Looking back at all the main Batman actors

The Dark Knight has been around for over 80 years and many great actors have worn the cape and cowl. Today saw a new Batman potentially be announced- Robert Pattinson. Whilst the Internet has of course been moaning and whinging, a look back at all the main actors to don the mantle proves that left field, unconventional choices often result in great results. Nobody thought Heath Ledger could play a good Joker. Nobody thought an unknown Australian could become Wolverine. No one thought Beetlejuice could be Batman. But the fan community has been proven wrong time and time again and just because Robert Pattinson was in that franchise doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve a shot at DC. I haven’t seen anything he’s in outside of Goblet of Fire (you will never, ever, ever catch me watching one of those films. Ever) but a brief look at his filmography proves his capability as an actor. If he gets the role, I’ll be up for it. As long as the writing is strong I know we’ll get a great Batman. With that said, let’s look at the other iterations of Batman, in an article I have been waiting ages to write. For this article, I’m only going to discuss the six “main” actors who have played Batman. These are actors who have either played the Caped Crusader in multiple films or have been linked to the franchise in other ways through television or video games. With this criteria, I count six, soon to be seven actors who are considered to be the “primary” Batmen. Let’s start with the legendary-

  • Adam West

The first major actor to truly link himself with the role of Batman was the iconic Adam West. Playing the role in the campy 60’s TV show as well as the first feature length theatrical Bat-flick, West’s portrayal proved to be highly influential on the likes of Tim Burton and even Christopher Nolan. The Batman TV show has been mocked relentlessly and it’s not entirely unwarranted- it is very dated and cheesy, BUT I still think this a fine take on the character and West himself is genius casting. The plots and villains are ludicrous, the action cartoonish and the actors around him are usually chewing as much scenery as they can, but the Caped Crusader himself never breaks character or joins in the silliness. West plays it completely straight with utter conviction, and it’s this detail that makes his Batman brilliant. This is one of the few interpretations outside the comics to remember Batman is a detective and I love seeing this Batman solve the plots with brains and intelligence, as silly as the plots are. Adam West himself never lets the campiness overcome him and he is simply one of the best pure actors to play the role- it is incredibly hard to do what he does on screen and not be tempted to be silly. But he is always serious and it’s why the Kilmer/Clooney films in the 90’s fail- if Batman is making quips, why should we take him seriously? But West’s Batman is straight out of the Golden Age and he is my third favourite Batman.

  • Michael Keaton

The fan backlash to both Ben Affleck and now Robert Pattinson (although he hasn’t actually been cast yet… great job Internet) is reminiscent of the outrage when Michael Keaton was announced as the Caped Crusader in Tim Burton’s 1989 film, the first cinematic interpretation to explore the darkness of the character to compliment the comic books of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, who are generally credited with taking the character in the mature direction most interpretations go with. Burton and Keaton had worked together the year before on Beetlejuice and whilst I LOVE that film but the titular character is less Bruce Wayne and more Joker, so I can understand the backlash to Keaton, a comedy actor, being cast in what was at the time probably the biggest film of all time. The result? My favourite Batman. Batman Returns is my absolute favourite comic book film and whilst the 89 film is flawed, Keaton still shines. This version is endlessly complex. In true Burton fashion, Keaton’s interpretation is a flawed loner who can never truly fit into society, hiding behind the mask in order to give himself purpose. His Bruce Wayne is a socially awkward and slightly arrogant billionaire, his Batman is a silent force of nature who sees justice as the only goal. I’ve discussed why I love this version so much in the past but in short, this is the version of Batman I compare all others too. With the wonderful storytelling of Burton at his peak, the iconic score of Danny Elfman and a nuanced, layered performance that couldn’t be further from his other roles, Micheal Keaton is my number one favourite Batman, and actor, to play the role.

  • Kevin Conroy

To many people, Kevin Conroy IS Batman. Since the early 90’s one voice has defined the Dark Knight for several generations of DC fans. From the seminal and hugely beloved Batman: The Animated Series to the Justice League cartoon (my childhood in a nutshell) to the Arkham video games right up to now, Conroy’s gravelly but smooth tones have given countless versions of Batman consistency and he is arguably the actor the majority of DC fans consider to be the best. I would agree to that regard. Whilst Keaton’s singular version of Batman is my favourite, Conroy is the definitive actor to take on the role as a whole, if that makes any sense. He has played many different Batmans over the years and usually voices versions who are lifted straight from the comics. Along with Mark Hamill’s Joker and the rest of the DC Animated Universe Conroy ensures the Dark Knight is always the same regardless of animation style or plots. His main “versions” of Batman are the DCAU version from the Batman and Justice League cartoons as well as the version of Batman we see in the Arkham video games. These two interpretations of the Batman mythos are quite different but Conroy’s performance as Batman unites them and many, many different animated films. Last year I met him at London Comic Con and he is just as cool in person and he has countless fans around the world who believe he is the greatest Batman ever. I can support that. For me, Conroy is the second best Batman, although he gives Keaton a very close contest.

  • Christian Bale

OK… controversy alert. Whilst I appreciate the Christopher Nolan films and do acknowledge The Dark Knight as one of the greatest and most important comic book films of all time, for me I was never really convinced by Christian Bale as Batman. The problem for me is simple- Nolan prefers themes and big ideas to characters. It’s why I find his films occasionally hard to relate to and why his best films (Inception, The Prestige and half of Interstellar) focus on emotions and relatable characters. Nolan sees Batman as merely a metaphor for the wider themes he explores in the trilogy and there’s nothing wrong with that but when you have an actor who is so talented you need to give him something to work with. Bale’s Batman is the least interesting thing in his own trilogy and that’s a shame. Heath Ledger and Gary Oldman run circles around him in The Dark Knight and I don’t remember much about the other two (which focus on Batman more) other than The Dark Knight Rises being completely illogical and over-long. My issue with this Batman is he barely resembles Batman- he’s Christian Bale playing Batman but not actually Batman. He barely does detective work and his Bruce Wayne is simply not engaging enough to be a distinct personality. The dynamic and colourful villains completely dominate him and unlike West and Keaton Bale’s version of the character cannot match them in personality. It’s why despite loving The Dark Knight I can’t rank it amongst my personal favourite films because it lacks that connection to the main character that comic films like Batman Returns, Spider-Man 2 or Logan has. This is a trilogy that is about what Batman represents but it forgets to actually give Batman a personality. For that reason this version of Batman is my fifth favourite version of the six we are discussing.

Heath Ledger is so good in this scene it just makes you forget how dumb the voice Batman has is. Who thought that was a good idea?

  • Will Arnett

Yes, he counts. Will Arnett has played Batman in three different films- that’s more than Michael Keaton, Adam West, Kevin Conroy, Val Kilmer and George Clooney. I still unfortunately have not seen either Lego Movie film but I have seen the hilarious, witty, surprisingly deep and subversive LEGO Batman Movie, featuring one of the most interesting versions of the character we’ve had. Arnett’s Batman is what happens when you take the spoilt billionaire aspect of his character and actually go full on with that concept. Like most versions, LEGO Batman fights crime and saves the day but he does it mostly out of a desire to be the best and boost his own image rather than for any moral reasons. The comedic nature of his film means the filmmakers are allowed to explore an alternate version of Batman and ask questions other interpretations don’t even begin to ask? What if Batman’s egotism and desire to be number one results in him being unable to see his own flaws? What does him lacking a family really mean for him? On top of that this is also the funniest and wittiest Batman and what’s amazing is that whilst the Batman from the comics would never laugh or joke, Arnett does such a good job telling the jokes and being immature in the style of the character that it feels like a natural extension of even the darkest comics. The joy of Batman is that he can be interpreted in many ways and the LEGO films do a great job with a humorous and different Batman that still honours the core ideals and themes of the Batman mythos. For these reasons and more Will Arnett is my fourth favourite Batman.

  • Ben Affleck

I really, really wanted to love this version. I was on Affleck’s side when he got cast as I didn’t see anything wrong with him in the role and the trailers made his Batman look great. He certainly has the best costume and coolest Batcave of any live action version and he fits the part better than Bale in my opinion.

BUT.

Zack Snyder. Just, Zack Snyder. What could have been a fascinating version of the character ended up being an inconsistent and hard to relate to thanks to Snyder thinking Batman should be like Rorschach from Watchmen. Now, on the surface what Snyder did with the character is very interesting. An older, jaded Batman tired of fighting crime and being angered at a god like being who thinks he is superior is a brilliant idea lifted from the genius mind of pre-insanity Frank Miller. The problem is with the execution. Like Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, this dark, edgy subversive take on a beloved pop culture icon ultimately fails because the writers fail to understand what they are subverting. I don’t have a problem with Batman killing fundamentally- Keaton does it a couple of times and it would be hypocritical of me to not mention this- but there is no rhyme or reason as to why Affleck does it. And whilst Keaton’s Batman simply didn’t save those who ended up dead around him, Affleck’s Batman straight up murders petty criminals but leaves the Joker alive. Nicholson’s Joker dies at the end of the 89 film so the infamous scene in Returns makes sense for that version. We never see what made Affleck’s Batman like this- only told- and it doesn’t work. Everything interesting about this version happened off screen. And of course, Snyder has to justify it with “that’s how the character always has been, I’m doing it right” (paraphrasing here but that’s pretty much what he said) which is both egotistical and wrong. Burton, Nolan and other directors never had this elitist attitude to what they were doing with the character so discrepancies are allowed. Snyder is under the impression he is making films about the Batman, but he isn’t. We never see this Batman be the version we love before the subversion kicks in and we never see any true redemption as Justice League just pushes him to the side. And of course, the notoriously garbage “Martha” scene encapsulates everything wrong with this version and Snyder’s interpretation of DC more than anything. I am so glad Snyder is gone from DC but ultimately feel sorry for Affleck as it’s clear he loves this role and he does a great job in the films- it’s just not actually Batman. His films as director are great and I know he could have done something interesting with the mythos if he had control but it was never to be. As a result, this is my sixth and least favourite version of Batman. But he could have been number one.

This scene is cool though. Very, very cool.

These six actors are the actors most associated with Batman. I know there are countless others in various television shows and video games but a full list would be over double the list but I feel like I’ve given each “main” version their proper due. If it were up to me I would have had Karl Urban as the next Batman but as I’ve already said I’m pretty confident that if Robert Pattinson is the one Matt Reeves and DC chooses that he’ll be fine in the role. The thing with DC is that if they get it right, they get it very right, and for Batman that’s essential.

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One thought on “Looking back at all the main Batman actors

  1. I really cannot see Pattinson as Batman, but I am happy to be proved wrong. As for the others, the Adam West/Burt Ward combination was mandatory viewing in my youth. Very silly but superbly entertaining and , as you say, West’s ability to play it straight in the midst of all the silliness is what made it such fun. Michael Keaton is the best live action Batman, but he was really helped by being under the direction of the genius that is Tim Burton. I do disagree with you when you say that Will Arnett counts. He was merely the voice delivering a very witty script and the imaginative rendering of his Batman has everything to do with clever stop motion and nothing to do with Arnett’s performance as an actor. I would have the same reservation about Kevin Conroy – he is just a very good voice, but the main impact comes from the animation. I do agree with you not putting Kilmer or Clooney in your top 6. Both of them were shallow caricatures in shallow films.

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