On Friday, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opens, offering viewers the first big-screen pairing of DC Comics’ (not to mention Warner Bros.’) most beloved superheroes. The reason why fans love to endlessly debate the merits of the Caped Crusader versus the Man of Steel is that these two men are perfect polar opposites: One is a tortured mortal armed only with his gadgets and smarts, while the other is an alien blessed with nearly invincible superpowers and a generally genial outlook. People pledge allegiance to either side in this debate as if they were choosing a political party.
We haven’t seen Batman v Superman yet—frankly, we’re nervous about it, for reasons we’ll get into below—but in the meantime, we decided to look back at all the Batman and Superman movies that have come before. (We decided to pass over the 1966 Batman based on the Adam West television show.) In ranking these 13 films, we realized that whether you’re a Batman or Superman fan—gun to our head, we’d probably lean Team Batman ourselves—both comic book icons have undeniably had their share of great movies. And we were reminded just how jaw-droppingly awful their worst movies can be—it’s like they were made by people who actively hated their own main character.
13. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
The nadir of Superman movies, of comic book movies, of sequels, of maybe just movies in general. Created because Reeve was concerned about nuclear weapons and wanted to see if Superman could just, you know, get rid of them, the movie is ill conceived from start to finish, taking a human problem and scaling it down to “Superman can fix it!” size. Of course, when Superman rounds up all the world’s nuclear weapons—after they’ve been launched, for some reason—it turns out that Lex Luthor (a never-more-bored Gene Hackman) is using that power to create “Nuclear Man,” who ends up fighting with Superman all across the globe. The movie is terrible, and it’s shockingly cheap and poorly made: There are a few scenes that give off an undeniable Ed Wood vibe. There is also a scene where Clark Kent Jazzercises. That this was Reeve’s final Superman movie is a travesty. Seriously, watch this “final battle sequence.”
You half expect Godzilla to show up.
12. Batman & Robin (1997)
The absolute worst Batman movie destroyed several careers, seriously harmed others, and generally served as an oh-my-god horror show of terrible creative decisions. (Even the soundtrack is an abomination, featuring a Smashing Pumpkins atrocity that Billy Corgan famously wrote in the voice of the Dark Knight.) But most crucially, Batman & Robin marked the end of a certain approach to Gotham’s avenger: Never again would anyone hired for a Batman project treat the character like a campy joke. Transitioning awkwardly from a successful run on ER to a film career, George Clooney is all smarmy self-regard as Bruce Wayne. The too-cute glibness extends everywhere, especially Joel Schumacher’s direction, which tried to push the homoerotic bond between Batman and Robin (Chris O’Donnell) but instead came across as witless, cheap, and gaudy. The franchise laid in tatters for a decade, buried under a storm of horrible ice puns, until the studio decided to reboot Batman with a far more serious tone. People can complain about the suffocating somberness of modern-day blockbusters that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy birthed all they want: We’ll still take it over Batman & Robin’s excruciating, exhausting idiocy.
11. Superman III (1983)
After the soaring heights of Superman II, the next sequel crashes to earth in sudden, shocking fashion: As Roger Ebert put it, “this is the kind of movie I feared the first Superman would be.” The “gimmick” of this movie is that Richard Pryor is in it; that’s even the first line of the trailer.
This does a disservice to both Superman and Pryor, who isn’t so much playing a character as he is “Richard Pryor just stumbling aimlessly through a Superman movie,” giving the whole enterprise a “Harlem Globetrotters visit Gilligan’s Island” vibe. The movie also has a technology-vs-humanity throughline that’s so clumsy that by the end computers are flat-out attacking us and turning us into robots. Gone is the wonder of the first two films: Superman is just another chump in tights, a straight man for Pryor to deliver bored one-liners. An embarrassment for all involved.
10. Batman Forever (1995)
Taking the reins from Tim Burton, director Joel Schumacher transformed Batman from gloomy, brooding weirdo to accessible superhero, throwing in a bunch of candy-colored villains and a super-kinky love interest (a playfully come-hither Nicole Kidman). As a result, Batman Forever is a sorta fun, mostly impersonal blockbuster, free of Burton’s thematic obsessions but also without any real reason to exist except to make money, which it did. Where Michael Keaton invested Bruce Wayne with sly wit and a little pathos, Val Kilmer is a blandly anonymous playboy. Playing the Riddler, Jim Carrey cemented his oversized onscreen persona in a performance that’s funny but also nicely menacing. And on the other end of the spectrum, there’s poor Tommy Lee Jones, an Oscar-winning dramatic actor who seemed totally at sea as the maniacal Two-Face. Carrey later said that Jones couldn’t stand working with him, and that seems pretty clear from any frame of Batman Forever: It’s rare to watch a big-budget movie where an acclaimed performer looks so miserable to be around everyone else.
9. Man of Steel (2013)
Why is everyone so concerned about Batman v. Superman? Zack Snyder, director of this film and Friday’s sequel, is the primary reason: His Superman reboot was loud, anarchic, clattering, and altogether crude. Snyder seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the character of Superman, turning him from an All-American beacon of hope into, well, a Transformer. He’s just a big indestructible lunk of a brute who destroys everything in his path, including, famously, pretty much all of downtown Metropolis. (And then he reflects on the destruction by making out with Lois Lane and murdering a guy.) Snyder is trying to do a Christopher Nolan “gritty” version of Superman, but Snyder, suffice it to say, is no Christopher Nolan. Many DC Comics fans feared he’d killed Superman as a cinematic character with this movie. Instead, Warner Bros. gave him not only Batman, but Wonder Woman as well. Look out below.
8. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
After the transcendence of The Dark Knight, this third and final film of the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy was always destined to disappoint a little. While the first two films almost felt like crime thrillers that happened to have a superhero in them, this is the most comic-book of the Nolan trilogy; at times, it’s almost too big for its own good. The film has its moments—and features terrific performances from both Tom Hardy and Anne Hathaway—but it doesn’t have the tight, hyper-intense focus of the first two films. It’s as if Nolan had already said all he had to say about the Batman universe and was struggling for motivation with this one. The movie still has a grand scope and vision that only Nolan would dare shoot for, but it was probably the right time for him to walk away.
7. Superman Returns (2006)
It’s possible to think that Superman Returns has gotten a bad rap while still believing it’s not very good, either. X-Men director Bryan Singer’s reboot is admirably ambitious, trying to recapture the sweet heroism of Superman and Superman II and casting a young actor (Brandon Routh) who could channel the aw-shucks demeanor of the original cinematic Man of Steel, Christopher Reeve. (Plus, Kevin Spacey, who won an Oscar for Singer’s The Usual Suspects, pays homage to Gene Hackman’s strutting Lex Luthor while adding a darker veneer.) In a sense, Superman Returns is the precursor to similar franchise restarts such as The Muppets and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in which honoring a beloved tone is almost more important than any plot specifics. The distance from the earlier Superman films—and the inescapable fact of Reeve’s tragic death—lend a real poignancy to Superman Returns’ story of a caped hero trying to regain the magic he lost by abandoning his true love Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth). But the film’s nagging limitation is that it never quite evolves beyond Superman fan-fiction: It’s a movie about being a Superman movie that really just loves the old Superman movies.
6. Batman (1989)
It can be hard to watch the original Batman now and understand just how profoundly dark this movie was at the time. Flying high after Beetlejuice, upstart filmmaker Tim Burton cast that movie’s star, Michael Keaton, to play the Caped Crusader, and drew inspiration from Metropolis and German Expressionism to craft an angular, anxiety-inducing Gotham City. No longer were comic book movies just fun little diversions: Burton saw in Batman and Jack Nicholson’s Joker the sort of outcasts he has always championed in his films, and his identification with these characters made Batman feel personal, raising the stakes and the emotional tenor. In hindsight, it seems bonkers that Prince wrote a whole album tied to Batman—the No. 1 smash “Batdance” remains quaintly nutso—and Nicholson so dominates the proceedings that Batman is almost an afterthought in his own movie. Still, if Batman doesn’t completely hold up after almost 30 years, that’s partly because its mixture of serious craft, psychological depth, and wised-up humor has been subsumed by so many of the superhero movies that have followed in its wake.
5. Batman Returns (1992)
After Tim Burton revitalized the Batman character with one of the biggest box-office hits of all time, he used that power to make one of the weirdest, most oddly personal blockbuster sequels of all time. Everything about Batman Returns is strange, from the disgustingness of Danny DeVito’s Penguin to the ghastly carnival of Gotham City to, most memorably, the leather-clad, psychosexual relationship between Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman and Michael Keaton’s Batman. This is a movie about two lonely, haunted people in S&M gear who find each other while also living in the middle of a comic book movie, and it’s a testament to how far Burton was willing to follow his personal demons that their story is as moving as anything in Edward Scissorhands or Big Fish. There was no way Warner Bros. was going to let him do anything this bizarre again, so instead they gave their franchise to Joel Schumacher and let him run it into the ground. Give this movie another chance: It has aged surprisingly well.
4. Superman (1978)
The foundational fact that this movie, the earliest on this list, got right about Superman was his inherent corny goodness: He was a hero in the truest sense, a representation of our best selves, the way we wish the world could be, the way it can be if we try. That hopeful spirit, as captured in John Williams’s immortal score, is what Superman is all about: It’s the reason we have a Superman in the first place. In Reeve, they found the perfect face for Superman: Earnest, a little wry, and quirkier than you might think, but more than anything, downright decent. You would believe a man could fly, and that this would be the man. Most of the Marlon Brando stuff doesn’t work, and the plot is preposterous even for a Superman movie, but the spirit of the thing carries you along. Even with all the movies that followed, this is what Superman has represented in the public consciousness for nearly 40 years now.
3. Batman Begins (2005)
Sure, this Christopher Nolan guy made a great little indie—that twisty thriller Memento—and his remake of Insomnia was kinda cool. But why pick him to bring back Batman? What does he know about superheroes? Three Caped Crusader movies later, it’s apparent that Nolan never deeply connected to Batman’s outcast persona the way that Burton did. Instead, Nolan saw Bruce Wayne as a grandly tragic lost soul, not unlike Memento’s Leonard Shelby, and in this first installment of the trilogy, the filmmaker lays out the backstory that explains what drove Wayne to don the mask. Batman Begins remains the gold standard for origin films, both beautifully dramatizing Wayne’s early life and delivering a top-flight action-thriller in its own right. As Wayne, Christian Bale isn’t that far removed from his portrayal of American Psycho’s murderous Wall Streeter Patrick Bateman, and that’s one of this film’s dark jokes: To take on Gotham’s unfathomable evil, you need a screw loose yourself. After the moronic camp of Batman & Robin, Batman Begins was grownup, intelligent, exhilarating entertainment. And the best was still to come.
2. Superman II (1980)
It has all the goodness and warmth of the original, but adds a crackerjack plot, a genuine crisis of conscience for Superman, a stirring love story, a Metropolis that reflects the tumult but also the resilience of New York City in the ‘70s—and, lest we forget, the best villain of the whole series in General Zod, played by Terrence Stamp as the universe’s most smug evil mastermind. Superman II does everything right, establishing Superman as a citizen of the planet as prone to human frailty as the rest of us. We see Superman fall and what it takes for him to rise again, and it all comes together in a downtown Metropolis battle sequence between Superman and Zod and his minions that serves as a direct rebuke to everything Zack Snyder has ever stood for. And it even lets Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor almost, almost become a good guy. This is the best possible Superman movie. It makes us smile just thinking about it.
1. The Dark Knight (2008)
Greatest comic book movie ever. Quite possibly the greatest sequel ever. (Empire Strikes Back and Godfather II fans, please form an orderly queue.) But most importantly, one of the great modern performances: Heath Ledger played the Joker with an intensity, menace, and frightening internal logic that defied rational thought. The abyss that stares back that you always hear about? That’s what Ledger conjured up, becoming a one-man reckoning for a Bruce Wayne who had already started to wonder if it was time to hang up the cape and whisk away his beloved Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Batman Begins’ less effective Katie Holmes). The Dark Knight is where our finest superhero squares off with his perfect nemesis, a man of privilege and principle confronting an enigma who wants to tear everything down just to prove a point. Recently, Christian Bale lamented that he never felt he pulled off his performance in the Dark Knight trilogy, stating, “Heath turned up, and just kind of completely ruined all my plans. Because I went, ‘He’s so much more interesting than me and what I’m doing.’” Maybe, but Bale’s also selling himself short: His Wayne is a complicated, honorable, self-doubting man who has to learn that doing the right thing doesn’t always make you a hero, and his character’s devastatingly noble final choice in The Dark Knight is bittersweet and moving. This film’s so good some people don’t even consider it a comic book movie—which is both a backhanded compliment to Nolan’s pop masterpiece and a rebuke to a genre that’s rarely dreamed so boldly and achieved so much.
Looking for more movie recommendations? Check out the latest episode of the Grierson & Leitch podcast.