With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice very nearly upon us, we decided to reflect on previous live-action versions of both characters. Both the Caped Crusader and the Man of Tomorrow have had their ups and downs on the silver screen, but, overall, who comes out on top?
We took all 14 of their Hollywood efforts, from 1978’s Superman: The Movie, to the Tim Burton Batman films, to 2013’s Man of Steel, and ranked them for your perusal and amusement. Who will come out on top? We have, however, excluded the various animated features, serials, and Batman: The Movie, which is basically an extension of the campy ’60s TV show.
Without further ado, here are All Of The Batman And Superman Movies, Ranked.
14. Batman & Robin
Every list has to start at the bottom, and we can’t get much lower than 1997’s dreadful Batman & Robin. Despite being inspired by the endearingly campy 1960s version of the mythology, B&R comes across as nothing more than a cynical cash grab, a corporate product by greedy executives trying to wring every last merchandising dime out of a franchise that deserved better. But we’d wager the average Screen Rant reader doesn’t need a refresher course on why B&R sucks. So instead, let’s take a look at the all-star cast of this stinker.
In hindsight, George Clooney could have been an excellent choice for the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne (and the actor credits the film for securing his place as an A-list movie star), but the script couldn’t be bothered with making Wayne an interesting character. Meanwhile, the film also derailed the careers of rising stars Alicia Silverstone and Chris O’Donnell (who was getting out anyway to raise his kids, or so he claims). Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy was so groan-inducingly awful that it took not one, but two Quentin Tarantino Kill Bill movies to resuscitate her career. Lastly, we have Mr. Freeze, as played by Arnold Schwarzenegger… Actually, endless ice puns and poor costume choices notwithstanding, Victor Fries is the only remotely compelling character in the film. Schwarzenegger, around all the corny fluff, has a handful of emotionally poignant moments which stand out like snowballs in July among the otherwise overwhelmingly undercooked shenanigans of “Batman on Ice,” as the film has come to be known.
13. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
The Christopher Reeve Superman films are often sold in boxed sets containing the complete tetralogy. These sets contain all four films because there’s no way in hell anyone with a clue would ever want to buy Superman IV: The Quest for Peace on its own. Despite featuring the return of Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor (after being absent from Superman III), and what could have been an interesting anti-nuke message, Superman IV crashes and burns with its pitiful production values and embarrassing script.
In The Quest for Peace, Superman possesses magical telekinetic vision; he rebuilds the Great Wall of China just by looking at it. Why didn’t they just have him use his super speed to travel back in time to before this movie was made and prevent it from ever existing in the first place? Christopher Reeve earned considerable acclaim for being perfectly cast in the earlier films; such a shame that his final performance as the iconic character, possibly the most beloved fictional character in all of American pop culture, had to be in this low-budget misfire.
12. Superman III
While certainly not as awful as The Quest For Peace, Superman III is in inconsistent mess from start to finish. Producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind, along with Director Richard Lester (who helmed the acclaimed A Hard Day’s Night, starring The Beatles) peppered the story with jokes and silly antics, leaving the more dramatic moments feeling hollow.
This film introduces “Red Kryptonite” to the series, which causes Superman to become evil and selfish, committing such horrible acts as… straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa and extinguishing the Olympic Torch. His descent into the dark side makes Peter Parker in Spider-Man 3 look like American Psycho. Making matters worse is the usually wonderful Richard Pryor, completely out of his element as the comic relief sidekick. Pryor was a titan of comedy, but in Superman, he just gets in the way.
At least the film has a saving grace, which is the epic showdown between the two halves of the title character: the “good” half, represented by a plain-clothed Clark Kent, and the “evil” half, a corrupted Superman. Their fight, in a deserted junkyard, is packed with cutting-edge special effects for the time, and palpable emotion. Too bad much of the rest of the movie is such a dud.
11. Man of Steel
If Superman III was filled with needless attempts at juvenile humor, then Man of Steel could be seen as the polar opposite: a joyless exercise which shamelessly invokes 9/11 imagery and endless destruction. As great as the fight in Smallville is, as well as the final showdown with General Zod, there’s no denying that the action wears on for too long. The graphic scenes of the Kryptonian World Engine killing innocent civilians on the streets of Metropolis is in needlessly poor taste, as is the scene in which dour sourpuss Christopher Meloni sacrifices himself like a deranged suicide bomber.
“A good death is it’s own reward?” No it’s not! That’s a terrible sentiment, and now kids are saying it on schoolyard playgrounds!
Man of Steel is a polarizing film. There’s a lot to love, and a lot to hate. We’re not sure how warranted this accusation is, but we place the blame for the weaker elements of the film on screenwriter David Goyer, who tries to apply his winning formula from Batman Begins to a character with whom it is incompatible. On the other hand, we heap praise upon Zack Snyder for making the action as epic as it is, superfluous though it may be at times. Great performances from Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, and Kevin Costner also help to elevate the proceedings, though the whole tale is way too grim to be fully enjoyable.
10. Batman Forever
Speaking of polarizing films, the #10 spot on our list goes to Batman Forever. Even the most adamant Michael Keaton fans have to admit that Val Kilmer was a great replacement for the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, and Batman creator Bob Kane considered him to be the best actor ever to wear the cowl. Jim Carrey, as well, was a great bit of inspired casting for Edward Nigma, aka The Riddler, who blends the 1960s Frank Gorshin portrayal with the heightened sensibilities of the Tim Burton universe.
On the other hand, Tommy Lee Jones plays Two Face as essentially a second-rate version of The Joker, which is a shame, since the role had been promised to Billy Dee Williams, who played Harvey Dent in the 1989 Batman film. Still, Batman Forever is a masterpiece in terms of its production design and costumes, even if it goes too far off the deep end for some. If its follow-up, the aforementioned Batman & Robin, had not been such an unmitigated disaster, we have no doubt that Batman Forever would be held in much higher esteem. Also, the score, by Elliot Goldenthal, is equally underrated.
9. The Dark Knight Rises
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy went out with a big bang, punctuated by a mild “meh.” As high as its highs are, the lows of The Dark Knight Rises are deadening and nearly derail the film multiple times. There’s the whitewashed casting of Tom Hardy as Bane, Batman’s traditionally Latino nemesis. There’s also the fact that Hardy has an irritatingly difficult-to-understand voice… Which is made even more incomprehensible by the half-intimidating, half-ridiculous mask the character wears… Which is exacerbated even further by his numerous monologues and atypical speech patterns. At times we’re fairly confident that Bane’s super power is being super annoying.
The Dark Knight Rises is nearly three hours long, and lacks the black humor of it’s Joker-enhanced predecessor, so it can sometimes feel like a chore to sit through, and it’s even more violent than The Dark Knight, with the bodies of cops being hung from Gotham’s bridges like sick decorations. Fun for the whole family? Maybe the Manson Family. Anne Hathaway’s excellent Catwoman picks up some of the slack, as does Batman’s triumphant return in the third act, but the film, despite being overstuffed with characters and subplots, lacks a definitive identity of its own and suffers as a result. It’s a good resolution to the trilogy, but can’t stand alone on its own two feet.
8. Batman Returns
This 1992 sequel to Tim Burton’s surprise mega-hit took the established characterization from the first film, and dialed up the craziness as high as it would go. It is praised for being perhaps the first blockbuster which refused to be beholden to anybody’s rules for “family entertainment.” Danny De Vito is equal parts sympathetic and monstrous as The Penguin, whose insane origin story (heavily revised from his comic roots) fits in perfectly with Tim Burton’s nightmare world of Gotham City. Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman was sexually fetishistic enough to bother lots of unassuming parents, and even Batman himself seems to revel in the amount of murders he commits.
It’s still a beloved film to many, but some believe it to be too much of a Tim Burton joint, with not enough reverence towards the source material. It’s unfortunate that Pfeiffer never got to return to the role of Catwoman; perhaps she could have salvaged the utter disaster which was Halle Berry’s 2004 Catwoman film. While technically a spinoff of this movie, most fans are content to simply deny it ever happened.
7. Superman Returns
Nineteen years after the disastrous Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Bryan Singer returned to the classic continuity of the Richard Donner films. Retconning the underwhelming third and fourth entries out of existence, Superman Returns was critically acclaimed upon release and even outgrossed Batman Begins at the global box office, though many fans were outspoken over their displeasure with the direction Bryan Singer took the franchise, leading to Warner Brothers’s decision to produce a sequel to Batman, but ultimately not Superman.
Many felt the movie to be too loyal to the Richard Donner films, and afraid to make its own mark on the character’s legacy, and also took issue with the casting of 22-year old Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. On the other hand, Kevin Spacey received universal approval for his portrayal of Lex Luthor as more menacing and less affable than Gene Hackman’s Lex from the Donner films, as well as praise for Brandon Routh, the spitting image of Christopher Reeve. Routh has since gone on to play a different DC character, Ray Palmer, in Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow on The CW network.
6. Superman II
Superman and its sequel were shot concurrently, but Richard Donner was fired by the producers towards the end of development, leaving the remains of the shoot in the hands of Richard Lester, a fine filmmaker in his own right, but an ill fit for Superman. His comic sensibilities overwhelm much of Superman II, with silly jokes often peppered in amidst the heavy drama and tense situations.
That being said, Superman II is still a great movie. Despite the changes that came with the switch in directors (Gene Hackman refused to shoot new footage with Lester, and Marlon Brando was cut out of the sequel entirely), Superman II benefits strongly from its preproduction phase, shared with the original film, and a pitch-perfect performance of the great Christopher Reeve, as well as that of Terrance Stamp as the evil General Zod. It’s a lot rougher around the edges than the first Superman movie, but still manages to be a worthy successor.
5. Batman Begins
When Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer decided to reboot Batman with a dark and gritty origin story (the original “dark and gritty reboot”), many cinemagoers were skeptical that sucking all of the camp and larger-than-life sensibilities out of Batman would make for a dull and messy film. However, long-time fans of the comic book knew right away that this was the version of the character they had spent decades waiting for.
Nolan envisioned Gotham City for 2005’s Batman Begins as a modern day film noir metropolis, filled with corrupt cops, mad scientists, and openly hammy gangsters. It was set in the real world, but one which still took noticeable cues from the comic books. Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow embodied the movie’s theme of “fear,” and the title character was the scariest he had ever been on film since the cold open of the original 1989 Batman. Batman Begins explored parts of the mythology which many had accepted as impossible to film, such as his training with the League of Assassins (here called the League of Shadows) and his earliest days as a vigilante. But to many, Batman Begins merely heralded the greater film yet to come…
4. Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut
After years of speculation and whispers of the possibility of an “unaltered” cut of Superman II, editor Michael Thau was able to make it a reality. Using all of the original Richard Donner footage from the film’s theatrical release, as well as everything he had shot but which had been cut or replaced, Thau was able to scrape together a completely new version of Superman II, with Richard Lester’s comical tangents completely excised, and the result is the superior version of the film.
What had been a good movie is now a near-equal to its progenitor. There are some rough edges here and there, like the use of actors’ screen test footage to assemble scenes which had Donner never had the chance to shoot, as well as the time-travel ending from the first film being reused here. (The time travel ending was always planned to be the ending of the second film, but Donner and the producers elected to use it for the first movie, with plans to come up with a different conclusion to the sequel when the time came.)
Unfortunately, the eventual ending of the sequel (Superman’s memory-erasing kiss) was conceived after Donner’s firing, so both Superman: The Movie and Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut make use of the same deus ex machina in their finales, which seems cheap. Regardless, most fans believe it to be nothing short of a miracle that a more-or-less complete Richard Donner version of the film was able to see a release at all.
Superman IV: The Quest For Peace bombed in 1987, but Tim Burton’s 1989 magnum opus, Batman, picked up the baton and ran with it all the way to critical and commercial success unseen since Superman: The Movie (but more on that in a bit…) His retro gothic vision of Gotham City’s Dark Knight and his duel with The Joker was a massive hit. Michael Keaton, like so many other casting decisions after him, was an unpopular choice among fans, but they quickly changed their tune when they heard him declare, “I’m Batman.” Jack Nicholson’s version of The Joker is just as beloved, as his darkly comic acts of murder both disturbed and entertained viewers, often both at the same time.
Gotham City is slightly more grounded than it would become in Batman Forever, but it still looks like a bleak gothic fantasy straight out of a 1930s comic book, and is remembered as a landmark in production design. Fortunately, this was the stage of Tim Burton’s career where he cared about more than just impressive visuals, and the story, of two equal-yet-opposite freaks enabling each other and pushing each other to their limits still resonates strongly with both comic book fans and general audiences. Plus, this film led to the creation of Batman: The Animated Series, one of the most beloved cartoons of all time.
2. Superman: The Movie
“You Will Believe a Man Can Fly.”
So promises the tagline of Superman: The Movie. Richard Donner directed the film with the intent of stripping away the camp and promising audiences a fully believable version of the character and his story. To achieve this verisimilitude, as he called it, Donner shot the film like an old-school Hollywood epic, rather than a simple action film. Christopher Reeve is revered as the greatest actor ever to wear the tights, with his winning smile and genuine sincerity. Marlon Brando’s portrayal of “Jor-El as Space God” with his son as “Space Jesus” was introduced in this film and has since become an integral part of subsequent film iterations of the character.
Its special effects were groundbreaking at the time and still hold up (to an extent) today. Superman: The Movie was truly the first modern superhero film, and its influence persists on every single one of today’s MCU and DCU films. Just make sure you see the Director’s Cut, which cleans up many of the special effects and improves the pacing, lending the film an even more timeless feel.
1. The Dark Knight
It was a close call, but we just had to give the top spot on our list to The Dark Knight. Warner Brothers basically gave Christopher Nolan and his team the freedom to run wild with Batman, and this masterpiece is what they came up with. In one corner, we have Batman, and in the other, we have The Joker. Order and chaos in their purest forms, fascism and anarchy, with Harvey Dent, the white knight of Gotham City, in the middle. The Dark Knight succeeds where its sequel falters because of this trinity of characters, who balance each other out perfectly. The Joker’s black comedy and disturbing character adds some serious pep to the two and a half hour film (Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his performance), but Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent/Two Face is the real heart and soul of the story.
An argument could be made that The Joker is too much of a villainous Mary Sue of sorts in that he always knows what’s going to happen, no matter how improbable. For an agent of chaos, his schemes are meticulously planned out, and he possesses an annoying level of omniscience. Nevertheless, The Dark Knight is a case where the momentum of the film is so strong, and the performances so grand, and the themes so engrossing, that we hardly notice such minor contrivances. We’ll likely never get another Christopher Nolan Batman film, but at least we can be content knowing they simply don’t get much better than The Dark Knight.