There can be little doubt that comic book geeks have been picking over film and television depictions of Batman for as long as they’ve existed. The first Batman film hit the screen in 1943—a mere four years after the character first appeared in comic books—and he’s appeared in countless films, TV shows, and videogames since. Over the years Batman has undergone many transformations, and so have comic book geeks, but the basic question can still provide many fun hours of geeky discussion: Who’s the best Batman?
In attempting to answer this question, I’m going to concentrate on modern portrayals, with the exception of Adam West’s campy sixties Batman, because his exclusion would automatically invalidate any debate on the subject—not because of the quality of his performance, you understand, but because of his iconic status. The only exclusively-voice actor I’m choosing to consider is Kevin Conroy, even though I really enjoy Diedrich Bader’s performance on Batman: The Brave and the Bold, because Conroy’s voice acting skills are in no small part responsible for the success of the nineties animated Batman series, without which modern superhero cartoons would look vastly different (if they even existed at all).
Working chronologically, then, we begin with Adam West. West was certainly not the best of actors, and had a physique that nobody could possibly believe belonged to an athlete of Batman’s caliber. Yet he was right for the character within the context of his show, observing even the most preposterous goings-on with a serious countenance. West’s lack of range as an actor made him a perfect Batman and Bruce Wayne for his time, a sort of regular straight man for a revolving cast of comedian villains.
Next we come to Michael Keaton. Twenty years ago, Tim Burton took Alan Moore’s “Batman: The Killing Joke,” added a bit of Frank Miller’s “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns,” and made a very good, if flawed, movie. He began by picking Jack Nicholson to play the Joker, a move that virtually everybody thought brilliant, and Michael Keaton to play Batman and Bruce Wayne, a move that virtually everybody thought was bizarre. What the heck was Beetlejuice doing playing Batman? But it worked pretty well, all things considered: remember that, until The Dark Knight, Keaton was the last actor to play the role in more than one movie. Speaking for myself, I thought he made a quite credible Batman and a decent if dull Bruce Wayne. One could argue that Wayne is supposed to be dull, of course, so that might not be a strike against him.
With the popularity of the Keaton films, and with a new live action movie on the way, Kevin Conroy was hired to do Batman and Bruce Wayne’s voice for “Batman: The Animated Series,” which kicked off with the movie Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. I’m sure people will argue that Conroy had an easier job than the others because he was doing voice acting, but anyone who’s done voice acting knows it’s a lot harder than it sounds. Plus, he didn’t get the benefit of getting to wear an awesome costume. And Conroy did a very good job, lending the role the gravitas it needed for the dark mood of the series, without making his Batman a caricature.
After Burton left the franchise and Keaton went with him, Val Kilmer was hired to play Batman and Wayne for Joel Schumacher’s film Batman Forever. Yes, Val Kilmer, who had hit his acting peak as Chris Knight in 1985′s Real Genius, ten years earlier. I will never understand why this choice was made, nor why anyone would watch this film more than once. Still, bad as that was, Schumacher’s next (and, thankfully, final) Batman movie was worse: Batman and Robin, starring George Clooney. This terrible movie is made all the worse for the fact that Clooney is a genuinely good actor, though he has never quite seemed suited for action hero roles. If you have never seen this movie, I envy you, for I only wish I had not. It is one of those films so truly appalling it is better to pretend it had never been made at all, like Star Trek V.
And so we come to Christian Bale. I am quite fond of both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, but I think Bale is a much better Bruce Wayne than he is a Batman. I mean, I know it makes sense that Batman would disguise his voice to help keep his identity secret, but he sounds like he has severe laryngitis every time he opens his mouth. If I were Gordon, I know I’d say something like “Great job, Batman! Can I get you a lozenge?”
So now comes the time for a choice, and I’m torn. A large part of me wants to pick Keaton, because he really was pretty good, but I’m not sure he was good enough. Bale is certainly good, but the weird voice keeps me from picking him. Kilmer and Clooney are non-starters. So that brings it down to West and Conroy. I think I’ll have to give the nod to Adam West, who was the perfect Batman for his time. A great actor he was not, but he made questionable scripts with ridiculous plots watchable, and funny, and did so with his utterly implausible body stuffed into that suit. And he gave us the Batusi.
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