Promotional poster courtesy of Warner Media.
It’s a question that seems to pop up on Quora on an almost constant basis, “Who do you think played the best Batman?” It’s also a question that will get you a passionate answer out of anyone, whether they’re a total comic book geek or a soccer mom, because Batman was the first superhero to get the serious reboot way back in the 1990s, and everyone has seen at least a couple of iterations of him. He’s a polarising figure too, because everyone has their own idea of what they want to see, or they see one portrayal on screen and think the rest should all follow that template.
Before we get into working out who the best Batman is, let’s cut this down a bit to keep it manageable. Let’s rule out Adam West, Val Kilmer and George Clooney straight off the bat. I don’t think I really need to explain why. If I do, this article isn’t for you. Let’s also exclude the animated Batmans, with a caveat. I think most people who have watched them believe Kevin Conroy is Batman, and I completely agree. I also think the “New 52" Batman and Young Justice Batman are outstanding portrayals of the character. For the purpose of this piece, however, we’re sticking with live action.
So that leaves the current big 3: Keaton, Bale and Affleck. Robert Pattinson looks promising, but we'll have to wait and see. Very few people would disagree that they are the podium finishers here. How do we separate them? I think the issue is that too many people boil it down to the actor, when it’s so much more than that. A large part of what makes a Batman good or bad is the director and writers who are trying to bring him to life. Ben Affleck or Christian Bale would have been a terrible Batman under Joel Schumacher, as would just about anyone. I don’t think Clooney or Kilmer are ever a good choice for Batman, but under Nolan or Snyder, they probably would have fared a lot better.
When you look at the big 3, they’re all at very different periods in Batman’s career, so it’s not just a matter of how much you like the actor, it’s about what they’re allowed to do with the character. They’re also a very long way apart in terms of time – between Keaton and Affleck is around 25 years. That’s a gigantic difference in terms of film technique, audience appetite and technology available. So with those talking points out of the way, let's dive in...
Michael Keaton – Batman and Batman Returns
The original, and still the best for many people. I loved and still love his portrayal, and considering it was the first of the genre, he and Burton really delivered. The suit, which at the time blew everyone away, still holds up decently today. In this, we see a Batman who’s only just come on the scene in Gotham, and we get an outsiders view, so we see none of his training or his anguish growing up. Our first introduction is him terrifying and beating down a couple of criminals.
The good: Keaton’s wraith like, whisper voice, combined with the cowl, eye makeup and facial gestures delivers a Batman that seems dark, slightly unhinged and dangerous. The setting is perfect. As I mentioned above, we get an outsiders view, and it’s part of a wider surrounding of a terrified public, terrified criminals and a police force that doesn’t know what to do. It works well because he always seems to show up at the right time, and he always looks menacing. There’s good use of gadgets without being ridiculous, the batmobile looked and sounded great, and the suit, as said above, looked the goods for the time.
The bad: His Bruce Wayne isn’t bad, but it isn’t great. He’s rather brooding and very thoughtful, which is good. Giving him glasses was an awful idea, and unfortunately he doesn’t have the height or the physicality to pull off the complete look of Batman or Bruce Wayne. He also doesn’t have the charm and confidence (or rather, the script doesn’t allow him to show it) that Bruce Wayne should emanate. That lack of physicality extends to Batman, where we don’t really get any idea that he’s an expert fighter. The script gets around that somewhat through the use of his tools and being in the right place at the right time. There’s also the fact that martial arts wasn’t yet a big thing in cinema, so in this case he’s a victim of circumstance.
Final verdict: However you slice it, Keaton’s Batman is very, very good. When you consider it was the first of the genre, it’s even more impressive that they made a film that takes Batman seriously and still has rewatch value 30 years later. That’s why it’s hard to take points off, because it just doesn’t seem fair. Considering he’s the pioneer, Keaton gets a solid 8/10.
Christian Bale – Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises
Bale is for many the best Batman of all time, and that’s little surprise considering he was teamed up with one of the best directors of our age and excellent writers who wanted to bring a realistic, gritty Batman to the big screen. This is a very different Batman to Keaton’s, because we see him grow up and into his persona, so in contrast to Keaton, we saw the inner workings of Bruce Wayne and his psychology rather than this terrifying Batman that we knew nothing about.
The good: There’s a lot to like about Bale’s Batman. He’s tall and muscular. He has a real look of calm determination (when he first drives the Tumbler, I was struck by how determined and in control he looked the whole time). The suit is great, the gadgets are about as realistic as they’re going to get. His Bruce Wayne is quite good, if a little over the top. That’s a big deal, because none of the other actors before him could really pull off both, it was either one or the other. He was also surrounded by a stellar cast in all 3 movies, which definitely goes a long way. The tumbler, batpod and the bat were fantastic takes on his transportation. You also get hints of his fighting ability throughout the first two movies, especially when he takes on 4 members of the league of shadows on his own, after telling Ras “I can’t beat two of your pawns?” The scene in Batman Begins at Arkham Asylum was also a great showcase of the character.
The bad: There are a couple of things that for me, put serious dents in Bale’s Batman. Firstly, the fighting style they chose was awful. Keysi Fighting Method may claim to be “realistic”, but Batman is a master martial artist and someone the criminals fear, so his fighting style should reflect that. It didn’t. It looked overly cautious and made it seem like he endured fights, rather than finishing them. People may have criticised the “shaky cam” way the fights were shot in Batman Begins, but at least they made him look masterful.
The other issue for me is that by taking us inside his mind from the get go, he loses his power. He’s just a little bit too open and “feely”, too much like a regular guy, so he doesn’t come across as the unstoppable force that he should. His pining over Rachel and his willingness to give up the cowl for her is just way off and hugely disappointing, because it transfers the lifelong anguish over his parents onto her, as though it is something that can easily be turned off if they’re together. That’s not who Batman is or should be in any portrayal.
You also don’t get any sense that he’s a master detective or strategist. You can see so much of that heavy lifting is done by Alfred and Lucius Fox, with him filling in some blanks here and there. This is a Batman that heavily relies on people around him for what should be his core skills. Batman is supposed to be a master detective and strategist, but Bale’s Batman seems to be a bit of a dope.
The biggest issue with Bale’s Batman, however, is the final film in the franchise. If you leave it at Batman Begins and TDK, he comes off pretty well and is inching into 9/10 territory. TDKR did the characters of both Batman and Bane a disservice and brought them down, whereas if they’d mostly stuck to the original Knightfall storyline, I suspect the score would have been much higher. I don’t know what happened with Nolan and Goyer on that one.
Final verdict: 7/10. This was a missed opportunity. It should have been a 9.
Ben Affleck – Batman vs Superman*
Affleck portrays a much older Batman, coming towards the end of his career. Jason Todd (the 2nd Robin) has been killed by the Joker (you see his suit in the bat cave with graffiti on it), and Batman has taken on a dark, psychotic edge, branding criminals with a red-hot bat and even being willing to kill. His inner darkness and torment is barely contained, which is eventually channeled against the man of steel.
The good: There is so much to like here. First of all, Affleck is tall and muscular – really muscular. He fills out that Batsuit like crazy, and brings an intense physicality to the role. On that note, the warehouse fight scene really gets Batman right like no other film has before. There is no enduring the fight, he takes it to them with the ferocity of a tiger. He fights like a master with the knockout power of Mike Tyson. Watching Batfleck, there’s no question as to whether you’d take a chance fighting him like you might with Bale or Keaton – you’re not only going to lose, you’ll be in the hospital for days, maybe weeks, afterwards. The Batmobile and wing designs are both great, although I wasn’t a huge fan of the suit personally.
Zac Snyder for all his flaws really knows how to shoot Batman, and you see some great visuals in both this movie and Justice League of him flying through the air, cape fanning out behind him. One even had a lightning strike in it, reflecting a page right out of the comic. Very cool. They even thought of the little things. Where Bale had to do what became a very annoying growl, they solved in this movie by giving him a voice modulator as part of the suit. We also finally see Batman the detective and master strategist. This is a veteran Batman, who investigates and makes deductions, and could command an army if he had to. He’s a human who had Superman at his mercy because he out thought him.
As Bruce Wayne he nails it, but it’s not the Bruce Wayne we’re accustomed to. As he’s so much older, he doesn’t feel the need to surround himself with an entourage of women or act over the top, but he still holds that confident swagger. Physically, he’s closer to Bruce Wayne than anyone else before him. Affleck’s portrayal of him psychologically is worthy of note as well. We love Batman, but he’s not a guy that you’d ever want to be friends with. He’s just got too many issues, and way too much darkness within. Bale’s Wayne looked too much like he was ready to cast that off at any moment; with Affleck, it’s part of him and haunts him on a daily basis.
The bad: We all know how critically panned BvS was. At the urging of friends I watched the Ultimate Edition, which really redeemed it a lot, but at the end of the day it wasn’t a great vehicle for the character. For that reason it’s all the more impressive that Snyder and co brought such a faithful adaptation of Batman to the screen. I really hope we see more of Affleck, but it’s not looking good.
Final verdict: 9/10. There’s really not much you can improve on here. They really tried to bring the best, most faithful adaptation of Batman to the big screen and they delivered. I’ll be surprised if we see something better anytime soon. I’d love them to make the suit more screen worthy, and less comic book faithful though.
*I didn't include Justice League for obvious reasons. Let's see what Snyder restores Batman to in a couple of weeks.