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One thing you can always count on in the world, besides death and taxes, is that whomever is announced to play a live-action Batman on film will get shredded online and in the media. The Christian Bale decision was criticized, Ben Affleck got crushed when he was the pick. Going back to the '80s, Michael Keaton being chosen was even highly lambasted by some. The announcement that Robert Pattinson would play Batman in the upcoming DCEU The Batman has been met with the same kind of criticism that seemingly every actor has gotten when they were announced as the Caped Crusader.
Eight men have played Batman in live action since the character first appeared on the silver screen in the 1940s. Two of those, Robert Lowery and Lewis Wilson, played the Caped Crusader in Saturday morning serials in the 1940s. They also happened to be actors that most people have never heard of, so I didn’t include them on this list.
I also didn’t include David Mazouz from the TV show Gotham, because he doesn’t really play Batman on the show, even if he is a young Bruce Wayne. In that same vein, we’ve also omitted Dante Pereira-Olson, who is set to play young Bruce Wayne in the upcoming Joker and whom we haven't seen in the role yet, either. There are plenty of animated versions, too, but those will need to wait for a different day and a different feature.
Now, with all those details laid out and set to the side, let’s get down to the nitty gritty, the six actors who have played Batman on the big (and little) screen, ranked from worst to best.
6. Val Kilmer
Val Kilmer has as much talent as any actor in Hollywood and when he is using his powers for good, he can be amazing. Too often though, for one reason or another, he doesn’t use those powers the way he should and the parts he plays suffer. His portrayal of Batman in Batman Forever, sadly, falls under the latter situation.
Back in 1995, Batman Forever was the first of two Batman movies to be directed by Joel Schumacher after he took over from Tim Burton, who directed 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns. The Schumacher films, Forever and 1995’s Batman & Robin were decidedly different than Burton’s. They were lighter and more family-oriented than the Tim Burton films. Val Kilmer’s Batman and Bruce Wayne are less brooding than Michael Keaton’s version. However, Kilmer’s was really less EVERYTHING than Keaton's.
Val Kilmer plays the part very blandly; in fact, there is hardly any real emotion from him. He’s not campy like Adam West or serious like Christian Bale. Kilmer is somehow… just boring. In fact, he makes most of the movie boring, as it is saved only by the performances of Jim Carrey as The Riddler and Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face.
5. George Clooney
George Clooney’s biggest problem with his Batman isn’t the character or even his acting job. It’s the movie. Batman & Robin is just a terrible movie. Director Joel Schumacher doesn’t like it and Clooney didn’t like his performance either. The thing is though, Clooney's performance is not actually THAT bad. The movie is, sure, but his performance isn’t.
It starts with his version of Bruce Wayne, which Clooney plays exactly how you would expect him to play the role, as a charming rich guy with a million-watt smile. You know, just like George Clooney himself. If there is any complaint there, it’s that he is TOO much like George Clooney. Bruce Wayne should have some social anxiety and Clooney’s really has none.
In the end, it comes down to the material that George Clooney had to work with. Batman & Robin just doesn’t have any spark at all. It’s laughably bad, but not in a good way, like the '60s TV show. Even the cast made up of A-listers can’t save the flick and that goes double for George Clooney. It’s too bad this movie killed the franchise for a little while, because if he’d been given another chance, George Clooney might just have made a great Batman, at least if he had better material to work with.
4. Ben Affleck
The decision to cast Ben Affleck as Batman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice may have been the most controversial of them all. It seriously almost broke the internet when comic book fans went nuts criticizing the decision. Petitions were signed, message boards melted down, Twitter exploded, etc. Basically, anything that you can think of that the internet does when it really gets angry happened when Affleck was announced.
Here’s the thing though, he was actually pretty good! As an actor, Ben Affleck was put into an impossible situation, so many people went into Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice convinced they were going to hate the DC movie and his version of the character. In some ways, he really didn’t stand a chance as an older Batman. Sure, Ben Affleck's not the best Batman we’ve ever seen, but he's not bad. He has the right amount of social awkwardness as Bruce Wayne and the right amount of authority and calm in his Batman, so the performance works.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a little dry for a superhero movie and the movie is really saved by the appearance of Wonder Woman in the final battle with Lex Luthor’s Zod Monster. That dryness isn’t all Ben Affleck’s fault though, even if he takes too much of the blame in the press and on the web.
3. Adam West
The sixties Batman TV series is something so different from what modern audiences expect from Batman that it’s hard to fit Adam West into this list. But we have to, because he is simply brilliant in the way he fits the role into the funky, campy, psychedelic production that isn’t so much dated as it is set like stone in a very specific time in pop culture that is like no other.
The old Batman TV show stands alone, sharing so little in common with its more modern successors, but part of what made the show so great was Adam West’s straightforward, dour portrayal of the Batman. In that respect, he’s not all that different from the other actors who have played Batman over the years. In some ways, Batman should always be the straight man to the over-the-top villains he is chasing and no one did that better than Adam West.
The show relied on his villains to bring the action and drive the plot, so West, as Batman, was need to be a Jack Webb-like foil. A by-the-book lawman of sorts who didn’t take the bait dangled in front of him by his enemies. What some people may see as stiff is really just stoic, just like Batman should be. Adam West probably influenced every actor since him to play the Caped Crusader, whether they admit it or not.
2. Michael Keaton
It’s really hard to believe that the world went almost two decades without a live action Batman on a movie or TV screen. That was the case when Tim Burton’s Batman was released in 1989. It was a HUGE deal too. The biggest movie of that summer, by a long shot, with a hit song by Prince and enough merchandise to make George Lucas blush. 1989 was truly the summer of Batman.
Michael Keaton, though, was lambasted (of course) at first. Comic book fans were pissed. They didn’t see how there was anyway Keaton fit into the role. Boy were they wrong though! Even by the time the first trailer was released six months before the movie, audiences were already excited about Michael Keaton and Batman.
Michael Keaton killed it. As the eccentric billionaire Bruce Wayne, he played the man as socially anxious and subtly crazy. You want Bruce to get nuts? He got nuts. As Batman, he was strong and stoic, hardly revealing any emotion. It was the perfect balance of the two characters/alter egos. It also helps that he had a great cast around him, including Jack Nicholson as The Joker and Kim Basinger as his love interest, Vicki Vail. Overall, it’s become a timeless classic and it is responsible for launching the franchise as we know it today.
1. Christian Bale
After Batman & Robin more or less bombed in 1997, it took eight years to get Batman back on the big screen, but it was well worth the wait for Batman Begins with Christian Bale starring as the Dark Knight, a role he would reprise two more times in 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises in Christopher Nolan's incredible Dark Knight trilogy.
Christian Bale’s performance is awesome in all three movies. As Bruce Wayne, he plays the reclusive billionaire differently than Michael Keaton; instead of simple social anxiety, the role called for Bale to be completely anti-social for much of the series and he plays it out with perfection. He is mean when he needs to be mean and aloof when he needs to not care.
As Batman, he does what it takes to be a great Batman. as he is stoic and strong and he is tough and uncompromising. Sure, whatever it is that he does with his voice is a little bit much – OK, it's way over the top, but it’s only distracting for a moment and it is easy to settle in with it. His performance, along with the high quality of the films in general, completely re-invigorated the franchise and we all better for it.
Now the big question is how with Robert Pattinson stack up. Yeah, some responses have been angry, while others are excited, because, that’s what Batman fans do, but they’ve been wrong in the past, so don’t judge the performance until you actually see it!
What do you think? Let us know in the comments and let us know your favorite Batman below!