Like a lot of people this holiday weekend, I found myself at a backyard party, eating more grilled food in one day than I typically consume in a month. And just as it often has a habit of doing, the conversation among my friends and family turned to important matters of geekery – namely the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman in the upcoming Man of Steel sequel.
I offered up my own perspective on the casting in last week's column, but the aforementioned grill-side conversation got me thinking about the character of Batman on the big screen and one particular quality he shares with a certain British superspy.
Much like James Bond, Bruce Wayne and his costumed alter ego have been played by multiple actors over the years, some celebrated for their portrayal of the iconic hero and some widely derided. However, unlike fellow DC Comics icon Superman, Batman has never really been defined by any one actor's portrayal (a la Christopher Reeve in Superman). Instead, he's been played by a series of actors who have each offered their own unique spin on the Dark Knight and the playboy millionaire under the cowl.
While talking about the recent casting news, the conversation eventually turned to a discussion of our favorite actors who've portrayed the character over the years, and it became apparent that there was no consensus on what is the “best” big-screen Batman. From Adam West to Christian Bale, every Batman actor has fans. That even includes the leading men from Joel Schumacher's oft-ridiculed contributions to the franchise.
With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to offer up my personal ranking of the various Batman performances over the years, with some thoughts on how each actor's performance measured up to my own expectations for the character. If there's one thing that became abundantly clear during my recent Bat-debate, it's that everyone has different qualities they look for in both Batman and Bruce Wayne, and what I believe makes the best Batman is likely to be very different than what someone else measures the character by.
I've limited the evaluation to only the live-action Batman actors who have played the character in movies. So, as much as I love some of the animated incarnations of the character, they're off the table for this discussion. Each actor is graded on a 1-10 scale -- with 10 being my ideal portrayal of the character -- as both Bruce Wayne and Batman.
Batman #1: Adam West
Bruce Wayne: 4/10
I wasn't sure whether to include the 1966 movie in this list, since it was technically a spin-off from the campy television series of that era. However, it did come up in my Batman conversation this weekend, and at least one person considered West's performance his favorite version of the character. While the film and TV series hold a special, nostalgic place in my heart, it was always difficult to accept West's silly take on a character that – for me – had always represented the darker side of the comics world. Sure, he had the flakey playboy side of Bruce Wayne nailed (missing all of the angst, of course), but if your ideal Batman is more “Dark Knight” than “Batusi,” one half of the character was conspicuously (and hilariously) absent. Basically, once you go down the “Bat Shark Repellant” road, there's just no turning back.
Batman #2: Michael Keaton
Bruce Wayne: 7/10
This could be heresy to some, but I never did buy into Michael Keaton's performance as Batman in Tim Burton's wildly successful spin on the character. Don't get me wrong: Keaton's take on Bruce Wayne was loads of fun, and he managed to find a decent balance between the character's inner turmoil and carefree facade. However, he always seemed a bit uncomfortable in the cape and mask – though that probably had as much to do with the notoriously unforgiving costume he had to wear as it did his actual performance. Still, neither Batman nor Batman Returns managed to convince me that the man who starred in Beetlejuice was one of the world's most feared vigilantes, and it's only because of that missing action-hero element that Keaton's Batman falls so low in my rankings.
Batman #3: Val Kilmer
Bruce Wayne: 8/10
Batman Forever is popular fodder for critics, but if you can separate Val Kilmer's portrayal of Batman from the awful movie that surrounded it, you might agree with me about this diamond-in-the-rough grade. His performance in the 1995 film came on the heels of his portrayal of Doc Holliday in Tombstone and the same year as his work in Heat, so his talents weren't anything to scoff at when he was cast in the role. The result was a respectable take on both the Dark Knight and Bruce Wayne that may have fallen short of my ideal portrayal for each element of Batman's personality but still struck a nice balance between the two. As Bruce Wayne, he was a rich playboy who lived a consequence-free existence, and as Batman he was a gruff protector of the city who was smart enough to solve Riddler's puzzles and tough enough to take out a dozen thugs in a brawl. Unlike his predecessor, Kilmer seemed equally comfortable in both the action scenes and the moments when he wasn't wearing the mask, and there was a nice, clear division between his character's dual identities. Sure, the movie itself was laughably bad with all of its neon highlights and close-up shots of Kilmer's Bat-suit butt, but I can't help wondering how Kilmer's Batman would be received if his film had a different, less absurd tone.
Batman #4: George Clooney
Bruce Wayne: 6/10
Batman & Robin may have killed the franchise, but George Clooney's version of Bruce Wayne wasn't as terrible as, well, everything else about the 1997 film. Given the actor's rising star at the time of the movie, it probably wasn't much of a stretch to play a suave, handsome and wealthy socialite, so it's no surprise that he pulled off that element of the character easily. Yet his version of Bruce Wayne was missing that hint of inner angst lying just below the surface that previous incarnations of the character possessed. It was his take on Batman that really brought him down in my mind, though, as there wasn't much difference in the character when he put on the mask – something that's a major deal breaker for me. If Batman is just Bruce Wayne with a mask on, he's not a very good Batman.
Batman #5: Christian Bale
Bruce Wayne: 6/10
Christian Bale's spin on Batman came the closest to my ideal version of the Dark Knight of any performance thus far, and I would've given it a perfect grade if it weren't for that forced growl that he adopted for the character's vigilante side. I realize Bale was simply trying to differentiate Bruce Wayne's voice from that of Batman, but the result was just too much. Even so, I was surprised to learn during my recent discussion of Bat-actors that I wasn't alone in failing to connect with Bale's version of Bruce Wayne. Unlike the previous big-screen versions of Wayne, Bale's take on the character seemed to leave the carefree playboy element by the wayside early on, instead focusing on the survivor's guilt and inner turmoil of the character. Bale's Bruce Wayne was too emo for my preferences, and the decision to drop the character's spoiled-snob facade made the difference between Batman and Bruce Wayne less distinct than it should be. Basically, Bale's take on the character was the tonal opposite of Clooney's Bruce Wayne, with the former all soul searching and controlled rage and the latter all smooth talking and confident smirks. And yet much like Clooney's version of the character, there wasn't much difference between Batman and Bruce Wayne.
So... Who Is My Favorite Batman?
After averaging out the grades I gave them, Val Kilmer's performance edged out Christian Bale in my little experiment by the slimmest of margins. To be perfectly honest, it's not the result I expected going into it, but I'm comfortable with what it says about the qualities I look for in a Batman actor. More importantly, the experiment – and the conversation that spawned it – serve as a nice reminder that for every person who considers Bale's Batman the defining portrayal of the character, there are just as many fans of Keaton, Kilmer and the rest of the Dark Knight's leading men.
In the end, I can't help thinking that it may be one of Batman's greatest qualities that so many different actors can portray him in so many different ways while remaining – to various degrees – faithful to the fundamental idea of Batman. Sure, we can argue about which actors represented that idea best, but we can all agree on one thing: he'll always be greater than the actors under the mask.
Let me know how you rank the Batman actors in the comment section!
Rick Marshall is an award-winning writer and editor whose work can be found at Movies.com, as well as MTV News, Fandango, Digital Trends, IFC.com, and various other online, print, and on-air news outlets. He's been called a “Professional Geek” by ABC News and Spike TV, and is still not quite sure how he ended up writing (and talking) about comics, video games, and movies for a living. His personal blog can be found at MindPollution.org, and you can find him on Twitter as @RickMarshall.
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