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With “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (opening March 25) giving us a new look at the Dark Knight as Ben Affleck takes over the character, it’s time to take stock of the best — and the worst — Batmans we’ve seen in movies and TV.
The Batman of the screen has evolved from a witty crime fighter on TV to a darkly conflicted man in the movies.
Fans of Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, are extremely loyal to the actor they believe portrayed him best. Any objection is liable to lead to rowdy debates. Who can forget Seth Rogen and Zac Efron arguing the better Batman — Michael Keaton or Christian Bale — in “Neighbors”?
So let’s add some more fuel to this superhero debate. Here are the actors who played Batman on TV and in movies (we’ve excluded animation, with a couple of important exceptions), ranked, starting with the worst.
8. George Clooney (“Batman & Robin,” 1997)
Still trying to find his footing post-“ER,” Clooney was jumping back and forth between romantic comedies and action movies when he took the Batman role after Val Kilmer was one-and-done in “Batman Forever.” It turned out to be a disaster. Fans were exhausted by director Joel Schumacher’s colorful aesthetic and the cartoonish villains played by Arnold Schwarzenegger (Mr. Freeze) and Uma Thurman (Poison Ivy). And Clooney’s Batman was too jokey. The gruff Dark Knight had become playful and soft.
“Batman & Robin” is the lowest-grossing movie in the franchise, making $238 million worldwide.
7. Lewis G. Wilson “The Batman” TV show, 1943)
Wilson has the distinction of being the first actor to play Batman, starring in the 1943 series. Though he had the comics as a reference point, Wilson was still at a disadvantage being the first to put on the tights. He holds his own, but it’s certainly not a performance that is memorable, as you can see in the footage here.
6. Robert Lowery (“Batman and Robin” TV show, 1949)
The second effort at a Batman series led to the casting of a bigger actor to play Batman. Lowery’s physique and the show’s better fight scenes make for a more enjoyable experience.
5. Will Arnett (“The Lego Movie,” 2014)
It’s tough to say whether Arnett has it easier or tougher having to do only a Batman voice to play the Lego version, but it’s entertaining regardless. He voiced the character perfectly in “The Lego Movie,” and it will be interesting to see how the character can be fleshed out for a whole movie when Arnett returns in “The Lego Batman Movie” (coming out February 2017).
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4. Val Kilmer (“Batman Forever,” 1995)
Having to replace Michael Keaton after he dropped out of making a third Batman movie, Kilmer came in with a smoother style, and audiences enjoyed it. The movie made more than “Batman Returns.” It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Kilmer had stayed for another movie.
3. Adam West (“Batman” TV show, 1966)
20th Century Fox
Love it or hate it, West’s Batman portrayal is singular and permanently imprinted on many brains. He’s the first image many of us have of the character (he’s even Christian Bale’s favorite Batman). West gave the character a squeaky-clean persona that was perfect for the kid-friendly show, but his fighting was less than desired.
2. Christian Bale (“Batman Begins,” 2005; “The Dark Knight,” 2008; “The Dark Knight Rises,” 2012)
Bale’s acting chops and dedication to the characters he takes on are unquestioned, and he certainly delivered in the three times he played the character. The argument could be made that you could never understand Bale when he spoke as Batman or that he was helped heavily by director Christopher Nolan. Regardless, Bale brought an intensity to the character that had never been seen before.
1. Michael Keaton (“Batman,” 1989; “Batman Returns,” 1992)
The casting of Keaton is one of the biggest gambles a studio has ever made. Known best for his comedic work, Keaton faced a near universal fan backlash when announced for the 1989 film. But Keaton proved everyone wrong, and along with director Tim Burton brought legitimacy back to a franchise that was on life support by then. Playing the character as dark and mysterious, yet still capable of a wry laugh, Keaton paved the way for how Batman would be seen for the decades to come.
Keaton is so confident of his acting in the role that he can say, “I’m Batman.” And you know what? We think he’s right.
HONORABLE MENTION: We can’t leave out …
Though numerous actors have voiced Batman, there’s one who stands out. Kevin Conroy has basically become “the voice” of the Dark Knight, doing the character for “Batman: The Animated Series” in the early 1990s and almost everything else related to Batman in animation and video games.
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