Another Batman movie, another Batman.
As long as there have been superhero movies, different actors have been filling the costumes of the same heroes. Whether an actor or actress grows tired of portraying a superhero or a comic book franchise starts over (again), the role rebirth of a comic book character is almost as certain as life and death — and few heroes have seen as many actors as Batman.
Our first taste of a movie Batman came in 1966’s “Batman,” with Adam West starring alongside silly sound effects. Now, almost exactly 50 years later, Ben Affleck has taken up the mantle alongside dizzying CGI effects in this weekend’s inept “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Just as the quality of the Batman films varies greatly, the performances of their central Batmen land all across the board. To help you make sense of it all, we’re ranking all the actors that have embodied Batman’s signature brooding in the world of cinema.
Two rules, before we start: the performance must belong to a movie (sorry, TV Batmen of the 1940s), and animated Batman movies do count. Voice acting is an art, too!
Here’s the thing about portraying an endlessly iconic superhero: you have to try. And try Clooney obviously does not in the messy end to the 90s Batman era. He’s not playing Batman; he’s playing George Clooney smugly playing Batman. Then again, Batman and Robin do surf through the sky on hoverboards in this one, so maybe it’s the director’s fault.
West fits the cheesy vibe of the 60s Batman quite well. He shoots off one-liners with ease, his vocal tone is consistently relaxed, and his Bruce Wayne carries on with a laidback charm. He never challenges the character though: his leisurely portrayal could never measure up to the source material’s tortured complexity.
Following up Michael Keaton’s take on the character was never going to be an easy task, but Val Kilmer took it on more effectively than a lot of people give him credit for. He nails Bruce Wayne’s cool and cocksure personality, but when he’s wearing the cape, the serious side of his performance just can’t transcend the franchise’s first descent into mindlessness.
Arnett may only have his voice to personify this comedic iteration of Batman, but what a voice it is. He strikes a hilarious balance between self-seriousness and parody, one that snugly connects with a movie that strives for the exact same effect. While this role may not be timeless, Arnett makes sure that his every line achieves maximum memorability. Perhaps his upcoming solo movie will push him higher up the list.
Fortunately for this generation’s superhero moviegoers, Affleck’s turn as Batman is the finest result of the depressingly bad new film. The furious fire in his eyes fully permeates the rest of his performance, as Affleck shapes a Batman that is simultaneously tired of violent vigilantism and increasingly willing to succumb to it. In a better movie, this intensity might have more room to prove itself, but for now we have to settle for waiting on the next dose.
Tim Burton was the first director to truly explore Batman’s dark comic book roots, and as such many were skeptical when Keaton — then of “Beetlejuice” fame — was cast. Keaton put those doubts to rest magnificently. Giving a performance comprised of small subtleties, Keaton’s Bruce Wayne never seems comfortable in his own skin, an understandable trait for someone with such a complicated past — but he always seems at home in the dark, fighting for justice.
Christopher Nolan directed the darkest of the Batman films and paved the way for the best live-action Batman. Bale brings a power and passion to the role that barely tops Keaton’s restrained version: this Bruce Wayne feels the most human of them all due to a tangible display of intrapersonal conflict. Bale charges his caped crusader with this inner turmoil to create a hero that struggles to define his own virtue, a fight that’s compelling across three movies.
This performance deserves to go down in history as the defining voice of Batman. Conroy has voiced Batman for decades, in everything from movies to video games and TV shows (such as the seminal “Batman: The Animated Series”). He lives and breathes the most fully complex expression of the character. Conroy understands Bruce Wayne, and his breathtakingly emotive portrayal accomplishes something special: it brings us under the cowl too.