Batman has become one of the most prolific roles in modern fiction. Countless actors have lent their talents in order to bring the Caped Crusader to life. It would be impossible to sort through the dozens upon dozens of iterations of the character and choose a definitive version. However, we can narrow our search down to very specific criteria. Today, we’ll be doing just that. We’re going to take a look at all the actors who have played Bruce Wayne in a theatrically wide-released feature film. To clarify, this means we won’t be accounting for the two serials from 1943 and 1949 or any animated features that had a limited engagement. These are the Batman films that went out across the country and audiences had the easiest access to.
Without further ado, let’s decide once and for all who is the best big screen Batman.
Films: Batman: The Movie (1966)
Adam West is the person who brought Batman into the big time. The television series which ran for two years was a cultural atom bomb. Eventually, the producers decided to create a feature film to capitalize on the show’s popularity. The movie is intentionally campy gold and must-see material for any true Batfan.
But, we’re not here to judge the movie. How is Adam West’s portrayal? It’s important to remember that West is playing a sillier, purposefully over-the-top version of the character. His stilted line readings and hammy bravado are completely intentional. On those grounds, West is an inarguable success. Be that as it may, that probably won’t be the “truest” version of the character that most fans want. It is worth noting that West’s Batman isn’t the only comedic take on this list. If this was an award for the Batman who was the most fun, West would win hands down.
And how about his Bruce Wayne? Batman’s alter ego should be a focus of these of deliberations. West plays Bruce with the suaveness of James Bond. He’s a self-aware charmer and a hopeless romantic. We actually get a lot of Bruce in this movie as he becomes ensnared by a Russian reporter who is actually Catwoman in disguise. This is definitely a Bruce Wayne for the sixties, though it’s hard to deny his playboy charms.
It’s impossible to deny West’s impact and legacy on the character. That certainly factors into his eventual standing.
Tim Burton‘s approach to Batman put the “dark” back in Dark Knight. Accordingly, his version of Bruce Wayne dropped the “Bam! Pow!” exuberance of Adam West’s version. Keaton’s Batman is a soft-spoken creature who prefers to let his actions to the talking. You get the sense that this Batman only talks when he finds it absolutely necessary. It makes his words mean more.
Keaton’s casting was immensely controversial at the time. Fans thought that the primarily comedic actor was going to tarnish this more serious take on the character. That’s a lesson that fans should try and remember when they get perturbed at some casting news. Keaton does have a few moments of comedy, but he knows when to be quiet and let his costume and aura speak for him.
Burton wanted to cast someone who looked like they needed to dress up as a bat to be imposing. Keaton certainly nails that. He’s by far the most nebbish Bruce Wayne that has ever graced the big screen. But, this gives Keaton an edge when it comes to playing the stunted boy that Bruce has always been. His eyes alone are incredibly expressive. This comes across much more in Batman Returns than it does Keaton’s first outing.
For a certain generation, there is no other actor who better portrayed Gotham City’s defender. Whether or not that has withstood the test of time remains to be seen.
Films: Batman Forever (1995)
After Burton’s grim sequel to the 1989 smash hit, Warner Bros. decided that the franchise needed to lighten up. Director Joel Schumacher attempted to inject ’90s sensibilities into the ’60s version of Batman. Whether or not he succeeded is an argument for another time, but it adds an interesting bit of context when discussing the casting of Val Kilmer.
Kilmer’s Batman feels like a continuation of Keaton’s. This makes his stoic and straightforward take on Batman clash with the hyper-charged world he inhabits. It’s worth noting that Bruce’s character arc is fairly serious for such a silly picture. His clashing feelings about his dual personalities lead to some surprisingly dark subject material. There was even a deleted scene that directly lifted from The Empire Strikes Back in which Bruce had to face a manifestation of his darker side. And let’s not get into the more complicated sexual dynamics of the film.
To be fair, it’s hard to argue for Kilmer when the film opens with a joke about getting drive-thru. And the two tones of the film often lead to Kilmer’s performance being dictated by a specific scene instead of an overall approach to the character. Kilmer is at his best when he’s allowed to play things with some level of nuance, and it’s a genuine shame he never got another shot at playing Batman.
Kilmer deserves some reappraisal but his version will probably be reserved for an honorable mention.
Films: Batman & Robin (1997)
It was unavoidable.
You can’t completely blame George Clooney though. He was obviously hired to drum up some serious star power for this toy commercial of a film. He flirts with channeling Adam West from time to time but never successfully or consistently.
In his defense, Clooney might be the best looking Batman. His square-jawed swagger and effortless charisma make him feel like the perfect embodiment of Neal Adams‘ ‘7os comic version. If he had been in a better movie, Clooney may have had a shot.
But he’s not in a better movie and he does very little besides play himself. There’s no change in his vocal performance when he switches from Bruce to Batman. His tender moments involving Alfred don’t land as strongly as they should. Most damning of all, he doesn’t try anything new with the character. The previous actors all brought something unique to the table, even if it didn’t work in the long run. Clooney does nothing interesting worth elevating him in any way.
A disappointing last place. This is the guy from O Brother, Where Art Thou? for goodness sake! He shouldn’t have been put in such a misfire.
Bale is easily the most intense actor to take on the role at this point. He throws himself into Bruce Wayne’s life with nary a hint of self-awareness. In his mind, Bale is Batman. This leads to some of the best dramatic acting that the role has seen, but time has not been kind to Bale’s performance. His raspy voice, a ferocious monster’s growl in Batman Begins, has become the source of endless parody. It’s a bummer because those initial moments with Batman interrogating Detective Flass are fantastic. It’s the first time Batman felt like a man possessed by something truly scary.
Honestly, Bale gets a lot of credit due to being in the right place at the right time. Christopher Nolan created such excellently crafted films that some of Bale’s awkward moments get lost in the shuffle. The world and tone of The Dark Knight trilogy help sell this Batman, maybe even more than the person in the suit.
The one arena where Bale excels is when he gets to be the Bruce Wayne people think he is. His boorish, airheaded, and uncaringly rude moments work like gangbusters. It would have been great to see more of the spoiled rich kid act Bale did because it’s the best we’ve ever seen in a Batman flick.
Does that make him the best Batman? We’ll see.
Ben Affleck is at a disadvantage here. His take on Batman is still a little too fresh in our minds to judge fairly. Plus, he’s got a similar problem that George Clooney had: he’s stuck in a bad movie. There’s lots of potential for Affleck in the DC Extended Universe, but he hasn’t had the opportunity to prove that yet. Still, it says something that even the harshest critics of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice say that Affleck is the best thing to come out of the movie.
One thing is for sure: his costume is the best costume we’ve gotten on the big screen. The style and colors are straight out of a comic book with little regard to how they would function in reality. Batfleck looks like Batman in a way no other Batman has. He’s also clearly inspired by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and it’s a very faithful interpretation. Affleck is a hulk of a vigilante and his action scenes reflect that brutish nature.
And you gotta give it to the guy for drawing upon his bubbleheaded tabloid star days when he plays Bruce Wayne. His fake drunkenness at Lex Luthor‘s party is a delight. It’s too bad that his more serious moments feel too po-faced. Again, more the fault of the movie than the actor.
Could Ben Affleck grow to be the best big screen Batman? The chance is present but it’s an uphill battle. The rocky start he was given is gonna make things tough. Let’s hope for the best, but he just doesn’t have the mileage to prove himself yet.
And the Best Big Screen Batman Is…
Films: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
Surprise! Yes, the best big screen Batman actually got his start on the small screen. Batman: The Animated Series was a revolution in every department. Not only did it change the entire landscape of children’s cartoons, but it left an indelible mark of the Dark Knight that is still being felt today.
Kevin Conroy made the leap to the big screen in Mask of the Phantasm, and though it flopped at the box office, the film found new life over the years and is now celebrated as a milestone for the character. Admittedly, Conroy’s power and command of the character has severely waned in recent years, but Mask of the Phantasm was when the voice actor was at his absolute peak.
The film gives him a chance to show off every facet of Bruce Wayne and Batman. He’s fearsome, funny, damaged, obsessed, intelligent, and absolutely extraordinary. What’s more impressive is that this movie acts as an origin story that does something no other feature film has done: it turns Batman into a curse. There are brief moments in Mask of the Phantasm where Bruce honestly admits that Batman is a burden and he’d love to leave it. Ultimately, the film ends in a place that is more melancholy and complex than any “kiddie cartoon” should ever be.
Watch this and compare it to Conroy’s performances in the Arkham series and you’ll notice that Mask of the Phantasm has more subtlety and nuance than the plodding dialogue of those games. Seeing as how this iteration of Batman became the benchmark for the character, it’s only fitting that his cinematic offering should put him at the top of the big screen Batmans.