As one of the most influential superheroes of all time, Batman has been part of pop culture for nearly 83 years. During that time, The Dark Knight has evolved from a traditional, crime-busting superhero to a complex and tragic vigilante, keeping up with the times to stay relevant. His comic book persona may be messy and chaotic, but there’s a consistency to his characterization, a sense of faithfulness to his core that cemented him as one of DC’s cornerstone heroes.
This consistency has been largely absent from his live-action portrayals. The Caped Crusader has had many incarnations, each distinct and special in its own way. Some perfectly captured the duality inherent to Batman, aptly juggling the Bruce Wayne and Batman personas; others chose to focus too much on one side, inevitably resulting in an incomplete performance. Still, all these actors contributed something to the already enduring legacy of Batman, securing their place in the ever-growing pantheon of memorable comic book movie performances.
Enough has been written about Batman & Robin already, to the point where the film’s bad reputation far surpasses any actual contribution it has made to the Batman mythos. At the center of the neon-colored mess is George Clooney, who is clearly uncomfortable and wishing he could be anywhere else. To Clooney’s credit, he at least nails the Bruce Wayne playboy persona that most other actors fail to define. Clooney’s Wayne is effortless, a superstar without needing to do anything other than flash that dashing smile.
His Batman, however, is simply appalling, as the normally stoic hero is far too talkative and not at all intimidating. It doesn’t help that Clooney is very obviously embarrassed delivering his lines. In his case, the pain doesn’t come from past trauma, but a horrible script from Akiva Goldsman.
Titans has a somewhat tarnished reputation among its fan base, but it worked hard to secure it. The show struggles to understand many of its classic characters, and its version of Batman is the perfect representation of its haphazard approach. Iain Glen’s take on the Dark Knight is more Alfred than Batman. He doesn’t resemble the character’s physicality at all, and Glen’s English accent pops out at the most inconvenient times. Titans ups the ante on Bruce’s paranoia and trust issues, presenting a broken and defeated man who has lost his ability to relate to others.
However, it makes the egregious mistake of portraying him as careless, and that’s simply not who Bruce Wayne is. Bruce Wayne cares so much that he devotes his entire life to a mission he knows he’ll never fulfill but is incapable of abandoning. Glen is quite good at embodying Bruce’s hopelessness, but the show around him doesn’t give him the respect he deserves.
Adam West will always be Batman to an entire baby boomer generation who grew up alongside him. The 1966 Batman series was camp at its finest, an exercise in comedy that cared very little for realism, consistency, or plausibility. It embraced the wackiest aspects of the comics and celebrated the ridiculousness of having a grown man wearing a bat costume fighting criminals dressed as clowns and cats. For most of his screen time, Adam West played Batman as a bona fide himbo who was as clueless as the villains he faced, without a trace of the World’s Greatest Detective that would define his later incarnations.
Ironically, his Bruce was more put-together and less extravagant, though mainly used for romantic subplots. West’s Bruce was the ultimate player, more James Bond than Wayne playboy. Yet for better or worse, West’s take defined the Bat in popular culture for over a decade. His performance might seem ridiculous to the modern viewer, but to their parents and grandparents, Adam West will always be Batman.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is one of the most divisive films in recent memory, with good reason. There’s plenty to love and hate as the movie somehow manages to be overly convoluted in some aspects and ridiculously simplistic in others. Ben Affleck’s take on the Dark Knight, which lives and dies with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns comic book series, is one of the film’s most controversial aspects. He is larger-than-life, massive, vicious, and aggressive, the closest Batman will ever get to a brute.
Affleck’s physicality is imposing, becoming arguably the best take on how a comic book superhero would look in real life. However, his Wayne brings down the performance, being too one-dimensional to accurately sell the constant anger he’s expressing in nearly every scene. And while Affleck and Henry Cavill do their best to sell the titular rivalry, there’s not enough there to create a compelling conflict between two characters who understand each other better than most others do.
David Mazouz has an unfair advantage over all other Batman portrayers in that he got five entire seasons to explore and develop the character. However, with Gotham being a prequel, he’s also at a disadvantage because he only portrays Bruce Wayne, never getting the chance to wear the Batsuit. He briefly dons it in the show’s final moments, in a scene that can’t help but feel awkward considering Mazouz is very clearly a teenager. Still, the actor plays a terrific Bruce Wayne, full of anger worsened by teenage hormones, desperate to help but unclear on how to do it.
In many ways, he’s more like Batman’s son, Damian Wayne, than Bruce, which is a tremendously intriguing approach for the character. Gotham remains somewhat underrated in the grand DC media multiverse for a show that went on for five seasons. Yet it might be one of the best DC efforts in recent memory, thanks to a suitably dark approach to the source material that never took itself too seriously and to Mazouz’s compelling take on a traumatized billionaire’s growing pains, which are never annoying and almost always compelling.
It’s easy to discount Val Kilmer’s contributions to the Dark Knight legacy. Despite having the scenery-chewing duo of Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones, Batman Forever isn’t the most memorable entry in the Batman canon. Still, Kilmer brings a lot to his take on the Caped Crusader, a sense of gravitas missing from the movie.
Kilmer perfectly blends charm and stoicism as Wayne, never fully going into the womanizing playboy persona but still embodying the prototypical signs of power and wealth that would make a nobody like Edward Nygma admire him so. As Batman, he is stern and calm, showing off a still coolness that slowly reveals how fed up he is with the whole thing and doing his best to dignify Joel Schumacher’s take on the franchise. Kilmer wore Bruce’s grief on his rubber suit sleeve, making it apparent without overdoing it; he understood that Batman lives in pain, allowing himself to feel it, holding on to it without ever letting it take over.
Matt Reeves’ long-awaited The Batman might very well be the best big-screen take on the Dark Knight. More a detective story than a superhero adventure, The Batman adopts an ultrarealistic approach that makes Christopher Nolan’s trilogy pale in comparison. Robert Pattinson brings a lot of pathos to his Batman. He is imposing without being massive and intimidating without needing to say a word. Quiet and observant, Pattinson’s Batman is a detective first and a fighter second.
While Pattinson’s Batman is genuinely accurate, his Bruce Wayne is disappointing. The complete lack of Wayne’s usual playboy facade, coupled with the film’s primary interest in exploring the Batman persona, makes for a lopsided portrayal that feels underwhelming. Like most of the Dark Knight’s modern-day interpretations, The Batman operates under the incorrect assumption that Batman is the real persona and Bruce Wayne is the mask. Yet the character has two distinct but equally relevant personalities within, and by actively neglecting one in service of its story, The Batman, and therefore Pattinson’s portrayal, can’t help but feel incomplete.
For better and, it must be said, worse, Christian Bale and Nolan redefined the Dark Knight for good. Nolan’s hyperrealistic approach to the character revolutionized the comic book genre, presenting a world where the Batman could plausibly exist and work. In doing so, the director abandoned all traces of the genre’s playfulness, something that future DC projects would imitate. Bale popularized the idea that Batman is the real persona, an approach that works within the trilogy’s context even if it’s a betrayal of the actual character.
Yet Bale’s Batman is the Batman, a tortured and perpetually tired man running a race he knows will never end. Batman doesn’t want to stop, believing he’ll always have something to give to the city that fears and often loathes him. Appropriately, his Bruce is an afterthought, a poor little rich boy trying his hardest to appear carefree and happy; it’s very clearly an act, but no one cares because he is Bruce Wayne, after all. The Dark Knight trilogy’s main interest is in Batman, neglecting Bruce in the process. And yet, how can anyone argue when Bale’s take on the Caped Crusader is that good?
Tim Burton’s surreal approach to the Caped Crusader is unique but uneven. For starters, he’s very obviously more enthralled by the villains than the Bat himself. Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Christopher Walken all steal the spotlight from the Dark Knight, an unsubtle acknowledgment of how rich the Bat’s rogues’ gallery is. Yet there’s a lot to love about Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Batman and Bruce Wayne. He doesn’t get the time to fully explore either side of the character, but he understands their essence.
As Batman, Keaton is stoic, sharp, and to point, wanting to get the job done and move on to the next one — and he knows there will always be a next one. As Bruce, he is uncomplicated, charming enough to attract Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vail, yet sufficiently distant to push away Pfeiffer’s Selina Kyle. Keaton arguably presents the best Batman/Bruce blend, a unique mix of light and dark that lets viewers know he is someone to reckon with despite never quite understanding why.
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