Sunday, March 20, 2022

Sunday Best: Ranking the Cinematic Batmen


Ten years ago I ranked the Batman movies.  At the time there were only eight.  Now there have been twelve (if you count the two version of Justice League as two movies and don't count Joker).

Rather than re-rank the movies, I thought we should look back at the eight men who have portrayed the Caped Crusader and rank their interpretations of the character.

To be clear, this is not necessarily a critique of their acting ability.  Sometimes great actors turn in bad performances or they are directed to perform in a way that does not translate well on screen.  This is also not a critique necessarily of the films themselves, but only of the portrayal of Batman in their individual movies.

8.  George Clooney

Batman & Robin poster.jpg

The fact that his only performance as Batman is in the worst Batman movie ever made is incidental.  Clooney is a fine actor, but he doesn't do any real acting here.  As horrible as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Uma Thurman are, they at least give every ounce of their energy to creating their characters.  Clooney reads his lines like he is a guest host on Saturday Night Live doing a Batman sketch.  It is a completely empty performance.

7.  Val Kilmer
Theatrical release poster featuring Batman and various characters from the film.

Say what you will about Val Kilmer, but he can act.  Hot off the heals of Tombstone, Kilmer was tapped to take over for Michael Keaton.  If he had brought any of that danger he had as Doc Holiday, then he would rank much higher on this list.  But everything about his Batman feels artificial and robotic.  Unlike Clooney, Kilmer is trying to create a performance, but it is a complete artifice: all surface with nothing underneath it.

6.  Adam West


Over my many years, I have gone back and forth on my feelings about the Sixties era Batman.  As a child, I loved it.  As a teen, I hated it.  As an older man, I can see its appeal and charm, though it is not for me.  Like Clooney and Kilmer, West portrayed Batman in an overly silly and comical tone.  But unlike them, West gave himself over completely to character and created something iconic, whether you like the icon or not.  His voice is unmistakeable and performance is so dead-pan dramatic that you can't help but admire his commitment to the bit.

5.  Kevin Conroy

Batman mask of the phantasm poster.jpg

The only reason why Conroy is not higher on this list is that his portrayal is limited to his voice.  But Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is such a fantastic Batman movie in part because of what Conroy is able to make us feel about the character using only that one acting tool.  His voice is distinctive that to this day people still keep coming back to him to voice the Dark Knight.  Other voice actors have tried to follow in his footsteps, but no one has been able to match him.

4.  Christian Bale

The Dark Knight (2008 film).jpg

Bale's performance as Batman over the course of The Dark Knight Trilogy was very good.  We got to see him evolve from angry young loner to super hero to broken veteran.  I love watching the wild-eyed anger in him as he approaches Joe Chill to kill him.  There is an understanding that being Batman means being close to madness, but it also means having the nobility to stop from going over the edge.  His "Batman-voice" has become so ubiquitous that whenever people do Batman impressions, they turn to him.  

3. Robert Pattinson

The Batman (film) poster.jpg

This may be my most controversial choice here.  It is possible that the freshness of Pattinson's performance is making me weigh him more heavily.  But there was such a fire-like intensity to everything Pattinson did in his turn as Batman that I haven't seen in anyone else.  Unlike other Batmen, for Pattinson, there really is no Bruce Wayne persona: he simply is Batman all the time, with or without the mask.  In every scene he is in, the rage at the injustice of losing his parents burns through him.  Already within two years of starting, he is overwhelmed with a weary cynicism, but that fire still burns so brightly.  You can feel his near-insanity, even more-so than in Bale's performance, which is why I have ranked him ahead.

2.  Michael Keaton

Batman returns poster2.jpg

I remember so vividly my initial reaction to the casting of Michael Keaton as Batman back in the 1980's:  "They cast 'Mr. Mom?'"

And yet, Keaton is one of the most revered portrayers of Batman and with good reason.  Five years ago I wrote: "It was Keaton's idea to give him the lower-registered voice that has become standard in our portrayals of the Dark Knight.  He gave him his cool and distant demeanor.Watch Keaton's performance when he is not playing 'Bruce Wayne' and he is simply inhabiting Bruce's world.  He is stoic and restrained."

You can see this best in the moment he leaves the roses where his parents were killed.  Keaton plays the moment with perfect restraint while letting you feel the hidden depths of emotion.  And when is Batman, you completely believe his ferocity, focus, and power.  The only reason he is not higher on the list is that he would sometimes slip into his familiar "crazy guy" schtick and he would feel a bit more like Beetlejuice than Batman.

1. Ben Affleck

The two titular heroes, Batman and Superman, are confronting each other, with the film's logo behind them, and the film's title, credits, release date and billing below.

Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows that I think the world of Affleck's Batman.  As an avid comic book reader, his Batman is the one that most closely resembles the Batman that I've spent years reading about.  

In the past I've written: "I know I may get some hate for this, but Ben Affleck's Batman is the best representation of the comic book Batman I have ever seen on the big screen.  This is not a knock against Michael Keaton or Christian Bale.  But Affleck's Batman is a grizzled, war-scared veteran of the war on crime; he is a hulking wall of muscle that seethes with righteous rage, and he projects a sharp intelligence.  The killing part is still very problematic, but otherwise it is like the Batman from the comic books came to life on the screen."

Affleck did everything to bring this version of Batman to life and he embodies all of the best aspects of the other performances into one.


How would you rank the cinematic Batmen?

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