The Dark Knight (2008)
And now we're off! Nolan's Batman Begins sequel provides nonstop cinematic comic book perfection from its opening bank heist to its concluding monologue ("He's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now..."). The Dark Knight shines in every way: its grand-scale crime narrative story, its monolithic, philosophically-driven setpieces, and its post-9/11 explorations of terror, all shot in crisp cinematography by Wally Pfister. And at the heart of it all is Heath Ledger's Joker, who joyfully sets fires merely to watch the world burn - an agent of chaos that threatens not only Batman's inner circle but also Gotham's ostensibly decency.
It's still the most iconic movie depiction of the Bat's most legendary nemesis, and it's a towering, terrifying performance. If the Joker steals the show, the rest of the cast comes close — Bale is in top form as Batman, Aaron Eckhart delivers the epic tragedy of the Harvey Dent narrative, and Hans Zimmer's score is spine-tingling. Nolan saw a world that deserved a better Caped Crusader class, and he delivered it to us.
Michael Keaton is now widely regarded as one of the best actors to have worn the Batman cape, although doubts about his appropriateness existed long before he spoke a word or flexed a rubber-clad fist in Tim Burton's film. In fact, Burton's Bat-outing had a lot to prove – a dynamic return to some of the darker, more operatic stylings of the character than the Adam West-starring series and film, it featured grand, art deco production design and an enthusiastic star turn from Jack Nicholson, slathered in make-up to play a cackling, henchman-shooting Joker.
The plot of Batman is fairly straightforward, with origin stories for both the hero (at a time when that wasn't so overused) and the villain (at a time when that wasn't so overused), all leading to a thrilling final confrontation involving giant balloons, toxic gas, a church, and Kim Basinger's Vicki Vale. Oh, and if you need any more proof that it's a classic, the Batmobile in this scene is perhaps the coolest it's ever been.
Batman Returns (1992)
Given the popularity of 1989's Batman, Warner Bros. allowed Burton to make the sequel he desired. They'd soon come to regret their decision. For this was Burton Unleashed: a darkly comedic gallery of grotesques, an absurdist, fetishistic Gotham, Michael Keaton's no-nonsense Batman, and an army of weaponized penguins. It's so imaginative, so unique in its own world, that it hasn't aged a whit, remaining a timeless, magnificent, bizarre fairground ride that embraces and amplifies the original material's perversity.
Instead of today's cherished reality, this film leans into its lavish settings, reveling in its artificiality, craziness, and refusal to cater to younger people. McDonald's was planning a Happy Meal tie-in until they viewed the movie, at which point they changed their minds. We didn't deserve such magic, so thank you, Tim Burton.
The Batman (2022)
Matt Reeves deserves credit for carving his own space in the Batman canon, even if his version of Batman (sorry, The Batman) is just another dark-as-hell adaptation of the source material. This isn't a dark, brooding detective story that leans into the Caped Crusader's crime-solving abilities, pitting him against a serial-killing Riddler in the Nolan-Esque way or a nihilistic Zack Snyder – it's a dark, brooding detective story that leans into the Caped Crusader's crime-solving abilities, pitting him against a serial-killing Riddler (Paul Dano, suitably unsettling). Reeves' picture, which was inspired by books like The Long Halloween and Earth One, depicts a rotting, rain-soaked Gotham that feels really frightening – and it's also gorgeous to look at, thanks to Greig Fraser's stunning half-lights.
With significantly more time spent on Batman than Bruce Wayne, Robert Pattinson makes a strong debut as the Dark Knight, equaled only by Zoe Kravitz's captivating performance as Selina Kyle, and Colin Farrell's Fredo-inspired Penguin steals moments. The final hour isn't perfect (and it's a lengthy movie), but this is a deeply atmospheric, noirish Bat with a fantastic Michael Giacchino score that promises more greatness in the future.