Best Batman on the Big Screen? Bat-Actors Ranked
Batman has been a pop culture staple since his debut in 1939. To say he’s become a merchandising juggernaut since then is an understatement. Though the Dark Knight started as a comic book character, his immense popularity quickly thrust him into other media such as films, TV, video games, and even real money online casinos have been featuring some games based on the caped crusader, which shows how far this character goes. As I’m a film geek, this post is going to be a ranking of his big screen iterations.
The Batman movies have been ranked many times before, with The Dark Knight almost always taking the top spot, so I’m not going to re-hash that here. Rather, I’m more interested in the actual performances of the men tasked to play the Caped Crusader. I left out the two Batman serials from the 1940s, simply because I haven’t seen them. (I’ve seen clips, and to be honest they don’t look great.) I did include all the other iterations, however, including two animated performances.
I’ll start with the worst and move my way up to the top spot.
George Clooney: Batman & Robin
Batman & Robin is rightfully panned and hated as the worst Batman movie. It’s sole function was to sell toys, and the movie was so bad that it killed the franchise for almost a decade. Clooney’s take on the character was awful, and he admits it. He’s apologized for it on several occasions. He wasn’t Batman, he was George Clooney doing cosplay. That’s not to say everything about his portrayal was bad. Although his Batman was terrible, he actually played a decent Bruce Wayne. Alfred’s deathbed scene is actually quite touching. Too bad he’s terrible in the rest of the film.
Will Arnett: The Lego Movie
Clooney’s Batman is the only iteration that I dislike, so ranking the rest was a bit of a challenge. Will Arnett’s Lego Batman is hilarious, and only appears so low on the list because he’s more Buzz Lightyear than Batman; that is, he’s a toy who thinks he’s the real deal. That said, Lego Batman is the overconfident, deluded playboy character that Arnett plays so well. While not a Batman movie, he still steals the show. Here’s to hoping the Lego Batman movie (due out next month) will be even half as enjoyable.
Val Kilmer: Batman Forever
Val Kilmer gets a raw deal in the Batman department. I think people tend to underestimate Batman Forever due to its being created by the same team that made the abysmal Batman & Robin. However, you must remember that Batman & Robin was made only because Batman Forever was a success. If you haven’t seen it in a while, give it another shot. While not a great film, it is much better than you remember, and Kilmer turns in a solid performance. He’s no comparison to Keaton, but he’s no Clooney, either. Not only is Kilmer the first screen Batman to have an imposing physical presence, but he’s also the first Bruce Wayne to really deal with the split psyche. Both of these aspects of Bruce Wayne/Batman would be done better in subsequent films, but it started here.
Adam West: Batman The Movie
Adam West would rank higher for me if 1. I was ranking based on the film’s quality and 2. I was more into the campy side of Batman’s mythos. Batman: The Movie is great fun, no doubt, and it still holds up fifty years later. It takes the zaniness of the TV show and turns it up to 11, from the rehydrated henchman to the Bat-Shark Repellent. What makes Adam West so great is that he’s in on the joke and still plays it totally serious. I don’t think this movie would work if he were to constantly wink at the camera. Batman is also earnest, and a good guy. A hero, in other words. West’s performance is fun, funny, and touching all at the same time. No easy feat.
Ben Affleck: Batman v. Superman
It’s still a bit early to judge Ben Affleck, and my ranking may be altered a bit as new movies are released. Batman v. Superman was a mess of a film (I’ve written about it here), but I’m judging the Batman characters, not the films. Affleck was the one saving grace of this movie. As with Michael Keaton and Heath Ledger before him, the fans were enraged when Affleck’s casting was announced. Once again, the fans had to bite their tongues. Regardless of your thoughts on the film, Affleck was an inspired choice. He physically looks the part, he’s terrifying, and his callous, jaded attitude is perfect for the over-the-hill version of Batman based on Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (The Batman/Superman fight in the film was based on this book.) The warehouse fight might be the best Batman fight ever captured on film. I’m very much looking forward to Affleck’s solo Batman outing, something I never thought I would say fifteen years ago.
Christian Bale: The Dark Knight Trilogy
The top three were very hard for me to place in any order. Bale, Keaton, and Conroy are all fantastic actors and have contributed a great deal to the Batman mythos. Anyone who plays Batman really has three roles to play, not just one: Batman, Bruce Wayne in public, and Bruce Wayne in private. Christian Bale plays all of these perfectly, as do the other two actors in my top three. He’s physically menacing, publicly clownish, and privately troubled. So why is he at number three and not higher? A couple reasons: I think Bale benefited a lot from the quality of the films in which he was appearing. Granted, the films were great partly due to his performance, but without a competent creative team, a good performance can fall flat and be forgotten. Second, he had the benefit of all who came before him, and was able to take Keaton’s mental torture and darkness, West’s sense of goodness and fun, and Kilmer’s physical dominance while avoiding falling into Clooney’s kitsch. Third, his Batman voice IS really stupid, and almost ruins the movies.
Michael Keaton: Batman, Batman Returns
Some may argue that I put Keaton over Bale purely for nostalgic reasons, but they’d be wrong. Remember, the only film version of Batman prior to Keaton was Adam West’s campy, comedic romp. At the time, Keaton was known as a comedic actor, so fans thought they were getting another schlocky camp-fest. Gladly, they were proven wrong. Michael Keaton nailed the dark, brooding Batman of the early comics, while still maintaining his public persona of aloof billionaire playboy. Also, though he’s not a physically imposing man, he was able to somehow deliver convincing fight sequences. Some of my favorite moments in any Batman film are the moments when Keaton is reflecting on his decisions in the Batcave or in Crime Alley. He says a lot without saying a word. Plus, no terrible Batman voice. So why is he number 2? Keaton’s Batman is Tim Burton’s version of the character, which strays a bit too far from the original comics for my taste.
Kevin Conroy: Batman Mask of the Phantasm
Kevin Conroy may be a controversial choice for number one, since he’s a voice actor only, but I can explain why I think he deserves the top spot. Conroy was the first actor to realize that Batman is the true man, and that Bruce Wayne is the costume. This story element has appeared in every Batman story since the acclaimed animated series. Further, Conroy’s Batman voice and Bruce Wayne voice are both perfection. The Batman voice isn’t gravelly, like Bale’s, or electronic, like Affleck’s. It’s a real, human voice with hints of both pain and frustration. Conroy’s Bruce Wayne voice is at a higher pitch and is delivered at a friendlier tempo. In addition to Mask of the Phantasm, his only theatrical release to date, he’s also done the animated series and several video games. To maintain that quality over such a large body of work is no easy task. It’s the subtlety and devotion to quality that’s made Kevin Conroy the go-to voice of Batman and has given him my top spot.
I hope you enjoyed my list; I’m sure you have your own. What did I get right? Where do you agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading! In the meantime, check out the DC Comics and Warner Bros. websites for comic and movie updates.
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