody teen. As Mr. Freeze, Eraser-era Arnold Schwarzenegger has about 10 more subplots than anyone else: A tormented-genius maniac sad sack caught in a love triangle between his comatose wife and a genocidal dominatrix botanist.
Akiva Goldsman’s script mashes together several variant strains of Bat-mythology. The movie’s Mr. Freeze comes straight out of Batman: The Animated Series, and Bane is here because someone somewhere always thinks Bane is interesting. But stylewise, the film suggests an episode of the Adam West TV show remade as the world’s most expensive, least-core softcore porn ever.
But this garish, pink-backlight aesthetic reaps some minor rewards. Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy gets introduced stripteasing out of a purple gorilla costume – an homage to Josef Von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus! – and Mr. Freeze introduces himself to Ivy after swinging on a vine like Tarzan. In those very occasional moments, Batman & Robin achieves the splendid low heights of genuine camp – “Is your thumb the only part of you that’s green?” – which is why it’s become fodder for a hundred YouTube-era funny-bad montages. (Three of the best-ever Schwarzenegger puns are in this movie.)
It’s mostly just boring and terrible, of course. But it’s a fascinating artifact, and worthy of study as the last Batman movie ever made by people who didn’t take Batman seriously.
10. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The Dark Knight Rises is Bane. I don’t just mean that the most memorable part of Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film is Tom Hardy’s masked muscleman – although four years later, Hardy’s Bane voice has overtaken Christian Bale’s Batman voice as the Dark Knight trilogy’s greatest gift to armchair impressionists. I mean that the movie’s main villain represents everything fun and horrendous about the movie around him.
Bane comes on like a cerebral punch-machine, capable of defeating Batman with physical strength and upending the social order of Gotham City with sheer force of megaphone-mumbled rhetoric. For anyone willing to tease out political relevance, Bane’s speeches can Rorschach-ify into Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street. (He is a fascist and a communist, the American nightmare of a foreign-ish maniac with a trenchcoat.) But there’s nothing to Bane, really, not deep down. All his ideas are a cover: He just wants to blow stuff up. Even his “main villain” status is a red herring, a long-con setup for the real (ludicrous) bad guy, played by a spoiler alert.
There comes a point when you realize that there’s not much to The Dark Knight Rises, either. Less an ending to a saga than an overlong postscript, Rises reintegrates all the loopier aspects of Batman Begins – complete with a Liam Neeson dream cameo! – with none of the mad pulse that made The Dark Knight such a wild ride. Anne Hathaway tries something as Catwoman, but everyone around her feels trapped in a turgid melodrama. Save the school bus full of children! Climb from your metaphorical prison hole! Cry, Alfred! Cry, Bane! The film’s struggle toward epic closure writes checks that maybe blockbuster product can no longer cash – it’s the least convincing Last Batman Story.
At the far extreme of camp, you find monolithic heavy-man self-regard. So Bane is really just a philosophy student’s variant of Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze, complete with a weird accent, with terrible speeches instead of terrible one-liners.
9. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
A deceptively modest franchise extension released in the thaw between Burton and Schumacher, Mask of the Phantasm runs 75 minutes with credits and feels less like a coherent story than a few mad dreams stitched together. Spun outwards from the brilliant Animated Series, Phantasm finds Bruce Wayne in a reflective mood, mourning long-lost love Andrea Beaumont (voiced by Dana Delany!) and the brief happy romance that preceded his caped-crusader life.
Coincidentally, Andrea’s back in town… and there’s a smoke-shrouded masked freak offing gangsters… and the Joker’s involved, inevitably. Phantasm transposes the TV show’s zeppelin-noir vision of Gotham, all skyscraper catwalks and ruined Worlds’ Fair utopias. The budget’s a problem, but the right visuals pop – particularly the final battle through a model city, with Bats and Joker rampaging like Toho monsters. Phantasm has some lethargic storytelling – an Animated episode like “Heart of Ice” tells a bigger better story in a third the time – and the Phantasm costume is a low point for hockey-mask chic. But it’s also sad like no other Batman film is sad.
8. Batman (1989)
Half shameless corporate product, half overbudget auteurist experiment, Burton’s Batman film is less than a sum of its many parts. Danny Elfman’s grand score mixes vaguely with some Prince songs. Michael Keaton’s Batman costume makes him look like a Greek statue vision of toughness, and he moves with all the grace of Boris Karloff in Frankenstein. Jack Nicholson turns the Joker part into his own personal Scarface, starting miles over the top and pushing higher, higher, higher.
When you look back now, you can spot all the awkward-phase mixing of tones and ideas. The Dutch Angle fight scenes can feel like Murnau, and they can feel one “Pow!” intertitle away from the Adam West years. Overlaying the murdered-parents origin story can feel unimaginably bleak, and it can run right up against the helium tone of the actors. Keaton’s underplaying, Nicholson’s overplaying, Kim Basinger’s just there. The gorgeous production design feels like wallpaper on an empty backlot. A wild and compromised vision of better things to come.
7. Superman Returns (2006)
No one has ever loved Richard Donner’s Superman as much as Bryan Singer. It’s not even a close race: Singer took a $200-million-plus budget and transformed what was supposed to be a back-to-the-comics reboot into a two-and-a-half-hour tone-poem remembrance of Superman things past. Here again: The John Williams score, the notion of Crystals as both MacGuffin and aesthetic, Marlon Brando at his worst, the double retro vision of Metropolis as a ’70s version of the ’30s.
The difference is that Superman Returns never tries to be as lighthearted as the Richard Donner Superman. It layers the genre trappings with emotional complexity and emo-kid melancholy. Reeve and Margot Kidder were bantering flirtmates, but Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth are older, wiser, sadder. Circa 2006, we were all expecting Singer to deliver the X-Men version of Superman, and instead he produced the first-and-still-only superhero version of Robin and Marian.
Superman Returns is said to be a Tarantino favorite, which makes sense. Tarantino’s whole central idea is pretending scuzzbucket genre trash can be epic character-study Filmed Novels of Ideas. And there’s something achingly beautiful about how Singer treats the Donner films as biblical canon – and something truly transgressive in the much-maligned “surprise superkid!” twist. But Routh and Bosworth are all wrong for whatever Singer’s looking for — too young, too pretty, too meh – and a prancing Kevin Spacey is sealed off in a very different movie. A labor of love, and a chore to watch.
6. Batman: The Movie (1966)
Or, counterargument: Maybe none of this really matters. Maybe Batman’s a goof, and Robin’s an almost-aware goof, and the bad guys are goofs. Maybe Gotham can be Los Angeles. Maybe Batman should punch a shark. We’ve gone so far from every notion underpinning the Adam West era of Batman: The bright colors, the radical inconsequence, the toys. Made between seasons by the team behind the TV series, Batman: The Movie layers in absurd sight gags. (Batman doesn’t just have Shark Repellent Bat Spray. He has Repellent Spray for Whales, Manta-Rays, and Barracudas.)
The storyline embraces anticlimax as an operating aesthetic: When a missile comes straight at the captured dynamic duo, they’re saved by a self-sacrificing porpoise. “Gosh, Batman!” muses Burt Ward. “The nobility of the almost-human porpoise!” Adam West plays Bruce Wayne as a stilt, but I’m not sure his blankness is too different from Kilmer or Clooney or Bale by Dark Knight Rises.
And anyhow, who cares about humanity? The first Batman feature film works as both anticipatory spoof and fairly accurate rendition of the lighthearted Code-era Batman comics. Batman’s a guy with a car, a boat, a helicopter, and a motorcycle: A Grand Theft Auto focal character. Also, the United Nations is involved. (Sorry: “United World Organization.”) Also, somebody sold the Penguin a pre-nuclear submarine. Also, Bruce Wayne’s got a new Soviet love interest, and he doesn’t know she’s Catwoman. Also, some henchmen get reduced to antimatter. “Antimatter!” screams Robin. “You mean they won’t be coming back?”
“No, Robin,” intones Bataman. “Not in this universe.” Fifty years later, Batman: The Movie is its own brand of antimatter. There is stealth smartness in its stupidity. It’s a candy-colored assault on the superhero idea, but also a larky comedy in its own right. Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb.
5. Superman (1978)
How’s this for big ambition: The first feature-length superhero movie of the modern blockbuster era is a soup-to-nuts rendition of the Superman myth, complete with a Krypton pre-origin, a Kansas origin, pilot-episode scene setting in Metropolis, and a final-act Lex Luthor plot focused on nuclear missiles and real estate.
Christopher Reeve is still one of the best actors to headline a superhero story. And you could make the argument that his performance stands alone. Superheroes onscreen today don’t really do the whole secret-identity thing, and they all drift off a very Marvel-Comics idea of exuding average-dude emotional reality. (Cut to: Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent, an eight-foot bicep-rippled emo kid.) Reeve plays all sides of the Superman legend as legend. He’s the farm boy, the wandering orphan, the god who looks comfortable wearing tights, and the nerdy reporter grinning at his own high-anxiety performance.
The first Superman has problems, all on the plot level. (“Time travel fixes everything” is a cheap way to wrap any movie, especially when the method of time travel involves flying fast around the globe.) Hackman doesn’t really work as Superman’s opposite number: The character’s not there, in the writing or from a hammy Hackman. (High-paid Brando fares worse.) The film’s at its best when Margot Kidder and Reeve are together, flying or bantering.
4. Batman Begins (2005)
A throwback adventure film about an orphaned playboy on a vengeful walkabout to some Ruritanian Near East land of wonder, where immortal samurai-ninjas preach a myth-gospel of moral culling. The playboy won’t kill. Instead, he returns to his city, a Depressionary ruin brought to glorious Jet Age life by the monorail his ancestors built. (Monorail! Monorail! Monorail!) But there’s a dream-monster in the water, a lingering corrosion that could drive a whole city mad.
Christopher Nolan loves the magic of a twisting narrative, and Batman Begins is a graceful interweaving of an origin saga with a city-saving tale. (Years later, Man of Steel follows an identical trajectory, with much-diminished returns.) It’s also a top-to-bottom reimagination of the Batman idea, with an all-time supporting cast – Gary Oldman as Law, Morgan Freeman as Science, Rutger Hauer as Capitalism. The Dark Knight gets more accolades, but I imagine that for some core Batman fans, this is the pristine product, part grit-action and part fairy tale.
In the demerits column: Katie Holmes is five motivations in search of a character. And for a movie where the main nemesis is, like, the imaginative power of fear, it feels like a missed opportunity that Scarecrow’s toxin basically just turns Batman into an Uruk-Hai. (Consider: Any individual shot of normal stuff happening in a Burton Batman looks freakier than anything caused by the Scarecrow.) But there’s a lightness to Nolan’s filmmaking. And to Bale’s performance: Watch him fall into a push-up, and tell me this Bruce Wayne doesn’t know how to show off.
3. Superman II (1980)
Let’s be clear: A mess. Partially filmed by Richard Donner, who treated Superman with too-sincere reverence, and then partially filmed by Richard Lester, who loved slapstick superbreath. The saddest Superman scenes ever filmed run right up against the silliest. A depowered Clark Kent gets beaten up by a bully in a diner; a repowered Clark Kent uses his magic powers of Kiss Amnesia to rob Lois Lane of her memory. Terence Stamp makes an imposing scorched-earth dictator as Zod, and he’s wearing an Abba-Goes-Dark-Link v-neck jumpsuit. Superman fools Lois at Niagara Falls, and then accidentally reveals his secret identity when he grabs her hairbrush out of the fireplace.
If you lean hard on the notion of seriousness or coherence, Bryan Singer made your Superman sequel. (It’s beautiful, tender, and boring.) If you prefer a wild, unkempt, full-hearted and good-humored take on the material, then Superman II is the chaotic counterpoint. It helps that Stamp is really, really good in the part – and that his Monolith Supervillain act frees up Hackman to turn Luthor into savvy comic relief. It helps, too, that Superman II has a real romantic vision of Lois and Clark. Or at least it does until the amnesia-kiss thing – one of many times this Superman sequel seems to be declaring all-out war on itself.
Lester gets a bad rap for maybe loathing the material, but credit the Hard Days’ Night actor for layering in Chaplinesque sight gags (that superbreath!) and for his film’s implicit assertion that a human being can walk to the middle of the Arctic if he really tries. And this is Reeve at his best: His most human Clark Kent, and his most poignantly inhuman Superman.
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
This is how you leave a dent in the universe. Shedding the fantastical elements of Batman Begins, Nolan’s second film plays like a Michael Mann movie gone lysergic. (The opening bank robbery features a showcase cameo from Heat support sludge William Fichtner – that’s called putting a hat on a hat.) Gone are any of the character’s Gothic affectations: No mansion, no cave, no spires. Batman’s a law enforcement superagent struggling against enemies beyond imagination. The mob’s gone global – and there’s a maniac with a big smile who loves bombs and viral-video executions.
Batman Begins had a precise clockwork structure, looping together flashbacks and father figures and sins of the past made manifest in the present. The Dark Knight is wilder, taking its cue from Heath Ledger’s Joker, a renegade agent invading the movie with a whole different tone. There’s not one Ledger line that isn’t quotable, not one gesture that isn’t funny and scary and alive.
When Ledger’s not around, Dark Knight suffers, and the first half takes awhile to get going. (“Batman Goes to Hong Kong!”) As Rachel Dawes, Maggie Gyllenhaal is actually worse than Katie Holmes. The Bale-Nolan Batman isn’t really a romantic figure – god knows who thought he needed two love interests in Dark Knight Rises – and so Rachel is less a character than a this time it’s personal motivation for Batman and Two-Face. We can debate to what extent this does and doesn’t matter.
Not up for debate: How Nolan’s filmmaking sparks to energetic life in the back half, when the Joker really takes over. See: Ledger, head outside the window, hair flowing in the night. See: Ledger, in a nurse’s smock, blowing a hospital to the sky. See: Ledger, upside-down on a skyscraper, cackling into the night. Except he’s not upside-down to us. The camera turns upside-down with him: An explicit admission that Ledger is the film’s whole center of gravity. Does Joker win? Is the ending triumphant, or despairing?
1. Batman Returns (1992)
A child is born in Gotham City, to rich and remote parents in a mansion named for their High Aristocrat family. It’s a Batman tale as old as time – and then the parents throw the baby in the river. Batman Returns proceeds from that opening into a realm of gleeful nightmare, with Michael Keaton’s Batman recast as a relative everyman opposite a parade of grotesques. Danny DeVito’s Penguin is Burton’s freak vision brought to life, an ageless cackling creature who preys upon our pity. (He runs for mayor!) But it’s Michelle Pfeiffer who steals the show. When we meet her Selina Kyle, she’s an anxious working woman adrift in a Gotham gone Taxi Driver. Then her misogynist boss pushes her out a window, and she’s reborn. The joy of Batman Returns is that Kyle’s transformation is both a downward spiral and an ascension: She becomes her real self, and it kills her, and it makes her whole.
Working from a script by Daniel Waters – who also wrote Heathers, another dark-as-a-black-hole farce with Winona Ryder as a proto-Selina Kyle – Tim Burton fully realizes the madcap vision of his first film. Batman Returns is a Halloween film set at Christmas – shades of Burton’s own Nightmare Before Christmas – and in its perverse perspective, the Batman-Catwoman fight is rivalry and foreplay. (The masquerade scene – vaguely replayed with zero chemistry in Dark Knight Rises – is the movie’s bleak-romcom high point.)
What makes Batman Returns work – what makes it stand alone even in Burton’s brilliant initial run of eccentric masterworks – is how everyone is both caricature and character. They’re all playing a part. Penguin is scamming the city into thinking he’s an aristocrat, and Catwoman’s a nice person gone bad, and Batman chases Selina Kyle, and Catwoman chases Bruce Wayne. (“Does this mean we have to start fighting?”) Some superhero movies drown in self-awareness and fan service – congrats on the grosses, Deadpool! – but Batman Returns is the rare superhero movie where every character feels aware of the absurdity around them, and it scares them, and they like it. Merry Christmas, superfreaks.