Batmen: Ranked

Before Miley Cyrus stole the spotlight Sunday night, approximately 57%* of the nation's Internet's bandwidth was being consumed by comments about the selection of Ben Affleck as Batman in the upcoming "Batman vs Superman" movie.  Much of the talk was negative, some was supportive, and a lot was just funny. (The best line: "I've just seen Christian Bale going to Affleck's apartment with some Huey Lewis records and an axe.")
*a number I just made up

All weekend, the protests kept coming, drowning out admonitions from level-headed people like myself to just. calm. down. We're talking about a fictional character, people.

As one of the few who refused to contribute to the vitriol, I was able to make an observation or two. One thing worth noting: besides the Bennifer and Daredevil references, the bulk of the protests (and even some of the pro-Affleck comments) focused on comparisons:

"Ben Affleck will be the worst Batman since that fat guy in the ill-fitting suit."

"At least he might be better than Clooney."

"Was Betty White not available?"

Comparisons are inevitable when we're talking about an iconic character who has been portrayed on screen by several actors. And let's face it: only James Bond has a similar combination of iconic status + multiple well-known actors. So let's take a stab at ranking--worst to first, Casey Kasem-style--the actors who have donned the cape on the large or small screen.

NOTE: I don't have Lewis Wilson, Robert Lowery, Bruce Thomas, or Kevin Conroy listed here, as I am unfamiliar with their work and frankly, so are all but the most dedicated Batman fans.

5. George Clooney
Although Clooney is not a bad actor, he mailed this one in. In fact, even he freely acknowledges his mishandling of this role, famously stating that he may have broken the franchise. He didn't. Somehow, he managed to salvage a career from the ashes of this subpar performance. Perhaps you've seen him in a successful film or two since then.  I can't say the same for....

4. Val Kilmer
Kilmer was a better Batman than he was a Bruce Wayne.  He did a good job, but it appears that he had trouble landing respectable acting gigs afterward. Val Kilmer's most memorable roles (Tombstone, The Doors) happened in the 9 years between "Top Gun" and "Batman Forever".   After that, there's not much to be proud of.
Exhibit A: the voice of KITT the car in the new Knight Rider.
Exhibit B: The musical version of "The Ten Commandments"

3. Adam West
We all know the 1960's TV series (and the one movie) was campy. In fact, if you look up the word "camp", the dictionary shows a picture of Adam West as Batman**.  But West knew what he was doing at the time, and he played it to the hilt. He was in on the joke. He never tried to be "Tortured Son of Murdered Parents" Batman. He understood what he needed to do to make that TV series work, and he did it spectacularly. Untold millions of grown men have fond childhood Batman memories as a result.

**a fact I just made up

2. Christian Bale
Bale played the role as one would imagine when reading the darkest versions of the comic books/graphic novels. In those works, young Bruce Wayne suffered deep psychological damage when he witnessed his parents' murder. As a detective, he was brilliant. As Bruce Wayne, he was a great pretender.  The self-discipline he had over his body and soul were amazing.

For all these reasons, Christian Bale should be the best Batman ever. But Bale's performance has one very noticeable flaw: the voice. He went out of his way to not sound like Christian Bale, and the result was a raspy voice similar to one of Marge Simpson's sisters. Moviegoers had a hard time not thinking about Christian Bale changing his voice as we were watching The Dark Knight, and ultimately, an actor's job is to make us forget he's acting. The resulting loss of points knocks Bale to 2nd place, right behind...

1. Michael Keaton
The recent negative comments predicting failure for Affleck have a ring of familiarity to those of us old enough to remember the announcement of Mr. Mom/Beetlejuice/Johnny Dangerously as the new Batman. In fact, had this occurred in the Internet Age, perhaps the outcry against Keaton would have been even worse than that we witnessed this weekend. But the protests were muffled when Tim Burton's "Batman" made its way into theaters, as moviegoers realized fairly quickly that Keaton was an excellent choice. He captured the tortured-soul aspect of the character, but wisely avoided over-acting.

Of course, when you're sharing screen time with Jack Nicholson playing The Joker, avoiding over-acting is the wisest move you can make. But it's more than that. Keaton let his eyes tell the story. That's the mark of an excellent actor. His restraint, subtlety, and his anti-Beetlejuice persona were exactly what was needed. That's why the 1989 "Batman" is ultimately more enjoyable than the Dark Knight movies, and it's why Keaton is the standard that Affleck and future Batmen should aspire to.


  1. I went into this expecting to be upset over another mistreatment of Val Kilmer, but yeah, I think you're right on this.

    Side note: Val Kilmer might be the single most entertaining person on Twitter because he basically just doesn't even care.

    1. Oh, and check out Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang with Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. Great film.

    2. I have to confess: I am not familiar with "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang". I have heard the title before, but it sounded like, I dunno, Steven Seagal's description of a romantic evening or something, so I never watched it.

  2. While it most certainly did not have the same impact on Val Kilmer's career that it did for that of Robert Downey Jr., "Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang" features some quality Post-Batman work from Kilmer.

  3. Looks like JC beat me to the puinch with KKBB praise.

  4. I enjoyed Kilmer as Batman, but have to give Bale the nod.

  5. I'm one of those dedicated fans who would say Kevin Conroy was the best Batman. There's a freedom the animated series had that no live action version could duplicate. When something like emotional realism showed up, the audience was surprised. Every time. Because this was supposed to be a kid's cartoon. My issues with Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher versions is that they were more cartoonish than the cartoons. I might have to rewatch Michael Keaton's performance. I will agree that unlike anything else in that movie he did have it toned down. Thank goodness.

  6. Matt, two things:

    1. I left out Conroy simply because I am unfamiliar with his work.
    2. The 1989 Tim Burton Batman must be understood in context, and I'm pretty sure you were a kid then. Up till that time, Batman was two very different creatures: the campy guy from the 1960's series, and the dark guy from the comics. Burton bringing anything dark to the silver screen--anything that different from Adam West, was absolutely radical. In fact, one could say it paved the way for the Dark Knight to even be possible. Audiences would not have accepted the leap from Adam West to Dark Knight. Burton brought Batman about 75% there, which was really stretching things.

  7. Makes sense. My movie viewing was restricted, so the 1989 movie was sort of dark and forbidden to me at the time. Looking back it doesn't hold up as well for me though. I definitely hear what you're saying. It made the animated series possible, which (I think) paved the way for the Dark Knight on the big screen. By the time Nolen made Batman Begins even Justice League cartoons were telling darker more complex stories than the usual kid-friendly fare.

  8. I generally agree with your assessment, but I would put Bale over Keaton... And the reason I would do that, is that Keaton played the role, as billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, who adopted this Batman Persona to fight crime... While Bale portrayed the role as tortured Bruce Wayne, who not only has to adopt the Batman Persona, but adopt the but the Billionaire Playboy Persona...

  9. Michael Keaton will always be the best Batman to me. He's a fantastic underrated actor, did you see him in The Other Guys? I know, I know, but I love when he does comedy. And he reminds me so much of my dad so I'm sure that's why I love him so much more then others..maybe but he's still way under appreciated.