In October, in a conversation with TV host Jimmy Kimmel, Michael Keaton declared his 1989 and 1992 roles in Batman and Batman Returns as the best versions. But why rely on insider bias when you can have outsider bias instead? Choose from our shortlist.
Lewis G Wilson: The first actor to wear the Batsuit, in the 1943 TV show The Batman. There wasn’t much of a character to work with — Batman had only been in comics for about five years. But Lewis had what has become a subtle prerequisite for every actor since: a fantastic jawline to balance out that mask.
Adam West: The ’90s kid will remember the ’60s show and movie that brought the ’50s comics to life. Adam West and Burt Ward were Batman and Robin at their campiest (Kapow! Pow!). Incidentally, Christian Bale lists Adam West as his favourite Batman.
Michael Keaton: Here’s where it starts to get interesting. Tim Burton directs, Jack Nicholson is the Joker, and the world is starting to get serious about comic-book characters. The 1989 film Batman presented a Gotham visually and morally askew, with Keaton, dashing, mysterious, cool, donning the cape of hope. It did so well, Keaton reprised his role in the sequel, fighting Penguin and romancing Catwoman. It’s the franchise that taught Hollywood how to market superhero films.
Kevin Conroy: Who? The actor is heard but never seen. Conroy voiced the critically acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series in the 1990s, a show that set the tone for Nolan’s darker trilogy to come. He’s been in every series in the DC Animated Universe, plus a series of video games. If you thought acting with a mask was hard, Conroy’s been doing it without ever showing his face.
Val Kilmer. All these years later, it seems this is the only Kilmer role anyone remembers. And yet, when he signed on for 1995’s Batman Forever after Michael Keaton dropped out, everyone was jittery. Kilmer, however, gave Batman a suave, modern feel, moving gracefully in that foam-rubber suit. The film made more than the Keaton ones.
George Clooney: He had a single dreadful outing in the suit, in Batman and Robin (1997). Clooney has apologised several times for ruining the character in the one-dimensional one-liner-laden dud. To be fair, he wasn’t even the worst thing in the film (that would be the campy villains). But the nipples on his costume certainly helped sink it.
Christian Bale: The Batsuit is military-grade, the Batmobile is a tank, Gotham looks like a nightmare version of Chicago. Christopher Nolan makes no room for glossy levity in the 2005 Batman Begins (or the rest of the trilogy). Bale as Batman takes a serious beating, gets serious workouts, and looks serious even when Bruce Wayne parties with ballerinas on a yacht in the middle of the ocean. Bale’s performances acknowledge Batman’s burdens — the Wayne family baggage, the cost of being a vigilante, the unrelenting nature of evil. It results in a combination rarely seen in mainstream Hollywood — an emotionally satisfying character in cape and tights.
Ben McKenzie: Voicing Bruce / Batman in a Frank Miller story, Batman: Year One, means preparing for a dark and stormy role. Bruce is young in the 2011 animated film. Gotham has teen prostitutes, dominatrixes, corrupt officials and trigger-happy cops. MacKenzie keeps Bruce fallible enough that viewers know Batman is not superhuman.
Will Arnett: When all you have are Lego blocks, being Batman can be tough. But Will Arnett delivers a stubbornly gruff, macho cameo, hilariously at odds with the cheery wholesome Lego Movie (2014) and its sequel (2019). He gets his own film, The Lego Batman Movie, in 2017. Again, with just his growling voice, he gives Batman depth, loneliness, complications and moral conflicts that would stump most on-screen actors.
Ben Affleck: He’d already had a disastrous outing in a skintight suit with Daredevil (2003). But Affleck’s competition was not with himself but all the Batmen before. His roles in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Suicide Squad (2016) and Justice League (2017) put the superhero to work. The fights, drawn from Arkham game series, are more physically dangerous. He’s jaded, cagier and less of a loner, navigating new dynamics with superhero friends.
Robert Pattinson: In the trailers for the 2021 film, The Batman is just as unyielding but even more dishevelled. Pattinson’s “I am vengeance” line echoes Conroy’s in the animated series. But the smudged eyeliner and bad haircut have no precedent. Neither does the air of menace. What is he up to?