Wednesday, July 18, marks the ten-year anniversary of The Dark Knight, the most universally beloved Batman movie ever made (and arguably the best superhero film of all time). In spite of the Caped Crusader’s seventy-year career on the big screen, few people would argue against The Dark Knight as the most thoughtful, cohesive, and downright kickass of all the Batman flicks.
It wins alone on the combined strength of Heath Ledger’s stirring performance as the Joker and that one bit where they flip a semi in the middle of downtown Chicago.
However, there was one aspect of The Dark Knight that didn’t get universal praise: the Batman himself. The film’s lead, Christian Bale, still gets heckled because of his silly-gruff take on the Batman’s voice. No amount of cinematic perfection over the course of The Dark Knight can make up for the fact that Bale is a middling Batman. He gets the job done, but in the grand scheme of the actors who wore the cowl, he’s not even top three.
Fun fact: In 1943, Batman got an eponymous 15-part theatrical serial starring Lewis Clark. In 1949, Robert Lowery was cast as the Caped Crusader in Batman and Robin, another adventure told in 15-parts.
Boring fact: I have seen neither of the above films, and I do not plan to. So, in essence, the list below is sadly incomplete. Deal with it.
The marvelous pictures below have been borrowed from animus vox on Tumblr.
8. Val Kilmer
Traditionally, the bottom spot on these rankings goes to George Clooney. That doesn’t seem entirely fair; Clooney just happened to get stuck in one of the worst Batman outings ever. More on that in a second. Let’s stay focused on Kilmer, who did work as Batman in 1995’s Batman Forever.
As opposed to Clooney, whose performance is derailed from facing down two lackluster baddies, Kilmer’s performance is buoyed by the fact that he performed opposite the incomparable Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey doing a Riddler so scary good no filmmaker has dared go near the character since.
As the Dark Knight, however, Kilmer sucks. He’s smug as Bruce Wayne and stiff as the Batman. The AV Club put it bluntly, writing, “in Batman Forever, Kilmer looks cold and dead.”
Kilmer was reportedly a dick on set, and his temperamental behavior translates to the screen in a performance that is boring to watch from beginning to end.
7. George Clooney
Okay, yes, 1997’s Batman and Robin is an awful movie. But don’t try to take George Clooney’s performance away from the guy just because his rubber suit had nipples. God love him, he’s trying his very best to meet Joel Schumacher’s tongue-in-cheek version of Batman. He acquits himself nicely as a hero thinking about his age, and he works overtime to make the rest of the movie’s crap dialogue work.
The problem in Batman and Robin isn’t George Clooney (or his nipples). It’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was in full-on diva mode for the film. He insisted the costume department paint his Cubans white so he could smoke on screen. He said he’d shave his head for the part, only to back out at the last minute. He insisted his lines be changed to their awful, pun-heavy versions.
Clooney’s trying. It’s really not his fault.
6. Will Arnett
If you don’t mind taking some pot shots at your friendly neighborhood Batman, then Will Arnett’s obnoxious turn as Bruce Wayne in The Lego Batman Movie is as good as superhero flicks get. The knowing movie has the same infectious spirit as its predecessor, only this time around the flick is packed with comic book in-jokes crafted for nerds of all ages.
The whole thing wouldn’t work without Arnett killing it as a new kind of Batman: the rich a-hole. It’s a fresh take on the character that may not be easy to love but who’s really fun to resent.
5. Ben Affleck
It took a very long, personal journey to get from “Not My Batman” Bat-fleck to “Okay, maybe Ben Affleck isn’t the worst Bruce Wayne ever.” My wife still hasn’t gotten there. It’s caused arguments.
That deep prejudice against Affleck even considering portraying Batman aside, when you look at Affleck’s muscle-bound Caped Crusader, you can appreciate the homage to Frank Miller’s time writing and drawing some of the best Batman stories ever told. Affleck’s gravitas fits into Zack Snyder’s grim world, and even his tech modulated BatVoice isn’t awful.
As much as I still wish Karl Urban had gotten the role, the Batman we have isn’t the worst Batman out there.
4. Christian Bale
When Christian Bale initially auditioned for the role of Batman, it was the growly, gravelly voice he used while wearing the cape and cowl that ultimately won him the part. When he got home later and showed his wife the work, however, she exclaimed, “Oh, you f—ed that one up, didn’t you?”
So, you’re not the only one who thought Bale’s laughable BatVoice was stupid. On screen, Bale’s initial skepticism about playing some dude who runs around in a rubber suit came across. At least, it never seemed like Bale got into the part so much as he was content to do a softer, gentler Patrick Bateman for the audience.
Though he’s serviceable in Nolan’s masterful vision, Bale’s half-hearted performance as Batman never rose to the same heights as the villains over who he triumphed.
3. Adam West
When Adam West’s Batman debuted on the small screen, the plans were already in place to have his gonzo take on the Caped Crusader make the leap to the big screen. That’s why 1966’s Batman: The Movie just feels like one long episode of the cult classic TV show. That’s what it is. Those trappings still can’t stop Batman: The Movie from being awesome.
In the 50-plus years since the film’s release critics have come to understand the movie for the winking, but informed comedy that it is. In spite of infectious performances from Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, and Frank Gorshin as the movie’s villains, Adam West never falls into the background. West’s BatVoice is built right in, and his delightful performance is somehow sincere and knowing in equal measure.
Adam West is fun to watch as the Caped Crusader, and he sticks the landing when it comes to his director’s (or in this case, producer’s) vision. And for that, he gets number three.
2. Kevin Conroy
Though he’s never actually appeared in person on screen, Kevin Conroy is the world’s go-to voice when it comes to animating Batman. From the moment he slipped into the recording booth for 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series, he proved himself one of the most talented performers to assume the role of Bruce Wayne.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm reinforced that notion, and the subsequent work that Conroy has done in countless adaptations from video games to television series cemented it.
Few people on the planet can balance stone-cold toughness with brief glimpses of the scared little kid hiding inside Bruce Wayne. Conroy’s take is on Wayne is cool vulnerability, and year after year it never gets old.
1. Michael Keaton
He may not have been the first Batman, but Michael Keaton’s performance as Bruce Wayne remains unequaled. When most actors who step into the suit ask themselves, “What kind of person runs around fighting crime in a rubber suit?” They often come up blank. Michael Keaton found an answer.
What kind of person runs around fighting crime in a rubber suit? A crazy person.
Over the course of two films directed by Tim Burton, Michael Keaton embraced his manic side and in doing so, he rivaled his rogue’s gallery for sheer insanity. And it just … fit.
Too often, actors get caught up in Batman the public servant or Batman the superhero. Keaton’s Batman had all that, also, but to date, he’s the only actor to embrace the full truth of Bruce Wayne’s secret identity. People who like public service become teachers. People who want to be a hero become police officers and firefighters.
People who want to do all that but who determine that the right way forward is to learn kung fu and dress up in bondage gear are nuts. Comic books have been trying to tell us as much for decades, but only Michael Keaton has gotten the memo.
And for that, we will cherish his time under the cape and cowl forever.