After five decades of separate feature-film action, the world’s two greatest superheroes finally meet on the big screen in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Now, it would appear that “critical” opinion on the Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill movie is pretty low, but where does it sit in the canon of Gotham and Metropolis films?
Here for your perusal and instant agreement/disagreement are all 15 live-action Batman and Superman feature films pitted against one another—who will win…?
15. Batman & Robin
There are only two positive things that can be said of this 1997 slice of Bat crap: (1) it’s not the worst film ever made; and (2) You don’t have to watch it.
That is all.
14. Superman Returns
Confused, bewildering and tedious for the main part, the Man of Steel’s glorious return in 2006 fizzled out quickly when it was obvious the filmmakers didn’t actually have a story to tell. Kevin Spacey manages at least to elicit some interest as Lex Luthor and Brandon Routh does an almost acceptable impersonation of Christopher Reeve (though needlessly so), but the rest of the cast are abominably poor.
A wasted opportunity.
13. Batman Forever
After Tim Burton was unceremoniously kicked off the newly rebooted Batman franchise and Michael Keaton was replaced, a new era for Gotham began. A garish and desperately Nineties era that saw fit to have not one but two pantomime villains in the form of Jim Carrey’s irritating Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones’s woeful Two Face.
Of course, the greatest villain here was Joel Schumacher, its director.
12. Man Of Steel
Or Mess Of Steel as it should be known. Rebooting the franchise was certainly a good idea but rebooting the original story in such a confused and fragmented manner was not. The earnestness and gravitas—not to mention the constantly turgid and bland computer-generated imagery—really pulled Krypton’s son down.
Fans were also at odds over—SPOILER COMING!—the Man of Steel killing General Zod (played by Michael Shannon, sadly not a patch on Superman II’s Terence Stamp), not a very Supermany thing to do. But given that his own people failed to dispense with the war criminal appropriately, Kal El performed the act which his people should have initially, and perhaps saved themselves.
On the plus side, Amy Adams made for a spectacular Lois Lane and Henry Cavill’s take on Supes was heroic and charming.
11. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace
A friend of mine once commented, “This was meant to be watched drunk at midnight,” and if that’s the attitude you take (though we don’t condone alcohol abuse—please drink safely, kids), then you’re in for a blast.
This definitely falls into the so-bad-it’s-good category. Whereas the previous entries on this list are just bad and fail to entertain on any level (ironic or not), the fourth outing for Christopher Reeve can be enjoyed for its terrible production values, laughably simplistic take on world peace and the awesome Nuclear Man.
10. The Dark Knight Rises
After the hugely successful, both critically and commercially, The Dark Knight, came the closing instalment of director Christopher Nolan’s three film arc. Like the Nineties Batman films, this one suffered from “Kitchen Sink” syndrome; there was just too much in there for any cohesive storytelling or engaging characters.
Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle (or “Catwoman,” if you prefer) was as light as the Bat Signal and Tom Hardy’s Bane was as believable as his voice was intelligible. The duplicitous Miranda Tate (or Talia al Ghul), played by Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, was slightly more interesting but when you stick a nuclear bomb in the middle of a city and the rest of the country can’t help then you’re truly in comic book territory. A facet Mr. Nolan had avoided so far.
A sad and unsatisfying way for the trilogy to bow out.
9. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Despite Zack Synder’s bland and often muddled direction (to the point of incredible annoyance), this battle of the titans comes off surprisingly OK. The script and plot are both found wanting but it’s the revelation of new boy Ben Affleck as Batman and the solid performance of Henry Cavill as Superman that save the day.
The Dark Knight gets the biggest laughs whilst the Man of Steel gets ogled with his top off. Wonder Woman comes in a close third with a suggestive thigh shot.
8. Batman: The Movie
The year? 1966. The place? Cinema. The times? Good times!
Finally, we’re now at the palatable range of both movie series. Batman caused a sensation on the small screen, turning the comic book icon into a lovable and prime time festival of color. And this translated to the big screen beautifully.
Though some superhero films can fall under the weight of too many villains, this slice of Sixties silliness got their very own Suicide Squad in the form of Joker, Riddler, Penguin and Catwoman. It was The Beatles of the Super Villain world with each performance utterly iconic and instantly memorable. And then there’s one of the ultimate Batman actors, Adam West. His all-round goodness and community spirit (he didn’t even want to hurt ducks!) may have been slightly against the ethos of the Dark Knight, but when he’s fighting such a quintessential quartet those are the qualities you need to win.
7. Superman III
I suspect some of you, if not all, may be raising an eyebrow or two at the placing of this particular outing for the Man of Steel—but please bear with me.
Yes, it reeks of the eighties—fetishisising computers, money, video games and even war—but the Superman-gone-bad angle is handled perfectly. Christopher Reeve pulls off the tainted hero (both in costume and in morals) in his best performance; he’s a naughty man with an eye for ladies and a drinking habit to boot. The showdown between Clark Kent and Superman is surprisingly dark and visceral; an absolute peach of a moment for the movies.
The horror element is continued in the familiar machines-taking-over-the world trope (it was the 80s after all, we were scared of everything, even ourselves!)—who had a good night’s sleep after watching a woman being transformed into a Zombie Robot? Chilling.
However, Superman III is perhaps remembered best for its more lighter elements such as the delightful return to Smallville with the gorgeous high school sweetheart Lana Lang (played affectionately by Annette O’Toole) and the comedic stylings of stand-up legend Richard Pryor as the computer “genius” Gus (who discovered computers on the back of a packet of matches in the Unemployment Bureau).
It’s a mixed bag, but never dull.
6. Superman: The Movie
Talking of dull, the first feature-length outing for the son of Krypton was surprisingly so in parts.
When I was a youngling, it seemed the norm that when you went to the cinema to see a blockbuster—a treat for a growing Scottish boy—the movies took a while to crank into another gear. Probably a good 30 to 40 minutes. Even as a six-year old I recognized needless padding.
When Superman kicks into gear, it was worth the all the baby and high school jinks. The Man of Steel gets to show off as being SUPERMAN straight away upon reaching Metropolis and doesn’t stop (a facet I feel was lacking from Returns and Man of Steel—we want to see Superman saving people and showing us why he’s a superhero!).
Christopher Reeve is still THE Clark Kent/Kal-El and never hits a bad note. Joined by a delightful and spunky Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and devilish Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, Superman: The Movie is a good old-fashioned tale that stands the test of time.
Bringing Tim Burton in to rekindle the Batman franchise (before franchise-building was a thing) was a stroke of genius. Resetting the tone for the majority of the audience, which was used to the 60s vision of Batman, the filmmaker went for a darker superhero, informed by comics authority and lifelong Batman obsessive Michael Uslan, who produced this gem and all Batman-related films since.
This was a revelation to cinema fans.
Superheroes had always been colourful, straight from the comic book as they block-busted onto the big screen. But comics had changed—the graphic novel had entered the vernacular. And Tim Burton was on the ball.
Taking his cue from titles like The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke, Mr. Burton gives his characters a backstory, a personality and wicked killing skills. Audiences were impressed taking to the film to the top across the world, reigniting the Batman franchise like never before.
Aside from his usual flare and now iconic art deco stylings of Gotham, the gothic director brought in buddy Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson to create movie magic and history. Oddly, though the 1989 film was apparently “dark,” when you go back to it after watching The Dark Knight, it’s almost like going from Mr. Burton’s Batman to the 60s Batman. It’s not really “dark”—it’s more toned and shadowed.
4. Superman II
Speaking of a bit darker, the first return for Christopher Reeve took a more adult and violent tone than its predecessor. Much has been made of the behind-the-scenes issues that affected the movie (change of director) but the sequel comes out surprisingly brilliant and memorable.
The Clark Kent/Lois Lane dynamic moves on in an extremely interesting and complex fashion. Kal-El’s decision to abandon his heritage for love is incredibly moving. Of course, it couldn’t have happened at a worse time.
Following neatly on from the seeds planted in the first film (which was a modern move in itself), General Zod and his two badass chums tracked down the son of their enemy Jor-El to Earth. Terence Stamp’s villain stayed just the right line of pantomime and terrified in just the right way.
Superman II is what happens when you take the simplest of facets of the superhero films and tell a compelling story – with a Metropolis-exploding battle thrown in to boot (but not too much destruction – it was a PG after all). Future filmmakers should have taken note.
3. Batman Begins
As powerful and immediate as Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan came along and cleared the slate once more. This time, however, Batman didn’t come with a huge fanfare. Wisely, the producers let the film speak for itself with virtually no hype. Quite a feat when you consider its awe-inspiring cast.
For those who can’t remember, Batman Begins includes Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Tom Wilkinson, Rutger Hauer and Ken Watanabe. That, ladies and gentlemen, is an ensemble to die for (proper actors—take note Marvel).
Mr. Nolan’s Ace card was not only in making the world of Gotham and its inhabitants real, but also in making the creation of Batman himself believable. This is not just a guy in a superhero suit, this is trained man utilizing every resource he can economically to enhance his crime-fighting abilities for justice (with a soupçon of revenge).
2. The Dark Knight
Often overshadowed by the death Heath Ledger, Christopher Nolan’s first sequel takes the Batman Begins torch and fans it further with Batman in full flow and The Joker surpassing every other screen villain of all time (well, aside from Darth Vader and Donald Trump).
Taking Mr. Ledger’s tragic end out of the equation, and looking at the film coldly, The Dark Knight is a strong work of superhero art—much like Nolan’s Inception was a blockbuster arthouse piece. Batman comes off, perhaps more than ever, as the “good” guy when pitted against the chaos of Joker and the hideous turnaround of Harvey Dent. And this is despite kicking dogs and taking advantage of civil liberties.
Mr. Ledger’s take on maniacal villain scorched the celluloid of film history: from his first treacherous appearance (killing his own goons) to his boyish showdown with Maroni’s mob (using a pencil to kill one of them) to his “look how many fucks I give” laugh when getting brutally pounded by Batman. This is a performance that will never be forgotten and a solemn reminder of the talent that Heath Ledger had and the sorrow of the promise of future roles he never took.
Throw into the mix the shocking death of Rachel, a desperate Gary Oldman and a savage Two Face and you’ve got a Shakespearian tragedy the demonstrates the depth of emotion comic book movies can attain.
1. Batman Returns
Like the first Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, the first Burton Batman sequel fared worse than its predecessor. Critics were not as kind initially and audiences, though substantial, didn’t hit the commercial heights of the original.
And like Empire, Batman Returns has been more favourably looked upon by fans and critics since. Both films were much more downbeat than the mainstream films they followed; they were darker, more character-based and more intense. Mr. Keaton’s Batman took the brood-o-meter off the scale as his Bruce Wayne sat pensively awaiting the Bat signal and then contemplated his relationship with love interest Selina Kyle.
Speaking of Catwoman, Michelle Pfeiffer—like Mr. Keaton—handled the dual roles and their interconnectivity beautifully. She came off more scarred and troubled than the Dark Knight. To top it off, the actress’s physicality as the “super villain” had a ballet quality that transcended the character’s comic book origins.
Let’s not forget Danny de Vito’s unique and fascinating take on The Penguin—derided by fans at the time (gosh, can you imagine—fans complaining about about a comic book film!)—and Christopher Walken’s scene-stealing turn as Gotham’s psychotic businessman, Max Shrek.
Batman Returns is also probably Tim Burton’s finest piece of work too. All his loves come to play here to create a childlike and fantastical world inhabited by the stuff of nightmares. Batman down to a tee.