With the recent news of Christian Bale’s confirmation that he won’t be doning the cowl once again for Justice League, speculation has already begun on who will now play the dark knight. While the world continues to speculate, I’ve decided to take a look at those who’ve come before, and who did it best.
6. George Clooney
It’s interesting that the worst portrayal of Batman comes from one of the most talented actors on this list. It was Clooney’s breakthrough as Dr. Doug Ross on the hit tv show, ER, that led to first major Hollywood film- From Dusk Till Dawn. However, his first big blockbuster film was Batman and Robin, with Clooney playing Batman. And thus the worst incarnation of Batman was birthed. No one, apparently, could take the film seriously, with director Joel Schumacher deciding to pay tribute to the campiness of the ’60s Batman series, as well as homosexual innuendos between the two main characters. Nothing, however, can forgive the poor costume design choice of bat nipples on the batsuits along with enlarged.. um.. cod pieces. This film is so bad even Clooney later recognized it as ‘a waste of money’. It was also a waste of Clooney’s time as he plays the most uninspired version of Batman ever. I’ve seen kids dressed as Batman during Halloween give a better performance than Clooney. If anything, the one thing everyone can be happy about regarding Batman and Robin is that it killed any sequels Warner Bros had planned with Joel Schumacher.
5. Adam West
Many recognize Adam West as the first Batman (although there were two previous actors to play Batman: Lewis G. Wilson and Robert Lowrey) who helped popularize the character to a more mainstream audience. The Batman TV series is definitely a product of it’s time, relying on a lighter, tongue-in-cheek tone that comic book fans either embrace or despise. Wherever you stand, it’s hard to deny West’s performance as anything but entertaining. And while this version may have castrated the embodiment of Batman, it’s obvious that West is enjoying himself in the role. There are moments of brilliance, especially when Adam West, as Batman, must engage in a conversation with himself, as Bruce Wayne. Here’s the scene:
As you can see, much of the darker, brooding superhero is missing from this series, but overall is more inspiring than anything Joel Schumacher could come up with. It’s a shame that West was later typecast as Batman; too bad he couldn’t rely on an alter-ego to help illicit more work.
4. Val Kilmer
I’ve heard many passionate arguments on why Val Kilmer is the best Batman. Even Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, thought Kilmer was the best incarnation up to that point (it would be interesting to see what he would have thought of Christian Bale). Kilmer is able to bring a lot of charm to the role, and if given a better script, could have been one of the best portrayals of Batman. He definitely has one of the more ‘Batman’ sounding voices, and was able to pull off more convincing acrobatic stunts than Keaton’s Batman. Still, because of horrible one-liners like “I’ll get drive-thru” and “Chicks dig the car”, it’s hard for the version of the Dark Knight to be taken seriously. Kilmer does the best he can with the garbage script (co-written by Pre-Oscar winner, Akiva Goldsman), and manages to bring a duality to the role as Wayne/Batman that Clooney seemed to ignore. In fact, many believe that Kilmer played the best version of Bruce Wayne. It’s interesting that Keaton left the franchise because he didn’t like the direction it was going, whereas Kilmer left because he felt his role was being marginalized in favor of the villains.
3. Christian Bale
Yes, I know that placing Christian Bale at #3 will outrage many fanboys who insist that Bale was the best Batman ever, but hear me out. Bale did a great job with the role, but in Nolan’s version of the universe. Bale brings earnestness and plausibility to the role, with Nolan’s trilogy being the most grounded of any Batman incarnation, but he’s also the least likable Bruce Wayne. I understand that Wayne had to play the role of a billionaire prick as to not to bring attention to his ‘night life’, but he could have done it with some charm. Bale is able to wonderfully portray the conflict that Wayne endures, but overall he comes of a bit coldhearted. But when it comes to physique, no one can deny that Bale was the one actor who is built like Batman. Bale probably is the one actor who actually looked the part of Batman. The most baffling aspect, however, is Batman’s growling voice. Every time Bale’s Batman opens his mouth, it sounds like a fork being shoved down a garbage disposal. It’s grating and irritating, and with how often Bale speaks, get’s annoying real quickly. Still, Bale brought a naturalistic portrayal to Batman, one which has risen the bar real high for whoever steps in next as the new Dark Knight.
2. Kevin Conroy
Now I know that Kevin Conroy has played Batman through voice only, but if there was anyone who should be the official voice of Bruce Wayne/Batman it should be him. With just his voice, it’s amazing the range of emotions Conroy was able to convey. With brilliant writing and great animation, Conroy was able to bring pain, power, and practicality to Batman. All of this culminates in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, arguably one of the best Batman movies ever, where Wayne experiences love, grief, anger, revenge, and more. Here is a great scene of Conroy exhibiting a range of emotions, as Batman struggles balancing a personal life with crime fighting.
The fact that Conroy successfully pulls this off, allowing for a personal connection with the character, is amazing. But it’s not only Conroy’s voice that makes this version of Batman one of the best; it’s the writing that equally shines. The animated series produces arguably the most accurate portrayal of the caped crusader. I would love to see what the team behind this series could do with a live-action version of Batman.
1. Michael Keaton
And we finally finish with Michael Keaton. When it was announced that Keaton would be the titular character, fans wrote protest letters to Warner Bros. voicing their anger. But Tim Burton saw what many fans of the comics couldn’t. Of all the different versions, Keaton’s Batman is the most unstable- almost psychotic. As the now-famous graphic novel, The Killing Joke, posits, anyone who dons a mask and cape to fight crime must be as unstable as the criminals he pursues. And it is this mentality that Keaton brings to his role. Yes, his version of Bruce Wayne may not be the best, but as Batman, there’s a disturbing quality that Keaton brings to the role. In fact, the Burton films may be the darkest Batman films to date, and much of this is due to Keaton’s performance. Batman is clearly a tormented character, and it is this torment that is portrayed in Keaton’s performance. So connected are his versions of Bruce Wayne and Batman, that in the scene where the Joker visits Vicki Vale’s apartment, Keaton blends the two roles into one, leading to one of the best scenes in the first film. Just watch the unsettling, almost psychotic look in Keaton’s eyes as he tells a metaphorical story about someone he knows who is deeply disturbed. It’s difficult to discern where Bruce Wayne ends and Batman begins.
It’s this disturbing quality that makes Keaton’s the most haunting, yet believable, portrayal. When playing Batman, you’re able to connect to the pain that the character feels as he tries to balance a normal life with a dark secret. We also get one of the better nods to the creature that inspired Waynes’ alter ego in the quick scene where Vicki Vale wakes to see Wayne hanging upside down in the gravity boots, referencing the slumbering creatures of the night. Due to the restrictions of the costume, Keaton wasn’t as acrobatic as later incarnations, but he’s still as menacing as Bale. I believe it’s Keaton’s Batman that comes closest to accurately representing the duality of the character, and when paired with the world Burton created, is the best version thus far. It’s a shame he only did two films, but with the exception of The Dark Knight, they’re the best films in the ever-evolving franchise.