Holy revolving door, Batman! The Caped Crusader has been portrayed by more actors than any other superhero in movie history – eight to be exact. Most have lasted for just one film. But after The Dark Knight Rises, Christian Bale has become the first man to have played Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego more than twice on the silver screen. He didn’t have much competition – Michael Keaton was the only other actor to reprise the role at the time.
Ben Affleck tied Bale for appearances as Batman with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, his Suicide Squad cameo, and 2017’s Justice League. That run will not extend to a fourth film, though, as Affleck has exited the role. Instead, Robert Pattinson is your new Bruce Wayne.
But before anymore history is made with Matt Reeves’ upcoming take on the Dark Knight, The Batman, let’s take a look at the men who have been Batman. Please note that for the moment, this list doesn’t include Game of Thrones‘ Iain Glen’s take on Bruce Wayne from Titans season 2. Why? Only because as of this writing, he has only had a relatively few minutes of screentime, so we can’t yet offer a full evaluation of his take on the character. That will certainly change soon enough, and we’ll update this article accordingly when the time comes!
1. Lewis G. Wilson
Wilson was the first and youngest actor ever to play the adult Batman, and also the least successful. At 23, the unknown thespian donned the cape and the cowl in the 15-part 1943 Columbia serial Batman. While he looked the part of the dashing playboy, his physique was more Danny DeVito as the Penguin. One critic described Wilson as “thick about the middle.” Maybe that was why he wore his utility belt just below his chest. Critics also complained that his voice was too high and that he had a Boston accent. That, of course, wouldn’t be the last time someone complained about Batman’s voice.
After Batman, Wilson’s career went nowhere. Most of his roles went uncredited. His next biggest movie part was probably in the 1951 cult classic Bowanga Bowanga. A few years later he was out of showbiz altogether. His son, Michael G. Wilson, however, fared better in Hollywood, becoming the executive producer of the James Bond series. Lewis G. Wilson died in 2000.
2. Robert Lowery
Lowery took over the role in the follow-up serial, 1949’s Batman & Robin. Unlike Lewis, Lowery, 36 at the time, was a veteran actor, having already appeared in The Mark Of Zorro (1940), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), and Dangerous Passage (1944). He also filled out the Batsuit better than Lewis, with his utility belt hanging where you would expect it on a non-octogenarian.
Though Lowery never played Batman in another movie, he did get to wear the cape once more and make superhero history in the process. In 1956 he guest-starred on an episode of The Adventures of Superman, marking the first time a Batman actor shared screen time with a Superman actor. (The two also appeared together in their pre-superhero days, in a WWII anti-VD propaganda film called Sex Hygiene).
After Batman, Lowrey enjoyed another 20 years in movies and TV. He died in 1971.
3. Adam West
The man logging the most hours in the Batcave, of course, was William West Anderson, whom you probably know better as Adam West. Either you love him for his goofy charm or hate him for blemishing the Bat’s image for several decades. His campy, over-the-top portrayal of Gotham’s Guardian infiltrated nearly every medium, including a 1966 movie and several animated series.
Legend has it producer William Dozier cast West after seeing him play a James Bond-like spy called Captain Q in a Nestlé Quik TV ad. He beat future Wonder Woman co-star Lyle Waggoner for the role. Dozier, who supposedly hated comic books, decided the only way the show would be successful was if they camped it up. So blame him.
Things would almost come full circle in 1970 when West was offered the role of James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever. West declined, later writing in his autobiography that he believed Bond should always be played by a Brit. Holy bad career moves, Batman!
After the Batman series went off the air in 1968, West was resigned to typecast hell. At one point, he was forced to make public appearances as the Caped Crusader to earn a living. Then, in 1977, he returned to the tube as Batman, doing his voice in The New Adventures Of Batman, and then on such shows as Super Friends.
West’s resurgence as a pop-culture icon began in the early ’90s when he starred as a has-been TV action hero in the pilot episode of Lookwell, produced by Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel. It wasn’t picked up but took on a cult following online (check it out here). He made regular appearances on Family Guy. as “Mayor West” before returning to voice Batman in two excellent animated features that expanded on the show’s continuity, Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders and Batman vs. Two-Face (opposite William Shatner as the special guest villain). West died in 2017, but his Bat-legacy is immortal.
4. Michael Keaton
It took more than 20 years for Adam West to lose his exclusivity on Batman.
When director Tim Burton (who like Dozier was not a fan of comic books) and Michael Keaton were announced for 1989’s Batman, fans went bat-shit crazy, thinking their beloved superhero was going to get the Adam West treatment again. Keaton’s casting caused such controversy that 50,000 protest letters were sent to Warner Bros.’ offices. In an effort to appease the naysayers, Batman co-creator Bob Kane was hired as the film’s creative consultant. And in case you’re curious, here is Keaton, Affleck, and a long list of other great castings that fans initially thought would suck.
Other Hollywood stars considered for the role of Batman included Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Charlie Sheen, Pierce Brosnan, Tom Selleck, and Bill Murray. But producer Jon Peters said he cast Keaton because “The image of Batman is a big male model type, but I wanted a guy who’s a real person who happens to put on this weird armor. A guy who’s funny and scary. Keaton’s both. He’s got that explosive, insane side.”
The studio and the fans had nothing to worry about. Keaton’s performance received favorable reviews, and Batman killed at the box office. Variety magazine gushed, “Michael Keaton captures the haunted intensity of the character, and seems particularly lonely and obsessive without Robin around to share his exploits.” Keaton was rewarded by being the first actor to reprise the role on the big screen. And in 1992’s Batman Returns, Keaton again garnered positive reviews.
5. Val Kilmer
When the Batman franchise was turned over to director Joel Schumacher, Keaton decided not to return. Daniel Day-Lewis, Ralph Fiennes, William Baldwin, and Johnny Depp were reportedly considered as replacements. But the job was won by Val Kilmer – probably the most forgettable of the modern Batmen. Go ahead – try to remember. See? You can’t.
Schumacher became interested in Kilmer for 1995’s Batman Forever after seeing him in Tombstone (in which he played Doc Holiday, who Adam West also portrayed in a movie before he did the Batman TV series). Kilmer allegedly accepted the role without even reading the script or knowing who the new director was. Schumacher quickly learned who Kilmer was, though, and the two clashed on the set. Schumacher later described Kilmer as “childish and impossible,” claiming that he fought with various crewmen and refused to speak to him for two weeks after the director asked his star to stop behaving rudely.
Kilmer’s performance got mixed reviews. As The New York Times put it, “The prime costume is now worn by Val Kilmer, who makes a good Batman but not a better one than Michael Keaton.” Bob Kane felt otherwise, saying he thought Kilmer did the best job of all the actors to have played Batman up to that point.
The movie performed better than Batman Returns at the box office, but Kilmer was destined to be a one-term Caped Crusader. Between his bad attitude and his concern that the superhero wasn’t getting as much screen time as the villains, he left the Batcave for good. Instead of filming 1997’s Batman & Robin, he did The Saint.
After Batman, Kilmer’s career headed downhill. Though it was probably 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau that had more to do with that than Batman Forever.
6. George Clooney
George Clooney’s movie career was just taking off when he was cast in 1997’s Batman & Robin, with his breakthrough performance coming just the year before in Quentin Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn. Producers probably felt they pulled off a major coup landing the soon-to-be mega-movie star. Those producers, along with Clooney, may regret that decision now.
Batman & Robin was a disaster, rife with homoeroticism, camp, and those infamous Bat-nipples. Clooney once joked that he helped to kill the franchise. “Joel Schumacher told me we never made another Batman film because Batman was gay.” The actor also called the movie “a waste of money.”
Critics and fans agreed. In 1997, Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “George Clooney is the big zero of the film, and should go down in history as the George Lazenby of the series.” Batman & Robin received 11 nominations at the Razzie Awards and frequently ranks among the worst films of all time. It was also the worst box office performer of the modern Batman movies. However, despite its many, many, many flaws, we will stick up for it a little…
But all that did nothing to hurt Clooney’s career. After Batman, he went on to super stardom, starring in Out of Sight (with a cameo from Michael Keaton), Three Kings, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? over the next three years alone, and he hasn’t slowed down much since.
7. Christian Bale
Between Adam West and George Clooney, Batman seemed destined to remain a joke, at least when it came to live-action adaptations. Then came along Christopher Nolan. The Memento and Insomnia director was given the reins and he planned to reinvent the franchise, finally making the Dark Knight dark.
Among the early candidates for the Batman/Bruce Wayne roles were Billy Crudup, Jake Gyllenhaal, Joshua Jackson, Heath Ledger, and Cillian Murphy. But Nolan ultimately chose Christian Bale, explaining that “he has exactly the balance of darkness and light that we were looking for.”
Bale got generally favorable reviews for 2005’s Batman Begins, with several critics saying it reminded them of his brilliant turn in American Psycho. Not so brilliant, it seems, was his uber-husky Bat-voice. One reviewer compared Bale’s guttural utterances to a “10-year-old putting on an ‘adult’ voice to make prank phone calls.” It got even more gravelly in 2008’s The Dark Knight, with NPR’s David Edelstein describing it as “a voice that’s deeper and hammier than ever.”
Even Kevin Conroy, the man behind probably the most recognisable Batman voice, chimed in, saying at a C2E2 panel in 2010 that Bale’s voice was “ridiculous” and implored the actor to stop doing it. While The Dark Knight Rises was not as well received as 2008’s sterling The Dark Knight, especially in the fan community, we still will happily come to the defense of it.
Also, Bale was crucial to the alchemy in Nolan’s second Batman feature, The Dark Knight. That film is generally considered the benchmark in the superhero genre that all other movies about caped do-gooders are compared to nearly a decade later. It is also the only superhero movie to win an acting Oscar, for Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker, and is considered responsible for why the Academy now nominates 10 films instead of five for Best Picture. This occurred after The Dark Knight was egregiously snubbed in 2009.
8. Will Arnett
With any other actor in the role, the presence of Batman in the 2013 cinematic smash The LEGO Movie could easily have become the sort of performance that gets neglected from lists like this. However, Arrested Development star Will Arnett brought some comedy magic to the role and landed his own spin-off movie as a result.
It helped that movie came at the perfect time in Batman’s busy cinema schedule – long enough after The Dark Knight Rises for lampooning of Bale’s gruff Batman to be entirely welcome, and far enough before Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice that Arnett’s new iteration didn’t get lost in all the hype for Ben Affleck’s debut.
The result of this perfect casting and canny scheduling was a Batman who will go down in the history books as the funniest, freshest and downright fun-est take on the character. From penning “dark” lyrics to haplessly attempting to hide his secret identity, Arnett’s Batman was a gag machine who The LEGO Movie’s younger audience really embraced.
There were knowing winks in there for adult fans too, with such as dialogue as “I only work in black – and sometimes very very dark grey” appealing to comic book fans and LEGO Batman’s painful attempts to hit a button with a Batarang surely connecting with anyone who’s ever got stuck for hours at a simple door-button in the Arkham Asylum games.
Arnett’s delivery, combined with Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s zingers, made this portrayal a quick favorite for many, and he reprised the role in The LEGO Batman Movie in 2017, to equally impressive effect. Bats is back in The LEGO Movie 2, out on February 8 and he’ll get a sequel of his own at some point, too.
If you want more hilarious Arnett voice work in the meantime, check out BoJack Horseman on Netflix – you wont regret it.
9. Ben Affleck
It is often said that history repeats itself, and so it did when Ben Affleck was cast in the role of Batman for Zack Snyder’s controversial Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Affleck was fresh off of seeing his third directorial effort, Argo, win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, cementing one of the most grandiose career comebacks in Hollywood history. He also was in the midst of filming Gone Girl with legendary auteur David Fincher at the helm. Nevertheless, fans went apoplectic that the star of notorious flops like Gigli and Jersey Girl was now the “Bat-Fleck.” The fact he appeared in the mediocre Daredevil movie from 2003 likely did him no favors.
Yet, ironically, Affleck is now generally considered the very best part of Batman v Superman. Like Michael Keaton before him, Affleck enjoyed fan adulation only a few years after intense backlash. Of course, the actual depiction of his Dark Knight in director Snyder’s hands is far less universally loved. For the record, Affleck offered a solid performance as the Batman. He was neither as haunted and emotionally elusive as Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne or as noble and psychologically broken as Christian Bale’s take on the character. In fact, Affleck lacked the lived-in quality of either performer’s interpretation. But what he did have is a picture-perfect physique for the role and a sense of dashing charisma that all other Bat-actors have lacked or underplayed.
Some fans have even suggested that he was the perfect Batman due to his appearance and natural charm, but he was hampered in BvS by a voice modulator no less absurd than Bale’s gravely alternative, as well as a characterization of Batman that bordered on fascism, as he ambivalently murdered bad guys with gunshots, car collisions, grenades, knife stabs, and even crushing one’s head in with a crate. This cruelty and the totalitarian streak was somewhat consistent with Frank Miller’s extreme vision of the character in The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel. But that story was always a major departure from mainstream interpretations of the character. In fact, for all the visual upgrades to Affleck’s Batman, his characterization completely lacked the altrusitic heroism and sense of driven purpose enjoyed by the much more humanistic (read: flawed) take offered by Christian Bale.
Justice League, for all of its behind-the-scenes problems, was something of a course correction for the DCEU and Affleck’s take. It saw his Batman’s evolution, apparently “inspired” by Superman’s sacrifice at the end of Batman v Superman to be a more balanced hero.
10. Robert Pattinson
For Reeves’ movie, it’ll be Robert Pattinson wearing the cowl. Perhaps best known for his roles as the vampiric Edward in the YA series Twilight and as Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Pattinson has made quite the name for himself since then with starring roles in indie films such as The Lighthouse, Cosmopolis, and High Life.
Pattinson will star in a more personal tale about the Batman, according to Reeves, who told THR that “It’s very much a point of view-driven, noir Batman tale. It’s told very squarely on his shoulders, and I hope it’s going to be a story that will be thrilling but also emotional.”
While the movie won’t be out until June 25, 2021, we have the first look at Pattinson’s new Batsuit right here!
The Voices of Batman
Speaking of Batman voices, there have been about as many men to voice the Caped Crusader as have portrayed him in live-action. But the bulk of the animated Batman work over the years has gone to two actors.
In real life Olan Soule was a bespectacled pencil-necked geek, but that didn’t stop him from voicing the Dark Knight in six different animated series, beginning with 1968’s The Batman/Superman Hour. His run pretty much ended when Adam West took over voicing duties in the late ’70s. Soule, who also appeared in such films as The Day The Earth Stood Still and North By Northwest, died in 1994.
Unlike Soule, Kevin Conroy could probably pull off Batman in real life (and he will, in the upcoming Crisis on Infinite Earths Arrowverse TV crossover!), but so far he’s been relegated to voice work – and quite a lot of it. Conroy began voicing the superhero in Batman: The Animated Series, which made its debut in 1992. Since then, he’s done three other Batman series, a bunch of animated movies and videogames.
Others to voice Batman are Will Friedle (Batman Beyond), Rino Romano (The Batman), Diedrich Bader (Batman: The Brave And The Bold), Jeremy Sisto (Justice League: The New Frontier), Bruce Greenwood (the brilliant Young Justice), and Bruce Thomas (who voiced Batman in commercials for GM’s OnStar service and portrayed the character briefly in the live-action TV series Birds Of Prey).
But Will Arnett deserves special attention.
With any other actor in the role, the presence of Batman in the 2014 cinematic smash The Lego Movie (which we reviewed here) could easily have become the sort of performance that gets neglected from lists like this. However, Arrested Development star Will Arnett brought some comedy magic to the role and landed his own spin-off movie as a result.
It helped that movie came at the perfect time in Batman’s busy cinema schedule – long enough after The Dark Knight Rises for lampooning of Bale’s gruff Batman to be entirely welcome, and far enough before Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice that Arnett’s new iteration didn’t get lost in all the hype for Ben Affleck’s debut.
The result of this perfect casting and canny scheduling was a Batman who will go down in the history books as the funniest, freshest and downright fun-est take on the character. From penning ‘dark’ lyrics to helplessly attempting to hide his secret identity, Arnett’s Batman was a gag machine who The Lego Movie’s primary younger audience really embraced.
There were knowing winks in there for adult fans too, with such as dialogue as “I only work in black – and sometimes very, very dark grey’ appealing to comic book fans and Lego Batman’s painful attempts to hit a button with a Batarang surely connecting with anyone who’s ever got stuck for hours at a simple door-button in the Arkham Asylum games.
Arnett’s delivery, combined with Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s zingers, made this portrayal a quick favorite for many, and it was telling that no one is complained about Arnett’s reprisal in an upcoming 2017 standalone story.
In fact, The Lego Batman Movie only cemented the adoration received by Will Arnett’s much more ego-centric version of Bruce Wayne. A petulant, selfish loner who secretly watches romantic comedies when no one is lookng, it is a broadly funny (and perhaps more honest?) take on a billionaire who sneaks out at night to beat up poor people. It also unabashedly referenced countless other Batman movie, comic book, and cartoon moments, which we unpack right here.
The number one Batman?
It’s probably not a worthwhile question to ask which Batman actor is the best. It’s hard to argue that Christian Bale isn’t tops among the live-action crowd (Though I’m sure there are some Adam West Michael Keaton, and Ben Affleck fans out there who might take up the cause).
Still, Bale is no Christopher Reeve, whose iconic portrayal of Superman has made replacing him a seemingly impossible task. Bale was a respectable Bruce Wayne/Batman, but the franchise can and has moved on without him. And though another half-dozen actors have resided in Wayne Manor, we have not found the definitive Batman.
Until then, Hollywood is sure to keep trying.