With yet another Batman movie upon us, it’s becoming clear that the adaptations simply aren’t going to stop.
Robert Pattinson has become the third actor to play the caped crusader on the big screen in just the last decade – fourth, if you count Will Arnett’s voice performance in the Lego films.
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The rapid pace of Batman reboots may cause some to roll their eyes now and then, and perhaps it is a little excessive. Nevertheless, it gives us plenty to talk about and debate, and isn’t that kind of what we want out of entertainment?
In that spirit, and with Pattinson’s interpretation here, we want to look back on the most prominent and noteworthy portrayals of Batman (slash Bruce Wayne), from the 1940s to the present.
Here, in our estimation are the Batman actors ranked from worst to best…
13. Lewis G. Wilson
Appeared In: ‘Batman’ film serial (1943)
We’ll say it right off the bat (sorry), there’s something charming about this 1943 serial – which today we’d probably just call a ‘limited series’. If you have any appreciation for ‘old-timey’ film and television, you might agree.
With that said however, Lewis G. Wilson is a pretty bizarre Batman. The first-ever Bat speaks with a pronounced New England accent, he carries himself with a sort of quiet arrogance more typical of James Bond than Bruce Wayne, and he’s…well, sort of a lumbering fellow.
There is some good here, too. The cocky factor makes the whole serial feel a little lighter, which particularly all these years later is probably necessary; an entirely self-serious Batman in a ‘40s action serial might be hard to engage with.
He’s also a pretty big guy – lumbering though he may be, he more or less works in action scenes. You can buy that he might beat up three inept bad guys at once (as he of course does at times).
Wilson may be our worst Batman out of the bunch, but all in all, it’s fine. It just doesn’t seem like it’s anything close to as good as they could have done adapting beloved comics even in 1943.
12. Adam West
Appeared In: ‘Batman’ TV series & film (1960s)
We have a sense that this will be the big upset of this list. There’s a sort of love fest surrounding Adam West’s ultra-campy, super-self-aware take on Batman. And to some extent we get it.
This ‘60s version of the caped crusader is legitimately funny even now, and West is a big reason why. It’s no easy task, we imagine (we won’t pretend to have any acting experience) to embody and mock a superhero protagonist at the same time.
But is West really a great Batman? This is where we kind of fall off the bandwagon, because he’s not really a Batman. It’s almost (not entirely) like suggesting Austin Powers was a great James Bond.
West’s tenure more or less amounted to a spoof, and while we recognize it’s what live action Batman was at the time, we have a slightly difficult time thinking of it that way now. No disrespect to West – he’s great at doing exactly what this series meant to do. He’s just more of a side Batman to us.
Plus, let’s be honest: Most of you reading in 2022 care about this portrayal largely because of Family Guy.
11. Val Kilmer
Appeared In: Batman Forever (1995)
There seems to be a near-universal consensus that George Clooney’s Batman in Batman & Robin was worse than Val Kilmer’s in Batman Forever. We’ll get to Clooney later, but let’s just say right now: we don’t get it.
Kilmer has one thing going for him as Batman, which is that he’s a believable athlete – even more so than his predecessor in Michael Keaton. Kilmer was a bona fide action star, and on paper, made some sense in the role. But for whatever reason, he chose not to bring any of the charisma he oozes in other roles into his work in Batman Forever.
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Kilmer’s portrayal is wooden and lifeless – not only in the suit, but as Bruce Wayne also. He virtually sleepwalks through this role. He’s also basically styled to look like Aaron Sorkin (if you haven’t seen it before, you will now!).
There’s a scene in Batman Forever in which Edward Nygma (slash Riddler) tries to butter Wayne up by suggesting – in a borderline-sarcastic manner – that Wayne is intelligent, witty, and charming. It’s clear that Nygma doesn’t actually believe these things. But in retrospect, it almost seems as if he’s actually mocking Kilmer’s portrayal.
We love Val Kilmer. Love him. He’s Iceman…Doc Holiday…he’s Chris Shiherlis in Heat! But in Batman Forever, he’s just not good.
10. David Mazouz
Appeared In: ‘Gotham’ TV series (2014 – 2019)
There’s something undeniably interesting about what the Gotham series did with Bruce Wayne. We’re used to origin stories, not just where Batman is concerned, but across the superhero genre in general. But we’re not really used to extended journeys through heroes’ childhoods.
Gotham stretches out the origin story into a full-fledged coming-of-age saga intertwined with Law & Order: Gotham City, and we actually love the concept, as well as the broad strokes of young Bruce’s development.
It’s frankly just a cool idea, and in execution, it manages to line up semi-believably with virtually every major portrayal of Batman. That doesn’t mean that his whole story could spiral into the Burton movies, the Dark Knight trilogy, or the Justice League saga; of course it couldn’t. But this Bruce Wayne serves as a reasonable depiction of what any number of other Batmen could have been like growing up.
The reason we don’t have Mazouz ranked a little higher is that there’s something about his approach that, from time to time, rubs us the wrong way. As much as we love the concept of the character, Mazouz makes him a little too calculating for our taste.
Cold, we buy; detached, too; maybe even a little creepy. But too often in this series, we get a bizarre sense that young Bruce is scanning the room, almost in a robotic way. Maybe we just like our Batman a little more erratic.
9. George Clooney
Appeared In: Batman and Robin (1997)
Yup. All the way up at the 9th spot in our ranking.
Do we think Clooney gave us a great Batman? Of course not. He admitted himself, more than once, that he screwed up the role. But is it that bad? (Okay fine, most of you are thinking, “yes, it is.” Whatever.)
We say, go back and watch Batman & Robin again, dive head-first into the campy nonsense of it, remember the fun of getting a Mr. Freeze toy with your Happy Meal, and ask yourself if it’s Clooney or… well, mostly everything else… that didn’t work.
Is it Clooney’s fault that he had to click his heels together to sprout go-go-gadget-ice-skates to fight the “hockey team from hell?” Was it Clooney who molded rubber nipples onto the Bat Suit?
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Here’s what we do like: He was reasonably athletic and capable of the action scenes, even if they happened to be ridiculous. He pretty much gave us a toned-down version of Clooney Charm when he’s not in the suit (his “I’m not the marrying kind” delivery is right out of the Danny Ocean playbook, even though Ocean wants to be married).
And the deep, slightly croaking voice that’s served him so well in other roles is probably the best natural Batman tone we’ve heard; he didn’t really have to dress it up.
Look, he’s not the best actor to play Batman. Like Kilmer, Clooney’s a little wooden and self-serious at times, and seems not to fully understand what kind of movie he’s in. He also has pretty awkward interplay with co-star Chris O’Donnell – who, incidentally, plays Robin with a paradoxical blend of earnestness and what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here befuddlement.
But Clooney is not all bad, and he’s certainly not worse than Kilmer.
8. Iain Glen
Appeared In: ‘Titans’ TV series (2018 – now)
Iain Glen’s Bruce Wayne in Titans sort of reminds us of Jude Law’s Albus Dumbledore in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald – which is to say our reaction is: “That’s not really the character…but I kind of like it?”
Law got the chance to portray a young Dumbledore when we never really met such a character in the Harry Potter books or movies. Glen goes the other way, portraying a sort of old and semi-retired Bruce Wayne in this series. And something about it just makes sense.
Working off of his Grizzled Veteran pedigree (which he so thoroughly established in Game Of Thrones), he’s entirely believable as a Bruce Wayne who got to step back and grow old (-ish) with his trauma.
He also feels a little bit like a loser, albeit one with a bit of wisdom. And when you think about it, isn’t that what any older superhero would feel like? At some point, wouldn’t any of them who stop have to have done so with unfinished business, un-righted wrongs, and new threats lurking unaddressed?
We’ll close out on Glen by borrowing from Polygon, because we love the way they put it: The actor “plays Bruce with the edgy sobriety of a former addict.” For us, that worked.
7. Robert Lowery
Appeared In: ‘Batman and Robin’ serial (1949)
We’ll repeat what we said about the Lewis G. Wilson serial, because to many of us in 2022, that version and the one from 1949 will come across similarly.
This is a fun, charming Batman outing for anyone who doesn’t mind dated, old-timey entertainment. And for our money, this ’49 one is actually a little cleverer and a little more cohesive than the Wilson series. It’s even, in a good way, a little more comic book-y…at one point a bad guy basically turns knobs on a machine for, like, an entire episode!
This series also has the better Batman. Robert Lowery is more athletic than Wilson, lacks the somewhat distracting New England accent, and is a far more believable action star. He completely pulls off dashing out of a grounded plane seconds before it crashes and chasing down bad guys straight from the sight; he fights on top of a train and looks like he’s in his element.
Of course you’re not getting modern action and fight choreography. But you do get a guy who can run and jump and throw a good punch. (To that point, Lowery also played in movies like The Mask Of Zorro (1940) and The Mummy’s Ghost (1944).)
As for the Bruce Wayne side of the role, we much prefer Lowery’s approach to that of Wilson. While we enjoy (as mentioned) the mild arrogance Wilson brought to the part, Lowery at times, plays Wayne with a hint of disdain that – we think it’s fair to say – has become a core element of the character in cinematic portrayals.
6. Ben Affleck
Appeared In: ‘Justice League’ films (2016-2021)
Our Ben Affleck argument is a little bit like our Clooney one. We get that this is not a beloved portrayal, and we definitely don’t think it’s great. But again, is it that bad?
Here though, the reasoning doesn’t require much nuance. For us, it’s simple: Ben Affleck is a pretty good Bruce Wayne and a pretty bad Batman.
As Wayne, Affleck takes a swing at a somewhat over-the-hill Batman – beefy but bruised, getting older, and more or less completely exhausted by the world. He’s sort of the classic past-his-prime hero pulled in for one last job, and personally, we buy it!
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Affleck has had an absolute roller coaster of peaks and valleys in his career, but he can act, and particularly up against the bulk of his DCEU cast mates, it shows. This Bruce Wayne makes perfect sense, and we completely get what Affleck was going for – and mostly pulled off.
As Batman, he’s ridiculous and, basically, terrible. The suit is more Iron Man than Batman, the voice comes across like an unintentional parody of Christian Bale’s, and the combat is clumsy. Oh, and he uses guns. Lots of guns (*Keanu voice*).
It’s kind of just a mess…as if Bruce Wayne found some Hulkbuster armor in the basement and went late-24 Jack Bauer on us. BUT, this is all mostly Zack Snyder’s fault. We actually think Affleck does a pretty good job.
5. Will Arnett
Appeared In: ‘The Lego Movie’ films (2014 & 2017)
How can we rank Will Arnett in 5th place for a complete spoof when we ranked Adam West 12th on the grounds that he’s not really a true Batman? You know what? We don’t know if we have a terrific answer for that.
But we think the difference is that Arnett’s Lego Batman feels a little more justified. Maybe West’s did too, at the time, but from a present-day perspective, we just don’t know that a spoof-y Batman was needed with only the ‘40s serials and the comics to go off of. The serials were campy enough in their own right. That doesn’t mean West’s work wasn’t funny (it was and is!), but again, it seems more like a detached comedy.
Lego Batman, on the other hand, feels a lot more like a direct response to the Batman films released from 1989 through 2012. It’s still a side comedy, but it feels more necessary – as if we’d all gotten Batman portrayals so clearly lodged in our heads, it was about time for someone to make fun of them all.
Mostly though, we’ll be honest: We just can’t get enough of Will Arnett’s voice acting in his roles as Lego Batman. The guy’s voice just radiates absurdity and sarcasm – to the point that when you listen to his podcast, it’s almost jarring to hear him read ads for things like mental health apps, because it sounds like he’s joking.
The voice is also naturally deep, which makes it easy for Arnett to pull off a sort of Batman quality reminiscent of other portrayals, without losing the humor. It’s just a really fun take on the character, even if it’s not a serious one.
4. Kevin Conroy
Appeared In: ‘The Animated Series’ & others (1990s-now)
It’s somewhat surprising to us that we have two animated Batman actors ranked in our top five, but there’s really no denying Kevin Conroy’s excellent work through a number of different animated Batman projects.
As Wayne, Conroy opts for a sort of classic Good Guy Voice toned down just enough to suit the character. There’s a hint of Barrel-Chested Old-Timey Captain America-ish Protagonist Tone (you know what we mean), but Conroy doesn’t quite go all the way there. It’s an ideal approach for a superhero trapped in a stressed-out billionaire’s persona.
Conroy’s Batman, meanwhile, comes with a sharper edge that frankly seems to be what every Batman actor has aimed for but either fallen short of or taken to a comical extent.
Unfortunately, Conroy’s work seems to exist in the shadow of Mark Hamill’s much-acclaimed Joker. And to be sure, voice acting the Joker involves more highlights that people can point to; I mean, Hamill gets to cackle maniacally. But we sort of think Conroy is every bit as good.
3. Michael Keaton
Appeared In: Tim Burton Batman films (1989 – 1992)
We almost hate that we’re down to Keaton in the top three spots, because…of course, right? Not exactly original. Then again, why fight reality?
Keaton’s Batman is terrific. The hushed voice works, and makes for a brilliant contrast with the generally over-the-top Gotham crafted by Tim Burton. He weaves through shadows and just about whispers, while the likes of the Joker (Jack Nicholson) and the Penguin (Danny DeVito) loudly and garishly seize the spotlight. And yet, this Batman is also up to the fight in a wholly believable way whenever he has to be.
We’re slightly less sold on Keaton’s Bruce Wayne. We like the character, and we think he establishes a suitable persona – comfortable in his billionaire shoes but not particularly concerned with keeping them on. He seems at ease in the part. But he doesn’t quite seem like he’s the same guy we see in the suit. Maybe that’s a good thing in a sense, but Keaton’s Wayne almost comes across as being a little slight, or fragile.
He also loses a few points for having no romantic chemistry whatsoever with his counterparts – particularly Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale in Batman. Romantic chemistry isn’t really a requirement in the role, but Burton’s movies aimed for it, and should be judged accordingly.
2. Robert Pattinson
Appeared In: ‘The Batman’ (2022)
Our expectations were low when we heard that Edward Cullen was swapping his vampire fangs for bat wings. But after watching The Batman, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that Robert Pattinson has grown as an actor since his Twilight days.
Indeed, Pattinson is a fantastic Caped Crusader – the second-best to our surprise. Out of all Bat-men, he brings the most glum and gloomy intensity (and perhaps most accurate) to the role and understandably so, as he is clearly mentally and physically exhausted from his wretched past.
More goth than playboy billionaire, this Bruce Wayne is a tortured soul, with his dark eye-makeup and messy side-parted greasy hair. He’s not as bulky as expected for a superhero, but his performance as the Dark Knight makes up for it.
Still not recovered from his parents’ death, driven by vengeance and eager to unmask the Riddler who torments Gotham and himself, this Batman is a straight-up dark detective. He keeps us glued to the screen as though we’re watching a gripping thriller mystery, and his fight scenes are brilliant. Let’s not forget his outstanding eye-acting behind the mask (yes, that’s a thing).
Bruce Wayne is broody and emotional, and his Batman is equally sullen and somber, which provides for a magnetizing overall performance as the Dark Knight. Showing instances of vulnerability and weakness at times, he clearly isn’t as fully fledged as the other Bat-men before him, but he *hopefully* has more days as Batman ahead of him to become fully confident in his role. We do hope there will be more from this Bat as we’d love to see the growth of his version. Kudos to Pattinson!
1. Christian Bale
Appeared In: ‘The Dark Knight’ trilogy (2005 – 2012)
And then there’s Bale – arguably the best Batman actor, the most talented to have assumed the mantle, and a Dark Knight who seems to borrow the best from the rest.
He’s got the action chops and the physical bulk. He has the familiar disdain for the outside world, but he can slip on the billionaire act when he needs to. Bale can brood with the best of them, yet be believably heroic a few scenes later. And he still has the character depth of, say, Glen or Mazouz – which is to say he seems like a human being.
Sure, the voice is ridiculous, and will always feel like an odd choice. And perhaps Bale’s Batman could do with a touch more humor (though particularly in Batman Begins, there’s more than you might remember).
He also gets outshone by villains on occasion (we’d even argue Tom Wilkinson blows him off the screen early in the trilogy) – but that’s practically a Batman tradition. Point is, even Bale’s is not a perfect performance. But all things considered, we do think it’s the best we’ve seen.
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To wrap this up, we’ll say how we really feel: We actually don’t think we’ve seen a great Batman. Not yet.
There’s a ton to enjoy in Batman’s history on screen. Some projects in the movie saga have been terrific, and most have at least been fun. But portrayals of the DC hero are flawed across the board, and we can’t say there’s been one that stands out as a definitive triumph.
Some – we’ll say our top three rankings – have been very good. But it feels like we’re still waiting on the guy who will put on the suit and show us the best-ever Batman we never even realized we were waiting for.
What’s your take on our list? Let us know your thoughts and have a go at ranking all Batman actors in the comment section below…
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Michael Keaton > Bale for me!
I would just switch Bale at 2 and Keaton at 1 ( Sentimental reasons) but, the rest of your list I agree with and for some strange reason I think Affleck pulled this off.