Ranking the Batmen
Ranking actors in different productions is hard. Does it count if the script stinks or does an actor get extra credit for doing it well? If an actor is a perfect fit for their own production but not for the character generally, does that count? And, of course, it’s all subjective.
Be that as it may, I have decided to try to tackle the question of “Which actor is the best Batman?” I judge them primarily on the Batman they played and how well they played it, but give extra credit to those cases where the actor demonstrated a feel for the character so that they could play Batman from more than one angle. I tried not to put too much weight into how much I liked the show or movie itself, though the two can be hard to separate. Especially when an actor is one of the reasons why a production is bad or good.
I also made a decision not to include voice actors, since the part they play is so removed from visual performers. Besides, it’s no fun if everybody knows the answer is Kevin Conroy before we get started.
Without further ado…
George Clooney – Batman & Robin (1997)
It’s hard to separate “the worst Batman actor” from “acted in the Worst Batman movie ever made” but even trying to keep that in mind, Clooney wins the prize for the Worst Batman. Which is unfortunate because he comes closer to having what I see as “the look” as any other actor since the Eisenhower Administration. Even as Bruce Wayne, a role he should have fit like a glove, he managed to just stay in the George Clooney persona rather than Bruce Wayne. The difference, basically, being a playboy and seeing a cold calculated veneer of playboy that we as the audience can see through because we know The Secret. He didn’t even change his haircut from the character he played on ER. He was playing Batman-as-George-Clooney instead of the other way around. His character in Men Who Stare At Goats had a more interesting Batman affectation than his Batman did.
Robert Lowery – Batman and Robin (1949)
As with Clooney, it’s hard to separate the actor from the production, but here again the production is not good, and neither is Lowery’s Batman. The most obvious comparison is to Lewis Wilson, who played the character in the original serial six years earlier. The comparison is unfavorable to Lowery who just seems bored.
Adam West – Batman (1966)
The iconic 1966 Batman has its place I mean not to disparage it. Nor do I especially mean to disparage Adam West himself. But as an actor he was stiff. This worked when juxtaposed with the rogue’s gallery (many of which did an outstanding job) but in any scene that they weren’t in, there was little life in his portrayal. The serials weren’t exactly grimdark or dramatic, but Lowrey and Wilson managed to make it work. The show was very successful and enjoyable and that would have been hard to accomplish if he was bad, but he was nonetheless at or below replacement-level for the Batman he played, and not demonstrably a good fit for any other versions of the character.
Christian Bale – Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Bale’s performance is saved by his Bruce Wayne because his Batman had some serious problems. Well, one serious problem: That voice. When deciding whether to place him below or above Adam West, it was mainly weighing his voice against his Bruce Wayne. Bruce Wayne won. The party where he told everyone to leave, the restaurant where he bought the diner, his endorsement of Harvey Dent, he carried the obnoxious semi-vapid millionaire persona perfectly. When I think of what Clooney’s playboy persona lacked, Bale’s had. And when he was Batman without the mask (in the dungeon, before he took on the costume), he was noticeably different. Between the two, you could see the yin and the yang. All of this sounds like a glowing review, but it’s mostly an explanation for why I am willing to overlook the fact that when he was Batman doing a Batman voice, it approached cringeworthy.
Michael Keaton – Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992)
Keaton’s tenure as Batman was hindered greatly by one thing: The costume. The costume looked great! But it was so obviously not workable as a battle suit and Keaton couldn’t act his way around that. To see behind him he had to move his entire torso. Unlike the poor costumes from the serial (and, to an extent, the 1966 series) this affected his performance. This was not helped by his (at least compared to the other actors) lack of physical presence. His Bruce Wayne leaned very heavy on the eccentric and less on the playboy, which was fine, and he did it quite well despite looking the part barely at all. Redefining a character that had previously been exemplified by Adam West was a big ask, but Keaton pulled it off. It’s a pity about the costume.
Lewis Wilson – Batman (1943)
Wilson played Batman in the original Batman serial. It was very low-budget and graded as a classic. It holds up reasonably well, albeit with very cringy portrayal of its Japanese villains. That doesn’t reflect on Wilson’s portrayal as Batman or Bruce Wayne, though, which is quite good. His “lazy playboy Bruce Wayne” is arguably the best of the lot. His Batman is less remarkable. As is often the case, the production itself doesn’t stand up very well (much like thew 1949 serial), but Wilson’s portrayal stands out as nearly iconic.
Val Kilmer – Batman Forever (1995)
It’s a very close call who the best Batman was in the movies between Kilmer and Affleck. What they both have in common is that they did not have great scripts to work with but did their share to make things work as best they could. Kilmer’s Zen Bruce Wayne was well done in measures presenting cerebral thoughtfulness and a dark mind searching for light. The script didn’t really pull this off, but he did. When in public as Wayne, you could see his mind working behind his eyes. He wasn’t just good as Wayne, though, he was perhaps the first actor to manage to physically embody Batman. He carried what seemed like the physical discipline of a professional athlete (which Wayne should have!) and was the first “shirtless” Batman. In Batman Returns they purposefully avoided showing Keaton without his shirt on in a scene that would have benefited from it. They let Kilmer strut his stuff and his build is athletic (not sculpted, which makes it even better).
Ben Affleck – Superman vs Batman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Justice League (2017)
It was a close call between Affleck and Kilmer. I was skeptical when Affleck was picked, mostly on account of his age. But the script was written where he was age-appropriate, and Affleck’s performance benefited from it. In his prime, he played Daredevil in an acceptable, but ultimately forgettable, performance. Affleck in his prime probably would have done about the same as Batman. But as the experienced, seen-it-all Batman working against and with the wet-behind-the-ears Clark Kent, it worked. A little too old to be too serious (Affleck’s Bemused Bruce had a good expression), but still serious. Like Bale he did a “Batman voice” but unlike Bale it actually worked. Well, more or less. There’s only one Kevin Conroy. He also managed to convey his thoughts at points behind the mask, which is not the easiest thing. His Batman was good, and his Bruce Wayne was better.
Actor Unknown (1990’s Snickers Commercial)
The best Batman actor played him in a Snickers commercial. In thirty seconds, we saw Bruce Wayne and Batman with outstanding voice differentiation. He further showed a degree of versatility and an ability to play serious and campy versions of the character. It’s tragic that he never got to play the character in a more substantial way.
Clark Bertram – Batman: Dead End (2003)
Bertram played Batman in Batman: Dead End, and did a capable job. Despite the comparatively low-grade costume, he looked like somebody who could go around and fight crime. His back-and-forth with the Joker was well played and he has one of the better Batman voices. The lack of anything Bruce Wayne to grade him on makes it hard to place him in the list.
Your turn to vote!
Of those listed, who is the best Batman?
- Michael Keaton (27%, 11 Votes)
- Christian Bale (20%, 8 Votes)
- Snickers Guy (20%, 8 Votes)
- Adam West (15%, 6 Votes)
- Val Kilmer (12%, 5 Votes)
- Ben Affleck (5%, 2 Votes)
- Lewis Wilson (2%, 1 Votes)
- George Clooney (0%, 0 Votes)
- Robert Lowery (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 41
I’m not enough of a connoisseur to vote, but I do remember that commercial.Report
Where’s Kevin Conroy?Report
I did not include voice actors.Report
This is more of a comment than a question but I had Sir Arcane’s question.Report
“I also made a decision not to include voice actors, since the part they play is so removed from visual performers. Besides, it’s no fun if everybody knows the answer is Kevin Conroy before we get started.”Report
Yeah, I know. That’s the problem with Kevin Conroy.
In our defense, we had Batman: Mask of the Phantasm come out in 1993 and it was 12 years until Batman Begins came out.
Not that Batman Begins was a better Batman movie, mind, but it was the first one that might have had enough ground to stand upon that it was better. It wasn’t, of course. But at least arguing that it was was not absurd.
And so, for a dozen years, a bunch of us had nothing better to do than to say that Kevin Conroy had the best Batman. When The Dark Knight came out, we *FINALLY* had the opportunity to argue on behalf of Kevin Conroy all over again!
And, much like meetings where they still unironically call themselves “The Brights”, we’re stuck repeating the same arguments we’ve made for a while even as the conversation has turned elsewhere.
A funny Kevin Conroy as Batman story. Kevin Smith had a podcast called Fatman on Batman (I think it was called that at first, anyway, now it’s called “Fatman Beyond”) and he had Kevin Conroy on it in an early episode. Kevin Smith is talking about one of the JLA episodes where the Royal Flush Gang shows up and, dude, he’s pouring his heart out. Kevin Conroy is gracious and comes across as an awesome, righteous dude… but he isn’t a Bat-Fan. It was a job. Of course he’s a professional… but it was just a job.
See? He’s awesome. He’s a professional.Report
As a serious answer, anybody can play Batman. You put on a cowl, you say “I’m Batman” in a growl, and go on to avenge murder most foul. Batman is so easily done, we can look at a guy in a candy commercial and say “that’s a good Batman”.
The problem with Bruce Wayne is that we have to believe that he’s Batman but that nobody in his universe would.
I think that Keaton gave the best Bruce Wayne out of everybody. Not necessarily the best Batman…, as you say, others have done better and Keaton’s costume messed up his ability to so much as turn his head. But Bruce Wayne was the mask and Keaton wore him as one.
As for Adam West, I think that he gave the quintessential Batman/Bruce Wayne scene here and nailed it. He did such a good job, I think it’d be a good job to ask any and all of the above to give a shot at this same scene and see how they do:
See? It’s subtle. But I think he does a good job with both. I’d put him higher on the list. We here, in 2020, have been poisoned by the last few decades.
Adam West did a great job not only for ’66 but it held up for decades until Tim Burton decided to make a “dark” Batman… that inspired Tim Nolan to say “DARKER!”
Leading us to Matt Reeves who seems to have said “We can go darker than that. Easy.”Report
Okay, yeah, that scene is fantastic.Report
I’m at a huge disadvantage here because despite loving The Bat, I personally loathe George Clooney, Christian Bale, and Ben Affleck. So I was never able to separate them from the character as well as I should have (but in my defense I think that has more to do with their acting style and not my hangups). So I have to go with Michael Keaton, as weird as it sounds, even though physically he wasn’t right for the superhero stuff, I did think he made the best Bruce Wayne. I don’t think they’ve ever gotten the right guy to play Batman because they always relied on star power and not having the right energy for the part.
One of the interesting things about Keaton is seeing how it’s possible to make him seem like a goofy, happy friendly kinda guy when he’s…really not. One of the more effective bits in the MCU movies is his turn in Spider-Man where he’s the Vulture, and there’s a bit where he just turns it on, and I feel like he genuinely intimidated not just Peter Parker but Tom Holland there…Report
The nerd nitpick of that scene was how Spider-man could have torn him apart if he wanted to so how was he intimidated.
To which I say, did you watch the scene? Of course the 16 year old is paralysed with fear during that, regardless of how much he benches.Report
Christian Bale was pretty good. I think Keaton and Kilmer were pretty good too. I expect Robert Pattinson might be a dark horse because his post-Twilight work has proven that he can be a very interesting actor. Then again, Hayden Christensen was horrible in Star Wars but really good in Shattered Glass.Report
Robert Pattison seems too slender for Batman. I always saw Bruce Wayne/Batman as more muscular figures rather than slender.Report
Have you seen the new trailer for The Batman?
He could easily be too slender. But check out the conversation he has with the Jokers.
They went with “Show, Don’t Tell” for physicality.
I have not seen Pattinson in anything, but he has the right affectations for the part from what I have seen. I expect him to do well, though I’m not sure how much I am going to like the movie.Report
He has the physical presence–after watching the Lighthouse, I thought that he could do Batman.Report
I actually do not like the 1960s Batman very much but everyone seems to love the camp of it compared to the grimdark. One thing I’ve noticed about DC Comics people is that they either love the grimdark movies or really hate them. There seem to be a substantial number of DC fans that like the old DC when it was squeaky clean and dorky compared to what Marvel was doing in the 1960s.
Also DC characters generally have stupider names than Marvel characters. What kind of brain storming went into “I know! We will call him Reverse Flash!!”?Report
Somebody once made an argument that going camp was the only way 1960s TV Batman got made.Report
Camp gave the adults something to enjoy while the kids were taking it seriously.Report
The producer (who also provided that wonderful voice for narration) made that argument. It was incredibly astute of him. He also came up with the notion that Batman should approach everything in the ridiculous world of Gotham with the seriousness of bombing Hiroshima (his words).
Adam West was cast because of the guys who looked the part, he was the only one who could say the lines completely straight without ever cracking up.Report
I’d have to go with Christian Bale and Adam West at the top, then Keaton, Clooney, Kilmer. Affleck was simply the worse. He had no spark, no life, brought nothing interesting to the character. He also looked silly in his Batman suit. 🙂Report
So, the mascara question…is this preview with Pattinson the first time that the black mascara under the mask is actually acknowledged? And, if so, do we actually see him apply it in the rush to don the cowl? (Probably in the camp 60s, sans-mascara era, Mr. West would have quickly stuck his head in the “Bat-Mask-Ara” device on the way to the Bat Cave. “Holy Helena Rubinstein, Batman, your eyes look great!” “Thank you, Faithful Ward, but no time for chit-chat. To the Batmobile!”)
My choice? Mr. Bale in “The Dark Knight,” largely because the movie is just so darned good and the voice never really bugged me. “Begins” was slow. “Rises” was flat-out idiotic. Keaton was pleasant surprise.
But Mr. Afffleck easily has the best “bat-line” in my opinion: Asked by the Flash “What is your super-power?” with Oscar-winning timing he replies…”I’m rich.” A two-word analysis of Batman delivered perfectly.Report
Mr. West would have quickly stuck his head in the “Bat-Mask-Ara” device on the way to the Bat Cave. “Holy Helena Rubinstein, Batman, your eyes look great!” “Thank you, Faithful Ward, but no time for chit-chat. To the Batmobile!”
I would break quarantine and GO TO A THEATER to see this Adam West remake!Report
An addition to the “Mascara issue:” I loves me some Batman, and obviously I have taken note of the mascara, but the one thing that has lately actually distracted me while watching is the “three-day stubble” issue. I accept the car, the rope-shooters, the fighting skills, etc., etc. Yay! Comic book fun! But there is no possible way, in any possible universe, that anyone would ever wear that tight-fitting, head and jaw covering, kevlar chin and neck armor, no matter how flexible, and not shave. Can you imagine the constant rustle of those whiskers inside there? The distraction. The discomfort. Nope, can’t go there. /bat-rash rantReport
In the Original Batman, Arkham Asylum game, the game begins by showing a perfectly put together Batman taking Joker to the eponymous asylum. His suit looks great, his chin looks even better.
At the end of the game, there’s a short scene where Batman is talking to Commissioner Gordon and his suit has holes and scratches and tears, he’s got a bunch of nicks and cuts, and, yes, some pretty heavy 5 O’clock shadow. Seriously. He looks tore up.
This isn’t to make the point that he *WOULD* do that despite the constant rustle of those whiskers.
It’s that he *DOES* do that.Report
You mention Affleck’s age a few times. How old is Batman supposed to be? Affleck was 44 when his movie was released and 42/43 when it was filmed. That feels about right for Batman but maybe I just always felt Batman was older because I was first introduced to him as a child so he was always older than me (I’m 36 now).Report
I always had him at age mid-30’s, mentally. “Peak Physical Perfection, But Not Stupid Anymore”.
Batman: Year One is fine to show him physically amazing but making mistakes, getting punched, that sort of thing.
By Established Batman, he’s beyond making mistakes anymore.
There are two templates for Old And Grizzled Batman. The first is Dark Knight Returns Batman. He’s old, but he can still take on the gangs in Gotham. Hell, he can go toe to toe with Superman, given prep-time. (And, yeah, he’ll probably die of a heart attack at the end of it.)
The other is Bruce as Alfred in Batman Beyond. Training the new kid. Remembering Robin. Remembering multiple Robins. Remembering all of his failures and mistakes. Determined to not make them again. Failing.
Batfleck tries to be an amalgam of both. I’m not crazy how he pulls it off but… heck, it’s better than Changing Lanes.Report
Yea, I think that makes sense. I couldn’t imagine trying to start being Batman NOW. But I reckon if I started 10ish years ago, I’d probably be peaking in terms of balancing physical and mental abilities.
Forties-Batman could probably still hang but is definitely complaining about it and probably won’t be out there EVERY night.Report
Well, Batman can be any age. Well, from 19 on up, though CW could do a Gotham High version I’m sure.
But usually when a hero is introduced it’s at the beginning of the career. Affleck’s character being introduced late-career is unusual (and rectified age concerns).
I don’t know what age they are portraying him now in the comics, but he was assumed to be low-thirties when i was collecting.Report
Adam West sold Bruce Wayne as the squarest man who ever lived, which was his motivation to dress up in a colourful outfit and fight crime in all its manifestations from jaywalking to grand larceny.
I feel like that was an acting job beyond any of the rest, not so much due to skill but from how unusual an ask it is, and its the emotional foundation of the entire show.Report
You left out Danny Pudi.Report
From Marchmaine on the Twitters:
Shouldn’t this be titled “Batmen, Ranked”?Report
That sounds like it’s about cricket.Report