Holy revolving door, Batman! The Caped Crusader has been portrayed by more actors than any other superhero in movie history – seven 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. And we imagine that with the kind of deals being shaken out at WB that Ben Affleck has a good shot at topping both of those numbers, beginning with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
But before anymore history is made next year, let’s take a look at the men who have been Batman.
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 Lowrey
Lowery took over the role in the follow-up serial, 1949’s Batman And 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 ever 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). Since then his cult popularity has increased and he now makes regular appearances on the animated series Family Guy.
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 favourable 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.
Of course, Keaton has now seen a career revival thanks to the spectacular Birdman.
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
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.
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, 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 favourable 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. If The Dark Knight Rises trailer is any indication, Bale hasn’t taken the advice. Still, while that film 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 The Dark Knight Rises.
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, 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), 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 favourite for many, and it’s telling that no-one is complaining about Arnett’s reprisal in an upcoming 2017 standalone story. If you want more hilarious Arnett voice work in the meantime, check out BoJack Horseman on Netflix – you wont regret it, we promise.
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 and Michael Keaton 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 has been a respectable Bruce Wayne/Batman, but the franchise can, and will, live 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.