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With more than $2 billion in ticket sales, the Batman movies are one of the most lucrative superhero franchises ever -- and the most consistent. Something about the morose vigilante and his endless list of colorful nemeses lends itself to blockbuster moviemaking. Another installment -- The Dark Knight Rises -- is headed to theaters, in 2012, but, for now, which Caped Crusader-flick ranks best?
1. Batman (1989)
Tim Burton's dark and stylized Batman erased all memory of the campy TV show with a cool and treacherous Gotham City: all Art Deco architecture and urban decay. In the lead, Michael Keaton lent an idiosyncratic edge. And then there's the Joker, the demented, yet hilarious villain Jack Nicholson was born to play. Dark, sexy, and endless inventive, Batman is the superhero franchise grown up.
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
The third-highest-grossing movie of all time, The Dark Knight is a masterpiece anchored by Heath Ledger's final, frenzied performance as Joker. While The Dark Knight ranks a bit behind Batman, the difference is narrow, and Christopher Nolan's flick is as much a brilliant primer on the thin line that separates a hero from a villain as it is an action pic filled to the brim with thrilling scenes.
3. Batman Returns (1992)
The sequel to Batman takes Burton's nightmarish vision to a new level while adding a satiric dimension, courtesy of its superb villains: a vinyl-wrapped Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays Catwoman as a sort of feminist vigilante, and Danny DeVito's decadent Penguin, at once revolting, tragic, and hilarious. Christopher Walken's Machiavellian Max Shreck might be the best of the bunch. You won't find a better collection of villains in any movie -- period.
4. Batman Begins (2005)
The Dark Knight's origin story is pretty much a thrilling how-to manual on becoming a superhero: witness the death of people you love, be independently wealthy, choose a costume theme, save the city, brood, and repeat. But even more than that, Christian Bale's casting as a more dangerous Caped Crusader breathed new life into the franchise by treating the theme of vengeance seriously. And, honestly, has anyone ever had a more perfect voice to play Batman?
5. Batman (1966)
Campy? Certainly. Hilarious? Definitely. Die-hard comic fans may turn up their noses, but there's something charming about the neon sets, cackling villains, and outlandish arsenal found in Adam West's utility belt. While ostensibly foiling a kidnapping plot, Batman and Robin have plenty of time to fight exploding sharks, shout "Holy sardine!," and employ a long line of gadgets bearing a "Bat" prefix. And, honestly, even nearly 50 years later Batman is as fun as ever.
1. Batman Forever (1995): Joel Schumacher reenvisions Gotham as a postapocalyptic Vegas fun house with over-the-top villains: Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and a killer Riddler (Jim Carrey).
2. Batman & Robin (1997): This zany installment took a beating for Bat nipples and Bat codpieces, but there's good stuff too: George Clooney is the coolest Bruce Wayne of them all, and the flick is filled with zany puns by Arnold Schwarzenegger.