Long before Warner Bros. bought DC and moved the comic giant’s offices from New York to Hollywood, they had an iconic connection. On the 100-year-old studio’s backlot, you can still see the steps Adam West and Burt Ward leaped up every week to see Commissioner Gordon in the campy classic Batman series from the 60s. Years later, Tim Burton and Michael Keaton’s vision of the Dark Knight would save the studio from bankruptcy.
The caped crusader first appeared in the pages of Detective Comics in 1939. His onscreen counterpart followed just four years later, in 1943 when Columbia began producing serials. And like the beloved Batman: The Animated Series, which famously introduced the now A-list Harley Quinn, those serials also impacted the Bat’s canon going forward when the second episode presented “The Bat’s Cave.”
But more than any additions to the canon, their most significant impact was bringing Batman to the screen, where he’s stayed ever since, albeit with a few extended breaks.
Based on theatrical box office, the Batman franchise lands in fourth place on the list of highest-grossing franchises domestically and has had multiple entries cross the $1 billion mark internationally. Hence, it’s no wonder that we keep getting more of them.
And we’ll likely be seeing more soon, given that The Batman is currently comfortably seated as the
second third highest-grossing movie of the year (just after Marvel’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and surprisingly Top Gun: Maverick).
With so many Batman movies and The Batman recently making its streaming debut on HBO Max, we thought we’d take a quick survey of all of the theatrically-released films and where you can stream them.
Batman: The Movie (1966)
The first feature-length Batman film to make its way to theaters after the serials of the 1940s was an offshoot of the even more serialized TV show that began earlier the same year. Batman (1966) brings the pastel-colored joys of the TV show to the big screen with the majority of the characters from the show, including Caesar Romero’s Joker and Burgess Meredith’s Penguin.
Along with the classic tone of the show and a surplus of Bat-gadgets, the first Batman feature to hit the big screen also featured somewhat surprising – but never too hard-edged – engagement and satire of the ongoing Cold War.
The plot revolves around a cadre of villains who want to get their hands on new atomic weapons technology. Catwoman (Lee Merriweather, who took over Julie Newmar’s role for the movie) disguises herself as a Soviet journalist who lures Bruce Wayne into captivity where he’s meant to serve as bait for Batman. There are jokes at the expense of a glory-hungry president and a largely ineffective and disorganized organization that stands in for the UN Security Council.
It’s a delight for anyone seeking a lighter side of Batman in live-action. While it’s not currently streaming anywhere, it’s available for rent on most video-on-demand (VOD) platforms.
After the most extended break from the big screen Batman has had since the 1940s, the Dark Knight returned with another movie simply titled Batman. However, things were different this time. The film didn’t have the lead-in of a tv show, so audiences weren’t familiar with these iterations of the famed characters. It also had a distinct and unfamiliar tone courtesy of newly minted auteur Tim Burton.
Burton was the first of many bonafide auteurs with a vision to helm a Batman movie, and Batman (1989) carries his mark. Burton’s Gotham is much darker (literally and figuratively) than the colorful city of the ’60s TV show and movie, and his Batman/Bruce Wayne (portrayed wonderfully by Michael Keaton) is a much moodier hero than Adam West ever was.
Batman (1989) rewrites or outright ignores some canonical aspects of the Batman story from the comics when Bruce’s parents’ murderer becomes the Joker. Still, it’s aesthetically easy to understand as a film of its time. In the 1980s the comics industry at large, and Batman, in particular, had taken a turn for more serious, emotionally mature, and violent stories.
Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One heavily influenced Burton’s vision of Batman and the film reflected that tone. If you’d like to take a trip to Burton’s Gotham, you can find Batman (1989) streaming on HBO Max.
While Batman (1989) took some liberties with the Joker’s origin story by connecting it to Batman’s origin story, Batman Returns went off the deep end regarding established characters’ origins.
The movie features Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose origin stories diverge significantly from the source material. In the comics, these characters are human beings, but Burton makes them respectively disabled (though it’s meant to read as monstrous) and supernatural.
The Penguin is born with limbs resembling flippers more than arms and hands. Selina literally dies and is revived by the affection of alley cats to be reborn as Catwoman.
But far from causing problems for the movie, these two characters and the incredibly committed performances from their actors have become two of comic book movie history’s most iconic.
Not only are they fantastic characters, but they are the primary arcs in the first part of the movie — Batman/Bruce Wayne doesn’t even show up until about a third of the way through.
Its relative lack of Batman and primary focus on Catwoman and the Penguin makes Batman Returns one of the most fun and unique Batman movies. You can find it streaming on HBO Max.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
It took Batman just under thirty years to make the leap from comics to the big screen in a live-action feature film (and, as noted before, just four years to make it into serials). Still, an animated film about the caped crusader took more than half a century to get into theaters.
Like that first theatrically released live-action feature, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is an offshoot of the highly (and rightfully) celebrated TV show: Batman: The Animated Series.
But unlike Batman (1966), which centered entirely on characters already introduced in the TV show, Mask of the Phantasm introduces a central new character: the titular Phantasm. The story follows Batman as he investigates (and is suspected of) Phantasm’s murderous crimes and, like many of the episodes of The Animated Series, delivers a gorgeously animated noir adventure.
While Mask of the Phantasm was a commercial disappointment when it landed in theaters almost thirty years ago, today it’s considered one of the best Batman movies, animated or not. In just 76 minutes, it delivers a thrilling mystery and a surprisingly emotionally mature character study of Bruce Wayne. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is currently streaming on HBO Max.
Batman Forever was a soft reboot of Burton’s Batman. With the intention of making Batman more kid-friendly (and merchandise-friendly) again following Batman Returns, Burton was replaced by Flashdance director Joel Schumacher.
Keaton, who was originally going to return as Bruce Wayne/Batman, left over disagreements with Schumacher’s vision for the movie. Since the film drew more on Golden Age comics and the 1960s TV show than contemporary comics and Burton’s aesthetic, Val Kilmer stepped into the batsuit for Schumacher’s first outing.
Batman Forever is a much brighter movie than the Burton films. Still, it maintains and amplifies the manic energy Burton brought to Batman Returns. And while most of the key cast is new (along with Kilmer taking over for Keaton, Tommy Lee Jones took over the Harvey Dent/Two-Face role from Billy Dee Williams), there is continuity in that Michael Gough and Pat Hingle return from the earlier films, as Alfred and Jim Gordon respectively.
Along with Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey’s Riddler, Batman Forever also introduces Chris O’Donnell’s Robin, who would become more central in Batman & Robin.
While fans seemed to feel indifferent about Batman Forever, it offers some outrageous performances from Jones and Carrey, who relish their villainous roles in another distinct vision of the Bat in film. You can find Batman Forever streaming on HBO Max.
Batman & Robin
If Batman Returns was Burton dialing up his quirks in a franchise film, Batman & Robin is a fitting second/fourth film follow-up, even if Schumacher didn’t have total control over how “toyetic” the film ultimately is.
The zaniness of Jones’s and Carrey’s performances wasn’t limited to villains this time and permeated the movie’s entirety. The film was also initially criticized, but later lauded for its homoeroticism.
While the infamous bat-nipples were initially introduced in Batman Forever, Batman & Robin doubled down on them by adding them to Robin’s suit and making them more prominent on Batman’s suit (which is this time inhabited by George Clooney).
Batman & Robin is generally remembered as a disaster. It received abysmal reviews upon release, leading to the cancellation of an already planned sequel, Batman Unchained. But recently, some critics have begun reappraising the movie and celebrating the silliness that initially made it a failure.
Of course, it’s up to you how you feel about Batman & Robin, and if you want to reassess, it’s currently streaming on HBO Max.
After the critical failure of Batman & Robin, the Dark Knight didn’t return to movie theater screens until almost a decade later with a movie that, as its title implies, firmly rebooted the cinematic world of Batman by returning to the beginning.
Unfortunately, the massive success of its sequel often overshadows Christopher Nolan’s first Batman film. Still, this first chapter of what would become “The Dark Knight Trilogy” is already a great Batman movie.
Batman Begins offers an origin story that focuses more on how Bruce (played by Christian Bale) finds his morality as Batman than the trauma of his parents’ death. It also engages with surprisingly political themes when he returns to Gotham to find it essentially governed by the mob who rule using fear.
This rendition boasts a fantastic cast of villains, including Liam Neeson, Tom Wilkinson, and Cillian Murphy, and allies like Michael Caine’s Alfred and Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon. You can enter Nolan’s Gotham by streaming Batman Begins on HBO Max.
The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight remains the most celebrated Batman movie of all time. It sits within the top twenty highest-rated narrative features of all time on film-focused social media site Letterboxd, third on IMDb’s list of the top movies of all time, and first as the most critically praised Batman movie.
Beyond its cultural significance as a beloved movie, the film also earned Heath Ledger a rare posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of the Joker and had the lasting impact of the Academy widening the Best Picture nomination pool after it was snubbed in the category.
There’s not much to say about The Dark Knight that hasn’t already been said. It’s a sprawling crime drama that includes astounding set pieces, like the vertical flipping of an eighteen-wheeler and the explosion of a “hospital” (actually a parking garage), nestled among philosophical conversations between comic book villains and practical discussions between gangsters.
It’s a movie that fully deserves its place as one of the greatest movies of all time, and if you’re inclined to revisit it to confirm, you can find it streaming on HBO Max.
The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight Rises had big shoes to fill, not only as a follow-up to The Dark Knight but also as a follow-up to Nolan’s Inception, which was released between the Batman movies and quickly became a modern classic.
Aside from the uphill battle against expectations, The Dark Knight Rises also had to contend with the loss of Heath Ledger. His family has stated that he’d planned to reprise the role in any sequels and that Nolan wasn’t sure he wanted to continue with the series.
Of course, WB wanted more after the massive success of The Dark Knight and ultimately convinced Nolan to proceed with a third film; however, he decided to take things in a different direction.
After the psychological warfare of the Joker, Nolan decided he needed a more physically imposing villain for the sequel; enter Tom Hardy’s Bane. While Hardy’s Bane is significantly different from the original character (in some interesting and some disappointing ways), they are both portrayed to be much larger than Batman and, more importantly, able to defeat Batman in physical combat.
The film goes beyond the partial adaptation of the classic “Knightfall” storyline, in which Bane breaks Bruce/Batman’s back. The Dark Knight Rises also sought to respond to the political climate of its time by featuring a plot heavily focused on class issues, which are handled questionably, at best.
Even as its plot falls short in some areas, one can’t deny the film’s ambition as Nolan delivers some jaw-dropping action sequences. And the performances from the returning cast and newcomers Hardy, Marion Cotillard, and Anne Hathaway make The Dark Knight Rises an enjoyable watch from start to finish. You can rent it on most VOD platforms.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Unlike Nolan, whose Batman trilogy focused narrowly on the titular Dark Knight, Zack Snyder’s films featuring the caped crusader are a much more social affair. While Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (hereafter just BvS) is undoubtedly a Batman movie, it’s also a sequel to Snyder’s Man of Steel which is exclusively a Superman movie.
In addition, BvS acted as an introduction to DC and WB’s attempt to create a cinematic universe to compete with the Marvel Comic Universe (MCU). So, it’s a marvel (no pun intended) that BvS delivers as good of a Batman story as it does.
Ben Affleck’s Batman in BvS is old(er); he’s been Batman for twenty years and lost any hope the world will get better without him making it better through sheer force. And after witnessing the destruction caused by Superman’s fight with Zod at the end of Man of Steel, he’s suspicious of the newly arrived alien who claims to want to help humanity.
Therefore, it doesn’t take much manipulation from Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg in one of the most ridiculous, fun performances of his career) to bring the two heroes to conflict.
This portrait of Batman again primarily draws on Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and turns up the darkest aspects of the character, beautifully brought to life by Affleck. However, there are undeniable issues with the film, like its conspicuous moments of advertisement for the upcoming Justice League.
Yet, as a Batman movie, it’s unique and worth a watch, if only for Snyder’s action scenes. You can find it streaming on HBO Max.
The Lego Batman Movie
While BvS offers the darkest vision of Batman yet to grace the screen, The Lego Batman Movie offers the first entirely kid-friendly (as in PG as opposed to PG-13) Batman movie since Mask of the Phantasm, whose kid-friendliness is questionable.
Yet, The Lego Batman Movie isn’t just a movie for kids, filled with brightly-colored Lego characters, it’s also a movie for Batman fans of all ages.
Both a comedy as well as a superhero movie, it’s able to poke fun not just at Batman as a character but also at the entire Batman history. A highlight is a hilarious bit in which the movie lists increasingly ridiculous villains – each having actually faced off with Batman in the comics.
It’s also a surprisingly emotionally resonant movie, as it interrogates Batman’s difficulty with community and relationships in a way that shows genuine love for the character.
The Lego Batman Movie is a family movie that’s truly fun for the whole family and is currently streaming on HBO Max.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League
After the headlines and the years-long battle waged on social media by fans for the #Snydercut, we finally got to see Zack Snyder’s four-hour vision for a Justice League movie. Perhaps surprisingly to some and expectedly to others, it’s pretty great.
The significant runtime (over 4 hours!) allows each character ample time to shine, and Affleck’s Bruce Wayne/Batman is chief among them. Much of the movie’s first half centers on his attempts to bring a team of metahumans together to fight the impending threat of Darkseid’s invasion.
Like Man of Steel and BvS before it, Justice League draws more heavily on the cosmic aspects of DC comics than the other Batman movies. The heroes battle with Darkseid’s envoy to Earth, Steppenwolf, over “motherboxes” that can open a portal to the planet Apokalips and allow Darkseid’s armies to invade Earth.
Beyond the undeniably MacGuffin-centered plot, what makes the movie fun is seeing the heroes interact – especially Bruce and Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in the lead-up to the team’s formation. Affleck and Gadot have an easy, almost romantic chemistry, and it’s lovely to watch. You can watch it streaming on HBO Max.
The Batman had a long road to production. Initially, the movie was going to be part of the DCEU, with Affleck reprising his role and co-writing and directing. But when he stepped down as director and Matt Reeves stepped in, their ideas for the film were so different that Affleck left the project entirely, making way for a new Batman.
Casting didn’t take long as Reeves was so amazed by Robert Pattinson’s performance in the Safdie brothers’ Good Time he knew who he wanted to play his Batman.
The resulting movie, which exists in a parallel universe to the DCEU and doesn’t reference any other film, follows Batman in his second year as the Bat and takes inspiration from David Fincher’s serial killer films like Se7en and Zodiac more than any other superhero films.
Like almost all Batman movie directors, Reeves brings a specific vision to the movie. His Gotham is more frightening than any other Batman movie but also includes a joke about The Penguin (Colin Farrell) waddling like a penguin.
Clocking in at just under three hours, The Batman is an epic. Still, it’s also incredibly grounded in a real murder mystery and Batman’s psychology as a new hero who’s still finding his way. If you’d like to find your way to watching The Batman, you can find it streaming on HBO Max.
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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Featured Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Kyle Logan studied philosophy and now constantly overthinks music and movies.
He’s a film and television critic and general pop culture writer who has written for Cultured Vultures, Chicago Film Scene, Castle of Chills, and Filmotomy. Kyle has covered virtual film festivals including the inaugural Nightstream festival in 2020 and the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival. Kyle is interested in horror films, animation, Star Wars, and Adventure Time, as well as older genre films written and directed by queer people and women, particularly those from the 1970s and 80s. Along with writing, Kyle organizes a Queer Film Challenge on Letterboxd.