“What are you?’ That question has been on many a criminal’s mind for numerous decades. Out of absolute fear, these evildoers stare into the face of darkness personified, a creature of the night that is a true symbol of justice. I’m talking of course about Batman, the Dark Knight, a crimefighter who strikes fear into the hearts of those deserve it. He is a highly complex character and throughout his 75-year history, many talented (and some not so talented) actors have brought him to life on the silver screen.
Lewis Wilson Batman (1943)
The first film appearance of the Caped Crusader occurred at the height of World War II in 1943, four years after the character’s creation. Lewis Wilson portrayed Batman in a 15-chapter film serial released by Columbia Pictures, in which he and trusty sidekick Robin go head to head with Dr. Daka, a demented Japanese scientist who turns people into zombies via a bizarre device of his creation. Over-the-top and somewhat enjoyable, this serial was a decent but not great debut of Batman on screen.
Robert Lowery Batman and Robin (1949)
1949 saw a new actor in the role, that of Robert Lowery, and in Batman and Robin, a sequel to the 1943 serial, the dynamic duo, do battle with the Wizard, a villain with a rather nasty electrical device. This serial continued the tone and style of the first and Lowery’s performance, like Wilson’s, is adequate at best.
Adam West Batman (1966-1968)
Many fans of Batman often look back at their childhoods and nostalgically think of a certain actor and time period in which the character exploded with colorful camp. That actor is the one and only Adam West and that time period of course is the 1960s. During this time, over-the-top and vibrant production values littered television programming and like a live-action comic book, ABC’s Batman was all the rage. Eventually, West brought the character to life on the big screen as well and his quirky and sometimes off-the wall acting made for one of the more bizarre incarnations of the character.
Michael Keaton Batman (1989) Batman Returns (1992)
With the character’s 50th birthday then on the way, Warner Bros. decided to breathe new life into Batman. They did so by hiring goth/comedy director Tim Burton (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice), superstar Jack Nicholson as The Joker, and the unorthodox choice of young comedic actor Michael Keaton as the titular hero. With a resume consisting of mostly light-hearted comedies, Keaton was an unusual pick; however his portrayal of the dual Bruce Wayne/Batman character comes off as strong and utterly believable. Keaton played “two” characters, reserving his regular innocence and slightly goofy nature for Wayne and transforming into the darker, no nonsense Batman beautifully inspired by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Keaton and Burton would collaborate again for the film’s 1992 sequel Batman Returns in which he faces off against villains The Penguin and Catwoman.
Kevin Conroy Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) & various voice work
With Tim Burton’s dark and fantastical Gotham City, Warner Bros. soon began milking that world for all its worth. They did so by creating an animated series which chronicled the Dark Knight’s adventures. To voice Batman would be a man whose vocal chops are truly out of this world. When Kevin Conroy speaks, he “is” Batman. From Batman: The Animated Series to Justice League to the Arkham video games, the man’s voice is a national treasure and brought a great deal of gravitas to the visuals in all the aforementioned works.
Val Kilmer Batman Forever (1995)
After Batman Returns, the film series took a different direction by hiring a new actor to play Batman. Pretty boy Val Kilmer (Willow, The Doors) was selected and he stands as probably the weakest actor to don the cape and cowl. He exhibited no emotion as either Wayne or the Dark Knight. He was unsympathetic and downright unwatchable. This was made worse by (also newly hired) director Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys, The Client) who added a heavy dose of weird, unnecessary neon lights to everything from the sets, to the vehicles, to the props and so on. Batman Forever is truly a bat-astrophe. Yes, I went there.
George Clooney Batman & Robin (1997)
With Schumacher at the helm once again, the Batman film franchise experienced a serious decline. The neon lights got brighter and bat nipples on the suits became more pronounced. A then fresh-faced George Clooney was brought on to play Batman and even though he was a better Caped Crusader than Kilmer, the film as whole brought him and everyone else down. Perhaps if Burton directed this, the results would have been better. It’s just a real shame that Schumacher’s neon nightmare singlehandedly killed the franchise for eight years. Damn those bat-nipples.
Christian Bale The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012)
In 2005, gritty dramatic director Christopher Nolan (Memento, Insomnia) was wisely brought on board to reboot the Batman franchise. Another smart choice was the hiring of Christian Bale (American Psycho, Empire of the Sun), a talented actor with strong leading man appeal. His take on Bruce Wayne – a tortured soul – was the way it was intended by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Wayne is someone who suffered a major tragedy at a young age and these emotional scars go deep into his very being. Bale’s portrayal perfectly brings this pain and torment to life.
Ben Affleck Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
The future of Batman on film is relatively unknown but we do know the guy who chased Amy and fought in Pearl Harbor will once again be fighting, only this time instead of Japanese fighter pilots, he’ll be facing off against the scum and villainy of Gotham City. With 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Ben Affleck will join Henry Cavill’s Superman in ridding the world of evil. Though Josh Brolin might have been a better choice, Affleck has a lot of potential as well. He showed crimefighting prowess in 2003’s lackluster Marvel superhero flick Daredevil and he’s also shown a dark side with his performance in The Town. Dawn of Justice is extremely promising and with the new teaser shown at San Diego Comic Con, fans can rest easy knowing that Gotham City is in capable hands.
With all of these actors playing the Dark Knight, it is very amusing to see the evolution or in some cases, devolution of the character. Batman is an entity that has stood the test of time and continues to do so to this day. He is two characters, a scarred individual trying to live his life peacefully, and the other, a creature of the night whose sole mission is to eradicate the evil and pain he himself has experienced. Batman is a beacon of hope for all of us and through these actors listed and future thespians, he will hopefully live for another 75 years and then some.