Next year DC are hoping to throw down the gauntlet to the juggernaut that is the MCU, and they’re doing so with their two big names: Batman and Superman. While we’ve seen Henry Cavill as Superman once already, this marks the debut of Ben Affleck behind the cowl. But Batman is already one of the most prolific superheroes in cinema, and while it’s the first time we’ll see Affleck in the role, we’ve already seen a few others in the role.
So to prepare for Dawn of Justice, it seems only fitting to look at those who came before, and determine who has been the best live action movie Batman. The contenders: Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney and Christian Bale. The rules are simple. Each Bat will be measured against six different categories, with a winner and runner up decided for each. Only movie appearances will count (so the TV portion of West’s career won’t count) and while this naturally favours the multi-movie representations, both the strengths and weaknesses across those representations will be considered. It’s far from a perfect science, so feel free to chime in with your own thoughts, but in order to try and calm any bias I may have I consulted with some fellow Bat-fans on this topic. So without further delay, let’s start The Battle of the Bats!
The visual symbolism of Batman is one of the hero’s biggest strengths, be it on the pages of a comic or through the camera lens. This is often the first thing we get to work with from a new Bat, and given how notorious comic fans can be, if you get it wrong you will be fighting against the tide for the rest of the movie’s marketing run. It needs to be visually captivating, but also practical in the movie’s universe.
Let’s get one thing out of the way. George Clooney is disqualified right off the bat (sorry about that pun). While he adopts a cold resistant suit towards the end of the movie to fight Mr Freeze, there is one sin that is unforgivable. Bat-Nipples. Nope nope nope. That right there puts you to the bottom of the line. Val Kilmer’s suit from Batman Forever was visually striking, but a little too busy. The rubber muscles on his black suit was a little overboard in the design, while his finale suit had an odd silvery accent to it that didn’t really make a whole lot of sense or look all that nice. Both suffered from Schumacher’s tendency to go overboard with his designs and ideas.
Adam West gets the third spot here. The blue and grey is certainly iconic and pretty accurate for the time period it represented, but it loses major points on the practicality scale. It is a straight spandex costume, offering Batman with little to no protection from any attacks. While the movie (and show) limited itself to playful punch up scenes as opposed to gunfire, a bit of protection goes a long way.
So it comes down to Keaton and Bale. Christian Bale’s suit evolved over his three movies, from a bulkier Batman Begins suit to the sleek Dark Knight/DKR styling. While it occasionally made him look a little skinny, it boasted one major practical feature. He could turn his neck! Prior to that it required a full body turn to look in a direction, which isn’t useful in a fight (or as he said, “backing out of the driveway”). It is also the most realistic of the bat-suits, combining looks and functionality (those gauntlet spikes he unleashes in the Dark Knight…awesome!)
Where Bale loses points though is in protection. Turning your head is great, but the leaner suit came at a price. He manages to get himself stabbed by both Joker and Talia Al Ghul, had his cowl wrecked by Bane, and his first suit had problems with dogs. Realistic as though it might be, that realism came at a cost. Compare this to the Keaton suit from Batman/Batman Returns, and it’s hard to bet against it. It withstands a fair bit of punishment, and it is arguably the most striking suit to boot. Powerful, imposing and impressive, with the yellow accented symbol, it resonates as Batman like no other suit does.
Winner: Michael Keaton. Runner-Up: Christian Bale
While there have been many classic stories centred around just the Bat, one of the strengths of the franchise in comics is the vast family that has grown over 75+ years. He has a deep network of allies to call upon, but the movies often like to focus purely on Batman. But Gotham is a big place and he needs all the help it can get, so what kind of allies does Batman enjoy?
Val Kilmer’s Batman Forever tells the origin story of one of Batman’s primary allies: the first Robin, Dick Grayson. And while that should be a good thing, unfortunately the brash (unconvincing) teenager ends up being more of a hindrance than anything else. It was expected that there would be some growing pains, but Batman spends too much time chasing after him and bailing him out when he gets in trouble.
Keaton’s Batman doesn’t have a Robin to chase. He is basically a one man wrecking crew. Alfred is reasonably helpful here but the help he provides is more general living than aiding his Batmanning. The Keaton Batman is very much the lone Dark Knight. And while Adam West has arguably the most useful Robin of the bunch, that’s really the extent of help he enjoys (In the movie. He gains a Batgirl in the television show).
George Clooney’s Batman saw the Kilmer Robin return. And while he still suffers from an inflated ego, he proves to be a little more helpful here. And even suffering from some serious ailments Alfred here is as useful as he was in the previous three movies. But what really sets this one apart from the others already mentioned is Batgirl. While Alicia Silverstone’s Barbara NotGordon is far from a brilliant representation of the redhead we know from the comics (problem one – she’s blonde here), she’s actually really useful in the movie. She proves to be key to defeating Poison Ivy after the guys struggle to get the job done, and she chips in stopping the one man ice-pun machine, Mr Freeze
But the winner here is Christian Bale. While we don’t get a true Robin (just an easter egg from cop John Blake, who plays his part in DKR) the help he gets is far more prominent. Not only does Lucius Fox bless him with bountiful gifts, Alfred here is far more active in aiding his fight. Some major points do have to be take here after he eventually abandons Bruce in ‘Rises’, but his help through the series is undeniable. But the ace here is Jim Gordon. While we get him in all prior iterations, he provides substantial help in every BaleBat movie, to the point Batman’s crusade arguably would have failed without the assistance. It also helps Gary Oldman nailed the role, but the Bat-family is pretty instrumental here all in all.
Winner: Christian Bale. Runner-up: George Clooney
This is tough, because nearly across the board we see some great designs and concepts. Well nearly, the Batman and Robin Batmobile of Clooney’s is the perfect example of the merchandise over logic issues that plagued the movie. A Batmobile without a roof is just asking for henchmen to shoot away, and it’s pretty ugly to boot. Adam West’s Batmobile is certainly iconic, and looks pretty nice too but it too has no roof. As nice as the red and black paintjob is, you need to be protected. He also gets some extra toys like a Batcopter, but the design isn’t that impressive. Schumacher’s stylings are again over the top for Val Kilmer’s Batmobile. At least there’s a roof this time, but it looks more like a Fast and Furious themed Batmobile with it’s logo rims and neons. Which again leaves it as a battle between Keaton and Bale. Kilmer does also bring a Batwing and Batboat to the occasion, and those additions can’t be ignored, but it’s not enough to catch up with the big two.
Christian Bale brings plenty to the table. A tank-like Batmobile in the Tumbler, which breaks apart to reveal a motorbike, and then the awkward but effective looking ‘Bat’. Points for realism across the board, especially given ‘The Bat’ is designed with practicality in mind. But the winner has to go to Michael Keaton. While the Batwing looks cool and seems to be ripped straight from the comics, it loses points by being taken out by a solitary pistol shot (what the hell kind of design flaw allowed that to happen?) the beauty of his Batmobile is un-matched. While the Tumbler was impressive, it lacked the elegant design of the 1989 model, which like the Tumbler could be remote driven and even came with shielding for when he had to leave it on the street. The Tumbler loses points because it gets taken out in The Dark Knight, and is even used against the city when Bane steals a bunch of them for his use. But seriously, look at the hot rod meets spy car of the Keaton Batmobile and tell me you don’t want one in your garage. He didn’t have as many toys as Bale, but quality over quantity. Beautiful and practical.
Winner: Michael Keaton. Runner-Up: Christian Bale
While Batman is the name on the posters and who we want to see, a good Batman needs an equally interesting Bruce Wayne. Whether Bruce or the Bat is the alter-ego provides a fascinating commentary on the kind of direction each Batman goes down, and it’s a test to the actors to be able to play both sides of the coin.
This might be blasphemy to some, but I wasn’t enamoured with Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne. The Bruce we see in comics is a notorious billionaire playboy, but it’s hard to picture Keaton like that. The way his character is portrayed doesn’t help either. He’s a little eccentric, and while he certainly isn’t incapable of flirting, he comes across more like a Bill Gates type of billionaire. George Clooney looks more the part than Keaton, but he is a very bland Bruce. There’s not much to him in Batman and Robin, and while that’s in part because much of the angst that drives the character is dealt with in prior movies, Clooney (and the script) doesn’t do anything to make the character interesting.
That angst got dealt with through Kilmer’s portrayal, and it’s kind of a shame the movie didn’t delve deeper into it like originally planned. Val does a pretty decent job here, he looks the part and has the right mix of cockiness and angst between scenes that sell you on the wall he puts up to protect himself. Adam West is a far more clean cut version of Batman, and while it works for the era, it is very one dimensional when looked at today, which is an issue across the board from earlier superhero representations, be it in comics or other media.
Honestly, Christian Bale is the runaway winner here. None of the other Waynes scream billionaire playboy like the self-centred public portrayal of Bruce Wayne in the three Nolan movies, as he buys hotels so he can swim in the water features and turns up with multiple girls on either arm. But behind all that is a clearly broken and secluded man. Not only does director Christopher Nolan give the time for this other side of the Bat to grow, Christian Bale nails it brilliantly. He ends up playing three characters. The Batman, the Bruce the public sees and the Bruce reserved for those he trusts: Alfred and eventually Rachael. You end up genuinely questioning who is the real alter-ego: Bruce Wayne or Batman.
Winner: Christian Bale. Runner-up: Val Kilmer
This is a multi-tiered category, but there’s three main areas of interest to evaluate. The gadgets he uses, his detective ability, and his combat capabilities. Basically, when Batman is being Batman. There’s a lot to consider here, and honestly, just about every movie Batman is disappointing when it comes to detective work. Given he made his debut in ‘Detective’ Comics, the lack of actual detecting he does is a real shame, and hopefully Batfleck changes that somewhat.
We get the bullet shrapnel scene in The Dark Knight, where he manages to use some dodgy looking science to gain fingerprints from a bullet shell, the consistently best example of Batman being a detective is probably from Adam West. It’s hard not to consider the full series for this, but Adam West’s Batman was often shown stopping to think things through. That’s not to say he didn’t make some massive leaps in logic to solve some of the Riddler’s puzzles, but part of that can be put to the campy nature of Batman ’66, and he shows more of an intellectual side compared to many of the other movie Batmen. We also see Kilmer deducing Nygma’s riddles. It’s something at least, forcing Batman and his family to use their brains to try and track his thought process. It’s part of what makes Riddler a great foe for the Bat, it brings out his detective side like few other rogues.
The Adam West Batman also brings us one of the more infamous ‘gadgets’. The Anti-shark spray represents the 1966 Batman in ways the English language might struggle to. While if a Sharknado ever hit Gotham the West Batman is the one you’d want, when it comes to Bat-gadgets there really is only a few key things you need. Smoke bombs, grappling gun and Batarangs. And the best use of these probably belongs to the Keaton Batman. The first movie especially nails these core elements. Both Schumacher movies do a decent job here as well, though it’s hard to give the Clooney Batman points when he imitates Dorothy and her red shoes to gain the power of ice skates, or whips out a Bat credit-card to buy himself a super villain.
When it comes to fighting, Christian Bale’s Batman is the most skilled. Of all the Bats he’s the only one where we see him being trained up as an ultimate warrior, and while his fighting style can look a bit clunky and overly choreographed (it’s not Nolan’s strong point) it is based of a legitimate martial art known as Keysi. And while it doesn’t contain the sound and visual effects of the Adam West Batman, he certainly looks more capable. And while many dislike his Bat-voice, I’m not as against it as most are, although it is a little cringeworthy towards the end of the Dark Knight. It’s certainly better than just speaking normally, which was a bit of a problem across the board elsewhere.
Winner: Christian Bale. Runner-up: Tie between Adam West and Michael Keaton
Finally, it’s not a Batman movie without some iconic villains. Of all the superheroes out there only Spiderman can challenge Caped Crusader in villain depth, and few come more instantly recognisable than those who inhabit Arkham Asylum. These movies often become the definitive mark of the character, so a poorly constructed movie villain can be severely damaging.
Speaking of damaging, let’s go back to George Clooney. Arnold’s Mr Freeze is certainly the most memorable villain from Batman & Robin. Between the awkward acting and slew of cold related one-liners he certainly puts any chances of this movie being good on ice (sorrynotsorry) but the biggest offender in this movie is BAAANE!. That’s how his name has to be spelt and said. Not Bane (that was the Dark Knight Rises character) but BAAANE!. Considering how new the character was when the movie came out, he’s lucky to have survived this movie to still be relevant today. I do have to give points to Freeze for using the storyline designed in the Animated Series, where he’s trying to save his wife. Even Schumacher had the sense to use this side of his character and treat it with some dignity. We also get Poison Ivy, but despite being played by an Oscar winner there’s not a whole lot to like about Uma Thurmon’s portrayal. It’s a surprise there was any scenery left after she (and Arnold) chewed on it all movie.
I’m not as critical of Schumacher’s Riddler in ‘Forever’ as I maybe should be. It’s not great, it’s overly campy and more Joker than Riddler, but it kind of works as an alternate take on him. It’s far from my ideal take on Edward Nygma (who is my favourite Bat-villain) and while I still wish we could have gotten the DiCaprio Riddler Warner wanted for Nolan’s last movie, but Jim Carrey as Riddler wasn’t completely horrible. Tommy Lee Jones as Two-Face? That was horrible. As one friend put it: the main who should be ruled by his coin, continues to flip it until he gets the answer he wants. I have to suppress my gag reflex just thinking about that. Considering they had two of the strongest rogues to play with Val Kilmer really loses out in this area.
And then we get to the Burton movies. Nicholson’s Joker is iconic and is a lot of fun to watch. But I cannot stand Batman Returns and their takes on both the Penguin and Catwoman. I get a lot of people love the Pfieffer Catwoman, but I think most of them are thinking with body parts that aren’t their brains. It hurts me that two of Batman’s ‘sane’ villains are both treated as psychotic here, especially considering what can be achieved with that dynamic. It’s a very Burton-esque take on them, but it’s not to the benefit of the characters or the film.
Which leaves us with the big hitters. The Adam West movie featured four villains (who had been previously established in the television series). Joker, Riddler, Catwoman and Penguin. While they’re all undeniably campy, they are all done really well. Their banter and interactions are fun, and they all get a chance to shine. Even only weighing up the movie and not the series there’s a lot to like here. Certainly Frank Gorshin’s Riddler is still seen by many as a definitive version of the character (I’m still partial to the Arkham trilogy’s rendition as the best myself) and Burgess Meredith’s Penguin is still the best live action rendition we’ve had.
Then we have Nolan’s movies. Scarecrow. Ra’s Al Ghul. The Joker. Two-Face. Bane. Catwoman. Tahlia Al-Ghul. Honestly there’s not a villain here I don’t like. Ann Hathaway is underrated in her Catwoman performance, and is leaps and bounds more comic-accurate than Pfieffer’s. Aaron Eckhart as Two Face was magnificent and could only be outshone by an Oscar winning performance by Heath Ledger who’s take on the Joker is legendary. Bane, while not completely perfect looks like a masterstroke when compared to BAAANE! And while Scarecrow ends up being a little weak in the grand picture Cillian Murphy does a fantastic job with the role. It’s a little unfair considering there are three movies to draw villains from here, but outside of the Adam West Batman all of the movies are batting less than .500 in great villain execution. I’d be taking quality over quantity, but the two movies that nail their villains the best are the two that have the most to deal with.
Winner: Christian Bale. Runner-Up: Adam West.
You can add up the arbitrary numbers, and you’d end up with the following:
5. George Clooney’s Batman
4. Val Kilmer’s Batman
3. Adam West’s Batman
2. Michael Keaton’s Batman
1. Christian Bale’s Batman
The beauty of entertainment though is it is all subjective. Especially with a character as rich as Batman, what you consider ‘definitive’ will vary and so you will weigh things up differently. In building up this article I consulted a few friends who are also big fans of the Dark Knight Detective. And while we shared a lot of the same opinions, there were also points we disagreed on. Ultimately, my bias will show through here (because I’m the one putting this all together) but you can make arguments against the cases I’ve made for each Batman.
I ultimately lean towards The Bale Batman because of a couple of key things. First of all, he’s well rounded. Over the course of the three movies we get a lot of overall insight into how he operates both with and without the cowl on. Part of this is because there are three movies to build towards this kind of characterisation, but even from Batman Begins there is a lot at work here. The other Batmen all tend to be let down in some key areas for me. Keaton is a great Batman but a weak Bruce Wayne. Val Kilmer is bland are far from intimidating as the Bat. George Clooney’s Batman is more a parody than anything else. And while Adam West is great for the era, campy isn’t what Batman is to me. And again, that’s where my bias is showing. If you like a campier, less serious Batman, then West will probably be your number one, and Clooney might even in your top three.
Of course, as much as I think the Nolan Batman movies make for a tremendous trilogy, Christian Bale doesn’t hold a candle to the true Batman: Kevin Conroy. His existence is the very reason I restricted this to live action Batmen, lest this whole contest be a curb stomp in his favour. But thankfully we live in a world where all of these Bats exist for us to enjoy, and we will only continue to get more material to work with. As for Ben Affleck? I’m excited. Bring on the Dawn of Justice.