the dark knight
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Superhero fans wonder what the best DC movie was before ‘The Dark Knight’

Christopher Nolan undoubtedly set a new benchmark in 2007, but what was the yardstick before that?

One of the more obnoxious aspects of following comic-book movies is that early reviews and reactions to mostly every new superhero film claim that it’s the “best one” since a previous hallmark of the genre. In recent years at Marvel, we’ve heard that Shang-Chi, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 were each the best MCU movie since Avengers: Endgame. Over at DC, fans have an even longer memory, comparing every new release against the high-water mark of 2008’s The Dark Knight, which is part of a trilogy that pre-empted the DCEU as we know it.

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Reddit user u/thePHEnomIShere calls out the egregious trend with a collage of films that people called the best under the DC banner since The Dark Knight, including (gulp) Wonder Woman 1984. But instead of lampooning some truly terrible opinions, the author of the thread asked what fans consider to be the best DC movie before Christian Bale took Batman to Hong Kong and Heath Ledger threatened us with a razor.

While responses varied, the same titles were mentioned often enough that at least we have a consensus on the most respected DC flicks before 2008. And if you don’t mind, we’d like to weigh in on the best of the pack.

There’s the most obvious answer: Batman Begins, the film that launched Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy with a more grounded take on the Caped Crusader. It’s a very fun origin story and probably still has the best Batman costume under Nolan’s tenure. But it also features several cloying speeches from Rachel, and the editing is so haphazard (intentionally or not) that you can’t see most of the action. Plus, what’s the point of making Batman more grounded if you’re just going to lean on evil ninjas and their super-secret “microwave emitter”? Moving on.

There’s Batman, the original Tim Burton take from 1989. The film was a massive hit when it released, but fans seemed to cool on it after the Nolan films because Burton’s version of the hero is less comics-accurate; a straight-up psychopath who murders hitmen and takes time to frame his Batwing against the moon when he should be saving lives. Yet, visually the movie is a stunner, Keaton’s drawn-in performance looks better now that we’ve heard Bale screaming in Bat-voice, and Nicolson’s Joker is still a delight, even if he bears a resemblance to Jack Torrance in The Shining. Unfortunately, the movie is missing some much-needed momentum, and making the Joker the guy who killed Bruce’s parents just misses the point completely.

Batman Returns! We’re so proud that Redditors were brave enough to suggest this one, because it’s a singular vision of neuroses gone amok and a flamboyant indictment of Christmas culture. Also, have you seen Michelle Pfeiffer in this movie, or heard Danny Elfman’s score as she trashes her apartment? We swoon. But certain complaints are valid: Batman feels a bit like a side character in this one, and the third act is somewhat soiled by the Penguin seeming to forget multiple times that Batman exists and is waiting around to stop his schemes. This uncompromising freakshow belongs in a museum, but perhaps not at the top of the list.

Getting away from Batman, some suggested Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie from 1978. Great choice. Although there were superhero films before this, Donner truly launched the modern superhero blockbuster by cobbling together a script that still feels credible despite the campy derring-do. He also used what at the time were cutting-edge effects to sell the illusion of a man flying high above Metropolis. Sure, the effects look dated now in high-definition, but they have that warm analog charm that CG just can’t replicate. Plus, Christopher Reeve was instantly iconic in the role, and Margot Kidder and Gene Hackman also turned in terrific performances. If there’s a knock against this movie, it’s probably the whole “flying backwards so fast you go back in time” thing that calls into question why Supes doesn’t just always do that whenever something goes wrong.

If we’re going live-action, Superman: The Movie is our pick. But there’s one last contender on the animation front that several Redditors mentioned: the masterpiece that is 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Guys, this is the best Batman movie ever made. That’s right. Better than The Dark Knight, which stumbles into egregious theme-speak in its final moments. Mask of the Phantasm, however, is damn near perfect. It’s a character study, a whodunnit, and a string of bravura action scenes, all wrapped in a script that could go before cameras right now in 2023 with very few revisions. Plus, there’s the beautiful art deco-inspired animation pulled from Batman: The Animated Series and the seminal voice talents of the late Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill — arguably the definitive Batman and Joker across all media.

See you next month when everyone is saying The Flash is the best DC movie since The Dark Knight.

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Matt Wayt
Matt lives in Hollywood and enjoys writing about art and the business that tries to kill it. He loves Tsukamoto and Roger Rabbit.