Well, folks, people sure do love movies about superheroes. And people love ranking movies about superheroes. But any list that I put together will be motivated by personal opinion. And my personal opinion about Batman movies DOES NOT line up with the public’s. So let's use a dependable metric: capitalism! I’m ranking the films according to their inflation-adjusted domestic box office totals.
1. The Dark Knight
Of course, the fans agree that the best Batman movie ever is also the top earner.
It's also the second highest-earning comic book movie of all time (behind The Avengers), as long as you don't adjust for inflation. And it's obviously a very good movie. Even I, a non-Nolan fan, can admit that. Heath Ledger's performance is excellent, the action is well-directed, the lighting and production design are good. And it's clearly the best of the three Nolan movies. It's more self assured than Batman Begins, and it lacks the scripting flaws of Dark Knight Rises.
The film is thoughtful and interesting, and even if its protagonist isn’t, it’s very smart. It's also one of Nolan's strongest films in general. It’s not quite as good as Memento, but it’s probably on par with 2017's Dunkirk. Not the greatest comic book movie of all time, but certainly one of the best. Worth watching if you haven't already seen it.
Dark Knight was a pop culture phenomenon when it was released, and it makes sense that it made a ludicrous sum of money.
2. Batman (1989)
Inflation is weird. Batman '89 might be just the twenty-third highest-grossing comic book film on Box Office Mojo's list, but if you run it through an inflation calculator, it shoots wayyyyy up on the list.
Many people's favorite Batman movie of all time, '89 does indeed have a lot going for it. Tim Burton's stylizing. Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson killing it with great performances. That Prince soundtrack.
Of course, this one was a mega hit. The first Batman movie in more than 20 years, and it was dark? Well, darker than the '66 show, anyway. It was comic-accurate. Well, aside from Batman killing people, but none of the other movies got that right, either. If you were ten years old in 1989, this would have to be your favorite thing ever. What impresses me is how much of this movie made it into mainstream Bat-canon. The Batwing design has remained exactly that for coming up on 30 years.
And that Batmobile? Let's be honest, folks, it's THE definitive Batmobile design. That kind of impression goes a long way.
3. The Dark Knight Rises
The fourth highest-grossing comic book film, when not adjusted for inflation, Dark Knight Rises clocks in behind its predecessor in second place and the two Avengers films in first and third.
It made two hundred million dollars less than The Dark Knight, but it still did very well for itself. It's amazing what momentum can do. It’s universally agreed upon that it’s the worst movie of the Nolan Batman trilogy, but that's not entirely the film's fault. Clearly, actor Heath Ledger’s death immediately after production ceased on The Dark Knight had a major negative impact on Nolan’s plans.
What resulted was a lukewarm attempt to close the series, based on some half-baked political commentary (the movie’s villains are Occupy Wall Street, and the police save the day), a villain who's more meme than antagonist, and a plot that feels woefully under-developed.
Regardless of your personal feelings, Batman retires and the GCPD is an incorruptible force for good in this movie, and I'm sorry, but that ain't a Batman movie.
4. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
Number 15 on the non-inflation adjusted list is the DCEU's token disaster-piece, the eminently study-able catastro-f**k of filmmaking, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Dear Lord, We Need a Cinematic Universe.
Many found that this sequel(?) to the divisive Man of Steel was not divisive at all. The subject of tons and tons of box office reporting due to its unprecedented Friday-to-Sunday dropoff, the film is endemic of the kind of superhero movie blockbuster culture that folks love to criticize.
And it's not hard to see why when viewing this overly long, incompetently structured objectivist love letter to nerdy inferiority complexes. It takes one overrated but good comic and one overrated but bad comic, strips all of the nuance out of both, and mashes them together until all that's left is an unholy slurry of clichÃ© and grayscale. This is a movie in which jars of urine and coincidental mother names are presented with all the po-faced seriousness of a teenager who's really into nu-metal.
What I'm saying is that it's bad.
5. Batman Forever
Clocking in at Number 39 on a non-adjusted list, the first Schumacher Batman movie was a sight to behold.
Don't get me wrong, it wasn’t a good movie, but it was nowhere near the disaster that its follow-up was. At the very least, Schumacher's neon-influenced visual style brought something interesting to the table. The script was flawed, and Val Kilmer was absolutely not a great Batman, but when it clicked, it was something else.
The nonsense visuals occasionally transcended their form to become some kind of comic Nirvana that was so odd and mind-bending that it became fascinating. But then there was the terrible stuff, like the Battleship game or the entirety of Robin's plotline. It wasn't good, but it was occasionally weirdly interesting. It was also the most widely forgotten of the four late-80s/early-90s Bat-films, which made sense.
It wasn’t as good as Batman '89, as weird as Batman Returns, or as bad as Batman and Robin. It was middle ground. But hey, even middling deserves a mention.
6. Batman Returns
Number 45 without the benefit of inflation, Batman Returns was the movie that was too Tim Burton-ish before that became the norm.
After Batman '89’s runaway gangbuster success, Warner Bros. basically let Burton do whatever he wanted with the sequel. Whatever he wanted turned out to be a movie about a German Expressionist Batman fighting off grotesque monstrosities and psycho-sexual overtones. It was pretty great, but it was also kind of a commercial disaster.
There’s a famous story about McDonalds yanking a Happy Meal tie-in because the resulting film was too adult for their liking. Um, yeah, kind of. It was a weird movie. Look, when Christopher Walken wasn't the weirdest part of your film – but was, in fact, not even weird enough to be memorable – you, sir, made a very weird movie. For the standout, I'd point to Danny Devito's Penguin, who was horrifically memorable and truly well-cast.
Also, he had rocket penguins.
7. Batman Begins
Number 33 without inflation! Inflation is neat.
The first installment of the Nolan trilogy is surprisingly low on this list. It wasn’t like people thought the movie was bad. In fact, it was probably better than Entries Three through Six. But when viewed all together, it began to make sense.
Batman and Robin did such serious damage to the Bat-franchise as a whole that it took two great movies (one was often called the greatest comic book movie of all time) to dig it back out. Begins gave us some great Scarecrow and some middling Ra's Al Ghul. TBH, I don't think you could get away with casting white-ass Liam Neeson as an ancient Arabic eco-terrorist today. But Cillian Murphy's reedy dork-turned-kingpin of fear was phenomenal. We’ll never need to see The Scarecrow on film again, because it won’t get any better than that.
Solid first entry, and one of the best Batman movies.
8. The Lego Batman Movie
The Oscar Snub of the year, folks. Well, okay, Holly Hunter in The Big Sick was the Oscar snub of the year, but THIS ONE TOO.
I’ll be honest: A spin-off of the wonderfully charming The Lego Movie, this movie was the truest to Batman's character in God knows how long. Maybe ever. It was a movie about family. How to build one, how to hold on to the one you have, how to accept responsibility and grow up. It was also a movie that had Gentleman Ghost in it.
I recently learned that there was a brand new Lego set with a Gentleman Ghost Lego. I’m already setting up my Amazon order.
It was a hilarious film. A Batman film that didn’t take the material too seriously, but at the same time eminently respected people’s love for the character. What a wonderful movie.
Better than The Boss Baby or Ferdinand, that's for darn sure.
9. Batman and Robin
Ah, yes, Batman and Robin, the legendary Batman ruin-er.
As much as I'd like to pivot and say that this movie actually wasn't that bad, it actually was. It really was. Yes, the decades of the internet peanut gallery beating on it have grown somewhat tired, but it was still an incredibly bad film. All of Batman Forever’s bad aspects, but cranked up to 11. And it totally lacked any of the good stuff. Schumacher's worst tendencies were fully on display.
The fetishistic costumes were worse, the eye-gouging color palate was worse, the puns were worse. Arnold Schwarzenegger played a f***ing scientist in this movie, for Godsake. Batman and Robin was one of those bad movie punching bags that 100% fully deserved punching. It was as bad as you heard it was.
And it drove Batman out of theaters for years to come.
10. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
One of my personal favorite Batman movies. It wasn’t the best, and it wasn't really a financial Holy Grail, but hey, it was fun.
Mask of the Phantasm was a theatrical film from the same team that made Batman: The Animated Series. The film took elements from Batman: Year One and Batman: Year Two and combined them into a pretty solid movie.
The Phantasm was a creepy villain, there was some great Joker stuff, and the soundtrack was absolutely glorious. It was a very fun movie, if a little cheesy. Okay, a lot cheesy. But for a BTAS movie, it had all of the quality you'd expect in terms of writing and animation. Worth a watch, for sure.
And there you have it, 10 theatrical Batman movies listed according to how much money they made when adjusted for inflation. That was a lot of total money to spend on a sad billionaire wearing a cape.