For years debates have raged as to which silver screen live-action portrayal of Batman is the best. For 30-somethings, the answer seems to be more often Michael Keaton of Batman (1989) and its sequel Batman Returns (1992), while 20-somethings seem more attached to Christian Bale in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy between 2005 and 2012. When we posed the question to our loyal readers via Facebook recently, the response was passionate and en masse, but the debate remained open, Keaton and Bale matching one another’s appeal to top the poll with some 70% of the overall voting, the likes of Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Ben Affleck and classic Batman himself Adam West seemingly falling fowl to headlining vastly less popular franchises.
In this edition of Ranked, we’re looking to settle the debate (or more likely pour fuel onto the fire) once and for all, taking into account the popular consensus, our passionate readers, the artistry behind each portrayal and the accuracy in which each actor managed to channel the energy of both Batman and Bruce Wayne. In this list, it doesn’t matter how good the films were, it only matters how well the Batmen Batmanned.
We know you’ve probably come here to have your opinion validated, so whether you agree or disagree, make sure to let us know in the comments!
6. George Clooney
If you ever want to see an actor completely checked out of what he’s doing, then look no further than George Clooney in Batman & Robin (1997).
Starring in the 2nd Joel Schumacher entry to the franchise and probably the most ill-received Batman movie ever, Clooney was always going to be at a disadvantage when it came to the great Batman portrayals, but in watching him (very) closely in Batman & Robin it’s clear to see that he already knew what a disaster the whole thing was bound to be.
Largely vacant and seemingly only temporarily awake, Clooney floated through the film with such a lack of intensity that you’re left to wonder if the Bat-nipples became a part of his outfit just to cover for his absence of actual enthusiasm.
5. Val Kilmer
Suffering from an unfortunate case of the Schumachers, Val Kilmer’s portrayal of the Dark Knight was diminished courtesy of the poor material he was given, which is largely why he has landed at this position on the list.
It’s not that Kilmer was necessarily bad. In fact, he was actually a lot better as Batman than Batman Forever (1995) was at being a Batman movie, and he was clearly adept at mixing the different takes on Batman (intense, camp, funny) in amongst Schumacher’s cartoonish landscape of colour and spectacle. He’s also undeniably the winner of the unofficial “Best Batman Chin” award, so let’s give the man his due.
The arguments against Kilmer come in the shape and form of his Clooney-levels of poseriffic and how his version of Batman often faded into the background behind the undeniably more interesting (albeit obnoxious and ridiculous) Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones, both of whom were turned up to 11 for their roles as Riddler and Two-Face respectively.
Kilmer offered quite a distinctive rendition of Batman and deserves more credit than he’s given, but that doesn’t mean he offered anything close to something classic. In the pantheon of DC movie history, nobody is going to remember Val Kilmer as the best Batman of all time.
4. Ben Affleck
Despite how fleeting Ben Affleck’s run as Batman seems to have been, the veteran actor of some 20+ years has actually clocked the most big screen appearances as the Bat (joint with Christian Bale) having starred in three movies: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Suicide Squad (2016) and Justice League (2017).
Acknowledged as one of the few universally appreciated aspects of BvS, Affleck established a brooding Bruce Wayne that complimented the resourcefulness of his Batman character, the subtle nods he gave to Batman’s unhealthy psyche helping to drive investment in him, his feud and the film as a whole – in doing so, he helped us all to get over our initial unhappiness at his appointment to the role.
In fact, he was so great at playing both Bruce Wayne and Batman in BvS that he would likely have ranked higher on this list if he hadn’t been “cheered up” for Justice League, a movie in which his characterisation was seemingly completely at odds with all we’d come to expect or indeed know of him from the previous two movies. So far as intense, brooding, dark and gritty Batman goes, Affleck produced something quite remarkable in a divisive movie and deserves praise in that regard, but his legacy will always be tainted by the reception of his films and indeed his character’s evolution.
3. Adam West
Adam West is, to the Clooney and Kilmer Batmen at least, a God.
His effortless merging of a family friendly, holier than thou fire-and-rescue version of Batman was close to perfection, his almost deadpan delivery of outlandish and hilarious lines gifting his version of the character sincerity even within the absurdity of all that was going on. West’s Batman was trustworthy, a good man – and we all need someone like that in our lives from time to time.
The reason for West’s unfortunate Bronze medal position on this list is not really due to him… it’s because the actors to come were simply required to offer more. More than zany fun and a hint of sincerity, the actors to come were challenged to find deep, dark connections to a more serious and challenged persona, leaving West (unfortunately for him and Batman (1966) lovers everywhere) out in the cold.
2. Michael Keaton
As eluded to in the introduction to this article, the common consensus agrees that Michael Keaton and Christian Bale are the two best Batmen of all time. In this list, we’re ranking Keaton at number 2… sorry Keatonites.
The reasons are simple…
First of all, Keaton only played Batman twice. Sure, this is through no fault of his own, but when judging Keaton’s task at portraying the character development of Gotham’s Dark Knight in comparison to that of Bale (who played Batman from his origin to his retirement across three films), it’s clear that Keaton’s task was not quite as large as his younger counterpart.
Second of all, the requirements upon Keaton to maintain a toy-friendly face for the corporate overlords to sell was of detriment to the sincerity of his performance. Full Keaton could have been magic, and this was damn close, but close doesn’t get you the cigar.
This isn’t to dismiss Keaton’s contribution however. The Tim Burton collaborator had to re-establish Batman in a post-West world, rooting him in a more brooding and gothic sensibility while remaining likeable. He knocked both Batman and Bruce Wayne out of the park, and to many he always will be the true Batman. We can’t deny you that… this truly was the closest of calls.
1. Christian Bale
Much more of an intense and challenging Batman than a charming and/or witty Bruce Wayne, Christian Bale’s rendition of the famous DC hero was one rooted in trauma and fully encased within a mindset that these Batman films would be more than “silly old superhero movies”.
Having direction from someone as accomplished as Christopher Nolan, and headlining a cast that is almost incomparable from Batman Begins to The Dark Knight Rises, Bale was given all of the tools he needed to produce the goods, and produce them he did.
Like Kilmer, Bale was perhaps outshone as the titular character for one of his films, The Dark Knight, in which Heath Ledger (who played the Joker) was the biggest on-screen force. Unlike Kilmer however, this seemed as if it was by design, the middle act of Bale’s Batman trilogy needing the Caped Crusador to take a loss (mental, spiritual and physical) in order to set up his triumphant The Dark Knight Rises return, and his character therefore taking a backseat to the evils overcoming his hometown in the middle instalment.
With some of the most quotable lines of all time and a voice people still mimic to this day, Bale’s Batman became a pop culture icon, the actor’s physical transformation and overall commitment to the role mimicking that of Bruce Wayne’s on the screen, his unique and terrific cinematic representation being one that has stuck with the actor ever since even in spite of his reputable and prolific post-Batman career.
By his fingertips, Christian Bale is our ultimate Batman.
But those are just our thoughts. What do you think? Let us know in the comments.