With just one day left until Warner Brothers officially releases Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice on the masses, it feels right to go over the cinematic portrayals of Batman over the past few decades. Having seen the latest incarnation brought to life by Ben Affleck, looking back on the other actors shows a variety of interpretations of a tormented soul who dons a cape and cowl to take on the crime plaguing his city. Regardless of what fans of the different comic variations of the Caped Crusader believe, there has never been one way to play Batman, but it has always been interesting to see the contrasting takes.
Keeping in mind how many actors have served time as Batman in either a live-action or animated form over the years, I want to limit this piece to what I consider the key portrayals of the character in cinematic form, with some fun bonuses at the end.
Michael Keaton (Batman, Batman Returns)
Tim Burton’s Batman was a movie event back in 1989, but the lead up certainly echoed controversies seen in recent times. This movie may have arrived before Twitter, but Michael Keaton was just as controversial as Affleck. Regardless, the movie was a huge success and while Keaton had only just begun to explore dramatic work, his interpretation of Batman was well-received.
Keaton apparently studied Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns for inspiration, but the performance does feel like a unique blend of what had become popular in these late 80s portrayals, combined with the 30s/40s understanding. We see a man who handles the aloof Bruce Wayne persona rather well in both of Burton’s films, with a quiet, yet understanding man in more dramatic scenes. Really, Batman only provides so much of an understanding of who the character is. We get a taste of what makes him tick, along with an unhinged aspect best seen when he explodes at the Joker in Vicki Vale’s apartment.
Really, for all the focus on the villains in Batman Returns, we actually have a better understanding of Bruce Wayne in that film. From the start, having killed the man who murdered his parents, we first see Wayne sitting in the dark, just waiting to be activated. Once seeing the signal, the empty Wayne persona is gone and Batman takes center stage. Burton’s batman is not necessarily bloodthirsty, but there is a wicked sense of humor and even some glee in how he handles himself. Killing is not quite a sticking point for this take on the character, but he takes pride in not having to save the criminals either.
In all of this, Keaton really emblemizes both sides of the character quite well. He may not be the most physically imposing Batman, but the nature of what he represents is there. Pulling off Wayne is also key and Keaton gets his chance to play the character, without having to rely too much on what his parent’s death has done to him in such obvious ways. That said, once Burton was off from a third film, so was Keaton, leading us in a newer direction.
Val Kilmer (Batman Forever)
A key thing to keep in mind is how Batman Forever functions as both a soft reboot and a sequel to the previous films. As such was the case, the Bruce Wayne we see in this film is the same as the one from the earlier films. This is important, as Batman Forever was really the first Batman film to put a lot of focus on who Bruce Wayne is. The issue still revolved around how devoted to the villains the films seemed to be (and Forever has other issues associated with that), but there is a proper Bruce Wayne story going on here.
Thoughts on the film overall aside (I personally enjoy it), Kilmer made for a compelling Bruce Wayne. While many deleted scenes delve even further into the effect his parents death had on him and show a darker film overall, there are some solid dramatic scenes featuring him and Nicole Kidman’s Dr. Chase Meridian. We unfortunately never get to see the playboy billionaire version of Wayne from Kilmer (he just sits there at the circus), but there is plenty of time spent on his inner turmoil, in addition to a new development.
The introduction of Robin was always going to happen at some point and this film really does nail the relationship between Bruce and Dick Grayson. We watch a paternal relationship form, which is made even better by the chemistry shared between Kilmer and Chris O’Donnell (along with great work between O’Donnell and Michael Gough as Alfred). We’ll get to how the costumed version of these character work together later, but the dynamic between Bruce and Dick in this film adds a new layer that helps to move Bruce along in his character’s arc through this series.
The Batman side of things isn’t quite as compelling. Kilmer never adds much personality to the Bat that differs from what he is already doing in his scenes as Bruce Wayne. The suit was lighter, so it allowed him to be a bit more agile in fights, but little else stands out, aside from an awkward smile many have joked about. When all was said and done though, Kilmer kinda-sorta passed on doing another Batman film and was kinda-sorta fired for being somewhat difficult to work with (not the first time this has happened). This led to another radical change.
George Clooney (Batman & Robin)
George Clooney may not speak highly of his turn as the Dark Knight (nor do many others), but there is something to be said for the approach to the character in what turned out to be a disastrous finale to this series of Batman films. Again, rather than starting over, this film does take place in the same universe that we have seen, giving us a character who has grown over the course of the series. A lot of the film may play like a toy commercial, but at the heart of Batman & Robin lies another interesting look at Bruce Wayne.
We were introduced to Bruce Wayne as a father figure in the previous entry, but this one doubles down on the idea by both having Bruce adjust to a new surrogate family (Robin and Batgirl), as well as deal with the possibility of losing his own father figure. Yes, Michael Gough, the only cast member along with Pat Hingle’s Commissioner Gordon to be featured in each entry of this series, is put in jeopardy, which does have an effect on the characters. In this way, Clooney actually does shine in his care for the man who raised him and how that will effect his later adult life in raising his own ‘children’.
Gone is the darkness that plagued the character, as Bruce is now fairly adjusted when it comes to dealing with being orphaned so young and good riddance, honestly. For the fourth film in a series, it would be a bit much to still see the character tormented in such a way. Clooney handles what little drama there is with enough effort to make it work. To say Clooney handles the playboy persona easily would be an understatement. The guy lives for this kind of thing and it’s no wonder he was cast with the hopes his Batman would just work.
For the movie we are watching, Batman is serviceable. If Burton’s film harkened back to the noir-ish roots of the character blended with the dark and gritty 80s personification and Batman Forever resembled the 70s era of Batman with some emphasis on cartoony antics, this attempt moves things intp the 50s/60s camp era. That doesn’t make the film wrong for choosing a time most fanboys did not prefer (the movie misses its mark for many other reasons), but it was obviously not the ideal desire for audiences, given the box office mess that it was.
Still, with this tone in mind, Clooney has little to offer under the cowl, aside from making good of what he has. There is not much intimidation here and the squabbling between him and Robin over Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy is pretty ridiculous, more so because these two are acting like bickering brothers, as opposed to the father-son dynamic previously established. It is awkward, given that their bickering is based around who gets the girl. Regardless of everything that happened here though, Clooney’s tenure in the role means very little, as the series was effectively dead, with new plans to begin several years later.
Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Trilogy)
So now we get to the actor given the chance to play every aspect of Bruce Wayne and Batman. Christian Bale came from indie and art house films (and one blockbuster attempt – Reign of Fire) to be the star of Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the Batman series. While Batman’s origin story is so well-known that Tim Burton actually fooled audiences at the beginning of Batman with a crime alley fake out, Batman Begins would not only show Bruce Wayne’s parents being gunned down (something we have tragically seen way too much), but really dive into how Wayne became Batman. Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One and more recent work from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale were obvious inspirations this time around and Bale was certainly up to the task.
Bale went from reluctantly considering the role to bulking up to 230 lbs. to play the part. That was too much and Bale scaled back, but he kept a good head on what to make work. We see a youthful and vengeance-driven Bruce, a lost Bruce and training-mode Bruce. By the time Bruce is back in Gotham City, we know why this man is determined to do what he needs to, but also get to have fun with the partying, playboy Bruce as well. Bale nails every aspect of this character, with bonus points going to the tremendous chemistry shared between him and Michael Caine as Alfred and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox.
The Dark Knight positions Bale in more of a supporting role (Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent is really the central character we follow, with Heath Ledger’s Joker obviously taking center-stage for much of the film as well). Still, Bale is more than capable of reflecting on the drama of his situation, as he deals with accepting life as a vigilante, while pining after normality with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel Dawes. There is nothing wrong with the performance, but it is The Dark Knight Rises that really allows Bruce to become more of the focus again.
In the final film of The Dark Knight Trilogy, we get back to the Bruce Wayne who had to build himself up to take on adversaries. He begins as a broken man, only to be literally broken, before the film goes into Rocky III mode and allows the man to literally rise up from the darkness. The finale also leads to one of my favorite scenes that not even Bale’s Batman voice can upset. Hearing him basically reveal his identity to Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon provides a quick-look at how Bale reacted in the role of Bruce Wayne. He played the character as a man who eventually accepted that the world is worth fighting for, even in the face of so much darkness.
Speaking of the Batman voice however, obviously Bale’s Batman persona was somewhat questionable. I personally never had much of a problem with the Bat-Voice. It makes a logical amount of sense as to why he would do it and the sound of it never bothered me while watching the films. Bale portrayed the character as a force to be reckoned with, which is perfectly appropriate and evidenced by the physicality. Particularly in the second and third parts of this trilogy, we really go to see the Bat in action.
Some may still prefer what Keaton gave in terms of balancing the appearance with presence, but Nolan really entrusted Bale with a lot to make this grounded take on the Dark Knight function as a proper action hero and more. Fortunately, the character was given a somewhat happy ending, as he spends his days in Europe with Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman. Of course, for the studios, things did not just end there.
Ben Affleck (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice)
It is amazing how things come full circle, as casting Ben Affleck was not only a huge irritation for ‘fans’, this version of Batman would be rooted in grim darkness much like the initial Burton films. However, Zack Snyder (and writers David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio) would go even further by taking Miller’s Dark Knight Returns version of the character very literal, minus any ounce of satire. With that in mind, Affleck actually shines in this iteration. Not quite the revelation some were claiming, but he’s good.
While Affleck may look a bit too young in the face for a guy whose mind has been warped by anger and rage for his whole life, with 20 years as the Bat behind him, this is a cinematic take we have not seen before. Affleck’s Bruce Wayne puts a lot of emphasis on taking no chances when it comes to doing what is right. He’s a true protector, which also means getting his hands dirty. There is a good reason he regards himself (and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred) as a criminal. The movie may be plagued by a lack of strong character development, but we do get a sense of what Affleck’s Bruce is up to in his various disguises.
In the playboy persona, we see Bruce schmoozing through crowds and acting fairly sly when talking with Clark Kent and Diana Prince. In serious Wayne mode, we see a man enraged by the presence of a supposed savior who was directly responsible for the deaths of so many. The charm is there, as is needed, even if the man is pretty humorless, but Affleck is an affable presence in general. It will be interesting to see an eventual standalone film that properly delves into Bruce Wayne’s psyche.
As Batman, Affleck portrays the most ruthless form of the character yet. This is a Batman who unquestionably kills criminals if they are in the way and maims and brands the others who are a little luckier. Affleck literally goes through some intense CrossFit training to show how much of a hulking, intimidating force he is, which plays well when engaging in Arkham Asylum (the video game) style fights and rage bouts with the Man of Steel. Affleck’s Batman is a brute who can use guns and throws batarangs that will really leave a mark. 20 years on the job will affect anyone pretty severely, but this is what happens when you can actually question a man’s mental state, when he is supposedly the hero.
Kevin Conroy (Batman: The Animated Series And So Much More)
If you want to get technical, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (one of the best Batman movies ever) did go to theaters, but that shouldn’t matter, as Kevin Conroy is looked at by many as the ultimate portrayal of Bruce Wayne and the Dark Knight. Having provided the voice of the character in hundreds of cartoons, movies and video games, Conroy has become a fan-favorite for good reason. The man captures the essence of the character, without having to constantly rely on backstory to relay what we all already know about the Bruce Wayne.
Each time out, Conroy has found the perfect balance of what it takes to make both characters work. He utilizes two distinct voices, depending on whether voicing Batman or Bruce Wayne, but it’s more than just that. As Bruce Wayne, we get everything we want from the man both hiding behind a false identity and speaking with a serious tone when getting down to business. For Batman, Conroy gives way to a heroic persona that can step up to the criminals and supervillains he confronts.
The comfort of Conroy in the role has led to his continued appearance in video games and other animated takes on the character. The Arkham series has notably allowed Conroy to be pushed to the limit as far as providing an emotional performance. He gives it his all and very much encompasses what so many like to hear, when it comes to listening to a man claiming to be Bruce Wayne or Batman.
Adam West (“Batman”, Batman: The Movie)
The 60s Batman was very deliberate in its campy portrayal of the material, but there is something to be said for how Adam West took it seriously. While the show obviously went for big, broad and colorful, both West and Burt Ward were never directly winking at the camera. There is very little to say in regards to inner-drama when it comes to examining this version of the character, but West’s Batman always had the confidence needed to combat his enemies. Additionally, as opposed to being a loner, it is interesting to see Batman embrace his friendship with Robin, as well as casually flirt with the female villains he would encounter, despite having to take them down. It should also be noted that this version of Batman could really dance.
Will Arnett (The Lego Movie, The Lego Batman Movie)
Finally, the last Batman worth noting is Will Arnett’s Batman from The Lego Movie and its upcoming spin-off. While I was happy to see Batman pop up in the initial trailers, I had no idea how entertaining and involved he would actually be. Even better was getting to see Arnett take the darkness of Batman to equal extreme levels exhibited by Affleck’s Batman, but for the sake of humor. While Batman v Superman is not quite the over-the-top cartoon-fest I was hoping it would be (or grounded in fully-realized themes, which it also isn’t), Arnett’s Batman does find the irony in putting the extreme Frank Miller version of the character on display. It makes for a great parody that actually does proper justice to a few of the written versions of the character. He just happens to be placed in a comedic (and Lego) world.
The Future: Batman Triumphant
We’ll see what happens in the future. As of now, WB is gearing up to make a whole slate of feature films involving various Justice League characters, where Affleck will be featured prominently. The DC Animated Films have also paved the way for many actors to take on the identity. As a huge Batman fan who enjoys seeing different comic interpretations and their cinematic counterparts, I can only hope we get more and more variety that works. It is great to revisit the films and continue to try and admire what works best about them (Batman & Robin is honestly not one I watch often), but I am also never one to say there is a precise way to nail the character. Ideally, we keep getting new and interesting variations of the character, but of course, we will also always have our favorites.
Lastly, for those seeking a ranking, as far as I’m concerned – Keaton and Bale nailed the Wayne and Batman Persona and I would note both as my favorite cinematic live-action interpretations of the character. I’ll also stick up for Val Kilmer’s Wayne and look forward to what the future holds for Affleck. Really though, Kevin Conroy is the voice of Batman in my head when I read the comics. I think that says a lot right there.