We’re really close to the release of Matt Reeves’ The Batman, folks, which means it’s time for us to look back at previous Bat flicks to remember the journey that ultimately led us here.
To start, we’re ranking all of the actors who have donned the cape and cowl on the big screen in live-action form over the years from worst to best. Feel free to let us know your own rankings in the comments below!
6. GEORGE CLOONEY
George Clooney is an excellent actor and it’s a good thing his appearance in the travesty that is Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin didn’t completely derail his career. That said, his performance in the fourth installment of the Bat franchise is genuinely awful, mostly because Clooney has nothing to work with aside from some excruciatingly bad puns and a handful of set pieces that likely kept his stunt double plenty busy during the long shoot.
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To his credit, Clooney slides into the debonair billionaire Bruce Wayne role relatively well and displays great chemistry with his co-stars, but looks rather silly as the titular Caped Crusader. Not helping matters is Stephen Goldblatt’s candy colored cinematography, which does nothing to hide the rubbery visage of the suit. The results are akin to a poorly stitched together Halloween costume that, when coupled with Akiva Goldsman’s ridiculous script, leave Clooney clinging for dear life in a role he should have drop-kicked on sight.
Nowadays, Clooney has leaned into the film’s absurdity and even apologized for his performance on occasion. Really, it’s not his fault. There’s only so much an actor can do with bad material.
5. ADAM WEST
Adam West enjoyed a relatively brief tenure as the Dark Knight, donning the cape and cowl from 1966-68 in the campy TV series Batman. Due to its robust popularity, the powers that be ordered a big-screen iteration of the hero resulting in 1966’s Batman: The Movie, and let’s just say, we should all be thankful for our modern-day heroes.
Sporting a suit made out of gray spandex, West has more movement than his Bat counterparts but isn’t really asked to do more than deliver cheesy dialogue and, on occasion, engage in poorly choreographed fight sequences. Yet, as a kid growing up in the ’80s before Tim Burton reimagined the character, this stuff was awesome. It never occurred to me that I should take Batman or his half-naked sidekick Robin (Burt Ward) seriously; and so I enjoyed the silly spectacle for what it was: a goofy comedy that induced more eye rolls than fist pumps.
West certainly has the look of a superhero (despite his potbellied frame), and does what he can amidst poor production values, an awful script, and a series of goofy set pieces (the exploding shark is legendary), but is unfortunately weighed down by a dated ’60’s aesthetic and far too much camp to propel his iteration above anyone else on this list.
4. MICHAEL KEATON
I grew up with Michael Keaton as Batman and spent a great deal of my childhood watching the actor obliterate enemies on the big screen in Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns, both of which reimagined the character as a brooding loner hiding in the shadows of Gotham City. As time has passed, however, my enjoyment of those films has decreased, along with my love of Keaton in the role. Oh sure, the actor looks great — the 1989 costume is still one of my favorites — and certainly nails the mopey nature of the character, but upon closer inspection, his take doesn’t really amount to anything substantial.
Neither Bruce Wayne nor Batman goes through any kind of character arc in either of Burton’s movies, and mostly sits on the sideline while their more colorful antagonists — namely Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Danny DeVito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman — have all the fun. What’s more, we never get a sense that this Batman is all that formidable outside of his astonishing knack for crafting high powered gadgets and gizmos: he’s more James Bond than Caped Crusader.
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That said, I am excited to see Keaton return to the role in DC’s upcoming slate of films. Hopefully, he’ll get more to do than stand around looking cool.
3. VAL KILMER
Ranking Val Kilmer above Michael Keaton may sound like blasphemy and is certainly not something I ever expected to write, but hear me out before you charge with the keyboards.
Batman Forever isn’t a very good movie, but Kilmer is genuinely great in the role as Batman/Bruce Wayne. He looks the part of a billionaire playboy and works the cape and cowl with aplomb. At the very least, he boasts a physique that lends believability to the part. So much so that when he stands and tells Robin, “I can stop you,” we actually believe him.
Basically, what I’m saying is, if you gave peak Kilmer and Keaton better material to work with, I think Kilmer runs away with the role. Keaton may brood a little more believably, but Kilmer seems better suited to handle the various nuances of the Batman character.
As is, the actor is stuck in a $100 million Jim Carrey comedy that leaves him reciting silly lines — “Chicks dig the car” — and navigating poorly shot action sequences. Yet, he still manages to stand out amidst the extravagance, which has to count for something.
2. BEN AFFLECK
Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was certainly divisive amongst viewers, but few would argue against Ben Affleck’s take on the Dark Knight. Not only did his iteration of Batman enjoy the best action to date — that warehouse scene still packs a punch — thanks to last year’s Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Batfleck is one of the few to receive his own character arc, and the actor pulls off Batman’s genesis from battle-weary vigilante to rejuvenated hero with believable conviction.
Even if we never received Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Affleck’s Batman would still go down as one of the best versions of the hero to date. Whether in the cape and cowl or donning a tuxedo, the actor embodies the very essence of Bruce Wayne and his brooding alter ego. The only true knock against Affleck is that he never had the chance to tackle the part solo, away from the Justice League ensemble. My guess is, had his Batman flick come to pass, there wouldn’t be much debate in terms of the best take on the Caped Crusader.
1. CHRISTIAN BALE
This might stem from my opinion that The Dark Knight is still the greatest superhero film ever produced, but I think Christian Bale’s Batman is one for the ages. Many balk at his Bat voice, but I thought the tactic appropriately aided Bruce Wayne’s transformation into the Batman, and distinctly separated the two characters from the other. Bale’s Bruce is a laid back playboy with far too much time on his hands, while his Batman is a monstrous alteration capable of unspeakable violence. It works for me.
Of course, Bale is aided by Christopher Nolan’s sharp direction (and a trio of scripts that pour more thought into Bruce Wayne/Batman than any had previously or since) and a strong supporting cast that happens to feature one of the all-time great cinematic villains in Heath Ledger’s Joker. Still, Bale swooped in and made the Batman character his own through a powerful trilogy of films and established an incredibly high bar that may never be matched.