The Dark Knight has inspired literally thousands of official stories in various media, to say nothing of the thousands more written on an amateur level. He’s a solid story engine: a natural protagonist for both action-adventure and mystery stories, equally at home dealing with a ring of human drug dealers or a torturer-god from the alien world of Apokolips. But if you think such versatility doesn’t mean there are literally thousands of things that can go wrong with a Batman story, well, then you’re seriously underestimating human ingenuity.
Here are the absolute worst of the worst, many already notorious and a few we found with some digging. Hopefully when the dust settles, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hasn’t earned a spot on the 12 Worst Batman Stories of All Time.
12. Penguin Triumphant (comic)
John Ostrander and Joe Staton are generally pretty reliable, but this story, rushed into production to capitalize on Batman Returns, was not. Oswald Cobblepot, realizing that fixating on Batman may have cost him opportunities, decides to move into a more white-collar sphere, stock manipulation. Bruce Wayne takes this development seriously, judging that Oswald is smarter than he is when he’s not focused on Batman.
That’s not really consistent with most portrayals of the Penguin, but it raises an interesting question: How can Batman defeat a foe that is smarter than he is? The disappointing answer is ‘by outsmarting him, and pretty easily, apparently.’ Also, most stories about financial wrongdoing really just aren’t that interesting.
But at least: A story like that could be compelling, if written by someone who knew something about the subject. Or if Ostrander and Staton had had more time to put this together, it could’ve been something. But alas, they didn’t, and it wasn’t.
11. Batman #579-581: Introducing Orca (comic)
Very possibly the worst Batman villain might be Orca the Whale Woman, a normal-sized, wheelchair-bound woman named Grace Balin (because baleen whales, you see) who can turn herself into a fully mobile, giant, blobby…you get the idea. She tries to rob the rich to support various charities, leading her and Batman to this classic exchange:
Batman: “You have no more right to steal from her because she’s rich and obnoxious than she has to exploit people because they’re poor and powerless.”
Orca: “She lied to the press about being your friend. Doesn’t that offend you in the least?”
Batman: “Is justice only for those we like?”
Orca: “You have no right… to be so RIGHT!”
Defeated in this war of words, she gives up her life of crime — if only. Actually, Batman saves her life when she starts changing back underwater by making her Orca forever…or for at least a couple of more stories, after which she turned up dead at the hands of a villain almost as ridiculous as she was.
10. “I’ve Got Batman in My Basement” (TV)
One of the things that made Batman: The Animated Series a hit that resonates with its original audience even now is that it rarely strained to be “kid-friendly,” even sharply limiting the use of Robin in its early years, and so it almost never felt condescending.
And then there was “The Underdwellers,” a story about homeless kids, and this little number, where a couple of young “junior detectives” get mixed up in a battle between Batman and a wildly mischaracterized Penguin, hide him in their house and then go all Home Alone on the Penguin and his thugs as they show up until Batman can recover. Even series co-creator/animation legend Bruce Timm disowned this one, calling the script “terrible.”
9. Batman #147: Bat-Baby (comic)
Not every era of Batman comic books was trying for realism. 1950s-era Batman had less true-crime grit and more exotic, anything-can-happen adventures, much like the more recent TV cartoon The Brave and the Bold. So what if traveling to the age of the dinosaurs or dealing with a magical fanboy doesn’t seem to be in Batman’s wheelhouse? Silly is fun. But sometimes, even silly-on-purpose can get just too silly.
So it is when a mad scientist’s ray gun turns Batman into a baby, but a baby with all his adult intelligence and strength packed into a tiny frame. In less than 24 hours, Batman is back on the streets fighting crime as Bat-Baby, until he catches the crooks who changed him into Bat-Baby, and changes himself back so he no longer has to be Bat-Baby. Bat-Baby. BAT-BABY. BAT. BABY.
8. Hush Returns (comic)
It’s a pretty reliable rule: if the Joker goes down like a punk, you have written a bad Bat-story. This one had the odd problem of being too faithful to one of the most popular Batman stories, The Killing Joke, which presented an ambiguous possible past for the Joker. Hush Returns takes that backstory as fact and uses its details to turn the Joker “back” into a humorless, widowed comedian posing as a crime boss, instead of his usual compelling self.
This is largely so Hush, a then-new Batman villain, can establish his badass credentials by running the Joker out of town, as well as beating up the Riddler and (temporarily) killing Poison Ivy. Do you like Hush now, reader? No? Well, we can keep making all the other Bat-villains weaker and dumber so he can beat them up until you do!
7. Batman and Robin (movie)
Where to begin? The basic plot of this movie is that Mr. Freeze, who wants to freeze the entire Earth, teams up with Poison Ivy, who wants to overrun the Earth with plant life. THESE ARE MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE GOALS, but none of the characters seem to have considered this, mainly because the overcrowded movie and ridiculous dialogue never slows down long enough for anyone to think. Some of the actors have done great work in other projects (no, not you, Chris O’Donnell), and some of them try to maintain their dignity while others go completely over the top, but everyone is overwhelmed by a viney avalanche of excess.
Joel Schumacher seemed convinced that after Tim Burton’s stylish reinvention of Batman that what 1990s audiences really wanted was an unholy mixture of superficial Burton-ism, the goofy, campy Adam West TV show, and lots and lots of gay iconography (Bat-nipples, anyone?).
But at least: It’s the kind of bad that’s fun to make fun of, with something — usually something stupid — happening two or three times a minute. And despite its reputation as the worst superhero movie of all time, it does have defenders, especially those who point out that George Clooney’s Batman is the healthiest and most balanced individual to wear the cowl on screen since Adam West. Speaking of whom…
6. “Nora Clavicle and the Ladies’ Crime Club” (TV)
The Adam West Batman TV show is divisive. Some comics fans still hate the whole series for teaching a generation of adults that superhero stories were all campy farces. But the current superhero-friendly age has taken a lot of the sting out of that old perception, and today, more of us appreciate the show for the cheery, self-mocking comedy it is. But by its third year, with its budget slashed and cancellation looming, it was turning out episodes like this with alarming regularity.
“Militant feminist” Clavicle is hired to replace Commissioner Gordon, fires all the men and replaces them with incompetent policewomen, so that she can destroy Gotham City and collect her insurance policy on it, because insuring an entire city is a thing you can do. Making her job easier: all the policewomen are terrified of her robot mice. So, wait, Clavicle seems to believe women are better than men, but her entire plan hinges on policewomen being screechy pushovers? This 1969 episode would have been a little too sexist for its own good in 1869. Today, it’s just unbearable.
5. Batman: The Widening Gyre (unfinished comic, #1-6 done, #7-12 unpublished)
The title of Kevin Smith’s last Batman story is oddly appropriate, because just like in William Butler Yeats’ poem, things go more and more wrong as they keep going. Smith brings back fan-favorite Bat-girlfriend Silver St. Cloud so she and Batman can shmoop it up for about six issues before she predictably, er, tragically gets her throat slit. A new hero is introduced who can take out any Batman villain, including the Joker, in about four seconds, but he’s really the villain of Smith’s previous Batman story, which the World’s Greatest Detective cannot figure out.
The real problem, though, is Smith’s tone, as every character, including Batman, now seems to be super into crude jokes: Batman tells anecdotes about sleeping with a transsexual Penguin and wetting his uniform, while Silver gives him a nickname that means ‘I had ten orgasms the first time we… got together.’ Smith wrote the story while high on weed, and it shows.
But at least: Smith’s love of comics trivia, while it too gets grating after a while, does inspire some fun early scenes. And technically Silver is still breathing in the last panel, and since this story will likely never be finished (it’s ten years old, it’s pretty unpopular, and Smith has moved on), you can write your own ending for her.
4. All-Star Batman and Robin (unfinished comic, #1-8 finished)
In The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller presented an aging Batman forced to get a little crazy to get the job done. Here, he just has Batman go all-out crazy in the prime of his life, although in his defense, everyone else in this comic (except maybe Alfred) acts pretty crazy, too.
Still, Batman outdoes them all. He kidnaps Dick Grayson to make him his partner and begins his “training” by having him sleep on the cave floor, quarreling with Alfred over whether the boy should eat rats. He also has sex with Black Canary with their costumes on in an alley, paints an entire house yellow just to squabble with Green Lantern, and infamously berates and demeans his Boy Wonder. Why, Frank? Just, why?
But at least: Jim Lee, one of the best superhero artists of his generation, does deliver the visuals here. The last published issue ends on an interesting note, as a near-fatal accident finally startles Batman into acting a little more like the responsible mentor to Dick we remember.
3. Batman: Odyssey (comic)
Neal Adams drew many of the best Batman stories of the 1970s, many of which directly inspired the animated series. This story is a mishmash of his greatest hits of the period, including Man-Bat, Talia al Ghul, the Joker, and Deadman and his nemesis, the Sensei. But it’s also completely insane (something about a voyage to the center of the earth and Batman seeming to kill the Sensei but actually reincarnating him, while all his villains look on and think he’s finally snapped) and the dialogue is like something out of a fever dream:
Batman: “I will not ever kill…if it can be avoided. But this issue has been resolved. If put to it…in self-defense to save a friend or innocent, I will kill.”
Robin: “But you…will…kill.”
But at least: While Adams’ work is a little more exaggerated than it once was, it still looks great most of the time, and as reviewers have demonstrated, it’s incoherent in a very funny way.
2. Batman: War Crimes (comic)
Who killed Stephanie Brown? Batman spends this story finding out. One of Batman’s earliest allies was Dr. Leslie Thompkins, a clinician friend of his father who soon learned his secret identity, offering him the medical treatment that would arouse suspicion if Bruce Wayne asked a public hospital for it. Unfortunately, she grew more reluctant to help Batman as he continued to bring in young sidekicks and allies. To be fair, she has a point: no matter how well he trains them, every new Robin he recruits is an arguable case of child endangerment.
So, finally, when Stephanie Brown, the new Robin, sustained severe injuries and wound up in her clinic, Leslie logged but withheld treatment, killing Stephanie, all in order to teach Batman that endangering young people’s lives is…wrong?…
But at least: In a later story, Leslie pretty much said ‘ha ha, just kidding,’ and revealed Steph was alive and that she’d lied to protect Stephanie and guilt Batman. This was still pretty hokey, sure, but it restored Leslie’s character to some semblance of consistency and likability.
1. Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again (comic)
Three years after the events in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, the world has “gone straight to hell,” with Lex Luthor and Brainiac threatening hostages to keep Superman, Wonder Woman and Shazam/Captain Marvel completely under their thumbs. If you’re wondering where four of those characters were in DKR, just wait until the Elongated Man, Plastic Man, Hawkpeople, the Flash and the Atom show up, almost crowding Batman out of his own book.
But Bats does once again beat up Superman with a little help from his friends, only this time for basically no reason. Also, Dick Grayson is a regenerating serial killer or something, and Bruce is somehow even meaner to him than he is in All-Star Batman and Robin. Gone are the disciplined 4×4 grids of the earlier DKR, too: the art not only depicts Bruce Wayne as a badly beaten-up sixty-year-old: it also looks like it was drawn and colored by a badly beaten-up sixty-year-old. With both hands in casts.
But at least: At odd moments, Miller’s old writing ability shines through: the death of Captain Marvel and Superman’s willingness to self-sacrifice both have a certain grace and beauty. And the further follow-up, Dark Knight III: The Master Race, while still lacking the original’s sophistication, is shaping up to be far better than this.
Other suggestions we considered were Batman: The Ultimate Evil, a clunky if well-meaning novel that pits Batman against child sex slavery but sort of misses the point of the character, the “Zebra Batman” and “Rainbow Batman” stories, and “The Bat in the Belfry,” the first episode of 2004’s cartoon The Batman, which doesn’t get off to a promising start. But we’re sure you’ve got a suggestion or two of your own, and that’s why the Internet gods blessed us with a comment section. Hold forth.